The Amateur Amateur: Smoky Mountain High

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
October 19, 2003

They say that ham radio is a great hobby. They say that you get to meet new people, chat with distant friends, learn new things and participate in community activities. I just wish I had time to do some of that stuff.

There is not much of an opportunity for me to pursue the hobby when I get home from work, and I'm not one of those "night owls" who can stay up late and operate into the wee hours of the morning. I may have a chance to get on the air during weekends--if there are no major household chores pending. For the most part, though, there just never seems to be enough time.

When my wife Nancy, N0NJ, and I start planning a vacation, one of the things that goes through my head is, "Ah! At last! Now I'll have some time to play around with ham radio!" But alas. It never seems to work out that way.

We usually fly to our destination when vacationing, so I don't haul along a lot of ham gear. I often take a handheld transceiver and a handheld scanner, but even this minimal effort causes some problems. After throwing chargers, spare batteries, frequency lists, repeater guides and log books into our luggage, it's so heavy that it feels like we've packed a compact car. And I always forget some vital item.

Gary on stone fence

On most vacations I call, and call, and call and get no reply.

What I'm trying to say is that although I do take along some ham equipment, my expectations of having a "Great Ham Experience" during a vacation are pretty low. And until recently my record of making a contact during a vacation has been pretty dismal.

Here's a sampling:

  • San Antonio, Texas: No contacts on the 2-meter calling frequency (146.52 MHz) nor on any of the listed repeaters.

  • Jekyll Island, Georgia: No contacts on the 2-meter calling frequency nor on any nearby repeaters. Having my call sign propped up in the back window of our rental car did not help, nor did calling from atop a lighthouse.

  • Captiva Island, Florida: No contacts on the 2-meter calling frequency nor on the repeater on neighboring Sanibel Island during either of our two vacations there. There was a sign on the bridge to Sanibel Island giving the frequency of the repeater, but no one ever answered when I called.

  • Minneapolis, Minnesota: I made one very brief contact with a passing motorist on the 2-meter calling frequency, but that was all.

  • Seattle, Washington: I did have one successful contact there, probably because I called from atop the Space Needle. A very nice ham--whose name and call sign I've mislaid--chatted with me for a while on 2-meter simplex.

  • Cadillac Mountain, Maine: No contacts on the 2-meter calling frequency, which was a big surprise. I was sure that my transmissions would be heard all up and down the East Coast. I did make one very brief contact after I switched to the frequency of the repeater that was up on the mountain with me, but even that fellow signed off after barely saying anything more than "hello."

Where was everyone? Perhaps they were all on vacation??

About the worst day in history to be flying was September 11, 2001. As it turned out, my wife and I were over the Atlantic Ocean returning from a trip to London when the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were hit. Our flight was not allowed to enter US airspace. We were diverted to Canada and stranded in Moncton, New Brunswick. All that was bad enough, but we had no ham radios and no scanners on what had to have been the heaviest radio traffic day ever. Now that was frustrating!

But things did improve (at least to some degree; nothing ever goes completely right for The Amateur Amateur). We vacationed in Breckenridge, Colorado, last year. During a day trip to Garden of the Gods, I tried 2-meter simplex on .52 and got a response from "Mike" in Manitou Springs. (Sorry, but I don't know his last name. I apparently wrote down his call sign incorrectly.) Two days later, while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park, I heard Craig McManus, K0JJM (he was KC0IUW at the time). This was an interesting contact, as Craig was simultaneously talking to me and to another ham who was hiking somewhere else on the mountain. Craig and I were both heading to the same spot, the Alpine Center at the top of the mountain. We met in the parking several minutes later. It was the first time I'd ever met another ham face-to-face during a vacation.

Gary at Rocky Mountain National Park But this time I contacted another ham on the same mountain. We met face-to-face a few minutes later.

Craig told me that he'd monitored 146.52 all the way from Topeka, Kansas, and barely heard anything. Once he got to the park, however, he made two contacts at the same time.

At least now I knew where all the hams were vacationing.

This year Nancy and I vacationed in Asheville, North Carolina. Instead of flying, we decided to drive. Aha! This time it would be different. This time I could take along as much equipment as I wanted. This time I could make it a true ham radio experience.

Only it didn't work out that way. First, I decided not to take along any HF gear. I'm relatively inexperienced on the HF bands, and it took me years to get a properly working HF antenna on my house. I didn't know the first thing about portable ones. Second, I didn't take any scanners. I didn't want to risk mounting one in the car for the trip, as scanner laws vary from state to state. I've also found that once we get to our destination, I set up my scanner but then rarely listen to it.

This time, however, we would have the services of a fully-functional dualband mobile transceiver during the trip. Nancy's Toyota sported a license plate with her call sign, so we should make dozens of contacts en route to Asheville. Yes, this time we would really burn up the airwaves.

Barely an hour into our trip the control head on the mobile radio went on the fritz. Sigh.

Somewhere in Tennessee we spotted an impressive-looking truck bearing the call sign WN4R on its license plate. I tried calling on the mobile radio, even though the control head was acting up. I don't know whether the truck's driver heard me or whether he simply saw Nancy's call sign on the Toyota, but he did flash his headlights.

During our stay in North Carolina we took a trip up Grandfather Mountain, at 5964 feet the highest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains and located in the Pisgah National Forest not far from the town of Boone. (OK, we took some geographical license in the title to this column. The Great Smoky Mountains are a bit to the west, straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee line, but "Blue Ridge Mountain High" just doesn't have the same ring.) Anyway, once at the top I pulled out my handheld and discovered that I'd forgotten to bring along its "good" antenna. All I had was the original rubber ducky. Nevertheless, I dialed up the 2-meter simplex frequency and put out my call sign.

Gary on Grandfather Mountain On Grandfather Mountain just before making the "mother of all 2-meter contacts" (well, for me it was).

An immediate reply came booming back. It was Earl Millsap, KG4ZCP. (After I'd written down the call sign of Mike in Manitou Springs incorrectly, I had Earl repeat his call sign about 20 times to make sure I got it right). The signal was so loud and clear that I figured Earl must be up on the mountain with me.

"I'm up on top Grandfather Mountain, Earl. Where are you?" I asked.

"I'm in Bristol, Tennessee, right on the border with Virginia" he replied.

I looked over at Nancy. Her eyes were as wide as mine. I keyed the transmitter and croaked, "Would you repeat that?"

Earl confirmed that he was in Bristol, Tennessee. He was running 50 W but dropped down to 10 W. He still sounded like he was standing right next to me. And despite my less-than-optimal antenna, Earl said that I was coming in strong. "They can hear you up in Virginia," he told me.

I later found that Bristol, Tennessee, is approximately 40 miles from Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina. So what had started as yet another vacation with minimal ham activity suddenly turned into the most exciting 2-meter contact I'd ever made.

Perhaps ham radio really is a great hobby after all!

Editor's note: RRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2003 American Radio Relay League

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