Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Hike to Aviation Tragedy on Mt. Humphreys

The San Francisco Peaks Near Flagstaff, Arizona
It was in the early hours of September 15th, 1944 when Second Lieutenant Warren E. Crowther was piloting his TB-24J aircraft (aka a B-24 bomber) with seven other personnel aboard: 4 student pilots, 2 engineers and a radio operator. The plane had taken off from Kirtland Field in New Mexico and headed out for a nighttime training flight scheduled to return later to Albuquerque. This was the plane’s and occupants’ last flight. All men aboard died when pilot error caused the plane to fly directly into the side of Arizona's highest peak, Mt. Humphreys.

B-24 Bomber
The remains of the B-24 airship have resided on the western side of the Mt. Humphreys for over seventy years. But the plane is not alone. Amazingly, a second plane crash occurred just a few days after this crash on Sept. 18, 1944. A B-17 Flying Fortress crashed on the opposite side of the mountain near Bear Jaw Canyon, killing four soldiers. Only a year earlier on March 5, 1943, another B-17 crashed into the northeast side of nearby Mt. Elden. An R4D-8 Gooneybird plane, crashed on Mt. Humphreys on Jan. 21, 1943. Finally, B-18 Bolo plane crashed in these volcanic mountains on Oct. 2, 1941. Truly, the 1940s were not good years for aviation in the San Francisco Peaks.

Mt. Elden
I have lived at the southern base of Mt. Elden all summer and will have spent over sixty working days this summer (nearly every weekend) hiking and driving around Mt. Humphreys and the other San Francisco peaks. Yet, in that time I haven't had the success in visiting the crash site. I finally succeeded on September 25th when I spent six hours hiking to the elusive B-24 crash site. I was its solitary visitor this day.

As a federally protected historical site, any unmanaged visitation to it the site can result in the loss of historical integrity. People have built badly designed social trails to the site, stolen historical artifacts, and otherwise altered the location and appearance of objects found there. I’m posting the GPS coordinates to the closest plane artifacts below with the sincere wish that visitors respect this historical military site and show some sensitivity to the fact that our military personnel lost their lives here during their service to country.

Hiking to the crash site is very dangerous. The one incomplete social trail to the site is steep, barely able to be followed, and very difficult to traverse. Only a few hard-to-locate rock cairns mark the route. Once one get to the GPS coordinate provided, more crash debris can probably be found easiest by just proceeding north, perpendicular the volcanic scree field fall line.

While the site is than a third of a mile from the main Humphreys Trail, it takes about an hour to safely get there.  It should not be attempted alone and it is inadvisable to ever take children to the location. One must pass over seemingly endless lava scree fields. It is just far too easy to trip, fall on sharp and tipsy volcanic boulders, drop into deep holes between rocks, and sprain or break ankles.
I fell several times.

Fuselage and Instrumentation Strewn Down the Lava Scree Field
From the Humphreys Peak trailhead the hike to the crash site is about 7.2 miles long, round trip, has a rated difficulty of 4.3 out of 5, and requires an ascent a of more than 2,100 feet to an elevation of over 11,000 feet.

Looking West, Tattered US Flag on Log Inserted Into Upside Down B-24 Landing Gear
The views from the site to the west are magnificent. Over 20 miles away can be seen Williams Peak. Kendrick Mountain is seen to the right, and numerous volcanic cinder cones and ancient volcanoes are viewable across the verdant valley. Off to the north nearly 100 miles away can be seen the north rim of the Grand Canyon. During the fall changing of the aspen leaves color, nature’s complexity, danger, and majesty are on full display.
Remains of Bomber Gun Turret

GPS Coordinates:

  • N 35° 20.455 W 111° 41.389
  • 12S E 437314 N 3911068

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Hopi Reservation Petroglyph Tour

At the end of August I accompanied the Interpretive Partnership volunteers from the Flagstaff, AZ area National Monuments on a day trip to the Hopi Reservation. At its center is Kykotsmovi Village (K-Town), home to the Hopi Cultural Center and the sovereign nation’s government complex.

We received an extensive tour of the Dawa Park site consisting of a cliff face more than a half-mile long filled with 15,000 images. You need a permit or guide to visit sites such as this. Dawa is believed to be the second-largest concentration of petroglyphs in the country. It may possibly contain 15,000 sandstone carvings. Sensory overload was the meme of the day.

The images provide a complex overview of the lives of ancestral Pueblo Indians who carved the petroglyphs as far back as 2,000 years ago. Not all the carvings are that well understood even by natives or academicians that study the images and their many possible interpretations. Readers might want to consult this interpretation of Hopi petroglyph writing/art.

Below are some of the photographs I took of the carvings. For a better sense of the topography and scope of the site, you should visit this virtual tour of the Dawa site.

Everywhere you walk in the site a fragments of ancient pottery from the time of habitation. Natives collect some of the shards and place them on display on one of the large display boulders. These cultural artifacts are not to ever be removed.


After the cliff tour we visited the Hopi cultural center, had an authentic Hopi family meal, and looked over the many exquisite Hopi crafts on sale, in particular the Kachina dolls

For more information about Hopi cultural center and government operations I suggest visiting the official website of Hopi Nation.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Kachina Trail

The Kachina Peaks Wilderness near Flagstaff, Arizona affords the outdoor enthusiast ample opportunities to explore nature by car, bicycle, horse, foot and snowshoe. One of the nicest trails in the wilderness near where I’ve been volunteering this summer at Mt. Humphreys is the Kachina Trail. The moderately strenuous trail is a 5.2 mile segment passing around the south side of Agassiz Peak at an elevation of about 9,000 feet.

I hiked the Kachina Trail in mid-September out from the western trailhead for a distance of about three miles to where there is a great view southward to the city of Flagstaff resting at about 7,000 feet. The aspen tree leaves were only just starting to yellow due to the first hard frost on the mountain. The bracket ferns had all started to brown and the annual cycle of life was present everywhere.

The trail gradually descends with a few welcome grade changes to keep things interesting and your knees from experiencing the constant impact of stepping downward. 

The violence of the mountains creation is present in the form of occasional cliffs formed by volcanic action when these San Francisco Peaks were forged as a stratovolcano nearly 400,000 years ago. 

If you study the rock face one can readily descent the various strata of lava flows. Lower on the mountain there exist lava tube caves created by rapidly cooling surface crusts of fast flowing magma.

The trail resides in the largest Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa subsp. brachyptera) forest in the nation. It is interspersed with the Aspen trees that have difficulty establishing significantly sized stands due to the high canopy of the Ponderosas. Only through lightning caused fires would the aspen find the opportunity to reestablish themselves in this environment. Through the use of prescribed forest fire burns or timber thinning projects by the US Forest Service have the aspen a chance to prosper.  Evidence of nature's fire is evident along the trail where openings have been created for natural plant succession to occur.

Fire exposes the rocky and volcanic pumice strewn surface where new plants have difficulty taking a root hold on a very porous surface,

Where trees have died and allowed to slowly decompose they build moisture retaining moisture to allow grasses, flowers, and fungi to prosper. Big plants give birth to new life.

The rock, themselves often speed the tree decomposition by cleaving the trunks as they strike the ground with enormous force.

The trees do fight back by tenaciously clinging to rock outcroppings for many hundreds of years and dropping their seeds into the rock crevices to encourage the next generation of growth.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

My Summer of PSAR Draws To A Close, 2016

Bob and Mt. Humphreys
 in the Distance
My summer stint with the US Forest Service as a volunteer "Roving Ranger"is soon coming to an end and I will be transitioning to new volunteer duties in the Flagstaff, AZ area. (Itinerary below)

Since I've written extensively lately about Search and Rescue, I won't dwell on the summer's activities again other than to say its been fun, educational, and rewarding. For the most part all the volunteers and NPS and Forest Service staff I've had the privilege of working with have been great. The more I explore and volunteer, the more opportunities that seem to present themselves.

Every year the names of the Forest Service seasonal volunteers are carved into wood signs for posterity to revere with awe and gratitude <g>. Nearly twenty years of these panels hang in the wood shop. Somehow the sign makers managed to remember my name this year. Some volunteers are long-time, repeat offenders returning for more than a decade of service.

One sideline activity of my PSAR work this season is that I have been giving weekly talks to sixth graders at the Flagstaff Unified School District's summer facility: Camp Colton. The SAR team is seeking to modify the PSAR curriculum based on Hug A Tree and Survive that us normally geared to 10-14 year old students. The goal is to modify it for both kindergarten level students (never too early to learn survival tactics) and high school students. We hope to produce and distribute nationally a new video on the revised curriculum. 

