The polishing project

December 12th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Although the North has been dealing with winter storms and the usual inconveniences of winter, down here in the southern Arizona desert it’s the best time of year for outdoor work. For the past couple of years I’ve taken the opportunity to do major Airstream maintenance between mid October and January, taking advantage of the cool and generally dry weather we get at this time of year.

This time around it looked like I might get away with just chilling out, but then Patrick called and prodded me about getting the Caravel polished. He’s The Guy from Nuvite Chemical Corp., and if you have a vintage Airstream you probably know the name Nuvite.  It’s the premiere polishing compound used to make Airstreams shine like mirrors.

Now, Airstreams never came out of the factory with “mirror shine.”  They generally had a sort of matte shine, the color of factory-fresh aluminum (which of course is exactly what they were.) You could see yourself in it, but not very clearly.  With time, the aluminum would gradually oxidize to a dull battleship gray color, not particularly attractive, which is why Airstream began applying a clearcoat in the 1960s.  The clearcoat delayed the oxidization so the trailer looked new longer.

But eventually the aluminum oxidized anyway, and so vintage trailers owners have a choice: live with the dull patina, or get to work with some polish.  Polishing is a labor-intensive job, so for my 1968 Airstream Caravel I chose the path of least resistance for many years.  I had the clearcoat chemically stripped off back around 2005 when Colin Hyde was doing some sheet metal replacement on it, and then around 2010 my buddy Ken took it upon himself to do a polishing pass on the trailer, to even out the differences between new metal and old.  But the Caravel has never really been super-shiny, and lately it has oxidized back to a patina that belies the trailer’s 46 years.

The photos below show what I’m talking about.  The first photo is a 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud that we used to own. It is fully oxidized. Once a layer of oxidization forms on the trailer, it protects the rest of the aluminum and doesn’t deteriorate further. So there’s no harm in leaving it like this, but it’s not very pretty.  (The streaks below the reflectors are from rusting steel trim around the reflectors. This trailer had been sitting for over twenty years when we bought it.)

The second photo shows another 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud, but nicely polished.  (It belongs to Dicky Riegel, former president of Airstream and more recently the founder of Airstream2Go.) Hard to believe that the metal can go from one state to the other, but it’s absolutely true.  This is what you can do with a few cans of Nuvite and some work.

1953 Airstream Flying Cloud patina1953 Airstream Flying Cloud polished

Enter Patrick.  He is The Guy who goes around the country demonstrating how Nuvite works. I can’t figure out how he does it, since polishing is a demanding task that involves holding a heavy power tool against the trailer body for hours. The black aluminum oxide stains your clothes and skin too.  Yet Patrick is always smiling when I see him, and his fingernails always seem to be clean. He seems to think he has the greatest job in the country.

That must explain it, because he called me and reminded me that months ago we talked about polishing the Caravel.  He certainly could have let it go, since I wasn’t chasing him, but instead he’s going to drive down from Phoenix on December 19 and spend a day or two in my driveway showing me how Nuvite can turn the Caravel into a mirror-like “jewel.”

I’m going to help him, or at least attempt to.  I’m pretty sure he can finish the trailer before I figure out how to get my gloves on, but he’s a good sport and willing to give me lessons on technique. I’m also inviting some local friends to drop in and observe or help. With luck this might end up as a Tom Sawyer-esque episode where all my friends help do the work.

If you are in Tucson or willing to drive down on Dec 19, ping me and I’ll give you directions to the fun (email: my first name at airstreamlife.com).  If you want to observe from afar and keep your clothes clean, I’ll post photos here of the process.

I also hope to learn more about the chemical process of polishing.  It’s interesting in a geeky way. From what I know so far, we aren’t removing anything from the aluminum, but rather “turning over” the surface material chemically.  I’ll ask Patrick for details. And if you want to see the trailer in person, drop by Alumafiesta in late January.  I’ll have it on display in the campground or inside the Event Center.

