Archive for January, 2009

Last stop in Tempe

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

quartzsite-airstream-leaving.jpgOur visit to Quartzsite was something of a bust.  With Eleanor sick most of the time, we didn’t get out much, and on the last couple of days when she started to feel better, the temperature plummeted.  With the ever-present breeze, a sunny day in the 50s felt pretty cold.  Being weak from not eating for a few days, Eleanor was not equipped to go hiking in the Kofa Mountains in cold weather.

For my part, having been fairly sedentary for the same amount of time, I wasn’t prepared to sit around a few more days just socializing (which is the major activity in Quartzsite, after browsing the flea markets).  Weighing our options, we decided to move onward to our final stop in Tempe, and perhaps return to Quartzsite another time.

Our stop in Tempe is strictly practical.  We are planning some overnight backpacking trips this year and our equipment needs updating.  Most of it comes from 1992, when Eleanor and started doing a lot of tent camping.  Since this was in the era B.K. (Before Kid) we didn’t have anything for an eight-year-old sidekick, and some of our other items were worn out or had gone missing.  Fortunately, Tempe has a good REI store.  In fact, Tempe seems to have one of everything, retail-wise.

We’ve become bottom-feeders in the retail world, so our reason for hitting REI this week was to see what was left from their January clearance sale.  We scored three very lightweight and packable sleeping bags, some boots for me, and a hydration pack for Eleanor.  The sleeping bags are rated for 30-35 degrees F, which should be ideal for warm-weather camping.

emma-sleeping-bag.jpgTo be sure, we slept in them last night and set the furnace to 50 degrees in the Airstream.  Temperatures went down to the upper 30s outside, so we were at 50 degrees much of the night.  I was comfortable, Eleanor needed socks, and Emma was too warm at first.  I found her under her regular bedcovers in the early morning, but she gamely climbed back into the sleeping bag and decided it was just right for 50 degrees.

We still need a few other things, like boots for Eleanor, and backpacks for Eleanor and Emma, so we’ll finish the shopping at one of Tucson’s local outdoor stores, like Summit Hut.

There are other attractions to urban camping in Tempe.  We have a friend who lives in his Airstream here, one who we like to visit and who also often has useful business advice.  Additionally, there are an enormous number of middle eastern restaurants here.  Periodically I need infusions of rogan josh, hummus, and stuffed grape leaves (for health reasons, of course).  Poor Eleanor wasn’t up to such foods yet, so she missed out.

Tempe has a new light rail line that passes directly in front of this campground and it is very cool.  The sage and pewter-colored trains whisk by quietly every few minutes, heading into downtown Phoenix.  They are modern and sleek, traveling on all-new track laid down the center of Apache Blvd.  I’m told you can ride all day for $2.50.  If we had more time, I would definitely take a ride to Phoenix.

But alas, time has run out on us.  As when we were living in the Airstream, there is never enough time to do everything we want.  Emma has doctor’s appointments and karate classes, I’ve got business travel, and we still have a few renovation details in the house  that never got quite finalized.  A friend is coming for a visit in early February, the giant Tucson gem show will be happening, and then there’s the Florida State Rally, which I plan to fly to.  All of that has trumped the Airstream for a while, but we’ll be back to traveling in it as soon as possible.

In the Q

Monday, January 26th, 2009

A couple of days of walking the Strip isn’t the same as hiking the trails of Death Valley, but it amounted to decent exercise anyway.  It was about two miles from our campsites at the KOA Las Vegas to the Bellagio, and I made that roundtrip trip three times on foot.  With all the detours that one has to make (via overpasses and storefronts), the trip seems more like ten miles.

las-vegas-koa.jpgshane-ott-and-friends.jpgThe Las Vegas visit was really entirely business.  I didn’t get a chance to play poker with Brian and Leigh, and none of us spent a dime in the casinos. Airstream’s president was in town for KOA’s introduction of rental Airstreams, as well as numerous people from the KOA management team and Airstream’s PR agency.  Brett and I met with everyone, took hundreds of photos, and did all those things you do to solidify relationships between business partners.  Having accomplished all that, I dropped Brett, Adam and Susan at the airport, and on Saturday the Airstream was rolling again south to our next stop.

In the most recent issue of Airstream Life I wrote an article about Quartzsite, which is a town that has become the center of an annual winter RV phenomenon in the midst of the desert.  Being a convenient stopover between Las Vegas and Tucson, and having the bonus that some friends were there, we aimed our ship thataway.

It’s about 200 miles south of Las Vegas down Route 95, or about 150 miles west of Phoenix.  The scenery occasionally gets a tad dull, so we brought along two episodes of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on the iPod and Emma read books.  But after the second episode was done, Eleanor began to feel sick to her stomach.  Pretty soon we realized she had picked up something viral from one of the many coughing-sneezing northern visitors that we passed on the street.

fao-schwartz-piano.jpgThus she has proven that it’s not true that “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” It has come with us to Quartzsite. Two days ago Eleanor was dancing on the piano at FAO Schwartz, and now she is confined to the trailer, where there are a bed and a bathroom within 20 feet of her at all times.

There are several options for camping in Quartzsite.  You can stay at any one of about 70+ campgrounds, with varying levels of service and amenities.  You can camp in Bureau of Land Management “Long Term Visitor Areas” for $40 (two weeks) or $180 (6 months), with dump station and trash dumpsters.  You can camp in BLM free areas without any amenities at all (not even water).  Or you can go to private boondocking areas for $7 per night.

We chose the latter, because we didn’t expect to stay for long, and also because the El Camino Real Unit of WBCCI was holding a rally there.  Our friend Tommy G (ukulele aficionado who we met during our San Diego visit) is part of that group, as well as other uke players.  Each night of the rally they had a uke jam/sing-along and by arriving on Saturday I was able to join them for the final night.

Several other friends are here too.  Daisy and Don (who we recently met in Campo CA at the railway museum), Patti and Tom (“vintage Airstream” friends who we see at all the western vintage events),  Yank and Rickie (who we originally met at Crater Lake in July 2006 and keep running into), Mike & Tracy from Silverton CO, and Jim Breitinger (the Airstreaming meteorite dealer, who was also camping in Quartzsite with me last year).

All of the El Camino Real folks bailed out on Sunday, and Jim took off to Phoenix to fly to a funeral, but Daisy and Don are still here to keep Emma and me company while Eleanor recovers.  Mike & Tracy and a few other friends are around as well, but parked a few miles off in one of the LTVAs, so we don’t see them as much.  It is a good thing we traveled from Las Vegas in our usual “ready for anything” mode (full water, empty black/gray tanks, plenty of propane and groceries) because we’re going to have to stay longer than we had planned.

The major activity here is browsing the shows.  “Show” is code for flea-market-style vendors clustered by the side of the main drags, selling everything from Indian frybread to Chinese jade phalluses.  No kidding.  The emphasis varies according to which show is current, but it includes lots of tools, rocks, carvings, RV supplies, hats, county-fair food, and used “stuff” of every possible description.  With Daisy and Don, Emma and I wandered the aisles for a few hours and boosted the economy by purchasing exactly one egg slicer and a few tacos.

Eleanor may not see any of Quartzsite, but fortunately we have no schedule this week. We are just going to take it one day at a time and see how her recovery goes.  At $7 per day we can afford to stay as long as we like, and there’s plenty of sun to power our solar panels.  Hiking in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is definitely out, but with luck she’ll be feeling well enough to walk around this afternoon.   Being sick is never fun, but at least we are “home” in the Airstream, and not in a hotel room.

What happens in Vegas …

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009


We’re having a great time in Las Vegas.  It turns out that everyone here reads Airstream Life magazine!

Last night we caught up with our friends Brian and Leigh (former Airstream travelers who spent two years on the road), Adam and Susan (defrosting from New England), and Brett (flown in fresh from Tampa, like a crate of oranges).  Here’s a photo from Leigh’s iPhone:


Brett, and Adam & Susan, are staying in the brand-new Airstreams that the KOA Circus Circus has imported.  The KOA will be renting these Airstreams for $49/night (introductory price) here in Las Vegas, so at long last, you can actually try an Airstream before you buy one.  They’ll also be available at other locations across the country, including Sugarloaf Key Florida, and Bar Harbor Maine.

Getting a bunch of Airstreams together is a great way to have a reunion or party, we’ve discovered.  It’s like a rally but you don’t need your own Airstream.  They even come furnished with linens, towels, dishes, pots & pans, etc.  I think they will prove a very popular option.

We’re going to spend two more nights in Las Vegas, and then head down to Quartzsite …

Farewell, Death Valley

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009


I finally got some photos up on Flickr from our week in Death Valley.  The Internet connections available at Furnace Creek are very welcome but not particularly robust, and uploading to Flickr was one of those things that I just couldn’t do.  Now that we are out of the park and spending a night in nearby Pahrump NV, we’re back in the cell phone and Internet zone.

Bert and Janie also came to Pahrump, to spend the day watching the presidential inauguration on TV.  They’re parked right next to us.  Bert has posted a blog about our travels in Death Valley over the past five days, so you can check his blog for a different perspective (or if you wonder if I’m really just making all this up).

We’ve been to Death Valley twice before, and I am struck by how different each visit has been.  The first time was about 15 years ago, when Eleanor and flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and pitched a tent.  We came out of the desert a few days later, covered in dust and filled with incredible experiences.  The second time was with Emma, in June 2006, and we felt the tormenting heat that Death Valley is famed for.

This third trip has brought us to a new appreciation of the park.  Bert and Janie showed us spots we didn’t know existed, and even the places we have seen before are different in the balmy January weather.  Without a doubt, the through-hike from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon must rate as one of the most beautiful we’ve ever done, with the sun lighting up the canyons nearby and the snow-covered Panamint Range in the distance. The banded marble of Mosaic Canyon, the opulent swimming pool of the spring-fed Furnace Creek Inn, the slippery pumice slopes of Ubehebe Crater, the salty “chemical desert” of Badwater Basin … all of these are faces of Death Valley that we explored and enjoyed.  It is a great place, and five days is just not enough.

I am reminded of the fabled way Death Valley got its name.  Emigrants crossing it suffered terrible losses, and when they finally emerged, one looked back and said in relief, “Farewell, Death Valley.”  The name stuck.  Now we are saying farewell, but with a different sense.  We’re looking forward to returning.

It’s time to clean up the desert dust in the trailer, get some supplies, and then head to Las Vegas.  We’ve got work to do.  For the first time, we’ll be staying on the famed Strip, at the Circus Circus KOA.  It should be another very interesting week.

Life in Death Valley

Friday, January 16th, 2009

We left Riverside County along I-15 under the threat of the Santa Ana winds.  A “red flag” warning was in effect, and out on the freeway the larger trucks were skittering across the painted lines when particularly heavy gusts struck them.  The Airstream was better behaved, but I was still glad to climb up and out of the valley toward Barstow.

At Baker we exited the interstate and headed north to Death Valley.  It’s a longish drive, and by the time we arrived at Furnace Creek (-196 feet below sea level), it was dark. We missed the turn to Sunset Campground and had to wander around for a few minutes before we found it again.  The moon, while nearly full, had not yet risen over the Funeral Mountains, and without it, Death Valley can be a very dark place.

We found Bert Gildart riding around on a bicycle in the campground, chasing us.  He and Janie had seen us roving around, looking for the campground entrance, and Bert decided to attempt to guide us in.  They arrived earlier in the day after a narrow escape from Montana snowstorms, and were now settled in for a few days of bone-warming.

Sunset Campground is one of three in Furnace Creek area.  It’s enormous and so there are lots of spaces available.  $12, no hookups, water, bathrooms, and dump station on-site.  We are parked close enough to the water and dump that we can conveniently stay as long as we like.

About half the people here are using generators  for their electrical power, but we and the Gildarts have solar panels.  Bert augments his solar collection with a small generator, since his panels have about half the capacity of ours.  We are doing fine on solar alone, despite the low sun angle this time of year.  Using the catalytic heater instead of the furnace helps.

Since we are relying on solar, the first task of the next morning was to clean the panels.  Mine were filthy with caked-on dirt, which drastically impedes their ability to generate power.  Using Bert’s truck as a ladder, I climbed onto the roof and washed them off, and then Bert did the same on his Airstream.  He needed to see me walking around on the roof to be confident that you really can get on the roof of an Airstream (as long as you are careful).


We all came here with no agenda.  The Gildarts have been here many times, and in fact have written a book on Death Valley, so there’s nothing in this park they haven’t seen before.  They are here simply to warm up after weeks of 20-below temperatures in northern Montana.  We are here to see them and get some exercise on the trails of Death Valley in the comfortable winter season.

dvnp-emma-zabriskie.jpgIt is not hot.  The weather this week is pleasantly monotonous: highs in the 70s, lows in the upper 40s, and not a speck of cloud expected.  Chance of rain: 0%.  The hot weather for which Death Valley is famous arrives in April, when the average high is 90 degrees, and peaks in July when the average high is 115 degrees.  We were once here in June in the Airstream and survived three days with no air conditioning, but it was challenging.  This time of year the only challenge is the early sunset, which tends to curtail our activities, so we are getting up with the sun and returning to camp around 5 p.m.

dvnp-mosaic.jpgThis is also a very safe place to be, despite its reputation, especially this time of year.  The snakes and other creatures are largely inactive, and the number one cause of death here is the single-car rollover.  Because the roads are so wide open (speed limit 55-65 in many places) and there is no traffic, people tend to drive way too fast in their SUVs and Jeeps.  Then a curve comes up suddenly and – whoops! – off the road you go.  I think the early emigrants who passed through here and lost their lives due to harsh terrain, high heat, and lack of water would find it unbelievable that people are still killing themselves here simply by driving too fast.

Cell phones do not work here, and that makes it one of the last major western national parks in that category.  We don’t hear cute ringtones going off as we walk the trails.  There are usable cell phone signals at Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce, and many other “remote” parks, but not here.  There is an enforced silence in that regard.  I wonder how long the park can hold out.

There is wifi, which is how this blog is reaching you.  The Visitor Center offers it (oddly enough, only from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and it is also found at the nearby Death Valley Ranch, both for free.  In the mornings a small circle of laptop users forms near the General Store, lately wearing warm clothes and hats against the 50-degree chill that persists until 10 a.m. or so.

Our travels in the park have so far been to Badwater, Zabriskie Point, Mosaic Canyon, Stovepipe, and the sand dunes.  Traveling with Bert, an accomplished photographer, we tend to go places in the late afternoon when the sun is low and details of the desert begin to pop out.  Tiny tracks (kitfox, beetle, lizard, sidewinder), ripples in the dunes, colors on the surrounding mountains … all reach their peak of visibility when the sun is low.  I will post an album from Death Valley on Flickr as soon as possible, since the photos I am sharing here are only a tiny fraction of what we are seeing.

Coastal California

Monday, January 12th, 2009

 oceanside.jpgCoastal California in January is not half bad.  It’s not exactly beach weather every day, but it has been the past few days, and so that’s where we headed.  Up in Oceanside, 30 miles or so north of San Diego, there’s a county park called Guajome, and it is conveniently just a few miles east of the Oceanside beach and pier.  We pulled the Airstream up there and settled in for a couple of days.

On the way we dropped in on the newest Airstream dealer, Holland Motorhomes.  They are replacing the previous dealer, which went out of business recently.  They’ve got a few Airstreams on the lot, but they aren’t ready to provide service yet.  I think they were surprised to hear from us.

There was another Airstream owner parked just across from us in Guajome, but we were barely at the park long enough to socialize.  We chatted a bit and then headed out to do some shopping at a couple of local ethnic markets (Mexican and Phillipino).  Eleanor and Brett have been cooking up all kinds of different dinners lately. I’m just sitting back and eating whatever they make, so far with excellent results.  The only questionable item was a brutally hot but delicious guacamole they found in one of the markets.  It was painful to eat but we couldn’t stop because it was so good on fresh-from-the-bakery tortillas.

lone-surfer.jpgIn downtown Oceanside there is a long beach and a long pier, ideal for photo practice.  Brett has a new Nikon D90 (the camera I want but haven’t yet bought) and so we decided to spend the day shooting pictures of the beach area and the surfers.  I’ll set up a photo album on Flickr with the best shots later.  Emma spent her time on the beach looking for shells, and rounded rocks to paint.  With wandering around town and hiking the beach, we ended up being out until sunset, and getting back to the Airstream just in time for another massive ethnic food-fest.

surfer-curl.jpgLately I haven’t been talking about maintenance, but it has been on my mind.  A strange squeal started in the trailer brakes a few days ago, only when they are hot.  On the tow north from Oceanside on Sunday, we got a high-pressure alarm from the tire monitor, and pulled over in Temecula. (The tire monitor is set to alarm at 10 psi above the cold pressure.)  We felt the wheel and it was definitely hotter than the others, which usually means either a dragging brake or bad wheel bearings.  Given that our wheel bearings were re-packed only 1,000 miles earlier, and that this wheel’s entire brake assembly was recently replaced by an Airstream dealer — who shall not be named –at great expense, I suspected a brake problem.

So we walked the Old Town of  Temecula, to see what has changed in the 15 years since we were last here, and waited for the wheel to cool down. I can’t say much for the improvement of the Old Town.  I remember a quiet historic district mostly occupied by antique stores, but we found a typical tourist district filled with stuff and restaurants, motorcycles rumbling down the main street, all about retail.

I’ll spare the details, but the high-temperature tire did indeed turn out to be caused by a brake problem.  Somebody re-assembled the brake and failed to lubricate the caliper guide pin.  It was completely dry.  That meant the brake caliper wouldn’t release properly, which meant the disc brake pads would drag and generate heat.   Which it was doing for the past thousand miles or so …  Fortunately, we caught it before the pad burned up and took the rotor with it.

Since were doing maintenance, we also took the opportunity to install a new vent fan in the forward location.  I’ve had a vent up there that has not been working out well for various reasons, and recently obtained a new Maxxair “Maxxfan 6200“.  So Brett climbed up on the roof, removed the old fan, and popped in the replacement.  It’s pretty cool.  Not only can we run it in the rain, but it has a very slick remote control, stainless steel hardware, a much faster open/close speed, and a better designed roof flange that seems less likely to develop leaks over time.  This is the first Maxxair I’ve owned but I’m fast becoming a, uh, fan of them.  We put a strip of adhesive velcro on the back of the remote and now it’s conveniently hanging on the bedroom wall.

Our next stop is Death Valley.  Before we head into a remote spot like that we try to get everything in order, so we’ve parked in Riverside County for a couple of days  We searched for and (hopefully) have fixed a small rain leak around the kitchen vent fan.  We also lubricated the stabilizers to eliminate an annoying squeak in them.  I took the Nissan into the local dealer for replacement of some worn-out bushings on the air bag compressor (part of the Nissan’s auto-leveling system).  Eleanor topped up our groceries, and I filled both propane tanks.

Our friends Terry and Marie have been visiting with us, so last night we piled everyone in the Airstream for dinner and movie night.  I took the opportunity to experiment further with the new ultra-wide-angle lens I bought in San Diego last week.  There are definitely a few tricks to getting good photos with it, and I am having fun learning how.  The photo below shows the incredible views it can reveal — just what I needed for shooting Airstream interiors.  It will come in handy in the next two weeks, when I will be shooting both Death Valley landscapes and new Airstreams in Las Vegas.


San Diego, CA

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

San Diego is one of our favorite cities, for the great year-round climate, the abundance of things to do, the Asian food & groceries, and the lovely scenery.  So although we planned just four nights here, it’s not much surprise that we decided to extend the stay to six nights.

We’ve been busy.  Each day I work a few hours, starting around 7 or 8 a.m., and then we head out in the afternoon to do the fun stuff.  On Monday we picked up Brett at the airport and immediately headed to a cluster of Asian restaurants and grocery stores on Convoy Street (north of Balboa) for lunch. Eleanor found two major Asian grocery stores and happily began hunting for specialties such as Vietnamese coffee, brown seaweed, and noodles.  We haven’t yet found an equivalent store in Tucson, so it was time to stock up.

In the afternoon we went to the Old Town district to roam around, and visit Bill at the historic Whaley House.  He was in one of his many alternate personalities, welcoming visitors to the house and telling the tale of its ghosts (among other things).  Having seen Bill as a plague doctor, a train conductor, a lighthouse keeper, and now a 19th century resident of San Diego, I begin to wonder …do I really know who he is?

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On Tuesday our outing was to Balboa Park, which in my opinion is one of San Diego’s very best attractions.  The park includes several wonderful museums, fantastic architecture, beautiful landscaping, and lots of places for kids to play.  Being the first Tuesday of the month, the Reuben Fleet Science Museum was free, so we dropped in there. We also took in a relaxing late afternoon cup of  tea and mochi (a type of ice cream) at the Japanese tea garden.

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neonsd1.jpgJust before sunset we hopped over the bridge to Coronado Island to walk the beach near the famous Hotel Del Coronado.  This enormous wooden structure is one of the most gorgeous landmarks in America, and a great photographic subject. Parking at the hotel is outrageously expensive, but metered spaces are available just across the street. After dark, I got a few shots to add to my growing neon collection.


Wednesday I got buried by work and so we didn’t get out until mid-afternoon.   But we still found time to go to the North Park area and drop in on George’s Camera.  It’s one of those great full-service camera shops with lots of inventory that are nearly impossible to find today.   I finally bought a super wide-angle lens for photographing trailer interiors.  I got the newly-introduced Tamron 10-24mm f3.5, which I am now testing.  I’m not entirely convinced it was the right buy, but it may work out fine with some practice.



North Park is a lively shopping district with lots of cafes and neon, so after a coffee and dessert break (creme brulee for E&E&me, carrot cake for Brett) I added to my neon collection again.

If we could have stayed later, the picture would have been much more interesting.  But we had an appointment at 6 p.m. up in Encinitas, to join the Moonlight Beach Strummers for a uke jam at a local pizza place.

dsc_6732.jpgOur friend Tommy G was the guy who really got me started on the ukulele, almost exactly one year ago in Borrego Springs.  He pushed me hard for three days in the desert, and was a great encouragement.  So I’d been looking forward to seeing him again in Encinitas to show him how I’ve progressed. Playing with the group — mistakes and all — made me feel like I was on my way to becoming a real ukulele player.

dsc_6703.jpgThe uke jam was, for me at least, a blast. I think Emma liked it too (she brought her uke also, but wasn’t up to speed to play along with most songs).  Eleanor and Brett tolerated it kindly from a table in the corner.  The turnout was light but still there were dozens of players attending.  A group of women danced the hula while a six-piece band led us all in playing Hawaiian tunes until 8:30.  We all wore our Hawaiian shirts and ate pizza, and played and listened. I wish I had a group like this in Tucson.  Maybe I’ll start one.

Thursday was our day for the famous San Diego Zoo, also located at Balboa Park.  This is a world-class place, worth a full day (and with a price tag to match).  This time of year the weather can turn from sunny and warm to foggy and cold in a very short time, which is precisely what happened to us.  Still, we stayed to nearly closing time and had a fabulous day.  Emma’s high point was being kissed by a sea lion.

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On Friday we’ll be relocating to a county park further north.  We have no particular plan.  For the next few days we are going to wing it, with no itinerary until Monday.  This is one of the great aspects of traveling this way: we are free to roam without worries about hotels, rental cars, or airline schedules.  Our activities of the past week are perhaps not what people typically associate with “RV’ing” but that’s exactly the point of this blog.  RV travel is not just about “camping” but also about freedom.  We haven’t sung campfire songs or toasted marshmallows this week, but we’ve had a heck of a good time.

Pacific Southwest Railway Museum

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

For those of you perched on the edge of your seat wondering how the brake situation worked out, rest easy.  Super Terry arrived and sprang into action, swiftly replaced the questionable actuator with a factory-fresh replacement, then bled the brakes and verified proper operation.  We celebrated with dinner in the trailer, and the second half of “Prince Caspian” on DVD.  It wasn’t a wild night boondocking in the desert but it was a fine one nonetheless.

In the morning we stopped off at the Borrego Springs hardware stores to buy some tie wraps for cleaning up some of the wiring, and while we were parked by the side of the road, Dirk spotted us and stopped by to meet Terry in person. Then Super Terry bade us farewell and zipped off to his headquarters, no doubt awaiting his next opportunity to do a good deed.

We had been forced to cancel our overnight plans in Campo CA, but since we had everything resolved by about 10 a.m., there was still time to drive about 70 miles down to see our friends Daisy and Don.  We last saw them on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in September, where they were working at the lodge.  Now they are volunteering at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, which is sort of a playground for railfans in a tiny unincorporated village by the border with Mexico.

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prsm-mexico.jpgDaisy and Don arranged to roll out the red carpet for us, which meant a personal guided tour of the historic railcars, lunch, and a ride on the train about 11 miles down to the very border.  The border happens to be midway through a rural tunnel, and is delineated by a white line.  There’s no gate at this tunnel (but there is one in the next tunnel), and nothing to suggest that this is an international border except for Border Patrol personnel lurking at road crossings nearby.

The museum is a strictly volunteer operation, and rather small, with one building containing a few gems of the collection, and many  other engines and cars lined up outside.  There’s a restoration shop and several interesting historic cars but not everything is open to the public.  Being rather off the beaten path, things were quiet when we came by, but that meant we had plenty of time to drift through the cars and talk before the train departed at 2:30.

From Campo to Bonita, the shortest route is Rt 94.  It is a constantly twisting and rolling adventure that would be much more fun in a little sportscar than in a giant SUV with an 8000-lb trailer strapped to it.  Still, the scenery is beautiful and even surprising at times, with views from 3000 feet altitude through valleys into Mexico.

This time of year the major limitation of climate is not temperature, but sunlight.  It’s hard to get to the destination by 5 p.m., when things start getting dark and backing into a strange campsite becomes a serious challenge.   But here we are, undented and with brakes that work, in the Mediterranean air of the San Diego area.  We will spend the next few days here, exploring and taking care of business.  As it turns out, we will have much to do.

Super Terry vs. the devious brakes

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

We were all set to hit the road this morning.  Eleanor even commented on the fact that we had everyone ready, and the trailer all packed up, an hour before we had expected to leave.  The plan was to tow the trailer up to Julian (elev. 4000) and then down to the town of Campo, right on the border with Mexico.  Our friends Daisy and Don are there, volunteering at the San Diego Railroad Museum.  They promised us a train ride and dinner tonight.  Eleanor was bringing a Julian apple pie for dessert.

All of those plans are in the past tense now, because we’ve had an equipment failure.  I hitched up the trailer, including connecting the 7-way trailer plug, and  about five minutes later, the disc brake actuator spontaneously went on.

Normally, the only way the actuator could go on without the truck brakes being activated first would be if the emergency breakaway switch was activated or shorted.  I cycled the breakaway several times (pulling the pin in and out), but it had no effect.  I pulled the 7-way plug out to ensure that the truck’s brake controller wasn’t sending a false signal — no result.  I quickly tossed everything out of my bedroom closet to check the wiring in the region of the brake actuator, and it all looked good.  I wiggled wires.  Nothing.

With the actuator running full on, we had three problems.  (1) The trailer would not go anywhere.  The disc brakes are locked full on, which means we’d have about as much chance of towing it as we would trying to tow a beached whale.  (2) The actuator pump would probably eventually overheat or burn out.  (3)  The power draw of the unit (about 20 amps DC) would quickly drain our batteries.  We solved the third problem by plugging the Airstream into the campsite power again.

Finally, with no other choices, I got out the wire cutters and began snipping wires.  It was like trying to defuse a bomb.  Cut the right wire, and the problem ends.  Cut the wrong wire and you’re just wasting time.   Eleanor stood by to assist.  “Headlamp!”  “Check!”   “Hand me the cutters!”  First I cut the breakaway controller wire to verify it wasn’t shorted out.  That had no result, so I went into the closet again and cut the blue wire running to the actuator. The blue wire carries the signal from the truck’s brake controller.  I figured we might have a bad 7-way plug, but snipping the blue wire also had no result.  Then I cut the 12-gauge black wire (12vDC +) and finally the actuator shut off.

So the immediate problem is solved, but of course we have no brakes.  Towing up the Banner Grade to Julian is clearly out of the question.  We are in Borrego Springs, CA, a town with no RV services and very little else.  The nearest real service is 50 miles away in Brawley, or 70 miles away in Coachella (Palm Springs area).

If we were really in a pinch I’d probably tow up to Coachella since the road is mostly flat and not particularly crowded.  But we have an ace in the hole, or rather, an ace mechanic.  We have “Super Terry,” who is working up in Corona, CA at Inland RV.  Super Terry (formerly just known as Terry, but I needed to differentiate him from Tucson Terry)  has — miracle of miracles — a brand new Kodiak disc brake actuator sitting on the shelf.

He is now and forever known as Super Terry because upon hearing of our plight, he immediately volunteered to drive  the 109 miles from Corona down to us with a truck loaded with tools and equipment, and replace the brake controller right here.  Now that’s a friend.

We are due to leave the state park today at noon.  We could ask for an extension, but part of the work will be to bleed the brakes, and I doubt the park rangers would find that an acceptable practice.  So we are going to tow the Airstream about five miles over to a boondocking site known as “Pegleg” and do the work there.

As with all of our on-the-road disasters, we will make the best of it.  So let’s count our blessings:  We’ll get another night in the lovely desert.  We’ll get to have our friend Terry over for lunch, and dinner, and breakfast (he’ll be staying the night for sure).  We are going to get a very convenient repair to what could have been a thorny problem.  And, out of sheer pity perhaps, Bill has given me a gift of Jake Shimabukuro’s album “Gently Weeps.”  So we’ve got new music to enjoy tonight while we boondock under the stars.

I’ll post an update after we get the work done.

A rolling party

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Our little getaway in Anza-Borrego has turned into something more than we knew. There are eight Airstreams here, including ourselves.  We knew that Terry & Greg, Bill & Larry, David & Ari, and Bill & Beth would be here, but I was surprised to see (and finally meet in person) Dirk & Sue from Oregon, plus owners of two other Airstreams who I’d never met before.

People in the campground have noticed the confluence of aluminum and have asked if this is a rally.  We always reply emphatically that this is NOT a rally.  It’s a happy coincidence.  Mostly we are eager to disclaim a rally because all of us are trying to avoid the expectations that come with that style of gathering:  daily Happy Hour, group breakfasts, “kitty fees,” organized activities, etc.  We’re here to relax in the desert and do just whatever we feel like, and for many of the folks here that means holing up with a book or significant other all day.

If this were a rally, such behavior might be interpreted as being actively anti-social, but here it’s considered admirable.  Going to spend the entire day contemplating your toenails?  Go for it.  Not interested in getting out of bed until 10:30 (and then only to microwave some leftover dim sum for breakfast)?  Sounds nice.  Don’t want to talk to another human for at least five hours?  No problem, we won’t be knocking on your door.  This is a gathering for people who just want to be left to their own devices, while still having the option to see a friendly face if they feel like it.


Still, some of us have been getting together in the evenings for dinner, at the picnic tables at Bill & Larry’s place (because it is so extravagantly decorated with lights, patio mats, umbrellas, signs, etc.).  The participants vary from night to night.  Anyone who feels like it brings over a dish and we all work through whatever there is.  With Larry doing his marvelous Chinese specialties, and contributions by everyone else, dinner has been a gastronomic success.

dsc_6426.jpgThe sun sets early even here, this time of year, and so by 5:30 it is pitch black except for the colorful lights that adorn many of the trailers.  There is no wind, but the temperature plummets into the 50s almost instantly. We’ve been eating dim sum and peanut noodles and pumpkin pie with warm hats and fleeces on.  Even if a little chilly, everyone seems very happy.

dsc_6358.jpgYesterday we took David, Ari, and William out for a little backroad exploration.  You can’t really see most of Anza-Borrego without at least a high-clearance vehicle, and 4WD is preferable.  We’re the only ones of the Airstream group who have 4WD, so we popped up the 3rd row in the Armada and took off for a few favorite spots.  The narrow and winding Slot Canyon, about 30-40 feet deep in places, was a hit with everyone, especially the kids.  We also took them to Split Mountain and hiked the short trail to Wind Caves, another kid-friendly destination.

One of the benefits of being out on the road is that I often meet people who end up contributing to the magazine.  They might offer an idea, a contact, a photo, a destination, or just inspiration.  Today’s big score was that I met a couple who were the official photographers on the 1960 Airstream European Caravan.  It just so happens that in 2005 we documented Pete Turner’s experience as the official photographer of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Caravan.  In our upcoming Spring 2009 issue, we have an article about Fran Hall, the photographer for the 1962 Around The World Caravan.  Now we’ll be able to add yet another piece to the puzzle of historic caravans, and I expect it will become an article for the Summer or Fall 2009 issue.

We’ve been doing all the little things that we like to do while we are here.  Today we hunted for pineapple soda, a treat that Emma associates with Borrego Springs.  Emma made up elaborate games with William amongst the tumbleweed and creosote bush.  I played ukulele songs with Bill under the awning. We went to the visitor center to check out the schedule of ranger talks.  Tomorrow we’ll hike Palm Canyon to look for bighorn sheep.  There is nothing we need to do, and lots of things we can do anytime, so no rush at any time.

Our group is changing daily.  David, Ari, and Willie left today for San Diego, but they were quickly replaced by Bill & Beth. Since we all planned our travel dates separately, there’s no beginning and no end to our gathering.  It may go on all winter, with people coming and going randomly.  In fact, I hope it does.  I’d hate to think that this good mood might fade away when we leave on Saturday.  It’s nice to think that we’re just part of a big rolling party that will continue indefinitely.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine