Archive for October, 2008

Ready to go

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

The Airstream still feels like home to us, even though it is sitting in the carport with half of our possessions taken out of it.  But it isn’t home anymore, and so we have been systematically reducing its contents to only what we envision we’ll need for specific trips.  It’s an awkward process, full of questions and uncertainties.  Everything has to be re-examined.  The key criterion is simply whether we will need it if we’re out for a month or two.

Before we were full-timers, we did what most people did.  We kept a minimum complement of equipment and supplies in the trailer during the summer season, and reloaded many other things in the days leading up to departure.  Now I’d like to keep this trailer ready for immediate travel without a lot of reloading.  That means duplication of many things that we use in both the house and trailer.

Most of it is easy: toothbrushes, shampoo, dishes, bedding, some clothes.  Anything in the house that is needed on the road and is reasonably cheap will have a permanent counterpart in the trailer.  We have enough clothes to leave a four-season supply in the trailer and still have what we need in the house.  Toys that we only use during travel will stay in the Airstream too, like our snorkel gear and wetsuits.  A few things like my office equipment (laptop, printer, cellular router) and Eleanor’s perishable spices will have to be loaded at the last minute.

That means we’re organizing the house to suit the trailer. All of my office gear stays in one cabinet in the house. All of Eleanor’s key spices are in a simple plastic bin in the kitchen.  When it’s time to go, we grab the contents of the office cabinet and the spice box and we’re ready.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but the goal is to be able to take off on impromptu trips without agonizing over packing.  I hate the question, “Did we remember to pack the ______?”  With a well-designed system, I hope we can get the Airstream ready to go for a week-long trip in less than an hour.

It’s also nice to have the Airstream ready for habitation in the unlikely event of a natural disaster or other event that might require evacuation.  That’s unlikely here in Tucson, where the chance of forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunami, mudslides, and floods are minimal.  All we get are severe thunderstorms during summer and the occasional dust storm. But maybe someday they’ll have a problem at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.  I think with a little more prep, we could get out of here in 10 minutes and not miss anything important for weeks.

For a lot of people, the amount of travel we still plan to do is formidable.  We’ll be gone much of the year, including all the summer months.  I was talking to a neighbor today about our plans and I could see his startled reaction as I said, “Well, of course we’ll be gone all summer.”  I have to remind myself that while it seems like nothing to us to be living in the Airstream for a few months, it’s a very big deal to most people.  So we will still carry things that weekenders wouldn’t bother with.  We’ve got extensive laundry and cleaning supplies, extra tools, spare parts, reference books, dishware for guests, and a lot of food.

The next major trip is scheduled for after Christmas, although we are likely to go out for a few days here and there in November.  The post-Christmas trip has no definite end planned to it; we may be out for as little as eight days or as much as a month.

I’ve never thought much before about what it takes to store the trailer for long periods.  It needs a certain amount of TLC to stay ready for the road.  For example, the water system needs sanitizing.  Bleach is the usual method, mixed with a full tank of water and run through all the faucets.  A measured amount in the system for a few hours will kill all the bugs.  I’ve put a smaller amount of bleach in the system for storage, to keep it from growing bacterial slime while the trailer sits.

The tires slowly lose air (about one pound per month), too.  Desert dust accumulates inside because we have the windows open for ventilation.  We’re trying to combat such things by treating the Airstream as if we were still living in i, so I’ll be out there next week doing some cleaning and checking tire pressures.  We’ve left the refrigerator on, with a few basics still in it, so there’s less to reload later.  (As a side benefit, I can grab a cold drink out of it when I’m in there working.)

Mostly, this is compensation for not traveling as much.  I like the idea of the Airstream staying “live” and ready, just like it was during our full-timing days.  We are living as homeowners now, and it’s a big change, but the shock is mitigated a little by the knowledge that our escape pod is right there, ready to go.  We may do just fine in suburbia and not need it, but it’s nice to have.

Good news from the economic downturn

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

There were many reasons we decided to settle into a house without wheels for a while, but one was to get serious about my small business.  For the past three years I’ve juggled work and travel, and it has worked, but I often felt that if I spent more time concentrating on the business, I’d be able to come up with ways to make it run better.  Parking ourselves in a house would yield bonus time that was formerly spent driving and dealing with other overhead associated with travel.

The economic recession has only spurred the need for me to really concentrate on the business.  Niche magazine publishing is not a great way to get wealthy even in the best of times.  With a worldwide economic crisis coupled with a recession in the RV industry, my little magazine is in the crosshairs.

We’ve already been pummeled a bit in 2007.  While people keep subscribing to Airstream Life at the same rate as the previous year, several advertisers have abandoned most or all of their advertising program.  (Talk about a self-defeating strategy.  People are still traveling and using their Airstreams — check any state park or campground for proof.)  Panic is never pretty, and it’s never the right choice.

I’m writing very frankly about this because I think there need to be a few voices to counter the constant negative bombardment in the popular media.  People are getting too caught up in what happened on Wall Street this morning, and forgetting to see the bigger picture.  There are opportunities in a downturn.  In times of war, promotions happen fast.  You can sit on the sidelines and wait for it all to be over or you can get in the game.  However you say it, adopting a position of passive fear or active retrenchment is not going to advance your cause.

The RV industry slowdown has been apparent since the beginning of 2007, so we’ve been working to mitigate the damage all year.  To get the message out, Brett has posted some essays about the value of advertising in a downturn, and privately he’s been counseling our advertisers on ways to intelligently respond to market conditions.  A few have listened, and they seem to be surviving very well.  The companies that understand the value of marketing intelligently when others are running scared will have long-term advantage over their competitors.

Of course, when you sell ads to people, those ads had better work.  So we’ve offered free ad re-designs to our clients, to improve the results they get from their ads.  Those who have taken advantage of that service are reporting great results.  We’ve also been seeking out small businesses with relatively recession-proof business models, as new clients, and we opened up a new — inexpensive — advertising section just for them. We’ve also offered creative ways for our advertisers to be able to afford their ads, including accepting credit cards and product or service trades.

But in the last few weeks, it has become obvious to everyone (even the Commander-in-Chief, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Alan Greenspan, apparently the last three people to figure it out) that the financial crisis is deeper and will last longer than at first expected.  That means my efforts have to go far beyond just shoring up the current clients and seeking new ones.  It’s time to look for efficiencies and cuts that can help sustain us for a long time.

Now, all this might seem enormously depressing.  I admit that at first I was dismayed as well, but then I realized that finding efficiencies in my business could actually be fun.  Like selling, it’s a task that can be a rewarding game. The trick to stretching a recipe is to make the end result taste the same, and that requires creativity, which is the fun part.

So every few days I try to come up with another idea to either save money or increase revenue.  The ideas can range anywhere from sweeping changes to little tiny ones.  It doesn’t matter how big the savings are, just that I keep coming up with new ideas.  I figure that if I keep up the challenge long enough, eventually I’ll find ways to secure Airstream Life against the storm.

For example, a week ago I talked to the guys at the Verizon store and discovered that by combining our two cellular phones (one on Sprint, the other on Verizon) into a single “Family Share” plan, I could cut monthly expense by $50.  That’s a no-brainer, so we did it.  Two weeks ago, we finalized two new products that we can sell through our online web store for the holiday shopping season, so they are on order and should be available by Nov 1.   (We’ll have a cute little Airstream model and some improved aluminum tumblers.)

Other ideas:  We’re reducing complimentary copies sent to advertisers, to cut waste.  We’re using a slightly lighter paper on the magazine cover.  I switched my Amex card from a Gold card with $100 annual fee, to a no-fee card that gives 5% back on fuel purchases.  We’re offering discounts to advertisers who pay for their ads early.  I’m cutting back on travel mileage and rallies (but still planning at least five months of travel in 2009). We’re promoting back issue sales a little more aggressively.  It all helps.

Some ideas actually increase our expenses but will pay off in the long run.  For example, we switched web hosting providers.  The new web host costs $500 per year (compared to $99 per year for the old one).  But the magazine will save money and time overall, because the new host is much more reliable and I won’t have to pay a tech $1,000 per year to fix the problems caused by the cheap-o service we used to use.

I’ve also looked at the long term, and used the “what-if” scenarios to develop strategies to ensure that we’ll be a survivor no matter what happens.  That means having a plan for emergencies, building up savings, reviewing and sometimes renegotiating contracts, etc.  That’s good too.

In the past few months of thinking about this, I’ve come up with literally dozens of small changes that have made the business more profitable.  Some of them are big ideas that will take months or even years to implement.  A lot of them are penny-ante things.  But even if they don’t add up to a lot of financial difference, it has been worth the exercise simply for the improvement in efficiency.  Because I’ve been forced by economic conditions to re-evaluate everything, the business has been improved — tempered by fire, in a sense.