Besides the PSAR work, I've also been involved with the Interpretive Partnership, a joint project of the Forest Service, National Park Service, and other local agencies dedicated to providing educational and recreational services to the public
Every week the 20+ volunteer members in the partnership provide guided walking tours of cultural and natural resources in the three Flagstaff area national monuments (Walnut Canyon, Wupatki, and Sunset Crater Volcano) and at other regional trails of significance; campground talks, stargazing sessions, nature walks, and more. We also serve as roving rangers on Mount Agassiz at the top of Arizona Snowbowl where we describe the landmarks and history of  100 mile+ viewable area.

Walnut Canyon Trail Cliff  Dwellings
In exchange for volunteering the partnership agencies provide RV sites and extensive continuing professional education opportunities. Nearly every week we benefited from some scientist or other expert providing us custom talks or field trips to historical or scientifically important sites in the region.

For example, we visited rarely accessible petroglyph sites in the Zuni Nation, saw hidden, ancient pueblo ruins, were lectured about ongoing archaeological investigations, shown photo collections from Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory about recent satellite flybys of Pluto System and the Keuper Belt using NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, and much more, The Pluto images we saw were trypically only accessible by project scientists for their research work.

Due to my work with both the Preventative Search and Rescue Program (PSAR) and Coconino County SAR team I'm now serving as an adviser to a Northern Arizona University Wilderness Studies program. The class is charged with developing several research products this semester. The two I'm working with address designing:

  1. Better delivery methods of PSAR training for a target audience of high school students.
  2. A digital communication package (web portal of smartphone application) to prepare visitors for hiking in the Kachina Wilderness using Humphreys Trail. The trail leads to the highest summit in Arizona. 
Yes, it's been a busy summer, but the seasons change.

In less than a month, on or about October 18th 2016, if circumstances don't change, my core PSAR duties on Mt. Humphreys will end and I will transition to a new volunteer opportunity at nearby Walnut Canyon National Monument. I will trade in my green US Forest Service uniform for the grey, green, and brown of a National Park Service Ranger (Smokey Bear hat and all. Woohoo!)

I will move Toad Haul Manor to the monument compound and attempt to survive a Flagstaff winter's snow at 7,000 feet. I will work out of the visitor center providing interpretive services: giving talks and guided tours of the ancient pueblo dwellings last occupied in the 1200's, explaining the special ecological and archaeological features of the canyon, and staffing the visitor center answering questions and selling monument related publications and other educational products.

Walnut Canyon In Winter After a Heavy Snowfall

I'm not done with SAR work. SAR missions will continue this winter when the emphasis will shift to avalanche safety concerns in the mountains. 

In February, I will transition to yet a different location that I will describe to you'all later this winter. 

Until then, please stay tuned. The Toad Haul Manor adventures will continue.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Training For Disaster (Part Three)

Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR)

In this summer of 2016 I’ve been volunteering with the US Forest Service (USFS) as an Assistant Coordinator for Preventative Search and Rescue. I'm in a program of the USFS Recreation Office in Flagstaff, Arizona. The program is modeled after similar programs pioneered at Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. The program was piloted in 2015, so this is the first year of regular operation. It operates for 63 days, on weekends during the summer and fall seasons. The report on the pilot year of the PSAR operation is available here.

Our Flagstaff program is conducted in cooperation with the Friends of Northern Arizona Forests (FONAF), a 100% volunteer-based non-profit that works to preserve and protect the environment of the region. FONAF volunteers assist the Forest Service conduct PSAR duties plus. In addition FONAF conducts service projects such as trail building and other maintenance tasks throughout the Coconino National Forest. They are notable for building exclosures to fence out non-native elk from sensitive aspen tree groves until the trees grow to sufficient size and height to survive elk feeding on their tasty leaves and branches. In the winter FONAF also serves as the Forest Service’s representative for issuing wilderness back country travel permits. These permits are typically used most often by skiers and snow boarders that want to ski outside the boundary of the Arizona Snow Bowl.

So, what is Preventative Search and Rescue and ‘How does one prevent a search and rescue? The answer is more difficult than one might imagine. The answer goes well beyond simple preparedness for travel emergencies. To answer the elusive question I need offer a quick review of the long history of search and rescue.

The concept of preventative search and rescue (PSAR) is relatively new to modern government.
On the other hand, SAR has a long history dating back to biblical times. My observation from being a student of political science is that government is by its very nature reactionary, seldom proactive unless it wants to serve a member of the so-called 1%. PSAR has come into existence because of increased costs to government to save lives.

