100,000 miles on the GL320

August 29th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

We’re at home between trips, and it’s time to take care of our trusty steed, the silver Mercedes GL320 that has hauled us across the country and back at least seven times (plus many other trips).

I learned many things when we were full-time travelers, and one of them was that you don’t skimp on vehicle maintenance.  When you’re on the road, that car or truck is literally your lifeline.  When the tow vehicle ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So I tend to scrupulously maintain it and almost obsessively observe it (look, listen, sniff) for any hint of a problem brewing.

The GL is coming up on a milestone: 100,000 miles, to be specific.  This year in May the extended warranty expired too. This all means that the car is  transitioning from being a highly reliable creampuff, to being subject to the quirks and complaints of middle age. Without the warranty I’m now less insulated from the financial hits of future repairs.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the 97,600 miles on the odometer today are mostly the result of towing work—meaning that we’ve asked the car to do a lot more than the average commuter.  So when I brought it to the dealer this week for a routine service interval, I asked them to check out a few specific things.

There was “no cause found” for the strange power loss we experienced last week, but a software update was indicated which may alleviate the issue.  I’m not really terribly optimistic about that, because the car has had many such updates and not one of them has ever solved a problem. This is usually the first step in a series of “let’s try this and see if it helps” solutions.

But in the careful inspection the dealership did turn up a few things which are typical for a car of this mileage and use. One of the rear shock absorbers is leaking. They should be replaced in pairs, so that’s really two rather expensive shocks. One of the bushings in the right lower control arm (a front suspension part) is cracked and nearly worn out. The engine mounts, which on a Mercedes are filled with hydraulic fluid, have begun to leak and so they must be replaced too. And the battery is coming due for replacement.

The dealer of course uses Mercedes OEM parts and charges full retail for them, plus fixed labor rates, so the estimate for all of the above (except the battery) was a whopping $3,800.

I will not be paying that amount.  I will use Mercedes parts despite their rather high cost, because my experience has been consistently that they function better, fit better, and last longer than most of the aftermarket options. As a car reviewer once wrote, this is because “Mercedes parts have been dipped in gold and polished by trained unicorns.” But I will buy them through online parts stores at a discount and have my friendly neighborhood independent mechanic install them.  This will make the bill about $1,700—still far from cheap, but within the budget I’ve set for annual maintenance.

So far this year the car has consumed about $1800 in other repairs. The air conditioner compressor, which has been intermittently failing to cool for the past five years, finally failed sufficiently that we could diagnose the fault. We replaced that in July. The blower motor shorted out the month before, which caused it to keep running even when the car was off, and so that got swapped out too.

Annoying, yes, but not unexpected.  When I bought the car I had a plan to get it paid off before the warranty expired, because that’s when it could be expected to start getting expensive in repairs.  When the loan was paid, I immediately re-allocated the money that had been going to the car payment, to a savings account for future repairs. So at this point despite the expensive repairs, we’re still ahead financially (compared to a new car payment) and I expect that to continue to be the case for several years. When the equation shifts the other way, or when Tesla makes an electric car that can pull my Airstream at least 250 miles on a charge, it will be time to leave the old steed behind.

That’s not anytime soon, I think.  I like the GL better than the Nissan Armada we had before, even though it’s less roomy and costs more.  It took me five years and 97,000 miles to come to this conclusion, but at last I can say, “Yes, I recommend the GL as an Airstream tow vehicle” —as long as you actually maintain it.  It has proven to be a very capable tow vehicle. And it’s really fun to have people asking us “Does that little car tow that big trailer alright?” every few days. So we’ll keep it as long as it makes sense.

The things you take home

August 27th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

We are home after a little over two weeks of traveling from Vermont to Arizona, and for the past week we have been slowly unpacking the Airstream and catching up on the obligations of daily life. It has been four months since the Airstream was at home base, so there’s a lot of cleaning and tweaking to be done.

The first week at home can be tough. I think that for a lot of people it is easy to sink into a sort of semi-depression after a great trip, as they are forced to re-enter the “real world” of work.  This is really unfortunate.  Obviously it’s kind of counter-productive if you go out on a trip and get refreshed, then come back to home base only to promptly lose all that fresh energy.

Since we are out traveling often (and so have to make the re-adjustment back to home life just as often) I’ve developed some personal strategies to ensure that that depression doesn’t strike me. It never consciously occurred to me that this was something I needed to do, but gradually over the years it just felt better to do certain things to soften the transition from footloose travel to homebound routine.

One of the things I try to do is to anticipate the return with joy rather than dread, while we are still traveling. If you truly dread your home life you probably should make some changes, but I think for most people it’s just a few obligations or the fear of losing the pleasant mellow of vacation, that has them down. They try not to think about “the real world” because they are afraid it will overshadow what they’re experiencing at that moment, even if the real world isn’t really that bad.

I look at it another way. I think about the things that I like about being home, and the things I want to do once I get there, in the days leading up to the end of a trip. This way the arrival back at home is just another fun stop along the way. For example, while were in Colorado and New Mexico I was also mentally preparing a list of things to do in Tucson: a old favorite restaurant to re-visit, showing Eleanor the new Tucson streetcar, checking out some venues for next year’s Alumafiesta, going to Scottsdale for a car show, finishing a Mercedes project with my buddy across town, Dad’s night with the guys, sunrise in our bedroom, and seeing our stray cat “Priscilla” again.

Writing up that list, it looks mundane and even silly to me now, but long ago I realized that it’s important to appreciate the little things that fill your life with bits of joy. I could have thought of the crummy stuff that is coming, like a series of dental appointments and expensive car maintenance, because that’s part of life too—but why go there?  Those things will get worked out eventually whether I worry about them or not.

Another thing that we all like to do is collect things along our travels that we can enjoy after the travel is over. I don’t mean antique furniture or souvenir snow globes, because those just add to our clutter and we don’t really need them.  I’m talking about intangibles and consumables, like new ideas and food.  Ideas in particular are the real riches of life (at least to me). They add to our store of knowledge and our internal diversity of thought, constantly expanding us into more interesting people.  (Food is also constantly expanding us, especially now that we are over 50, but that’s an argument for moderation rather than avoidance.)

While we were at the Lincoln Cabin historic site in Illinois, I watched the historical interpreters making a wonderful Irish Soda Bread in their Dutch Oven. It looked so nice and smelled so good that we all stood around and admired it while I asked questions about how they made it. This idea lodged in my head, and so it became once of the things that I looked forward to doing once we got back to home base.

Yesterday Eleanor picked up some ingredients and verified we had the rest: buttermilk, flour, Baking Powder, salt, raisins, brown sugar. She researched various recipes and we discussed them together.  I wanted one that was simple, so I could easily make it when camping, and yet reasonably tasty. And today, with the help of both Eleanor and Emma, I made my very first Irish Soda Bread in the new aluminum Dutch Oven that I’ve been hauling around in the Airstream for the past year.

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It’s not perfect bread, but that’s not even close to the point. What really matters to me is that I was looking forward to doing this, and the anticipation of this simple act was enough to soften the landing. It even got me happy about the chore of clearing out the front compartment of the Airstream, because that’s where my Dutch Oven was.

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And of course, the idea of making a Soda Bread became the other kind of souvenir that we like to bring back from a trip: food. So in a way, it was perfect.

There’s one more strategy that I use when a trip is winding down, or just ended.  That’s the one we all do. I think about future trips, and talk to my family about them, and pretty soon we have something else to anticipate while we are getting on with whatever has to be done. As they say, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  Enjoy life.

 

A cure for road malaise

August 25th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

This was a pretty good trip west, considering that we were covering a familiar route and thus were susceptible to the malaise of “the road too often traveled.”* Our experiments with alternate routes ended up much like you’d expect: some successes, some failures.  On the positive side, we found some very nice roads through Kansas (and more through Missouri and Arkansas that we’ll try next year), lots of historic sites, several new state parks, and amazing scenery through New Mexico.

* apologies to Robert Frost

To the negative side, our cadence through the trip was off.  Normally on a rush-rush trip (and two weeks to go from Vermont to Arizona is definitely a rush in our book), we’ll travel 350-400 miles for a day or two, then take a couple of days off to browse an area and recuperate from sitting in the car.  This time we tried a different routine of exploring in the morning, then driving 200-300 miles to another interesting spot for the night so that we can explore it again the next morning.  It was efficient but too grueling, and after a week of this I was burning out. So we’ve decided to go back to the previous method, at least when we don’t have time to do it a more relaxed way.

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Still, we managed to do a lot of the things we like.  I keep a trip tally of places visited and anticipated, on our white board in the Airstream.  This trip we hit seven state parks: Darien Lake (NY), Maumee Bay (OH), Fox Ridge (IL), Sangchris Lake (IL), Pershing (MO), John Martin Reservoir (CO), Fool Hollow Lake (AZ),  plus one Canadian Provincial park (Pinery in Ontario).  That’s a win right there, because the camping experience in every one of those parks was nicer than almost any of the commercial parks we’ve ever visited. The state parks may have gotten more expensive since the Great Recession, but they are still a bargain if you like being out in the country.

We had no trouble at all getting into state parks in Illinois, Missouri, and even eastern Colorado with no reservations.  Most of them were nearly deserted, at least during the week.  I had expected we might have to spend a night at a Wal-Mart or similar because it should have been peak season in those states.  Strangely, once we got west of I-25 into Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, everything was full. Admittedly the weather was fantastic, but it was a surprise to pull into a tiny place like Eagle Nest, NM and find no availability at either of the two state parks and most of the commercial sites—on a Thursday. But it always worked out, as it always does. (I often remind people that you always know where you’ll be sleeping when you have a travel trailer, so why get anxious about it?)

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During the trip we managed to add to our list of national park sites, which is getting harder these days since we’ve visited nearly a third of the entire NP system. Kansas may not have a leading reputation as a tourist state but we certainly enjoyed Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site and Ft Larned NHS, and Bent’s Old Fort NHS in Colorado, and Apache Ruins Nat’l Monument in New Mexico. Anyone who is going to the WBCCI International Rally next June in Farmington NM should plan a half day at Apache Ruins, as well as a full day at Mesa Verde National Park.

Emma picked up a Junior Ranger badge at Apache Ruins. She didn’t have time to complete the programs at the other sites, which was another symptom that the cadence of the trip wasn’t right for us. By the time we got to New Mexico I had recognized the mistake and we started to slow down a little, taking three days to get through New Mexico along Rt 64 (spectacular) and Arizona.  That means stopping and checking out things by the roadside like the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a picnic stop at 10,500 feet on Rt 64, views in the Salt River Canyon in Arizona (Rt 60/77), etc.  Can you see our Airstream parked along the roadside in the photo below (way at the back)?

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Our last stop was Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low, AZ.  It’s very popular and for good reasons; the sites are beautiful. We only go on weekdays because there’s no chance of getting a walk-up site on a weekend.  This time we ended up in the midst of what appeared to be an Airstream gathering.  To our left were two Airstreams parked together (a few tandem sites exist at Fool Hollow), to our right was a 1970s-era Argosy, and further down the loop we spotted two more late model Airstreams. It’s unusual to see this many clustered together, but it was just happenstance.  Our neighbors to the left were playing classic 78-RPM records on a portable Victor record player, and told us they were planning to come to Alumafiesta in Tucson next January.

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I mentioned in the previous blog that the GL was due for maintenance.  It did a strange thing to us while climbing out of the Salt River Canyon area in Arizona.  The computer decided to limit engine power for no apparent reason. It will do this if the transmission or engine temperature get high, but that wasn’t happening, and in any case it should restore full engine power when things cool off.  This time it stayed at low power, which meant even on a flat road I couldn’t get past 48 MPH and it took forever to get there.

