There are some things I wanted to do before I left this world, and traveling to the midwest was one of them. Given, I was intending to go storm-chasing, and considering that it was just visiting my sister-in-law's home, and still "tornado season" in the midwest, the chance to go to Iowa was too good to pass up.
My sister bought and flipped a 120-year-old home in a little town south of Des Moines called Truro. It would take us 16 hours to get out to the house in question. I spent 4+ days getting a dual-band radio installed so that I would have some radio time while on the way to and from Iowa. The big question I had was, would anyone want to talk to me?
I must admit, getting a contact on a repeater has been a bit of a challenge in recent treks around the southeast. When the mobile was installed in the minivan, I often spent countless hours looking for contacts on repeaters and simplex to no avail. Trips to Myrtle Beach, Winston-Salem, Huntsville, Ft. Walton Beach, and Nashville were often met with silence, no matter if it were the middle of the day or the dead of night. I even took my FT-530 to San Diego last year and wasn't able to make any repeaters anyplace. The ones I were able to hit, no one would answer. I wondered if I was even making it in to the repeaters but I guess I'll never know.
So we embarked upon our journey around midnight on a Thursday night/Friday morning. We picked up my sister-in-laws friend who lives in Iowa and we all rode up I-75 towards Lexington, KY.
I spent most of the first couple of hours talking with my friend Jason, KF4VDX on his repeater, then we moved to a repeater in Petros (NW of Knoxville) and linked to a repeater in Williamsburg, KY. He came in on one repeater, and I talked with him on the other. About an hour north of the TN/KY line, the repeater faded in the distance and we had to end our QSO. At one point in time some years ago, we probably could have continued on using the FARA linked repeater system, linking KY, OH, IN, and MI. There was a repeater in Knoxville that was installed to the linked system, but it only lasted a few short months before a storm took out the link from Knoxville to Kentucky. We decided we would try Echolink if possible while in Iowa.
Overnight, the drive was lonely, broken up by conversation in the car of ghosts and ghouls, and it was conveniently told to me that this house we were going to be staying was reportedly HAUNTED! So we passed the time telling one ghost story after another, and sure enough I wasn't going to sleep at the wheel...
The night was quiet, and I tried several repeaters in the Lexington and Louisville areas as we trudged north and west. We stopped a couple of times, between Louisville and Indianapolis. And about an hour before Indy, I tried 146.700 and struck up a conversation with K9NQW. We chatted for a while, discussing the usual banter new contacts tend to discuss. I would later get a QSL card from him after I returned home, and it was a very pleasant surprise. I just replied back to him this week with my own QSL card, something I haven't done in a couple of years.
After we by-passed Indy and its Friday morning rush-hour bedlam, (we arrived around 7AM Eastern time) we got on I-74 going towards Illinois. My wife drove as I dozed off and on (I don't sleep very well in the car) so the radio was quiet as she and my sister-in-law's friend chatted.
At one point on the drive near Peoria, I was tempted to head a bit further west towards Macomb, IL. Some friends were down there, but it was unannounced, and I hadn't heard from them in some time, so I wouldn't know where they lived. Still, it was tempting to take a trip and see if their LPFM radio station was still on the air. However, time was getting the better of us, and we continued onwards towards Davenport, IA.
Between Champaign and Peoria, I stuck up a QSO with three hams (their callsigns escape me, and the notepad I wrote them down on went MIA) in the area. They were very helpful, telling us about traffic issues, talking about other hobbies (one was into bicycle riding and spoke of wanting to bike the Smoky Mountains) and recounting war stories of QSOs long past. It was also the first storms we encountered in this area. It was unique to be able to watch the storms from several miles away, as opposed to having the horizon obstructed by mountains and rough terrain as we would in Tennessee. These storms were not severe, however, so no storm chasing for me to embark upon as a detour to the monotony.
The showers were brief, and we continued on towards Iowa. We passed Knoxville, IL on the way to Davenport, but couldn't stop to take a picture due to construction in the area.
Along the way, I sent messagea to my Twitter account to see if any hams would try to contact me while I was on the way to Iowa. I'd send my location and repeater(s) I was monitoring. Unfortunately, this experiment was all for naught. No one mentioned my Twitter page when talking to them. But considering that I was having many QSOs as it was, Twitter probably wasn't necessary anyways.
