The Long Road Home

I make my way home from my winter travels, slowly but surely.

I’m writing this in my RV at a campsite in Maryhill State Park in Washington State. As I so often do when traveling through the area, I arrived late enough in the afternoon to stop for the night. Yes, home is only a 3-hour drive from here, but I don’t like driving at night. I have come to use Maryhill as a sort of post-trip celebration spot, a place I wind down from a long trip and start getting myself mentally prepared for my return to home.

As usual, the campground is nearly empty and I got a nice pull-through spot along the river. There’s electricity and a sewer dump at my site, but the water is still turned off for the winter. That’s okay; I filled up my fresh water tank in Las Vegas before I left and have plenty of water left.

Away from the Camper

Las Vegas is where I went after my helicopter mishap on February 24. My truck, camper, and boat were waiting there for me in a “storage” site at the Sam’s Town KOA. Although I generally avoid KOA camping, I really do like the one in Vegas for what it is: city camping. With my small rig, I can take one of the double-width sites along the edge of the campground property and not be right on top of my neighbor. I’d parked the boat beside the truck and camper before coming home in mid February to fetch the helicopter and take it down to California for a frost contract. I was able to plug in to power, which saved a ton of propane for the fridge, and the KOA folks charged only $15/day while I was gone. It was good to leave my stuff in a place I knew it would be safe.

The original idea was to go right back to Vegas after tucking the helicopter into a hangar at Yolo County Airport, but the weather in the Sacramento area turned cold and I wound up in a Woodland motel for a week in case I had to fly for frost control.

I spent my days goofing off, going as far as Calistoga for a mud bath and facial one day. (I am a sucker a good facial.) I managed to visit two wineries for tastings before heading back.

When I finally got to fly, the flight was very short with a bad end.

After being discharged from the hospital’s emergency room, my friend Sean took me to see the wreckage and we pulled out the last few personal possessions I had in there. (Sean had already collected quite a few things.) We stowed them in the hangar. Then I drove my rental car to Sacramento Airport, dropped it off, and waited in the terminal for a Southwest flight back to Vegas. With no helicopter or frost contract, there was no reason to stay in Woodland.

In Las Vegas

I was back in my RV by 6 PM. As you might imagine, I had a little trouble getting to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I’d see those damn trees in front of me. But putting the TV on seemed to help. And I eventually got a decent night sleep.

I took a full inventory of my bruises the next morning in the shower. That day — Sunday — is when the soreness really kicked in. I later learned that the helicopter impacted the ground at least twice before coming to rest against a small berm in the field where I crashed. I must have been like a rag doll in there with my muscles all tensed up from the adrenaline rush. (I don’t remember any of it, but without a head injury, I don’t think I passed out. It’s just blank.) Once my muscles relaxed a little, every single one of them got sore. The ibuprofen I was taking took the edge off.

I started the active part of my day by repositioning my truck, camper, and boat to a site on the south side of the RV park. It was a nice site with grass behind it — which is good since the camper’s door is in back. I hooked everything up — electricity, water, and sewer — since I’d be staying for the week.

I went to the convention center to meet up with my friend Zac from HAI (Helicopter Association International). The show wasn’t open yet, but he was in charge of guiding the helicopters in to land in the Convention Center parking lot. From there, they were wheeled into the building to be put on display. He got me an exhibitor pass so I could come in for a behind the scenes look at the show getting set up. Later, I joined him outside to watch (and broadcast on Periscope) a few of the helicopters that came in. It was fascinating and a lot of fun, but the walking really took a toll on me. By 5 PM, I was spent.

Show Girl
Eve didn’t like the location of the booth so she hired a model to attract attention to it during the show.

On Monday, I helped my friend’s Jim and Eve, who own Rotorcraft Enterprises, set up their booth at the show. Jim invented Start Pac, a battery device for helping to start turbine engines. He has since branched off into a bunch of other related products, including an APU for jets, a Start Pac for locomotive engines, and small battery devices to provide power when testing avionics on an aircraft. Jim’s a great guy — a former airline pilot who started flying helicopters in retirement. Like me, he lived in Wickenburg and left. I’m sure I’ve written about him elsewhere in this blog.