Even stranger, we didn’t get any sort of malfunction indicator.  This car has something like 48 separate computers and dozens of sensors that measure absolutely everything, so even something small will set off dire warnings on the instrument cluster. This time, all seemed normal except for having no power.

We were not going to be able to get home like that, at least not while towing a trailer up hills, so I called the dealership for advice. They suggested just turning the car off and then on again–essentially, rebooting it.  This worked and the problem hasn’t recurred since. Perhaps the GL was feeling a touch of “road malaise” too?

Still, I’m glad it is going in this week for a major maintenance interval so they can review any stored malfunction codes. At 97,000 miles the car is at an age where a few problems can be expected, but my standard is 100% reliability while on the road, so if anything seems amiss it will get fixed now.

Now that we are home, it’s time to unload the Airstream and get it ready for the next trip. We were drastically over-packed this year and the only solution is to get everything out and review what we are carrying. It’s really inefficient when you’ve got to move six items to get to the one you need. Any trips we do this winter will be more local, so we should be able to travel much lighter—without motorcycle gear, tenting gear, sewing machine, Wii, food for weeks, clothes for three seasons, homeschooling supplies, Aluma-event gear and costumes, etc.

This Saturday I am taking off (by airplane) to Oregon to attend Alumafandango.  It would be nice to have the Airstream but I would be risking another case of road malaise if I tried to tow it 1,200 miles up and back in September.  It doesn’t matter; I’ll be surrounded by aluminum all week anyway, thanks to the new trailer display by George M Sutton RV and the 85 or so Airstreams registered to attend. I’m looking forward to that!

Notes from the mid-west

August 19th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

After writing the previous blog extolling the virtues of slower travel through the Plains states, I felt obliged to get off I-70 as soon as feasible and explore other routes through Kansas.  We dropped south to parallel routes and spent our evening in Great Bend, KS, a small town that we chose only because it was about the time of day that we wanted to stop traveling.

When you are moving around the way we are, it’s hard to be fussy about where you stay.  We are always prepared to boondock a night or two in a parking lot or driveway, and it’s actually a good way to cut down the cost of travel. Long-time blog readers know we rarely make reservations, and this is part of the reason why: we often don’t know exactly where we are going to be tomorrow. In this case the decision to stop in Great Bend was made about an hour before actually getting there.

I use an app called “Allstays Camp & RV” to look ahead for possible campsites each day. (Apps like this are basically the modern equivalent of the old Woodall’s and Trailer Life paper directories—but far more useful.) In this case we could see that Great Bend had a few small campgrounds that were all exceptionally cheap, running about $10-15 for a full hookup.  At that price you have to expect that the campground will be basically a parking lot with no amenities at all, and that’s fine with us.  For an overnight stop, we don’t need a shower house (we have our own) and certainly not a trout pond.

Thus, we have gone from Grand Bend, ON to Great Bend, KS, in a little over a week.  This reminded me of June, when I went from Perce Rock on the north Atlantic coast off Gaspé, to Morro Rock on the Pacific coast off California. This has been a summer of almost too much travel. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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Yesterday I tweeted a photo of our unimpressive campsite on a mud & gravel parking lot. I forgot that these days there’s always someone monitoring … and so I heard back from fellow tweeter @GreatBendKS with a comment that next time we should get in touch and they’ll direct us to a nice place at a similar price.  This sort of thing has happened before, both on positive and negative comments I’ve made about campgrounds. In one case an armed ranger came to our campsite to say “Thanks for the nice review,” and in another case a campground owner threatened to sue me.  Luckily, people in Kansas are friendly.

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I thought our visit at Ft Larned National Historic Site would be quick but it turned into a multi-hour saga. Emma got another Junior Ranger badge (I think she’s earned over 70 of them at this point) and we had lunch. It was tortuously hot, running 103-105 degrees, which made a mockery of my earlier decision to skip I-44 down to Oklahoma in favor of “cooler weather” heading toward Colorado. But Ft Larned was interesting and well worth the stop.

John Martin Reservoir State Park

With the last few days running progressively hotter, we’ve spent every night in a state park or commercial campground just for the electric hookup to run the air conditioer. I don’t mind that because the state parks have all been great. Last night’s stop was perhaps the best of a great bunch: John Martin Reservoir State Park in the town of Hasty, CO. It has both sunny sites by the dam and shady sites beneath mature trees, and at least during this week it is mostly empty, which I love. Now that we are slowly climbing the plateau, we’re up to about 3,300 ft elevation and the nights are running cooler even if the days are still pretty hot.

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A note about maintenance:  I’m reminded once again that this sort of rapid travel across the country does come with a price.  We have logged nearly 8,000 miles so far this summer (since leaving Arizona in May), which is about average for us.  In the past two weeks we’ve done routine and minor maintenance such as greasing the Hensley hitch, adding DEF to the car (a diesel thing), and disassembling the bathroom sink plumbing to clear a clog. But when we get home we’ll need to tackle the “bug list” that has been accumulating on the white board.

The GL320 is due for some love.  The car is now at 97,000 miles and due for an oil change, transmission fluid change (we do it about every 30k miles), and a new set of tires fairly soon. I don’t mind because the GL has been pretty good to us and looks good to go for many more miles. And I still get the question almost every week we travel: “Does that little car pull that trailer OK?” Watching people gape at our 30-foot trailer and “little” SUV can be pretty entertaining, especially at the fuel pump.

The Airstream also needs a few tweaks.  The rainstorms we’ve been driving through have revealed two leaks. The MaxxFan in the front bedroom seems to have a small, wind-driven rain leak.  That’s probably just a matter of re-caulking a spot, so I can do that easily once I get a chance to get on the roof.

The bigger problem is the front storage compartment, which has always leaked but really flooded in the last storm. We’ve had it “repaired” twice and nobody has ever been able to really get it to be totally waterproof. It is also difficult to open and close when the Airstream is hitched up, because the body of an Airstream is flexible, and the flexing causes the door to jam.  I have concluded after years of hassling with it that the only solution is to replace the compartment door with the updated design, which has rounded corners instead of square. This job will be major surgery that gets a little beyond my personal comfort zone, so I may recruit the help of one of my more experienced Airstream friends this winter.

In the meantime, since we may encounter rainstorms again today, we’ll seal the compartment with packing tape, as we used to do years ago when we were full-timing.  It’s a kludgy solution but it will do until we get home.  We’re only a little over 800 miles away from wrapping up this trip.

The Plains states turn out to be less plain

August 18th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

I have to admit that while we were in Jackson Center I was feeling a little dismay at the prospects for the rest of our trip toward home base in Arizona. We’ve covered this route so many times, heading both northeast and southwest, that it seems that there is little left for us to see. As blog stalker “insightout” commented, “How many times can you do it before you go insane?”

It is true that we have visited most of the major tourist stops along the way, but it’s perhaps a conceit to think that we have seen it all. Of course we haven’t. Nobody has seen everything in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, even people who live there.

The real trick for most people seems to be the flattish plains states, which form an unavoidable barrier from North Dakota through West Texas. Kansas and Nebraska particularly have a reputation for dull driving, but really they are all exercises in patience and opportunities for creative distraction. The latter is probably why Kansas boasts many things reputed to be the largest in the world, including a ball of twine, sunflower, and hand dug well. (Not to be outdone, Missouri has the largest golf tee and wind chimes.)

Our solution has been to wander a little off course and seek out state parks that we haven’t previously visited, which usually leads to a local attraction or other sort of tourist site. This idea led us off I-70 to Illinois’ Fox Ridge State Park, which is conveniently near the Lincoln Cabin State Historic Site, which is itself a fine destination for a few hours thanks to an excellent visitors center and a living history farm. I picked up a little knowledge about Dutch Oven cooking from talking to the historical re-enactors there. (It was particularly interesting to me because I’m currently reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is a great biography of Lincoln and his cabinet.)

From there we decided to wander further off the beaten path and meander through soybean farms up toward Springfield. There is a lot more “Lincoln” stuff to be seen in that region (reminds me of the Anne of Green Gables obsession in Prince Edward Island, but at least Lincoln is real). Our goal for the day wasn’t Lincoln but Wright—Frank Lloyd Wright, specifically his masterpiece Dana-Thomas House in downtown Springfield. If you are an FLW fan, this is definitely one to see.

Our camp in that area was Sangchris Lake State Park, about 30 minutes out of town. Like many state parks and Army Corps parks, the one was formed the damming of a river, and then development of a green and tranquil campground and other public facilities. We often are far from the action when we go to places like this, and cellular connectivity is a problem even with the booster and external antenna, but it’s worth the minor inconvenience for a quiet and scenic place to stay.

I was starting to get concerned about the amount of time we had been spending in Illinois, since Arizona remained 1,500 miles away and I do have deadlines that will force me back to home base soon. This wandering path was fun but I could hear the clock ticking. At the end of the month I have to have the Winter 2014 issue of the magazine at least mostly in the hands of my Art Director, and also head to Oregon to run Alumafandango. I’ve been working on both as we go, but it’s hard to stay ahead of ahead of the deadlines when you are also constantly on the move.

So after a half day in Springfield we pressed onward along I-72 through Illinois and into Missouri. This road eventually becomes Rt 36, a straight and quiet divided highway that parallels I-70 at a safe distance from major cities and Ferguson riots. We didn’t choose it because we were afraid to drive through St Louis, we were just trying to find a new path across Missouri. Alas, there’s little of interest along this route and most of the way we had very limited data service (Verizon “extended” network) so it wasn’t a huge hit with any of us, until we pulled into Pershing State Park that night.

Pershing, as you might guess, is in the middle of a hometown region of historical sites honoring General Pershing. I will admit I know next to nothing about the man, but we were all filled up with historical information from the Lincoln region and I was still anxious to make up some time, so the general’s legacy was lost on us this trip. Perhaps another time.

We surrendered to another inevitability however, dropping south to the tedium of I-70 through Kansas, just to speed up the trip a little. This brought us through Topeka and past signs for the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. This isn’t nearly as compelling a name as “Sea World,” but in the grand scheme of I-70 it was enough to bring us to a halt. I’m glad we did.

The site interprets the importance of a Supreme Court decision regarding racial equality and also manages to explore some sensitive racial history and issues in this country without being preachy. We found it to be fascinating, and it also counted as a good piece of homeschooling for Emma. We spent an hour there and would have stayed longer if we had the time. The final stop on our self-guided tour was a pair of headphones, through which Emma was introduced to the music of Marvin Gaye, playing “What’s Goin’ On.” I think she liked it.

I think what I’ve learned is that the mid western plains states are actually less boring the more time you spend in them. It’s racing through that causes the fatigue, because then all you see are the billboards and plains. There are plenty of small things to explore if we can take the time, and I’ll be thinking about that next May when we do this trip again.

From Maumee in the rain

August 14th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

After our tedious crossing at Sarnia, it was getting late so we spent the night at one of our notorious “undisclosed locations,” and in the morning paused to assess our situation.

Our goal was Airstream in Jackson Center OH, to meet people there. At this point it was Saturday, and we had no need to cover a lot of miles to make our goal by Monday. So all we really needed would be to find a decent place (uncrowded, pleasant) to spend a couple of nights on a sunny summer weekend on the way down I-75.

The trick with this of course was that on sunny summer weekends the good spots tend to be booked up in advance by weekenders. This might sound like a nightmare to those of you who are planners, but for me it is a great situation to be in. These days we don’t often have the opportunity to be agenda-free for a day or two. Rather than make a decision right off, we decided to start the day with a big breakfast and then meander out slowly. The weather was fine, the roads were uncrowded, and I didn’t have enormous amounts of work breathing down my neck. We stopped at giant flea market along the highway, and browsed junk for an hour, which is the sort of thing we haven’t done in years. Even with a tedious traffic jam in Detroit, we had a pretty pleasant drive.