When we crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa and interstate 80, I found another ham on a repeater in the area. As we talked we passed an airport, and I instantly recognized "Fat Albert", the Blue Angels flight team's support plane. I was told there was an airshow that weekend, and the Blue Angels were the main event. We discussed returning on Sunday for the airshow. Unfortunately we were not able to make it.
During the trip, my wife would thumb through the Repeater Directory and read off whatever repeaters were on 2m and 440 in whatever cities showed up on the signs along the way. I was surprised that a great majority used tone access. Back in Knoxville (Tennessee, that is), tone access was almost unheard of. So few repeaters employ tone access in the area. (NOTE: As I wrote this, I checked and found that Iowa repeaters were mandated to have tone access in 2007). At one point in 2004 SERA (the South Eastern Repeater Association) attempted to mandate tone access, and I was one of many who cried foul. My biggest complaint was that in times of emergency we may not have the luxury of trying to figure out the tone of a repeater as we're trying to access it for any emergency traffic. I was aware many areas were using tone access to curb interference (intentional or otherwise) but I guess back home we're just a tad different. In fact, one group of folks tried to get East Tennessee repeater owners to secede from SERA and start their own repeater coordination body. While I sympathized with the breakaway repeater owners, I didn't necessarily support the idea of a new coordination group, but I wasn't a repeater owner, just an avid user. Eventually, SERA backed away and decided to wait until a later time to "re-evaluate" the policy with more input from repeater owners, and not just a few coordinators trying to speak on their behalf. The storm eventually died down, but I think a lot of damage was done and interest in SERA waned for a time. I have yet to renew my subscription to their journal, though I need to get another issue soon.
Back to the story, though. After we had a late afternoon lunch/dinner in Newton, near a new Iowa Speedway, we started to get excited as we were finally closing in on our destination. I didn't expect the drive through Iowa to be so long. It's much bigger than I expected. The radio was quiet through Iowa City and Williamsburg.
When we got near Des Moines, we hit a severe thunderstorm and an absolute torrent of rain, the likes of which I have not encountered in years, both in duration and intensity. It made me thankful for putting on new tires just a couple of months prior (at $700 no less!) as we hit some of the worst storms I've driven through ever. One of the repeaters in Des Moines (146.820) was designated as a SKYWARN repeater, and as we tuned in, I heard the National Weather Service liaison chime in with weather warnings and bulletins. I didn't dare key up, fearing I'd get a major ass-chewing by someone thinking I was a rookie, despite my having been SKYWARN net control and conducted hundreds of nets in the past. But, after a lengthy period of quiet, I keyed up and requested info from NWS on the path of the storm in relation to my destination. Silence. No one, not even NWS would come back to me. And I know I had the right tone set in, and was 50w into the machine. But whatever the reason, no one was willing to talk to me. As it turned out, I attempted to use this repeater 3-4 more times the week we were in Iowa, and not once did anyone answer me back. This was the only open repeater that I encountered where the locals were not talking.
We arrived in Truro and the rain had been pouring in this little town. The streets were flooded, and the homes on both sides of our place was flooded and running past our house's driveway to the nearby runoff creek. To make matters more interesting, after the rain eventually died down, as I'm trying to unpack the Trailblazer, the nearby tornado siren begins wailing! I joked with my mother that I would chase tornadoes while out here, but now I'm thinking I'm the hunted one!
As it turned out, the siren was signaling the local volunteer fire department into action. Apparently something caught fire from a downed powerline or something. Still, it took me a few hours to reclaim my wits about me.
The next evening I took the family to Knoxville (Iowa, that is) Raceway about an hour east (taking the highways and even a gravel road or two). I'd never been to a sprint car race before, and figured we'd take in the best one in the country. On the way there, we hit up a 440 machine and I had a 10 minute QSO with a guy on his way to working security/bouncer duties downtown in Des Moines. It was a nice way to pass the time as we travelled the highway towards Knoxville.