By the time we’d finished setting up, I was spent (again), but I went with them to lunch at a German restaurant near their office. Eating a good meal really picked me up. But I still went right back to the RV to relax. I slept a lot better that night.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were spent at Heli Expo. I chatted with Pat Cox and Tim Tucker at Robinson to tell them about the crash and show pictures. They were very interested and even dragged Kurt Robinson over to see them. They were certain that the helicopter’s bladder tanks, which I’d whined about installing, had saved my life. I talked to the folks at Hillsboro Aviation, which had sold me my R44 back in 2004, about a new helicopter; I’m still waiting for a price quote but seriously doubt I’ll replace it with a new one. (They’re a lot more expensive now!) I walked the entire show floor and found a neat video solution for tours and YouTube videos; I might take the plunge and get a setup this summer. I met up with numerous friends, including one of the few people who had flown my helicopter without me on board and my first flight instructor, who now works for the FAA. I also walked the show floor early one morning, before it was open to the public, to get some really great photos of some of the helicopters there without people hanging all over them. I posted them all to Twitter.

The MD Booth
There’s nothing quite like walking a trade show floor before the public is let in. This is a panorama of the MD Helicopter’s booth on Thursday morning.

I treated myself to dinner at the MGM grand on Wednesday evening before heading back to my camper. And I took a break from the show at midday on Thursday to treat myself to a cocktail and lunch at the Wynn resort. So much of my traveling this winter has been low budget, so it was nice to get a few doses of luxury.

A Parisol Down
I sat along the pond at the Wynn’s Parasol Down cocktail lounge. It was a nice, peaceful escape from the Heli Expo show.

On Thursday afternoon, the show closed promptly at 4 PM. By 4:15, they were wheeling helicopters out the door. I joined my friend Zac again with Jim and another Start Pac employee tagging along to watch the departures. I broadcast on Persicope and they featured the video so I soon had hundreds of viewers. I think a total of 10 helicopters left. The rest would leave the following day. Zac invited me back but I’d had enough.

Leaving Las Vegas

The next morning I had breakfast at nearby Sam’s Town Casino, then packed up leisurely and was on the road by 10 AM. It was wicked windy out as I headed down I-15 toward Los Angeles.

Camping at Lake Isabella
My campsite on the shore of Lake Isabella.

Although I usually drive through Death Valley on my way to Sacramento with my rig, I decided to take a more southern route this time, hoping to avoid snow in the mountain passes near Lake Tahoe. I was aiming for Lake Isabella, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I arrived about a hour before sunset and got a nice campsite right on the lake.

Lake Isabella at Dawn
I shot this from my camper’s back door at dawn at Lake Isabella. It was an amazingly beautiful morning.

The following morning, I was back on the road. I think it was then that I realized how much I just wanted to be done traveling. So I made my way out of the mountains and joined route 99 north. I took that all the way to Sacramento, then hopped on I-80 to Davis.

In California Again

I stopped at the same hospital I’d been in the week before and checked myself into the ER. A number of friends had suggested that blood clots could be an issue. The bruises on my lower legs were horrendous with a few painful spots. Although I no longer needed ibuprofen for pain, I was starting to wonder whether I had a bigger problem than just bruises.

I stayed for about two hours. They did blood work and used ultrasound to scan my legs for clots. I got a clean bill of health but the doctor suggested that I get it checked again in a week.

I spent the night camped out at the hangar at Yolo County Airport. I parked right next to it. Around 2 AM, Sean arrived and sat in his car, waiting for a call to fly. I didn’t realize he was there until I woke at 4 AM. It was foggy out and the ASOS (Automated Surface Observation System) was reporting freezing fog. Even if he got a call, he couldn’t fly.

