Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part IV

Christmas Day, indoors.

It was cold on Christmas morning. 17°F outside and 53°F inside.

The heater was running at full blast, but it couldn’t keep up with the cold coming in through the cracks and crevices in the building’s joints. The blinds couldn’t keep the cold air from permeating though the single-pane windows. The plywood floor with its foam insulation radiated cold from the space beneath the building.

Up on the loft, it was nice and toasty. But we couldn’t stay up there all day.

I turned on the oven, partially to help out the heater and partially to warm up some apple pie for breakfast. The batteries had 11.7 volts stored, so I used my one-cup electric coffee maker to brew a cup of coffee. I heated Alex’s scrambled eggs on the heater.

It was a typical winter morning at Howard Mesa.

But it was also Christmas.

After breakfast, we started making our calls to family on the right coast. Mike called his mom, but was disconnected three times. His Razr phone doesn’t seem to get as strong a connection as my Treo. So he used the Treo.

I called my mother’s house in Florida where my mom, stepfather, sister, brother, and sister-in-law had gathered for the holiday. I talked to my mom, who thanked me for the Shark steamer I’d sent her. Then I talked to my stepdad, who was extremely excited about the Oregon Scientific weather station I’d sent him. Finally, I talked to my sister, who said she couldn’t wait to try out the iPod I’d sent her. I explained that she needed to copy the songs to her computer so she could put them on the iPod and yes, she would have to plug the iPod into her computer to charge it.

Mike made a few more calls: his brother, his sister, his uncle. He got a few more: his niece, his cousin.

Then we settled down to open the few presents we’d brought with us to Howard Mesa. I got a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator and a new pair of slippers from my brother and sister-in-law. Both were on wish lists I’d shared with my family. (My sister ordered my presents on Christmas Day.) Mike got an aviation communications training software program from me. I suspect that there might be a few boxes on our doorsteps at home.

Outside, the wind started up. We could hear it whistling around the building. My 13-knot windsock spent most of the day stuck straight out. A thick cloud that had shrouded the San Francisco Peaks right after sunrise finally broke free and drifted off to the east. The sky was perfectly clear, the sun was bright. Although the temperature outside never topped 34°F, it got up to 76° in the cabin.

We stayed inside all day. I read the instrument training materials I’d brought along with me. I’m going for my instrument rating next month and have begun studying. For a while, Mike and I studied the Low Altitude En Route charts, trying to figure out what the heck all those symbols and numbers meant. (I know a lot more about those charts now than I knew last week.) Mike read Smithsonian magazine, which he’d brought along with him.

I made pot pies for lunch — another reason to use the oven. I also got dinner started. I made braised leg of lamb, which would simmer all day. The shed smelled very good.

Near the end of the day, Mike commented that it was the first time he’d spent a whole day relaxing in a very long time.

Dinner was good (if I do say so myself). We ate right after sunset. The temperature outside dropped rapidly once the sun was gone and began to dip inside, too. We played Scrabble before calling it a night. It was 12°F outside when we called it a night.

We stayed inside.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part III

It can’t all work right at once.

I woke early Tuesday morning with a bright light in my face. It was the light of the full moon.

A Winter Morning at Howard Mesa

View from ShedWe sleep on a loft in the camping shed. There’s a wall to wall carpet up there with a mattress on top and a pair of very short night tables, one on each side. We make the bed just like we make our bed at home: with sheets and blankets and a cosy comforter. Our heads are right beneath a window that looks out on my favorite view: northwest toward Mount Trumbull.

We usually sleep with the blinds open so we can look out at the night sky if we happen to wake in the middle of the night. On a moonless night, its very dark outside, with just a few pinpoints of light representing far-off ranches. The sky, of course, is full of stars and the glow of the milky way on most moonless nights. If it’s cloudy, we can see the reflection of the lights of Las Vegas, at least 100 miles away, on the cloud bottoms out to the west.

But the moon yesterday morning was so bright that I had to shut the blinds to get another hour of sleep.

It was cold in the shed: in the 50s. The heat was on and set to 70° but the shed, which is insulated, was no match for the 27° cold outside. I changed from my pajamas to a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Since the power level was a bit low, I made my coffee with a stovetop percolator. I heated up Alex the Bird’s scrambled eggs — which I’d made in the microwave at home before coming to Howard Mesa — in a piece of aluminum foil on top of the heater. I let Jack the Dog out and then back in. With the critters fed and Mike still up in bed, I spent some time working on a blog entry.

Toilet Woes

[Note: The following is a somewhat graphic description of a sanitary problem we’re having at the shed. If you’re easily offended by discussions of toilet operations, please skip this section.]

The toilet was not working properly. The shed has an RV toilet, which we installed because it would use less water.

Now most folks reading this probably know how a standard toilet works. There’s a fixture with a seat and a bowl and a tank on back (or up high). You do your business in the bowl and then use a handle or a pull-cord to flush. The water in the tank rushes into the bowl, flushing the bowl’s contents down the drain and filling the bowl with fresh water. Pretty basic stuff.

An RV toilet works a bit differently. There’s no tank of water. Instead, there’s a foot or hand pedal that lets you put water from your water source into the bowl. You do your business and then use the pedal to open the bottom of the bowl so the contents drop out. Clean water swooshes around the bowl to clean it a bit, but it goes down the drain, too. So the bowl is usually pretty empty between uses. The benefit of this system for an RV — or cabin where you have to haul your own water — is that you can use as much (or as little) water as you like to take care of business.

The problem with the toilet was that the valve to let water into the bowl wasn’t working. You’d push the foot pedal and the bottom would open to drop the bowl contents into the septic system, but no water would rush in to clean the bowl, etc. We used what we called “manual flush” — we kept a bucket of clean water in the bathroom and used that to add and flush water down the drain after using the toilet. Sanitation was not impaired; the bathroom was still clean and the toilet was still flushed.

And the rest of the plumbing worked fine — right down to the water heater.

We figured that the toilet’s valve had water in it that had frozen, thus preventing the flow of water. But the shed had been above freezing for close to a full day, so the chances of it still being frozen were minimal.

After breakfast, Mike worked on the problem. He removed the valve. The plastic pipe had bulged and cracked under stress where water had frozen in it. The valve was broken.

It was the day before Christmas, on a Monday. We worked the phones, using our Flagstaff phone book. The one place that was likely to have the part was closed. No other place that was open had the part.

Mike put the bad valve back on so the pedal would work. (I was not interested in reaching behind the bottom of the toilet to manually twist and untwist the valve control after using the facilities.) And we realized that we’d be on manual flush for the rest of our stay.

It seems to me that every time we come up here, something isn’t working right. Last time was the heater — Mike had to remove a mouse nest from it before it would work. On other visits, it was the water heater not relighting automatically when it should, the water pump cutting out in the middle of a shower, or cracked pipes.

It would be nice to come up here and have everything working right at the same time.


We spent a good portion of the day in Flagstaff, the nearest city to Howard Mesa.

Flagstaff is a great town, with a wonderful mix of people of different ages and nationalities and backgrounds. It’s a melting pot where young and old get together to steer economic growth. So you’ll find all kinds of businesses there, from hippie gift shops smelling of incense to book shops to sporting goods shops to natural food stores. It also has all the standard big box stores, including Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Target, and Sam’s Club.

Yesterday, we went into Flagstaff for lunch, to walk around the historic downtown area, and to pick up a few odd things we needed. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground, but it had been plowed or shoveled off the roads and sidewalks, leaving scattered ice and some very impressive icicles hanging from rooflines. Traffic was lighter than usual — probably because NAU was between semesters and most of the students had gone home. We still had some trouble finding a parking spot downtown, but soon were parked on Humphrey’s.

There was a Japanese restaurant on Route 66, right around the corner, that I wanted to try. When we got there, it was closed.

We walked around town. There was a Thai restaurant at the Hotel Monte Vista. I like Thai food, but every time we’d looked into the place at lunchtime, it was empty. On that day, there were about a half dozen people inside at noon. We decided to give it a try.

Good choice. The menu was extensive, the service was friendly, and the food was served good and hot. We shared a hot pot of soup, some spring rolls, and an order of short ribs. The ribs were good, but when the guy next to me got his curry, I decided I’d try that next time. I really like curry. Meanwhile, the place filled up. It wasn’t until we left that I realized the place was under new management.

We went into Babbitt’s and a few of the other downtown shops. They were all winding down from the Christmas shopping rush. There were other shoppers, but not many.

Wal-Mart and Beyond

Mike decided that there might be a chance of finding the toilet valve at Wal-Mart, since some Wal-Mart stores stock RV parts and supplies. He talked me into going into Wal-Mart with him. The day before Christmas.

We parked on the side near the garden shop area, which was full of Christmas stuff. One step inside and my stress level rose considerably.

I’ve been in Wal-Marts before, but the one in Flag has to be the worst. It’s an older store, much smaller than the Super Wal-Marts going up all over the country. To fit all that merchandise in the store, they have very tall shelves on rather narrow aisles. The result is claustrophobic. The store was full of last-minute shoppers looking for crap from China to give as gifts or to decorate their homes.

We found the RV Accessories aisle and realized after a moment that they wouldn’t have the part we needed. I immediately went into escape mode, plotting my way out of the store with the least interaction with anyone else. Mike, on the other hand, wanted to get all the items on our little list there: a pencil sharpener, RV antifreeze (to fill drain traps when we leave), distilled water (for our solar setup’s batteries), 9v battery (for our smoke/carbon monoxide detector), hand sanitizer. That would have us running all over the store, which was not a viable option for me. So when he found the antifreeze not far from the RV Accessories, I talked him into buying just that and stopping at a supermarket for the rest.

I endured the recorded sound of dogs barking to the tune of Jingle Bells at the check out area before we emerged back into the sunshine.

We got back into the truck and drove to the nearby Basha’s Supermarket. We got everything on our list there, then headed back to Howard Mesa.

Afternoon and Evening at the Shed

Back at the shed, it was nice and toasty. The outside temperature had risen to the 40s but the sun was very strong, beating on the front of the shed and coming through the front windows. It was in the 70s in the shed. The wind was blowing lightly outside — not enough to find the cracks around the windows and the rest of the structure.

We each took good, hot showers and changed into comfortable lounging clothes. I made up a little cheese platter and opened a bottle of wine. We relaxed and read and studied IFR charts.

We each opened a present. I got a bottle of absinthe from Mike. Mike got a watch-winder cabinet from me. We had three presents left to open: two for me and one for him. I’m pretty certain there’s a small pile of presents on my doorstep at home.

Mike made some pasta for dinner. I was still full from lunch and our snack, so I didn’t eat much.

For our evening entertainment, we tried to play a DVD we’d brought along. My MacBook Pro’s CD/DVD drive is dead — I discovered that just the other day and will be sending it back to Apple for repair next week. So Mike had brought his Dell laptop. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem able to play a DVD either.

So we played dominos and listened to music.

Now this might seem boring to you. I won’t lie and say it’s exciting. What I will say, however, is that it’s restful. Our place is small and far from neighbors and paved roads. No one drives by. The only sound is the wind and an occasional coyote howl.

The only thing that could make this a nicer place to spend Christmas eve is a fireplace with a real yule log burning in it.

And a fully working toilet.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part II

Photography, dinner, and more photography at the Grand Canyon.

We closed up the shed and headed out to the Grand Canyon at around 4 PM. We’d wanted to get an earlier start to do some hiking along the rim, but it had taken too long to troubleshoot and fix our water problem.

I should mention here that last year when we came to Howard Mesa for Christmas, the water pipes were broken. Mike spent the entire first day and half of the second day finding and repairing broken pipes. Since then, we’ve replaced the PVC with copper. But it seems like there’s always something to fix up here. It’s part of the place’s charm, I guess. Mike doesn’t seem to mind. And in my mind, nothing could be as bad as the mouse problem we’d had, which forced me to start every visit here with a 2-hour cleaning job.

The Grand Canyon is a 40-minute drive from our place. About 1/3 of that time is spent just driving the five miles from our place to pavement. (Not an easy task, as there was more mud and the pickup did a lot of fishtailing on certain parts of the road.) The rest is on SR 64, a two-lane road that stretches from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon. The speed limit on the road is 65 MPH for most of its distance, but because there’s only one lane in each direction for most of the way, it’s pretty common to get caught behind slower vehicles. They added some passing lanes clearly marked with signs that say, “Keep right except to pass,” but since everyone is more important than everyone else, no one moves over to the right. So you basically have to pass on the right.

We were heading toward the canyon at about the same time someone who had left Phoenix earlier in the day for a leisurely drive up there would be arriving, so there was a surprising number of people on the road.

Grand Canyon Wide AngleInside the park, we got a parking spot in the small lot right near El Tovar, where we’d be eating dinner with friends. The hotel is right on the Rim, so we spent some time out on the pathway there, looking into the canyon as the sun was dipping ever lower into the southwestern sky. I played around with my fisheye lens — this was the first time I’d had a chance to use it at the Canyon — and got an interesting shot that includes the snow all around on the Rim.

It was cold. There wasn’t much wind, but the breeze contributed some wind chill to the situation. I don’t own a good winter coat anymore — I’d rather avoid the cold than buy special clothing for it — so I didn’t want to spend much time outdoors.

We went into Hopi House for a short while. This used to be one of the nicer gift shops at the Canyon, a place where everything was high quality. Somewhere along the line, Xanterra (which runs the park concession) had decided to add the kind of tourist crap you can find in most other gift shops there, especially t-shirts, hats, and sweatshirts that say “Grand Canyon” on them and a lot of fake Indian-style dolls, statues, rugs, etc. The good stuff — including a wonderful selection of Native American handmade jewelry — is still in the gallery upstairs, and we made the climb to see it all.

Grand Canyon MoonriseAfterwards, we came out for another peek into the canyon and were rewarded with a view of the newly risen full moon inching into the sky over the north rim. I snapped a few photos of it, but was too cold (or lazy?) to set up my tripod and do it properly, so the shots I took with my 200mm lens aren’t as clear as they could be.

We met our friends inside the hotel. We were booked for the private dining room just to the left of the hostess desk at the restaurant entrance. We’d eaten there the previous year for Christmas Eve. It had been just six of us last year: Mike, me, our two friends, and his parents. A quiet dinner. This year there were ten of us; our friends had invited six of their friends. The rectangular table in the small room was filled to capacity.

Our waiter was excellent. Extremely professional, full of advice, attentive to most details. The food was very good, too — although not as good as I remember from our early days visiting El Tovar 20 or so years ago. (I know: things change.) Conversation was relatively interesting, too. It was a nice meal. The only thing that marred it was when it was time to pay the bill; certain members of the party didn’t chip in their fair share and Mike and I and our friends wound up making up the difference, paying about three times as much as some other members of our party. I know we drank, but we didn’t drink that much.

Christmas TreeAfter stopping for some photos inside the hotel lobby where a tall Christmas tree stretched up to the second floor, we stepped outside and walked back to the Rim. The moonlight was shining brightly down into the canyon, casting shadows that defined the rock walls. It was a beautiful scene, but one my camera couldn’t seem to capture properly. (I really need to play around a bit more with the bracketing feature.)

I’ve been at the Grand Canyon many times at night. If there’s no moon, you can look down into the canyon from the Rim and not see a single detail at all. It’s like a black abyss that could be a hundred miles deep. But add some moonlight and you get a completely different picture. This is part of what makes the Canyon such a special place. Different lighting conditions can completely change the experience.

Hopi House at NightSince I was out there with my tripod, I took a few moments to photograph Hopi House and El Tovar. Hopi House was especially festive with its [electric] luminarias.

El Tovar at NightIt was after 9:30 PM and it wasn’t very cold at all. The wind had died down and the air was crisp and dry. There wasn’t anyone around except us. That made good conditions for taking these photos. They create the illusion that the historic buildings along the Rim are private, special places. In reality, during the day, these places are mobbed with tourists and it would be nearly impossible to photograph them without including a few people in each shot.

We drove back to Howard Mesa in the full moonlight. There were few cars on the road.

As I opened the gate on our driveway, I noted that all the mud was frozen solid.

It was warm and cosy inside the camping shed and even more so under the covers in bed.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part I

Baby, it’s cold inside!

We drove up to our camping shed at Howard Mesa this morning. Just me, Mike, Alex the Bird, and Jack the dog. We left the horses home. It’s getting mighty cold up north these days and I really didn’t think it was fair to the horses to make them stand outside with no shelter when nighttime temperatures were dipping into the teens. The problem of shelter becomes even more serious when there’s a chance of snow for Tuesday.

The ride was long and uneventful. We made two stops: the Ace hardware store in Chino Valley for a gasket and some pipe insulation and the Safeway in Chino Valley for lattes and discounted fuel for Mike’s truck.

Mt. Humphreys and the San Francisco Peaks had a nice thick cap of snow. The air was crystal clear and we could see the mountains when we were still in Prescott — at least 50 miles away. It looked amazing.

When we got on I-40 west of Williams, there was snow on the ground. Well, on the north side of hills, trees, and other shade-producing structures. Any area exposed to the sun was free of snow. But there was a considerable amount in the shady area. We started speculating on whether there would be snow on the ground at our place.

I took some video along the way, with the usual idea of making a little DVD to send the family. You know: how we spent Christmas off the grid. I have quite a library of video tapes I’ll probably never show to anyone.

When we got to Howard Mesa, there was some snow on the ground and on the road. It was about noon and the sun was bright and warm. The outside temperature was about 40°F. The snow was melting into the dirt below it, making the road slick wherever the gravel-like cinders had been crushed or worn away. The truck had one brief skidding incident before Mike slowed down.

Up on top of the mesa at our place, it was as deserted as usual. I got out to unlock the gate, coating the bottoms of my shoes with gooey mud and gravel. Mike parked up by the shed so we wouldn’t have to walk far with all the stuff we’d brought up. (For some reason, we brought a ton of stuff with us — I think the Christmas presents took up most of the space.) Then we went inside the shed to survey the situation.

For years, we suffered with mice, both in our camper and later, in the camping shed. It took us the best part of two years to find all the holes they were using to get into the walls and close them up. I’m still amazed when we come in after being away for a month or two and there aren’t any mouse droppings. There were none today, either.

But there was ice. We have a 5-gallon water jug we keep on a plastic holder with a spout. The water bottle was frozen almost solid. We had to carry it outside into the sun to get the defrost cycle going. The dish soap was frozen and so was the 409 cleaner.

Mike had some small problems getting the heater going, but it was soon filling the place with warm air. I started up the gas fridge and moved everything from the cooler into it. It was already cold in there, which would save some energy anyway. Then I started up the oven and threw in a frozen pie. When it’s cold up here, we bake a lot.

The big problem seemed to be the water pump. At first, it wouldn’t work at all. Mike pulled away the wall so he could check it out and the warm air from the room slipped into the small space. He was in the process of testing it with some electric testing equipment when it suddenly went on. Unfortunately, all the pipes in the area seemed to be frozen so the water wouldn’t flow. We’d brought our gas bottle heater and Mike set it up to throw heat on the whole area. After a while, the pump started working better and soon we had water in the sinks and shower. The plastic hosing to the toilet is frozen, though, so it’ll be a while before the water gets in there. We’ve got a bucket full of water for manual flushing.

As I type this, Mike is wrapping the 4-foot hose from our water tank to the shed with heat trace tape. We’re hoping it keeps the hose and valves from freezing overnight so we’ll have running water all night long and — more important — in the morning when we get up.

Howard Mesa Christmas I went out for a while and took some photos. It’s so perfectly clear and beautiful outside, with just enough snow to remind you that it’s winter. There’s just a slight breeze blowing; if it picks up it’ll get very cold outside.

Tonight we’re meeting some friends for a big dinner at El Tovar in Grand Canyon National Park. Last year, we had a party of six in the private dining room on Christmas Eve. This year, it’s a party of ten in the same room a day earlier.

The moon is full tonight and I’m bringing my tripod along. I’m hoping the wind stays calm so we can stop at Mather Point for some moonlight photos of the canyon.

More later…

Getting Wide

I play around with my new fisheye lens.

With my helicopter in the shop for some routine maintenance — can you believe I flew 100 hours in the past three months? — Mike and I decided to spend the weekend at our vacation place at Howard Mesa. The shed needed to be winterized and Mike wanted to replace the PVC plumbing (which cracked twice last winter) with real copper pipes.

When I wasn’t holding pipes so Mike could solder them (or driving down to Williams to pick up the fitting he’d forgotten to buy), I played. I’d brought along my Nikon D80 and the two new wide angle lenses I bought for it, including the 10.5mm fisheye (equivalent to a 16mm lens on a 35mm camera). I’d gotten the fisheye lens last week and didn’t have time to try it out.

A fisheye lens offers a 180° view of whatever you point it at. This introduces all kinds of distortions into the image. It also poses special challenges to the photographer, not the least of which is to keep herself out of the photos.

I played with it a tiny bit at home, where I got confirmation of what the lens’s instruction booklet said: the built-in flash would cause vignetting.

Mike Fixes the FurnaceSo when I tried it in the shed last night, I turned the flash off. I held the camera steady for the 1/4 second shutter speed that captured this image, which shows my husband, Mike, taking a quick drink before trying to fix the furnace. In the lower part of the photo, you can see my knees (clad in my wild chili pepper pants) and the sofa I sat on. Jack the Dog was sitting between my legs, watching Mike. The shot shows 90% of the shed’s main room.

(Mike was not successful fixing the furnace last night. It got down to 55°F in the shed. In the morning, he took the darn thing apart and pulled a mouse nest out of its innards. It now works fine.)

In the morning, I went out to photograph the horses. We’d brought them with us, primarily because it’s easier to bring them along than to find someone to feed them while we’re away. It got down into the low 40s last night, but they have thick winter coats. (In fact, they feel quite cuddly and very huggable.) At about 9 AM, they were standing together in the sun, in a spot out of the mesa’s incessant wind. Jake, who is about 25, had led Cherokee to the spot. Cherokee probably didn’t know why they were standing there, but he always follows Jake’s lead. Occasionally, he’d nibble on some of the dried grass that grew in clumps all around him.

Jake and Cherokee getting wideI brought out two apple pieces, which was a bad idea. As soon as they realized I had food, they wouldn’t leave me alone. They kept nosing my camera bag and shirt and it was all I could do to keep the camera out of their reach. But finally they realized that I wasn’t an apple tree and left me alone. Then it got tough to photograph them. They wouldn’t stand still. I managed to capture this shot of Jake with Cherokee in the background.

This was a good experiment. First, the challenge was to keep my shadow out of the photo. I couldn’t shoot with the sun at my back, like I normally would. My long shadow would have made it into the photo. I had to shoot at about a 90° angle to the sun. You can see the horses’ long shadows. I think the shadow in the lower left corner might be part of mine.

Also, from this shot you’d think I was standing quite a distance from Jake. I wasn’t. He was about a foot away. And Cherokee couldn’t have been more than 2 feet from him. The lens really exaggerates distances.

And check out the horizon. It should be flat. But the closer a straight line is to the edge of the image, the more curved it is. So a relatively flat horizon becomes an exaggerated curve. Kind of cool, no?

The next thing I tried was a duplicate of one of the shots you might see among the images that appear in the Header of this site: a dead tree with my windsock in the background.

Tree experiment, fisheye lensThis first shot was taken from about 2 feet from one end of the log. There’s not much curvature at all. And yes, that’s the sun. With the fisheye lens, it’s hard to keep the sun out of photos.

Tree experiment, fisheye lensThis second shot was taken about a foot and a half from the middle of the log. It’s a bad exposure; I’m not quite sure what I did wrong here. Still not much curvature.

Tree experiment, fisheye lensThis third shot was taken 6 to 12 inches from the end of the log. I focused on the log, but because there was so much light, there’s a decent amount of depth of field. You can really see the curvature of the horizon, but can still clearly identify the horses and windsock.

Okay, so it’s not art. But it is interesting. And it’s helping me to learn how this lens “sees” my subjects.

This evening I’ll do some panoramas of the western sky right after sunset. It was outrageously beautiful last night when we arrived up here. I’m also hoping to do a long exposure of the night sky, which should be star-filled. (No clouds in sight again today.) Tomorrow, I might go down to the local “four corners” intersection and do some 360° panoramas of the view from there.

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