So I am glad for the challenge.  The slump, downturn, recession, or whatever you care to call it, has been a good thing. Once in a while a little bump is good to shake you out of your complacency. Our advertisers will get better service from us, the business will be stronger, and you’ll keep getting Airstream Life magazine.

So never mind what’s happening on Wall Street this week.  Don’t get paranoid and start stocking up on beans, Band-Aids, and bullets.  Plan to thrive on the downturn and you’ll be one of the first folks to smile when things turn around.

The “Grass Solutions Tour”

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

The hardest thing in the world, apparently, is getting rid of a lawn.

This is something I cannot fathom.  I have known many a lawn-lover to moan over the large brown patches that afflict his treasured grass, caused by grubs or drought or incorrect pH balance or some other such thing.  A lawn seems a delicate thing when you want it to be just right, and it drives owners to outdoor centers to buy enormous bags of fertilizers and pesticides.  Green perfection is expensive and time-consuming.

And yet, when you decide you’ve had enough of grass, just try to kill the stuff.  It’s impossible.  The roots, say landscape professionals, go down deep. Grass has amazing ability to go dormant, survive frosts and droughts, and shrug off even brutal chemical assaults of glyphosate. Or so I’m told.

Our house in Tucson had a lawn, once upon a time.  Being neglected since the death of the prior owner, the lawn has become a mess of weeds that carry thorns and provide cover for critters. Our departure for six months certainly didn’t help things.  Now, instead of a lawn, we have a sort of jungle.

In Tucson, having a backyard lawn is strangely common, despite the high cost of water.  The rate Tucsonians pay for water more than triples after they use 11,220 gallons in a month.  It goes up again (140%) if you hit 22,440 gallons per month.  Plus there’s the widespread knowledge that we are in a desert, and thus flagrant use of water is akin to antisocial behavior.  (We use about 2,000 gallons per month according to our meter, or about 66 gallons per day.  In the Airstream we can make 39 gallons last for four days.  Modern houses are designed to waste water.)

Still, many times when we saw a house during our search,  the realtor would slide open the patio door to the back yard, take a peek, and announce with a sigh, “And yes, there’s a lawn.”  He knew how much I hated to hear that. These “lawns” would typically be little 12×12 patches of carefully tended grass in the midst of a lot of gravel.  They were usually just large enough for the kids to play on, like little putting greens without holes for the golf ball.

When I saw these I always imagined some desperate northerner trying to keep a tiny bit of his home landscape alive in the backyard.  Turns out that in reality they are put in by life-long desert dwellers who think a patch of green grass is a status symbol. That’s like northerners keeping a gila monster in a backyard cage.  It doesn’t make much sense to me but it makes some people happy.

The preferred landscape today — and the one mandated by current codes for multifamily and commercial buildings –  is xeriscape, which means a combination of gravel, rocks, and desert-adapted plants that don’t need much water.  Xeriscaping is also conveniently low-maintenance, perfect for our lifestyle since we will be gone a lot.  So our goal from the minute we agreed to buy this place has been to utterly eliminate the grass and restore the backyard to a more natural desert landscape.

If all we were facing was a 12×12 foot patch of grass, this would be a trivial exercise.  But the previous owner of our house had a full-on, wall-to-wall carpet of grass in the backyard.  From archive images from the satellite photos, it looks like he took care of it with plenty of water.

That means we have about 2,000 square feet of grass to eradicate.  (There is no middle ground.  Grass does not negotiate. It’s kill or be killed.)  You’d think that in the desert it would be easy: just stop watering and watch the grass die.  Unfortunately, we have a fairly well-adapted version of grass that bides its time until the rain comes, and thus survives on the mere 12 inches of rain that Tucson gets annually.

The first landscaper who visited us suggested the most reliable solution: “simply” remove the top four inches of soil and truck it away.  I would “simply” write a check for $2,000 for this service — and then we’d talk about replacing that giant expensive divot with something else.

My problem with that solution is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money to get rid of something as dumb as grass. My whole purpose in getting rid of the grass is to avoid spending money to take care of it, and it seems counter-productive to start the process by spending a big pile of money.

There’s the real challenge.  It’s not that getting rid of the lawn is going to be hard.  It’s just going to be expensive.  Since I’m inherently disinterested in taking care of a lawn (that’s code for “lazy”),  it makes sense that I’m also disinterested in spending money to make it go away.  It’s as if the house came with a rusting World War II tank in the backyard.  “Yes, it’s ugly,” we’d say to each other, “But towing it away would cost too much, and it’s not doing any harm, so let’s just leave it.  Maybe we can paint it.”

I suspect the best way to get rid of the lawn is simply to act as if we care about it.  We could buy a nice riding lawn mower, several bags of chemicals (fertilizer, pre-emergent grub control, dandelion inhibitor), a few manual tools like rakes, an aerator, and some sprinklers.  The grass would detect this and promptly go brown.  But who am I kidding.  The lawn would probably know I was bluffing.

It’s decisions like this that make me wish for a quick escape into the Airstream, where such problems are always somebody else’s to manage.  I always appreciated beautiful green lawns when we lived in the trailer, because I could dip my bare toes into them knowing that I wouldn’t be the one mowing later. It’s a real temptation to just skip the decisions and start planning a getaway instead. And there’s a justification there, too: with some time off to think and recreate, a brilliant solution may come to me.

So it’s settled.  I’ll start planning the “Grass Solutions Tour 2008″ as soon as possible.  Folks, this could be a real phenomenon if it works.  Imagine the justifications you can make if it turns out that a simple getaway allows you to solve life’s problems.   Our motto will be this:  “For every problem that comes up, there shall be a trip.”  And the trip length can be a factor of the difficulty of the problem.  For the grass problem alone, we may be on the road again for quite a while.

Pick your own

Monday, October 20th, 2008

When we lived in Vermont, there were two big fall rituals that we observed without fail.  In late September, we’d go to a pick-your-own apple orchard and gorge ourselves on Cortland apples.  And in mid-October, we’d go to the pumpkin patch and pick the biggest pumpkins we could find for carving.

Pick-your-own (PYO) is a lot of fun.  Sure, a cynic might take the view that we’re paying for the privilege of doing farm labor, but there is something to be said for getting out of the supermarket and browsing a pumpkin patch, blueberry grove, or apple orchard to find your food with your own eyes and hands.  There’s the earthy greenness combined with a festive air, as people happily go digging through the branches and leaves to find the perfect fruit.  There’s the sense of getting closer to the source of your food, buying it right off the farm rather than picking through fruit that came in on a jet from Argentina.  As Linus so aptly described them, pumpkin patches — and other farms — are places where you can still find sincerity.

We often grew our own pumpkins in Vermont, since we had acreage.  Our pumpkin patch occupied half of our 50×50 ft garden, and except for the year when we grew sugar pumpkins that the rabbits liked, we usually harvested a couple dozen pumpkins of various sizes.  Helping find pumpkins among the giant green leaves, and stack them in the wheelbarrow, was Emma’s first outdoor job at the age of two.

Now we are suburbanites, and our backyard is not yet ready for gardening, so we decided to take part of Saturday to drive down to a farm about forty miles south of Tucson for a little PYO action.  We had promised Emma the opportunity to repeat the pumpkin-picking tradition and since we were visiting Tumacacori National Historic Park anyway, the farm was right up the road.

e-honda-pumpkin-patch.jpgLet me testify here: pumpkin picking in the desert is not the same as in New England.  We weren’t foolish enough to expect a grassy hillside but nothing prepared us for the horror of this experience.  As we left the car in the dusty field that served as parking lot, a man loading pumpkins into his car with a somewhat sour face warned us to grab the first pumpkins we saw.  “Last year they cut down the thistles … it wasn’t like this.  I don’t know why they didn’t this year.  Don’t go into the patch, just pick the ones up front.”

We had no idea what he was talking about.  He appeared to be a disgruntled customer, and that seemed a shame on a sunny afternoon at a pick-your-own-farm.  Meanwhile, throngs of families with small children were converging on the haywagon that was carting people off to the further reaches of the farm.  We hustled over and got in line.

After a few minutes, we realized that we could walk to the drop-off point for the haywagon in much less time than we would be waiting in line, so we started off.  In three minutes we were at the designated spot, and ready to tackle the pumpkins.

pumpkin-patch.jpgExcept for one thing: this didn’t look like the pumpkin patches we remembered.  There were weedy plants everywhere obscuring the pumpkins.  These weeds were dry and looked like Russian Sage (tumbleweed) but tall instead of bush-shaped.  It looked like a demented hayfield. Still, naive as we were, we plunged into the field in search of pumpkins.

Have you ever accidentally stood atop a red ant hill while wearing sandals?   Ever waded waist-deep into a field of stinging nettles, while wearing shorts?  Ever walked into a live electric fence?  I have, and I can tell you that all of those experiences were sheer pleasure compared to the experience of walking into this pumpkin patch full of weeds.

It was an excruciating form of torture.  With the first gentle brush, the weeds shed thousands of tiny spikes which immediately embedded themselves in our clothing and skin.  Our mistake was immediately evident:  at dozens of points on our bodies we were being impaled by enemies too multitudinous to fight.

Every step ground the little spikes further into my socks, drove them deeper into my shirt, and increased the threshold of pain.  We were all struck with an immediate desire to flee this field of nightmares, but escape was just as excruciating.  Only by remaining motionless could we get relative relief, and that was not a useful option.

At this point, I realized that we weren’t the only ones suffering in the field.  Nobody was smiling; only men with blue jeans and boots were adequately protected, and they were in the field looking for pumpkins on the orders of their family members, who were standing safely in the dusty tractor road.  I looked at my short black socks, and saw that they were tan with thousands of loosely attached spikes.  I was not dressed for this battle, and neither were Eleanor and Emma, who were now struggling to find a safe place to stand without pain.  Like quicksand victims, struggling only hastened our fate.

Pick your own pumpkins?  At this point we wanted nothing more than to jump up on that haywagon and head to the nearest concrete-lined supermarket.  But we had come all this way, forty miles from Tucson, half a mile down a one-lane dirt road, and $7 for admission.  We came to pick pumpkins in a field, and by golly, we were going to pick pumpkins, or die trying.

I can only assume that the same attitude was driving the other victims of this wholesome family experience, because like us, they were wading into the cruel weeds and picking out pumpkins with fixed and determined grimaces on their faces.

In the end, we came out with three pumpkins in our arms, and thousands of brutal thorns embedded in our clothing.  The pumpkins were a bit small for carving but nonetheless symbols of our bravery and willingness to bear up against pain in the honorable quest for holiday gourds.

I cannot say that this experience gave us that special feeling of having once again shared a treasured tradition.  I think our emotions initially ran more to a sense of thankfulness for mere survival.  By the time we reached the parking lot, we had shed most of the irritants attached to us and were back to smiling, but it was the smile of the person who has just left the dentist’s office after a root canal.  Next year, we’ll look for a pumpkin patch with a little more sincerity — and a lot fewer thorns.

The unfinished house

Friday, October 17th, 2008

When we were traveling full-time, one of the questions I got often about life in the Airstream regarded maintenance.  People were concerned that routine service and repairs of the trailer would be an onerous burden.  Typically this question came from someone who was considering going “full-time” in an RV.  They expected that moving from a fixed house to one that was mobile would greatly increase their obligation to clean, lubricate, adjust, and repair things.

Actually, the opposite is true. While full-timing, we averaged a few hours a month maintaining (or watching the repair of)  one thing or another, which amounted to an annual expenditure of about $2,000 – $3,000 and a few days.  It was never burdensome.  Once we moved out of the house, it was amazing how much free time we had.

Of course, now the situation has flipped on us again.  We’re in a house, and despite our best efforts to make it low-maintenance, it has surprised us with a seemingly endless list of fittings it requires in order to be usable. In the past week I’ve purchased chairs, toilet paper and toothbrush holders, bookcases, drawer organizers, nightstands, knobs,  and various bits of hardware.  We still need shades in one window, rugs, storage bins, end tables, and a dozen other things.

This feels very odd to us. We bought a house but it came with no place to put things.  We’re used to the Airstream, which came to us completely ready for living, fully furnished and organized.  We didn’t have to go shopping for appliances, check for mattress sales, or measure the windows for curtains.  The Airstream came with everything, right down to the storage bins.

By comparison, houses are just shells that need a ton of accessories to be usable.  The price you pay for the house is just the start.  This focuses your attention on the house, and you of course immediately start running errands to get stuff to line the nest, which is what we’ve been doing lately.

Being 98% fully functional right out of the lot, the Airstream allowed us to focus on doing things and going places.  We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about which stove to buy.  We just hitched up and went.  Now that we are in the house-furnishing mode, I think wistfully back to that and realize what a good deal it was.

Yesterday’s big errand was 100 miles up to Tempe, where IKEA sits in a giant blue-gold box by the Interstate highway.  I know, a few blog readers are wincing because they despise IKEA.  But hear me out.  We made a conscious choice even before we bought the house that we would not put anything really worthwhile in it.  Our last house was furnished with antiques and a few really nice (expensive) pieces of furniture that would certainly last a lifetime.  When time came to move, we had to sell most of that furniture at a fraction of what it cost us (or give it away) because there was no real market for it.  The cost of moving it across the country almost equalled the cost of the furniture in the first place. We moved only a bed frame and the dining room table.