Look to history. In urban environments we’ve seen the evolution of fire and ambulance services. Citizens no longer run to the well with buckets to douse a burning building. The local barber no longer does tooth extractions and surgery. While still in existence in some rural areas, homeowners don’t pay a private subscription fee for firefighting companies to respond to emergencies because in the first world police, fire and ambulance services are seen as a core function of local government.

Nowadays, search and rescue units are no longer the exclusive operational domain of police and fire departments. Yes, they typically have training as Urban First Responders, but they are seldom involved in long-duration or remote/wilderness first responder operations. Frankly, government couldn’t afford to do so! The real cost to victims and government would bankrupt both. First of all, there are not enough deputies and EMS personnel available to be called out in mass to the wide variety of search and rescue incidents that occur. For example, a recent search I went on involved over 70 personnel from multiple counties and it lasted about two weeks.The diverted time of police and fire personnel from regular duties and cost of salaries for extended operations would be exorbitant. Imagine the cost of a just one 24-hour mission day for twelve personnel and related equipment and transportation. It would cost close to $10,000. Add in helicopter support costs and the cost could easily triple. As such, most SAR units are all volunteer teams except for the highest level of the SAR incident command structure.

Even at a wage of $25/hour the 18,434 hours donated by SAR volunteers in Coconino County in 2015 would otherwise cost the taxpayers $460,850. Given this potential expense of responding, just preventing one SAR incident can could save a lot of money, pain and suffering.

The role of search and rescue was once the sole purview of individuals, their families, and local villages. Historically, when a disaster of any size struck resources were thrown at the problem. When the crisis ended, response resources usually disappeared into the background. That all began to change in the 1950s when national coordination of SAR activities began. Then during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, medical advances such as MASH units, provided rapid deployment, extraction and wartime medical treatment for injuries that only years earlier were fatal conditions. By 1970 when the MAST (Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic) program was created, and Army and Air Force helicopters became available to rural communities. The programs great success led in 1971 to expansion of the program to mountain rescue operations. Intergovernmental cooperation then proliferated with mutual aid agreements and coordination among state and county SAR offices, the Coast Guard, Air Force, and county and private SAR groups.

Simultaneously, technical advances were occurring in climbing, rafting, camping, hiking, and skiing gear and techniques.

The improvement of SAR capabilities paralleled the growth in the outdoor recreation industry zand demand for use of open lands owned by all units of government. Visitation to national parks increased quickly after WWII. For example, the Grand Canyon has seen over 200 million visitors since 1950. Annual visitation is up 830% since 1950. Even the lesser known national monuments near me such as Wupatki National Monument outside Flagstaff, AZ has seen a 2,117% annual visitation increase in the same time period.  If you are interested in US forest visitation rate history from 1881 to the end of WWI, read this.

The Ten Essentials

Accustomed to urban living and parks visitors to parks, monuments and national forests, visitors frequently come for their outdoor experience way under prepared . Most peoples's eyes glaze over when they are asked if they have brought with them the "Ten Essentials" for their adventures:
  1. Navigation. Topographic map and assorted maps in a waterproof container plus a magnetic compass, optional altimeter or GPS receiver.
  2. Sun protection. Sunglasses, sunscreen for lips and skin, hat, clothing for sun protection.
  3. Insulation. Hat, gloves, jacket, extra clothing for coldest possible weather during current season.
  4. Illumination. Headlamp, flashlight, batteries.
  5. First-aid supplies, plus insect repellent.
  6. Fire. Butane lighter, or matches in waterproof container.
  7. Repair kit and tools. Knives, multi-tool, scissors, pliers, screwdriver, trowel/shovel, duct tape, and cable ties.
  8. Nutrition. Add extra food for one additional day (for emergency).
  9. Hydration. Add extra 2 liters of water for one additional day (for emergency).
  10. Emergency shelter. Tarp, bivouac sack, space blanket, plastic tube tent, jumbo trash bags, and insulated sleeping pad.
When visitors do know about the ten essentials, but often don't have them all with them that day, they often minimize their importance with questionable statements such as:
  • "Oh, it's OK, I am not going that far today."
  • "I've climbed peaks higher than this one with even less      preparation."
  • "Why? Isn't the trail well marked with signs everywhere?"
  • "I thought my buddy was bringing that gear."
  • "I know, but this is the only day I have left on my trip to do this."
Portable GPS Unit

In regards to some experienced hikers, they often approach their adventure with a false sense of security trusting their lives too readily to technological advanced gear such as cell/satellite phones, GPS units, 36-mile radios, PLBs and EPIRBs (personal locator beacons and emergency position indicating radio beacons), smart phone apps, and increased cellular coverage,

I applaud the technical progress made and I use a fair amount of tech myself, but basic survival skills may prove far more important, especially when all the batteries die or radio signals can't be found.

Ravines, canyons, mountains, steep slopes, avalanche areas, and severe weather may all conspire to make sure you don’t get where you want to go.  ~ Outdoor Adventure Education
In 2014 Grand Canyon National Park saw 324 SAR incidents and Yosemite National Park had 181. The Grand Canyon began its PSAR program in 1997."

A report, published by the Wilderness Medical Society, has a catchy title: "Dead Men Walking: Search and Rescue in U.S. National Parks." Its authors looked at the NPS' annual search-and-rescue reports from 1992 to 2007 and SAR statistics from all NPS units in 2005. Some key findings: From 1992 to 2007 there were 78,488 people involved in 65,439 SAR incidents. These included 2,659 fatalities, 24,288 injured or sick people, and 13,212 "saves," or saved lives." Source

San Francisco Peaks (Mt, Humphreys is on the left)

The Forests Service's Challenge

The Forest Service is trying to improve safety on its trails. The Flagstaff Branch began its pilot PSAR program in 2015. Program volunteers have two primary sets of responsibilities at the Mt. Humphreys Peak location because it is Coconino National Forest’s most used trail:

1. PSAR volunteers observe every hiker starting up the trail and:

   a. Try to determine every hiker’s physical ability, equipment and hydration preparedness.
   b. Provide mountain weather forecasts plus safety and self-rescue tips such as what to do
       during lightning and other foul weather conditions.
   c. Offer maps, direction, trail condition, and campsite information.
   d. Suggest alternative trails better suited to a person’s or group’s ability and preparedness.
   e. Encourage Leave No Trace behavior.

2. PSAR volunteers also hike the trail as roving rangers to continue providing supplemental information to hikers and render first aid to ill or injured hikers and their pets.

Approximately 6,000 people will hike some portion of the Humphreys Trail this summer. On our highest use day so far this summer we had over 635 hikers starting up the 4.9 mile trail. It ascends roughly 3,300 feet to the summit at 12,633 feet. In addition, we have had up to 70 dogs a day of all breeds accompanying hikers. All too frequently we witness dog-on-dog problems despite the requirement for dogs to always be on a leash.

A large majority of our hikers are visiting from the Phoenix metro area. Before they even begin their hike they are experiencing an altitude gain at the trailhead of nearly 8,000 feet. Thus, when attempting the summit climb, the altitude difference without acclimatizing can lead to difficulty breathing, headaches, early fatigue, dehydration, Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS), and other more serious medical symptoms such as HAPE and HACE.

Immediate recognition of symptoms and prompt descent are the most life-saving interventions for HAPE and HACE, according to the WMS Consensus Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Acute Altitude Illness. In dire cases supplemental oxygen and hyperbaric therapy can be beneficial. Medications such as acetazolamide and dexamethasone for HACE are temporizing measures while organizing descent. Nifedipine is a temporizing measure for HAPE while organizing descent. (Source)

Roving PSAR ranger volunteers carry a Forest Service radio when they are on the trail, as well as, a cell phone to call for more medical or SAR assistance when needed. In addition, I carry a separate County SAR Team radio for direct communication with the SAR Commander so that I might be able to expedite operations and advise early on as to the need for specialized personnel, equipment, or other rescue or recovery assistance.

Who Pays For All this?

To end this three part series, I want to address one of the biggest misconceptions most people have about the cost to victims of being rescued should SAR prevention messages prove inadequate. Some people do not seek SAR help in an emergency because they fear being billed for the cost of any rescue. In most states, including Arizona where I volunteer, the patient/victim is NOT billed for the cost of the rescue efforts. I hope that isn't surprising. Patients will likely be billed for any ambulance services, but that expense is often covered by personal health insurance policies. This newspaper story describes the situation well and the problems SAR teams face when they try to offer assistance, but that offer of care is rejected by the injured person.

Now that you've seen how expensive it can be too operate a SAR program, understand that some critics argue that we actually should charge for search and rescue. There are several reasons for not charging.

If the victim hesitates to call for help and WHEN (usually, not IF) the decision is made later to accept help (usually after sunset) several things can happen.
  1. Locating the victim may be more difficult and be complicated by temperature and visibility changes.
  2. Rescue may have to be delayed until another day when conditions are safer for access and extraction, and rescuers may need to bivouac overnight and care for the patient in more arduous conditions.
  3. The victim may increase the danger to other people's lives, including their own desperate friends, families and rescuers.
  4. By delaying a call for help the victim's condition will likely worsen requiring even more drastic measures to deliver medical care and affect a rescue. It's cheaper to carry someone down in a litter basket than to call out a helicopter for an emergency transport.
  5. The SAR team expenses and time requirements for rescuing usually go up after dark because of the greater need for more gear, fuel, and supplies.
There are numerous published examples of this problem. Here is but one. The position of the National Association For Search and Rescue is shown below the fold.

Please, if you cannot perform a self-rescue without major pain or further risk to yourself and others, seek professional help from a SAR group as soon as possible. Call 911 and/or send messengers to contact help. There are many volunteers itching to render assistance. 

Play hard, be safe!

Training For Disaster (Part One) (aka Life Is What Happens While Making Other Plans)

Training For Disaster (Part Two)

Training For Disaster (Part Two)

As I described in my last blog entry, Coconino County, Arizona Search And Rescue (SAR) team averages about 80 missions (incidents) per year. In 2015 the team conducted 87 missions utilizing a total of 4,978 person hours,and 401 training sessions utilizing 8,812 person hours. Overall, people volunteered 18,434 person hours.

I’ve only volunteered on ten incidents in the last four months of living in Flagstaff. In that period I participated in one rescue simulation for a crashed commercial airliner at Grand Canyon Airport, and the following real-life SAR team call-outs for:

Monday, August 29, 2016

Life is What Happens To You While Making Other Plans
When I blogged last in March I summarized my first year on the road in the RV affectionately known as Toad Haul Manor. I have been remiss about not consistently documenting my adventures. For the last five months I have been so busy that I just didn’t have the motivation each evening to describe what all transpired. I aim now to correct that by retracing my steps and highlighting both plans and subsequent alterations in what happened. Eerily I last quoted John Lennon who allegedly said:
"Life is what happens to you while making other plans."
How prophetic that quote turned out to be for me in the summer of 2016. In March I was ending my winter time home building of nine new homes in three states, the last of which was for Habitat for Humanity in Taos, New Mexico. I had previously driven all the way back to Arkansas to attend training sponsored by the National Association For Search and Rescue (NASAR). After Taos, I headed southwest to Phoenix for EMT school before volunteering for my next unimaginable adventures in northern Arizona.

So please join me for a three part series entitled “Training For Disaster” as I describe what happened to my plans to get me where I am today.

Part One about my path to Arizona begins below.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On the Road Again

Since I left Texas on March 10th I’ve experienced poor internet access and have been  pretty busy driving and working, I simply haven’t had a lot of time or energy to stroke the keyboard with any memories.

When I last wrote I was about to spend two and a half days completing my Search and Rescue (SAR) training and certification in Arkansas. On the first day of my second year full-timing in my RV I joined the largest ever class of graduates of the National Association For Search and Rescue (NASAR) SARTECH II program. Twenty-nine fellow students spent a tiring weekend proving our searching, tracking, and orienteering skills to become certified as qualified SAR technicians on future missions.

Habitat Volunteers 
The SAR program concluded on a Sunday evening and on Monday I drove two days from Arkadelphia, AR back to Hobbs, NM and the Habitat For Humanity affiliate there. I did so for the express purpose of attending the “key ceremony” for the twenty-ninth completed Habitat home in Hobbs. I had worked there in 2015 in two builds with the people shown in the accompanying pictures.

More Habitat Volunteers
It was a unique pleasure to witness the gratitude of a young family as they accepted the keys to their new home. After contributing hundreds of hours of sweat equity towards her home Thais Mackey received keys to her beautiful new, 3 BR home and zero interest mortgage.

She and her children with help from family began that very evening to excitedly move into the home.
Key Ceremony Flyer
Can you recall how you felt moving into your first home?

As an added surprise to the Mackey family I assembled the Habitat gift of a refurbished computer system to help the kids with their school work and personal development.

I had planned on the following morning to drive north to Taos, NM for another Habitat For Humanity Collegiate Challenge build, but was delayed 24 hrs because I was having engine trouble with the RV. After driving through a dust storm in west Texas it wouldn’t start on at least three occasions. I didn’t want to risk being stranded in the New Mexico mountains far from any RV service center.

The local Habitat board chairman, Paul Campbell, pulled a few community strings and got me into a repair facility first thing the next morning. I was expecting a very expensive fuel pump replacement job, but I not only squeaked through with just a fuel filter replacement, but Watson Truck & Supply provided the parts and service for free because of my Habitat affiliation. In appreciation I stayed the day in Hobbs and helped further build the 30th Hobbs Habitat home for the next deserving family.

Convenient Parking For Habitat For Hunabity Build !
Thursday morning I drove north to Taos, NM and set-up my RV directly in front of the adobe construction Habitat home under construction there.

On Friday I worked with about ten high school students as they built an adobe brick fence wall between two Habitat homes. Also on site for my first day working in Taos were students from University of Texas that were applying lathe on the house walls onto which a cement coating would be applied.

College Students Apply Lathe to Insulated Adobe Brick Walls
On the weekend I had a marvelous day off from travel and work to ski at Taos Ski Resort. I last skied there in about 1970. I recall it being a much more formidable ski challenge then.

Taos Ski Area Trail Map
The weather was just perfect and I encountered great spring skiing snow conditions. I felt better than the 20 year old I was when I last cruised the Taos slopes. Biggest difference between then and now: I now wear a helmet, have markedly improved ski equipment, and drink fewer beers between ski runs.

Adobe Wall Under Construction

This week I’m working with another Care-A-Vanner, local retired volunteers and 13 newly arrived students from Georgia Tech.

They are building recessed book shelves, dry-walling interior stud walls and applying the interior adobe wall plaster coating.

I hope to get one more blue sky ski day in this coming weekend before heading to the Phoenix area where I will attend a month long Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course. I have a lot of studying to do.

View From Ski Patrol Headquarters at Taos


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

My First Year On The Road

A year ago Friday on March 11, 2015, I left my 'stick-and-brick' home in Des Moines, IA and hit the road in my RV full-time with my two Yorkshire Terrier buddies, Whiskers and Roger Dodger.

My Best Friend,
Jan Robertson
Whiskers | Roger Dodger
My first stop was in Southern Illinois for a private memorial service for my recently deceased wife, Jan Robertson. Would that she could have joined me on this adventure!

But my life’s journey goes on. In the last year I’ve visited sixteen national parks or monuments - staying at some for extended periods.

I volunteered over 1,000 hours with the National Park Service at
Gates of Lodore and 400+ hours of labor to build new homes on seven Habitat For Humanity projects in three states. I enjoyed nine days whitewater rafting down the Green River in Colorado, snow skied at five resorts, and camped in a wide variety of federal, state, county, city, tribal, and private campgrounds, as well as, the de rigueur overnight in Walmart and casino parking lots.

What have I appreciated the most from the journey so far? Meeting people in campgrounds and at Habitat For Humanity builds. Some of the finest people I’ve ever met spend their free time building safe and secure homes for communities in need.  I’m also been discovering the subtle regional differences in the cultures of the southwestern states, the heritage of our National Parks, and the widely varied and beautiful landscapes of America.  Through it all I’ve rediscovered old friends online with whom I can share some of the mysteries and emotions of solo travel, and have crossed off a few of the items on My Constantly Evolving Bucket List.

What have been the negatives of the last year on the road? Oh, the usual: unexpected and expensive breakdowns of the RV and bearing witness to the increasing amount of land lost in our “national sacrifice zones” through reckless oil and gas development, mining, urban sprawl and five lane highways to nowhere. Actually the breakdowns have been minor considering the age of my RV (19 years).  Owners of new RVs often have far more complaints and downtime.  

Since departing Iowa I’ve traveled about 6,000 miles through eleven states, but I’ve stayed every single night on the road in my fully-paid-for RV with my forever buddies, Roger and Whiskers. I thought I’d drive more miles than 6,000 since that number is only 44% of what the average US citizen traveled in 2015. Connect the orange dots on this map yo understand where I've spent my time on the road in 2015.

Map of places visited in 2015
Stops Along My Journey in 2015

What’s remarkable is that I only had to pay out-of-pocket for a camping site on 77 out of the 365 nights (21%). On those paid nights I used memberships in RV clubs to reduce the nightly fees 10-50% off the normal rate.
My informal education to prepare for the journey consisted of reading a lot of books and articles on RV travel and RV mechanical systems: how to plan a journey, locate affordable campgrounds, repair things that break, and most importantly, embrace the unpredictable. That knowledge has proved handy more than once. 

My formal education during the year consisted of three days at a Sierra Club Outings leader conference and 80 hours in an online AARP’s defensive driver training course. In addition, I completed four FEMA disaster incident management courses and a 40 hour "Search And Rescue (SAR) Fundamentals" course from in NASAR. I’m scheduled to take the SARTECH II national certification test tomorrow in Arkadelphia, AR and attend eight more SAR presentations.
I’ve also been studying emergency medical books leading to an anticipated certification later this year as a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician {WEMT}.Granted that I’ve renewed my Wilderness First Aid certification for many years, and previously qualified as an Urban First Responder when I lived in Carbondale, IL. but I really have wanted to be better prepared to deal with medical emergencies on the road, along remote wilderness trails, and down America's wild and scenic rivers. To that end I will need to complete a month long EMT course in April and then complete the wilderness EMT component in October. 

What luxuries did I have to give up on my RV journey? Very little. Well, I did effectively lose cell phone access for about five months while I was a National Park Service campground host in rural Colorado, but got it back temporarily whenever I drove into town on errands. This week I’m installing a cellular signal booster to improve signal availability and quality, but there are still large parts of the country that do not have cell phone access on any phone carrier. Other than that and perfect Internet access my RV contains all the creature comforts of home without the need to mow grass and shovel snow.

During my first year on the road I did not have much access to broad-cast television, but that was by choice. Although I have an automatic satellite dish and tuner I've I opted instead for watching classic DVD movie collections and reading books. They keep me occupied whenever volunteer work, social media, nature, and my dogs haven't been adequate entertainment

Is the RV experience what I imagined it would be before I began this journey? Pretty much so. There have been no major surprises or disappointments. I don’t travel with a lot of the “stuff” that once filled my large home. I downsized from a 3,500 square feet home to less than 300 square feet inside the RV and 75 cubic feet of storage space in the “basement” storage lockers. The downsizing was challenging and rewarding. I no longer feel so owned by my possessions.

But you can be owned by old loves and passions. I've owned and helped restore several old homes. On the 364 day of living full-time in an RV I toured the historic old Seaquist Mansion in Mason, TX that sadly needs of lots of TLC. I quickly realized how very much I still really love old buildings. I just wanted to make that building MINE and bring it back to its once elegant self. Not gonna happen with me. Too many items on that constantly evolving bucket list.

Isn't it lonely traveling by yourself on the road? Yea sometimes.
 I miss my late wife, Jan, who was so at the center of my former life. Being able to share travel with someone special makes an enormous difference in the quality of your life. But working with some really amazing Habitat volunteers and discovering new friends helps compensate. I've come to greatly value the value my friends that stay connected with me, especially those that read and comment on my blog. Thanks to the Internet which I helped grow in the 90's I now can chat daily with old and new friends.

What has been the most interesting phenomena of my travels so far? My answer centers around my experiences when meeting new people. They frequently ask “Where are you from?” It's an icebreaker kind of question, but I always hesitate when answering because I’m not quite sure what to honestly say. I could indicate that I've came from one of the eleven states where I’ve lived in the last year, or perhaps the place of my birth; or where I lived last, most often or most frequently; or where I last owned a home, or where I’ve declared a domicile, or where my heart feels most at home. Many full-time RV travelers simply the question with “Home is where I park my RV.” I’m increasingly more inclined to simply say my home is a fragile blue orb in space. That response is usually not what people are looking for in an answer.

Cassini Spacecraft View of Earth Taken Within the Shadow of Saturn on July 19, 2013
See the tiny blue orb in the bottom right quadrant? That's where I live.
What what do I have planned for year number two on the road?  I'm still excited at the uncertain prospects of the next year. Here is my planned itinerary from February of this year through October. I spent all of January in Livingston, TX ("B" on the map). The destination details are listed in the Itinerary Section of the blog and hereBeyond October my future is quite uncertain, but I'm getting better at living with uncertainty.

My Itinerary Map: February Through October, 2016

Before you cross the street take my hand.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
. ~ John Lennon
~ ~ ~

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