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.

Waiting

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.

How I Became a Snowbird

It only took eleven years.

I’m halfway through my first full week in Arizona, the place so many mostly retired Americans go in the winter to escape the cold at their northern latitude homes. With my second winter season in a warmer climate now under way, I think it’s safe to say that I’m officially a snowbird.

I also realized that I’ve been doing some form of snowbirding for the past eleven years now, although I didn’t do it the usual way.

And I think I prefer it the way I do it now.

He’s the scoop. Be advised: this blog post includes the airing of some dirty laundry, which, unfortunately, is an integral part of the story and explains what took me so long to get here.

The Reverse Snowbird

For the eight or so years leading up to my eventual divorce and move to Washington state, I was a sort of reverse snowbird. Instead of migrating south for the winter, I migrated north for the summer.

2004 was the first year I did this. That’s when I got a job as a seasonal tour pilot at the Grand Canyon. A week in the significantly cooler Grand Canyon area followed by a week at home in Wickenburg. It was a busy summer. I was just another tour pilot at the Canyon, flying over “the big ditch” up to 13 times a day, but in my home office, I cranked out the fifth (or sixth?) edition of my best-selling Quicken Official Guide and got started on an Excel book. When I wasn’t home, I dealt with the relative discomfort of life in a horse trailer’s cramped living quarters, parked on 40 acres of property I owned with my future wasband five miles from pavement. I’d leave at 6 AM to get to work by 6:45. And yes, sometimes I did fly to work; I had a R22 parked beside my Jeep at the trailer. That’s the summer I decided to “go for broke” on my struggling helicopter charter business and order an R44.

Howard Mesa Cabin
Our Howard Mesa cabin was a nice place to escape from the heat.

In 2005, I had a brand new R44 helicopter but virtually no summer flying work. (Seriously: who wants to fly when it’s 110°F out?) When the Quicken book revision was done at the end of June, I headed back to the northern Arizona property with my horse trailer and horses. In a compromise with my future wasband, we’d had a prefabricated custom wooden shed delivered to the property. While he worked at one of the many jobs he bounced between in the Phoenix area, I spent all of July at the “cabin,” fitting its walls with hard foam insulation and building an interior wall to divide the main room from the future bathroom. On weekends, my future wasband would join me, handling tasks I couldn’t do then (but can certainly do now): wiring, plumbing, cutting lumber, fitting large sheets of T111 (think plywood paneling) on walls and ceilings. Together, we turned that shed into a very cozy four-season escape in a place where the Grand Canyon was our local park. But when the work was done, it was still too hot to hang out at home. So I hopped into my 2003 Honda S2000 (which I still own), and headed out on a 19-day road trip by myself to explore points north. I visited places (and friends) in Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah, getting a real feel for a lot of the off-the-beaten-path places. I came back with a lead on a hangar home in Cascade, ID — perfect for a summer home — and even flew my future wasband up there with me to see it after I got home. (What a waste of time and money that was.)

In 2006, I made the mistake of marrying the man who would, six years later, leave me for a desperate old whore he met online. (Yes, I do realize now that the marriage was his attempt to “lock in” on the considerable financial, real estate, and business asset investments I’d been making since I had my first best-seller in 1998. But back then, I couldn’t imagine anyone I loved plotting to use family law to try to screw me over. Silly me.) I had some surgery in May and then went on a road trip with my wasband in that Honda to Napa Valley. That trip, which was the closest I’d get to a honeymoon, was probably the last fun trip we took together. Then it was back home to Wickenburg for the summer, with occasional trips to the cabin. That was also the first summer I heard about cherry drying, but my contact couldn’t guarantee me any work and I wasn’t willing to take the helicopter to Washington without some sort of guarantee of revenue.