When we neared Knoxville, my wife looked up the one repeater in Knoxville and found it to be closed. I tried to key it up and it did not reply with a carrier. I decided to do a little snooping and found the tone for it. I know, I probably shouldn't have, but what would it hurt? I'm just some hick from Knoxville (Tennessee, that is) who doesn't know any better, right? The worst I figure is I'd be shooed off the machine. Well, not even THAT happened. I keyed up 2-3 times and gave my call ("K-4-H-S-M, mobile Zero") and got no response. Either no one really was listening (closed repeaters back home tend to be vacant) or they weren't caring to talk to me. Not even on the return trip back to Truro would I get an answer.
On Sunday, I got into another repeater on 2m and struck up a QSO with another ham as we made our way to a museum some hour NE of Des Moines. He was pleasant to talk to, though again his call and name escape me.
I began to realize that the area was chock full of enthusiastic hams who were very friendly and helpful to this 4-lander. I often wonder if I just wasn't hitting the right repeaters back in the southeast when trying to bring on a QSO to pass the miles.
The next day, I went to 6.52 simplex on 2m as we made our way towards Winterset, IA (home of the famous bridges of Madison County and birthplace to John Wayne) and I was stunned when I got an answer from Mark, W0ISF. We talked on simplex, then he invited me to his repeater. If his callsign rings a bell, it's used every year for the Iowa State Fair special event station (going on now as this is published). I would end up talking to Mark 2 more times, including our leaving to return home the following Friday morning. I thanked him for his hospitality and hoped I could talk to him during the fair. As of now I haven't heard them (listening to 20 meters mainly) but I will continue to try.
On Tuesday, I traveled to Western Iowa to see my friend Dale, N0WKF (file guy for TWIAR) for our first eyeball QSO. On the way, again, a couple of good hams talked to me. I tried to reach Dale on his repeaters but he wasn't on the air listening for me. It was great to finally meet him. We stayed for about 3 hours and then visited Council Bluffs before heading back to Truro for the evening. The trip was spent off the air, though, as we were drenched from a sudden shower while on a pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River separating Iowa from Nebraska. I was partly pissed from being soaked, and partly afraid I'd short something while talking.
The journey back to Knoxville, TN was made going south through St. Louis and unfortunately I wasn't able to make any contacts on the way back home. As I approached Wentzville, MO, outside of St. Louis, I tried to find a repeater to raise Vern Jackson, WA0RCR, another TWIAR contributor with the Gateway 160 meter net report. Unfortunately no repeaters were in Wentzville, and I didn't have 160 meters in the car to try. Although that would be a great trick...
Traveling through St. Louis (with a visit to the arch) was a first for me, and traffic was certainly not going to give me any breaks this Friday afternoon. I endured heavy traffic, and although I heard a few QSOs as I scanned the 2m band, I had to drive first, talk later.
After we left St. Louis, we got stuck in traffic, and no real way to pass the time for the 90 mins other than drive/stop/drive/stop. I tried a couple of repeaters on 2m and 440, but no one was there. My concentration was spent on trying to find a way back the other way for a detour anyways, but the two spots where I could turn were Government vehicles use only, and the cops were watching them. I saw people pulled over after making the U-turn, and figured I'd be a sitting duck with TN tags.
After the jam let up (construction that either never occurred or completed for the day while we were stuck) and we had dinner, Jes drove from Illinois down thru Paducah and into Tennessee, but I didn't use the radio. I'm not a good passenger. That's all I care to say about that part of the trip...
Back into Tennessee, I hit the Cumberland Plateau past Crossville and called to Jason, KF4VDX, and sure enough, he was there, almost like he was waiting for me to return. Although I had a great trip out west, it was nice to hear a familiar voice again. He talked me back to the house and my trip officially ended around 2am (Eastern Time) Saturday morning. In just 12 hours, Field Day would be underway, and he and I would try to work it both from his home and from a club outing in Maryville.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at the warmth and hospitality both on the air and in person from people all over Iowa. My sister-in-law's house was officially sold 2 weeks after we left, so we won't be able to go back there for "free room and board" next time we go out there. But it made such a great impression upon us, we know there will be a next time.
BTW: No ghosts bothered us while we stayed there. And if I find that sheet of paper with the names of everyone I talked to while out there, I'll add them to this post. If you're one of them, email me.