I’m up in Parsippany, New Jersey at the moment on business travel. That in itself wouldn’t be anything special, except that the eastern seaboard was just rocked by a huge snowstorm. I had to leave a day early to ensure that I made it here for an important meeting Monday morning, only for that meeting to be canceled while I was en route and incommunicado. To add insult to injury, none of the client employees I work with even showed up for work today, and my car died at the hotel this morning so I walked to the client site in the falling snow. And just for some added excitement, I had to run to escape the torrent from an oncoming snowplow at one point.
The drive up here was no picnic either. About an hour in it started raining, then quickly turned to snow. Thankfully none of it started sticking to the road until I arrived at the hotel four hours and many wrong turns later (not the best time to try a new route). I saw a surprising number of other vehicles driving in the snowstorm without lights on, including one semi-trailer which kept on disappearing and re-emerging from the mist of snow in a terrifying fashion. Even my high beams didn’t provide nearly enough illumination to see the road ahead of me. This was made worse by the constant glow of headlights shining over the jersey barrier from vehicles in the opposite direction, like some dividing line across the horizon, which lit up the entire sky from about six feet above the road on up. The road was thus made darker and less see-able by contrast.
The only thing that hasn’t sucked about this trip so far is ham radio. Sunday night is an excellent time to work the ham bands, which is what I spent my whole commute doing. Repeater contacts have become passé for me these days because they are so easy; at any random point along the I-95 corridor, you can hear at least a couple simultaneous conversations on various nearby repeaters. As such, I focus mostly on making simplex (direct) contacts, which at least provides somewhat of a challenge, especially while operating mobile. I was mostly using the national calling frequency on 2 meters, which is 146.520 MHz, though I did talk to one man on another simplex frequency while idly scanning the band.
I made more simplex contacts during this trip than I ever have before. At one point I was talking with two to three people simultaneously, a feat I’ve never experienced outside of pre-arranged simplex nets while operating stationary. I had some pretty long conversations with stationary operators, as well as some shorter conversations with other mobile operators (as mobiles tend to be a lot more limited in terms of antenna size, elevation, and to a lesser extent, transmitting power).
But the neatest point in the trip was when I briefly became the best ham radio station in the whole area.
I had been talking with a stationary operator for around fifteen minutes. The signal went from bad to good to bad as I-95 took me closer and then farther from his position. His signal was never stronger than S-5 (S-meters give a measure of signal strength from 1 to 9, on a logarithmic scale). About ten minutes after we said our good-byes and he faded into the radio-frequency mist, I arrived at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
All of a sudden, the stationary operator I had been talking to earlier came in again. And his signal strength just kept getting better and better. We excitedly traded signal reports in a rapid-fire series of transmissions, remarking on how much the signal quality of the other was improving by the second. My S-meter kept on climbing until it pegged at S-9, still 50 feet shy from the apex of the bridge. The other operator’s signal was full-quieting, meaning that his signal was so strong that not only could I hear him perfectly, even the lulls between the words of his transmission were perfectly silent (because his carrier was so strong that it overwhelmed the ambient radio-frequency noise).
Then as I reached the apex of the bridge, some 200 feet in elevation above the ground and quite the enviable radio location, something really cool happened.
I was able to make contact with my previous contact, much further distant than even the current contact that had just gotten back in range. And in between the gaps in our conversation, I heard a multitude of other voices rising above the static, a chorus of conversations on the calling frequency many miles distant in all directions on the compass rose. So many things were being said at once that I couldn’t make sense of any individual transmission. I could only hear it all as a collective murmur. All of these people out there, each holding separate conversations — and unlike any of them, I could hear it all at once.
As I crested the apex of the bridge, the signal strength from my primary contact rapidly faded back down the S-meter, and with one last hurried transmission, we said good-bye. Then he, along with everyone else, was lost to the static, and I was alone again.