The fog was still thick when the sun rose. I got dressed for the day and went into the hangar to organize my personal possessions from the helicopter. I packed them in my truck for the ride home and said goodbye to Sean. I would not be back next year for a frost contract, but there’s a chance he’ll join me in Washington for cherry season this year.

The fog was localized; there was none north of Woodland.

I tried to retrieve my cockpit cover from the salvage guy, but it was Sunday and his place was closed.

I drove up to Williams to have lunch with another pilot fired of mine who was on a frost contract up there. I tolerated his mansplaining about how he finds his orchards in the dark. I deserved the lecture. But, at the same time, it didn’t really matter. I changed the subject.

I thought I might need to meet with the insurance adjuster and Sacramento FAA guy, but they didn’t need to meet with me. That meant I had no reason to stay in the area. So I left. I hopped on I-5, set the cruise control for 62, and headed north.

In Oregon

I tried hard to get to the Seven Feathers Casino in Oregon. Casinos make excellent overnight spots for RVers. They have big parking lots and good security. And being able to go in for dinner or breakfast the next morning is a real plus. But as the sun was getting close to setting, Seven Feathers was still about a hundred miles away and, like I said, I don’t like driving at night. (Besides, I suspect the boat trailer’s running lights aren’t working, although I know the turn signals and brake lights are.) So I wound up in a Walmart parking lot in Medford with about a dozen other RVers.

I walked over to the Outback Steakhouse and treated myself to a blooming onion, which I used to really like. They’re a lot greasier than I remember; I only ate about 1/3 of it.

The next morning, I was back on the road as soon as the sun was up and the overnight frost started to melt. Someone on Twitter had mentioned that the I-5 corridor was IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and he wasn’t kidding. I drove for two hours through big patches of fog.

My first destination was McMinville Airport where a 2005 R44 was for sale. I had an appointment to meet with the owner at 11 AM. It was a 4-hour drive from Medford and I was a little late because I had to stop for fuel. I saw the helicopter, which is only a few months newer than mine was and it looked fine — but not like mine inside. I still haven’t decided if I’ll put an offer in on it.

From there, I drove another hour north to an Apple Store in Tigard. I had a heck of a time finding parking — the store was in one of those modern outdoor malls designed to look like a downtown area. Nice place and I would have loved to spend the day shopping there, but I had a mission. I needed to buy a new iMac. The one I have at home, which is now 7-1/2 years old, refuses to start. It had been on the fritz for about a year, but it’s now dead. I think it’s a logic board or possible a video card problem. It doesn’t matter. I’m replacing it.

I wound up with a 27-inch iMac. I had to wait while they expanded the RAM from 8 GB to 16 GB. I had lunch at PF Changs while I waited. I ate too much. There was a bit of a challenge getting the computer out to my truck, but the Apple Store folks were helpful. Then I was on my way again.

I hit some early rush hour traffic in Portland — by this time, it was about 3:45 — before getting on I-84 eastbound. This is a really pretty drive along the Columbia River in Oregon, past numerous waterfalls in the Gorge area. I tried two state park campgrounds along the way but both were “closed for winter.” I knew Maryhill would be open. I stopped for fuel one last time in Biggs, OR, then crossed the river and pulled into the site I am in now.

I fed Penny but skipped dinner; I was still full from lunch.

Today’s Drive

The sun is now up, illuminating the basalt cliffs west of the park. The wind turbines up there are glowing bright white but are motionless in the still air. The frost on the ground is just starting to melt. My camper is warm; the small electric heater I brought along has been running all night. My next door neighbors pulled out a few minutes ago; we’ll leave in less than an hour.

Campground View
The view out my back door this morning. Note the frost on my boat cover and grass.

It’s an easy drive up route 97 to I-90 near Ellensburg. From there, I’ll head east to Vantage, cross the river, and come up back roads from George through Quincy to Wenatchee. I might stop at Fred Meyer for groceries to save myself a trip later on.

My house sitter left last night so I’ll have my home to myself. The cats will come out to greet us. I’ll collect this morning’s eggs.

