All posts by Leo Mills


I have been a licensed amateur radio operator since 1974. My activity has waxed and waned over the years but I have always kept my license active. Recently an email from Kevin arrived which piqued my interest in the hobby again. I got to doing some research online and found an aspect of the hobby previously unknown to me. SOTA is Summits On The Air, a group based in the UK which promotes mountaintop portable radio communications. You gain points by getting to the tops of mountains or hills and achieving at least four contacts with other ham radio operators. The summits are selected by local administrators for each region of the world, who assign points based on altitude. Your setup must be independent of any vehicle i.e no power or other connections to a car’s battery. Most summits require hike-ins, carrying everything on your back. Obviously these will be low power operations since portable rigs can’t generate more than 5-15 watts usually with the size batteries one could carry up any reasonable hill. You must of course bring an antenna, too, and set it up. This activity could combine my love of hiking and my interest in amateur radio.

So I got intrigued. I had in my possession one of the classic QRP radios, a Yaesu FT-817, though I hadn’t used it in years. I pulled it out and immediately discovered that the inboard battery pack was dead. Therein began the odyssey. . .I won’t bore you with the details though it involved getting a new battery, finding a multiband HF antenna (more on that below), and some accessories. As summits can be “activated” only once a year by a single operator, I wanted to get my first activation done on the last day of 2016. I also had to ramp up my Morse Code skills (called “CW” in our lingo for “continuous wave”) which had lain dormant for many years. Surprisingly I was able to resurrect my ability there reasonably quickly (at least on the receiving side), with the help of the wonderful website LCWO.  My FT-817 is multimode (CW, SSB, FM, AM, and digital modes) so I wanted to get at least 3 of those operational. To gain the points awarded to this summit I had to make a minimum of 4 contacts.

My summit of choice (in SOTA-speak W4G/HC-024) was nearby, just a 3 mile hike from my house. Altitude was 720 m, about 300 m of ascent from my house. I packed all my gear, put some warm clothes on, and started off before dawn, using a headlamp to find my way in the dark though I knew the trail well. The temperature was about 35℉ but there wasn’t much wind. I quickly got overheated and had to ditch the heavy sweater I was wearing.  I got to the hilltop without any trouble and started to set up. On top the wind was a lot worse, whistling briskly across, and the downwind side of the summit was mostly a sheer cliff, so it was tough to shelter. As I stopped moving I quickly got cold. Putting the rig and gear together I tried to find some stations to contact. I did manage a mangled CW contact in Indiana with one fellow, but it was tough: cold finger, portable paddles, and wind howling around your ears do not make for ideal listening or sending especially with my rusty technique. Next I attempted SSB for a phone contact on 40 and 20 m bands with no luck, calling CQ multiple times there with no response. Frustrated and starting to get cold, I took the easy way out and got on 2 m FM simplex and chatted with 3 or 4 of the local hams in the nearby neighborhood to complete the minimum number of contacts for the activations points . I was starting to shiver so I decided to call it a morning, packed up my gear, and hiked off the mountaintop. My frozen toes and fingers rapidly warmed up. The final dregs of the coffee from my thermos were gratefully gulped and I went home happy but humbled.

Things that went right:

  • I successfully activated the summit
  • I got the required number of contacts for award points (barely).
  • I got in the SOTA database for 2016
  • My portable setup worked, and my radio used two different modes for contacts with other hams.
  • I was able to change frequencies, zerobeat, change antennas, select modes, adjust mic gain and perform other radio related adjustments under difficult conditions.
  • It was good exercise (6-7 miles of hiking with 15 lbs on my back).

Things to improve

  • Need better antenna (stay tuned for updates)
  • Need better CW sending skills (best to practice on air)
  • Optimize audio (earbuds save weight but fall out at inopportune moments)
  • Need better ergonomics (hard to concentrate on radio and audio when body is uncomfortable).
  • Want to complete some  HF SSB contacts, too.

In any case, I gave myself a little challenge and completed it. In our convenience culture, we middle aged farts need to keep doing some hard things occasionally.

Entering the silence

For many years I have periodically traveled to a Cistercian Trappist monastery for weekend retreats. When I lived in KY and TN I went to Gethsemani, best known as the former residence of Fr. Louis, i.e. Thomas Merton. Since moving to GA, I have now twice attended a similar retreat weekend at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA, which is actually a daughter house of Gethsemani.

