Archive for December, 2008

Home again?

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

I’m still wrestling with the strange feelings resulting from the start of this new trip.  Being back in the Airstream that we called home for so long is like going back to Mom & Dad’s house after having moved out.  It’s not the same.  It seems smaller.  It looks worn, as if someone else has been living in it since we stopped.  Everything is familiar but different somehow.  Perhaps it is true that you can’t go home again.

I never did aspire to live in a trailer, I aspired to travel, and the trailer was merely the means.  Now that the major travel is behind us, the trailer is more of an artifact or a memento of that trip, like a big scrapbook.  Re-entering it is like walking down the corridors of your old high school; still the same but not the place you remember.  It was so important back then, but now it is a piece of the past. I tell myself that we lived here for three years but I’m having trouble convincing myself.   Did all of those things really happen to us?

I suppose that sensation arises because the experience was built from a million individual moments, none of which can be reproduced (and even if they could be, it wouldn’t be the same).  It was never about the trailer.  It was always about the thrill of discovery.  We were always entering unknown territory, both geographically, intellectually, and as a family (watching Emma grow up). We can come back to the trailer, but we can’t come back to the experiences and the way I felt the first time. We can only move forward to something else.

Another difference now is that our current trip is more about the friends we want to see along the way, and the business we need to conduct.  No longer are we free-wheeling full-time travelers with no fixed address and no deadline to end our travel.  This trip has a schedule (a loose one, to be sure, but nonetheless a schedule), and a very specific set of tasks that I need to complete along the way.  We know we will be back in Tucson by a certain date.  We are not as free to roam as we once were.

On the other hand, I can try something I rarely got to do in the full-timing days.  Because I’ve always worked in the Airstream, and because the first couple of years of travel were coincident with a very tough developmental period for the magazine, I have generally worked seven days a week as long as we were aboard.  I rarely took a vacation for more than a day or two, and never was I far from my computer, my cell phone, and my obligations.

Now, since home base is in a house and Airstream travel has become an occasional thing, I can begin to treat the Airstream as other people do.  It can be a true “getaway.”  We can leave the office behind, pack up the toys, and zip off for a few days to decompress completely.  That may seems rather evident to most  people, but for us it is a novelty.

We are now in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, in southern California.  A few Airstream friends have joined us here, including Terry & Greg from Tucson, Bill & Larry (with whom we camped here a year ago), and David and Ariadna (who followed us from Picacho Peak).  Also here are two other Airstreams, one of which I recognize from its Big Red Numbers as a fan of the magazine, so I’ll go introduce myself tomorrow.

Monday brought a heap of tasks for me to deal with urgently, so I triaged them Monday night after our six-hour drive, and set aside Tuesday to spend in the office dealing with everything.  Eleanor and Emma spent the day out with our friends, leaving me alone to get it all done in quiet and warm desert sunshine. Having gotten most everything under control, I am going to switch to vacation mode for the rest of the week and test my theory about converting my mental picture of the Airstream into a getaway vehicle.

Anza-Borrego may be the ideal place to do that.  You cannot be uptight in this place.  It is too wild and open, too beautiful and too peaceful.  There are hundreds of square miles of trails and 4WD roads to explore.  Bighorn sheep lurk in the canyons just above us, and shaggy palms are rustling in the occasional breeze.  Tomorrow I will take anyone who wants to go out for a tour of the backcountry and spend the day with family, friends, a picnic lunch, and my camera.  It will be a starting point for the next phase of our traveling life.  Let’s see what happens.

Picacho Peak State Park, AZ

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Driving away from the house this morning we had a sense of leaving something behind, which we have rarely felt during our full-time years.  It was awkward, feeling as though the house was the center of our universe, and getting in the Airstream to travel was somehow a deficit.  We have always felt centered by being together, regardless of where we were, but suddenly it was different  today.  It felt like leaving home.  It felt strange.

I think much of this stems from the fact that for three years we regarded the Airstream as our primary home, and the house in Tucson was just one of many places we visited.  Now the house has become our home, and the new center of our universe, and in driving away from it we are abandoning that center for something else.  We left behind our unfinished projects, karate classes, neighbors and friends.  We dropped everything that was in process, locked the door and pulled away.  There’s a sense of not having full closure.  I can see why sometimes people have trouble leaving home, and why they made comments like, “Don’t you get homesick?”

The sun sets early this time of year, and even in the desert southwest the nights are long and cold.  The interior of the trailer shrinks at night (and the exterior gets longer, if you are still towing after dark).  We bumped into each other as we did back in 2005 when we were new to full-timing, and gradually re-adjusted to the practicalities of life inside 200 square feet. Making this adjustment in the middle of the winter is a bit more difficult, which is one reason why I recommend that people who are going to travel full-time start in spring or summer.

But in all other respects, it has been a typical day on the road.  We traveled a mere 70 miles, to this interesting state park near I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, to meet our friends David, Ari, and William.  Those of you who have followed our  travels for a while may recognize them as the family we traveled with to Mexico last April, and who we visited about a year ago at their home in Ventura, CA.

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Picacho  represents a convenient meeting point between Tucson and Phoenix (where our friends were visiting most recently), but it is also a spot we’ve been meaning to re-visit for some time.  The main feature of the park is a rather abrupt peak that, from a distance, appears unclimbable without ropes.  Once in the park, you’ll discover two routes to the top which merge at a point called “The Saddle.”

In early 2007 we climbed the steeper of the two routes and reached the Saddle, in somewhat intense heat.  The climb is, frankly, brutal and unrewarding in itself, but the view is good.  Going beyond the Saddle to the peak requires more time than we had, and gloves are useful for steep rocky sections and grasping steel cables.

Tomorrow morning we are going to hike at least part of the second trail with David, Ari, and William.  It is longer, at about 3.1 miles one-way, but shallower.    We are not likely to complete the trail, because not everyone in our group is ready for a hike of this nature, but we’ll at least get a good taste of it and we can use that to plan a future summit.

The cold continues today. Around Tucson it warmed into the mid-50s, but here at Picacho it felt cooler, with a breeze.  Still the campground has at least two dozen trailers parked in it (although not many signs of life from most of them).  In the dark the temperature has plummeted again, and we expect to be near-freezing again tonight. Since we chose a non-electric site in the campground, I’ve got the catalytic heater going and it looks like it will have to run all night.  It will be a chilly morning to go on a hike tomorrow, but we’ve got the clothing and gear for it.  Short of driving to Mazatlan or south Florida, we can’t escape the cold this time of year, so we will just have to embrace it.

Trip prep

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

It is cold this morning as we prepare the Airstream for departure.  Very cold, for Tucson.  Last night was one of the occasional freezes this town gets in the winter, and this morning everything outside is covered with frost. I hate preparing for a trip in the cold, because every job is harder and slower.

My fingers, required to be bare for some jobs that require nimbleness, are aching at the touch of cold metal on the hitch, cold tools, and frosty propane tank cover.  The air in the tires has shrunk from the cold, each one measuring only 48-52 psi when they should be at least 60 psi.  The interior reminds me of the movie 2010 when the crew re-enters the frozen Discovery space ship: initially dark, quiet, and with a slight odor of dust signaling abandonment. HAL 9000, are you there?

This morning’s task is to re-activate the ship.  I left the furnace set at 50 degrees last night so the trailer wouldn’t freeze, and this morning switched over to the catalytic heater.  Over a couple of hours, it will efficiently saturate the interior with heat, making Eleanor’s re-packing work inside more comfortable.   Meanwhile, I’ve been outside pumping up the tires, checking the propane level, and verifying critical items in the storage compartments.

For the most part the trailer  is ready to go, and it seems the majority of the departure checklist has to do with things inside the house.  Among many other tasks, today is “Pick the Grapefruit Day.”  The freezing night should have finalized the grapefruit (it is said that it makes the fruit a little sweeter), and in any case the tree is heavy with 90-odd softball-sized  yellow fruit.  We can’t possibly eat them all, and I doubt they will last until we get back, so my plan is to juice most of them today and have fresh grapefruit juice every day for the next couple of weeks.  I already squeezed a bag of ten or so and made a liter of juice.  Now the problem is to find enough empty containers for all the juice I’m making.

Being a fan of checklists, I have started a list of things we need to do before leaving for a long period.  It turns out that there is quite a bit more to it than I had imagined.  Someday, when I have the list complete, I may post it here.  There are lots of fiddly little tasks, like running a full backup of both computers, that are easily overlooked.  (We make a secondary backups of both computers in case there’s a trailer disaster that causes us to lose the computers and the primary backups that travel with us. The secondary backup stays in a locked, fireproof safe back at home base.)

I had spoken in an earlier blog about my goal to keep the Airstream ready to go in less than an hour.  It turns out that we have achieved that goal — for a weekend.  To just zip out the door and take a few days, no problem.  But to go for a month or more, we have to make considerable preparation.  It was so much easier when we had only one home (the Airstream), but now with two homes we have to think carefully about where things are.

But all of that is relatively minor.  So far the trip prep has contained only one major surprise: the car battery.  The cold snap this morning revealed that the Armada’s battery is a goner.  I jumped it from another car and now we’ve got a new battery.  Better now than while we are in Anza-Borrego.  Both of the rechargeable batteries for the cordless drill are dead too, but those are easily recharged. The cold and the lack of use are starting to show.

For the next few weeks, while we are on the road, I will be posting more regularly.

The Grinch who sent email

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Like many other people, in the past few weeks we’ve been receiving Christmas cards and letters.  But we haven’t sent any.

It’s  not that we are opposed to Christmas spirit, like The Grinch or Scrooge, it’s just that we are terribly conflicted and perhaps somewhat incompetent.  (That’s not better, is it?)  Currently I write this blog, and prior to this I wrote another blog for three years, and prior to that I had even more blogs about various projects.  Considerable aspects of our lives have been well documented on the Internet, and there’s hardly more anyone would care to know about us.  So why be redundant and send out a form letter to everyone?

A Christmas card would be nice, but really, it seems to be beyond my ability.  I can write a blog every day for three years.  I can write, edit, and produce a magazine four times a year and ship out 12,000 copies.  I can maintain multiple websites, manage a staff of 10-15, and write personal responses to over 8,000 emails* every year.  But I can’t manage to buy two dozen Christmas cards, address them, and get them in the mail.  There is clearly some sort of mental block here.

mdm-2008xmas.jpg* Note that this works out to an average of 21 email responses every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  That’s with me responding to only about half of the personal emails I get, too.  If you got a note from me in the past year asking you to please remove me from your email joke list, that’s why.  Sending such requests may lead to people thinking perhaps I really am Scrooge, but it’s just me trying not to disappear in a quicksand of electronic messages.

