By: Mark Abrams
It was a routine day in July 2022 when I had two tower sites to visit in one day. The problem was that these two tower sites were a long way away and would require that I start the day early and end the day late. I had over 400 miles to travel, so I woke up at 4:30AM which we refer to as “O Dark Thirty”. After my normal morning routine, then checking my emails and the FCC website, I placed several bottles of cold water into the vehicle and proceeded to head out for the day’s work around 5:30AM.
It was a relatively quiet drive at this time of the morning compared to the normal noise of traffic with all the vehicles, horns, speeding vehicles, trash trucks, delivery vehicles and commuters who would be going to work. I needed to fill up with gasoline, so I stopped at the Costco station to fill the gas tank. I finished at the station when I arrived back where I had diverted from my intended destination and headed north along Crenshaw Blvd, it seemed like the traffic was increasing by the minute. After 10 minutes, I reached the Interstate 405 aka the San Diego Freeway and entered the northbound onramp to find considerably more traffic than what was present on the surface street. I moved over to the 2nd lane and set my speed to approximately 70 MPH to be consistent with the other traffic on the freeway. I proceeded north on the freeway until the Culver City area where the traffic slowed due to normal congestion of the day. The fact that I was there at 6:10AM seemed like I should have avoided all the traffic which would have been true years ago and even during the COVID shutdown, but now the LA traffic had returned to pre-COVID levels which was proving to slow traffic to 25-35 MPH which was considerably better than being in bumper to bumper traffic. This continued past the Interstate 10 aka Santa Monica Freeway into the Westwood area where the traffic began to break up and return to full speed where I traveled through the Sepulveda Pass into the San Fernando Valley. It was full speed ahead until I reached Roscoe Blvd where I exited to make a pit stop and get something to eat. After a modest break, I proceeded north on the San Diego Freeway which eventually merged with the Interstate 5 aka the Golden State Freeway and shortly thereafter diverted onto California Highway 14 aka the Antelope Valley Freeway.
My first destination was El Paso Peak which was just south of the China Lake Naval Air Station and the city of Ridgecrest. There are two routes that I could take to the tower site using the 405 freeway; one route continuing up Highway 14 turning off at Inyokern and heading east until reaching US395 and then proceeding south to the dirt road that accesses the site. The other route takes me through a remote portion of the desert on Redrock Randsburg Road, a back road that travels past the Cantil area to Garlock Road and eventually to US395. This is the route that I selected to take which got me to El Paso Peak around 9:00AM so that I could start my work early. I had a meeting with the tower site owner and the FAA to check out an interference issue however, I had work to do for a customer who was having trouble with their new repeater that we installed due to radio interference from other VHF transmitters on the hilltop. My task was to install some filters that I felt confident would fix the interference problem before the tower site owner arrived with the FAA at 10:00AM. The building was 2-story and all the equipment I had to service was on the 2nd floor. This meant that I had to haul all the filters upstairs along with my test equipment and tools so that I had what I needed to install the filters and be certain that they were functioning properly. This required several trips up and down the stairs until I had everything that I needed upstairs in the building to perform the tasks at hand.
The repeater had been recently installed, but was suffering from considerable interference from the site. I presumed that much of the interference was caused by the FM broadcast stations at the site, but there was a considerable amount of other VHF radios at the site which could also cause some interference. The duplexer that was supplied by the customer was a pass-notch type duplexer which worked well at the close frequency spacing between receive and transmit, but it was designed to keep the repeater transmitter from interfering with the repeater receiver and not to keep the site interference from adversely affecting the repeater. Therefore I started with installing the dual isolator on the transmit filter and then had to marry the filter to the duplexer. Since the cable length was a critical length cable because I was connecting one filter to another filter, I had to figure out the correct cable length. I had brought my calibrated cables with me and had them upstairs in the building where I experimented with different cable lengths until I found the optimum cable length. I then had to build a cable to the correct length to finish off the transmitter filter. I then proceeded to do the same with the receiver filter and build the cable to the correct length. The duplexer and filters were performing properly, so I attached them to the repeater. Using my test equipment, I measured the interference level after installing the filters and as expected I found that the interference was now down to a very minimal level. I then tested the repeater with two portable radios and found that it worked properly from the site.