Gethsemani trail
One of the roads through the pastures at Gethsemani. by missouri_gal via CC BY-NC 2.0








These are silent retreats. Conversation is not exactly prohibited, but discouraged. Meals are eaten in silence (typically recorded music of Gregorian chant is played over speakers in the dining room).  Those wishing to converse are directed to specific areas outside designated for that purpose. Retreatants are invited to join the monks at the Liturgy of the Hours beginning with Vigils at about 0400 and ending with Compline around 1930.  At Gethsemani there are about 2500 acres of woods and fields, most of which are available to retreatants, laced with old logging roads and meandering trails. (Once I took a wrong turn in the woods and got very lost, very thirsty and very wet in a rainstorm before finally getting a ride back to the monastery).

A bed, desk, nightstand, and Bible are the standard offerings
A bed, desk, nightstand, and Bible are the standard offerings

In between those activities retreatants are free to pray, walk the grounds, and read, with  daily and Sunday mass attendance suggested. The food is basic as are the accommodations.

Why do I go?  Well, silence is a powerful tonic for the overloaded brain. Heck, even Jesus needed it (Mt 14:23). Silence is God’s first language. Silence is the space into which God can speak. Silence enables our faculties of contemplation and encourages a peaceful attitude toward life. I have spent weekends on retreat with only ordinary perceptions, and during other weekends have experienced profound and startling insights. gethsemani _chair2One gains a brief glimpse into the monastic rhythm of waking, praying, working, and sleeping, over and over, in the context of a small community of men pledged to spend the rest of their lives in this one place. I am powerfully drawn to this experience, as are many others-weekend retreats are typically full of people like myself.

There is a lack in modern life, some essence that is drowned out by our constant busyness, electronic distractions, and fear of isolation. I am convinced there is real goodness in that essence.  Going on retreat re-kindles the spark of the inner light that illuminates it. We ignore it at our peril.

Fountain pens

Who in the heck uses a fountain pen anymore? Well, I think they still have a place. Does anyone remember those fountain pens of our youth that we bought for school? They were made by Shaeffer, I think, with cheap metal caps and plastic bodies. They usually leaked ink, causing havoc on the page or in our pockets, with permanent ink to boot. You had to remember to replace the cap or the point would go dry. Ballpoint pens were cleaner, more convenient, less messy, and fairly reliable. Bic pens (from France) took over common usage-they were cheap enough that you could buy a dozen for pennies apiece. Disposable, they became utilitarian, undistinguished save for the color of the ink, discarded without a thought when out of ink or non-functional.

And they didn’t write worth a damn. . .the ink skipped, blobs would appear in parts of the letter strokes, the ball would stop turning, and it was a small but perceptible effort to push the ball across the page. And there’s just no gravitas when writing with a cheap ballpoint. If you want to enjoy your writing experience, you need to consider the fountain pen again.

I have always been intrigued by fountain pens. In part because they are old-fashioned, with a  lineage of craftsmanship . Also, they’re reliable. A well-made FP can last for decades with proper maintenance, repeatedly doing the job for which it was created. I recently paid about $18 on eBay for a vintage fountain pen made probably in the 1950s. IMG_2129After a little work, I got it sliding across the page just like the year it was made. And oh how it slides-a good FP has almost effortless motion on good paper with modern inks. One can individualize the experience though the choice of nib width from bold to extra-fine. There are even italic and music nibs which give a different ink width between upstroke or down. Flex nibs can narrow or broaden the delivered ink stream depending upon the pressure exerted.  With a fountain pen serving as an extension of the hand, tactile pleasure results from watching and feeling the output of one’s brain come to life.

Finally, there is the beauty of a great design. My first fountain pen as an adult was one I bought in Boston when I was a medical student there in the 1980s. IMG_2130The Parker 75 Cisele is a classic design which spoke to me from it’s shelf in that drugstore off Tremont Street close to Boston Common, though nowadays the pen feels too small in my somewhat large hands. Modern designs are varied and high in quality as well. I love my Conklin Duragraph FP seen here.

Conklin Duragraph Fountain Pen
Conklin Duragraph

It’s a $40 pen but isn’t it gorgeous? It writes like a dream. And it has a history: Conklin pens were used by Mark Twain in the nineteenth century.

Like many modern tools, some fountain pens have become icons of status more than functional tools of expression. I will probably never buy a Mont Blanc pen, for example. But there are so many wonderful pen manufacturers out there these days. There’s also a wealth of information available on how to use and care for a quality fountain pen. Goulet Pens, for example, has a “Fountain pen 101” video series which is quite good. Many other sources have posted helpful videos on YouTube as well. Recently I had trouble getting ink into a cartridge converter reservoir for my Lamy Safari (another $18 gem made in Germany). Some quick research on YouTube provided the answer-I wasn’t placing the nib deep enough into my ink bottle to fully cover the fill hole.

So fountain pens are a bit more trouble, a bit more money, but the payback in pleasure and beauty is well worth those disadvantages, in my opinion.  Happy writing!

Just another hike in the woods

We had planned for many weeks to take a weekend backpacking trip. My friend Mark and I had first camped together this past summer in Colorado, though for that trip we hiked in separately and camped in different campsites, taking day hikes together. This time, we would be hiking and camping together. Mark suggested a loop he knew of on the Appalachian trail starting about two hours from Chattanooga.

The Standing Indian Loop near Murphy, NC
The Standing Indian Loop near Murphy, NC

We would start at Rock Gap (see near top of map above) and go clockwise around the loop of the Appalachian Trail to Standing Indian Mountain, then cut back north through the state campground back to our vehicle.

Standing indian Hike
A tunnel of mountain laurel

Fortunately the  weather forecast was for crisp clear conditions during this October weekend which had been scheduled many weeks in advance.  I checked my gear, loaded my pack, and arranged to get off work early on the Friday starting the weekend. We drove to Rock Gap and parked the car, heaved on our packs and started down the trail.  The objective was Albert Mountain, seen on the map above at the western boundary of the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory.  The woods were quiet and we saw only a few other hikers that afternoon. Temperature was in the mid-60s with blue sky above. One of the prominent features of the terrain was the abundance of mountain laurel, sometimes so thick that it actually formed a tunnel overhead through which we trudged. There was plenty of water. We struggled up the last steep pitch before Albert and found a grandfather with two teenagers cooking their dinner under the fire tower there. We took a few photos looking eastward but it was getting darker and chilly so we slid down the steep rocks on the other side and pushed on, looking for a campsite. After one false try, we located a good place for the night and set up camp. The long underwear came out and the fire was welcome.

Red meat for empty bellies
Red meat for empty bellies

Even more welcome was the smell of roasting meat-Mark had packed two ribeye steaks; along with a couple of taters that I buried in the coals we had one fine eating experience under the stars. Speaking of the stars, I decided to sleep under them that night, sans tent. The forecast low was in the mid-40s and I was comfortable as the wind through the trees provided my hiker’s lullaby.

Boy, is it hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag on a chilly morning in the woods-all your better instincts tell you to stay put, but you know you have to crawl out. After a quick breakfast, we broke camp (easier for me with no tent to fold) and headed out. More rolling hills and some fine views to the east greeted us.

Gorgeous morning view looking northeast
Gorgeous morning view looking northeast

We stopped for lunch at the Carter Gap shelter where we found some fellow hikers enjoying the sunshine and trading trail stories.  I laid down amidst some tall green plants with a full belly for a post-prandial nap, waking up with a bit more energy for the afternoon ahead. We pushed pretty hard that day, covering about 10 miles total before finally settling on a campsite  along a ridge looking south just east of Standing Indian mountain. Some college students came by after dark and shared our fire for a few minutes before passing onward along the trail without even a flashlight (!) As the wind was picking up and the temps expected in the 30s, I shivered and erected my tent. I was pleased to notice how little wind got through to the interior as I piled in for an early bedtime.

Sunday dawned very cold-my fingers got repeatedly numb as I fixed the morning java and hot oatmeal. Quickly breaking camp we struck out toward Standing Indian where we planned to take a shortcut along Lower Trail Ridge back to our starting point. What’s the old wisdom about shortcuts? They don’t always save you trouble. We tried to find some water along the main trail but were unsuccessful, so we struck out down the side trail confident that we would find some aqua soon. Downhill hiking is almost harder I think, then uphill, with all of the strain on your quads. Several miles later-still no water. Forging ahead on my own while still looking for a stream or adequate trickle, I managed, in my dehydrated state, to step off the trail for about 75 yards before realizing my mistake.

Ahhh. . .the sound of running water when you're thirsty in the woods
Ah. . .  the sound of running water when you’re thirsty in the woods

I had mindlessly stepped over a hiker’s barrier of limbs at the apex of a switchback without noticing the trail arching back on itself. After getting back on the right path, I went on and finally heard the sweet sound of gurgling water up ahead. Sure enough there was a stream and we stopped for a snack and filtered up a large quantity of clean cold mountain water-there is nothing like the taste of water when you are thirsty.

It was downhill the rest of the way back to the state campground where the jarring juxtaposition of campers and automobiles clashed with the forest silence from which we had emerged. We had a boring uphill climb along the shoulder of the paved access road as we watched warily for distracted oncoming drivers. Finally arriving back at our car, we celebrated one fine weekend of backpacking. That first sip of cold beer at the convenience store was mighty fine . . .