I finally realized that if we were going to find a spot that met our criteria, we’d have to go where other people don’t think to go for vacation. Fortunately, we had both Detroit and Toledo on our route.

We eventually settled on spending our weekend in Toledo. Well, not really. We headed for Maumee Bay State Park, which is east of Toledo on the southern shore of Lake Erie in the town of Oregon, OH. Online reviews suggested it was a nice place, and a quick phone call verified that there were plenty of sites available. And it gave us a unique opportunity to visit Oregon and Ohio simultaneously.

Maumee Bay turned out to be a winner. The park is extremely well kept, not terribly crowded even on this gorgeous summer weekend, with great facilities, a beach, electricity at every site, and generally pretty. We snagged a non-reservable site for a night and liked it so much that we booked another day the next morning. Our Sunday was spent lounging around, reading books, and hanging out on the beach for a few hours. The beach had issues with high bacteria counts in the water, but overall the “weekend in Toledo” turned out great, the best I could have hoped for on a nice summer weekend on this route.

By Monday, things changed dramatically. Huge thunderstorms were scheduled to arrive early, so we hustled to get the Airstream packed, hitched, and ready to travel before 8:30 a.m. It’s never fun to hitch up or visit the dump station in the rain, and all the time I was outside I was being urged on by ominous thunder from a bank of dark grey that was sweeping up from the southwest. Literally seconds after we finished at the dump station, the first fat cold raindrops began to hit us.

This brings me to today’s real subject: safe driving in the rain. The heavy thunderstorms we encountered are not uncommon in the midsection of the country during the summer. Anyone who tows regularly will encounter them sooner or later. If you’re nervous about that, good—it means you’re not too cocky. Your first line of defense is always to take a break from towing and wait out the storm. We’ve done that a few times.

It’s hard for some people to accept that strategy, because all the cars and big semi-trailers will stay on the highway and drive at ludicrous speeds right up to the moment that they find themselves in a multi-car pileup. Obviously you shouldn’t go by their example. Your travel trailer may be great in dry weather but it’s no match for a car or a semi-trailer in a storm. Hydroplaning, stopping distance, control, and steering are all significantly worse in a heavy rain with wind.

After a moderately harrowing slalom through Toledo city streets, we were towing on I-75 in poor visibility and heavy rain. The water was coming down too quickly to drain well off the road, so there were pairs of rivers in each lane to increase the hydroplane effect. With a little experimentation (and this is where feedback from the vehicle’s steering is important) I found my most comfortable speed and stayed there until conditions improved.

It wasn’t long before some of the cars and trucks figured out they were going too fast. At every exit, bump, and curve we’d see a flurry of red brake lights. A few miles further we encountered blue flashing lights on the opposite side of the highway; the first, inevitable accident.

Ahead Eleanor spotted a car driving with lights off. We could only see it when it applied brakes; otherwise it was invisible. Later we got a look at it and realized it was red. Red cars tend to disappear the most quickly in fog because water filters out the color red first. (Ask any underwater photographer.) I made a special point of tracking that car and staying far away until it exited.

I was prepared to exit or pull over if the storm or fog thickened. But from radar images on Eleanor’s phone we knew that we were driving out of the storm, so the real task was to hold the course and keep plenty of distance between us and the car in front.

Keep in mind also that the affects of heavy rain can persist even after the storm is gone. Later, making a quick detour in Findlay OH to pick up some documents at the local Staples, I stepped on the brake at low speed and felt the ABS kick on. Why? The trailer’s tires were braking too aggressively for the wet pavement and thus skidding a little. The trailer will push the tow vehicle, and the tow vehicle brakes will have to work harder, which can cause the ABS to kick in on a wet surface.

I don’t mention all this to intimidate people who tow (or who are thinking about towing). It’s just that I get photos emailed to me on a regular basis of “interesting” accidents involving Airstreams, and I’d like to see the number of such accidents decline. This may be something we can help with, in our future special event next July in Ontario. Things are moving ahead with that event, and the plan is to announce details by October of this year.

Hot sauce

August 10th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

I’m sure there’s some great saying to be quoted that ties together travel and adversity, but I’m going to skip the Internet search for clever quotes and just draw my own conclusions. After all, it’s our own voyage and our own adversity to deal with.

Not that this has been a bad trip!  On the contrary, we have overall had a very nice few days of Airstream travel. But even on the nice days there is usually some small aggravation or diversion from the plan that has to be dealt with. Perfection, in travel and all other things, is hard to come by.

On our first day we were quite lucky in many ways: we had a pleasant and uneventful drive through the Adirondacks of New York state, west along the Thruway to the Buffalo area, and ended up snagging one of the three remaining sites at Darien Lakes State Park on a Thursday night.

This is a particularly good result considering that the Airstream has sat in Vermont for a couple of months, under trees which rain down an acidic combination of dead leaves, blooms, and branches (mixed with a little bird dropping for extra toxicity). It has been neglected and taken for granted all summer, and then—after a roof wash and a quick inspection—put back into service and expected to operate flawlessly for 360 miles on the first day out.

Since storage kills Airstreams quicker than use, I was pleased to find that all of the critical systems survived and we had no major problems, other than a few mice that Eleanor successfully trapped out in the two weeks before departure.

(You might ask why storage is more deadly than use, and the short answer is that during use the Airstream is maintained and problems are caught early; whereas in storage problems tend to fester and cause damage while your back is turned.)

The plan was to clear Canadian customs the next morning and drive to London, Ontario, to meet Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes the Towing column for the magazine, and we are talking about putting together a very interesting new event with him for 2015. But our travel schedule was tight, allowing us only four hours to get to London, and I was feeling the pressure all morning, probably because I was aware that we really didn’t have a lot of leeway if something went wrong.

Something did go wrong. In Brantford ON we got mired in a traffic jam on the freeway, which eventually ground to a complete halt. We sat there for over 30 minutes, parked among the semi-trailers, reading books while the more agile cars broke loose and took an entrance ramp ahead (going the wrong way) to escape. This was not an option for the trucks and us, being too long to make the 300-degree right turn necessary to get on the entrance ramp. Eventually, all the cars were gone and I realized we now had room to make a three point turn on the highway, drive in the wrong direction down the breakdown lane, and then up another entrance ramp further back in the direction we had come from.

This might seem nerve-wracking but it felt like great fun to me.  How often do you get to drive backwards down the freeway—with a travel trailer? Coming up the curved entrance ramp in the wrong direction was a little odd, especially when I came to the police car with lights flashing that was blocking the ramp, but amazingly there was just enough room to squeeze the Airstream through, across two lanes of heavy traffic, and once again into a legal travel configuration.

Eleanor got a really fun part of this. While we were parked on the highway she had gone into the trailer to make sandwiches.  A few minutes later I got the opportunity to escape the highway and warned her that we might start moving at any moment, with her inside.  I half expected to find her later looking like Lucille Ball in “The Long Long Trailer,” covered with ingredients and bruises from being tossed around inside the Airstream, but when I finally found a parking lot a few miles later and pulled over, she was ready inside the Airstream with three sandwiches neatly bagged up and ready to serve. It turns out that it’s a pretty smooth ride in there.

After our detour and a quick nosh on those sandwiches we were a solid hour behind schedule. We raced up to London, grabbed Andy, and headed onward together to Grand Bend to do some scouting.

Grand Bend is a nice little beach town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, just about an hour from the Sarnia ON-Pt Huron MI crossing. I’ll talk more about what we found there in a later blog entry, but suffice to say now that it’s a very nice spot and after just a couple of hours of scouting we decided that we definitely are going to launch a new event there for July 2015. I promise that it will be absolutely unique, and if you travel anywhere within 1,000 miles of Michigan next summer you should plan to go.

Andy had to head back home but we spent the night at the Pinery Provincial Park (the equivalent of a US state park).  Pinery is a very nice place, quite massive, which feels a lot like an overgrown Florida State Park. There are about 1,000 campsites, all tucked under tall pine trees on sandy spots in a forest. People reserve it a year in advance to get a summer weekend, which is why we could only get Thursday night.

I wasn’t really unhappy about having to leave after one night.  The park was too big for my taste, too crowded (even though it covered hundreds of aces and the entrance road was over 4 km), and the campground loop was too tight. We had to do some careful planning to find a route out of our campground loop that would allow the Airstream out without hitting a tree or scraping an overhead branch. In all the hundreds of campgrounds we’ve visited, this one ranked above all others in sheer difficulty to navigate with a 30-foot trailer.

I was also a bit peeved that we had reserved an electric site, paid a total of CAN$56 in fees, and got Dunes site #25 which is marked on the Pinery map as having electric—but did not have electricity anywhere that we could find. If we’d had more time I would have taken it up with the staff but we were again on a tight schedule and in the end it just wasn’t worth the hassle. We had more scouting work to do on Friday before the 2 pm checkout time, so I decided to just focus on work and then head to some place that was less popular.

In our travels we’ve usually had the best times at quiet places, but it’s hard to find campground that is both pleasant and unpopular on a summer weekend in the north.  At this point we had no idea where we were going to spend the night.  The good part was that we also had no itinerary for the weekend.  My next scheduled stop was at Airstream and there was no point in getting there until Monday, and it was only 264 miles away, which meant we could go anywhere we wanted in the meantime.

So after heading southwest from Grand Bend we stopped at Point Edward park under the famous Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia, ON.  This is a sweet little spot for a break, where you can watch the gorgeous blue-green water flow by in the river, walk the grassy park, marvel at the enormous bridges overhead, and ogle your first view of America just across the river in Pt Huron MI. We spent the afternoon.

The traffic on the Blue Water bridge is so bad there’s an app you can download to watch the traffic and figure the best time to try to make it through.  It’s bad because US Customs is right on the other side, which causes traffic to back up over the bridge and often a mile or two back into Sarnia. At 5 pm we launched into it; at 6:30 pm we finally cleared customs, having traveled a mere two miles or so. It was a frustrating end to the day, but if you look at the bright side, we had a nice long view from the top of the bridge…

So was our trip good, or bad?  I say it’s a matter of how you view things.  I think (being an optimist most of the time) that it was very good. Eleanor agrees. It wasn’t perfect but here we are, still standing, still traveling, still together, and more adventures lie ahead. My conclusion: a little adversity is the “hot sauce” that makes travel all that much more interesting.

Turtle shells and teddy bears

August 5th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Let’s see, if this is Tuesday then I must be in Vermont.  That’s because last week I was in Montreal and the weekend before I was in Tucson.

Traveling is fun, but too much of it can be overwhelming. Eleanor and I have to make an effort to try to stay grounded when we are really moving a lot.  This is a skill we honed during our full-timing period, when the scenery was always changing and the only constant was ourselves and the Airstream.  You have to develop a sort of mental turtle shell that you carry around all the time, which is a sense that no matter where you are, you are still safe and still you.

Emma’s pediatrician called this the “inner teddy bear” for kids, but it’s the same thing.  Emma developed her inner teddy bear a long time ago and it has served her well since. Kids are far better equipped to build up their turtle shell or teddy bear, if we just let them and don’t fill them with the same fears we adults often have.

I meet a lot of adults who are fearful of travel, and I can understand this because strangeness of surroundings, people, food, languages, climate, etc., is intimidating. But I also feel sorry for the adults who are full of regret for the travel experiences they have not been able to enjoy, because they seem to be unable to find the self-confidence they need to do what they want. It’s harder for adults to change themselves, and yet we must if we are to continue to grow. Having traveled in Airstreams for the last decade certainly has forced us to change.

