Sometimes direction of travel is self-evident. In alternate moments a small nudge, a chance meeting, or a wrinkle in time opens up doors onto undiscovered roads. My brother, Bryan, texted me one day as we were camped near his family just outside of Safford, Arizona, to suggest a drive up the mountain that looms nearby. I looked over my shoulder at the cloud-blocking edifice, spied a car zigzagging up a circuitous, guardrail-less road, pulled my hat down over my acrophobic eyes, and stammered, “Uhh, yeah…let-t-t’s g-go-o-o.”
In sunny desert 75-degree warmth, we left the lowland terrain pursuing our path to the peak that telescoped out in front of us for a straight mile up, at a 6% grade. Entering into sharp snake-coiled switchbacks, I glanced over the precipice—suppressing the desire to push a non-existent brake pedal—and simultaneously noted my brother whirling the steering wheel coolly and comfortably with one hand in the six-o’clock position. The terra firma of the beginning of our journey receded rapidly below us, resembling a view from an airplane window. Fifteen minutes along, the flora had morphed from dry desert cacti and creosote bushes to scrub oaks and junipers, and the car’s outside temp gauge began to drop into the cool sixties. We traded diverse and eclectic family stories, rattling the dust off skeletons pulled from our respective closets, as the air around us rarified.
As I was muttering out loud about the time it takes to drive from Safford’s 2,900 feet to near 10,000, the road swung around to the back side of the mountain near the peak, and we quickly saw the results of the previous year’s forest fire that had swept indiscriminately through the now alpine pine forest. A grouping of trees would stand verdant, adjacent to huge swathes of brown, burned-out hulks. Fire is such an unpredictable demon, as those who fight its wrath attest. It was said that this late summer fire was kindled by lightning strikes, and we considered the fury that ensued back when all fires burned free. There are positives and negatives, of course. Fire clears away accumulated underbrush. Some seeds require high heat to crack open their pod shells, enabling regrowth. Fire clears the earth’s palate, yet it is an indiscriminate despoiler. I recalled images of rescuers bandaging bears’ scorched paws following their attempts to escape from the recent California firestorms.
We rounded a bend past a middle-aged couple photographing farmers’ fields, plowed in circles like giant green pearls on this wetter, windward side of the mountain. The geography here tells the story of moisture-rich clouds, rising, cooling, and unable to surmount the summit, discharging their payload down the mile-plus return to welcoming soil. Our journey up brought us though the leeward (dry) side, also called the “rain shadow” of the peaks, and the lack of density and height of flora reflected this deprivation. Those that owned and worked the land on this side knew the lay of the land.
Very shortly our road came to an end at a barrier and transition between asphalt and dirt. More miles lay ahead according to signage, eventually to arrive at an astronomical observatory. At the end of our upward excursion, we shot some obligatory memorial selfies in the now near freezing temperatures, and were joined by the photographing couple we had previously observed.
Conversation can flow easily among those who have sought and achieved a challenging milestone. Two vehicles and their occupants had consummated their quest for the symbolic end of the road, albeit artificially cut short. During our conversation I noticed aloud that a familiar state park camping tag, matching ours, hung from the other vehicle’s mirror. The driver, Gary, and his wife, Jean, invited me over for an RV info share when we made it back to camp.
Later that evening, I walked over and noted that our friendly couple had a ham operator’s license plate and set about to resolve some lingering questions about this hobby; questions that I’ve had for almost 50 years. My employer in 1972 had a strange number/letter code posted on his car window and, responding to my curiosity, he explained briefly the meaning of a ham radio operator, and offered to show me his “rig.”
Being a gadget geek, I once owned an old tube radio that enabled late night listening to shortwave from around the world. The interminable ebbing and fading of voices, static, squawks, and crackles, stirred the demons of distraction from my mother’s late night black-and-white television adventures with The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, and Jackie Gleason. In my defense though, her frustration was largely rooted in the constant necessity of getting up to readjust the rabbit ears and clicking the numbered dial on its face in search of the virtually non-existent clear picture.
With this childhood memory in my mind, my eyes popped out of my head during the visit to my boss’s radio “shack,” and now you know where the now-defunct company got its moniker. He introduced me to strange boxes with glowing dials, sweeping needles, rising and cascading lights, microphones, wires, controllers, amplifiers, antenna rotators, all sorts of gadgets that made my head and heart swim and swoon, then demonstrated how he could bounce radio voice signals off the ionosphere to Europe. It was a magic moment that I stored away to reopen at the nexus of opportunity and synchronicity.
That moment in time arrived upon meeting Gary and Jean, and I found myself standing on the edge of the precipice of change, pronouncing before them that I would begin studying for my ham technician license. I hadn’t realized that the decision was made long ago, and turning back now is not an option.
Why the effort and what’s the point? you ask. To start with, accessing assistance and information is not limited to cell reception and data limitations, nor the limited range of family frequency walkie-talkies. Being full-time on the road, we often are able to assist in weather and emergency response as well as obtain local and regional travel advice. Believe it or not, it is possible to bounce radio signals off comet tails and Aurora Borealis ionization (and how cool is that?!?). Knowing this, why the heck would you not have some fun too?
The Science of Study
My order of operations starts with ordering the American Radio Relay League’s Ham Radio License Manual, and preparing for 35 test questions compiled from nine licensing categories:
- License application procedures
- Radio and signals fundamentals
- Electricity, components, and circuits
- Propagation, antennas, and feed lines
- Amateur radio equipment
- Communication procedures with other hams
- Licensing regulations
- Operating regulations
I’m using pretty much the same procedure of study as for my previous test prep for automotive technician licensing, and organize as follows: Read through the e-manual and answer all embedded question links for each category. Read all referenced annotations and online references and video study materials. Finally return to the compendium of actual test questions, answer and study all missed items. Register with the FCC, locate a local test center, ace test, and await FCC notification of my official call sign.
Luckily electrical theory isn’t much of a problem for me, as I have a strong automotive electrical background, particularly with Ohm’s Law and power equations. Some questions require a bit more attention, such as, “How much transmitter power should be used on the uplink frequency of an amateur satellite or space station?” Never ran into that issue before. One cannot confuse alcohol with tower support systems in a question asking the purpose of a gin pole? Test proctors look askance at testers who laugh at questions regarding “rubber duck” antennas. I’ll not belittle the complexity and memory requirements necessary to pass this level of ham licensing, but will close these thoughts with a response to a question that will move you into the failure category: “Which of the following actions should you take if a neighbor tells you that your station’s transmissions are interfering with their radio or TV reception?” Answer B: Install a harmonic doubler on the output of your transmitter, increase the amplifier power output to maximum, wrap duct tape around the key of your microphone, and play heavy metal music until the neighbor begs forgiveness!
Now…that’s making the road not to walk, but run it!