 

A Walk on The Wall

November 19th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

For the first time visitor to China, seeing the Great Wall is usually near the top of the list, and we were no different.  After having a fun meeting with the Airstream dealer (“Leo”), we had exactly one full day in Beijing for sightseeing. We could easily have spent the day just walking around central Beijing (with a little help from the subway, because this is a big city) but as Eleanor said, “How can you go to China and not see the Great Wall?”  I couldn’t argue with that.

The trick with visiting the Great Wall is that it is not close to Beijing, so any visit will consume most of your day.  The closest segment is about two hours drive away, and that part is overrun with tourists. If you can, imagine a fully reconstructed section of Wall, jam-packed with people, with snack bars and souvenir shops, queues and people dressed up as “Mongol invaders” who will pose with you for a tip. There’s even a cable car strung along it so you don’t have to do any actual walking.

I suppose this is great if you want the Epcot Center version of the Great Wall, or if you have mobility problems, but we were seeking a quieter experience and so it seemed worth while to hire a guide and travel 2.5 hours to the Mutianyu section. Once we escaped the traffic in Beijing, the drive became almost bucolic, along narrow roads that wander through the countryside and cleave tiny villages. The terrain starts to resemble the hills near California’s Bay Area, until you get to a village where the road drops to a single lane and you have to dodge a cluster of pedestrians who don’t seem to care at all that there’s a van coming.

For me, the best part of this was that for this one day–out of 15 days spent in China, Korea, and Japan—we were at last away from crowds and noise. (One of the reasons I like living in the desert southwest is that there’s lots of open space.) Being in major Asian cities was starting to get to me, but here in the foothills north of Beijing I could have a moment to absorb the scenery and soft sounds of the rural countryside.

Zhuangdaoku Village hike

Near our destination of Zhuangdaoku Village, I noticed cement koi ponds beside many of the houses, fed by streams running through, and asked our guide about this.  She said the people were accustomed to having fish because historically the village had a small river fishing industry, and now they kept koi ponds for a source of fresh fish.  They aren’t pets here.

Before our hike, we stopped to use the “country toilet” next to the restaurant where we’d be having lunch. We were prepared for this experience so it wasn’t too shocking, but I think most Americans would be horrified. It was outdoors, basically a partly-roofed cement bunker with three narrow chutes in the floor. Through the chutes we could see daylight.  You squat over the chutes and hopefully whatever you put in them slides down and into an open sewer below. There was no running water to flush it, and like most public toilets in China there was no toilet paper, but there was a garden hose outside nearby.

Often however, the air is far more scary than the toilets. Air pollution in Beijing is some of the worst in the world, second only to Delhi.  I was aware of this and had loaded an app on my phone which showed the real-time air quality ratings in and around several major Asian cities.  In the week before our arrival, the ratings for Beijing were phenomenally bad, reaching well over 500 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles (“PM 2.5″) for several days.  This receives a “HAZARDOUS” rating, the worst rating possible, and was far beyond anything we wanted to breathe.  So I was packing a few 3M air filtering masks (with the “N95″ rating, available at hardware stores) just in case.

Mutianyu Great Wall

But we were incredibly lucky. The dense air pollution that normally obscures views had blown out the day before, and left us with a light breeze in cool fall temperatures that made a perfect day for hiking. The Mutianyu Great Wall is a scenic ribbon of pale stone running up and down the ridges of the foothills, and on this day the views were outstanding. It was so nice that even our guide, a woman who hikes the Great Wall five days a week, brought her camera along to capture the scenery.

Best of all, we were the only people there until we got to a particularly nice high vista and found a Chinese man and his son relaxing there. There is something really inspiring about walking on the stones of a Ming Dynasty-era wall on a beautiful day, with hardly another soul around. I stopped for a rest on the steps next to the older man, and he smiled at me and said “Tired!” in Chinese.  I could only smile back and nod, which is often all you need to do in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

We didn’t want to end our hike after about a mile on the Wall but because the Wall is so steep in places it had taken us a couple of hours to get that far, and it was time to break for lunch.  We hiked back down a dirt trail to town. Along the way I was stung by a Chinese bee or wasp near my elbow. Not far after on the dirt trail we walked past a sort of inn, really just someone’s house with rooms for rent, and the proprietors gave me a bottle of aromatic green lotion to smear on it. It didn’t do much for the pain but it smelled interesting.

Cang Fo Pu restaurant China

We had lunch alone in the restaurant that featured the country toilets from earlier. As patrons of the restaurant we were offered use of an outdoor cold-water sink and some soap to wash our hands before lunch–a considerable upgrade from the garden hose of earlier. I mentioned this meal in my previous blog about “Meals As Memories,” so I won’t recount it here, but suffice to say that it was a fitting end to a memorable day, and left us ready to doze on the 2.5 hour ride back to crowded Beijing.

I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, but this is why I travel.  Everything: rural scenery, ancient masonry, modern air pollution, rustic toilets, koi fish and bee stings, local people, and yes—a simple Chinese lunch, all offer the chance to grow and learn.  Most people aren’t happiest when they are relaxing. They are happiest when they are growing.  The Wall was the inspiration, but as you can see, it was not the destination.

Meals as memories

November 6th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

One of the great pleasures of traveling, for us at least, is eating. I feel sorry for timid eaters who seek out McDonald’s as they roam, because food is a great adventure.  We explore through food. We’ve discovered clotted cream on scones in the Cotswolds of England, dry-rub barbecue in Texas, shrimp & grits in South Carolina, fresh soft tacos in Mexico, green-lipped mussels in Newfoundland, and many other tasty wonders.

Human brains have a strange affinity for remembering foods (whether we like them or not).  One whiff of a unique dish can instantly bring you back to the place you first tasted it, and that stirs up the rest of your memories. Moreover, Eleanor has a strangely photographic memory for food, and an unusual talent that comes from decades of serious attention to the art of cooking: she can dissect a meal just by tasting it, revealing every spice and ingredient for later re-creation at home.  Sometimes in the dark winter months when not much is happening, Eleanor will bring back an old favorite that we found during travel, and eating it will be almost as good as the original trip.

My memory is poorer but a photo or two will help, so when we go somewhere I bring my camera and an appetite. On our recent trip to China, South Korea, and Japan it was a quest to eat whatever came our way, in the hopes of building a few more culinary memories, and we were not disappointed.

Each country yielded a wonderful surprise. In China on the day we hiked the Mutianyu section of Great Wall north of Beijing, our guide “Sonia” took us to a local place where a five-course meal was laid out for us: Kung Pao, scallion pancakes, fried rice, a savory eggplant dish with sweet brown sauce, green beans with spices, and potatoes. Sonia put everything on one of those rotating platters in the center of our table and we all ate family-style.

Most of it was familiar to us from eating in Chinese restaurants in the US, but not everything. I was well into the spicy hot green beans when I noticed that my tongue was going numb. About that time Eleanor asked Sonia, “Do you eat the spice seeds in this?” Sonia said no, and added that if we did eat them our tongues would go numb.  A bit late for me, but we all picked around that spice thereafter. Even then we got a little tingle like licking a 9-volt battery. Eleanor asked for the name of the spice, and Sonia pulled up a translation on her phone. It came up as “Szechuan peppercorn,” and looks like a gray version of the black peppercorns we use in the US.

The restaurant was just a minimally decorated room with an open door, but through the windows we could see the Great Wall snaking its way along the ridgeline of the foothills.  And as we ate we knew we’d just hiked that amazing wall, virtually alone, in China. You don’t forget a meal like that.