When we got here, knowing that this would not be a “dream house” and that we’d probably spend very little time in the house, we decided not to repeat that mistake.  Who knows if we’ll be here five years or 50 years?  Thus, we are buying essentially disposable furniture at extremely modest cost.  That means IKEA.  Seventy bucks gets me a veneered particle-board bookcase that can be disassembled later if needed. Honestly, the furniture in the Airstream is more durable than the IKEA stuff, but on the other hand, we furnished the entire house with IKEA for about $2,000.  Heck, just the dining room table that we moved from Vermont cost more than that.

The real problem with IKEA is that in its constant effort to emphasize its Swedish roots, all the products are given bizarre and confusing names.  The BILLY bookcases we bought are easy for a North America tongue to handle but things quickly degenerate from there.  The optional doors are called BYOM, for reasons fathomable only to Swedes, I suppose.  We have chests of drawers called MALM, and if we’d dared to shop the bedding we’d be looking at MYSA and GOSA.

The mirror is called MONGSTAD, which is bad enough, but the EKTORP couch just makes me laugh.  Reminds me of “ectoplasm.”  Pair it with a lovely LEKSVIK coffee table and a TULLSTA chair and you’ve got a tongue-twisting living room for under $1,000.

For undercabinet lighting in the kitchen we bought the GRUNDTAL light.  That seemed easy enough until we realized it needed to be paired with the ANSLUTA cord system.  What’s an ANSLUTA?  You don’t really know until you find it on the shelf.  (Turns out, it’s just a cord.)

Not only is it hard to tell by the name what something is, it makes for strange conversations.  It’s like we are speaking a combination of English and Swedish.  “What do you think of the BESTA ENON for the TV?”  “Do you prefer APPLAD or LIDINGO for the doors?”  “How about a ALSVIK with the DOMSJO drain board?”

No, I’m not making these up.  The names make me wonder if they are (a) really Swedish; (b) made-up for the US market, like Haagen Dazs; (c) randomly generated by computer or a cat walking across the keyboard.  I mean, honestly, is DOMSJO a word or a typo?

Along with assembling furniture and trying to find places to store all the stuff we haven’t yet managed to get rid of, Eleanor is trying to figure out her kitchen.  This means that nearly every day she moves things from cabinet to cabinet, drawer to drawer, to try out the most functional spot for everything.  The other residents of the house (Emma and me) get to go on a daily hunt for the things we need, since they are not usually in the same place twice.  Lately I’ve just given up and will call out, “Eleanor, where are the spoons today?”

In various places she’s also hung sticky notes with hints to herself about where things might go in the future.  One by an empty cabinet says “Spices & baking needs.”  There’s another one on the cabinet near my computer that says, “Coffee station,” but the coffee maker is still on the other side of the kitchen.  I could ask why but I’m afraid to know.  I think she’s waiting for me to find some place other than her kitchen to keep my office.

Today I have to assemble some BILLYs, attach the BYOM doors, and then install a few GRUNDTAL pegs for hanging kitchen towels, and two SAGAN toilet paper holders (named for Carl Sagan?)  Eleanor is attaching KORREKT handles, correctly I hope.  In between, there’s the hunt for everything that we remember owning but can’t find, including things that are still in boxes back in our “storage” room, and roving items in the kitchen.  It’s all very confusing.   We do this in the hopes that at the end of this process (which currently has no end in sight) we will have a house that is finally furnished for living.  So, in answer to anyone who is still wondering, yes, the Airstream was definitely simpler.

Banff in the backyard

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Rising far above Tucson to the north is the Santa Catalina mountain range.  This range is one of the southwest’s “Sky Islands,” which means it pokes up through the desert heat to reach the cool upper-altitude air at 9,000 feet.  Sky Islands like the Catalinas are aerial oases, with deep forests of Ponderosa Pine at 6,000 – 8,000 feet, and sub-alpine terrain above that.

Imagine that we are living at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  A rift in the floor allows a volcano to crack through, and the rising cone of the volcano eventually penetrates the sea and forms a Hawaiian island.  That’s what a Sky Island is like.  Up above, it’s an entirely new world, with completely different climate, creatures, and plants.

santa-catalina-view.jpgI think the Sky Islands are one of the more remarkable features of the desert southwest.  We aren’t just baking on a flat plain of dry desert with featureless sand dunes everywhere.  (That’s the Sahara.)  From Tucson you can look in any compass direction and see a Sky Island.  They are beautiful on a clear day.  We can see half the Catalina range from our kitchen, and there is no view I enjoy more.

But better than seeing them is ascending them.  Most of the Sky Islands are National Forest land or other public lands, and they are easily accessed by hiking trails.  The Catalina range is even easier to reach: there’s a road that winds all the way up from Tucson, passing multiple spectacular viewpoints, to the very top where there’s a ski area and the small town of Summerhaven.

As you might guess, driving up is a popular activity in the summer.  It’s often 30 degrees cooler at 8,000 feet than it is down in Tucson, and there are several campgrounds along the way. For each thousand feet you climb, the air gets cooler and the chance of precipitation increases.  If you ascend to the very top of Mt Lemmon, you are in a climate equivalent to Banff, Alberta.

Now think about that:  In 30 minutes of driving, we can go to Banff.  Up there, the evergreen trees and the mountain peaks tower around us, and there’s snow in the winter.  We can put on our warm coats and hats, smell the pine forest, walk the little ski town and drop in on the local store for hot cocoa by the fire.  And then, when our need for a reminder of our northern roots is satisfied, we can drive 30 minutes back and be in the Tucson sunshine at 70 degrees with the palm trees.  Who needs a jet when we’ve got this right in the backyard?

Yesterday we took a trip up to about 7,000 feet, just exploring.  That’s the equivalent of a trip to (roughly) Montana, in terms of climate change.  We were dropping into the various campgrounds along the way, looking for one we’d like to visit with the Airstream sometime. Most of the campgrounds are suitable for tents only, but at least two can take RVs, including Gordon Hirabayashi Campground (about 5,000 feet altitude) and Rose Canyon Campground (about 7,000 feet).

rose-canyon-lake.jpgRose Canyon was a nice surprise.  The camping area is large and very spread out in multiple loops. ($18, water, bathrooms, no hookups, no dump.)  Toward the lower end of the campground is a small man-made fishing lake, stocked with trout.  Emma loves fishing, so this was a big hit with her.  Some friendly folks at lakeside let her take a few casts with their equipment, and while we were watching one of them landed a little trout.

The lake and campground will close at the end of October, so we may not get to camp there this year, but I can see a trip next year when the weather gets warm again. Eleanor is already talking about getting a fishing pole for Emma for Christmas. Although many of the spaces are short or unlevel, we’ve identified about ten that we can get our 30-foot trailer into.

santa-catalina-sunset-silhouettes.jpg

The road up through the Catalinas costs $5 if you don’t have a pass (the “America The Beautiful Pass” works here, since this is a National Forest road).  As a visitor to the area, it’s the best $5 you’ll spend in Tucson, in my opinion.  The total drive is about 60 miles roundtrip and takes at least two hours if you only spend a little time at each of the many overlooks.  If you take your time and stop in Summerhaven for lunch or browsing, it can easily be a full day.

tucson-hazy-sunset.jpgHere’s a tip: try to time your return to Tucson for sunset.  The views will range from nice to amazing.  Even a rare cloudy day is beautiful to see as you descend the winding road to the valley floor.  The air is normally very clear here (yesterday we had still air and so there was a bit of haziness), yielding superb viewing of stars, full moon, and city.

I’m reminded that when we are not exploring the country we’ve still got a local area to explore.  One of the reasons we chose Arizona for home base was the broad range of year-round recreation available.  The southwestern outdoors are like a galaxy: beautiful at a distance, and full of richer detail the closer you get.  We can enjoy the Sky Islands at a distance, but every step closer yields new views and new things to see.  Driving them is one perspective, camping in them is another, hiking them is another, and then activities like birding give even more perspective.

Given that there are five Sky Islands within sight of Tucson, we’ve got a lot yet to see.  It’s just a matter of readjusting our mode of exploration.  Instead of driving north to the real Banff, we’ll be exploring the climate and ecosystem of Banff from our backyard in Arizona.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

alice-and-the-mushroom.jpgWe spent three years exploring this great huge country, and yet I am lost in a 2,000 square foot house.

In my Airstream, I knew where everything was.  I knew everything we owned.  There were few surprises lurking in the dark corners (except the occasional mouse turd).  I could reach from my bed and touch my books, the front window, the cabinet containing my clothes, my scanner, and my wife — all without sitting up. Having such a small space bewilders those who have never lived in one, because they equate small with “uncomfortable” and “crowded.”  In reality, a small space can be magnitudes more comfortable than a dramatic Great Room with vaulted ceiling.  I know, we’ve lived in both.

A small space is a control-freak’s ultimate answer to housing.  Everything is within reach, little is hidden, and complete mastery of the entire domain is easily achievable.  You can be a big fish in a small pond.

But now we’re in a house, and it has galaxies of space, entire sectors that we don’t  have a purpose for, and dozens of mystery boxes from our relocation last year still scattered around.  It turns out that our biggest struggle now is to figure out what to do with all the extra space.  We don’t want to buy furniture just to fill it up, but it seems so empty.  Even a “zen” garden needs some gravel. Today we bought six chairs for the dining room table, so we don’t have to ask guests to bring their own.  This sort of splurge is going to empty our bank account quickly if we aren’t careful, so for the most part we are furnishing like college students, with whatever is available.

Being in a house has provided us with endless entertaining novelties.  Water just comes out from the sink endlessly — no worries about running the tank dry.  I still can’t get used to that.  Yesterday Eleanor was rinsing something in the sink and I had to repress the urge to say, “Hey, watch it — we’re not on full hookup!”  Really.  In my mind’s eye I could see the holding tank filling up.

The 25-cubic foot refrigerator is never full because it’s three times the size of the one we lived with for so long.  The freezer that takes full size pizza boxes.  That sort of thing tickles me.  Whoo-hoo, frozen pizza!  It’s the little things in suburbia that make it worthwhile.  How can you not love a land where every kitchen has ice and water on the fridge door?

Ready-made ice is like a miracle.  We never had room for ice in the Airstream, even the kind you make the old-fashioned way, in a tray.  Now it comes out of the door on command, and at night we can hear the refrigerator industriously clanking as it deposits another load of ice in the bucket.  Even though the unfamiliar sounds wakes us up, I find it bemusing.  (After all the years of sleeping in Wal-Marts and near industrial areas, freight trains and street sweepers don’t wake me up, but ice cubes do.)  We are still getting a kick out of putting a glass in the fridge door and getting endless cold water.  I think we’ve all been drinking 20 glasses of water day just for the thrill.

In this way, we are like repatriated refugees.  We haven’t had a dishwasher since 2005.  Our wardrobe has been limited to what can fit in a plastic tub.  High living in our book has been defined as the ability to take a shower longer than three minutes. So you can see why the concept of cable TV with 200 channels is too much to absorb.  I’m afraid if we indulge in everything that suburbia has to offer, we’ll simply tip over from excessive pleasure, like the character in Crichton’s “Terminal Man.“  It’s best to re-enter “normal” life slowly. We still don’t have a TV in the house, and I’m not sure when we are going to get one.

Today Eleanor found that her jar of Cain’s All-Natural Mayonnaise was running low.  It’s a New England product, made in Massachusetts, and you can’t find it out west. In the old days we’d just get make a note to pick up some on the next trip east, but now we don’t know when that will be.

We’ve become accustomed to having most of the Lower 48 available to us.  Back then, it went like this:  “Remember that nice smoked fish we had at Ted Peter’s?  Next time we’re in Tampa, we’ll get some more.”  It was that simple.  Hankering for a Czech pastry?  No problem, we’ll be in Texas soon and we’ll stop at that nice pastry shop we know.  Coffee milk?  That’s easily found in Rhode Island and a few other New England states.   Conch chowder in the Keys, authentic ingredients in Chinatown, crabcakes in Maryland, dry-rub barbecue in east Texas … it was all just somewhere down the road.

But now even little things like Cain’s Mayonnaise are off in a murky haze of possible futures.  (Fortunately, we’re able to have that particular item delivered by friends from New England.)  We’re used to sampling the world as we go, and roaming it as if it were our back yard.

So I am in a strange paradox:  The house is too big, and the world is getting larger too. I feel I have taken a step backwards in the Maze, and I have gotten smaller relative to my surroundings, at least temporarily.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.  Now I finally know how she felt. I have to figure out how to start growing again. Alice did it by eating a bit of the mushroom.  If only it were that easy to find your right place in the world.

Taking the First Step

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

man_in_the_maze.jpgIf you’ve been following the Tour of America weblog, you already know me and how I’ve come to this point.  If not, you’ll figure it out.  I am just like you, symbolized by the Man In The Maze, who travels through life from dark to light, growing larger in relation to his surroundings by learning and making choices at every turn.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine