consider becoming a ham radio dork

Let me just tear this baind-aid off: amatuer/ham radio in the United States is almost entirely comprised of old nerdy (generally white) men.

You will never see a cool Hollywood action guy who has amatuer/ham radio as a hobby and while I’m sure this will offend some people it can be pretty insular too. Like any group, there are normal people but the hardcore folks are the loudest and most active therefore setting the tone.

From a practical perspective, even a lot of homeless people have cheap smart phones and hooked up to a public wifi they can talk to someone in 4K video chat on the other side of the world for free. To do so with an amatuer/ham radio requires a couple grand worth of gear, passing two tests with a fair amount of studying, and doing a better-than-laymen-level job of electrical routing and antenna construction.

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Back when people traveled by hot air balloon and used radios the size of refrigerators to talk to someone in another country (who also had a radio the size of a refrigerator).

On any T-chart of plusses and minuses, what kind of terrible math would have you arrive at the idea that an amatuer radio license and all the hassle associated with it would be worth your time? Let me give you my answer.

It started on December 27, 2017. Our phone system went offline here in Mammoth. Data via the Internet, cellular voice and 3G/4G: all offline. The only way information was coming in was via FM broadcast radio and hilariously enough the town broadcasting was Bishop which I assume couldn’t get a message that we had lost communications up here.

In our hyperconnected lives, everything was offline. 911, that important conference call you had to be on, checking on an Amazon package you needed, getting an Amber Alert: all gone. So to was the nature of the outage. While surely just some glitch in some technical box somewhere or a backhoe that pierced a fiber line, there’s always that lingering question:

Is something big going on that I don’t know about?

Here in my office, armed with my ham license, I have the iconic $30 Baofeng UV-5R. The antenna is also $30, a magnetic mount that’s supposed to be on a car but instead it’s sitting on a 5 pound can of artichokes. My wife mistakenly bought them, I needed something steel to put the antenna on, and bam: it works.

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The #PleasantFire, burned near Bishop, CA in February of 2018.

Here in my office I listen to 92.5 Sierra Wave on that little $30 radio, which really has a pretty sweet music list. But the radio also cuts over automatically whenever there’s someone on the repeater network that connects all the ham radio dorks (of which I proudly am one) between Lone Pine and Carson City: the entirety of the Eastern Sierra, essentially.

One day while working in my office the radio sparked up and said “Hey, any of you guys see that fire over there by the campground?” Before Twitter, before Facebook, before the 911 call even went out, I knew about it. As the fire started growing I was able to contact other amatuer/ham folk who on a whole take public safety quite seriously, and get up-to-the-second news on road closures, evacuations, and the fire’s path.

Texting my friends down in Bishop, he was getting bombarded by bogus Twitter updates from random sources and gossip from neighbors.

In our hyper-connected world what you may notice is that while much more information is flying around the majority of that information suffers from terrible qualify. The ham radio dorks, however, risk losing their licenses and certainly their reputation if they pass on incorrect information about something important.

Amatuer literally translates to “for the love of”, and amatuer radio is no different. For some it’s heavy on the technology of radio, for others (like myself) it’s more so the civil preparedness model. At the same time that I get to be more valuable to my community, I also get more benefit for my family, my friends, and myself.

If you want to talk to some guy on the other side of the planet (99% chance it will indeed be a male), you’ll need to drop a few grand in equipment and really get into this stuff. But if you want to have a cheap, reliable, and effective way of communicating in your area and a bit beyond, it’s $70 and a pretty simple test.

Step 1: Find an exam near you. You’ll be taking the technician exam.

Step 2: Buy a little handheld radio, the programming cable, and a magnet mount antenna. You can stick it on top of your car, or on top of a file cabinet in your house. My 5lb can of artichokes works.

Step 3: Study for your test. You can buy a book, use a free app, and/or take free sample tests. I did all three because I’m a nerd at heart and liked learning some things.

Step 4: Download chirp, find the repeaters in your area, and load them in. These are the ones in the Eastern Sierra, as an example.

Step 5: Go get a pocket protector, fellow radio dork! We can sit around and make fun of the jocks now.

We all use and rely on technology that we don’t understand. You don’t really know how your car’s computer works and if you do then you don’t also really know the chemical structure of medications you take. We tend to get a working knowledge of things in our lives and call it good, specializing deeper in areas that require it, that we make money from, or that we have an interest in.

I think there’s a valuable argument to be made that medium range communication with other civic-minded folks, and not entirely relying on the rather delicate nature of cell phones and the Internet is worth a few hours and few dollars.

chains and winter driving in mammoth

Winter driving is a skill and not just in the driver’s seat. Knowing when you should drive, when you should wait, and what to toss in the car. Unfortunately for people visiting Mammoth (or any snowy mountain area) this just isn’t something they need to deal with all the time so those skills can be a bit rusty.

Step one: understand California chain control rules.

There are three levels of chain control, and you can see these by checking the highway status from Caltrans. Here’s the 395 (major Eastern Sierra highway) and the 203 (connects the 395 to Mammoth’s Main Lodge). Mid-storm, you’ll want to keep checking this every ~30 minutes because the chain control restrictions and road closures shift with the conditions.

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Typically managed by Caltrans with CHP around for troublemakers, you generally can’t talk your way out of chain control. Either you meet the requirement or you turn around.

  • R1 – Unless you have snow tires (with M+S stamped on the sidewall), you need to have chains or cables on one of your axles.
  • R2 – Unless you have AWD/4WD with snow tires, you need to have chains or cables on one of your axles.
  • R3 – Never really seen, and honestly you should turn back if you see this. Typically roads are closed past R2. I wouldn’t personally go out in R3 unless I¬† had sufficient equipment to bail on my vehicle and head out on foot, or wait out the entirety of the storm in my vehicle (fuel, heat, food, water, etc).

Cables count as chains, and modern cables work great. Practice putting them on at home and if you don’t have 4WD/AWD make sure you put them on the axle that the motor actually spins. If you have a 2WD car or truck make sure you know whether it’s front wheel or rear wheel drive and that’s where your chains/cables go. If you have 4WD/AWD there are religious arguments about whether you should chain up the front or the back: I’d recommend starting with the front.

Also, not all snow tires are created equal and not all AWD/4WD vehicles feel the same. I’ve had our AWD Subaru with Blizzaks¬†completely spinning out unable to get up a climb. My twice-as-heavy FJ80 with KO2 tires jaunted up the same climb minutes later without the slightest hesitation. So just because you see a vehicle doing something doesn’t mean yours can, and the other way around.

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Drive safe. Note that the snow berm on the right is higher than my truck.

Step two: drive slow.

I have a heavy 4WD, high clearance truck, with aggressive snow tires. If it’s really gross out I’ll rarely drive over 20MPH. Highway, neighborhood, whatever: drive slow. If you have chains or cables on they probably have speed limits too. Plus, packed down snow (after a storm) is generally worse than deep snow for slide outs, and the next night after it went through a melt/freeze cycle can be really slick. Drive slow.

There’s an expression in snowmobiling and winter driving: inertia (speed) is your friend going uphill, it’s your enemy going downhill. And definitely when going downhill there’s a difference between a slideout being an ego-bruising hour of shoveling versus t-boning another vehicle with kids in the back.

ABS (antilock breaking systems) work terribly in snow and ice, and your braking distance will be really magnified. One of the most common accidents is someone “braking” at a red light or stop sign only for the brakes to start ABS-jittering and the vehicle to happily roll straight into the intersection. Again, drive slow and watch the downhill momentum.

Step three: if it’s a storm or you see R2 conditions on the 395, take it seriously.

Bring a shovel (collapsible ones work), keep your winter gloves and jacket handy, and make sure you have a full gas tank. If you get near a half a tank, pull over at the next opportunity. Getting stuck for a couple of hours with your heater working fine is a little annoying, getting stuck with no heater can become an emergency in minutes.

If you do get emergency-stuck and it’s really dumping outside, make sure you keep the vehicle’s exhaust pipe in the back relatively shoveled out, the front grill relatively clear, and at least the occupied doors able to open if need be. There are deaths every year of carbon monoxide poisoning because the snow essentially traps enough exhaust gas under the vehicle which is where the air intake for the heaters pull from.

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My buddy’s truck high centered: tires spinning, compressed snow under the axles is now what’s supporting the weight of the vehicle. Have fun chiseling compacted ice out. Plus, it will just happen again as soon as he moves forward or back.

Step four: be visible.

White cars are cool but like an all-white snowsuit they are terrible for visibility. If it’s really reduced visibility, consider putting something on the back of your car to make it visible. And keep your lights on! If you’re having problems navigating the road, toss the hazards on. No one will get mad at you for signaling that you’re having a tough go of it and that you want to increase your vehicle’s visibility.

Step five: sometimes you need to wait it out.

The 16/17 winter here in the Eastern Sierra was epic by all accounts. We had the highest monthly snowfall ever recorded in the United States and even with our shovels, 4×4 rigs, traction devices, and related fancy gear, there were plenty of days where I looked out the window and just shook my head. We had to wait for the plows and blowers, we had to wait for the visibility to improve. Getting stuck really sucks when the conditions are so bad that people can’t even come help you.

The drive up the 395 is normally a total cakewalk requiring nothing other than typical safety. But mid winter in a storm things change fast. The thing you could have gotten away with six hours earlier can get now get you killed. Be safe, drive slow, and when in doubt just wait it out.

hartley springs campground

With five sar missions in the last week, I left town (and cell service) for the weekend. Destination: Hartley Springs Campground. Located about 20 minutes north of Mammoth Lakes the decided (as best I’ve been able to tell) lack of a “spring” is the reason I wanted to go there. The intense 16/17 winter has left snow everywhere, even in July. Much of it will stick around until next summer. With that snow is melt, and with that melt is water. Combine warm summer air and you get mosquitoes: lots and lots of mosquitoes.

I can handle mosquitoes but purposefully putting myself into the midsts of clouds of them is insane. Yes, I know about permethrin and DEET. I use a tent. I have coils. But “managing” mosquitoes for a weekend is tolerable but best avoided altogether.

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Our little slice of paradise, at Hartley Springs Campground.

Not only is there no natural water in Hartley Springs Campground, but there’s also no plumbed water: you need to bring all your own. There’s also no trash cans, no bear boxes, and no real anything. Some porta-potties, picnic tables, and a fire ring is about as fancy as it gets. The upshot is that it’s free to stay there and maybe 10 minutes from June Lake (20 from Mammoth Lakes) if you forget anything or just want to buzz into town for a bit.

It was also packed: we got the last spot when we showed up on a Friday around 4pm. It’s a haven for dirt bikers and 4x4s as well, so expect lots of poorly muffled exhausts blaring around you. Not in a horribly obnoxious way, but definitely in a you’ll-know-you’re-around-dirt-bikes sort of way.

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In my sar pack I need to carry webbing, carabiners, and 50 of 8mm. Apparently that and a milk crate allowed me to set up swings and with my winch a zip line.

Verizon has a bit of coverage there, but no dice for AT&T. We had come through here a couple of months ago and there were little snow patches around so I safely bet that by now it should be bone dry and indeed not a single mosquito was found.

So especially in the non zany busy season if you’re looking for a free campground and can handle your own water and trash, give Hartley Springs a once-over. There’s a bit of dirt roading to do on the way in, perhaps a passenger car might have a tough go of it, but any AWD should be fine. I think I saw a couple 2wd passenger cars; I’d certainly give it a shot. If you do go up in a 2wd perhaps stick to a busier time period so that if you get stuck there’s a high likelihood that someone can help you out.

camping along the mojave road

Another entry in my #MojaveRoad series because I’m too lazy to write it all down at once (original article here).

One thing I really dug about this trip was how free form the whole thing was. It reminded me a lot of sailing in the sense that with all that self sufficiency comes freedom. We planned on two nights near the Colorado River to meet up and start but after that it was an open road: think Thelma & Louise minus the ending.

Big Bend of the Colorado

Since I was coming from Mammoth and my buddy from San Diego, we met up near the starting point of the Mojave Road at the Big Bend of the Colorado, a Nevada state park with camping situated on the Colorado River.

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We got to hang out in the river for a bit before mid day when we all got heat sickness.

It’s not a terrible campground, but it’s definitely a utility locale. It was expensive, bland, and you could hear engine brakes from the nearby highway. Oddly far from most businesses it was still unfortunately suburban at the same time. The bathrooms were clean and it’s super close to the start of the Mojave Road so there’s that.

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My friend and I trying not to die from the heat and doing some route planning at Big Bend of the Colorado, Nevada State Park.

Mid Hills Campground

Our handy dandy (and extremely over detailed) Mojave Road guide mentioned numerous camping sites but they all had one thing in common: no camping signs.

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This sign or several like it can be found at every location mentioned by the guide as “a good place to camp.”

We actually found a really cool place on our own but there was a huge pile of dead squirrels on it. Who brought the carnage? Beats me. I was fine with staying there and just parking a truck on top of the gore: out of sight, out of mind. My friend’s wife was a voice of reason however and we moved on. And lucky we did, because we found our way to Mid Hills Campground. With potable water, firepits, a picnic table, and a 5,000 foot elevation to keep things cool it was a great idea for the $12 nightly fee.

Mid Hills is also roughly smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Road and easily accessible in one night from the Colorado River in a day provided you aren’t stopping to smell every non existent flower.

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Dinner at Mid Hills campground, somewhere in the desert at 5,000 feet: note the juniper trees in the background.

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My buddy and his son, Mid Hills Campground. It really was a welcome break from the lowland desert valley.

From Mid Hills, we shot back onto the Mojave Road and quickly realized that we were probably okay on gasoline. It should be noted that probably being okay whilst in the middle of bum-fuck-egypt means you’re not really okay.

So we made a pit stop in Baker, California. I hope I do not offend any of Baker’s 745 residents by saying that there wasn’t much going on. And although it took us out of the wilderness a bit, there are practical matters to attend to (like ice and fuel), and additionally if the original Mojave Road pioneers had a Taco Bell up in Baker you can bet your ass they would have hit it up.

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Baker has ice, fuel, a Taco Bell, motel, two auto shops, and other travel stuff.

Fast forward maybe 100 miles from Baker, back on the Mojave Road: a couple of river crossings, a dry lake bed you can do donuts in, and the rock travel monument thing. We made it! We’re done, at least to where most people stop as the road technically continues on for another 11 miles.

Afton Canyon Campground, California

For most people Afton Canyon represents the end (or the beginning, if headed west-to-east) of the line, and as such the Afton Canyon Campground is a perfect spot to hang your filthy sun hat. Tables with awnings, potable water, and non-horrible toilets make this place functionally cool but the nearly constant rumble of freight trains and amazing scenery make it more than that.

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Afton Canyon Campground is a bit like being on Mars in the best way possible. The constant freight trains, the desolation, and the scenery makes the place pretty amazing.

The problem of course is that it’s eight million degrees there so unless you enjoy dying slowly of hyperthermia I think you’ll make your time here brief. Perhaps in the winter it’s a very different story: I checked the forecast for tomorrow (June 27) and it’s 109f.

As a final note, remember that the desert is weird. The alpine forests tend to have a mountaineer-ish vibe, and beaches have a chilled out vibe. Deserts just have a weird vibe. I’ve lived on the Sea of Cortez (including the summer), Vegas, Phoenix, and Southern California: I’m familiar with deserts. There’s a certain kind of person who arrives at these hells-on-earth and sees them as a paradise. I can appreciate the desert for what it is but that’s a far cry from wanting to exist there long term.

Keep your wits about you. Someone killed all those squirrels and left their piled up corpses in the middle of an otherwise nice camping area. Could it have happened up here in Mammoth or down in San Diego? Maybe, but it didn’t. It happened on the Mojave Road and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

maps for the mammoth / june / eastern sierra (mono/inyo/yosemite)

I looked at my rather beefy selection of local maps and thought it might help some others figure out what they could use. For reference, here’s a link to the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center.

For anyone looking to explore the area a bit via their computer, check out CalTopo if you haven’t before. CalTopo also gives you some awesome route planning options and you can print out your maps from home (for free).

Have fun and be safe!