Mutianyu Great Wall Beijing

The night before our friends Leo and Shirley took us out for a walk down Wangfujing Street in Beijing. This is a westernized boutique street full of famous brands, glitz, and lighted signs. Most of that wasn’t really exciting for us, since it looked much like any number of high-end shopping districts in America, and at times we had to remind ourselves that this was China. Emma and I even found ourselves noticing a piece of Chinese traditional architecture and thinking, “Oh look, there’s a Chinatown here.”

But there was a side street, or hutong (narrow alley) called the “Snack Street” that looked promising. We shoved and squeezed our way through a dense crowd to find dozens of food vendors selling all kinds of interesting things, and this became dinner.  We’d pause in the slowly moving sea of humanity and point at some dumpling, crepe, candied treat, bottled yogurt, or pastry, and for a few yuan it would be ours. If it wasn’t something that had to be made in advance like the yogurt, they’d cook it to order in just a minute or two while we waited, so most of what we ate was very fresh.
Rich eating scorpion

Most items were 10 or 15 yuan ($1.60 – $2.40) and I think the most expensive thing we bought all evening was the fried scorpions for 25 yuan. The scorpions were for me, because I’d been challenged by my barber back in Tucson to eat a scorpion on a stick. (I sent him this photo as proof.) They were quite tasty and now I wish I’d also tried the fried grasshoppers.  Another favorite was a huge sort of scallion pancake with egg that Eleanor ordered and we all shared.  My favorite thing was a whole fish on a stick, about 10 inches long, fried and sprinkled with spices. Absolutely delicious, but it took a while to work around the little bones.

You don’t forget a meal like that quickly, either.

Korean barbecue

In Seoul, South Korea, our host Sungsoo took us for Korean barbecue. You can get something like that in the US, but it’s really great the way they do it in Korea. The meal starts with the waiter bringing over some damp towels and a huge array of small dishes.  Our table was covered with kimchee with octopus, seaweed salad, green salad, marinated onion salad, hot bean paste, cellophane noodles, and some green vegetables in a red broth.  Sungsoo ordered two kinds of beef for the barbecue, plain and marinated.

After the table is packed to the very edges with all the side dishes, the waiter brings over a steel bin with hot coals, which are dumped into the stove at the center of the table.  A small hood hanging from the ceiling collects the smoke. The waiter brings over the beef, which is sliced thin, and cuts it up into bite-sized pieces with kitchen scissors. These go on the fire, and the waiter returns periodically to turn them over and cut more beef. As patron, your only job at first is to eat the beef and side dishes in any combination you like, perhaps smearing a little hot bean paste on the beef and rolling it in a lettuce leaf. The waiter returns less frequently as you get the hang of grilling the beef yourself, but the side dishes get replaced whenever you ask for more.

Sungsoo felt we should have the full experience, so after we’d cleared most of the table he ordered cold noodles in broth with rice vinegar and hot mustard. The broth was so cold it had chunks of ice in it, another thing we’d never experienced.  It reminded me of eating maple sugar on snow as a kid. It was all wonderful.

We liked the Korean barbecue so much that we had it again the next day on our own.  Thanks to Sungsoo’s lesson the day before, we were able to navigate the process by ourselves, even though each restaurant does it a little differently and our resident Korean translator (Emma) only knows the words that she needed to learn for karate class. This made the second meal nearly as memorable as the first.

Yokohama noodle lunch

Finally, in Japan we had one meal that really stood out over all the others in Japan. It’s an expensive country, and it was a daily struggle to find restaurants that wouldn’t blow the budget. On our final day in Yokohama we discovered a noodle place that was buried in the lower level of a shopping center. I loved this place. We were seated at a large rectangular table with eight other diners, all Japanese. In front of us were containers with chopsticks, kimchi, pickled ginger, sauces, and a large jug of cold tea. We each picked out a noodle bowl and we ordered sides of rice and dumplings to share.

It was fantastic. I wish I could go back. The noodle bowls came topped with a melange of floating spices like nothing I’ve ever had before. The iced tea had a certain astringency and flavor that was the perfect complement to the spicy broth in our bowls. The dumplings were perfect: not greasy or bland, but lively and fresh. I peeked over at the other diners at our table to get some hints about the proper slurping etiquette, and then we dug in with our chopsticks. While we ate, a huge line began to form outside. Apparently we had found the good place to get lunch, and arrived just in time.  The bill was about $26 for all three of us. Considering prices in Japan I would have considered it a bargain at twice the price.

So you see what I mean.  There was a KFC and Starbucks on every corner in China, but any meal we had there would have been a non-event.  We were traveling to find something different and exciting. Choosing to push your own boundaries in any way is a path to growth (even if you hate the result, you’ve learned something). Expanding your food resumé is one of the most rewarding and memorable ways you can do it.

How does this relate to Airstream?  Well, one of the great things about traveling by RV is that you can prepare your own meals.  But sometimes it’s also the worst thing, because it is so seductive to cozy up inside and miss out on the fresh experiences outside your door. Once in a while, it’s important to get out of the comfortable bubble that your motorhome or travel trailer allows, and have a taste of something else. I predict the successes will far outweigh the disappointments.

Airstreaming in Asia

October 31st, 2014 by Rich Luhr

We are back in the USA after three weeks of travel in China, Korea, and Japan (and a stopover in Hawaii).

I had contemplated posting a series of day-by-day blog entries, but even then it would be hard to capture the breadth of the experience.  Traveling to places that are utterly foreign is at first intimidating, then exhilarating, occasionally overwhelming, and finally satisfying.  Much like other things in life that are outside one’s comfort zone, it will take time to process and absorb.  So instead of describing everything we saw and did, I’m going to put together a few essays about specific aspects of the trip.

Airstream-wise, the most obvious thing I learned is that Airstreamers don’t know how good we have it in North America.  Cheap fuel, open spaces, endless camping, minimal legal barriers, dealerships and service centers everywhere, and a large community of fellow travelers.  In Asia, Airstream is a luxury brand like Land Rover, affordable and practical only to a very small percentage of citizens.  Imagine if you had to pay $181,000 for a 23-foot Airstream, another $100k for the tow vehicle, $6 per gallon for fuel, and after that you found there were virtually no campsites in your country, nobody else to meet, and you had no room at your home to park it.

The Asian Airstream dealers have brought in Airstream as a luxury import, to places where there is little understanding of “RV culture.” As a result, they have to work hard to market Airstream and the concept of RV travel/recreation.  They can’t just sit at their showroom and expect customers to come in with much knowledge of Airstreams or what you do with one of them. It’s a tough challenge and I admire the effort that the dealers are putting into this. They bring Airstreams to events all over their region, spending the day showing the product and explaining what it does. The Beijing dealership has even opened a “try before you buy” camping facility in Inner Mongolia with six Airstreams parked near a golf course and ready for use. It’s the only campground in Inner Mongolia.

Incheon Korea Airstream Eleanor Emma

I was surprised to learn that the dealers hadn’t seen Airstream Life magazine yet, nor did they have much of a grasp of the strong Airstream communities that exist in North America and Europe. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Airstream Life is not published in their language, and the nature of the Asian Airstream community, if one ever develops, will undoubtedly be something unique rather than a copy of American culture. Airstreams have been sold in Japan for over a decade so there is a small owner community there, but it’s not much like ours.

One thing that is the same: the enthusiasm.  Everyone loves Airstreams. I’m sure that the dealers are gradually building an audience of people who now aspire to Airstream ownership, and that will serve them well over time.  The problem is that it will take a lot of time.  Wally Byam solved that problem by running high-profile caravans, which generated far more positive publicity for the brand than he could have done by any other method.  I think that if Asia is to become more than a niche market, caravans will become a key part of the marketing strategy eventually.

I knew that this trip would include just about every form of travel other than Airstreaming, but looking back on it I’m still amazed at the crazy procession of planes, trains, automobiles, and ships that we had to take to get around.  In sum, six flights, numerous taxis and shuttle buses, one ship, the Shanghai Maglev, bullet trains in China and Japan, subways in four cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Kobe, Tokyo), and light rail. (It would have been only five flights but leaving Honolulu we got a three hour tour of the Pacific and then returned to Honolulu due to a hydraulic problem with the Boeing 767.) And for the most part, we saw only the metropolises, rarely the beautiful countryside.

While riding the bullet trains and especially the Shanghai Maglev was exciting (the Maglev gets up to 288 MPH) I would have enjoyed the trip more if we were able to tow an Airstream around. Asia’s just not quite ready for that yet.  Massive traffic in the cities makes towing a trailer impractical, and in the country there’s not much infrastructure to support RV travel.  You can’t hope to find service centers conveniently, and the dearth of campgrounds means you have to be creative about finding places to stay.  (I am told by “Airstream Leo” in Beijing that he has sold one Airstream to a customer who is full-timing. I have no idea how that is working out.)

Each country has its own challenges. South Korea is essentially an island, cut off from the rest of Asia by that backward mess called North Korea, so while Korea has the most parks and campsites, road travelers are limited to a country only the size of southern California, with 50 million people to share it with. China is huge but good luck finding any sort of established RV campground. There’s also little precedent for licensing and regulating travel trailers in that country. Japan is the most organized and has the longest experience with Airstream, but it is also crowded and expensive. You’d want to think twice before towing in any major Asian city.

My assessment overall is that Airstream travel in most of Asia is practical only for the adventurous, self-supporting, and wealthy. But that will change. I’ll be keeping an eye on things to see how that’s evolving, with the hopes of being able to return and really see the countries the same way we’ve been able to see America. Despite the challenges, I don’t think that day is too far in the future.

Traveling to a new world of Airstream

October 8th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Wally Byam never led a caravan in Asia as far as I know, but since his time Airstreamers have roamed around that continent a few times.  There was a very notable exchange program with China in the 1980s, where Americans were able to travel in the country by Airstream and some Chinese came here, but otherwise not much has happened there, Airstream-wise.

That has been changing recently. Airstreams have been sold in Japan in small numbers for over ten years, and in the past two years Airstream has opened dealerships in Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul.  They are also selling Interstate motorhomes in Thailand, to wealthy types who spend a lot of time in traffic. Korea is interesting because there’s already an established RV culture in that country, but of course even though China has virtually no RV infrastructure you can’t disregard it. With billions of people and centralized policy-making, you never know. Tomorrow they could announce a huge initiative to build 100,000 campgrounds.

To me, the really interesting part of Airstream in Asia is that anything might happen.  Applying North American or even European expectations to Asia is an exercise in futility, so undoubtedly we will all be surprised by how the Asians interpret our “American icon.”  Already a high-end Airstream glamping site has been built in Inner Mongolia (next to the only golf course in Inner Mongolia, I’m told), and none of us saw that coming.

I decided last winter that this was the year to go to Asia and see the early sprouts of a new Airstream culture emerging.  We are leaving on Friday. I will meet with two or three of the Asia dealers and pick their brains about what is happening.  I’ll take photos and notes, and slurp noodles while contemplating it all.  I don’t yet know what I’m going to do with this knowledge (politicians call this a “fact-finding mission”) but I don’t think that matters.  Sometimes you have to go seek answers even when you don’t know the questions yet.

Planning this trip has been without a doubt the most intense trip-prep we’ve ever done as a family. It has been months of scheduling, saving, and research.  Our itinerary calls for seven major stops including Shanghai, Beijing, Incheon/Seoul, and Tokyo, plus lesser stops in Kobe Japan, Vancouver Canada, and Honolulu Hawaii.  And for most of it we’ve had to arrange planes, trains, automobiles, and ships from 12 to 13 time zones away.

I’ve got instructions for taxicabs in three different languages and hotel reservations in three different currencies, plus subway and rail maps for five cities, and meetings set up with people I’ve never met.  We’ve got new Passports, new luggage, Chinese Visas, trip insurance, an envelope full of renminbi (Chinese money) many useful apps on the iPhone, and typhoid vaccine in our tummies.

We didn’t do this much work getting ready to travel full-time for a year in our Airstream.  But I expect it will be worth the effort.  (I plan to keep telling myself that as we bounce through four airports for about twenty hours this weekend.)

People have been giving me lots of advice and warnings  for this trip.  I’ve been warned about protests in Hong Kong, typhoons in the Pacific, malaria in the countryside, dishonest cabbies in Seoul, air pollution and traffic jams in Beijing, crowded subways in Tokyo, and the importance of bringing one’s own toilet paper. Toilet paper, mosquito repellant, air-filtering mask: CHECK!

Some of the most useful advice has been regarding gifts, which are an important part of business in Asia.  After careful consideration, we are bringing some nice art for the people we meet.  I’ve selected some cover art from prior issues of Airstream Life and asked the artists to provide matted prints, which fit well in our luggage and are relatively light & unbreakable.  Eleanor wrapped them in red paper in such a way that border agents can examine them if needed without tearing them open.  I’ll be bringing works by Michael Depraida, Michael Lambert (below), and Don Lake, and they will be hanging in Airstream offices in Asia after we leave.

We chose red wrapping because it’s considered an auspicious color.  And speaking of colors, one tip that kept me out of trouble was about green hats.  Apparently there’s a saying in Chinese about a man who wears a green hat, which implies his wife is cheating on him.  Before I heard that I was very close to bringing a few Airstream Life hats (some of which are green), and even wearing mine while traveling, but I guess I’ll choose headwear that doesn’t malign our marriage.

It’s all very interesting to me.  The hassle of setting up the trip is really already worth it, because I’ve learned so much.  There will be much more to share as we go.

Internet will be at a premium during this trip, so my blog entries will be infrequent, but I do hope to at least post once or twice.  If that doesn’t work, I’ll post after the trip is over and pre-date all the entries as I did on last summer’s motorcycle trip.  I hope you enjoy following along!

Special thanks to Wally Byam

October 3rd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

That Interstate trip I took last July in California wasn’t just for fun.  At the time I mentioned that one goal was to write a guidebook for Interstate owners, much like the Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.  Well, I’ve finally done it. It took a few months of research to put everything together, and another couple of months for Jennifer to complete the illustrations and layout, but I think the result was worth the time.

Airstream Interstate motorhome coverThe Interstate motorhome is a tricky machine. Not only is it packed with a zillion features that all need explanation, but Airstream continually modifies it during production, so it’s very hard to make blanket statements about anything. So once I started driving it around, I realized I was going to need to tread very carefully in order to explain it properly. That’s why the book has over 40 illustrations just to cover the basics, plus six essential checklists, and many more hints and tips. (Yes, that was a sales pitch, but hey, I’ve got to make a living.)

Even with the learning curve, the Interstate is really very easy and fun to use. I borrowed one for 10 days to do some first-hand research, and I found that it only took a week to get comfortable with it.  With this book in hand, I probably would have been up-to-speed in a day or so—which of course, is why I write these things.

The book is now published on Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes, so you can get it as an e-book from either of those sources. (I’m not yet sure if it will be available in print format, but hopefully that will happen early next year.)

Newbies Airstreaming cover croppedWhile Jennifer was working on the illustrations, I was making final updates to The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming, so the Second Edition will be coming out in a week or so on Kindle and iTunes, and we should have printed copies later in October.

Lots of little things have changed about Airstreams since I wrote the first version, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that most of the essentials haven’t changed at all.  If you’ve read the Newbies Guide, you might have noticed that it’s almost as much about the philosophy of Airstreaming, as it is about the practicalities.  In other words, it’s just as important to understand the “why” or even the “zen” of Airstream travel, as it is to know which valve to pull when you are dumping the tanks.  That zen of Airstreaming has remained constant since Wally Byam’s days. In short, relax, and explore.

Wally expressed this as his “Four Freedoms.”

  1. Airstream travel keeps you free from reservations and inconveniences of modern travel because you can make your own schedule and travel in your own vehicle.
  2. You are free from many of the limitations of age, meaning that young children and elderly people alike (and of course all us Baby Boomers in between) can expand their horizons and live healthier lives.
  3. Airstreaming gives you what Wally called  “the freedom to know,” meaning that you can explore the world intimately, meeting real people and experiencing things in a way the average tourist never gets to do.
  4. And finally, they all add up to “the freedom for fun.” If you adopt the principles of Airstream travel fully, you can’t help but have a good time.  You are freed from your worries and ailments and schedules, so that your mind opens to new possibilities and new opportunities.

I’m glad none of that has changed.  I put a lot of effort into writing guides that help remove your worries about the mechanics of Airstreaming (whether trailer or motorhome) so you can relax and get the real benefit of traveling this way. But Wally Byam did the real work when he invented the philosophy.

 

 

 

The Performance Towing Experience

September 23rd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

A stretch of non-Airstream time and no blog entries can only mean one thing:  plotting the next adventures.

For months I’ve been chafing to write about one of the most exciting projects our event team has ever attempted.  This is something entirely new, which we are calling “PTX,” for “Performance Towing Experience.”   And now, since it’s coming together, I want to give you advance notice of it.

Next July 2015, we are going to take Airstream trailers to the race track—and you can drive them!

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We’ll have three courses: a dragstrip run for demonstrations by our instructors, a low-speed cone course for beginners to towing, and a closed road course where experienced drivers can pull their Airstream through a slalom and practice maneuvers like emergency braking.

Whatever your level, PTX is going to be the place to learn more about towing, get your hitch optimized, get a safety check, practice things you hope you never have to do on the road, and compare different towing combinations by actually driving them.

This has never been done before, as far as we know.  That’s a big part of why I’m so pumped about it.

PTX will include three days of educational seminars and practice on the courses, plus three days where you can watch others race (on vintage motorcycles and other vehicles), and up to seven nights of camping!

We’ll be camped at the Grand Bend Motorplex, in Grand Bend Ontario.  It’s just about two hours drive from Detroit, or about 4-5 hours from Buffalo NY.  Camping will be mostly boondocking but there will be water available, a dump station, bathrooms, showers, and you can bring a generator.

We are anticipating that the event will have three levels of participation:  Spectator, Driver (beginning towing), and Advanced Driver (experienced towing).  Even Spectators will have a lot to do. We’ll have several off-site tours and events for Spectators, as part of the program.  The Motorplex is very close to the white sand beach at Lake Huron, and there’s a surprising amount of things to do in the area. And of course we’ll have the usual Happy Hours, catered dinner, social events, door prizes, and fun that we have at all our other events.

I’m really hoping that, besides being fun, this event helps improve safety.  Instead of relying on “rules of thumb,” and anecdotal reports on the Internet, and outdated advice, participants will have the chance to learn what works first-hand.  I’m hoping they actually feel the differences brought on by proper hitch tuning, tire choices, and tow vehicles.

No matter what you tow with, PTX will be an opportunity to make it tow better … and that should improve safety!

If you want to learn more about it, check the PTX website and sign up for our new Aluma-events newsletter, called “Outside Interests.”

By the way, the newsletter is another new project I’ve very excited about.  We just launched it last month.  Outside Interests comes out every three weeks, and shares news about Airstream, tips, profiles, and special deals on upcoming events—including PTX.  It’s sort of a companion to Airstream Life magazine, but entirely free and delivered by email.  Give it a try if you are curious; you can always unsubscribe if you want.

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!

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