I went on another odyssey to California to make some measurements this week. It was quite an adventure.

We left on Monday morning at a reasonable hour. Through some quirk of fate, we got first class seating on the trip out which was quite a treat for me. Unfortunately, it was so short that there was not time for any fancy cabin service so I got the same Diet Sierra Mist that I would have gotten anyway but I did get a nice wide-ride seat. From Denver on to Santa Barbara, I got my usual seat on a puddle jumper which was so cramped that I couldn’t move. For 2.5 hours.

I like flying though and the route taken by United Airlines was like a grand tour of the American west.  I could clearly see monument valley, lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, Brice (sp?) Canyon, and all manner of lesser wonders.  I had loaded my PDA with news to read and my iPod with hours of tunes and podcasts and most of it was unnecessary; it lost out to the entertainment of the spectacle out the window.   

When we got there we got our car: Lincoln Navigator! Score! That’s one cushy gas-guzzler. At $3.75 per gallon in California, that’s no small thing when you’re driving a behemoth with a 5.7L engine. We got that because of the large amount of scientific equipment we were carrying and because we needed to get off the paved road to get to our observation site.

We were staying in the town of Solvang, California which is a sort-of Eureka Springs with a Danish look and feel. Very touristy. Very blue-haired. Lots of retirees and tour buses. Still, the coastal mountains of California are always beautiful and to us Okies, it was cool and dry and an extremely pleasant place to be. We got there late in the afternoon on Monday and walked the town seeking a restaurant. We found one. It must have been the slack time of day to eat dinner since we had the restaurant all to ourselves which was wonderful since we were sitting by a nice open window with a view of the hills, each one of which might have concealed a vineyard on the other side.

Tuesday we got up and went into Lompoc since I had forgotten to pack anything warm. It stands to reason that going up to a mountaintop at night would be cold but I had forgotten so I had to shop for the occasion. Needless to say, June is not the time of year to be shopping for a coat or hooded sweatshirt but I finally found one in the clearance rack at Ross Dress For Less. From there we stopped at Purisma Mission on the way back to Solvang and wandered about for about an hour. We then decided to go back into Lompoc and find a shady spot to set up all our gear in the back of the truck in mission configuration so make sure it worked and it’s a good thing we did because it’s at that point where everything began to go to hell.

We hooked up everything and discovered that the computer would not boot up. After cursing and generally freaking out, we discovered that the power inverter we had was apparently not up to the task of powering the computer. We had measured this before we left so we found this totally unexpected but went back to the WalMart in Lompoc to get a bigger one – this time 700 Watts rather than 350. So with our new inverter, I was confident enough to drive all the way back to Solvang and park in the hotel garage to finish our tests.

Big mistake.

I hate to set up all our crap in public places because we attract so much attention. I’ve personally had the local constabulary come and sniff us out pretty thoroughly, including taking my license and running me through the computer system looking for prior convictions. I always carry a letter explaining what I’m doing and listing numbers to call to verify all that I claim but cops don’t care about any of that. They shake you down anyway. I don’t think they’re much on reading; they prefer to have you tell them what you’re up to while they go through your stuff. So I elected to do all this in the hotel parking garage. As long as that 9mm stays in the holster, I guess I’m OK with it.

We discovered to our dismay that the computer still would not boot up. We made measurements of the voltage all over the truck and discovered that the stupid Lincoln Navigator, for all it’s good luxurious qualities, let the voltage drop when you started the engine. The voltage is fine if the engine is off, with the engine on, nothing that requires AC power will work right – at least not computers. Well, when we’re planning on driving 22 miles out into the back country, I’m not inclined to let our power-hungry computer suck all the life out of my car battery without the engine on to re-charge it so we went to the nearest NAPA auto parts store in Buellton and bought a deep-cycle (marine) battery.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t ship or check the battery as baggage and so had to do the stupid thing of buying it and then telling the manager that sometime after midnight, we’d be bringing it back and leaving it on his doorstep. I’m sure he’ll just put it back on the shelf and sell it again but at least we got our power like we needed.

It was at this time I discovered that our mouse had been crushed during transit. Off to RadioShack for a new one! That at least was easily obtained and cheap. This made for a stressful afternoon; one that we had been planning on spending napping since our mission was in the middle of the night. As a result, we hurredly ate dinner and tried to grab a two hour nap before heading out into the boonies and up to the top of Figueroa Mountain.

This road is an interesting one in that the locals tell us that the big fancy gate that we pass near the bottom of the mountain is the entrance to Never-land – Michael Jackson’s escape from reality. Cool! We drove on with barely a comment. I was driving. I dislike those windy, one-lane roads that zig-zag up the mountains in California. Those hills are beautiful but those roads are prone to rock-slides and washouts and, worst of all, other cars coming down in the opposite direction. I was driving a truck that was too big for most practicality and so it was a tight fit. Worse yet, one of the locals got behind us on the way up. She knew the way very well and so was right on my bumper. Just my luck – two people live up there and one of them tails me. I pulled off when I could and she stopped to ask us if we were lost. “No thanks” I said and immediately began to wonder if she’d call the cops. I guess she didn’t since we got up there and did our thing for the next four hours or so and nobody messed with us.

The forecast had called for fog and so I was worried but the conditions were clear and about 55 degrees. A strange characteristic of this (and perhaps all) mountain ranges is that the wind was howling up one side at a steady 30 mph and making the pine trees scream and flail about but the air went straight up and there was not a breath of air at the truck. I walked over to the edge of the cliff and immediately was hit by the rushing wind. If one had attempted to take a leak off the cliff, he would have been in for a nasty surprise. I had enough sense not to do that. The wind didn’t bother us except for the continuous howling of it. It never varied; it was like listening to a vacuum cleaner.

The Navigator had a NeverLost GPS system in it along with a DVD player and satellite radio so there was plenty for us techno-geeks to play with while we were waiting for launch time to roll around.

After all this, we waited with our gear running for several hours but never observed anything – the missile we were there to observe never launched. We had no point of contact at the launch site and so were never sure if it failed to launch or if they had simply rescheduled it. No way to tell so after we were nearly frozen, we packed up and went back to the hotel. We had to carefully pack our gear so it took awhile. We managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before having to get up again to make it to the airport to come home. Note to self: don’t schedule a midnight mission with a 7:30 am departure time for home. Dumb idea. So by the time we got back to Tulsa, we had had about four hours of sleep during the previous 48 and I was nearly dropping in my tracks.

On the way from Denver to Tulsa, we got first class seats again.  I always have harbored this fantasy of sitting in first class (or any class really) next to someone who is either beautiful, interesting, or both but that never seems to happen.  I have always gotten seated next to someone who either promptly falls asleep, is wearing a suit (which, to me, implies uninteresting), or both.  Yesterday, I ended up sitting next to a big fat truck driver from Arkansas who was on his cellphone at every available moment complaining to someone about his doctor’s appointment.  I put on my noise-cancelling headphones and tuned him out.  One day, perhaps I’ll sit next to somebody who has something interesting about them but I’ll probably never know that since they’ll probably fall asleep.   Now, the best I hope for is that they don’t drool on me.  Or, if they do, that they look like a supermodel.  A female supermodel that is.

None of these problems could have been anticipated and the failure to launch wasn’t my fault but the whole thing still stings like a failure. That makes me even more tired.