Out Of My Element: An Urban POTA activation at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial

It’s funny, but until September 7, 2023, I had never activated one of the closest POTA sites to my home: the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (K-6853).

I remember back in 2020 when I really kicked my POTA activations into high gear, I made a spreadsheet of all of the POTA sites within a 2 hour drive of the QTH and started activating them one by one.

At the time, almost 50-60%, or possibly more, had never been activated. Keep in mind that in early 2020, POTA had a wee fraction of the activity it has today.

It was a lot of fun especially considering those were the early days of the pandemic and it was just nice to get out and about. Any excuse, right?

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is on North Market Street in Asheville, NC.

One of the parks on my list was the Thomas Wolfe Memorial but being a small historic site in an urban setting, they were closed for quite some time during the pandemic. There was nothing to stop me from walking on the site–or pulling up in their parking lot–and doing an activation while they were closed, but I just didn’t feel like it should be fair game when closed.

Then restrictions loosened up and, frankly, I just sort of forgot about it.

I tend to activate parks in rural areas and I am prone to overlook urban sites (although quite a few of my activations in Canada last year were urban).

Thomas Wolfe Memorial (K-6853)

On Thursday, September 7, 2023, I dropped off my daughters at school then made my way to a doctor’s appointment. I arrived at the office, gave them my name at the front desk, and then they reminded me that we had re-scheduled this particular appointment for later in the month.

Doh! I forgot to make the change in my calendar.

All of the sudden, I had a bit more free time!

Of course, I always fill free time with POTA activations, and I already had radio gear in the car, so it was only a matter of deciding where to go.

I called the Vance Historic Birthplace (about a 25 minute drive) to see if they were busy. Their director (who I know quite well at this point) told me that a large group was on the site, but would be gone by 1:30. That timing didn’t work for me, so I consulted the POTA map.

Since the POTA site used my coordinates to find the closest park, I was reminded that K-6853 was a mere 3 minute drive from the doctor’s office. I could have walked there.

I gave the site a call to ask for permission (again, I always do this for small historic sites) and they told me I’d be most welcome.

The site is on a small urban lot and consists of two buildings: the visitors’ center, and the Old Kentucky Home boarding house.

The visitors’ center is beautiful and sports a gift shop, theatre, and presentation areas.

The historic home is gorgeous.

Here’s a bit of history about the Boardinghouse via the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Website:

The historic Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse operated by Thomas Wolfe’s mother was depicted as “Dixieland” in Wolfe’s 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel. It had been his home for ten years. Strongly influenced by his childhood in Asheville and by life in the boarding house, Wolfe turned to his early experience for inspiration in his writing. His highly realistic portrayals of Asheville and its citizens, including Wolfe’s own family, caused Look Homeward, Angel to be banned from the local library. Wolfe did not return to Asheville for almost eight years. He finally came home in 1937, where he spent part of the summer in the boardinghouse with his mother. Here he wrote “Return” a short article published in the Asheville Citizen newspaper.

It would have been an amazing spot for Wolfe to spend his summer in ’37 even though, admittedly, Asheville may not have been his favorite city after banning his book!

The Wolfe staff gave me permission to set up anywhere that wouldn’t be in the way of their guided tours. (I highly recommend the guided tours, if you ever visit).

In truth, there really isn’t a lot of space to set up–only a small strip of grass around the historic home which is surrounded by large buildings (a condo, hotel, etc.). Check out my activation video below for more context.

I found a spot next to the side of the house facing a multi-story condo; it was well away from the guided tour path.

Next, I needed to deploy an antenna. The lowest-impact self-supporting antenna I had the in the car was the Chelegance MC-750 vertical. The staff gave me permission to use the MC-750 and support it with the stainless steel spike in the ground.

It was ideal for this site other than the fact that verticals are probably one of the worst antenna types for QRM/RFI (electronically noisy) environments.

Keep in mind that I had not planned to activate the Wolfe Memorial that day. Had this been planned, I would have packed my Chameleon F-Loop.

Mag loops are your friend when you’r facing local QRM!

But hey–I worked with what I had and just crossed my fingers that there would be some bands free of RFI/QRM.

Next, I set up my Elecraft KX2, my field chair, and my kneeboard.

Time to play radio!


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On The Air

I turned on the radio fearing the worst, but 20 meters didn’t sound too bad.

By that, I mean, I didn’t hear the pulsing noises that are the hallmark of urban QRM.

I did find out pretty quickly, though, that my noise floor was actually about S4 or S5–it’s just that the KX2 sounded quiet regardless.

I started out on 20 meters and quickly worked five stations: K9IS, N0AIF, W3TW, WA1VEI, and WA1JMG.

Then there was a lull of about 15 minutes before I worked WI5D, W5WMQ, K5PE, and KO4JKV. Turns out, as I suspected, KO4JKV was only one mile up the road from my POTA site!

After another lull, I QSYd to the 40M band and worked WA4PGM, KE8PZN, and W5GDW.

I did, briefly, move back up to 20 meters and work VA3DXQ P2P.

All in all, a total of 13 contacts in 51 minutes.

To be clear, I believe there were many other stations calling me that day and I’m sure they were confused when I didn’t reply, but they were all below my elevated noise floor. This is the frustrating thing about QRM: you can only hear the strong stations. No weak signal work.


Here’s what this five watt activation looked like when plotted out on a QSO Map:

Activation Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation.  As with all of my videos, I don’t edit out any parts of the on-air activation time. In addition, I have monetization turned off on YouTube, although that doesn’t stop them from inserting ads before and after my videos.

Note that Patreon supporters can watch and even download this video 100% ad-free through Vimeo on my Patreon page:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Loop time!

As I left the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, I told the staff that I’d be back after leaf season (when the massive influx of tourists dies down) and activate again, this time, with my Chameleon mag loop antenna!

I’m very curious to see how well it might mitigate the noise. Bonus is that the mag loop is completely self-supporting and low-profile. Perfect for this spot!

Thank you

Thank you for joining me on this activation!

I hope you enjoyed the field report and my activation video as much as I enjoyed creating them.

Of course, I’d also like to send a special thanks to those of you who have been supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement as my content will always be free, I really appreciate the support.

As I mentioned before, the Patreon platform connected to Vimeo make it possible for me to share videos that are not only 100% ad-free, but also downloadable for offline viewing. The Vimeo account also serves as a third backup for my video files.

Thanks for spending part of your day with me! Have an amazing week ahead!

Cheers & 72,

Thomas (K4SWL)

8 thoughts on “Out Of My Element: An Urban POTA activation at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial”

  1. I passed up on the opportunity to do an urban activation in a very similar setting recently. I could have operated from my vehicle in a roadside parking space outside, but that is not the way I like to operate. Operating while surrounded by acres of trees is much more appealing.

  2. I’m sure there will be some POTA veterans who will comment on your statement above:
    “There was nothing to stop me from walking on the site–or pulling up in their parking lot–and doing an activation while they were closed, but I just didn’t feel like it should be fair game when closed.”
    Under the POTA Rules found here

    there is mention of a parks being closed. The Pandemic certainly changed the local parks’ opening/closing times. I have a close park that’s only open in July and August, and only by reservation, so I’ve never activated it. What’s everyone’s thoughts on these rules? Discuss!

    1. So the interesting part about the Thomas Wolfe Memorial is that their parking area is open 24/7 even when the office is closed. There’s no gate and I don’t remember a sign that prohibits parking when the site is closed.
      But frankly, I was familiar with these rules, too, when I started doing POTA and I stick to them. There were other public parks open during the start of the pandemic, so it wasn’t a problem anyway.
      I should note here that I’ve been to two parks where the rangers told me hams parked at the gates of the park and activated when the site was closed to the public. They had to ask the hams to leave because park staf were still going in/out of the park and they were partially blocking the entrance.

  3. QRM sounds like my home qth, only mine is S9 ! That’s why I have to go portable, usually POTA, just to get on the air at all.

    I have on occasion used a nearby publicly accessible WebSDR to hear for me while I transmitted from home, but the latency makes it hard to actually use well.

    1. Something you might try (if you haven’t already) is to use a wide band receive-only amplified loop antenna. If your home radio has a separate receive antenna port, all the better, because it’ll do the T/R switching for you. Otherwise, I believe you can buy an external box for this.
      I can’t imagine having an S9 noise floor. As you say, all the better reason for playing radios outdoors, I reckon!

  4. Great Job Tom. So the funny part is where you set up is where I had a conclusion to a foot chase one night at bar closing. We had a little wrestling match on the ground but ultimately APD prevailed!

    We are coming down next week and I will be in the area until end of October. Hopefully we can get together.

    VA3FLF / NC4SR **
    Note my new US call.

    1. Wow, Steve! I bet you have many stories about every corner of Asheville with your former APD life!
      Yes, please touch base when you’re hear. Would be fun to meet up again!

  5. Hi Tom-

    A nice out-of the ordinary POTA Activation!

    I set up at Mast Yard State Forest near Concord, NH yesterday. There’d been only one Activation there before- mine. Not sure why.

    I’d counted on a big dead Pine to support my EFHW. It was gone- taken down. Lots of people at the trailhead/parking area as well, so I elected not to bring out the pneumatic launcher. Instead, a Hustler 20M resonator on the rooftop mag-mount.

    It didn’t much matter- 65 contacts over 2 hours. 34 of them were FT8- I was pleasantly surprised. My CQs were resulting in as many as 3 replies there at once. A bit confusing for this old CW guy at times, but not a bad problem to have!

    Alas- no pictures. Next time for sure. 73- K1SWL

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