On Becoming Homeless

Home ownership — gained and lost.

Back in January 1986, I purchased my first home with the man I’d later marry. We scraped together the 20% downpayment we needed on the $164,000 house on a small lot in a northern New Jersey “bedroom community.” I contributed the remaining $10K or so of an inheritance from my grandparents; that required the approval of my father, since I hadn’t yet reached the age of 25 when I would be able to make my own decisions about the money. The man I loved and wanted to make my home with contributed the rest — more than half, as I’m sure he’ll point out to a judge later this month. As if a 27-year-old inequity gives him some sort of additional rights in the war he’s current waging against me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

The “Bomb Shelter”

Back then, the only way we could afford the house was with a 30-year amortization. Even then, the mortgage payments, which included high property taxes and insurance, were upward of $1500/month. We split the cost 50-50. It was difficult for me at first, but as my first career progressed and I moved up the ladder of success, it became easier. Then difficult again as I launched my second career. And finally easier once again.

The house was built in 1926 and was only about 1,200 square feet. It was made of poured concrete — walls, floors, ceilings, basement, attic — and had small rooms and lots of windows. Our neighbors joked that they’d come stay with us in the event of a nuclear war. The lot was only 73 wide by 135 deep and Conrail trains ran a stone’s throw from the back door at any time of the day or night. There were lots of trees and the kind of canopied street you don’t see very often. Autumn was beautiful but the fallen leaves were a serious chore. Summers were nice but winters were cold and gray.

In 1994, there was a terrible snowstorm that dumped 20 inches of snow on us. I remember not being able to get the front door open. I also remember the snow staying around, gray and dirty, for months.

We’d been out west several times by then and I decided that I didn’t want to spend another winter in New Jersey. So in November 1994, I went out west to find a place to spend the winter. I drove all over, from Vegas to Tucson, and wound up with a basement apartment in Yarnell, AZ. I drove out in my little Toyota MR-2, weighed down with a roof rack full of suitcases, right after Christmas 1994.

I stayed for three months: January, February, and March 1995. My brother visited. My future husband visited. I worked on books. I went to the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles. My future husband drove back with me in March via Big Bend National Park, where we soaked in the hot tubs along the Rio Grande, watching wild horses across the river in Mexico. We stopped in Florida where I spoke at a writer’s convention. I drove home along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.

The Move

I stayed home for the winter of 1996. We had more severe winter weather. I decided that between the weather and the high cost of living in the area, I was ready to move. My future husband seemed to agree. We put the house on the market. When it didn’t sell by Christmas, I packed up half the furniture and moved into an apartment in Wickenburg, AZ. I remember wearing a T-shirt as I walked across the parking lot of a Home Depot on New Year’s Day. Back home in New Jersey, it was freezing.

Removing half the furniture made the house look bigger and more appealing. It sold.

But about that 30-year amortization? Despite paying an average of $1400/month for 11 years, we’d only paid off $11,000 of the loan balance. Did that ever teach me a lesson!

By May, we packed up the rest of the furniture and headed west. We rented a second apartment in the same complex to use as offices; I got one bedroom, my future husband got the other. We stored our boxes in the living room. We commuted by walking down the sidewalk between the two apartments.

And we started looking for our next home.

The Ranchette

Although we were living in Wickenburg, we didn’t necessarily want to buy a home there. We needed someplace close enough to Phoenix’s big airport. My future husband would be flying back east once a month for work. He’d telecommute from home the other three weeks each month. I just needed a place that had Internet and overnight courier service.

We found a house in New River that we really liked, although I admit it wasn’t perfect. Then we found out that Del Webb would soon be building a huge community near there: Anthem. We had no interest in living anywhere near a place like that so we began concentrating on Wickenburg.

It was a long, hot summer. I think we saw every single house that was for sale. Our Realtor was giving up on us.

Finally, we found two homes we liked. My future husband liked one on the east side of town; I liked one on the west side of town. We were tired of looking. The houses were both listing for about the same amount. It was time to make an offer. He was in New Jersey for work when he told me to pick one and make the offer.

I picked the one he liked and made the offer. The owned rejected it and didn’t counter. So we made the same offer on the one I liked. And the owner countered close enough for us to accept.

It was brand new construction, a “spec house” that wasn’t quite finished but occupied by the builder and his family. 2400 square feet, three bedrooms, 2 baths, a huge kitchen with Jenn-Air appliances throughout. All sitting on 2-1/2 acres of horse property with great views out the front and back and huge windows to see them. Best of all: quiet and private.

M+M
Does he remember carving our initials into the wet concrete that October day? And will he sandblast them away when I’m gone?

We paid extra to have the driveway paved. The cement was still wet when we carved our initials and the year into it: M + M ’97.

We moved out of our apartments and into our new home, each of us taking one of the downstairs bedrooms for an office.

That was in October 1997.

Our Home

Over the next 15 years, we worked together and separately to make this house our home. We bought furniture and linens. I made curtains to match the kitchen chair upholstery and the guest room linens. I worked with a friend to add color to the plain white walls. We arranged souvenirs of our lives together — handmade objects from vacations in Mexico and elsewhere, photos, rocks and pine cones and sticks — in various places throughout the house.

After a delay due to paperwork not being quite right, we began work in the empty yard. We laid in a flagstone walk and irrigation system. We planted pieces of cactus and young agave that have since grown to be as tall as us. We nursed seedlings that had taken root naturally, protecting them and watering them so they’d grow to mature trees. We planted fast-growing eucalyptus trees for shade. He put out his Pawley’s Island Hammock. I put out birdseed blocks and hummingbird feeders. And I put in garden beds out back, working with a level and bricks to get them just right on the slope, filling the beds with topsoil and manure. I remember growing so much zucchini one year that I never wanted to eat zucchini again.