This summer has gone well so far, meaning that most of the things we wanted to do have come off more or less according to plan, and we’ve had no major disasters.  We might regret whatever we haven’t accomplished, but on the whole the positives far outweigh the negatives, and that’s about as close to perfection as real life ever gets. We ran a great event (Alumapalooza) at the Airstream factory, then got to Vermont for nice visits with family, and my motorcycling trip was a success. Eleanor and I got to take side trips, I got to play TBM for a few weeks, and the Interstate motorhome trip through California was pretty awesome. I have a souvenir of the motorcycling, namely a tiny bit of mobility loss in my left shoulder, but that should clear up with time and some more physical therapy.

Today Eleanor is working on getting the Airstream re-packed after several weeks of being parked. As always, our belongings (mostly Emma’s) are scattered all through my mother’s house and the Airstream needs a good cleaning in and out. I’ll be on the roof this afternoon, washing off the accumulated blooms and leaves so that our solar panels will work again. Tomorrow, the Airstream rolls out.

Our itinerary this week includes a stop in Ontario, where we are going to be scouting a site for a possible new event to be held in 2015. After that we’ll drop in on Airstream for a couple of days, and then we really don’t have a plan other than getting to Tucson no later than Aug 24. Might go through Colorado this time, but who knows? After such a rigidly planned summer, I think it will be nice to have a loose schedule for a week or two. The inner teddy bears are telling us that whatever we decide to do, we’ll be OK.

Sleepless ferret time

July 28th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

I left off in the last blog about halfway through my 10 day trip in the Airstream Interstate. … and then, silence. That’s because I got back from the trip and immediately launched into a couple projects atop my day job of being the Airstream Life magazine Editor & Publisher, not the least of which was to write a guidebook about the Airstream Interstate.

Writing a guidebook is not really such a bad job, unless you, for reasons that cannot be fully explained here, have a deadline to complete the entire thing in three weeks. Then it’s an exercise to see how long you can stand to (in the words of Hunter S Thompson) work like a sleepless ferret, and still produce readable prose.

Not only readable, but accurate. These days, in the era of e-books, anyone can be a publisher, and sadly there are a lot of guidebooks available now that lack reliability and comprehensiveness. So I spent the last three weeks gorging on information and attempting to become expert on the intricacies of the Interstate motorhome, while typing out pages as quickly as I could.

So my blog stories of the Interstate trip suffered, but the good news is that I finished the first draft of the book last night. It’s off to my illustrator, and then I’ll run it past a few folks at Airstream and Airstream dealerships for fact-checking.  With luck, the ebook can be out in September. It will probably run about 80 pages long in the final version. I’m just glad it’s off my desk and out of my head, so I can think like a normal person for a while.

I owe you a conclusion to the blog series I started.  After I finished coastal Route 1 I headed up to spent a couple of nights in friendly driveways in the Silicon Valley area. I have a few friends up there, and one of them had a nice long fenced-in driveway in Los Altos that was just perfect.

After that I took the inland (101) route back to the Murphy Auto Museum Oxnard and spent the Fourth of July having dinner in Malibu with a friend.  I’ve never been to Malibu before, but now that I’ve had a chance to see some of the spectacle there (lots of elaborate parties going on, and the people-watching was fantastic) it’s possible we’ll make another visit as a family someday.

On Saturday the fifth I took the Airstream down the coast to San Pedro (where the cruise ships depart Los Angeles) to meet some other folks. I got there a little early, so I found a spot in a Home Depot parking lot where a Mexican food truck was making quesadillas, and had a casual lunch in the Interstate under the shade of some trees. At this point I was feeling completely at ease with the motorhome; we were a team of urban explorers willing to go anywhere.

Tom M, a friend and blog reader, wrote in to ask:

- Was there anyplace that it was too big to park?

Well, yes, you can’t fit a 25-foot motorhome just anywhere. Some friends I wanted to visit in Sunnyvale CA had a driveway that was less than 25 feet long, and HOA rules about “oversized vehicles” being parked overnight on the street, so I stayed in Los Altos and they picked me up. But in Veterans Memorial Park in Monterey CA, there was a rule supposedly prohibiting vehicles over 23 feet or so.  Half a dozen white box “Cruise America” rental motorhomes were camped there, all much longer than the limit, so I found a campsite that fit the Interstate and spent a peaceful night. Otherwise, I took it just about everywhere I wanted.

- Was it a hassle to pack-everything-up when you wanted to take day trips from the campsite?

Not for me, but then I was traveling light & solo. You can’t really spread out a lot in a B-van, so getting ready to break camp was mostly a matter of doing the dishes and tossing a few things into cabinets. I was usually ready to go in less than 10 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

The portability of the machine was its best feature, at least to a guy who has spent the last nine years in a rig 53 feet long. I took every opportunity to park it in places I’d never go with our 30-foot trailer, including parallel-parking on the street in Santa Barbara, pull-outs along California Route 1 and Tucson’s Catalina Highway (pictured below), grocery store parking lots, and undersized campsites.

 

Perhaps my favorite stop was on the coast north of Malibu at Point Mugu. I would have spent the day there if I didn’t have an appointment later that day…

Airstream Interstate at Pt Mugu CA

After finishing business in Los Angeles, it was time to head toward home. My conundrum was where to stay.  All week I’d been wrestling with this: toward the coast it was pleasantly cool but the holiday travelers had everything booked up in advance, while inland I’d find plenty of uncrowded places to stay–all of which would be scorching hot. So leaving Los Angeles was bittersweet.

I finally opted for heat, but with a compromise.  North of Palm Springs is the Morongo Casino, which offers free overnight RV parking. Being a little higher in altitude and not quite as far into the Coachella Valley it was not terribly hot (by my standards) which meant a night around 80 degrees. It wasn’t practical to run the generator all night for air conditioning, so I just lived with it.