In 2007, I worked on books, including that Quicken book again. Cherry drying was an option but again, without a guarantee of work, I wasn’t prepared to go north. But I was prepping for a seasonal lifestyle. Financially and mentally, I was ready for it. My wasband promised to join me on the road during the summer when he turned 55. In 2007, he was 51. My goal was to have enough work lined up by the time he was ready to join me to support both of us, so we could work together in the summer. Then we’d return to Arizona in the winter and he could do what he wanted to do — he’d talked about a bike shop, solar power consulting, being a flight instructor, and a few other things that interested him. Since we’d also need a place to live on the road, bought my first RV, a hybrid pull trailer that turned out to be a less than satisfactory choice. We used it at a rides event in Kingman, AZ and may have taken it on one or two other trips. In the meantime, he started learning how to fly helicopters so he wouldn’t be stuck driving the trailer all the time; when we traveled, he could reposition the helicopter and I could do the commercial flying at destinations. That was the plan. (Or at least I thought it was.)

In 2008, everything changed. My wasband bought a condo in Phoenix, closer to his job, where he began living four or five days a week. My office was in our Wickenburg home and due to the amount of computer equipment I needed to write, I stayed there with it. Between my wasband’s weekday life in Phoenix and his numerous trips to the New York area to visit his family, I didn’t spend much time with him at all. And then I got a contract for seven weeks of cherry drying work in Washington state. I left in June, making two trips to get the helicopter and RV up there by myself. I worked on my Quicken book in the trailer. My wasband joined me for a week in July. We stayed at a lakeside motel with the helicopter parked on the lawn and toured a lot of central Washington while I waited for a call out. Then he went home and I finished the season alone, making two trips to get the helicopter and RV back by myself.

Life fell into a routine from that point on, with me becoming a sort of reverse snowbird. I’d live in Wickenburg from September through May, mostly by myself, while my wasband lived in his Phoenix condo with a roommate and spent just about all of his vacation time visiting family in New York. Because his roommate was openly hostile toward me and I was still writing several books a year, I didn’t visit very often. In early June through August, I’d head to Washington alone — making two trips each way every year — for cherry drying work. I was building up a good client base, extending my season, and my flying business was finally making a decent profit. I even added winery tours and a profitable annual rides gig. In early 2010, I replaced the pull trailer with a very large and comfortable fifth wheel trailer — again, with the goal of living on the road every summer with my wasband. But in 2011, when he turned 55 and was in yet another dead-end job, he said he “wasn’t ready” to join me on the road. (It wasn’t until much later that I realized he never intended to join me, that it was just another empty promise.) That winter, I lived with him in his dark and dreary Phoenix condo, even moving my office there when he finally kicked his roommate out. Silly me: I was trying to bring us closer together. I even went to the marriage counsellor he wanted us to see.

I had my hopes up in the spring of 2012 — my fifth cherry drying season — when my wasband got what looked like might be his “dream job.” He said he could work from anywhere and that he’d join me in Washington for the summer. Finally! I began prepping the RV for his arrival with our dog. But then he called me on my birthday in June to tell me he wanted a divorce. He wanted to stay friends, he told me, as he was secretly giving my investment statements and tax returns to a lawyer to estimate his take.

What followed was the beginning of four years of insanity, with him calling friends and family members to tell them that he still loved me, changing the locks on my house and hangar, trying to lay claim to half of everything I owned, harassing me at home, sending a private investigator to spy on my future neighbors in Washington, lying and making absurd statements under oath in court, making false accusations about me trashing the house, claiming I’d hid property and money from the court, losing in the divorce decision, appealing the divorce decision, putting the house on the market without informing me or getting approval from the court, hacking into one of my old investment accounts, losing the appeal, begging the appeal judges to reconsider, and then doing everything he could to delay paying me what he owed me for the Wickenburg house that he wanted and got in the divorce. Along the way, he went through three lawyers — one of whom he neglected to pay who then put a lien on the house — drove a court-appointed Realtor and a title company person nuts, and sent me a ridiculous email threatening me with legal action that I knew would fail.

In the span of four years, he made so many often comical errors in strategy and judgement that I find it hard to believe I could ever love someone so unimaginably stupid.

Yeah, there’s definitely enough material for a book.