Howard Mesa
We bought 40 acres of “ranch land” at Howard Mesa back around 2000. For years, we went there on weekends, mostly in the summer, staying in a pop-up camper that I’d bought. It was rough living and it was fun. I got pretty good with a dutch oven, cooking great meals at our huge fire pit. We’d bring the horses and go riding during the day. Later, we stayed in a horse trailer with living quarters that I’d bought, and still later, we fixed up a wooden shed as a sort of primitive camping cabin. Once that was done, we had a year-round place to stay and often went up on holidays — I remember spending at least one Thanksgiving and one Christmas there. I wanted to put a real house up there, but he claimed it was too remote. Eventually, we both lost interest in the place; he’s since told people that it’s my “white elephant.” I guess it’s easy for him to forget the good times we had there. Sadly, I’ll never forget.

For the first ten years I lived in the house year-round. My future husband got an apartment in New Jersey where he’d spend at least one week a month. It was a little lonely at home by myself, but I got used to it. I had plenty of writing work to do, a dog, and horses to care for. I still had friends in town — they hadn’t all moved away yet — and the time went by quickly.

When he was home, we spent all our time together, often going for a horseback ride in the afternoon (when it was cool) or in the morning (when it was hot). He used to joke that all his friends back east told him that we lived on vacation.

It was a great life.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to move our offices out of the house and into a condo I owned downtown. I’d had a series of bad tenants and was tired of dealing with them. I liked the idea of an office in a separate place. So we moved our offices there. I got new office furniture and took the living room for my office. He took the master bedroom for his.

He eventually gave up his apartment in New Jersey, although he continued to go back periodically to spend time with his family and he still worked for that company part time. He tried to start a consulting business but didn’t get anywhere with it. I gave him a job at the airport but he quit after a short time. After a while he went out and got a regular job for a company south of Phoenix — 70 miles away.

By then, I was building my flying business. I spent every other week in 2004 at the Grand Canyon, flying for a tour operator. I’d had a great career as a writer and had invested wisely in real estate. I sold off one of my properties and bought a larger helicopter. It was time to get serious in my third career.

We got married and I think that’s when things started unraveling.

The Condo

It was a long drive for him to go from Wickenburg to Tempe every day. When the real estate market tanked, he bought a condo down in Phoenix.

Although he involved me in the purchase decision, he didn’t buy the unit I liked — a bright and airy second-floor condo with a big patio overlooking a park and tree-lined streets. Instead, he bought a cave-like apartment on a busy street nearby. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was his investment — he’d never said anything about mine.

I started moving things in, preparing to make it our second home. But my husband decided to get a roommate to help cover the cost of living there — indeed, it was more costly per month than our house. They moved my office furniture out of the second bedroom and a friend of ours who lived in Williams AZ and worked in northern Phoenix moved in.

It wasn’t long before I felt unwelcome.

My Home is in Wickenburg

That’s right around the time I started doing agricultural work in Washington for the summer — the work that would finally make my flying company profitable. I was away for June and July in 2008 and managed to extend my season each year after that.

But when I was home the rest of the year, I lived in Wickenburg. That’s where my things were. That’s where I felt comfortable. That’s where I spent most of my time. Even though my husband spent four days a week in Phoenix, I usually spent all seven in Wickenburg.

That all changed in 2011. When I got home from my seasonal work, my husband’s roommate was gone. I moved my office back into the second bedroom of the condo. We got new living room and bedroom furniture there. We bought new blinds for all the sliding glass doors. I added a wine rack. I put up framed photos. I began making the condo into the second home I thought it was going to be.

But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t home. It was dark and noisy and depressing and there was no privacy. Although I enjoyed taking our dog Charlie out to the stores or the farmer’s market or the dog park as part of my day, I didn’t like the traffic and crowds.

To make matters worse, I could never adjust to the schedule my husband wanted to keep: four days in Phoenix and three in Wickenburg. I felt that every time I got settled into one place, it was time to go back to the other. I was tired of carrying the same things back and forth every week, of keeping two refrigerators and pantries and trying to remember what was in each.

And I only had one office; when I had to work, I had to work in Phoenix. He often went back to Wickenburg without me. That made no sense — I was stuck in a “home” I didn’t even like just so I could be with him and he wasn’t even around all the time.

And although my husband had told me he wanted me there with him, once I was there, he didn’t seem very happy. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I thought it had something to do with his latest job, which he’d grown to hate by then. But I was apparently wrong.

Becoming Real Home Owners

Back around the time we got married in 2006, my husband told me that when he turned 50 (which would be in 2011), he’d join me on the road when I traveled with the helicopter. He even got his helicopter rating so that he wouldn’t be stuck driving the RV all the time.

I figured that he’d go into a sort of semi-retirement and finally pursue some of the things he claimed he wanted to do: become a flight instructor, open a bicycle shop, do solar consulting. I even found detailed notes in his desk from when he’d brainstormed for ideas on what he could do to make money when we traveled. I had ideas, too — ideas of things we could do together that would be fun.

I realized that there was a possibility that we’d have to rely on just one income — mine — when that time came. And with my writing income fading quickly as traditional print publishing entered its death spiral, we’d be relying mostly on my flying income, which could be iffy, at best. I realized that the best way to face a situation with reduced income was to reduce our living expenses. And one of the best ways to do that was to pay off the house so we’d no longer have to worry about mortgage payments.

I remember discussing this with him many times. I used to say that there are only three things a person absolutely needs: a roof over his head, food, and medical care. Paying off the mortgage would guarantee that we always had a nice place to live. We’d certainly have enough money for food and medical insurance. And when we got old enough, Social Security and Medicare would kick in. Combined with our retirement savings, we’d be fine — as long as we owned the house.

So I did what I could to accelerate the mortgage payoff. We had a joint checking account and every time there was a decent surplus, I’d put it toward the mortgage. We’d already refinanced and had a good rate. Through this extra effort, we were able to pay off the mortgage more than two years early: by February 2012.

I was proud of myself. At the age of 50, I co-owned a home outright.

I finally had the financial security I’d always dreamed of. When my helicopter would be paid off the following January, I’d be completely debt-free.

Locked Out

I left for my fifth summer season in Washington at the last day of April 2012. I was hoping to get some early cherry drying work in Mattawa, but that never materialized. Instead, I picked up an excellent charter client who soon had me flying for him twice a week. May was more profitable than ever.

I started talking to my husband about spending the summer in Washington with me. He’d just gotten a new job that would allow him to work from home again. I saw it as the job that would make everything right with us.

I was wrong.

He asked for a divorce on my birthday at the end of June. He came to see me in Washington three weeks later. I showed him a wonderful piece of property I hoped we could buy and make a summer home on. By then, I was earning 90% of my income during the summer in that area so living there half the year made real sense. It was beautiful and cool with plenty of recreational opportunities. I was hoping he’d finally sell the condo, which he no longer needed, so he could get out from under its financial burden. We’d sell our property in northern Arizona, too. But he clearly wasn’t interested in the property or any plans I might have.

Meanwhile, I continued paying my half of the house expenses by contributing to our joint checking account. I paid the bills as I always had from that account.

I found out about the other woman in August.

By that time, he’d stopped returning my calls or emails or texts. I had no idea what was going on at home — my only home. I was stuck in Washington until nearly the end of August, a frantic bundle of nerves the entire time.

On Saturday, September 15, knowing that he’d be out of state for his mother’s birthday party in New York, I flew home with my dog. My friend Janet met me at the airport — I suspected I’d need her moral support and I wasn’t wrong. We rented a car and drove home.

The locks on my house had been changed.

I went to my hangar, where my car had been stored for the summer. There was a garage door opener in it. But my hangar lock had been changed, too.

I was locked out of my home and hangar — locked away from almost everything I owned.

I broke into the house — my house — the house I had every right to be in.

The next day, I had a locksmith change the locks on the house so I could secure it but still gain access. He cut the padlock off my hangar and I put a new one on. Since it wasn’t ethical for me to lock my husband away from his airplane, I had it moved out onto the ramp and tied down. That’s how he found out I was back. Someone called him to ask him why his airplane was out.

He came on Wednesday with a police escort. He wouldn’t make eye contact as he quickly walked through the house. I tried to talk to him, but he mostly ignored me. At one point, I blurted out: “You locked me out of the house!”

He replied coldly: “You weren’t supposed to be back until October.”

“And what would you have done then?” I asked. “Would you have been waiting with a welcoming committee to keep me out?”

He didn’t reply.

He had the nerve to show up at Wickenburg Airport with his girlfriend one Sunday morning. I felt that he was flaunting her in front of our mutual friends, showing them that his wife didn’t matter anymore — this new woman did. I was enraged. I dragged every single item of his out of the hangar and left it on the pavement in front of it. I put a note on his car, telling him that he and his new helper could take it away.

Even though he was living with his girlfriend in her Scottsdale house and he still had the condo in Phoenix (which also had its locks changed), at the temporary orders hearing a few days later, he fought me for exclusive use of the house and the hangar I had been leasing for my business for eleven years. He lied in court, saying that he could have changed the locks back (impossible because he’d had the lock cylinder changed in the hardware store) and that my company was based in Deer Valley and not Wickenburg (when the FAA clearly had Wickenburg as my base of operations) and that he’d “built a helipad” for me at our vacation property in northern Arizona (when he hadn’t “built” a damn thing up there). He also had the nerve to tell the judge that I’d abandoned him and sputter something nearly unintelligible about me preventing him from buying a business years ago. He was delusional and, after knowing him for more than 29 years, it was frightening to see him like that.

Fortunately, the judge is not a stupid man. He ruled in my favor on the house and hangar but allowed my husband to keep our dog, Charlie.

I wonder how often my replacement takes Charlie to the stores or the farmers market or the dog park or throws balls for him to catch in midair.

And I wish I could see Charlie play with my little dog Penny just one time.

Losing My Home

So I’ve been living in my home — my only home — since my return in September. And I’ll live here until the court tells me I have to leave.

After presenting me with an absurd settlement offer that would ruin me financially and then refusing to negotiate, my husband had the nerve to offer to pay for half the expenses if I lived in his condo until the divorce was finalized. I responded: “Why would I pay you to live in a condo I always hated when I could live in my own home for free?”

But it’s extremely difficult to live here. Every day, I’m faced with reminders of the man I spent more than half of my life with, a man who betrayed my trust and cruelly discarded me for someone else. The souvenirs on the fireplace mantle, the ashes of two of our dogs, the tail of the horse I bought him so we could ride together, photos of us together and separately at home or on vacation as our lives went by, entwined in a partnership I thought would never end. I cook the same meals I made for him but I eat them alone, day after day until the leftovers are gone. I sit on my lounge chair on the upstairs patio, scanning the sky, always amazed by the number of stars, seeing high-flying satellites or shooting stars but having no one to share them with. I lie on my side of the bed with his pillow beside mine and I know that he’s lying elsewhere, beside another woman that now he loves more than me. Even the remaining cape honeysuckle bushes we planted together that last spring remind me of a life that’s gone forever, torn from me by the man I loved.

And I cry, like I’m crying now, wondering how it could happen, wondering how he could forget these things.

Right now, I’m sitting at his desk, looking out on a windy gray day. If there wasn’t so much blowing dust, I’d be able to see the mountains off in the distance. His desk in the upstairs den has the best view in the house and I’m glad I moved my laptop up here.

When I was Young
Two photos on the ledge beside my husband’s desk. They were face down when I got home.

Beside me is the photo of me that he shot way back in the early 1980s, not long after we met. My skin is young and fresh — not yet aged as it is today — and my eyes look at the camera, smiling ever so slightly, as if I have a secret that I’m willing to share with just the photographer. He always had that photo of me beside his desk, but when I got home in September, it was face down. Perhaps he saw that face and eyes as if they were accusing him of his lies and infidelity. Perhaps they stoke the guilt he must feel at what he’s been doing to me since last May when he started shopping for my replacement. I righted the photo and I look at it now and then. I remember how young I was and how I spent more than half my life with the man who made it and enlarged it and framed it for the place beside his desk.

I’ve been traveling a lot — I’m only here about two thirds of the time — but even that’s more time that he spent here since buying that damn condo. I’ve been on at least one trip a month — Penny is becoming quite the frequent flyer! I’ve been to see friends in California and Washington and Utah. I’ve spent time with my family in Florida. And I’ve gone on business and pleasure trips to Lake Powell, Las Vegas, Washington, and California. Traveling is my relief; it keeps me away from the memories and helps me look to my future.

When I’m not traveling, I’m sorting and packing or discarding my things, then storing them in a safe place for the day I can move to my new home.

Because I will have a new home — that’s for sure. Despite the fact that my husband’s company offered to move him to Tampa, he apparently still wants our house.

None of my friends or family members can understand how it could be so easy for him to move his girlfriend into a home he made with another woman. But I guess if you have no conscience and can push aside memories like the ones haunting me, it might be easy.

I just wonder whether she’ll make a good companion on the upstairs patio on a star-filled night. And whether she’ll cut fresh napolitos from the prickly pear cactus for him to grill up with a steak. Or if she’ll be able to make him yorkshire pudding with a rack of lamb for dinner. Or if she’ll keep bird feeders filled and spend winter afternoons on the back patio watching the birds come.

I doubt it.

Our divorce trial is in less than three weeks. Although his lawyer claimed just the other day that they wanted to try mediation again, they backed down when I insisted that we meet face to face. I know why and I’m sure he does, too.

The outcome of the court trial uncertain. I could lose a portion of everything I’ve worked hard for my whole life. The law is supposed to be fair, but it isn’t always. I’ll see just how fair it is by the middle of May.

I know the outcome will be better for me than the absurdly damaging deal he pressured me to settle for by harassing me month after month all winter. But after the judge makes his decision and my lawyers are paid, where will I be?

Homeless.

The one thing I could control to ensure my financial future — the paid-for roof over my head — will be gone.

I only hope I’m left with enough money to get a decent start on my new life. That 10 acres of view property in Washington is waiting for me and I have big plans for it.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, huh?

My Desert Dogs

A bit about my Arizona dogs.

I’ve had dogs almost my entire life and four of them have lived with me in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

Spot
Spot and me in front of my old house in New Jersey. Spot didn’t really like the desert much.

The first was Spot or “Country Squire Rorschach,” a Dalmatian that I got for my birthday years ago when I lived in New Jersey. Spot was getting on in years by the time I moved to Arizona and he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. He never quite understood the importance of finding and standing in shade on hot days. I took him hiking out in the desert just once with me and I thought he would die of heat stroke by the time we got back. I have a photo somewhere of him standing by a big saguaro cactus, but I can’t seem to find it right now; if I do, I’ll post it here.

Next came Jack the Dog, a Border Collie/Australian Shephard Mix. My soon-to-be ex-husband and I adopted him from the local shelter about a year after Spot died. He proved to be an excellent hiking and horseback riding companion. He liked going out on horseback rides so much, that he once followed two friends of ours when we let them ride our horses without us. He was a true “desert dog,” spending most of his time loose in the backyard, overseeing the scant traffic on the road that led to our house and barking at any vehicle that didn’t belong. When he was forced to spend time in Phoenix, in the tiny condo my husband had bought, we did what we could to get him out and about on long walks. But I know he was happiest at home and on the 40 acres of ranch land we owned near the Grand Canyon.

Jack at Howard Mesa
Jack the Dog taking in the view at our Howard Mesa property in northern Arizona.

Charlie on a Rock
It’s hard to believe that this photo was shot only a year ago, when my soon-to-be ex-husband and I were on a hike out in the desert behind our house. He’s taken Charlie from me; all I have left of him are photos and memories.

Charlie came about a year after Jack’s demise. My husband and I had gone to an adoption event in Phoenix, feeling ready to bring home a new dog. After taking two unsuitable dogs for short trial walks, I spotted Charlie, wet from a dog wash and looking pretty ragged. We took him out for a walk — against his will, I might add — and decided to make him ours. It’s unfortunate that he spent most of his time at that damn Phoenix condo, but when I was with him there, I took him to various Phoenix dog parks so he could run free with the other dogs. We also played catch daily with tennis balls at the condo’s unused tennis courts. Like Jack, he was happiest in Wickenburg, though, roaming around the yard or accompanying us on Jeep rides or hikes in the desert. The horses were gone by then, but I sure think he would have liked accompanying us on rides. It saddens me to think of his current life with my husband in Phoenix and Scottsdale, in walled-in yards and boarding facilities. A dog like Charlie needs to roam free.

Penny on a Rock
I shot this photo of Penny just the other day — on the same rock I’d shot the above photo of Charlie on the year before. She’s hard to take photos of; she just won’t sit still!

I got Penny the Tiny Dog in Quincy, WA near the end of June, 2012 as a foster dog. I missed Charlie terribly — he had become an important part of my life during the long days I was stuck at the Phoenix condo the previous winter. Although my husband and I had been talking about him and Charlie spending the summer with me in Washington, my husband had gone silent (again). Still, for some dumb reason, I had high hopes of them arriving, perhaps on my birthday at month-end. I really looked forward to seeing Charlie and Penny playing together — Charlie loved playing with our neighbor’s Chihuahua in Phoenix. But three days after I got Penny, I got the birthday call from my husband asking for a divorce. Penny has been a huge comfort to me since then — I officially adopted her only two weeks later. She travels almost everywhere with me — even in the helicopter and on airlines — and, like Jack and Charlie before her, loves hiking out in the desert. She’s outside now, as I type this, walking along the top of the short wall around the backyard, looking for lizards on the hillside below her.

My days in the Arizona desert are numbered now — when the divorce winds up, I’ll finally be on my way with Penny. Although I’ll miss the hiking and Jeeping here, I know there are new adventures ahead of us — in other deserts and in canyons and forests and along rivers. Penny and I are both up to the challenge.

Hiking with Strangers

Again.

Now that I’m back in shape, I’m very interested in staying in shape. That means exercise.

I tried the gym in Wickenburg, but soon got tired of waiting for the seniors using the equipment to stop resting on the equipment when I was trying to go through my workout routine. I’ve got some weights at the house and I use them pretty regularly now to build back muscle tone, especially in my upper arms.

For other exercise, however, I’ll stick to the thing I like best: hiking.

Recent Hikes

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve gone out of my way to find people to hike with. These folks start out as perfect strangers, but if I hike with them repeatedly, they become friends. So I basically kill two birds with one stone: I get exercise doing something I like to do and I make new friends.

(I should mention here that losing my husband has made all this possible. With him around, I didn’t do much of anything outdoors — and I certainly didn’t have any opportunities to meet new people. He’s not interested in expanding his horizons. He’s just interested in staying in his cocoon with the people he’s comfortable with. That means about six friends for dining out and going to the occasional ball game. That “social life” was the absolute pits for me. I’m so glad I’m able to do so much better without him.)

At West Fork Hike
Two of my friends from the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group on the West Fork hike. The primary focus of the hike was to enjoy the fall colors.

The first group I started hiking with was the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group. This is a huge group of people with many activities every week. But a subset of the group does weekly hikes — usually on Sunday mornings when other folks are at church. I’ve been on three hikes with them so far: Grapevine Canyon (Mayer), Soldier Pass (Sedona), and West Fork (Sedona). They are a great group of people and I really enjoy their company. I’ll be doing another hike with them in a week or so out in the Superstition Mountains.

I also hiked with another Meetup group, the Arizona Sierra Club Singles. Their hike was close to home for me: Vulture Peak. I didn’t blog about it, mostly because I didn’t have much to say that was positive. The group was small, they started the hike too late in the day — after 9 AM — so it was brutally hot on the return trip, and they weren’t very friendly. Indeed, each person seemed interested in hiking alone or with just one other person. No one waited for anyone else, no one seemed to care whether the last person was having trouble keeping up. I made the hike to the saddle quicker than I had ever done before, then made the tedious climb to the top of the peak to join the four or five other people up there. No one seemed to care whether I fell to my death in the hand-over-hand climbing part that really is dangerous. And when I got up there, triumphant, exhausted, and sweating like a pig, they were all ready to come back down. Not wanting to be left up there alone, I hurried after them, spending less than five minutes on the peak. Needless to say, I probably won’t be hiking with them again. I just wasn’t impressed.

It’s interesting to me how two groups of people can be so different. The Sierra Club members, who supposedly care about the environment, etc, were all caught up in their own little worlds, completely unfriendly and mostly uncaring about newcomers. The Atheists, who are frowned upon by god-fearing Christians who consider them immoral and perhaps evil, were friendly and caring, eager to make me feel welcome, even on my first hike with them. Whodathunkit? So much for stereotypes.

Hiking with the Around the Bend Friends

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d be spending a few days in Las Vegas for business and was interested in doing a hike while I was there, one of my Facebook friends suggested the Around the Bend Friends hiking group. I followed the link and found a simple Website that showed pictures from recent hikes and a calendar of upcoming hikes. I was amazed to see that these people had a hike schedule almost every single day. When I got to Las Vegas and realized my Saturday morning was wide open, I checked the site again, found two hikes scheduled for that morning, and joined the group for the shorter of the two: Pine Creek in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. From the hike description:

The leisurely Saturday hike leading off the month will involve another partial loop route, but it will be somewhat shorter at 3 miles. After passing the Wilson homestead foundation, the trail crosses the creek just after the start of the Arnight Trail, then branches off heading upstream along the creek toward the base of Mescalito Peak. One more crossing of the creek to the north bank involves some very minor scrambling. Overall, the hike is rated easy to moderate and gains between 100 and 200 feet of elevation. The group will meet at Best Buy for an 8:30 AM departure.

I met the group as scheduled in the Best Buy parking lot on the west end of Charleston Boulevard. I was among the first to arrive. I signed in as a guest and chatted with the hike leader, Rick, before dashing across the street to get a cup of coffee at Burger King. (Don’t ask.) At 8:30 sharp, Rick did a brief introduction to the hike and the 16 people who had gathered climbed into cars and headed out to Red Rock Canyon park.

Pine Creek Trailhead View
A waning gibbous moon is setting behind the mountains in this view from the Pine Creek trailhead.

I drove alone, top down, enjoying the cool morning air. It was less than 10 miles to the park entrance and then another 10 miles to the trailhead. The road wound through the desert, past amazing red rock formations and parking areas for overlooks and trailheads. At the Pine Creek parking areas, I took the first parking spot I could find and climbed out to join the group at the trailhead.

The Around the Bend Friends bill themselves as “a group of young-at-heart people age 50 and over who participate in outdoor activities in the areas and states surrounding Las Vegas.” That’s a good description. At 51, I was one of the youngest in attendance. But these weren’t old folk like those catching their breath on the exercise equipment at Wickenburg’s gym. These people were active and physically fit. And, as we headed down the trail, it was clear that they were light on their feet and well able to scramble around and over the rocks in our path. Yes, they were older folks. But I know plenty of young people that wouldn’t be able to keep up with them.

The terrain was rugged, with more rock formations and lots of almost salmon colored sand under foot. The trail wound through the desert, passing the ruins of an old homestead before descending down to a spring-fed creek. There were plenty of photo opportunities that included not only trees turning yellow for autumn, but views of the distinctive Mescalito Peak.

Autumn Colors Along Pine Creek
Autumn colors along the Pine Creek Trail.

Mescalito PeakMescalito Peak from the Wilson homestead ruins.

We crossed the creek by hopping from rock to rock, then followed the narrow trail that snaked along the other side in the shade. I was surprised at the vegetation: a mix of manzanita and the biggest holly bushes I’d ever seen, along with cacti and other native plants. Because of the relative moisture in the area, the plants grew large and close to the trail. There was a lot of scrambling around rocks and bushes along the way.

The pace was moderate — not too slow to be boring, but not too fast to leave people behind. Rick was in charge of making sure we all stayed together and he led the group accordingly. Although we did stretch out several times, he paused to make sure we’d all gathered together before going on again. It was nice to see someone taking responsibility for the hike. (The Atheist group uses handheld radios for the same purpose, mostly because of the wide range of hiking skills among members of the group.)

My Fellow Hikers
My fellow hikers.

Rock wall with climbers

Climbers

Climbers

The rock wall where we saw the climbers. The insets are blown up from the original image; not clear but clear enough to see the climbers.

Back on the creek bed, where the trail began its return loop, we stopped for a rest in the shade. We’d been hiking about an hour. We chatted among ourselves while munching energy bars and pieces of fruit and sipping water. It was about 10 AM and it was cool in the shade. One of the members looked up at the rock wall we could see between the trees and spotted climbers. We counted four of them; we met others on their way to the rock wall on our return hike.

Once we’d rested for a while, we continued the hike’s loop trail, returning along the base of the rock wall in the sun. Although I’d started the hike with a sweatshirt on, I soon stripped it off. The sun was strong, but not yet overpowering. I really felt its heat on my black jeans. If the hike had been later in the day, I probably would have roasted. (But then again, I probably would have worn shorts.)

I handled the climb back up to the trailhead admirably. In my fat days, I would have needed at least three rest stops along the way. But with 45 pounds less weight to lug around, I didn’t even get winded on the way up. I was left again to wonder why the hell it took me so long to get that extra weight off — and why other people don’t do the same.

Rick passed around the sign in sheet for each of us to sign out. It was after 11 AM; I had four hours to kill before my afternoon meeting. I climbed back into the car, put the top down, and headed back to the city.

Hiking with Strangers

Would I hike with the Around the Bend Friends again? You bet!

With resources like Meetup to find hiking groups and other groups like the Around the Bend Friends out there, it’s easy to get out for a hike with others. Even if they start out as strangers, they can soon be friends.

Canyon Hike with New Friends

Nature + intelligent people + good conversation = a great time.

One of the reasons I’ve been so unhappy living in Wickenburg over the past few years is the lack of friends my own age who have similar interests.

As the years went by and Wickenburg shifted from being a ranching/tourist town to being a retirement community, all of our young friends moved away. There was Barb and Barry, who moved to New Mexico. Then Janet and Steve, who moved to Colorado. Then Lance and Keri, who moved to (of all places) Michigan. Some of our young, seasonal friends — John and Lorna come to mind — prefer hanging out with the old folks at the retirement community where they park their RV for half the year, opting for an ice cream social over a Jeep ride in the desert or a coffee gathering over a hike up Vulture Peak.

Because the town doesn’t offer enough employment opportunities for young people, it’s population continues to age, with more older folks coming here to retire, at least seasonally. I — or we, I guess I could still say — have quite a few friends old enough to be my parents. Sadly, most of these folks are not nearly as active as we are. And every year, when I return from my annual migration to Washington for work, I discover that one or more of them has died: Pete, Bill, Danny — rest in peace.

It’s depressing for someone like me who wants to remain active. While it was tolerable while I still had a husband at home — at least we could do things together on weekends — with him gone, the situation is bad. I decided to get proactive to find some friends.

I turned to Meetup.

Meetup

Meetup is a social networking service that makes it easy to find and meet up with — in person — people with similar interests for all kinds of activities. I’ve been a member for years and, in the past, have used it to hook up with a photography group based in the Phoenix area and a social group in the Wenatchee area. Last week, I worked it hard, looking for Meetup groups that might do activities near where I live. I didn’t expect to find any in Wickenburg — indeed, there are no Meetup groups within 25 miles of Wickenburg — but I found quite a few in the Phoenix area that do activities all over the state.

Last week, after hitting the Arrowhead Mall for a makeup consultation, I joined the 39 and Holding Club‘s “Hump Day” dinner, which was being held at Chili’s in Surprise, AZ. Although it was more than 30 miles from my Wickenburg home, it was still on the way home from the mall. It was a nice evening out with pleasant people. I met an interesting woman — I’ll call her “M” — who is also going through an ugly divorce that has been going on for two years now. (I sure hope mine doesn’t take that long.) M is the one who told me about Couch Surfing, which I linked to in one of my “Interesting Link” posts. So not only did I get to spend a nice evening out with new people, but I learned about some services I might want to take advantage of in the future.

I signed up with a bunch of groups for a bunch of activities ranging from wine tasting/pairing to hiking to archery lessons. My calendar is now quite full. And with new activities listed all the time, I don’t think I’ll have much trouble at all finding something interesting to do with others.

The Phoenix Atheists

I don’t usually blog about my religious non-beliefs because it results in a firestorm of comments by religious fundamentalists damning me to hell or worse. Of course, this means nothing to me because I don’t believe in hell. If you feel your anger rising now, take your blood pressure pills and move along. Comments blasting me (or others) for religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) won’t appear on this blog, so don’t waste your time posting them.

Yes, I’m an atheist. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly for a while and have somehow missed that point, shame on you. It’s not as if I hide it. If this is news to you and it upsets you, I’m sorry. I’d like to assure you that I have very strong moral convictions that don’t require an all-mighty being to supervise. I’m not a militant atheist — one who’s blasting believers all the time — I’m a live-and-let-live kind of person. If you want to believe in god, fine. Just don’t expect me to do it just because you and others do.

That said, I believe that atheists or “freethinkers” or “secular humanists” or “skeptics” — some of the names we apply to ourselves — are generally better educated, more intelligent, and better able to reason things out than the average person. I’m not saying all atheists are smarter than everyone else. I’m just saying that as a group, they tend, on average, to be brighter than the general population, better able to think before speaking, and better able to express their thoughts without offending others.

I’m not a dummy and I like talking to smart people. I like talking to people who are as smart as or smarter than me. People who can challenge me to think in a conversation. People who are able to discuss things deeper than what they saw on television last night, what’s in the news, or what they got in the latest Obama-bashing (or Romney-bashing) email in their in box. People who make me think about things that are interesting or important. People who can help me get a new angle on things, to possibly see things in a new way and build my own new conclusions. I like talking to people who can challenge me to think and to discuss things as an equal.

atheists.jpgI figured that a group of atheists should fit the bill. So when I found out that The Phoenix Atheists Meetup Group was going for a hike at Grapevine Canyon in Mayer, AZ, I decided to join them.

Because the trailhead required a 1-1/2 mile drive down a narrow, rough road, I took my Jeep and offered up rides to anyone who didn’t have a high-clearance vehicle. I got a call from another member — we’ll call him “D” — who was driving up from Yuma in his Toyota. We agreed to meet at the shopping area at I-17 and Carefree Highway, which was on my way north to Mayer. At 7:00 AM yesterday morning, I loaded up Penny, a fanny-pack full of frozen water bottles and snacks for both of us, my camera, and my monopod, and we headed out.

I got to the rendezvous point early. I topped off the Jeep’s gas tanks, then parked by McDonalds and started looking for others in the group. Another Jeep was supposed to meet there. What I discovered is that the McDonalds there is a popular meet up place for all kinds of groups of people. I’d stop at a small group and say, “Are you here for the hike?” (I didn’t want to mention atheists because some people get silly.) One of the people in the group would respond, “No, we’re going off-roading up by Crown King. You can come with us if you want.” Or, “No, we’re going scuba diving. Want to come with us?” Or, “No, we’re with the Miata Club.” (No invitation there.) I realized that even if I had nothing planned, I could go to the McDonalds, ask around, and go with the group that seemed to be doing the most fun thing. Whoa.

I finally found the other Jeep driver, “G,” and his companion. Then D. We chatted, loaded up, and headed north on I-17 to Mayer. I followed G’s Jeep.

I thoroughly enjoyed my chat with D during the 45-minute ride to Mayer. He’s a civil engineer who works with traffic control — light timing, traffic pattern design, etc. We talked about his work and mine and about each of our divorces. He was very supportive and offered some general advice from his own experiences. Although we didn’t talk much about that — I really didn’t want to — our chat helped clear my head and put me in a more positive mood for the hike ahead.

At the turnoff, there were more members of the group. I took on another passenger and followed a Toyota FJ Cruiser down a mildly rough road, with G’s Jeep taking up the rear. At the end of that little drive were more people and vehicles. I think our group wound up with a total of 14 hikers. A good sized group.

We parked and unloaded our gear. After a briefing from the group leader, we started off up the trail.

HikeArea.jpg
After driving down a rough forest road and parking, we did our hike in the area marked in red. We followed Grapevine Canyon most of the way.

We were on the eastern foothills to the Bradshaw Mountains. The Bradshaws aren’t very big — I think the tallest peaks might be around 6,000 feet — and the hills climbing up to them are mostly metamorphic rock and low bushes such as holly and manzanita. I kept Penny on her leash, mostly because there had been talk of mountain lions in the area and I didn’t want her wandering off. She walked with us like a little champ and only had to be lifted over one fallen log.

The trail started as a road, then narrowed to a wide trail. At a marked fork, we took the left fork, which was supposed to be level. It wasn’t. It climbed pretty steadily but not too steeply. Because we were hiking near a dry stream bed, there were some tall tress, including oaks and various pines. Scattered clouds and the trees helped keep the sun off us. Still, I’d dressed wrong in a pair of jeans instead of shorts. It wasn’t long before I was working up a good sweat.

Hand-carved Slingshot
We found this hand-carved slingshot hanging from the vertical poles of what may have been a hunting blind in a clearing along the trail. Magnificent workmanship! Of course, we left it where we found it; I hope other hikers do the same.

Members of the group split into smaller groups and chatted as they walked. Occasionally, the front groups would stop to let the stragglers catch up. It was very rewarding to me to be able to get into a conversation with any group I wound up walking beside. I was never excluded, other members seemed to go out of their way at times to engage me in conversation. It was exactly what I wanted from the experience: a good workout with good conversation.

Meanwhile, as the trail narrowed and climbed along the dry creek bed, it became tougher to follow. Soon, we were following cairns — piles of rock left to mark the trail. After a while, I was glad I’d worn long pants — others were getting their legs scratched walking through brush. Penny kept up very well, surprising me and others.

Eventually, we reached a dry waterfall with a seep-like spring. Thick green moss, which is rare in the desert, carpeted the rocks. Small flowers bloomed here and there. Butterflies flitted about. Facing an even narrower trail up the canyon, about half of us settled down to wait for the others to continue their explorations. Because various members had hand-held radios, we were able to keep in touch with all the groups. It wasn’t long before they’d had enough and began coming back.

Flower in the Sun
I captured this flower in a beam of bright sunlight.

The hike back was easier, probably because it was mostly downhill. Again, I found myself walking with different people along the way, talking about different things. It really helped keep my mind off my personal tragedy and the pain it was causing me. Being able to meet and talk to so many interesting people really pumped up my spirits.

Penny Resting on a Hike
We stopped for a long rest on the way back, mostly to gather the whole group together. I took this opportunity to give Penny some more water and let her rest.

Afterwards, we went to Leff-T’s Steakhouse in Dewey. The group insisted on us sitting on the outdoor patio so Penny could join us. I’m in the process of weaning myself off my diet — I’m very close to my final weight goal — so I ordered steak fajitas and ate about 1/3 of the portion, taking the rest home for the next two days. One of my companions kindly gave me a taste of his chicken fried steak — I love that stuff but will probably never be able to enjoy a full portion again. (Which really is a good thing, after all.)

We split up after that. D and I climbed back into the Jeep with Penny and headed back down toward Phoenix. Although it probably would have been closer for me to drive through Prescott, I admit that I looked forward to D’s company for part of the drive. We talked a lot more about what I was going through — he seemed genuinely interested and offered up all kinds of supportive words and advice. He also gave me some specifics about his post-divorce recovery process that I could apply to my own life and what I might face. It was extremely helpful to me.

After I dropped him off at McDonalds, Penny and I headed home. It was hot — seriously, I don’t understand how people could bear to live in Phoenix when the temperature is still hovering around 100°F on the first day of autumn. We made good time getting back and I was glad to pull the Jeep into the garage just as it was beginning to get dark outside. I gave Penny a much needed bath and took a hot shower to wash off the day’s sweat and dirt.

I was tired but I felt happy and hopeful for my future.

I’m really looking forward to my next outing with this group.

Postscript:
HappyThe hike leader, Al, posted a huge batch of photos that he shot before, during, and after the hike. Among them was this gem.

The ugly divorce I’m dealing with right now has been eating away at me day after day and night after night. But Al managed to capture the truth in this photo: my spirit is still alive and strong, I can still have fun, I can still be happy.

Thank you, Al. Seeing this photo really made my day.

Charlie’s Four Games

That’s it.

Charlie and Friend
Here’s Charlie, trying to get another dog to chase him.
After a while, he did.

I took Charlie to a dog park in Phoenix today. It was surprisingly large and relatively well kept, although there was a nasty area of wet mud on one side that Charlie just had to lie down in. We were there for about 30 minutes and during that time, there was anywhere from 10 to 20 dogs of all sizes in the enclosure with us.

I watched with fascination as Charlie fetched balls and then played with the other dogs. After having him for only about seven weeks, I realized that he likes to play just four games:

  • You can’t catch me. This is poetry in motion. He gets a dog (or two or three) interested in chasing him and he runs away. He’s pretty fast. But what’s interesting is that he’ll match the speed of his fastest pursuer so that he stays just a few feet in front of him, just out of reach. If the dog behind him speeds up, he speeds up, too. There was only one dog in the park today that could catch him. It should come as no surprise that he was likely the same breed or mix of breeds. I should mention that sometimes he gets other dogs to chase him by grabbing a ball or something else they might want to play with.
  • You can’t get past me. In this game, he corners another dog against a wall or in a corner, usually with a small obstruction like a bush or a tree trunk between them. The other dog tries to get out of the corner, but Charlie darts in front of him. This goes on for minutes sometimes, with the two dogs going back and forth. He plays this game with my neighbor’s Chihuahua sometimes and it drives the little dog crazy. After a while, it gets frustrated and barks.
  • Tug of war. He played tug of war with a pull toy for hours on end with a friend’s dog when we were away recently. He’ll occasionally play it with us.
  • Catch. Don’t confuse this with Fetch. He will fetch a ball or Frisbee, but he really likes to catch them in the air. Balls, anyway. He doesn’t always bring them back and, if he does, he doesn’t always release them. Not much fun for his people. Also, if something isn’t moving, he’s not interested in it at all.

Our last dog, Jack, didn’t like to play with other dogs. He just wanted to play with us. While it’s nice to have a dedicated dog, it’s even nicer to have a dog who can play well with other dogs.

After all, there are only so many times you can throw a ball in a day.