And then I’ll go inside and run the water for a nice, hot bath.

There’s no place like home.

Prepping and Planning for my Winter Migration

In waiting — and planning — mode.

Autumn is just about over. The leave are mostly gone and nighttime temperatures are dipping into the 30s. There’s been frost on the ground every morning. As the sun rises and fills the valley north of my home with light, odd little patches of evaporation fog form over the Columbia River 800 feet below the shelf where my home perches. I often stop my morning activity to watch, wishing I had one of my good GoPros around to create a time-lapse of the slow cloud formation and dissipation.

Of course, by the time that happens, I’ve already been up for a few hours. I’ve had my coffee and usually my breakfast. I’ve probably finished my daily journal entry and maybe even a blog post. I wake very early no matter what the season is, usually between 4 and 6 AM, although sometimes earlier. I’m a morning person and I have been for at least the past 20 years. It’s hard for me to believe that I had trouble attending 8 AM classes when I was in college. These days, by 8 AM, I’m usually ready for my mid-morning snack.

Sunlight and the Shadow Time

Living this far north — latitude 47.34° — the days start getting very short around the middle of October. By mid November, there’s only 9 hours and 15 minutes of daylight each day and we’re losing about 2 minutes of it every day. By the Winter Solstice, the sun is up for only about 8 and a half hours a day. That means the sun isn’t up for 15 and a half hours a day.

But worse than that is what I call the Shadow Time — the six weeks each year that the sun fails to clear the cliffs south of my home. For that brief period, sunlight does not shine at all on my house, although it does still reach out and fill the Wenatchee Valley. For the days leading up to the start of Shadow Time — December 1, I think — there’s less and less light on my house. Yesterday, there was about an hour of it starting around 1 PM. I love the way it shines into the high windows on the south side of my home, sending warm light at weird angles into my living space. But it’s weird looking out the north windows and seeing a big shadow in the foreground with the brightness of the valley behind it.

November View
I shot this photo yesterday afternoon from my deck. The clouds were great and the river was so blue. It’s a panorama for a reason — I cropped out the shadow in the foreground.

And I don’t have it bad at all. Some of my neighbors on the south side of the road have been in it for weeks already. Their Shadow Time lasts months. I can’t imagine living that long in the shadows, without the rejuvenating properties of warm, direct sunlight coming through the windows. Honestly, I don’t know why some of them built their homes where they did, especially when I see the occasional boulder coming down off the cliffs dangerously close to one neighbor’s backyard. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before one of those basalt columns lets go and ends up in their living room.

The Shadow Time is one of the reasons I go away for the winter. I’m a sunlight person — I need to be in the sun. That’s one reason why I like living on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. People think it rains a lot in Washington, but that’s not true. It rains a lot in Seattle. It doesn’t rain much here. And those short days turn into gloriously long ones in the summer time; it’s actually light out when I wake up and sometimes when I go to bed.

My goal is always to be gone during the Shadow Time and I’ve been pretty good about that for the past few years. But this time, I’m can’t get out quite as early as I hoped to.

Killing Time

So as November winds down, I find myself waiting for my departure date.

I’m spending much of my time at home goofing off and doing odd jobs around the house, with a few occasional forays down into town to catch a movie, have dinner or cocktails with friends, or run errands. My home and its menagerie — currently 13 chickens (including a rooster just learning to crow properly) and two garage cats (for rodent control) — are pretty much prepared for winter. There’s always something to do around here, but none of it is pressing and some of it has to wait until spring.

I’m also working on glass projects again — something I haven’t done for years. The goal is to create some recycled glass wind chimes for sale in Quartzsite, AZ in January. I’ve been working with my new kiln for a few days now but have had disappointing results. Apparently, I’ll be spending a few more days troubleshooting before I can start churning out new pieces.

And, of course, garage reorganization is something I’m always working on. I’ve still got boxes to unpack. I’m also prepping for a garage sale in the spring. I have a lot of stuff I don’t want/need anymore — some of it from my old home/life in Arizona. While Craig’s List has been instrumental in offloading the larger items, there’s a ton of little stuff I can sell cheap.

My helicopter business is slow this time of year — and only gets slower as winter creeps in. I do have a nice charter later this month; I’ll be working with two other helicopters to take a group of nine men on a flight to various points of interest (to them) around the state. I’m hoping our flight path takes us past my house; my next door neighbor’s kids love it when I fly by with other helicopters — they say it’s like an air show.

Then, of course, is the primary thing keeping me in the area: my December 3 flight bringing Santa to Pybus Public Market. This is a community service I do every year. (Last year was the first time I missed a flight but that’s because the helicopter was in Arizona for overhaul.) The last time I did it, about 300 kids and parents were waiting on the ground when we landed at Pybus in my bright red helicopter. There were photos in the newspaper. I usually shut down and stick around for a while so folks can come up to the helicopter and get their photo taken with it. I’ll do that this year if the weather cooperates.

Pybus Market
An aerial view of Pybus Public Market, shot with my Mavic Pro the other day. I land the helicopter in the corner of the parking lot in the lower right part of the photo, not far from the white building. One year, we rolled the helicopter into the main (gray) building where I left it on display for a week.

Of course, that doesn’t mean those are the only days I’ll fly the helicopter. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll take it out today. I have two wine club shipments waiting for me at Cave B Estate Winery down in Quincy. That’s an hour drive but only 20 minutes by helicopter. I figured I’d take a few friends down there for lunch — I fly for food — and pick up my wine while I’m there.

And the helicopter will go to California for its sixth season of frost control work, likely in mid February.

Going South

Once I’m done with the few things I need to do in the area, I’ll hop on a flight to Phoenix with Penny the Tiny Dog. My truck, camper, and boat are already down there waiting for me. With luck, a month from today I’ll be camped out on one of the Salt River Lakes, soaking up the sun while I explore the lake in my silly little boat.

I’ll spend Christmas along the Colorado River with some friends, camped out in the desert. The site I hope we get — we got it last year — has a boat ramp and easy access to a stretch of river that runs 76 miles from the Palo Verde Dam north of Ehrenberg, AZ to the Imperial Dam north of Yuma. I brought along my new tent and some tent camping gear so I can do overnight boat camping trips along the river. My friends are seriously into fishing and I know we’ll do some of that, too. Last year, we had fish tacos a few times. We have a campfire nearly every night; it gets cold but not too cold to enjoy the outdoors.

Sunrise at the River
We were treated to a few amazing sunrises during our stay along the Colorado River last year.

Then in January, we move to Quartzsite where my friend sells her artwork at a 10-day show at Tyson Wells. This year, I got a booth, too. I’ll be selling drone aerial photography services for folks camped out in the desert, as well as my recycled glass wind chimes (if I can get the problems with the new kiln worked out). It’ll be weird and it might not make any money, but I’m really in it for the experience more than anything else. Besides, my booth at Tyson includes a full hookup and it’ll be nice to get a bit of “civilization” after more than a month camped out in the desert.

After that, I’ll likely start heading north along the Colorado River with my truck, camper, and boat. I’m hoping to do some camping and boating at each stretch of the river between dams, all the way up to Hoover. I’ll definitely revisit Arizona Hot Springs — this time in my own boat — and tent camp for a day or two in the mouth of the canyon there.

In mid-February, I’ll come home (via commercial flight), fetch the helicopter, and take it down to the Sacramento area for its frost contract. From that point on, I’m “on call.” This is different from cherry season, when I need to stick around with the helicopter to be called out on a moment’s notice. Instead, I get my callout at least 12 hours before they might need me. That’s enough time to hop on a flight from wherever I am to Sacramento.

I’ll be in the Vegas area for a week or so in late February to explore Lake Mead, visit some friends, and see HAI’s big helicopter show. When that’s over, I’ll continue north and west, eventually ending up in the Sacramento area. I’ll stick around there, boating on Lake Berryessa and Clear Lake, wine tasting in Napa Valley, and hiking in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains until March. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few callouts while I’m already there; this can really be lucrative when I don’t have to hop a commericial flight, rent a car, and get a hotel room. Then, depending on weather in California and back home, I’ll make my way back north. I did a coastal route last year, but I might try a more inland route this time. It’s all about going new places and seeing new things.

It’s the typical migratory route I’ve been doing with minor variations since 2013 but I’m going to make it count this year. It might be the last season I go to Arizona for the winter; I’m hoping to begin researching retirement destinations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and possibly New Zealand in future winter seasons. We’ll see.

Of course, I will be working every day. I’m writing a book about my flying experiences and am determined to finish it before I get home. So I expect to spend at least 4 hours at the keyboard daily — likely early in the morning — to knock out a manuscript. I’ll handle publication next spring.

While I’m gone my house will be in good hands. I have a house-sitter who will live there for the entire time I’m gone. We did a trial in October when I took a 2-week vacation south to visit friends, re-explore a few national parks in Utah, and reposition my portable winter home in Arizona. While I’m gone, he’ll make sure the chickens and cats have food and water and collect eggs. Maybe he’ll even put up my Christmas decorations, which I haven’t bothered to do in years.


So I’m in a sort of limbo right now, waiting for my departure date to roll along.

I feel as if I spend most of my life waiting. In the old days, I was waiting for my wasband to get his head out of his butt and start enjoying life. It was frustrating, to say the least. The older I get, the less time I have left. Waiting for someone else was like idly watching my life slip by without being able to do anything to enjoy it.

Now, with him out of the picture, I do a lot less waiting and a lot more doing. I spend a lot of time traveling when I’m not busy with flying work. When I’m home, I spend my time building and learning new things. My life is much more full and interesting; my time is much more flexible.

But I still have responsibilities that tie me to my home, even if I’m not kept here by work. So I’m waiting for calendar pages to flip by again so I can do the few things I need to do.

And then I’m outta here.

Snowbirding 2017 Postcards: Laughlin, NV

I left Vegas and headed south today. My goal was to find a campsite along the Colorado River near Needles, CA. The direct route took me down Route 95, a typical, mostly straight, desert highway. But when I saw the turn for Laughlin,NV, on the Colorado River, I made a detour. I wanted ice cream.

Laughlin is, in my opinion anyway, a poor man’s Las Vegas. It’s a cluster of about 10 high-rise casino hotels right on the edge of the river. Named for the man who developed the area, Don Laughlin, it attracts mostly seniors from the Sun City area near Phoenix, as well as snowbirds passing through. Indeed, the parking lots were jampacked with motorhomes and trucks pulling fifth wheel trailers.

I’ve been to Laughlin a few times. My wasband and I flew in together at least once, probably in my first helicopter. Back in those days, the airport across the river in Bullhead City, AZ was very close to the river. You’d land and park and then get out and walk to a dock right on the river. A boat would come across the river to fetch you and bring you to Laughlin. I’m pretty sure the boat shuttle was free. 

The time we went there, we went for one of the cheap buffets for lunch. I remember seeing an elderly couple there stuffing food into the pockets of their jackets. I suspect they might’ve been homeless or close to it and had somehow gotten up the money to come to the buffet. It was very sad.

Nowadays, the airport runway is up the hill a bit, farther from the river. The old runway has been turned into a commercial area; there’s a Home Depot on part of it now. When you come in and land, you can still get a shuttle across the river, but it’s in a shuttle van that drives across the bridge. Funny how things change.

Anyway, today I stopped at the Colorado Belle and asked the valet parking attendant where the closest ice cream was. Penny and I walked along the Riverwalk to the Aquarius hotel casino, which I don’t recall being there the last time I was there. I tied Penny up outside, went in, and got ice cream in two cups. We sat by the river and enjoyed them. A lot of old people walked by. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I was the youngest visitor around.

I took these photos before we walked back to the truck. Amazing how blue the water and sky are, eh?