Now it was time to start taking all of the tools and test equipment down from the 2nd floor of the building to the vehicle. Again, this would entail multiple trips up and down the stairs, but fewer than when I arrived because the filters that I brought up the stairs would remain at the site. So as I was working on getting everything back to the car, the site owner showed up with the FAA to check out the interference that the FAA was receiving from something in the building. The reason I picked this particular time to go to the site is so that I could “kill two birds with one stone” by being present while the FAA was present so that I could prove that our equipment was not the source of their trouble. So the FAA technician came into the building with his test equipment and after he had the interference dialed in with his test equipment, I turned off the repeater that I just upgraded and also turned off the MRA equipment in the building while the interference continued to cause trouble for the FAA. Therefore, it was clear that the equipment for which MRA is responsible was not part of the problem, so I finished taking my test equipment and tools down to the car and left the site while the tower site owner continued with the FAA to make a final determination as to the source of the problem plaguing the FAA. It appeared that one of the broadcast stations in the building was the source of the problem, but that was not my problem and I did not need to stay for the final determination.
I took off from the site around 10:20AM and headed down the dirt road towards US395. While driving down the road, I used my two VHF portable radios to routinely test the repeater to verify that it seemed to be working properly. It took about 10 minutes to get down to the highway where I proceeded to turn north to head towards Ridgecrest and eventually over to Highway 178 turning west to reach Highway 14 where I turned north to make another pit stop at Indian Wells and pick up some important supplies while continuing to test the repeaters with my two portable radios.. I then headed north on Highway 14 until it merged with US395 and proceeded north (while continuing to test the repeater) until I reached the Olancha area where I stopped to meet our customer to pick up the key to the next tower site where I had to work. (The VHF repeater worked well with my portable radios until I was about 1 mile past Little Lake which means that the repeater was performing properly.) We talked for a little bit before I took off to head up to the Cerro Gordo tower site which was still a bit of a drive. The last time I had attempted to drive to Cerro Gordo, it was the day after the flash flooding in Inyo County that had washed out the road making it impossible to get to the tower site. The flood also took out the road to Death Valley amongst several others. Now that it was 3 weeks later, the road department has gotten the road just barely open as a rough road which was a considerable improvement over being impassible. As I drove northeast on California Highway 190, I was wondering what their definition of “barely passable” would turn out to be in reality, but that would have to wait until I arrived at the dirt road. In the meantime, I continued on Highway 190 to Highway 136 where I turned left to head northwest to the town of Keeler where the dirt road was located. The safety cones were still across the road, but armed with the knowledge that the road was actually open, I felt that I could proceed up the road with confidence that I would eventually reach the top of the road at the tower site, but it could be a rough drive along the way.
The road goes to the Cerro Gordo mine which is a few hundred feet below the top of the mountain where the radio site is located. The mine was very active 40 years ago, but these days it is more of a “ghost town” up in the mountains which is now in the process of being turned into a tourist destination. A private entrepreneur purchased the mine about a year or two ago and has decided to build a small hotel at the mine to offer some unique experiences to people who like to explore the remote environment.
It was now about 1PM as I proceeded up the road to Cerro Gordo. The road is maintained by Inyo County and is a wide and relatively smooth dirt road compared to most tower sites. The bottom of the road seemed to be relatively untouched by the flash flooding that occurred weeks earlier, but I knew that this would be short lived because the road travels through a canyon that at times is just a few feet wider than a typical vehicle where the water would get funneled into a massive river that would take out the roadbed. So as I proceeded up the road slowly being more careful than normal because I could come across a major problem with the road at any time and if I did not take extra care, I could break an axle, take out a transmission, the drive train or get something as simple as a flat tire. Once leaving the paved road, any help that I would need is unlikely to arrive in any reasonable amount of time and the cellular coverage is spotty at best leaving me in a situation where I could break down without having a way to call for help. I did have my two-way radio with me which would work in many places where I could not get cellular coverage, but even my two-way radio had some dead spots so it was possible that if I broke down, I could be in a location where I could not have any communications with the outside world.