The next day was my torture test for the Interstate. Seven hours of driving through 100+ degree temperatures, at 75 MPH most of the way, including a 1000 ft climb where the road signs say to turn off the air conditioning or risk overheating.  The Interstate was impressive, and I got 16.0 MPG despite the fast drive. It was too hot in the back, where the dash A/C couldn’t reach, so at one point I ran the generator and the ceiling air just to see what would happen. (It worked fairly well.)

I spent one night at home in Tucson, then took a day to drive up to the peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains to get caught in a thunderstorm, then drove the Interstate to a meeting in town (again no trouble parking) and finally spent the night in Casa Grande AZ before dropping the motorhome off in Scottsdale in the morning. Total: 1,600 miles of driving in ten days.

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I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  This was a fun trip. People who drive these things really have an interesting range of opportunities available to them. Obviously you give up a lot in terms of space, but on the other hand you get a lot of flexibility.

In fact, I’m hoping to get another shot at it later. Airstream is bringing out a new B-van in September, to be called “Grand Tour,” and it is supposed to be more camper-ish (less seating, more space for living).  I want to get my hands on it. That’s going to be difficult for a while, since production will probably be limited and I expect demand to be high.

Now that the Interstate trip is over, and the book is mostly done, what’s next? Tomorrow I fly back to Vermont to be reunited with my family, and in a week or so we’ll start the next adventure, our 3,000 mile trip back to Arizona, via Ontario.

 

An ideal TBM vehicle

July 2nd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Traveling in the Airstream Interstate turned out to be a good TBM*  adventure. I recommend it.

(* = Temporary Bachelor Man)

As a solo travel vehicle, it’s pretty roomy.  I didn’t need all the nine seating positions, but during the course of the trip I managed to try all of them out anyway.  In the evening I could watch a movie on the Blu-Ray player from one of the seats in the second row, or from the bedroom/rear couch in the back.  Sometimes I’d swivel the front passenger seat around and use it as my workstation with the dining table.  Other times, like when I was parked at the beach, I’d put my feet up on one seat in the back (don’t tell Airstream I did this with their loaner) while sitting on the opposite seat, to read a book.  When the bed was set up, I had the equivalent of a King all to myself.

Being TBM my plan was to move fast and travel light, if you can call having five tons of vehicle “light”.  What I mean is that I stocked the fridge with only a few essentials, slept in a sleeping bag rather than setting up the bed nightly with sheets, and moved every day.  I wasn’t going to be living in the Interstate like a full-timer, but I intended to use every system on the rig that I could, because there were four major goals to the trip:

1. Learn how the Interstate works, for a book I’m working on.

2. Gather information and photos for an article for The Star, the Mercedes-Benz Club of America (which will appear in the Sept/Oct issue).

3. Build up a stock photo library for future Airstream Life articles.

4.  Cover a lot of miles to get plenty of driving experience.

But driving around aimlessly is no fun, so I set a goal to get up to the Silicon Valley area to see some friends, taking the scenic coastal Route 1 highway to get there. This turned out to be a great decision.  The last time we did that highway was with the 30-foot Safari in tow, and it was one of the most memorable drives we’ve ever done. With a 25-foot motorhome, it was even easier.

Grant me a moment for a minor car review here:  The Mercedes Sprinter is an awesome basis for a motorhome.  Considering its bulk, it handles remarkably well, accelerates and brakes well, gets good fuel economy (on diesel), and is really easy to drive.  Anyone with decent driving skills would have no trouble taking it on a curvy, hilly, occasionally intimidating road like California Route 1.  And I really liked the fact that I could pull over in any of the small dirt spaces alongside the highway to stop and take pictures.  So I did that a lot.

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The weather along this road is pretty changeable, thanks to fog banks that reside just offshore.  When the fog was away, it was generally about 80 degrees.  When the fog crept in, suddenly it would be as low as 55 degrees.  I liked that.  In one day I got dozens of shots for my photo library, with radically different scenery.

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In Monterey I found a public parking lot with dedicated RV spaces for “RVs up to 25 feet”. Well guess what, mine was 25 feet, so I plunked myself down next to the harbor for a day just to listen to the water sounds while catching up on some work.  Monterey even provided free public wifi, and a short walk away at Fisherman’s Wharf I was able to get a nice salmon sandwich for lunch and listen to the sea lions bellowing for a while.  If they hadn’t had a “no overnight sleeping” ordinance I probably would have never left.

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This was where the size of the Interstate really worked for me.  Not only was it easy to navigate downtown Monterey, but I was able to squeeze into a little city park at the top of a hill for the night.  The park is too small for most travel trailers and it didn’t take reservations, so by just showing up I actually scored a nice campsite for a night despite the masses of holiday campers elsewhere.

The next day I didn’t have as much luck.  I made sure to dump and fill before leaving the campground because I knew I might not get another campground for a while.  Sure enough, I finished the coastal drive as far as Big Sur, but every campground along the route was full.  Eventually I ended up at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which also had a “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign.  From prior experience I knew that despite the sign it pays to ask, and sure enough they had an overflow area where I was allowed to stay for the night.  It wasn’t a deal, since I had to pay the same rate as a campsite ($35) for what amounted to a parking space in a neglect asphalt lot, but given that it was July 1 in Big Sur, it was lucky to get anything at all.

No problem, this gave me another chance to experience boondocking in the Interstate.  I was getting to know this machine pretty well, and even starting to feel a little pride of ownership (except that it would only be mine for a few more days).  At this point I’d figured out all the key stuff: the efficient way to take a shower using the hand-held showerhead in the wet bath; where things fit best in the refrigerator; how to convert from seats to bed in less than a minute; how to change lanes in traffic without crushing somebody in a Mini; which outlets were powered by the inverter, etc.  But I never did figure out what that hammer was for …

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine