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 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.

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.

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.

The Joy of City Living

After living in the sticks for more than 14 years, I realize what I’ve been missing.

We moved to Wickenburg, a tiny western town on the edge of nowhere back in 1997.

We’d come from a small town in northeastern New Jersey, less than 20 miles from midtown Manhattan. Our NJ town was small and quaint and our neighborhood was nice and quiet. Yet we were always within range of everything New York had to offer.

Wickenburg was different. The town didn’t offer much in the way of shopping or dining opportunities. Because the population varied with the season, some businesses simply closed down for the summer when the snowbirds went home in the spring. We were at least 40 miles from reliable shopping and dining and more than 60 from the heart of a major city (Phoenix). We learned to do just about all our shopping for nonfood items online and found ourselves driving an awful lot. Or simply settling for whatever the local shops and restaurants had to offer.

It didn’t bother me much until all our young friends started moving out of down and our older friends started dying. That, coupled with idiotic local politics, a terrible local economy, and mind-numbingly slow Internet access speeds at our home, I was beginning to lose my mind.

When Mike began working in Phoenix and the real estate market sunk, we bought a little condo near the “Biltmore” area of Phoenix. Nothing special, but certainly quite comfortable. It took a while to get used to living so close to other people — after all, our Wickenburg home sits on 2-1/2 hilly acres, so privacy is not an issue — but the benefits of living in a city soon outweighed the drawbacks.

This point really hit home yesterday.

After being the subject of a video interview via Skype to promote one of my new books — something that would have been impossible in my Wickenburg office — I checked in on Facebook. Two of my friends there had gotten into a discussion about a wine called Amarone, which is made in Italy. They apparently loved this wine and thought I’d like it, too. So I told them I’d hunt down a bottle.

Because I was in Phoenix, this turned out to be very easy. There’s a Total Wine shop less than a mile from our condo. After dinner, we went over there and were soon trying to decide which of the 10 brands of Amarone we should take home. I knew that the wine sources in Wickenburg — the Basha’s and Safeway supermarkets — would not have a single bottle of this rather costly wine. Yet in Phoenix, walking distance from my home, I was faced with 10 different options.

Of course, this isn’t the only occasion that I’ve reaped the benefits of living in a city. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to hop in the car and drive 40 miles to buy a computer cable I needed but couldn’t find in Wickenburg. Here, I’m not only walking distance from Best Buy and Staples, but there’s even an Apple store a short walk away. And I remember the day I went crazy looking for lady fingers to make tiramisu for a party I was going to. I spent three hours and drove more than 100 miles to get those damn cookies. I’m pretty certain that I can find them at the A.J.’s Fine Foods supermarket about 2 miles from here. That’s just a bike ride away.

And don’t get me started on restaurants.

It’s funny that I went for so long without being bothered by the lack of goods and services close to home. I’d talk to friends and family members who had easy access to things and it never really struck me as an inconvenience. Until, of course, I no longer had that inconvenience.

We still go back to Wickenburg, of course. It’s like a weekend home for us. Our house sitter, John, is taking care of things while we’re away. He doesn’t seem to mind the lack of goods and services.

I’m kind of hoping he’ll offer to buy the house from us one of these days. Although I’m not quite ready to let go of it, if the price is right, I might realize that I’m a lot more ready than I thought I was.

Adopting Charlie

The state of dog adoption in Arizona … and elsewhere?

Jack the Desert Dog
Jack, the desert dog.

Last year, our dog Jack became ill and had to be put down. It was heartbreaking for us. Jack was only about 10 years old and he was a great dog that was really part of our lives.

Since our lifestyle was in flux, with me away from home nearly half the year and Mike commuting weekly between our Phoenix and Wickenburg homes, we decided to take a break from having the responsibility of caring for a dog. But this past summer, we began talking about finding a replacement for Jack — for filling the void his death had left in our lives.

I knew several people who were taking in foster dogs. Wickenburg had a Humane Society branch and was looking for foster homes. It seemed like a good idea — to take the responsibility of caring for a dog when it was between full-time homes.

But I soon learned that the approval process for becoming a foster home for a dog was long and drawn out, requiring multiple interviews and visits to our home. I knew they’d never approve us — one of the things they required was an enclosed backyard and although our Wickenburg yard has a low wall around it, it doesn’t have a fence. We live on 2-1/2 acres of desert and our dogs have never strayed out of our yard — let alone far from our house.

So it looked as if fostering a dog was not an option.

I also inquired about adopting a dog from the Wickenburg humane society. It shouldn’t surprise me that they had the same requirements. Apparently, they thought it was better for dogs to live with them in cages than to live with a loving family who might actually give them a life beyond a cage.

I can’t tell you how angry this made me.

Early last week, Mike met a woman who rescues Australian shepherds with visual or aural impairments. She told him about a big adoption event at the Franciscan Renewal Center on E. Lincoln Drive in Scottsdale. She said there would be lots of dogs up for adoption. So on Saturday morning, at 10 AM sharp, we were among the hundreds of people who showed up for the event.

There had to be over 200 dogs up for adoption. We looked around; it was hard to choose. We were interested in border collies and Australian shepherds but didn’t need (or even want) a full-bred dog. Jack was a mix of those two breeds, so we were familiar with them. But we just wanted a dog that was smart, could be trained to mind us, and wasn’t too big. We were especially interested in a dog that could be trained to be out in the yard by himself — with us at home, of course — and didn’t need to be on a leash all the time.

We found a group that rescues border collies and saw one we liked. I asked about the dog, who seemed very timid. Jack had also been timid, but he came out of his shell within two days.

“Oh, that’s one of the Texas dogs,” the woman told me, as if I should know all about the “Texas dogs.”

“He’s from Texas?” I asked.

“Well, haven’t you been to our Web site?”

I admitted I hadn’t.

She then proceeded to show me a printed “catalog” — what else could I call it? — of dogs available for adoption and explained how the adoption procedure worked. It was the Wickenburg humane society all over again, but with this group, we’d get multiple visits by the dog’s current foster “parent” before and after taking delivery of the dog to make sure everything was okay.

I told her I didn’t like shopping for a dog in a catalog.

She explained that even if I found one online that I liked, it might not be available. Or they might recommend a different one based on our lifestyle. In other words, the catalog was window dressing to suck you into the process — the long, drawn-out process that made you question your worthiness for owning a dog — before you’d be permitted to give the dog a home.

At least those dogs had foster families. As far as I was concerned, they’d be better off staying where they were.

We inquired at a few booths that had dogs that interested us and got the same bullshit routine.

Let me set something straight before you all jump on me. I’m not so naive to think that all dogs go to great homes. I know that some people are abusive or adopt for reasons that might not be in the best interest of the dog. I know that not everyone takes as good care of their animals as we do. I know that many dogs spend most of their time in outdoor kennels or, worse yet, crates. Some are abused. Some are neglected. Some have really crappy lives.

But I also know that a dog that lives with us has a very good life. While we don’t permit a dog to sleep in bed with us — or even sit on the furniture — and we don’t allow anyone to feed a dog from the table during meals, we do treat our dog like a member of the family. He lives indoors with us and sleeps in our bedroom on his own bed. He comes with us anywhere we can take him. He’s well-fed, gets all his shots, and gets professional medical attention promptly if he needs it. We play with our dog, pet him for no reason other than to show how much we love him, and teach him tricks. Our dogs have always been well-behaved and devoted to us. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship — the way we think a person/dog relationship should be. Best of all, because I work from home, our dog is seldom left alone for more than a few hours each week.

So I know damn well that I can give the right dog an excellent life — far better than he would have living in a cage at the Humane Society or maybe even with a foster family.

I’m not interested in trying to prove it to a bunch of strangers who would be judging me by the type of fence I have in my backyard.

Fortunately, we did find a dog we liked in the booth of an adoption organization. In fact, we found three.

I knew this organization was different from the others — they’d put low fencing around the entire booth and most of the dogs ran lose inside it. (Most of the other booths had their dogs in cage-like crates or on leashes held by foster families.) They were all mutts, all healthy looking, and all getting along fine together. We’d stopped there on the way into the event — they were right near the entrance — and Mike had liked one of the dogs. That dog had been adopted during the 40 minutes or so since our first visit. No bullshit there; this organization wanted to find homes for its dogs immediately.

When I showed interest in one of the dogs, the woman in charge, Carrie, immediately offered to let me take it for a walk. Unsupervised, if you can imagine that.

It was a small black dog with short hair. She was about a year old; the woman still had its mother, which was part Australian shepherd. The dog didn’t want to leave the pen containing her friends, but I was encouraged to just tug her out on the leash. We took a short walk; the dog was very skittish. But when I knelt down to reassure her, she was fine. I could see that with a little work, she’d be a good dog.

Mike, in the meantime, was looking at another dog who was larger and more self-assured. He said the dog was alert and following his every move. He was also one of the few dogs there in a cage-like crate — I think that should have given us a clue about his personality. Once out on a leash, he was pulling Mike everywhere, sniffing everything, trying to get to know every other dog. He was not controllable — at least not yet. I walked him for a while and soon got tired of the pulling. That dog would need a lot of work to get under control. Were we willing to put the time and effort into doing it right? I didn’t think I was.

Charlie the Dog
This is Charlie in the truck on the way home from Phoenix.

We went back just as a helper brought back a black border collie that had just been to the dog wash. He looked terrible — wet yet still kind of matted — but reminded me a lot of Jack. We took him for a walk. Although he didn’t want to go with us at first, we didn’t have much trouble pulling him away. He was more confident than the little dog I’d walked, but less outgoing than the larger dog Mike had walked. He felt right.

His name was Charlie.

Charlie had been picked up by Animal Control — the same folks we used to call “the dogcatcher” when I was a kid — in Show Low, AZ a week or two before. He had a collar but no tags. No one had claimed him. Carrie’s organization works with Animal Control in Show Low and had picked up Charlie and brought him down to Phoenix. He’s about a year old and Carrie claimed he might be full-bred border collie. (I tend to doubt that, but don’t really care. I wanted a dog, not a label.) He’d been to the vet to be neutered and get his rabies shots just the week before.

He was a stray dog without a home. Just like Jack had been.

We decided he was a good match for us.

We filled out some paperwork and some money changed hands. Carrie’s helper helped Mike cut off Charlie’s old collar — the buckle was broken — and put on a new one. We put on a leash and left. Mission accomplished — same day — no interviews, no home inspections, no trial periods.

On the way out, we stopped to ring a bell the Franciscans had set up to signal an adoption. Peopled nearby clapped and cheered and congratulated us. The Phoenix Animal Care Coalition (PACC), which had sponsored the event, gave us a bag of goodies that included sample dog food, dog shampoo, a tennis ball, and PetSmart coupons.

Back at the car, I spread some throw rugs on the back seat. It didn’t take much coaxing to get Charlie to jump in. We rolled his windows down halfway, just in case he was the kind of dog who like to stick his head out. (He wasn’t; at least not then.) Then we drove him to the PetSmart near our condo and brought him inside with us. We bought him a new bed, some chew sticks, a dog dish, a water bowl, dog food, dog cookies, and a toy.

Back at the condo, we let him walk around to check the place out while we loaded up the truck. He was very interested in Alex the Bird. We put his new bed in the back seat of the truck beside Alex’s lucite box and coaxed him up on top of it. Then we made the long drive to Wickenburg, making two short stops along the way. He was very well behaved and snoozed for most of the drive.

At home, we fed him and made sure he had water before doing the odd jobs we needed to do around the house. We walked him around outside the house, both on and off leash. He stayed close by and showed no desire to run off. He chased a lizard under a woodpile and, when I called him, he came right to me.

Mike brushed him, removing a shopping bag full of old hair. (Better in the bag than on my carpet!) He looked a lot smaller — and thinner — with the extra hair gone.

We discovered that he didn’t know how to climb stairs, but Mike fixed that by giving him a few gentle tugs on the leash as he started up the stairs; once he got past the first four steps, he was fine. (No trouble coming down later, either.) When I sat on the sofa, he jumped up next to me and I told him to get down. We went though this three times before he understood and lay down on his bed, which we’d brought upstairs for him.

Later, after it had cooled down, we took him to the dog park. I’d been there once before, with Jack. Jack didn’t like playing with other dogs. Charlie does. We stayed for about and hour and chatted with the other dog owners. Most of them were pretty amazed by how well Charlie got along with the other dogs and how he already knew us, after less than six hours with us.

Last night, he slept on his bed or on the tile floor outside our bedroom door. He was quiet. He didn’t have any accidents in the house.

This morning, he came downstairs for breakfast with me. I fed him and he gobbled it down. Later, after breakfast, we fed him some more. We need to fatten him up a bit; he really is too thin. I’ll take him to our local vet on Monday, if I can get an appointment, and weigh him so we know how much he should be fed. I’ll also ask whether puppy food would be better than adult food for him until he’s at the right weight.

Today, we left the back door open wide enough for him to go out on his own. He stayed close by, except when he was chasing rabbits. He got into some cactus but managed to pull most of the bigger spines out on his own; we pulled the rest out while he waited patiently.

Later today, we’ll take him down to Box Canyon, where the Hassayampa River flows through a narrow slot canyon. We’ll see what he thinks about riding in the back of a Jeep with the side and back windows off and whether he likes water.

This week, we’ll buy him one of those soft-sided Frisbee-like discs to see if we can teach him to catch.

And I’m already looking into sheep herding training for him, just to see if he’s got what it takes to be a real ranch dog.

For the next ten to 15 (or longer?) years, Charlie will be our not-on-the-furniture, no-begging-at-the-table, no-jumping-up-on-people-univited kid.

He’s a lucky dog — even if most dog adoption agencies don’t think we’re good enough to have a dog — and we know we’re lucky to have him.

Wickenburg to Phoenix by Helicopter

Yet another helicopter video.

Join me for a wild ride across the Sonoran desert between Wickenburg, AZ and north Phoenix, AZ. Shot on January 20, 2011 during a Flying M Air repositioning flight. Enjoy.

Hitching a Ride in a Helicopter

Looking back, I realize this was a bit over the top.

I’ve been wanting to blog this story, but a lot of time has gone by and it’s a bit stale in my mind. It is something I want to journalize so I can remember it in years to come. Since that’s mostly what this blog is about, and because a Twitter friend showed some interest in reading it, here it is.

It was April and I was planning to spend a few days down in our Phoenix apartment. I’d already paid for my monthly hangar rental down at Deer Valley Airport (DVT) and figured I’d fly the helicopter down and put it in the hangar in case I got any calls for flights while I was down there.

My faithful Toyota was sitting in the airport parking lot, waiting for me. A true “airport car,” I left it there so I’d have something to drive when I flew in. My to do list for the upcoming month included driving it home and stowing it for the summer, when it wasn’t needed. (No sense in letting the poor thing rot out in the sun.)

I pulled the helicopter out of my Wickenburg hangar with a golf cart I have just for that purpose and parked it on the ramp. I unhooked the tow gear and disconnected the ground handling wheels. I put the golf cart and tow bar away. I parked my Jeep in the hangar, too, and locked it all up. I was good to go.

I did my preflight and climbed on board. A few minutes later, the engine was running and the blades were spinning.

And then my Aux Fuel light came on. The circuit breaker had popped out.

Let me take a moment to explain what this means. A Robinson R44 Raven II is fuel injected. It has two fuel pumps. One is the engine-driven pump which is the primarily means of feeding the engine when the engine is running. The other is the auxiliary fuel pump, an electric pump that’s used to prime the engine and as a back up in the unlikely event that the engine-driven pump fails. It’s a secondary system. If it fails in flight, the helicopter will continue to run.

I have a history with Zero-Mike-Lima’s auxiliary fuel pump dating back to the day after I picked it up at the factory. Back then, I educated myself about the system to troubleshoot a popping circuit breaker problem. My thorough knowledge of the fuel system helped me out on an FAA check ride 2 years later when the circuit breaker popped again. I got the fuel pump replaced right after that incident, when the helicopter was only two years old.

The fuel pump had begun giving me problems a few weeks before — but I didn’t recognize it, at first, as a problem. Circuit breaker had popped during a tour in the Phoenix area. I (incorrectly, it appears) assumed that the front seat passenger had knocked the circuit breaker out with her sandals. Okay, so it was a stupid assumption, but since it didn’t pop again when I pushed it back in, what else could I assume?

On another flight a week or so later, it happened again. That’s when I realized the pump was acting up again and would likely need replacement soon. Fortunately, I still had the old one. I did some checking around and learned that the manufacturer could rebuild it for about 60% of the cost of a new one. Since saving $600 on a like-new part sounded like a good idea to me, I sent it off to be rebuilt and kept my eye on the situation.

Well, the situation came to a head that day on the ramp at Wickenburg. As I sat there, blades spinning, looking at that warning light, a few thoughts went through my mind:

  • If I flew down to Deer Valley, there was no one there to fix the fuel pump. If it completely failed, the helicopter would be stuck there.
  • If I left the helicopter in Wickenburg, my mechanic there could replace the fuel pump when the rebuilt one arrived. After all, he’d replaced the last one.
  • I really didn’t want to drive down to Phoenix. I already had a car there and my husband, Mike, already had two cars down there. Besides, it was a long drive.

I knew what I should do. I cut the throttle, flicked the Clutch switch off, and shut down.

While I was doing this, a helicopter flew in to the airport and landed at the fuel island. It was a MD helicopter that looked like a 500. I didn’t know who it belonged to, so it wasn’t someone local. That meant when the pilot was done fueling, he’d likely leave. It was late in the day. Maybe he’d go home. He was flying a helicopter. There are lots of helicopters based at Scottsdale, which is near Deer Valley. Maybe Deer Valley was on the way home for him. Maybe he could drop me off.

This gives you an idea of the way I think. I have a problem, I immediately consider all kinds of options — including wacky ones — as a solution.

Could I ask a perfect stranger to fly me to Deer Valley Airport in his helicopter?


My blades slowed to a stop. I got out and looked at that helicopter by the fuel island.

Why not?

I walked over to the pilot, who was now out, messing with the hose. He was about my age — maybe a bit older — and looked friendly and easy-going in jeans and a casual shirt. He reminded me a bit of the two Hughes 500 pilots who lived in Wickenburg. Regular guys who just happened to own turbine helicopters.

After the usual, “Hi, how are you doing?” greeting, I asked, “Where are you based?”

“Stellar,” he replied. Stellar Air Park was a private residential/commercial airport in Chandler, south of Phoenix. Wickenburg was north of Phoenix. This was looking promising.

“You’re not going home from here, are you?”

“Well, I was just out tooling around the desert. Why? What do you need?”

I explained my situation.

Before I could ask for a lift, he said “Sure, I can drop you off at Deer Valley.”

“That would be great. I just need to put the helicopter away.”

I hurried back to my hangar and fetched my tow gear. Ten minutes later, the helicopter and tow gear was all put away again and the hangar was locked. I left my Jeep parked on the ramp outside my hangar door. I got to the helicopter at the fuel island just as the pilot finished fueling.

We introduced ourselves and he told me to hop in.

I climbed on board. It really was a climb. 500s have long legs. I maneuvered into the passenger seat with the cyclic stick between my knees and stowed my small bag behind me. He climbed in the other side.

The aircraft’s panel looked brand new, with glass cockpit instrumentation. I said something idiotic like, “Great panel. Did you have it redone?”

“No. The helicopter is new.”

That’s when I realized it wasn’t the same model as the Hughes 500s my friends flew. Theirs dated from the 1970s.

“It’s not a 500?” I asked.

MD 500f

This wasn’t the helicopter I flew in, but this is the same model. Photo from the MDHelicopters Web site.

“No. It’s a 530.”

I sat back as he started up. First, the rapid click-click-click of the igniter. Then the woosh as the jet fuel lit. Then the familiar whine as the jet engine spun up and the blades picked up speed over our heads. If there’s one thing I like about turbine helicopters, it’s the sound of the engine startup and the smell of burning JetA.

The flight to Deer Valley was uneventful. We talked about mutual friends — he knew one of my Hughes 500 pilot friends in Wickenburg and had heard of the other. We talked about places to fly. He was also an airplane pilot and had already flown much of the state — and then some. There was no place new I could suggest.

He offered to let me fly but I turned him down.

He was smooth on the controls and had the same low-flying habit the rest of us desert explorers have. (Once we know where the wires are, it’s not uncommon for us to cruise just a couple hundred feet over the empty desert floor.) He told me he’d never flown into Deer Valley, so I filled him in on what I usually do and where I park. He came in from the north, crossed over the top as instructed by the tower, and set down on one of the two helipads in front of the terminal. I grabbed my bag from the back, thanked him several times, and climbed out. He lifted off just as I got to the terminal gate.

It wasn’t until later that I gave the whole thing some serious thought. Did this qualify as hitchhiking? If so, what would my mother say?