As I drove up the road, it seems like the last time I traveled this path. The road was in good shape for the first 7-8 minutes until I started to enter the canyon and the canyon started to narrow. Soon thereafter, I found two earth movers working on the road from Inyo County attempting to repair the road. I had only speculation as to how much work they had already done on the road, but the road seemed very passable. I drove by the first earth mover who was working on the right side of the road. I had to move over to the left side of the road to pass the grader and proceeded past him until I reached the second earth grader who was blocking the road with the work that he was doing at the time. I waited for a minute or two before he finished with the phase of the work he was doing and then moved the machine out of my way which allowed me to proceed up the road. The canyon continued to narrow up as I proceeded up the road so within a few minutes, I was into areas that had already received extensive work by the road workers. It was impossible for me to tell exactly how much work they had done, but it was clear that there had been extensive road work performed on the area. The roadbed was filled with small rocks around one inch diameter which were not well compacted. I could feel the tires sinking into the roadbed as the vehicle was mushy in its response. I drove this section of the road slowly to help prevent any unexpected surprises since these road conditions could present a surprise at any moment. I continued to climb up the canyon for another 7 minutes until I came out of the narrow portion of canyon when I noticed a light on my dashboard from the tire pressure monitoring system. It indicated that my left rear tire was low on air with only 23 pounds in the tire that is normally kept at 35 pounds. My next thought was, “Houston, we have a problem.”
I immediately started looking for a spot where I could pull over to the side of the road on relatively flat ground which was particularly scarce at this moment in time. I kept watch on the instrument panel to see how fast the tire was loosing air. I drove for another few minutes looking for a spot to pull over as the tire pressure dropped down to 21 pounds. I knew that I did not have a lot of time before the tire would go flat, so I quickly found a spot to pull over which was less than fully desirable, but time was not on my side. If I let the tire go fully flat, it would be a lot more difficult to jack up the car so I wanted to get the jack under the axle before the tire went totally flat.
I opened up the back of the vehicle to retrieve the car jack. It was secured inside the left side panel near the rear hatch so it took a couple of minutes to get the jack loose so that I could remove it from the compartment. The jack was attached to metal wheel chocks with a custom clamping arrangement which I removed to allow me to place the chocks in place behind the front tires to keep the vehicle from rolling downhill over me or knocking over the jack. I assembled the crank mechanism to extend the jack and then I crawled under the vehicle to get the jack properly in place. The ground was loose and it was difficult to place the jack securely under the axle so it took a lot of fiddling with the jack before I was confident that the jack would hold in place during the extension of the jack. I had to turn the crank to extend the jack slowly to take up the gap between the top of the jack and the bottom of the axle. This was an awkward process but I eventually was able to get the jack secured just in the nick of time as I needed to take care of an urgent nature call. Once that was finished, I started jacking up the vehicle to the point where the tire was just touching the ground so that there would be some ground friction to keep the tire from turning while I loosened the lug nuts.
Just as I was removing the lug nuts, a vehicle came driving down the road. The vehicle looked similar to a military Hum-V which had a crew of 4 people in the vehicle. They stopped to ask me if I needed any help, but being a bit too macho at the time, I said that I was OK and did not need any help, so they started to move on. I then thought about what I had said and decided that it was foolish to refuse the help and that I should have them help me change the tire, but they had already started down the hill and it was too late for me to change my mind. I kept thinking about my mistake constantly as I continued to work on changing the tire saying to myself that I am really going to regret refusing the help if I run into problems changing the tire. For safety reasons, I wanted to get the spare tire out before I took the tire off the vehicle so I proceeded to remove the spare tire from its hiding spot. The spare tire was stored underneath the vehicle, so I had to remove the tire by turning the hoisting mechanism until the tire was down on the ground. I continued to extend the hoist cable until I was able to pull the tire out from underneath the vehicle so that I could remove the cable from the tire hub. I then moved the spare tire into place so that I could start loosening the lug nuts. One at a time, I managed to break them loose and proceeded to unscrew the lug nuts one at a time to completely free the tire. The old tire came off the car without any hassle so I moved it out of the way and proceeded to move the spare tire into place. I had to swipe the rocks with my hand on the road once to provide all the clearance I needed to get the new tire onto the lug bolts. Once in place, the tire slid onto the lug bolts with ease. I grabbed the lug nuts and immediately started tightening them to secure the tire. After it was all secure, I proceeded to try to put the spare tire back under the vehicle, but it would not fit properly on the hoist so I placed the flat tire inside the rear of the vehicle. Now it was time to lower the jack and pack up the mechanism to place them in the back of the vehicle. Finally, it was all done and I was able to get back into the vehicle and rest for a couple of minutes. The entire process took me over one hour of precious time.
The big question in my mind was whether I should continue heading up the mountain or should I head down to the bottom. I was only about 50% of the way up the mountain and without a working spare tire, continuing up the mountain was risky at best. What would happen if I had another flat tire? I would be stuck and need to get help. It was a long way up to the top and it was a long way down to the bottom. I was confident that my vehicle would handle the task, but I was not confident that the tires would survive the rest of the trip up the mountain and then all the way down to the highway. I also considered the consequences of not completing my task. This job would take another entire day out of the schedule after waiting until I had time to complete other items that needed to be done so I decided to continue up the mountain. I felt that I should be even more careful because I no longer had the backup of a spare tire and could not afford to have another flat tire.
I proceeded up the mountain slowly watching the road to be certain that I took the route that maximized my chances of not having another flat tire. As I continued to climb the mountain, the road had mostly returned to its previous condition as the rains had not significantly affected the road. I kept going up until I eventually reached the Cerro Gordo mine. I drove through the mine camp and made the right turn to head up the rest of the way to the top of the mountain. As I passed through the camp, the road condition deteriorated significantly because the road was no longer maintained by Inyo County. It was maintained by the US Forest Service who barely maintains roads at all. So I continued my up the road and reached the microwave installation for the Department of Water and Power at the first switchback in the road. Since they were only running point to point microwave, they were able to build their facility well below the top of the mountain. I passed their building and continued up the hill following the bend in the road until I reached another building that was solar powered. It had video cameras and a microwave link for the cameras, but that is all that appeared to be in the building. As I made the switchback in front of the building, I was now faced with a rock slide that deposited rocks that were mostly between 3” and 7” with a few larger ones. I looked at the rock field and decided to attempt to traverse it without clearing the rocks since I was still recovering from changing the tire on the vehicle. I sighted my path and started wiggling my way through the rock field attempting to avoid any tire damage and taking out the transmission, drive train or other low hanging fruit underneath the vehicle. It was either great luck or incredible skill which got me through the rock slide as I continued up the mountain until I reached the next two switchbacks and then to the top of the mountain. The last of the road was tame and when I got to the top of the mountain face, I transitioned to the other side of the mountain where there were two more switchbacks to traverse before reaching the top of the mountain. I pulled over in front of the building where our customer’s equipment was located. I got out of the car and found that the temperature was 59 degrees with a little bit of wind making it a little chilly, but nothing that I could not handle.
My first task was to fix a minor problem with the MRA equipment. Our solar Mate was not reachable through the internet, thus making it worthless to us because we could not use it to remotely read the condition of the solar charging system which allows us to determine if the solar panels were providing power to the solar charger and how much of a charge was being applied to the batteries. So I headed over to the building where the MRA equipment was located and proceeded to work on the problem. I tried resetting the solar Mate which required disabling the solar panels and the batteries to remove all power from the solar Mate. I tried substituting the Ethernet cable, but that did not resolve anything. Since David (who was the only one in our office who was familiar with the operation of the Mate) was not available at this time, I closed up the building and went over to the other building to work on the equipment for our customer. I brought my test equipment and computer into the building where I proceeded to make the adjustments that needed to be done. After that, I packed up my computer and other equipment and proceeded to load it back into the vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe. I locked up the building and drove away from the building and drove over to the other building where I was going to give it another try to fix the solar Mate.
I opened up the building again and got David on the radio. He suggested that I try changing the Ethernet cable but I had already tried that without any success. I noticed that the link light was not on at the router and also not on at the solar Mate. It occurred to me that I should test to make certain that the port in the router was working, so I moved the solar Mate to another port which had the same result. I tried a 3rd port and got the same result again indicating that the problem was with the solar Mate, but I decided to take a known working device from another port on the router and plug it into the port where the solar Mate had been plugged in. That did not work either which seemed to be impossible because it was working before. I moved the cable back to its original port and it worked so I then moved the cable to a second port that I had tried and found it did not work plugged into that port either. I plugged the device back into its original port and it worked, so I tried the 3rd port I had tried earlier and it did not work there either. I tried a 4th port and found it to be working, so I plugged the test device back into its original port and plugged the solar Mate into the 4th port which lit up the link light on both the router and the solar Mate. Success! I called for Dave in the office on the radio and he responded. I asked him the check out the access to the solar Mate and he indicated that he could not reach it. I told him which port number I had used for the solar Mate and Dave told me that it was on the wrong VLAN. The router is internally divided by software into different functions and I had gone “over the line” by plugging into a port number that was too high. Without a label on the router, there was no way for me to know how the router is configured because each router configuration is slightly different due to site conditions. So now I had to locate a working port on the correct VLAN to use for the solar Mate. I found a working port, moved the cable to that port and had Dave test it again. This time, everything worked at which time I told Dave to label the 3 dead ports in the software so that we do not try to use the ports again. It was time to take all my equipment, lock up the building and head to the Tahoe and leave the site.
I called into the office on the radio to tell them that I was 10-8 from the site, heading down the mountain and if they did not hear from me in about one hour at the bottom of the road, they should assume that I am in trouble. I started down the mountain and immediately hit the first two switchbacks near the top of the mountain. I proceeded through them and continued down the road to the main face of the mountain looking at the mine where I had to navigate two additional switchbacks before arriving at the rock slide. I had been very lucky on the way up because none of my tires took a hit and I did not get a crash underneath the vehicle on the way up the hill. I did not think that I would be so lucky again heading down the hill so I decided to take some time to clear the road since I had recovered from changing the tire. I spent at least 20 minutes clearing mostly small rocks off the road, but there were some rocks that were over a foot long and weighed a considerable amount which took a more deliberate effort to move. Three of the rocks were too heavy to pick up which required me to roll them to the side of the road, but after I had done my work, the road was reasonably clear and safe to drive through without any concern about taking out something underneath the vehicle. I let the office know about the delay for road clearance and continued down the mountain until I reached the mine where I met the new owner of the mine. He pointed out the new construction of the hotel foundation and we talked for 2-3 minutes about the vehicle that passed me when I was changing the flat tire that belonged to his crew and about the road condition. I then proceeded to head down the mountain again. I reached the bottom of the road around 4:45PM and called into the office to let them know that I had gotten down the mountain safely.
It was time to head home which was a 4+ hour drive from my location which would put me home around 9PM provided I did not make extra stops for dinner or rest break. I would be getting home late after leaving the house early making this another long day, but I was glad that I accomplished all that was needed during the trip so that I did not have to come back another day to finish the job. The drive home was relatively uneventful, but after the day’s work, I was tired, sore and stiff. Getting home late had the advantage of missing almost all of the LA traffic, a small consolation prize for all that had happened during the day, but it was very welcome and appreciated.
Another day, another job well done . . . . . . . .