The Amateur Amateur: Smoky Mountain High
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
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
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.
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.
- San Antonio, Texas: No contacts on the
2-meter calling frequency (146.52 MHz) nor on any of the listed
- 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
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
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.
But this time I contacted another ham on the same mountain. We met
face-to-face a few minutes later.
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
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
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.
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
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