I admire the photo cards that some people manage to get together.  It shows that you’re organized enough to get the family together weeks or even months in advance, order the cards, and get them in the mail.  The card shown at right is a prime example.  (But I have to admit it didn’t come to me.  I found MM’s trailer and hooked him up with GSM Vehicles, and they got the Christmas card.  There’s no justice.)

You’d think that out of the 10,000 or so photos I shoot every year I’d at least get one or two photos of the three of us.  Not so.  A couple of years ago I tried to make up for the lack of photos of us together, by handing my camera to bystanders when we were at scenic spots.  I ended up with a lot of photos of us appearing as badly-lit dots in front of things like Crater Lake and the Grand Canyon.  After several disappointments, I set up my tripod on the beach at St George Island (Florida) and tried to do it myself with the camera’s self-timer. The result was a lovely photo of Eleanor and Emma, with me grimacing in the bright sun.  The wind was so strong that day that on the 14th or 15th take, the tripod blew over and the Nikon got buried in the sand.  The pop-up flash stopped working, and despite repairs, the camera has never been the same since. We didn’t use the pictures, either.

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I’m not alone in my Christmas-card-impeded state.  For many years, Eleanor has written long long Christmas letters with complicated tales of our year in review. The letters usually get printed out on fancy colorful paper, stacked in huge heaps, and then neglected until roughly February. At that point, under prodding by me, a few get mailed to elderly relatives who don’t have Internet, and the rest go into recycling.

This year, Eleanor tried a new tactic.  She wrote a rather succinct letter about our 2008.  Those of you who followed the Tour of America would find it very amusing.  It basically says, “We continued traveling in our Airstream,” and “Emma is doing well with homeschooling.”  Succinct, yes … and for details, she provides the URL of our travel blog.

I’m sure some of the relatives who get it will interpret this as:  “We still live in a trailer because we can’t afford better,” and “we’re neglecting our child’s education.” But we realize that the letter would mostly be going to relatives and out-of-touch friends who have little interest in the details.  Reading a Christmas letter from someone you haven’t heard from in a while is an amusing bonus, something to lighten up the dark winter days.  You get a chance to find out how weird people have gotten since you last saw them. We don’t want to disappoint anyone.

I’m always amazed when someone does manage to get cards or letters out, and I appreciate each one very much.  If we ever got a round of cards out I suspect we might shock some people to the point of requiring medical attention.  I can’t say yet that we will do so this year.  Eleanor’s current letter exists only as a draft, with a total of one copy printed, and it’s December 22.  I have a feeling that, given we are two days from Christmas and leaving for an extended trip in five days, the letter may languish until February again.  It may end up as an email.

Perhaps the best move would be to write  next year’s Christmas letter early.  If we started in February 2009 we might actually get it out by Thanksgiving.  All we would need to do is predict what we might do in 2009, which would be far more amusing anyway.  When the letter actually hit the mail, we could compare the prediction to the reality for our own benefit, but for the purposes of people receiving it, it would probably be close enough.

It might read like this:  “In 2009, we enjoyed a few months in Tucson before getting antsy and heading out in May for several months of travel.  We visited some parts of the northwest US that we hadn’t seen before, and then met friends in Montana and Wisconsin before settling in New England.  Over the summer, Rich finished our 1968 Caravel project so now we have that as a smaller trailer for weekends.  We went to Newfoundland for two weeks, then zipped back to Arizona to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. Back in Arizona we adopted a desert tortoise who we named Fluffy, and Emma achieved her green belt in karate.  Later this winter we plan to take an extended trip through Mexico.”

But that might be too boring.  As Emeril might say, why not kick it up a notch?

“2009 has been a spectacular year for us.  Airstream Life took off like gangbusters when Honda introduced a small car that could tow 8,000 lbs and still get 25 MPG.  With the extra money from the business, we added a second story to our Airstream.  Rich had Lasik so he doesn’t wear glasses anymore, and Eleanor got augmented to a D-cup.  Emma suddenly took an interest in science and is applying for her first biotechnology patent this year.  Our tortoise had babies and they all won ribbons at the country fair. Next week we are scheduled to appear on the Tonight Show, and Microsoft has asked us to start a new magazine called ‘Windows Life’.  We hope you are doing well also.”

It’s always healthy to set goals for yourself.  If any of those things happen, you’ll read about it here.  I think you’ve figured out by now that you shouldn’t wait for the Christmas card.

January 2009 trip plan

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

In the run-up to Christmas, a lot of tasks and projects have been shunted aside, but one item that remains prominently on our list is our next Airstream trip.  We have been looking forward to a few weeks of travel ever since we arrived in Tucson (an event which marked the end of our full-time travels).

The plan has always been to head to California and then roam around.  Primarily, that’s because in the bottom of the winter the weather conditions limit our travel.  From past experience we know that southern California, all of coastal California, and low deserts are generally reliable place to go, but even those places can have very chilly nights.  It’s also important to keep elevation in mind at all times, since — as I’ve said many times — weather out west is determined by altitude, not latitude.

That means we won’t be heading to Flagstaff (7000 ft), or for that matter, anywhere in northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, the Sierra Nevadas and other mountain ranges.  This time of year we even have to be careful about highway passes that exceed 4000 feet, since they can be snowed in while other parts of the road are sunny and warm.  Because of the need to stay low, our favorite spots in the west during winter are Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego, coastal Rt 1, the Sacramento Valley, and Death Valley.  Oregon is decent along the coast too, but we won’t be going that far north this time.

The trip “plan,” such as it is, loosely calls for visiting most of those spots over a 3-4 week period.  As always, we are winging it on most of the details, but we do have a few definite stops that will be the framework for the trip.  The only reservation we’ve made is for Anza-Borrego, because winter is peak season.  That particular stay was booked last July.

The Airstream is sitting ready to go, with only a few things left to be packed and checked before departure.  Since our arrival I’ve had a lot of time to take care of wear and tear from our last long trip, and there was quite a list.  The Armada needed a pair of exhaust manifolds (they seem to crack every 30k miles, the only significant maintenance problem we’ve encountered with this vehicle, but fortunately I got an extended warranty which covered them). The Armada also needed a new set of tires, oil change, some minor body work, and a thorough cleaning.

The Airstream needed a repair to the power converter, new axles, one replacement brake assembly, a new toilet seal kit, and a tire.  All of that has been done, and the rig has been test-towed, so we can head back out with complete confidence in our equipment.  There is a lingering leak somewhere around the stove vent, but since it’s impossible to work on the Airstream’s roof while it is parked in our carport, I plan to bring a tube of caulk and some tools with me, and deal with it sometime on the road.  We won’t see much rain, if any, in the southern California desert, but San Diego is another story…

Our friend “Tucson Terry” commented that we are now like everyone else, planning and looking forward to our next trip.  It’s true.  It’s not a bad thing, either.  There’s a certain excitement in anticipating a great tour.  Planning it and dreaming about it really is half the fun.  I felt the same sensation even when full-timing, because there were always low points where we were mostly parked and waiting for the next major stop.

One very pleasant change since the last time we traveled is of course the startling drop in fuel cost.  In our final month of full-timing, fuel was so expensive that we heavily curtailed our driving distances.  In Utah, we paid as much as $4.54 per gallon, and at one point we were elated to find a gas station on an Indian reservation that was “only” $3.80 per gallon.  Even though we needed less than 1/3 of a tank, we filled up to take advantage of the low price.

Those were the days of $80-100  fillups.  Yesterday  I filled up the Armada for $26.88.  It seemed almost like cheating.  But since this multi-week tour will cover 7-9 stops and at least 2,000 miles, I’ll take the discount.  We’ll save about $500 compared to fuel prices just three months ago.

Since we can afford to go a little further, and make more stops, this trip will be heavily oriented to seeing friends we made while we were on the road.  Every stop we have in mind will involve someone who befriended us along the way, and with whom we share some special memories.  I suppose this could be viewed as a trip of reminisces, but really it’s about continuing to make new memories.  I doubt we’ll spend a lot of time looking backward, and for sure we will try to explore some new territory as we go.  For benefit of our friends in the Revenue Service, let me point out that we also have numerous business-related stops along the way.

While we are traveling, I may resume daily or near-daily blogging.  This is as much for my benefit as for anyone who is interested, because if I don’t keep a journal I’ll forget what we did.  Those of you who have been deprived of photos in this blog can rejoice because no doubt my camera will get heavy use. (I only hope it keeps working — it’s showing signs of age lately.  It would be nice if Santa brought me a new Nikon D90, but I forgot to put it on my wish list.)  The trip begins December 28.

Holiday traditions

Monday, December 15th, 2008

“And so it is Christmas … and what have you done?”  — John Lennon

One sure sign of the holiday season is that office workers move into slow motion.  We’re seeing lots of sales of magazine subscriptions and stuff from the online store, but behind the scenes it’s almost impossible to get anyone in the office world to move on everything.  December is the mañana season, where all new projects, budgets, and decisions are traditionally put off “until the New Year.”  There’s usually no good reason for this, it’s just tradition. Nobody wants to start anything new when there are holiday office parties and secret Santa gifts to occupy one’s attention.

I’d probably be tempted to fall into this mode too, except that it’s still a constant battle to keep up with the legions of falling advertisers.  Year end is a particularly crucial time, because sales of RVs and RV accessories are traditionally slow, and there are always those year-end expenses to think about.  We lost another advertiser this week, and would have lost two if it weren’t for heroic intervention.  I can’t take my eye off the ball for a minute these days.

chocolate-fondue-night.jpgBut that doesn’t mean we aren’t enjoying the holiday.  Eleanor has bought the first eggnog of the season (actually two, which we taste-tested side-by-side in the kitchen.  Verdict: both were lame; we need to keep searching).  We had “chocolate fondue night” a week ago when my mother was visiting.  We have bought a little evergreen tree to maintain the tradition of pine needles all over the living room, and it has been decorated to nearly an unsafe level, which is also tradition.  If Eleanor can put a hook on it, she’ll hang it from the tree.  Her little tradition is to decorate the tree while eating chocolate-covered cherries.  It’s the only time of year she will eat them.  At the end of the process, the chocolates are gone and the tree is groaning under the weight of massive yet cheerful keepsakes.

According to Emma, our tree even included a live partridge at one time.  I wasn’t aware of that, but today I noticed a smattering of feathers in the branches.  When asked, Emma explained that her stuffed cats ate the bird. The things those stuffed animals do …

One holiday tradition I could do without is the parking-lot demolition derby at every strip mall in town (which basically means all of Tucson).  A few weeks ago we were cruising the local supermarket lot looking for a space, when another driver backed out of her parking space and into our car.  The damage to our car was limited to a dent of about eight inches in diameter, but the repair was over $900.  I got all the insurance information and later discovered something interesting:  I could file a claim but the other driver could prevent her insurance from paying out simply by refusing to cooperate with her own insurance company.  Despite the fact that she was undeniably at fault, her insurance company could not move forward without a voluntary statement by her.

This stretched the process out for two weeks, during which time both my insurer and hers sent multiple vehement letters, reminding the other driver of her contractual obligation to cooperate with claims investigations.  It looked as if I would have to file a claim with my insurance company, pay the deductible, and wait a month or so while lawyers from my insurance company subrogated the claim (in other words, hassled the money out of the other insurance company).  Then I’d get my deductible back.  Fortunately, the other driver was eventually dynamited out of her recalcitrance and we now have a car with a distinct odor of fresh paint.

This evening Emma got a taste of a holiday tradition too.  Eleanor has been shopping for clothes for her, and tonight Emma was allowed to try them on with her eyes closed.  Once satisfied that the clothes would fit, Eleanor would whisk them away to go under the tree.  For some reason this seems very familiar to me.  I can’t point to any particular gift in my past but I’m pretty sure that many times after trying on things as a child, I would hear the fateful words, “Good. That’s going under the tree.”

With my mother, this would reach obsessive levels.  In the home stretch toward Christmas virtually any necessary supply would be wrapped for presentation.  Toothbrushes, soap, a box of tissues, pens, Scotch tape, you name it, and we found it in our stockings.  While it made for lots of presents to unwrap (and still does to this day), it also makes for strange moments on Christmas morning.  Many times I would open a little package to find, say, dental floss, and my mother would say, “Oh, is that where that went?”  I fear that Eleanor may be headed the same way.  I’m pretty sure there’s a package of coffee filters or something like that under our tree.

Having a fire is a big Christmas tradition, as evidenced by many Christmas specials on TV, and songs (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” etc.).  We are fortunate to have a fireplace that provides a lovely view of flames without the added nuisance of actually heating the house (remember we are in southern Arizona and still getting most days in the 60s).  So I decided to go out and buy some cordwood to burn over the next few weeks.

Being in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, we aren’t exactly surrounded by hardwood forests.  Most cordwood is imported from up north somewhere, but my neighbor Mike had a line on a local place that sold pecan wood.  About 20 miles south of Tucson there are vast pecan groves, and each year the excess pecan branches are cut into firewood lengths and stacked up to dry.  On a few weekends in December, you can pick through the pile and take as much as you want for $1.80 per cubic foot.  Checks only, no cash, no credit cards.

These special restrictions make it seem like a special deal, although the price came to $230 per cord.  And it was pecan wood, something I never saw before.  It seemed mysterious and intriguing to someone who has traditionally burned only northern species like oak, ash, maple, cherry, birch, pine, and hemlock.  The more we thought about it, the more we had to get some.  So Mike and I drove down, climbed the giant pile of pecan and picked a peck (actually about 1/3 of a cord).  I can’t speak for all pecan wood, but this stuff is pretty hard, very dry, and burns nice and slow.   It may have been worth the effort.  Even if it wasn’t, I bet we’ll do it again next year.

I don’t think any of our odd little traditions are going to become fodder for  TV Christmas specials, but these are undoubtedly some of the elements that will form our memories of the season. In years past I might have hesitated to admit some of the things we do at holiday time, but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter what your traditions are, it only matters that you have a few.

So I’ve got my ukulele out again, and I’m practicing Christmas songs that Eleanor can sing with me.  (Those of you coming to meet us at Anza-Borrego for New Year’s … get ready for a serenade.) We’ll be transplanting cactus in the front yard next week.  It may not make sense but it feels fine.  Happy holidays.

Christmas gifts for travelin’ folk

Friday, December 12th, 2008

Over the past few years, I’ve asked friends and family not to get us much of anything as Christmas gifts.  We had the excuse of living in a 30-foot Airstream, where space was at a premium, so for the most part everyone understood.  We asked for edible gifts, if people felt a gift was necessary, and small lightweight things that would be useful in our traveling life.  This tended to stymie people, so the volume of things we received dropped to a bare minimum (except to Emma).

In reality, our intention was to keep our lives simple and our overhead low.  While we enjoy giving and receiving as much as anyone, it just wasn’t part of our lifestyle.  Now that we are in a house, the excuse of limited space has gone away, and so we find ourselves back on the slippery slope toward a commodity-filled holiday.

But we still don’t want much.  I asked Santa for a 120-volt air compressor because the 12-volt one I carry around is pretty anemic at filling our trailer tires to 65 psi.  I also asked for a Garmin GPS to replace the absolutely awful “Navigon” GPS that we got free (with a set of four Continental tires).   We tried the Navigon for a few weeks but decided we’d rather be lost than keep fighting with it.  Fortunately, I’ve been good this year, so I think I’ll get what I asked for.

Eleanor wants a couple of kitchen tools and some clothes.  She’s keeping her favorite clothing in the Airstream for travel, and so all she has in the house are the clothes she really doesn’t like.  (You can see where her priorities are.) Santa has sent her off to go shopping for clothes today, with the only stipulation being that she has to spend 99.9% less than Sarah Palin.

Emma has written a charming letter to Santa asking for various art supplies, which she will get. A few other surprises are coming her way, too.

Even though we have a house, we still try to act as if we might go back to full-timing at any moment, at least when it comes to acquiring things.  For example, DVDs are always stripped from their cases and put into multi-disc sleeves so they take up less space and are easily portable.  Before we bought a Christmas tree this week, we figured out how we would dispose of it on the 27th so we could hit the road on the 28th.  It’s all about retaining our mobility, but the added benefit is that this practice also keeps our “house overhead” low.

Because we still plan to travel, and many of you do too, I’m going to bring back a feature that I wrote last year on the Tour of America blog:  Gifts for full-timers and frequent travelers.  If you’re wondering what to get for that crazy nomad in your life, check this list.

The basic premise is that people who travel a lot via RV live in small spaces, and they need to travel light.  So the ideal gift is very useful, lightweight, small, and requires no maintenance. Even better are consumable gifts. Here are a few things your traveling friends might love:

  • Gift cards to places that RV’ers frequent: Camping World, Cracker Barrel, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. Or, if you prefer, get a gift card for services RV’ers commonly use: fuel or other travels needs, or cell phone.  Just be sure that you check the fine print on gift cards, to make sure they don’t expire and don’t have “maintenance fees”.  You could also get a KOA Value Kard Rewards (good for a 10% discount at over 450 campgrounds)
  • Entertainment: CDs, DVDs, Netflix gift subscriptions, or for that digitally-savvy traveler an iTunes gift card.  (Yes, you can receive Netflix on the road if you use mail forwarding.)
  • A National Parks Pass, or for someone with children, an ASTC museum Passport. Both are great money-savers and valid nationwide.
  • If you have an in-person visit, consider a nice rosemary bush as a miniature Christmas tree.
  • Food. You just can’t go wrong there unless you ship them a giant crate of pineapples. Food is great because it doesn’t take up space for long. Homemade goodies like popcorn treats are especially appreciated, at least by us. Or if you want something themed, you could get Silver Joe’s coffee, or Happy Camper wine.
  • Photos. Most RV’s I see have photos mounted on the walls somewhere to remind them of the people they plan to visit.  A gift certificate for photo printing and mounting might be just the thing.
  • A cool Airstream shirt, sweatshirt, hat, poster, slippers, or a set of aluminum tumblers from the Airstream Life store (shameless plug #1)
  • A subscription to Airstream Life. (Shameless plug #2) If you don’t like them that much, get them a subscription to Trailer Life instead.
  • A useful book that might inspire some new travel, like this book about camping in America’s Southwest.

Any other gift ideas?  Post ‘em as a comment.  Thanks!

Holiday season in Tucson

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

We are experiencing Christmas season as defined by Tucsonians.  The usual signs of an urban Christmas are here, such as crowded parking lots, and Santa Claus appearing every retail outlet for miles.  Those are all background to my eye.  It’s the little things that are different about how it’s done here which strike me.

A couple of nights ago we wandered over to the La Encantada Mall to see “snow.”   This upscale mall features little patches of fake grass in the courtyard.  Since grass is scarce around here — even the plastic variety — that’s a minor novelty in itself, but it gets better.  Every Friday and Saturday evening at 6:00 and 6:45 p.m. they turn on a machine that blows fake snow out into the courtyard.  The stuff is actually some sort of soap bubbles, and children quickly learn not to try to catch it on their tongues.  The event reaps dozens of children and adults romping around in the bubblebath, shrieking with pleasure and gathering up tiny bits of the stuff to toss at each other.

Only in Tucson have I ever seen people playing in fake snow while standing on fake grass.  It impressed Emma, although she is certainly no stranger to snow, but I quickly lost interest.  I had just seen the real thing up in Louisville earlier this week, and that was plenty for me.  Fortunately, this event happens directly in front of an Apple store (computers) and that meant I had more intriguing gadgets to examine than a “snow”-making machine.  Maybe Santa will bring me a new MacBook Pro this Christmas…

People ask if we have Christmas trees here.  Yes, we do.  Sure, cactus are commonly decorated with lights outside, but inside the house people seem to prefer the traditional evergreen tree.  Since evergreens are scarce here, they are imported from wetter places like Oregon, and driven down by the truckload.  Vendors are selling them all over town. After Christmas, the city collects them and “treecycles” them.  Or, you can get a fake tree.

candle-lit-singers.jpgAll this fakery — or perhaps I should say, “symbolism” — made me wonder whether there were any “real” components of the Christmas season available.  I can’t expect snow, but at least I can expect holiday cookies, a fire in the fireplace, and some traditional singing.  Fortunately, those elements are alive and well.  Downtown at St Augustine Cathedral, we heard five choirs singing “A Holiday Card To Tucson” this afternoon.

st-augustine-cathedral.jpg st-augustine-crowd.jpg

Sure, there were palm trees outside the cathedral, and the temperature was a balmy mid-60s, but at least the music was well-done and entirely authentic.   So yes Virginia, the spirit of Christmas really does exist in Tucson. It’s just a little different, like the Southwest Nutcracker that is performed with ballet dancers dressed as coyotes and Native American squaws.

I’ll have to keep searching Tucson for the extremes of Christmas over the next few weeks, whether real or symbolic.  It’s part of the process of getting comfortable with spending this time of year in the desert.  We won’t always be here, but when we are we need to feel like we are home.  I expect a strange but compelling mix of butterflies and sleigh bells, dust storms instead of snow storms, grapefruit instead of sugarplums.  It’s something new, and that alone seems reason enough to explore and embrace it.

News from RVIA 2008

Friday, December 5th, 2008

 First off, let me assure you that I am still alive.  I managed to survive the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA)  trade show experience the same way that I survive all such events, meaning that I got along on six hours of jet-lagged sleep each night and trade show meals, ran around like a madman with Brett hunting down potential clients, and haphazardly responded to emails at 10 p.m. before collapsing into bed.  (If you got a terse one-line email response from me this week, that’s why.)

An event like this can really damage your system if you aren’t careful.  The meals alone that businesspeople usually consume while attending an event like this are cause for health concern.  It’s “continental breakfast” in the hotel each morning, trade show food at lunch (expensive convenience-store sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs), snacks of candy and junk food at the booths, and huge dinners every night with clients.  And then on top of that people often overindulge in alcohol after dinner.  You can spot those folks pretty easily the next day on the trade show floor.

Brett and I are old hands at this routine and we both know you’ve got to pace yourself.  Sure, it’s a “free” breakfast and maybe someone else is paying for dinner on his expense account, but if you eat it all you’ll be a constipated and slow-moving target in a few days.  We tried to eat light, avoid fatty foods, avoid alcohol, avoid excessive caffeine, stay hydrated, and then run like hell for two days around the trade show floor.  We wanted to show everyone we met that we were energetic, upbeat, and ready to do business, and it worked.

I think the reason that people so often crash and complain at big events like this is that they set themselves up for it, simply as a result of underestimating the stress they’ll face.  You’ve got potential jet-lag, bad food, irregular meals, uncomfortable shoes, long hours at the booth, sleep deprivation, tedious meetings, and sometimes an emotional rollercoaster with every potential new client.  It’s a formula for physical collapse after a few days in the best of times if you don’t know how to manage it.

maytag_repairman.jpgThis year was particularly hard on some folks because they have been under financial stress as well.  Anyone who sells into the manufacturing market (OEMs), or is a manufacturer, is feeling the pressure.  For a lot of them, filling up their order book at RVIA was mandatory for survival, and I think there will be more than a few who fail in the months to come as a result of not hitting their goals.  We certainly noticed a few who looked like the Maytag repairman during what should have been busy times on the trade show floor.

Fortunately, we received an excellent reception.  We targeted the makers and sellers of interesting premium products that Airstreamers would like, and found that universally those folks were doing fine in the current economy.  We’d pitch them by pointing out that our audience likes innovation, good design, and high quality, and they’d usually respond by saying they needed to target such people.  Then we’d show them how we could save them money by redirecting their big ad spend from XXXX publication to Airstream Life, and — voila–  we’d have a solid new prospect.

Everyone has been asking me for “news from the show.”  Honestly, I didn’t spend much time gathering gossip or reading the press releases, and we didn’t go to any seminars or talks.  What I saw was much the same as prior years, except that a few manufacturers were showing “eco-friendly” designs (meaning some changes in materials), and there were some super-lightweight experiments as well.  Damon has a new Class A motorhome that they claim gets “up to” 14.5 MPG, and Dutchman introduced a 30-foot bunkhouse that weighs about 3,000 lbs.  In both cases, my sense was that they’re going to have to figure ways to engineer out the generally flimsy feeling of the interior appointments, but I’m glad to see them at least starting in the right direction.

scout-prototype.jpgAirstream had one lightweight prototype to show, a “skunk works” experiment called the “Scout.”  It’s a retro canned-ham style trailer that incorporates a lot of new materials for a base weight of about 2,000 lbs.  It’s pretty neat but there’s no decision yet whether it will ever be produced — and if it is produced, it may not be badged as an Airstream.  Still, the lightweight materials in this experiment may show up in new Airstream production soon.

airstream-koa.jpgAirstream has also announced the shipment of a batch of trailers to KOA Kampgrounds across the country.  These Airstreams will be available for rent in Las Vegas, Sugarloaf Key FL, Bar Harbor ME, and a few other locations.  They’re calling this an “iconic Kamping experience.”  Whatever you call it, I think it will be very popular.  I get queries all the time from people wanting to know where they can rent an Airstream, but up till now it was impossible.  Although you can’t tow these Airstreams away from the KOA, you can spend a night in one and discover how cool they are.  It’s a great way to try before you buy!

airstream-interstate.jpgWe also got tours of some of the newer Airstream models.  John Huttle walked us through the Airstream Interstate 3500 again (we saw it previously in Jackson Center last summer).  Now they’ve got a $3,000 upgrade package that gives you a beautiful floor, Mercedes-Benz seating throughout, slick cabinetry, more LED lights, and other tweaks.  One passer-by jokingly called it the “Pimpstream.”  With this package, the interior looks like a business jet.  I could not believe how comfortable the seats were.  If I had $120k to spend, I would buy this rig, hit the road at 22 MPG, and never come back.  It’s a good thing for my family that I can’t quite afford it.

airstream-sport-22.jpgLater, Bruce Bannister took us into the latest iteration of the Sport series, which is Airstream’s lowest cost and lightest trailer line.  The new Sport 22-footer is really smart, with a new wrap-around dinette and front bedroom, plus the same roomy rear bath that previous Sports had.  For the money (probably low $30s) and the lower weight, it will make sense for a lot of new Airstream buyers.

All the Airstream guys were wearing round buttons that said, “got credit?“  Parent company Thor has reopened its consumer credit division, so lending to potential buyers is not a problem if you buy Airstream (or another Thor brand). This was not news at RVIA, but it certainly did cause a buzz in the crowd.  Anytime someone complained that sales were slow because of credit problems, someone else would mention the Thor move, and the discussion would come to an abrupt halt.

My feeling overall is very bullish.  Not only are we still seeing plenty of advertising prospects, but everyone in the service or aftermarket parts sectors claims to be doing just fine.  People are still using their RVs, upgrading them, and lately enjoying low fuel prices.  Marginal manufacturers with bad products, heavy debt, or inflexible business models are suffering the most, and some of them will go away soon.  I think we need to work out some redundancy in the market, clean up some overextended businesses, and continue to work on the credit problem, and then we’ll see a general rise in 2009.

So now I’m back in Tucson, a bit tired but ready to tackle the tasks of the coming weeks.  There are many follow-up calls to be made, plus the Spring 2009 issue is in production, and a lot of activity in our store, too.  Time to get in gear, and work toward a great 2009!

Blog meets blog, again

Monday, December 1st, 2008

The phenomenon of people starting travel blogs has really gained steam since we first started ours back in October 2005.  Just counting the current Airstream travel blogs, I can easily find dozens.  To keep my blogroll under control, I only list the blogs of full-time Airstream travelers (you can see the links at right), but there are many more.

Usually we meet the fellow bloggers after they have been traveling for a while, but in this case we found the opportunity to meet some future Airstream travelers/bloggers before they actually got on the road full-time. The blog is called Malimish.com, and it is the product of a nice family of three from California. At this point they’ve only had their Airstream for two months (traded up from a T@b trailer), but they seem to already be in love with it and are planning to hit the road full-time in the spring.

Our luck stems from the fact they they like to go to Tucson for vacations, and so through a series of fortunate coincidences we discovered they would be at Catalina State Park this weekend.  So they popped over for dinner last night and we got to meet the entire crew (except for the cat) plus Carrie the guest traveler.

malimish-family.jpg

It’s amazing how much we always have in common with other young full-timers.  (Hey, no cracks about us being not-so-young-anymore!)  I like to share the knowledge and experiences we’ve accrued with other people, in the hope that they’ll go out and have even more fun than we did (by avoiding our worst mistakes).  Honestly, I think a year on the road is something everyone should experience in their lifetime.  Whether you do it all at once or a month at a stretch, full-timing will change you for the better.

I am especially impressed with the fact that these cool folks are doing it with a cat and a toddler.  That might seem scary, but most kids seem to thrive on travel, and it’s not really much harder than raising a toddler at home in my opinion.  We started traveling with Emma up to five months per year when she was just three years old.

The cat, I’m not so sure about.  I’ve never had a cat or dog that didn’t get sick in the car, or howl incessantly.  But hey, if your cat travels well (and I’ve seen many that do), who am I to say anything against it?   Our friend Sharon (see The Silver Snail blog, linked at right) travels with both a cat and a dog. So it can be done successfully.

We may encounter the Malimish crowd again in January, when we are roaming California, but there are no specific plans yet.  I am very interested to see how their blog shapes up once they start full-time travel next year.

This week my focus is the annual RV Industry Association trade show, which is always held in Louisville KY around this time of year.   This blog entry comes to you from Las Vegas airport, where I am awaiting a connecting flight.  I’ll be at the show Tuesday and Wednesday, then fly home on Thursday assuming nobody has managed to give me a cold.  The RVIA show is where the manufacturers show their new products and try to get orders from dealers.  It’s also a major opportunity to conduct all kinds of RV-related business, which is why I’ll be there with Brett.  We are going to try hard to get some new advertisers.

Believe me, little else could get me out of Tucson and into the snowy/rainy gloom of Louisville this time of year.  Tucson is a paragon of sunshine and pleasantness this time of year, while Louisville is facing that grim “mixed precipitation and high winds” sort of forecast that makes my skin crawl.  Just call it “40 to 60 percent chance of blecccch,” and you’ve got the concept.  But I’ll be indoors all day, roaming around under the giant tungsten lights and washing my hands after every handshake, so for the most part I won’t notice.  Wish me luck.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine