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?

A Four River Flight

I thoroughly enjoy a flight from Wickenburg to Chandler on a beautiful Arizona winter day.

E25 to CHD
Direct flight = boring flight.

I recently had to reposition my helicopter from Wickenburg (E25) to Chandler (CHD) to get some maintenance done. That meant a cross-country flight which, if flown directly, would take about 40 minutes and fly right over the top of Sky Harbor Airport (PHX).

But the helicopter was going in for a 100-hour maintenance and had 6 hours left before it was due. It seemed to me that I should try to use up as much of that time as I could.

Unfortunately, I did have a time constraint. I was meeting a friend at Chandler Airport at 1 PM. I had plans to spend some time with him and then another friend afterwards. And I even had a dinner date down in Tempe.

But as I loaded Penny and an overnight bag into the helicopter, I figured I had about an hour and a half to kill along the way. Why not take the scenic route?

I didn’t realize then that I’d be treating myself to a four-river tour.

The Hassayampa River

The Hassayampa River flows through Wickenburg, AZ, the town I’ve been living in for the past 15 years. Its name supposedly means “river that flows upside down” or something like that. That’s because although water flows year-round, it doesn’t always flow on the surface of the river bed where it can be seen. Instead, it flows mostly under several feet of sand in the river bed. So, when you drive over the bridge in town — usually on your way to or from Las Vegas, which is how most people know Wickenburg — you won’t see any water down there. Just sand. And tire tracks. And occasionally, some cattle.

River? What River?
If you know Wickenburg and the Hassayampa River well enough, you should be able to see where it “flows” on this Google Maps terrain view from the canyons near Box Canyon to just past Constellation Road.

Indeed, the Hassayampa River is so un-riverlike that it doesn’t even appear on Google Maps’ terrain view.

But it had rained a few days before — a constant, steady rain that had lasted for hours. Although it hadn’t been enough rain to get the wash that flows through my property flowing, it apparently accumulated in streams upriver from town. When I flew over the river two days later, I could see a small but steady stream of water.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

For some reason, I headed south from the airport — not east toward the river. I think my initial idea was to fly south to Buckeye and slip between the Estrella Mountains and South Mountain, approaching Chandler from the west. I also wanted to glimpse the roads I’d been on a few days before with a local Jeep group.

When I got to Vulture Peak, I decided to see if anyone was on top. So I started a steep 1500-foot-per minute climb, reaching the top in about 10 seconds. No one up there. I dropped down on the other side and followed some wash beds east past Wickenburg Mountain. And then I found myself at the Hassayampa with the water flowing by beneath me.

And I stopped thinking about Buckeye.

Instead, I turned north, passing to the east of Wickenburg and joining up with the Hassayampa River just past the bridges. The river’s flow wasn’t much to brag about, but it was something — a lot more than I’d seen there in a long time. I followed the flow, flying a lot lower than I usually do with passengers on board, gently coaxing the helicopter left and right as I followed its winding course. In the narrows past Box Canyon, in the place I usually refer to as “the slot,” the water filled the canyon, wall to wall. Beyond that, where the riverbed was wide and sandy again, the water returned to an ambitious trickle.

I flew past the nearly abandoned ranch formerly operated by the Gatehouse Academy as part of their treatment center for young people with addiction problems. I remembered flying by and seeing my husband’s old suburban parked in the lot the house. I remembered all the times I’d flown the owners out there with various VIPs. I remembered the time a cowboy and his dogs had chased off a herd of cattle closing in on me and my helicopter as it sat parked in a field. I remembered the Christmas day I’d flown Santa and a bag of toys out to the ranch and had wound up giving rides to about a dozen young men who had taken a detour from their lives into drugs or alcohol. Gatehouse was gone, closed up over the summer while I was away. Their properties in town were for sale and there was no sign of life down on the ranch.

Beyond the ranch, the river flowed in a twisting canyon. I stayed low, about 200 feet up, following the river on a less twisting path. I saw that the old mobile home at the edge of Jesus Canyon had collapsed into a million pieces and that someone was using heavy equipment on a patch of old farmland across the river. I flew over most of the goosenecks that the river had carved through the rock, admiring the tall saquaro cacti that covered the hillsides and marveling at how all that rain had washed the dust off everything below me.

Did I mention that the flying conditions were perfect? On the ground at Wickenburg Airport, there had been a bit of a breeze, but a few hundred feet up, any breeze was completely unnoticeable. It was smooth flying at any altitude I chose. And the cool air made the helicopter’s performance better than I was accustomed to. I had great speed, great climb rates when I wanted them, and great response to all my control inputs. Flying was effortless, leaving me to enjoy the scenery and the freedom to be able to move in any direction I wanted.

Although I could follow the Hassayampa all the way up to its source in the Bradshaw Mountains — which is something I’ve done in the past — I left it where the Williams Family Ranch sits on the side of a hill at the mouth of a tributary wash. It takes at least an hour to drive from the ranch into town on unpaved Constellation Road, but I could cover the same path in less than 3 minutes in the helicopter.

From there, I slipped between two rocky hillsides, following a canyon southeast, roughly toward Chandler. The terrain here was rough and unforgiving; an engine failure would have been a huge problem with absolutely no suitable landing zone. I followed wash beds and dirt roads, climbing with the terrain the whole time. Then the land dropped off in front of me and I descended down into the canyon where Buckhorn Creek flows. Although it was still wet from recent water flowing, nothing wast flowing that day. I followed the creek bed downstream, past where it met with Castle Hot Springs Creek. I began to see homes and then Castle Hot Springs with its green lawn and tall palm trees. A fifth wheel RV was parked on its ruined tennis courts.

And then I was at the shining blue waters of Lake Pleasant.

The Agua Fria River

Decision time. Which way to go? If I headed south, I could still do a route to Chandler that would take me between the Estrellas and South Mountain. But after passing the lake, I’d be spending much of the flight time over suburbia — subdivisions of houses on postage stamp sized lots, surrounded by tall walls to keep out the world. I hated seeing homes like that. I hated knowing that people lived like that when there was so much open land so closely. I hated thinking that people actually liked that way of life.

Without thinking nearly that much about it, I turned east. I flew low across the northern arms of the lake, mildly surprised that the water level was so low after all that rain. There were a few fishing boats on the water, but not many. I made a half-hearted attempt to spot some wild burros (donkeys), but knew I was probably going too fast — 110 knots — to see them.

Lake Pleasant
The northern half of Lake Pleasant is a series of “arms” where tributary streams and washes enter the lake.

A pair of C-130 cargo planes flew over the lake in loose formation about 3000 feet above me, heading northwest. The only reason I know their altitude is because a flight instructor on the practice area’s radio frequency announced them. The pilots didn’t say a word and were soon just a pair of specks in the distance, climbing over the mountains to the east.

Agua Fria River Near Lake Pleasant
The Agua Fria River where it enters Lake Pleasant. Indian Mesa is near the lake.

I headed toward the Agua Fria River arm and climbed steeply to take a really good look at the prehistoric Native American ruins atop Indian Mesa. I even slowed enough to considered a few possible landing zones. Then I pointed the helicopter’s nose up the river and continued on my way.

Agua Fria is Spanish for cold water. The river flows much of the year, but often not more than a serious trickle. That day, it was flowing much more than usual. It drains the mountains up I-17, past Black Canyon City. I didn’t want to follow it that far. I didn’t want to go that far out of my way. So I struck out to the east again, crossing over I-17.

New River

I picked up New River almost immediately, on the other side of the freeway. I realized that I although it was only a 20-minute flight from my home, I had never followed it upstream. Never. It was time to remedy that situation.

The river had a good, strong flow as it came through the canyon from the northeast. I saw a parking area with a bunch of trucks and empty flat-bed trailers. Although it was midweek, there were ATVers out and about. I saw a dirt road that generally followed the river — Table Mesa Road, according to the map — and wondered whether I’d see the riders along it.

New River
New River winds mostly east through a canyon.

I followed the river upstream, keeping a sharp eye out for wires. I wasn’t very low, but low enough that wires stretched high across the canyon could be a problem. The water rushed by below me. I looked for waterfalls, but didn’t find any.

I climbed with the canyon. The road meandered alongside the river, sometimes disappearing from view to the south before coming back. It climbed to a high point overlooking the river and there were the ATVers — about eight of them, parked at the overlook. One of them waved up at me. I waved back.

Other streams fed into the river as the main channel turned to the northeast. I needed to go south, so I chose a tributary canyon and followed it toward the south. It climbed steeply and widened, with a flat-topped mesa on either side. The water disappeared. The rock was volcanic — dark basalt. I started noticing rock walls alongside the east wall of the canyon. There were quite a few of them, hundreds of feet long, parallel with the top of the mesa at different heights. Fortifications from ancient indians who had likely made their homes atop the mesas. As I got level with the mesa tops, I started looking for rock foundations. But with all the jumbled rocks and yellowed weeds and cactus up there, it was hard to see any patterns at all.

I was surprised when I found myself at the broken mesa that I had dropped off two passengers for a camping trip years before. I had climbed to over 4,000 feet; when I reached the edge of the mesa, there was a 1,000 foot drop to the valley floor. I lowered the collective and began a steep descent, heading northeast again.

And that’s when my sister called. My new Bose headsets have Bluetooth, so I’m able to take phone calls while I’m flying. The music I was listening to stopped, the phone rang, and I touched a button on the headset cord to answer. We chatted. I brought her up to date with the bullshit being flung at me by the lying, cheating bastard I was still married to, the man who’d told me to my face less than two months before that he still cared about me. But I was descending down into a small canyon area northeast of Scottsdale. As I expected, my cell phone dropped the signal. The music from my iPhone resumed. My mood immediately lightened as I descended to follow one of the many canyons cut through the sedimentary rock that had been deposited into the valley millions of years ago.

I flew over an ATV speeding down the sandy canyon floor with two people on board. I wondered if they heard me coming before I flew over.

Then the canyon opened wide to the last river on my trip.

The Verde River

Verde River
The Verde River shows up as a blue line on the map, likely because it flows year-round.

The Verde (green, in Spanish) River flows year-round. Its source is up near Ash Fork. It winds through a narrow canyon into the Verde Valley, flows past Camp Verde, and then enters another long, narrow canyon. Beyond that, two dams create two lakes: Horseshoe and Bartlett. I reached the river just downstream from Bartlett Lake; I could see the dam off to my left.

I turned right, dropped down low over the river, and sped south. The river was wide here — about 50 to 100 feet across — and shallow. It was about ten past noon and the sun shined into the cockpit warming me and penny asleep on the passenger seat beside me. I followed its course downstream, gently banking right and left. At one point, I saw three wild horses standing in a row in the middle of the stream, drinking. The sun reflected off the water all around them, displaying them as silhouettes. One of them looked up at me as I flew over.

By then, I was getting back into civilization. The community of Rio Verde was to the west and the McDowell Indian Reservation was all around me. I crossed the Beeline Highway. I knew there were wires up ahead and I knew I’d have to talk to a few airport towers soon. The fun part of my flight was over. I was at the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers, on the eastern edge of Phoenix’s sprawl.

I climbed to 500 feet above the ground, tuned in the frequency for Falcon Field, and got ready to finish my flight.

Finishing Up

Chart
The last part of my flight required me to navigate through Falcon Field’s airspace, avoid Gateway’s airspace, and slip into Chandler’s airspace to land at the heliport.

I made my radio call to Falcon Field’s tower, requesting a transition through the east side of their airspace. When I released the mic button, all I heard was static and two men having a conversation.

It sounded like a flight instructor with a student.

Falcon Field is a class Delta airspace. That means I can’t enter until the tower responds to me, including my aircraft N-number. But the only sound on the frequency I was tuned into was the sound of a flight instructor and a student.

I checked the frequency with my cheat sheet and with the chart on my iPad. I was tuned into the right frequency. I banked to the left, beginning a circle just outside the airspace until I could figure out what to do.

It was pretty simple to me. If I couldn’t communicate with the tower, I could detour south, on the east side of Falcon’s airspace. I could then use my GPS to navigate the narrow space between Falcon and Gateway. Or I could call Gateway and get permission to transition through the north side of their airspace.

As I was thinking about this, the two men on the radio were musing on why no one was answering their call. “Stuck mic!” I wanted to scream into the radio.

And suddenly the static ended and the controller came on. He sounded annoyed. He identified the aircraft by number and told him to make a full stop landing because his mic had been stuck. Again.

The flight instructor responded. The mic got stuck again, but only for a moment. I seized my chance and made my call.

The controller’s voice clearly indicated his frustration when he gave me my clearance. He then started issuing instructions to everyone else who needed guidance.

I was glad I wasn’t the guy with the stuck mic. I knew that the ground controller would be giving him a phone number when he landed.

I headed southwest, giving Falcon’s runway plenty of space. Then I banked right. I pushed Go To, Enter, Enter on my GPS to get a solid pink line from my current position to Chandler, which had been programmed in since before I took off. I flew over roads and golf courses and canals and wires. And houses. Thousands of houses. No wild horses here.

Falcon cut me loose and I switched to Chandler’s frequency. I’d already listened to the ATIS recording on my second radio, so I knew the airport conditions. I asked for landing on the Quantum ramp. The controller cleared me for a straight in approach. There were no planes in the pattern. Just helicopters.

A while later I was setting down on one of the big circles in front of Quantum Helicopters’ hangar. R22 helicopters were coming in and spinning down all around me. As I was shutting down, my phone rang again. It was my editor, Cliff. He said he’d had a dream about me the night before and wanted to check in. Weird, because I’d been thinking about him earlier in the day.

I put Penny’s leash on and dropped her onto the pavement outside my door while I finished shutting down. My friend walked out to the helicopter just as I hung up.

I was done flying for the day.

Hiking the Horse Trails

Bringing back — and adding — memories.

The house I own with my soon-to-be ex-husband in Wickenburg, AZ sits on 2-1/2 acres of horse property on the very edge of town. The area is hilly and the house, which sits on the side of a hill, has plenty of privacy — indeed, there’s no real reason to close curtains or blinds. Beyond our neighbor’s 10-acre lot are more rolling hills in state and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) public land. The land is crisscrossed with dozens of horse trails that are in regular use during winter months by Rancho de los Caballeros wranglers and trail riders, as well as local horse owners.

When we first moved there, I distinctly remember hitting the trails with my dog, Spot. We hiked up the road to the trailhead just beyond my neighbor’s driveway, followed the trail to the fence, opened the gate, and slipped through. Then we hiked through the wash and up and down the hillsides past tall saguaro cacti and other desert vegetation planted and cared for by Mother Nature.

I remember climbing a trail out of the wash to a hilltop where a tall saguaro stood. Sometime in the distant past, its top had been broken off, possibly from strong wind or a lightning strike, about 3 to 4 feet off the ground. Three big cactus arms had grown up just below the break point, rising another 15 to 20 feet into the air. To me, the cactus looked like a hand reaching up with a thumb and two fingers pointing up to the sky. I have a picture of me there with my dog — I suppose my soon-to-be ex-husband must have taken it — with that big cactus behind us.

At that point, I got an idea of how vast the desert was and how many miles of trails there were to cover. And that’s when I realized I needed a horse.

The Horse Trails

I’d been riding with a friend on the other side of town, on the horse trails she rode from her house. The horse I always rode was a retired barrel racer named Misty. Misty had navicular disease, a malady caused by the constant pounding on her front feet as she raced. My friend eased her pain before and during rides with a dose of Phenylbutazone (“bute”). She was fine for trail riding and seemed to love getting out. I bought her from my friend for $500.

(I should mention here that within a year, I took Misty to a Scottsdale equine surgeon for a Palmar Digital Neurectomy, which pretty much ended the pain. Unfortunately, a few years later she suffered a bowed tendon in one front leg and an abscess in the opposite front foot. The combination of these two problems at the same time eventually led to her death. I replaced her with a beautiful paint horse named Cherokee.)

We set up a horse corral with a shade on our property and brought Misty over. We had a shed built to store hay and other feed and her saddle and other tack. And I started riding on those trails.

My soon-to-be ex-husband also wanted to ride. For a while, we took turns taking Misty out. But I wanted us to be able to ride together, so I bought him a horse, too. His name was Jake and he was a retired ranch horse. We added a fenced in area down in the wash below our house so the two horses would have more room to move around. During the rainy season, we’d bring them back up to the original corral just in case heavy rain caused the wash to flood.

In the years that followed, we’d take Misty and Jake out to explore the miles of trails, saddling up at the house and then just riding out. When my dog, Spot, died and was subsequently replaced with a Border Collie/Australian Shepherd mix named Jack, we’d all go out together, with Jack and sometimes even my neighbor’s dogs in tow.

We’d do this a few times a week just about every week. In the warm months, we’d do it early in the morning, before it got hot out. In the cooler months, we do it in the afternoon. My soon-to-be ex-husband said our life was like “living on vacation.” I couldn’t argue.

We did this for years and learned just about every trail within 5 air miles of the house.

Golf Course TrailWe gave the trails names. The Golf Course Trail was the one that went from the gate to Rancho de los Caballeros’ golf course. Deer Valley Trail was the one that rode through a valley where we almost always saw deer on a morning ride. Danny’s Trail was the one our neighbor, Danny, showed us on the only time he went riding with us. The Ridge Ride was the one that stretched along a high ridge overlooking the golf course and points north on one side and the big, empty desert and points south on the other side. Yucca Valley was the strip of sandy wash filled with an unusually large number of yucca plants.

Places had names, too. The Ball Field, for example, was a flat area of mostly cleared desert roughly the shape of a baseball diamond. For a week or two in the spring, it would be carpeted with California poppies.

We’d plan a ride using these names — for example, “let’s take the Golf Course Trail to Yucca Valley and up to the Ridge Ride and come back through the Ball Field.” We both knew exactly where we were going to go.

The horses knew the trails, too. Every time we came to an intersection, they’d try to get us to turn in the direction of home. But if we wanted to keep riding out, we’d stubbornly pull them the other way. At the next intersection, the same thing would happen.

We’d gauge the length of our rides by the number of gates we had to pass through. An average ride was two gates: the first gate and a second one about two trail miles away. A long ride was three gates.

As the years went by, however, we began riding less and less frequently. I developed an interest in flying and began building a business around it. My soon-to-be ex-husband took a job in Phoenix and, after buying a condo down there, was gone most of the week. Jake eventually got too old to ride, got sick, and had to be put down. With me gone all summer and my soon-to-be ex gone all week, it seemed silly to replace him. So we found a home for Cherokee (Misty’s replacement), gave away the remaining horse feed, and closed up the tack shed.

In all, we’d been horse owners for about 10 years.

Hiking the Horse Trails

Although our horses were gone, the horse trails remained, maintained by the wranglers at Rancho de los Caballeros. I just didn’t get any opportunity to see them.

Time passed. I went away this past summer and lost 45 pounds. Hiking became an important part of my life, a way to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors with my dog and friends. I began hiking regularly with a Meetup group (and others). When the hiking host of the Meetup group mentioned that he wanted to do a hike in Wickenburg, I volunteered to lead a hike on the horse trails behind my house.

Of course, to do that, I had to make sure I remembered the horse trails. And I had to make sure I could put together an interesting route 3 to 4 miles in length, something we could cover at a slow to medium pace in a few hours. That means I had to hike the trails myself in advance.

I called my friend, Alta, and invited her to join me on a hike. We went out at 9 AM on a Thursday morning — just me, Alta, and Penny the Tiny Dog. I wanted to take the group through the slot canyon accessible from about a half mile down the wash from our house, so that’s the way we went. I soon realized that a half mile in sandy wash followed by a mile snaking up a narrow, rocky canyon didn’t make for a good hike. So after climbing out of the canyon, I extended the hike to familiarize myself with the trails I had once known so well.

And that’s when the memories started kicking in. You see, the only times I’d been on all those trails were with my horse and usually with my soon-to-be ex-husband and long-gone dog. Although the memories of all those trail rides were good ones, they were tainted by the events of the past six months — namely, my husband’s lies and betrayals. I remembered the rides, I remembered the great times we’d had out there on horseback. But none of that jived with the way my husband had discarded me, after 29 years together, for a woman he’d met only weeks before on the Internet. All those good memories became painful. More than a few times, hiking with Alta that day, I found myself in tears.

Vulture PeakAs we reached the highest point on the Ridge Ride trail and stopped to look out over the desert, I remembered toasting the new year with my husband and friends on New Year’s Day rides. I began to regret volunteering to take my new friends on these trails. Would I be able to keep it together that day? Would the pain I felt so intensely be noticed by my companions?

I didn’t have much time to think about it. The day after our trial hike, I was caught up in more divorce bullshit. First, returning the truck that my soon-to-be ex had assured me several times I’d be able to keep in the settlement. Then, the next day, going to our Phoenix condo to beg him to allow me to take home my things so I could pack them. Later the same day, watching him retrieve random belongings from our Wickenburg house during an “inspection” he’d demanded by using lies to convince the court that his possessions were in danger of damage or theft. By the woman he’d lived with for 29 years. He apparently trusted me even less than I now trusted him. The difference: I’d done nothing to earn that mistrust. He’d been lying to me for months, if not years.

More pain, more tears.

I spent Sunday hiking with my Meetup friends again and flying Santa Claus to an appearance at Deer Valley Airport Restaurant. It did a world of good to help keep my mind off my divorce ordeal.

On Sunday, the hike host reminded me that he needed a description and photos of the hike. When I emailed the description and two photos to him on Monday, he said he’d try to get them online quickly. They appeared Tuesday and folks started signing up for the hike.

In the end, on Sunday morning, we had just eight hikers and seven (!) dogs.

Atheist HikersI led the group out onto the trail, feeling a weird mix of emotions. But as we hiked and as I talked about the things we were seeing, the ghosts from the past stayed away. Although I thought about those long ago horseback rides, I was more focused on sharing the trails — my trails — with my friends, pointing out plants and rocks and other items of interest. I realized, as we made the final ascent to the highest point on the Ridge Ride trail, that bringing my friends along helped me make new memories of the trails, fresh memories that helped the old ones — and the pain they conjured — fade away.

Cactus PortraitThe only time I got teary-eyed is when I stopped at that “three-finger cactus” and asked one of my friends to take a picture of me with my dog. Even then, I don’t think anyone noticed the tears behind my sunglasses.

My companions enjoyed the hike. It was the right difficulty (relatively easy) and right length (4-1/2 miles) for the group. And the pot luck lunch at my house afterward really completed the day.

But what I got out of the hike is something far more valuable than a day out with friends: I got a chance to reclaim the horse trails with new memories.

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.

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.