Anyway, the winter of 2012/2013 was the last one I spent in my Wickenburg home. When I didn’t have house guests, I was alone — at least while I was there; I traveled a lot that winter — but it really didn’t feel that different. After all, I’d been living mostly alone there since my wasband bought his condo in 2008. I spent the winter packing my belongings and discarding the things I didn’t want, waiting for the divorce trial. When the court stuff was done at the end of May 2013, I left my Wickenburg home for what I thought would be the last time, and headed north.

Real Snowbirding

The day after the divorce decree came down from the judge and I was finally free, I bought 10 acres of land in Malaga, WA, at the heart of the area where I did my cherry drying work. Over the following two years, I designed and built a home there and moved in. Ironically, my new home has all the features my wasband would have liked, from the wrap around deck with endless views to the huge garage and shop area to the limitless space for gardening. It’s perfect for me and I don’t need (or really want) to share it with anyone.

And the weather? No, it doesn’t rain all the time like it does in Seattle. Malaga (and the nearby “big city” of Wenatchee) is on the dry side of the Cascades. Annual rainfall is less than 10 inches. The weather is very similar to Prescott or Flagstaff, AZ: dry, but with four seasons. Warm and dry in the summer, sometimes reaching the low 100s for a few days with low humidity. Cold with snow in the winter, sometimes dipping into the teens at night for a few days but usually warming to the 30s or 40s during the day.

Summer is perfect, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s when I do my work there. But winter? Sure, my home is cozy and warm and the views out to the valley can be magnificent when the snow falls and the sky clears just enough to offer glimpses of brilliant blue between the clouds. But the days are short and sunlight is limited. It gets cold in December and January. And 15 years of living in Arizona taught me one thing: I like sun and warmth in the winter.

My Home with Snow
Here’s my home as it looked in late November 2015. It sure is pretty on a nice day with snow on the ground.

Late winter is not an issue. In 2013, I began doing frost work with the helicopter in central California. So I’d head south with the helicopter and RV — remember that big fifth wheel? — in late February and could stay until late April.

But early winter? The way I saw it, the winter’s “dark days” were during December and January. That’s when I really needed to head south.

It took a few years, but I finally got a routine figured out.

In January 2015, when my home was partially built, I accepted an invitation to house/dog sit for a friend in Wickenburg. That gave me an excuse to head south for two weeks in the coldest part of winter. I stayed in my friends’ comfortable guest house with my dog Penny and cared for two very large golden retrievers.

Much later that same year, as the days shortened and the air chilled, I realized that I had exactly what I needed to be a real snowbird: that big fifth wheel. Although my home was done and I was moved in, the short days were getting me down. After my annual Christmas cross-country ski trip to the Methow Valley, I packed up my rig and headed south to join some friends camped along the Colorado River south of I-10. The trip itself was a bit of an adventure — requiring me to buy a new truck along the way — but my first full-time snowbirding season was a real win. You can read about it starting here.

On the Steps of the Mobile Mansion
Here I am with Penny, on the steps of my old fifth wheel, the Mobile Mansion, last winter in Quartzsite, AZ.

I spent all of January and half of February in Arizona, in my fifth wheel and in my friends’ Wickenburg guest house. Then I moved my helicopter to the Sacramento area for frost season and made my way there with my fifth wheel by way of Valley of Fire and Death Valley. Because of engine problems, my truck and RV never quite made it to Sacramento, though — at least not in February. While the truck’s engine was replaced with a new one (under warranty, fortunately) in California, I returned home in March, prepared to fly down to Sacramento when called out. In April, I made the two trips to get the truck with RV and helicopter home.

That was last year. This year, I’ve made some equipment changes, got a reliable house sitter, and set out early on my snowbirding trip.

The big fifth wheel is gone, replaced with a slide in truck camper, the Turtleback. I’m absolutely loving the flexibility this new rig offers; learn more here. I left home the day before Thanksgiving and, after stopping at a Yakima Lance camper dealer to get a part replaced on the Turtleback’s huge sunroof, took a leisurely drive south on back roads through Oregon and Nevada. Another stop for two shows in Las Vegas and then more leisurely travel to my eventual destination: more house/dog sitting for my Wickenburg friends.

Poolside in Wickenburg
Poolside in Wickenburg where I’m house/dog sitting for some friends. I’ve got no complaints at all.

And that’s where I am now: sitting in their poolside guest house with a fresh cup of coffee beside me and three dogs snoozing after their breakfast. At 8 AM, a new friend will come by with her dogs and we’ll go for our twice-daily mile-long walk in the wash out behind the house. I’ve visited my disassembled helicopter in Chandler, seen numerous friends in the area, and even got an invitation to a pilot party on Saturday where a lot of people will be very surprised to see me.

This is only a stopping point, though. When my friends return later this month, I’m not quite sure what I’ll do. They’ve already told me I can stay as long as I want, but I’m thinking about a trip to Tucson and Tubac, which I haven’t been to in some time. And another friend was recently at White Sands in New Mexico — how far is that? Can I take a few days to visit? I’ve never been there. I’m already booked for New Years Eve at La Posada in Winslow and have a chore to attend to on the Hopi Reservation near there. And I’m definitely going to spend a good part of January along the Colorado River with my friends; I bought a new fishing pole just the other day and my kayak is ready to be offloaded when I reach our campsite. After that? Who knows?

All I know is this: my helicopter needs to be in the Sacramento area by the third week in February. So eventually I’ll be there. There’s a campground nearby on Puntah Creek where I look forward to paddling in again. And lots of wineries to explore in the nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys. And the California coast. And San Francisco. I really do love late winter in central California.

The lack of definite plans doesn’t bother me one bit. I like making things up as I go along. And if you ask me, that’s the best part of being single: being able to make decisions for yourself without having to consult or rely on what someone else tells you they want or plan to do. I don’t have to worry about anyone letting me down again.

And when the winter is over, I’ll go home. That’s what snowbirds do.

How ironic: the lifestyle I planned for all those years ago with my wasband is basically the lifestyle I have now without him. And I’m loving it even more than I thought I would.

Prepping for Winter

I get started on my winter preparation chores.

Thought I’d write up a quick blog post to review a few of the things I did yesterday to prep for winter and maybe list a few that still need to be done.

Winter in Wenatchee

I should start off by saying that winter in the Wenatchee area, where I live, isn’t as cold and nasty as you might think. Yes, Washington is in the northwestern corner of the country and I live at about 47.4° of latitude there. But as surprising as it might seem, our winters are just about the same as the ones I experienced in Northern New Jersey years ago, which sits at about 41° of latitude. Here’s some data from Sperling’s Best Places:

Climate Comparison

I’m finding it hard to believe that we have fewer sunny days than the New York Metro area, but that’s likely due to the winter when we get cloud cover 4 out of every 7 days (my estimate). In the rest of the year, it’s sunny most days. The rainfall numbers (8.8 annual inches in Wenatchee vs. 42.6 in Harrington Park) and precipitation days (64 vs. 113) tell the tale. We even get less snow.

One of the two main reasons I left New Jersey back in 1997 was to get away from the cold winters. (The other was financial; I can have a much better lifestyle out west for the same or less money.) So I think it surprised a lot of people when I made the move to Washington State. But there are a lot of things beside the weather to attract and keep me here — I’ve mentioned a lot of them elsewhere in this blog.

Still, the weather does dip below freezing in the winter here and, like in Arizona, it does it earlier than it did back east. It seems that the coldest days here are right around Christmas. (Back east, it started getting coldest around New Year’s day and didn’t let up until mid February.) I’ve experienced freezes here as early as November, which is why I start winterizing as soon as we get our first frost.

That was this past Tuesday morning.

Irrigation

Because of our “high desert” like environment, the only way to get a garden or leafy trees to grow is to put them on irrigation.

I’m a real pro at setting up drip irrigation — I did it at my Arizona home not long after we moved in and were able to do some sort of landscaping there. (Long story; not worth retelling.) The benefit of drip irrigation over sprinklers is that you can bring water directly to the plants that need it. That saves water and cuts down on weeds.

I have four irrigation systems at my Washington home:

  • My vegetable garden was the first one I set up. It runs from a battery-operated timer and provides water to the raised garden beds, a flower garden beside my shed, and the flower garden at the entrance to my driveway. I also ran the line under my driveway to deliver water to the first trees I planted on the south side of my driveway, including a handful of fruit trees (cherry and apple).
  • My front lawn was the next one. The only reason I have a lawn is because my dog likes grass. The lawn is small and is bordered by rocks and my driveway on three sides and a row of lilac trees I planted right in front of my home on the other. This system also runs on a battery-operated timer and it includes three pop-up sprinklers in the law and a bunch of drip lines for the lilac bushes and some marionberry bushes a friend gave me.
  • Two professionally installed irrigation lines on a programmable 4-zone timer provide water to the trees I’ve planted along the road and all the way down in my bee yard. I have over 1,000 feet of road frontage and the lines run almost that entire length. I add drip emitters every time I plant another tree.

The main thing to worry about with irrigation lines in the winter is that if you don’t drain them, they’ll freeze and possibly crack. That means tracking down leaks and doing a lot of repairs in the spring. I obviously want to avoid that.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been cutting back on the water being delivered to my garden, lawn, and trees, mostly by adjusting settings in the irrigation systems. When the weather finally turned full autumn last week, I shut most of them off completely. A friend in the area suggested giving everything one final soaking before winterizing. Mother nature is doing that for me: there’s a double storm system coming through the area that should be delivering lots of rain. So I shut everything down yesterday and winterized it.

What does winterizing entail? Here’s what I do:

  1. Shut off the water source at the source. Three systems run from the “frost free” valve at my shed; the one from my lawn is a spigot at the front of my house. which has an internal shutoff valve.
  2. Disconnect the water lines. This makes it easier for them to drain. Or for water to expand if there’s any left in the water line and it freezes.
  3. Use an air compressor to blow out the lines. I bought all the equipment to do that last year: male and female hose fittings that can connect any hose fitting to my compressor. My compressor is a huge affair on wheels that my friend Bob gave me. I have it connected to a very long hose (also from Bob) on a reel I bought and installed my car garage. The hose is long enough — if you can believe this — to reach my shed about 100 feet away from my front door. So it took only minutes to run the compressor hose out there, hook it up to the various lines, and blow out each line. Then I cranked the compressor hose back in. Done.

Th only other thing I need to do is gather up and drain the hoses I’ve used around my yard, coil them back up, and store them in the shed until next spring. I’ll likely do that next week when the weather clears up again. They’re not at risk of freezing.

Water source
This Frankenstein’s monster is where the water comes into my building and goes all kinds of places — including a hose for the inside of my garage. I designed this crazy setup so I could actually drain all the water out of my pipes from one place.

Inside my garage, under the stairs where the water comes out of my slab and goes up into my home, my water lines also need a bit of prep. That’s easy. I have a ceramic heater that I place in front of the PEX pipes. I plug that into a Thermo Cube — a temperature sensitive outlet that turns on at 35°F and turns off at 45°F. So if temperatures get down to freezing inside my garage — which is possible once in a while — the heater will turn on and keep that area warm. No chance of pipes freezing.

The Garden

My vegetable garden this year was better than ever before. Until the tomatoes took over.

I planted and harvested sugar snap peas, beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, peppers, onions, okra, eggplant, beets, corn, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, various herbs, and potatoes. Everything except the brussels sprouts provided me with a good harvest. The sprouts were attacked by aphids and grasshoppers that I was simply unable to keep under control. The zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers were attacked by squash bugs, but I managed to get a good harvest before they came.

My Garden
Here’s my garden in the spring, before the tomatoes and sunflowers took over.

I also planted just four tomato plants. Unfortunately, some “volunteer” tomato plants also started growing. These were from seeds of tomatoes that had fallen to the ground, likely at the end of the previous season. At first, I pulled them out. Then I potted some and gave them to neighbors and friends. Then I pulled more out. Then I thought, well, what’s a few more tomato plants?

I went away for a week in the beginning of August. When I got back, those volunteer tomato plants had pretty much taken over one side of the garden, making it impossible for me to reach the second batch of corn that I wanted to harvest.

And then the spiders moved in. Big yellow and black ones that an entomologist friend assures my are not harmful. There were at least two that I saw. Who knows how many more lurked in the jungle of tomato plant leaves? I made sure I always wore gloves when picking tomatoes.

And then I started taking pruners with me when I picked tomatoes. Ever time I picked a basket full, I’d lop off huge branches of the plants. I eventually regained access to my eggplant plants, which began producing again. The peppers were a complete loss, as was the corn. If my chickens hadn’t met an untimely end, they’d likely be eating back the plants. But because they’re gone, the tomato plants soon invaded the fenced-in chicken yard.

Out of Control Garden
Out of control tomatoes and sunflowers in my garden. At this point, I’d already harvested much of my garden’s crops.

I should mention that there comes a point when your neighbors and friends stop taking tomatoes from you and you feel as if you eat another bowl of gazpacho, you’ll die of tomato poisoning (if there is such a thing).

When the frost set in the other day, I have to say that I was glad to see frost damage on some of those plants. I’d finally get rid of them.

But I will eventually have the task of cutting them all back and putting the plants in a compost pile. I’ve already been doing this a bit with grass clippings and other tomato plant cuttings. I put them in the raised planters I’ve already harvested from. When the snow falls, it’ll form a heavy blanket over each planter’s pile. Snowmelt will help break down the plants. In the spring, I’ll just use a rake to loosen up the previous year’s soil and new compost. Then I can add a half bag of fresh garden soil, work it in, and plant.

This year’s chore will be difficult. As soon as the frost kills the plants, I’ll get to it. I figure an hour or two a day through the rest of October will finish it up.

I almost forgot about the invading sunflowers. They grew all over my garden area and at the corner of my front walkway. They’ve been dying and I’ve been pulling them out for the past month or so. Still have a few to go. They go down to my big yard waste pile, which is a low area alongside the road just past my windsock. The quail are having a field day on the seeds that are dropping. I guess I’ll be fighting sunflowers next year, too.

Potatoes from my Garden
The last of the potatoes from my garden.

In the meantime, I harvested the rest of my potatoes yesterday. This was the first time I’d ever grown potatoes and I started with a few from my pantry that had grown “eyes.” I followed the instructions I found on the web and put them in their own pallet planter. I never put that planter on irrigation — I just watered it occasionally. Next year, I’ll irrigate; I think I’ll get more potatoes that way.

The Lawn

Bad Lawn
Here’s what part of my lawn looked like this spring. The top part of this photo shows the dead grass raked out; the bottom shows what long grass looks like if left under snow for months at a time. Lesson learned.

I learned my lesson about the lawn this spring: if you don’t cut the grass down short before the snow comes, you’ll start the season with an ugly brown patch that requires a ton of raking to prepare for spring growth.

Even though I’ve turned off the irrigation, my lawn continues to grow — although more slowly than it did in the summer. So I’ll keep cutting it.

It’s not a big deal because it’s a small lawn. I have an electric mower that works very well. The whole job takes about 15 minutes, including prepping the mower and then dumping the grass clippings and putting the mower away when I’m done. I suspect I’ll keep at it until either the first snow is forecast or I go away for the winter.

My Lawn
Here’s what my lawn looked like this summer. Not perfect, but I’m proud of it. It’s the first lawn I’ve ever planted, grown, and tended to in my life. (And yes, that is a pesky volunteer sunflower along the gravel area.)

My Cheat

Oh, yeah — maybe I should have admitted that at the top of the post: I don’t stay here for the winter. I actually never intended to — even when I first saw this homesite and knew it was what I wanted. As far as I’m concerned, this is a three season place. When the temperatures begin to drop and that cloud cover moves in like a cold winter blanket, I’m out of here, headed to points south: Arizona and California.

I’m lucky to have a very good house-sitter who comes with her Doberman to keep an eye on things for me. She’ll be here for most of the time I’m gone and has family nearby to help her if anything goes wrong.

Still, I want to prepare my place so it’s easy for her to tend to — and worry-free for me. That’s why I winterize.