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Clean-up on aisle 9: When your best-laid plans crumble

We called it the “Grand Canyon trip” because that was the bucket-list destination around which Debi and I built our itinerary. In reality, though, we spent less than a quarter of our 13-day vacation there — one night on the South Rim and two on the North Rim. During our nine months of planning, we decided to fly into Phoenix, rent a car and drive it back home. 

That entailed a tradeoff, of course — less time to explore the canyon, but more time to experience a large swath of territory that was unfamiliar to us. The Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Louisiana bayou and Mobile Bay also seemed like must-sees. 

In addition to novel landscapes, getting west of the Mississippi River was an opportunity to bag all sorts of new bird species. Attacking large portions of South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern and central Florida with binoculars and a 500-mm camera lens, we’ve seen a lot of the passerine, wading and shorebird species native to our region. But to this point, our major birding opportunities outside the Southeast have been Hawaii’s Big Island and the Galapagos Islands — both of which feature birds you cannot see elsewhere, but comparatively few species overall.


The other big attraction for me was the chance to fly my drone over new terrain. The Southeast Coast is a beautiful place to pilot, of course, but it also remarkably flat. Capturing jutting mountains and rolling grasslands would provide some variety and stretch my skills.

So when I say we planned our trip well in advance, I mean we planned it. We combed Google Earth and YouTube to pick routes with the most photogenic points of interest. We scoured eBird to identify places offering the best chance to add species to our life list. We studied the AirMap app to get familiar with air space and figure out where I could and could not fly my Mavic 2 Pro. 

Here I should pause and admit something about myself that, although not without benefit, can drive people around me crazy: When I make a plan, I stick the hell to it. My reflexive reaction to deviations is to treat them as signs of weakness and failure. Nothing puts me on edge faster than getting off schedule or realizing I’ve failed to prepare for something that should have been obvious to me.

So of course we anticipated that Phoenix in July would be hot as balls. 

And Phoenix didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was 110 degrees when we landed at the airport at midday. It was also dry. And windy. Arizona’s capital isn’t so much a city as it is a convection oven with a baseball team. 

But of course, we were prepared.

We picked out a Nissan Sentra from the rental garage, then proceeded with martial purpose to the Walmart between the airport and our hotel — identified during a Google Maps reconnaissance mission months earlier. On the shopping list: A cooler. A bag of ice. Bottled water. A windshield sun shade. Canned air. Every item satisfied at least one criterion: It would keep us, or the drone and camera batteries cool; spare us hotel mini-bar expense; or be better purchased on the road than stuffed into precious carry-on space.

By the way, did I call Phoenix a giant convection oven? I misspoke. I meant to say it is an incorporated meth lab, at least as far as we could tell by the rot-mouth roaming the Walmart. 

In fairness, I imagine there are similar folks in the Walmarts near my home, folks to whom I’ve grown accustomed and simply tune out. But when you’re wandering a strange land, every shirtless, tattooed and pierced denizen seems like an alien. 

So not judging. Just saying. 

In fact, the menagerie added quite a bit to our enjoyment: This wasn’t just a shopping spree; it was the trip’s first point of interest. 

As such, I was in no particular hurry when, at an endcap, I came face to face with an overweight, geriatric woman in a moo-moo, tooling around in a red scooter. I gladly pushed my cart to the right so she could pass. But she just sat there. Staring at me. Blankly. 

After four or five seconds of ogling that felt more like 40 or 50, I backed up my cart and retreated down the first-aid aisle. She rolled past, even though she had enough clearance to do so before I gave ground. “That was weird,” I whispered to Debi.

Nonetheless, we remained relaxed and were still well ahead of schedule. We shopped and people-watched for another half hour. When it was time to check out, we pushed the buggy to a lane that was marked “express.” However, it seemed to be moving at a pace suggesting we had unwittingly entered the queue for mortgage applicants. When we finally got to the register, a cashier apologized for the delay. 

“Sorry, I’m a little flustered,” she explained, glancing over her left shoulder, toward the restrooms in front of the checkout area. “That lady over there just died. She was sitting in her scooter, and I thought she was asleep.

“Then, she just fell out of her chair, and … OOOOOHH!” the cashier said, doing that squint/shrug/shudder thing people do when describing something icky.

“Yep, she dead,” the nodding bagger confirmed.

About 20 feet away, a nervous store manager clutched a clipboard and directed customers away from the knot of firemen and paramedics tending to the woman. Well, I assume it was a woman because the cashier said so. However, there were so many people gathered around, and the patient had not yet been lifted up on a gurney, so we couldn’t really see the poor soul. 

But I thought I got a glimpse of a red scooter through the crowd. 

“Do you think … that … was?” Debi asked, her voice trailing.

As the mournful cashier rang up our new cooler, I pondered life’s frailty and the folly of wasted time. We emerged from the Walmart with a bag of ice, a windshield shade and renewed urgency to make the most of this vacation. Yep. “Waste no opportunity” would be our motto.


wasted my first opportunity two days later along Arizona State Route 89A North, on our way out of Sedona to the Grand Canyon's South Rim. The highway winds alongside Oak Creek, through a spectacular red blaze of peaks and canyons. In researching the trip, I saw gorgeous photos and videos shot from these creek beds. I wanted similar shots for myself. 

On the morning we drove out of Sedona, the conditions to capture such scenes couldn’t have been more perfect. The sun was just peeking above the mountaintops as we turned a curve that straightened into a bridge over Oak Creek. As soon as I saw the deep gorge it traversed, the shot developed in my mind's eye — drone flying backward, close to the water’s surface, rising from beneath the bridge to reveal the span and a spectacular sunrise. Best of all, I could get the shot quickly, easily and safely — there was a trailhead just over the bridge that afforded easy access and an unobstructed view beneath the bridge.

I practically bounded out of the car, quickly unfolded the drone and tapped the DJI app … only to discover that my phone was out of storage space and had moved the DJI app to the cloud. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be a problem … except that way out here, I had no cell signal. Which meant I had no app. Which meant no flight, unless I wanted to wing it with the manual controls. Which I did not.

I considered flinging myself off that bridge. I hadn’t — and wouldn’t — encounter such a picturesque spot for flying during the entire trip. And here I was. Grounded.

I settled instead for a few earthbound still images, including the one below, which Debi hates but I adore.


Debi outside Sedona.jpg

Once reconnected to wifi at an iHop in Flagstaff, I was able to re-load the app, but there were a few other frustrating drone encounters in the days to come.


Much of our route through New Mexico paralleled the heavily traveled Santa Fe Railroad, which was marked by small trestles wherever the line crosses gulches and wash-outs. We must have seen a dozen trains over a 100-mile stretch, and another shot came to me, similar to the one I missed outside Sedona: Start the drone low, so that the only thing in view is the vast, flat plain; fly backward underneath a trestle, then rise and turn to see a freight train chugging a mile into the distance.

This would require equal portions of skill and luck. I would need to see the train approach from some distance, then locate a spot near a trestle where it is safe to park and legal to fly. We tried for nearly an hour, to no avail. We thought we had hit the jackpot just across the Texas state line, when we pulled ahead of a train that had slowed to pass through a small cattle town. We drove nearly a mile ahead of the engine but never saw a suitable place to stop and fly. Then the tracks veered away from the road, perpendicular to our route, never again to join up with the highway. Several minutes later, the train chugged past.

Foiled again.

By that time, I was itching to fly and decided to take out my frustration on an old water tower in Farwell, TX. For several months, I’d been collecting footage of distinctive water towers with the intent of sewing them into a single video. (You can see the finished product below.) Keeping an eye on the top of the Farwell tower as I drove, we traced it to a perfect little garden spot — a public park with nobody around. We also discovered an added bonus — a second, newer water tower standing just behind the older one.

Yes, this would do nicely. I had the drone in the air in about a minute … and then almost immediately had to make an emergency landing. 

Seems the Mavic 2 Pro wasn’t the only thing flying around the park. The branches of several large pecan trees were filled with Mississippi kites, and they didn’t take kindly to the invasion of their air space. Two made spirited dives at the drone, so I brought it down immediately. 

But not without getting a shot of the water towers first. Finally, I nailed something.

Far from frustrated, I rushed to stash the drone and grab my camera. We’d seen kites before — in fact, a mating pair usually flies over a neighbor's yard each summer — but these birds were more plentiful and closer. And they were not alone. The limbs of nearby trees were full of great-tailed grackles and western kingbirds — species we had NOT seen before. We spent the next 45 minutes making a bird list and thoroughly enjoying a sunny, quiet afternoon in the park.

From the ashes of dashed hopes arose the day’s highlight. This unplanned stop didn’t feel at all like failure or weakness. Score one for spontaneity.

Of course, spontaneity can damn near kill you, too, as this trip had already taught us.

Side trips

3 times on our Arizona-to-SC trip that fate did not jibe with our plans

Just outside Katy, Texas, the light on the rental-car dashboard flashed on, indicating we had lost pressure in a tire. I pulled into a Shell station at 23903 Katy Freeway, discovered a rear driver-side tire was down to 10 pounds of pressure, then went inside for change to feed the air machine. We slid $1.50 in quarters into the slots and then … nothing.


Debi went back inside and explained our situation to the cashier and asked for our money back. The cashier refused, telling her another company owned and maintained the machines. 


When Debi came back outside to tell me, I went from frustrated to pissed. I took a few deep breaths, regained my composure, then went in the store to ask for the manager. A man named Vladislav or something of that sort approached from the freezer case. I explained to him that we were traveling from out of town, the tire on our rental car was dangerously low and the machine in front of his store took our money.


“There is nothing I can do,” he said with a thick Eastern-European accent and unsympathetic tone. He then turned and walked away.


My inner redneck boiled over again.


“Don’t walk away from me. I want my money back,” I said, in a tone that was not quite a shout but still loud enough that the woman examining apples in the bin halfway across the store raised her head to look at me. 


“We do not own machine,” the manager said, stopping and turning toward me. “There is nothing I can do.”


“You might not own machine,” I said in a mocking accent, “but it’s in your parking lot. I think you can give me my buck fifty back, or maybe come outside and look at the machine yourself. Or recommend a tire shop close by so that we’re not driving all over the damn place with a bum tire.”


The manager just stood there, staring at me, as if I had ripped HIM off.


“You’re an asshole,” I said, again not quite yelling, but loud enough that the apple inspector put her head down and made a beeline to the checkout counter.

We spent the next half hour looking for a tire shop. The Googles sent us across Interstate 10 to a transmission shop that was not open — damnit, Googles! — before finally locating a Firestone Complete Auto Care shop. The manager there was as polite and helpful as the old Rooskie was rude. He did us a big favor by hanging up the phone while on hold with the rental car company, which he had called for permission to make the repair. Thinking better of it, he decided the only thing likely to come from this call is unnecessary paperwork. 


“Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” he said with a smile as he hung up.


“Man, I say the same thing all the time,” I replied, smiling back at him.


Apparently, we picked up a nail and needed only to have the hole plugged. The manager charged us $10 and had us out the door in a half-hour, restoring our faith in humanity.


Every long trip will include its mishaps, and along the way, you’ll encounter people who care and people who are worse than indifferent. This vacation was no different, though I must admit misadventures were kept to a minimum. Here are three other foibles I’ll remember:


1. Photos gobble up space and time: I told you the story about filling up my iPhone storage and being unable to fly the drone, thereby missing out on what was likely the most picturesque place I could legally fly. That wasn’t the only of my tech troubles, though. I brought along an old external hard drive so that I could dump my photo cards each night. I thought this was the best plan since I didn’t really want to spring to upgrade my cloud service, which wouldn’t do me much good, anyway, where I had spotty Internet connections. Unfortunately, I forgot that I had packed an older drive with only 250 GB and a bunch of family photos already stored on it. I was out of space after three days. I developed a Plan B, but I was unable to find an SD card of sufficient size at the North Rim gift shop or camp store. Rather than burning three hours driving to purchase one the next morning, I wasted our entire first night at the North Rim individually inspecting thousands of old pictures and video clips and clearing space off the drive. 


2. Debi gets the spinneys: Our driving schedule made for a late lunch in Sedona on Day 2 of our trip. So rather than a big dinner, we decided to have appetizers and drinks at a restaurant about a mile from our hotel. The place wasn’t super swank, or anything, but I’d say we were slightly underdressed after an afternoon of hiking. We took a seat at the bar and waited … and waited … and waited. Finally, a bartender straight out of "Days of Our Lives" central casting took our order. Debi asked for guacamole and a house-specialty margarita. 

We waited another 15 minutes before the bartender got around to dropping off the drinks. Debi’s margarita was particularly stout and, apparently, accented with a splash of gasoline. We soldiered on, nonetheless, emptying our glasses in about 15 minutes. 

Still no guacamole, though. Or any offer to serve us up another round, either.

The bartender, apparently unaware Los Angeles was another 500 miles west, was at the end of the bar yapping it up with a better-dressed couple, no doubt explaining he’s just working here to make ends meet until someone purchases his screenplay. Fortunately, we got the attention of a bar back, who emerged from the kitchen with our guacamole and refilled our drinks.

The guacamole was yummy and the second margarita as powerful as the first. Devouring both, we decided to return to the hotel for a dip in the hot tub and an evening beneath the stars. 

Then we stood up ... and Debi wobbled.

“Whoa! I’ve got the spinneys,” Debi said. We exited with her on my arm and the bartender still yapping away with the better-dressed couple.

Boy, if I were a Yelper. 

Anyway, there was no hot tub that night, and the only stars whirled inside Debi’s head when she hit the hotel bed. I placed a trashcan next to her. Fortunately, it was still empty the next morning.


But, boy, we hate the spinneys.

3. A surprise beneath the blankets: All we wanted was a clean place to sleep. Austin was not in the original plans, but we had such a good time in Texas, we decided to stay an extra day with Cathy, a high-school friend of Debi. Then, Cathy suggested we spend the next night in the state capital instead of Houston so that we could see a local wildlife spectacle – North America’s largest urban community of bats pouring from beneath the Congress Street Bridge at dusk.


Cathy even offered to show us the way and watch the bats fly with us. We drove through a torrential rainstorm to get there, though, Debi and Cathy in her SUV and me following her taillights in our rental car. Twice, the downpour was so torrential and my vision so impaired that the vehicle I thought I was following turned out to be someone else’s. 


The weather cleared as we hit town, though, and we were able to see the show from a park beneath the bridge. Cathy returned home, and Debi and I decided to pass on Austin’s famous nightlife in favor of a good night's sleep. We had a long day of driving ahead of us, after all. 


We checked into a Hampton Inn, taking in only an overnight bag and dragging ourselves to our room. As we tucked our bags inside a closet, I noticed what I thought was a caterpillar in the middle of the floor. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a false eyelash. “Eeewwwwhhh!” Debi screeched before retreating to the bathroom to brush her teeth.


Oh, it was about to get worse.


I turned down the bed and was about to climb in when I noticed … well … there’s no other way to put this: a pubic hair. Then, I noticed another. Then another. And a bunch of lipstick smudges, too. Clearly, the sheets had not been changed since the room’s last occupant checked out. Either that, or the housekeepers take great liberties during break time. 


I called the desk and asked if we could switch rooms. They offered to change the bed linens instead. Fine, I conceded. I was too tired to fight about it.


The woman who had checked us in a half-hour earlier now appeared at our door with new sheets and pillowcases. She asked us to help her put them on the bed since no one from the housekeeping staff was available. I conceded again. Maybe I can vacuum for you, too, I thought to myself. I was starting to think we should have saved the money and the trouble and slept under the bridge while the bats were away.


The desk lady turned out to be as nice as she was clueless, however. Come to find out, she even knew some folks back home on St. Helena Island. Small world. The bed remade, she was on her way, and within 20 minutes, Debi and I were asleep. 


I wore pajama bottoms and a long-sleeve shirt, though. Fixing a flat tire and a skin rash would have been too much to ask of Katy, TX, the next day.

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