Archive for July, 2009

Tent camping in New Hampshire

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Last summer when we were in Vermont I editorialized about the advantages of taking along a tent and associated gear in the Airstream.  I recognize that many people bought their RVs specifically to avoid sleeping on the ground in a tent, but I still have fond memories of many backpacking trips in the northeast. So once in a while I do like to get out of the trailer and into a tent.

For me, tenting is a more realistic camping experience.  Our Airstream has all the comforts of home, and we can live in it indefinitely.  The tent has hardly any comforts beyond very basic shelter and a place to sleep.  This is part of the attraction: it’s a way to really “get away from it all.”  How can you get away from it all if you bring it all with you.  A few days of deprivation makes a person more grateful for what they have.

It’s also a great way to force a change in perspective.  The tent requires setup, and careful procedures to avoid a night of mosquitoes, condensation, or discomfort.  The bathroom is a hike away, either in a primitive pit toilet or off in the woods somewhere.  Meals are en plein air whether it is raining or not.   You have to toss out all your assumptions about the benefits of modern life and figure out basic survival; This task occupies your thoughts so thoroughly that the trivialities of work and the fine points of personal hygiene become distant secondary concerns.

This description is probably horrifying to 99% of the people who are reading this.  That’s OK.  If you remember tent camping, perhaps as a Boy or Girl Scout, you probably have a few wonderful stories about things that happened to you.  Maybe you’ve got a bear-in-the-campground story, or one about the leaky tent, or getting lost in the woods.  As traumatic as those events may have been at the time, you probably also recognize that your life would not be as rich as it could be without them.

Adam and Susan instigated a tent camping trip for me last week.  They (rather rashly) accepted an invitation from our mutual friend Bert Gildart to join him in hiking Alaska’s famous Chilkoot Trail.  This is about 30 miles of historic trail from the Gold Rush period, which Bert intends to document for his future magazine articles.  Adam and Susan, admitted tenderfoots, bought all the necessary gear for five days of backpacking in Alaska’s wilderness but haven’t had a chance to actually use it. Given that their adventure with Bert is looming, it seemed wise to at least tent camp a few days beforehand.

They invited me to help them along their learning curve.  I chose the White Mountains region of New Hampshire for the trip.  Up by Crawford Notch there are numerous little campgrounds in the White Mountains National Forest, all near great wilderness hikes in the green and dense boreal forest.  Of course, the very moment I arrived and began to set up my tent, a light rain began and continued nearly uninterrupted for the next 24 hours.  (Rain is virtually a given when tent camping in the northeast.)

dsc_1035.jpgWe were planning to hike to several waterfalls in the area.  There are dozens in the White Mountains, and many of them can be reached in a mile or two of trail.  A little rain wasn’t going to stop us, but alas, I had made a serious mistake when packing, by forgetting my rain jacket.  A black plastic trash bag was pressed into service.  I cut three holes in it (for head and arms) and off we went, sloshing up the muddy trails and spotting a total of four waterfalls in our first half-day of hiking.  The garbage bag look is not the most attractive or impressive, but when you’re in the middle of the forest in a rainstorm, it works just fine.

dsc_1027.jpgThat evening the rain abated just long enough for us to fire up the camp stoves and make some dinner, and then resumed with more force for the rest of the night.  The new tent was perfectly dry and I spent the evening in complete comfort, reading a novel by the light of my headlamp.  I think that is my favorite moment of every tent camping trip: after a strenuous day of hiking, relaxing in the shelter with a warm sleeping bag, listening to the sounds of the outdoors (in this case, rain), reading or talking, with absolutely nowhere to go and no chance of being interrupted by a phone call.

Our next day was marked by more rain and steady temperatures in the mid-60s, but I had noticed a worthwhile compensation.  There weren’t any mosquitoes.  In July, to be hiking in the northern forest without any DEET on my skin, and not once hearing the skin-crawling whine of a hungry female mosquito about to bite, is simply unbelievable.  I can’t recall a trip in the northeast I’ve ever taken when I wasn’t doused in bug spray, and yet on this trip conditions were absolutely mosquito-free. It was glorious.


We hiked from the Ripley Falls trailhead all the way to  Arethusa Falls, and then took a side trip on the Frankenstein Cliff trail, and back, for a total of 7.6 miles. The trail was occasionally steep, narrow, and brushy, but our intent was really to just get a good hike done while Susan and Adam carried full packs — this was their practice run for 8-mile days on the Chilkoot.  All went as you’d expect.  We came out with pantlegs and boots coated in mud, and feeling a bit sweaty from the humid air.

Since we had accomplished our hiking goal for the day, and the rain had finally stopped, and it was still only about 1:30, we took the afternoon “off” and rolled around in the car to check out some of the White Mountain tourist attractions.  Mount Washington was experiencing its 15th day in a row of 100-foot visibility at the peak, so we skipped the opportunity to drive to the top.  North Conway was flooded with summertime tourists, so we headed down there to get a celebratory chai and sit on the sidewalk watching the people go by.

Now, you have to recall at this point that we had hiked about 12 miles in total over the previous day, and we all pretty much looked like it.  There were no showers at the campground.  In fact, the only running water available to us came out of a hand-actuated pump.  Now here we were sitting in a sidewalk cafe on display to the browsing public.  North Conway is one of those places where you can get away with the rumpled, muddy, “hiker look,” because it is an outpost in the midst of the White Mountains, which are dominated by hikers.  (I did slip into a public bathroom with a travel-size bottle of shampoo and do a very quick hair wash.  I have a certain amount of experience at this from days of yore, so I can complete the job in a sink in less than two minutes.  I have many of the skills required to be homeless, should the situation arise.)

After the chai was gone and our downtown stroll was completed, we headed off to another scenic point a few miles away.  Susan asked if I wanted to take my camera, and it was at that moment that I looked in the car and realized it was gone.

…. Yes, gone.  Backpack, camera, lens, filter, everything.

It took only a minute for me to figure out what had happened.  At the end of the hike, I put the bag down on the ground near the car, and then drove away without it.  So it had been sitting on the ground at the Ripley Falls trailhead parking lot for five hours.  And the trailhead was 30 miles from our present location.

Well, that was a long and quiet drive for the three of us, during which time I attempted to (a) remain calm, and (b) tally up the value of all the gear I’d just lost.  It came to $1,800.  But there was one comfort along the way, which was that we were in New Hampshire, and I had left the backpack at a trailhead.  Hikers have a natural respect for other people, and other people’s property.  I’ve never heard of anyone ever losing anything left in their tent.  Trailhead break-ins are a plague at many other spots, but those are usually the work of non-hikers coming to plunder the vehicles of visitors.

Sure enough, we drove up to the dirt parking lot and someone had propped up my backpack by the trailhead post where everyone could see it.  The backpack, containing a new Nikon D90 camera, a Nikkor 18-200mm lens, a polarizing filter, and my food and Camelbak, was absolutely unmolested after five hours of being left out in the open.  Hikers are great people.

I slept well in my snug tent that night.  Despite rain and potential financial disaster, everything worked out just fine.  Tent camping gave me two days without the complexities of life, and reminded me of the things I take for granted back at home.  Before we’d even broken camp, we were talking about the next time we’ll do this.  There’s a chance we’ll get out again in the tents in late August, before the Airstream starts heading west.  I certainly hope so.

What we’ll do for summer “vacation”

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Most people go off for summer vacation, but for me it’s the busiest time of the year.  In the winter there’s not a lot of Airstream activity going on, except on the west coast and in Florida, and we usually have large periods of time during which neither business or social obligation intrudes.  That’s when we stretch out and have time to ourselves, but in the summer it’s usually go-go-go with rallies and travel.

Not only that, but we have persisted in the habit of getting some of the routine annual jobs done here in Vermont.  Our cars are registered here, since we aren’t actually legal residents of any other state yet, and so that means state inspections must be obtained every summer.  Our dentist is here, a guy that is so likable and reasonable that we can’t seem to fathom the thought of finding someone in Arizona to replace him.  Emma takes two weeks of swim classes here every summer.  We still have a PO Box here, which still fills with mail despite two years of attempts to get people to stop using it. My table saw and some parts of our Caravel are here, so there are projects to be completed as well.

This all makes summer in Vermont a little less idyllic than it would seem.  “We spend our summers in Vermont” suggests a scene from On Golden Pond (filmed in New Hampshire, but most people don’t know the difference) with a rustic camp and boathouse on a still water lake.  We would rise at 6 a.m. to watch the fog burn off the shallow water and listen to the early morning birds, while cupping a hot chocolate or coffee and wearing camp clothes.  Then we’d retrieve the water melon from its icy cold spot in the fresh water spring, pack a picnic basket, and tromp off into the woods to spot deer, or perhaps putter around the lake in our 1930s wood boat.

Reality is quite different.  We are near a lake, yes, but parked in a 2005 Airstream in the gravel driveway.  I do often rise early, but yesterday it was to get some work done before I went to the dentist to get an old crown replaced.  My picnic for the day was a protein shake in the car on the way to do errands, carefully slurped to avoid drooling while the novocaine wore off.   Our antique motor vehicle is not a romantic 1930s boat but rather the 1983 Honda Accord that we keep up here as our cheap runabout.  My brother does have a Glastron GT150 painted in gold glitter, which qualifies as an antique boat, but somehow I can’t picture it puttering around anywhere without a vision of Roger Moore driving it (in Live and Let Die).  I suppose “summer in Vermont” has changed in the 21st century.

The other reason I am not relaxing much is because we have the Vintage Trailer Jam coming up in just a few weeks.  We were finally able to post the preliminary schedule online today, and it looks good, but many details remain to be nailed down.  If you are considering coming, better book your spot soon.  We’re almost out of electric spaces. In about a week we’ll need to estimate the final headcount for the caterer and registration will probably close by Aug 7 (after that you can come as a walk-in but you’ll get a non-electric site).

Perhaps later in August things will quiet down, but by then it will be time to start thinking about our departure.  I am planning to head out in September.  It remains to be seen if the rest of my crew is onboard with that plan.  After a summer full of rallies, classes, appointments, errands, and county fairs, I hope they will be sated and ready for a change of scene.   Maybe we’ll go somewhere where we have absolutely nothing to do.  That sounds pretty good to me.

GL320 Report

Monday, July 13th, 2009

OK, since things have settled down and we’re in relaxation mode, I can give the vehicle report for the gearheads.  As you’ll recall, we switched from a Nissan Armada to a Mercedes GL320 a couple of months ago.  This trip from Arizona to Vermont was the first big trip with the combination.

The trip was an ideal test for the new vehicle, since it encompassed virtually every condition we expect to tow in routinely:  mountains, windy plains, cities, curvy back roads, and deadly boring Interstate.  It also included a mix of towing and non-towing use.  That’s important because we chose the GL320 partially for its non-towing driveability.  In other words, I wanted all the performance we’d get from a bigger vehicle, but didn’t want to be saddled with an unwieldy truck when not towing.  We use our tow vehicle as our primary transportation for months, when we are on extended trips.

Anyone reading this for advice should first read my initial report on the GL320, since I’m not going to repeat all the things I said there.  There are significant caveats for anyone who might be considering this particular vehicle, or the essentially similar (but smaller) ML320.  I am NOT writing this to convince anyone that they should buy this (or any) vehicle.  I’m only documenting my experience.  The right vehicle for you may be completely different.

Our trip was about 4,000 miles, mostly highway.  The GL320 turned in about 12.5 MPG in the first 2,000 miles while towing, then the fuel economy improved markedly, between 14.0 to 15.2 while towing at 60 MPH.  Going 65 MPH costs us about 1 MPG.  Non-towing fuel economy has been superb for a vehicle of this size: 22 MPG in mixed driving, and 25-27 MPG on the highway at virtually any speed up to 75 MPH.

At this point the odometer shows 5,400 miles total.  We have not had to add oil or AdBlue to date, despite the fact that most of our mileage has been towing and the engine is probably still breaking in.  The AdBlue tank is scheduled to be refilled by the dealer at the 10,000 mile scheduled service interval, and I am interested to see if it gets low before then.  AdBlue consumption is related to fuel consumption and of course we use more fuel when towing.  The Bluetec system is a relatively new technology and there are reasonable questions about how whether the standard AdBlue tank is large enough to accommodate lots of towing.  Mercedes says it is.

Performance has been spectacular.  You would never know that this is a 3.0 liter V-6.  We have more pulling power (torque) than even the big 5.6 liter V-8 in our Armada. Up hills, it blows the Armada away, and despite having 7 gears in the transmission, it needs to shift less on hills because of the impressive torque.  Most of the time we are towing in 7th, with occasional shifts down to 6th and rarely 5th on moderate hills.  That’s with the full 7500# load that the car is rated for.  I am sure the engine is capable of much more.  We have yet to find the top speed (and probably never will), but in west Texas on I-10 where the speed limit is 85 MPH, it felt capable of every bit of that.  I personally never tow over 65 MPH for sustained periods, and usually keep the cruise control set around 60-62 MPH for best economy.

I am very interested to see the high-altitude performance, since that’s where we always struggled with the Armada. The normally aspirated gas engine lost a lot of power at altitude (like in Colorado and Utah), where the turbodiesel should do much better. But the performance of the turbodiesel is apparent even on flat plains because a headwind on the Interstate can be just as tough to deal with as an 8% grade in the mountains.

The brakes are also impressive.  The GL320 has 14 inch vented discs front and rear, again bigger than the Armada’s, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the brakes are up to the task of stopping both truck and trailer if they have to (in the event of trailer brake failure).

I know a lot of people get freaked out by the word “unibody,” but it’s not true that unibodies are always weaker or less capable of towing compared to traditional body-on-frame trucks.  In any frame, there are weak designs and there are strong ones.  The GL320 has an extremely strong unibody structure with lots of high-strength steel.  During the trip we never heard so much as a creak from the body, nor any indication of unusual flexing.  Tire wear has been normal thus far.  Every engineer I talk to says the same thing, “Unibodies are often stronger than ladder frames.”  I’m very comfortable with the vehicle structure but of course the proof will be a few years down the road.

My major beef with the car has been the completely hopeless hitch receiver that Mercedes put on it.  We reinforced ours in Tucson, which probably would have been enough, but then for added long-term durability I let Can-Am RV do their preferred reinforcement on it as well.  It is now very strong and distributes the stress of the hitch weight over much more area.

The Can-Am RV crew also changed the Hensley shank from a 2″ drop to a straight shank.  For our combination the 2″ drop bar was better for keeping the trailer level, but the straight one was recommended for slightly more weight distribution to the front axle.  I don’t if it was the new shank or the stiffer receiver, but when we weighed after the modifications, we had an additional 200 lbs on the front axle (and the same amount less on the rear axle).  This improved the ride slightly, and handling remained about the same (which is to say, very good).

The only problem with going to the straight shank is that the back of the trailer now rides about 1″ lower. We already had problems with the back occasionally scraping the road when we entered gas stations, and this makes it slightly worse.  I may switch back to the 2″ drop this fall if my experience is not good.

Handling-wise, there is still the usual SUV “squishiness” in the tires.  I felt this in the Armada as well.  The recommendation I’ve gotten is to change to a tire that more closely matches the width of the rim.  The rims are 8″ wide and the tires (275mm wide, or about 10.8 inches) overhang them by quite a bit.  I may try this when the stock tires are worn out.

I’m also still unimpressed by the lack of a spare tire.  It may be possible to shoe-horn a spare into the usual trunk space, but in any case I’m carrying a tire plug kit and a CO2 tire inflator.  I love this combination — it will fix 90% of flats and it all fits in hardly any space at all.  If you are interested in buying a CO2 inflator from Power Tank, type “ promotion” in the Comments box on their order form and you’ll get a free tire plug kit worth $40 with your purchase.   I’m also doing a review of their product, which will appear in the Fall 2009 Airstream Life Online Edition.

It should be apparent by now that I like the turbodiesel.  As I’ve said, the engine is most of the reason I bought this vehicle. It is astoundingly quiet, well-mannered, and the exhaust is so clean you can only tell it’s there by the warm steamy air.  Can’t smell it, can’t see it.  None of the diesel traits of the bad old days are present.  Most people can’t tell it isn’t a gas engine, until they stomp on the accelerator and it leaps forward with a different (but quiet) sort of engine rumble.

I wish there were more options to get these engines.  In Europe they’re everywhere, but in the US/Canada there are few available. As a result, today’s options for V-6 diesels mostly come from the European manufacturers: Land Rover, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi, BMW.   (If it bothers you to buy a “foreign car,” keep in mind that the “made in America” thing is a red herring at least in the case of the GL320 because the Mercedes GL-class is built in Alabama. I still get grief about this.  But I know people still believe that a Dodge now owned by Fiat, or a Suburban built in Mexico, is more patriotic than a Mercedes made in Alabama, so that particular issue will probably dog me for years.)  In any case, there should be more of these diesels from the big truck manufacturers, because they offer an excellent compromise between power and economy.  Why should the only option for American diesel truck buyers be a 6.7 liter Cummins engine that makes enough noise to wake the dead, and only on the 2500-series trucks?

The best thing about the GL320 is driving it while it’s not towing.  I’ve never been a luxury car buyer before.  I’m still not, really.  If we had a shorter Airstream, I probably would have bought the VW Touareg 2 (now with 3.0 liter V-6 turbodiesel) instead. But since we needed the extra space and the third row seating, I can admit that the GL320 is a pleasure to drive when not towing.  It is no sports car but just constantly reminds you that it is competent and safe.  It is much nicer to drive and park than the Armada.  Eleanor even likes to drive it, and she always hated driving the Armada.  The safety features are extensive, so much that I can’t even get into them all here, but suffice to say it is in every way a safer vehicle for us to be driving.  Finally, I love the fact that I’m getting nearly 600 miles from a $60 tank of fuel, versus 345 miles in the Armada, while putting out much less exhaust emissions.

The worst thing about driving it is that it is so quiet and competent, highway drives are rather boring.  I have discovered that I tend to get drowsy, which is definitely not a good thing with three and a half tons of RV behind you.  I never had a tendency to fall asleep with the Armada.  The solution has been to play music from the iPod.  I guess in the big scheme of things, that’s not such a bad solution.

I will tell you one last thing.  A big part of my reasoning for buying this non-traditional tow vehicle is that I believe tow vehicles are headed in this technological direction.  Rising CAFE (fuel economy) standards and rising emissions requirements will put huge pressure on traditional tow vehicle designs. Simply making trucks lighter won’t address the challenge — manufacturers have to make their vehicles smarter.  I don’t think diesel is the whole solution either, but I do believe that a combination of technological advances (in body design, electronics, engines, transmissions, emissions controls, etc.) will lead us to the next generation of tow vehicles.  I bought this vehicle partly because I think it represents the first wave of where we are headed as an industry (I’m speaking of the RV industry), and I wanted to get some experience with it to understand the future.   If you wish to do the same, just remember that the leading edge is always sharp, so you need to be smart about your choices and do your research.

Taking a turn for the better

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

We are back in Vermont, parked once again at our summer home base.  Our odyssey from Tucson has encompassed over 3,000 miles, 11 states, and one Canadian province.  The Airstream is squeezed into its designated spot in the driveway, Emma is busy visiting with her grandparents, and we are all breathing a sigh of relief that we don’t have any more driving to do for a while.

Normally when we pull into Vermont I don’t have that feeling of “too much driving.” But normally we take couple of months to cross the country, and this time our departure was seriously delayed by the car and hitch problems I described earlier.  Our ideal schedule is to drive 150 miles or less, stay for 2-4 days, and then drive no more than 150 miles again.  This time we had many 300+ mile days, and even one of 650 miles.

Somewhere along the way, probably in Wisconsin when I was foolishly lifting my 9-year-old, I strained some back muscles and the resulting pain has afflicted me while driving for the past week.  We’ve resorted to stopping along the road so that Eleanor can massage my back.  This may sound blissful — pausing in the afternoon for a delightful massage in the Airstream bedroom — but trust me, you don’t want this experience.  Eleanor’s massage was therapeutic and extremely painful.  My friend Bill Reilly, who is a professional masseuse, says he can make any grown man “cry like a little girl,” and after having Eleanor treat my back I know exactly what he’s talking about.  But for all the pain, her technique worked and kept me on the road long enough to get here.

Our last day in Cazenovia NY was fine for Eleanor, Emma, and Brett, but lousy for me.  Brett got a ride in the Piper Cub, including some wingovers, Eleanor and Emma walked trails on all 50 acres of the property where we were parked.  At night our host cranked up his 1917 Calliaphone on the front porch and blasted carnival theme songs across the countryside.  It was eery to hear the music late at night, but also sort of magical.  Unfortunately, I had one of those overly-busy-and-filled-with-annoyance sort of day at the “office” and couldn’t really enjoy any of it.  At the end of the day I was inclined to just hole up in the Airstream and watch a movie, while the rest of the group had dinner with our host.  I probably shouldn’t have chosen the dystopian theme of “Children of Men” for that evening’s movie, but in a sense it was nice to see how much worse things could be.

Things went a lot better on Friday, when we towed the Airstream across the beautiful Adirondack Park region and stopped in the small town of Speculator for lunch by the lake.  The weather has, amazingly, improved to sheer perfection: sunny, 70s, dry and breezy.  I say “amazingly” because the entire month of June in the northeast has been wet, wet, wet. The ground is still squishy in most places.  Perhaps summer will officially start now that we are here.


At least, that’s what my brother Steve suggested.  He recently finished the restoration of a Glastron GT150, and he hasn’t been able to use it much with the crummy weather.  But last night the conditions on Lake Champlain were very good and so he plopped the GT150 down in the water and we took it for a spin.  It’s a tiny thing, and it skips over the water like a flat stone while going at speeds up to 50 MPH.  Great fun.

I have some more things to say about the trip in retrospect, including a report on the success of the GL320, but I’ll save it for future blogs. Now that we are at summer home base, I’ll be posting less than daily until Region 1 Rally (Aug 5-9, and I’ll be giving a presentation there on Aug 7), and the Vintage Trailer Jam (August 12-16).

Across the border

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Going across the border is progressively less appealing every year.  But I like going to Canada, so we put up with whatever the border agencies come up with.  The crossing this time was about as expected: a 30 minute wait in line, then questions about our car (which is currently on a temporary registration from Arizona), and an inspection of the Airstream.

The last is always the fun part.  More than once I’ve been asked by US Customs this question: “What have you got in the trailer?”  It always makes me pause, while I try to figure out what the “right” answer would be.  It’s an Airstream, so the literal answer would be, “Everything,” since it contains all our personal possessions, plus all the components of a complete house.  But I expect that would not be a welcome answer. It sounds flip, and might even imply that we are carrying a few bales of marijuana, three undocumented aliens, a nuclear device, and a six month supply of Canadian pharmaceuticals.

This time I just said, “It’s a travel trailer,” and that seemed to have the same effect as any other answer I’ve given in the past:  “I’ll need to take a look inside.”  I’m starting to think they ask the question only to see if I suddenly get nervous and say something like, “Uh, nothing …”

So a Customs agent looked around inside and admired the interior, then asked me what I do for a living. I told him I publish the official Airstream magazine and his next comment almost made me laugh out loud.  “That must pay pretty well.”  Not really, I told him — it’s more of a lifestyle than a living.  But I think he didn’t believe me.  Like the guy yesterday at the diesel pumps, people will tend to believe their preconceptions before they listen to me.

dsc_0947.jpgOther than the border, our only stop all day was a Flying J for the ritual Big Fill & Dump.  Diesel for us, gas for Brett, full tanks of water, empty the black & gray tanks, fill up the propane.  This routine takes about 20 minutes, after which we are fully prepared for boondocking.  The next two nights we will be parked in Cazenovia NY, courtesy of our friend Randy Miller and his country gentlemen friend who owns acreage out here.  Randy, you may recall, is the son of the famous Airstream photographer Ardean Miller.  We did a big article on Ardean Miller’s iconic photos of Airstreams in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, back in our Winter 2007 issue.

dsc_0951.jpgIt has been raining for most of June and early July in the northeast, and everything is still soggy.  Venturing off gravel or pavement with a travel trailer or motorhome is asking to get stuck in clay.  This meant our  usual courtesy parking spot in Randy’s back yard was off-limits.  Fortunately Randy was able to call one of his buddies and secure space for us to park on firm gravel, nearby.  We are parked next to an airplane hangar, which contains a Piper Cub and two biplanes, all of which appear to be flyable.  The hangar also has a vintage Ford Mustang, two wood powerboats, and parts of several other airplanes in various states of restoration.  It’s like boondocking next to a really cool museum.

Our purpose for being here is pretty vague.  It’s just nice to drop in and see a friendly face on our way.  Staying with Randy’s friend is an opportunity to make a new friend of our own, and in my opinion it’s always nicer to boondock on somebody’s lawn than to have full hookups in a campground.  You never know what might happen when you courtesy park, which is a big part of the fun.  The plan is to spend two nights and then proceed east.  I’ll let you know how it turned out, tomorrow night.

London, ON

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

dsc_0944.jpgAlong the road, we often hear from blog readers who say, “You’ll be coming through my area — would you like to meet?”  Often they offer dinner, or courtesy parking, or just helpful advice.  We don’t get to accept all of those kind invitations, but when we have it has always turned out very well.  Such was the case today, when we met up with Jason and Angie, who live just about 20 minutes south of London.

Jason has been reading our blog since 2005, when it was “Tour of America,”  but until last week had never commented or emailed us.  He and Angie full-timed for two years in their fifth wheel, then settled down for a short time while producing two children, and now are ready to get back on the road with their 2- and 3-year old boys. With that sort of history, there was little doubt we’d have a lot in common, so we happily accepted their invitation to come down for bratwurst tonight.

A lot of the conversation was about what it was like to accept invitations from strangers via email.  Jason already had “met” (virtually) our friends Leigh and Brian from their travels at the former 63flyingcloud blog, as well as many other people who blog while they travel.  I was surprised to find how many people we knew in common.  This RV blog community is one of those in which you can assume quite a lot about the person at the other end.  Of course, it’s easy for people to “know” us, since they’ve read a lot about us, but it’s also possible for us to know that people who read this blog are probably like-minded in many ways.  They love travel, meeting people, socializing, sharing stories, learning, and tend to be very accepting of all kinds.  That’s probably why we’ve always had good experiences when accepting courtesy parking or get-together invitations.

We’ll probably see Jason and Angie again in the next year or so.  They’ve put the house up for sale and will be departing for points unplanned as soon as it is sold.  I’ve told them some stories of western RV travel in the hopes that they’ll come out next winter and join us at some point.


Today the Can-Am RV guys added some additional  — actually, quite a lot — support to our receiver hitch. It’s almost intimidating-looking now, although you can only see the new support by bending down beneath the rear bumper level.  I was not concerned that the hitch as already reinforced would fail, but I was looking to get a little more weight transfer to the front axle, and distribute the overall load better.

The photo at the right shows the extra support running beneath, before it was painted.  It takes away 2″ of ground clearance at that point but this is rear of the axle (not at the lowest point of the car), and the car has substantial ground clearance, so I’m not highly concerned about it.  The only real issue is that if we ever have to remove that tank above it (which holds urea for the Bluetec system), we’ll have to cut the support member out.  I doubt that will prove necessary.

Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV took me out for a test drive and adjusted the brake controller while we were out.  He reduced some of the boost on the Prodigy and raised the voltage setting, to give us better braking in panic stops.  It feels slightly different when braking now, but still very good. Since the handling was already fine, I can’t say if this has substantially improved anything in that department.  I plan to re-weigh the trailer tomorrow morning to see if it has changed the weight distribution on the axles.

This wraps up our business in London, so we’ll be heading east again tomorrow and back into the USA.

All the way to London

Monday, July 6th, 2009


I’ve got to backtrack a little because I zipped off that quickie post this afternoon, thinking I wasn’t going to be able to get online while we were in Canada.  But as it turns out, Can-Am RV has good wifi in the parking lot, in addition to 30-amp power for our Airstreams.  I’ve got plenty of bandwidth to update you on the gaps in our past two days.


The fireworks at the State Fair were really good, with enough of the expected color and kaboom  to keep us all wide awake and entertained until sometime past 10:30 p.m.  It wasn’t perhaps the best move to stay up past midnight when we had a long day on the road ahead, but somehow I managed to survive the I-94 route, which I had been dreading, and even all the tollbooths.  We dropped about $25 into the various state road coffers along the way.  Tolls are usually based on axles, and we’ve got four of them, while Brett in his motorhome got off easy paying only the two-axle tolls.

The goal for the day was to make Grand Rapids by dinnertime, because that’s where Ken and Petey live.  They supplied us with a great courtesy parking spot, and dinner, and 15-amp electricity, which puts their courtesy parking way up there on our scale.  But fair warning to those who offer good courtesy parking:  We tend to show up again and again.


Our overnight stay with Ken and Petey was half business.  Ken has a private restoration shop for his collection of historic trailers, and he has graciously agreed to take our 1968 Caravel in and complete it, as a favor.  The Caravel was already in the shop when we arrived.  We spent the morning going over the various things it needs to be complete.  I can see that it is in great hands.  With luck, and sustenance of my meager budget, it may be ready to camp by this fall, although polishing and upholstery details may still lie ahead.

While were parked at the shop, one of Ken’s shop guys crawled under the trailer and bolted our fresh water tank strap back in place.  That was a relatively easy one, but of course much easier when somebody else is lying on the ground doing the dirty work.  We filled the fresh water tank back up and it is holding just fine.

From Grand Rapids we had a nice easy drive east all the way to the border and 70 miles beyond to London Ontario.  Even the border was easy.  (We’ll probably have a much tougher time  getting back in the USA.)  It’s nice when there are no disasters to talk about.

We planned our fuel so that we won’t have to buy any in Canada.  Sorry, Canadian tax authorities, but at $0.82 per liter (diesel), or $0.93 per liter (gas), we’ll try to skip the Ontario fuel.  We stopped at a BP with a truck stop about 30 miles before the border and had one of those amusing moments that occur when you tow with a non-standard vehicle.  I left the engine running while I hopped out to check to see if the pump was high-speed or normal (auto) type.  A guy at the next pump yelled over, “That’s not a diesel!” meaning our GL320.  He was driving a Dodge 3500 diesel with duallies, towing a 5th wheel, which towered over him and the fuel pumps.  “Yes, it is,” I said, and he gaped at the car for a moment, not sure what to say.  I could see him eyeballing the relative bulk of the Airstream.  He also appeared a bit confused because he couldn’t hear the engine running, and everybody knows that diesels are noisy, right?

So we had a pleasant, but slightly strained, conversation about V-6 turbodiesels.  I don’t think he believed a word I said about their fuel economy, reliability, or exhaust, much less their towing capacity. People typically see the size of the GL320 and assume based on the appearance that it simply can’t tow.  Judging a tow vehicle on the basis of apparent physical size is a mistake, whether large or small.  (The GL320 also has very large 20″ wheels, which trick the eye and make the vehicle appear smaller than it is.)

I expect to get a lot of that, because I always got comments at gas stations about the Nissan Armada.  The most common comments are: “Can that little truck tow that big trailer?”  (to which I am always tempted to respond, “No, I pulled it in myself — the truck is just for show.”) and “You’re sure a long way from home!”  The funny thing was that when we were full-timing the Airstream was our home, so really we were only a few feet from home during these conversations, and in fact Emma was usually at home, using the bathroom or getting a snack. Questions from interested people never bother me, even when it is clear they think I am a lunatic.  There’s always a new perspective to be gained.

Our visit to London (Ontario) is to sell an ad, but also we’re going to get some minor service items dealt with.  Nothing major.  I’ll also have them look at the hitch, just to make sure all is well there.  Can-Am is a hitching specialist, and Andy Thomson offered useful advice on our hitch situation when we were in the throes of crisis back in Tucson.  We’ll spend two nights here in the very fine Ontario summer weather, and then continue east.

Quick zip through Michigan

Monday, July 6th, 2009

We are stopped in a rest area about 40 miles west of Huron, MI, for lunch.  In an hour we’ll be crossing the border into Canada and dropping out of touch.  In Canada, my cell phone and cellular Internet are outrageously expensive to use, and for the 48 hours we plan to be in the country it’s not worth getting the international option that Verizon offers.  So this is my last chance to briefly post until we get back into the USA.

We left Milwaukee in the morning on Sunday, with the only aim of navigating the busy highways through Chicago before holiday traffic got too dsc_0898.jpgbad.  The drive was decent, and the trip was marred only by a minor mechanical glitch.  We had stopped about an hour south of Milwaukee at the Mars Cheese Castle, a small tourist attraction featuring (surprise!) a lot of cheese for sale.  Eleanor  made the requisite purchases, of course.

My habit is to always inspect the trailer at every stop. This prevents little problems from being big ones, because I occasionally spot something that’s not optimal and have a chance to fix it.  This habit paid off on this day because I could easily see from 100 feet away that something was hanging down beneath the trailer.  It turned out to be one of four straps that hold the fresh water tank in place.  A bolt had stripped out and the strap was dangling.

We weren’t able to effect a roadside repair, so Brett and I removed the strap entirely and saved the remaining good bolt from it.  We also used the tank’s exterior petcock to dump about 3/4 of our fresh water supply on the pavement, thus lightening the load on the three other straps.  I was glad that nobody spotted this, since it might have looked like we were dumping gray water on the ground and I didn’t want to have to explain ourselves to an angry property owner.

Tow vehicle report: With extensive construction zones in Illinois our speeds were kept down and the MB turned in an exemplary 15.0 MPG for the trip all the way to Grand Rapids, MI, where we courtesy parked with our friends the Fabers.  I’ll tell the story of that interesting visit in the next blog …

Downtown Milwaukee

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

I finally got far enough along on the Fall magazine that I was able to take most of Friday off and explore Milwaukee with the rest of the crew.  With great anticipation, Brett and I headed over to Harley Davidson’s power plant facility to take the free tour.  Foolish us.  Upon arrival in the suspiciously-empty parking lot, we realized that it was Friday, July 3, and the factory was closed.  Doh!

Well, I won’t be seeing that attraction of Milwaukee, but there are many others.  We headed over to downtown to see the Milwaukee Public Museum.  This was a good choice.  We’ve been to many museums in many major cities, and I can say that Milwaukee’s ranks right up there with the best of them.  We spent most of the day and still hadn’t seen it all when the museum closed at 4 p.m.

dsc_0743.jpg Of course, to sustain a full day of museum-walking, one needs a decent midday lunch.  Brett suggested an old favorite of his, a place just across the river called “Real Chili.”  This scored with us on four points: (1) good food; (2) new culinary experience; (3) low price; (4) friendly staff.  I say that the culinary experience was new because I’ve never been to a place that serves only chili, and moreover I’ve never had chili with spaghetti in it.

You go up to the counter and order the chili Mild, Medium, or Hot, and then specify if you want spaghetti, beans, or both.  You can order “mixins” too: onions, cheese, jalepenos.  It’s about $5.  Refills are half price.  That’s it.  Dead simple, and seriously tasty.

I wish I had more time to explore downtown Milwaukee.  The architecture is widely varied and all interesting.  There are lots of interesting shops, walks, parks, and the river area.   We barely scratched the surface of this town.  I can’t say we’ll be back soon, but not because it isn’t worth a stop.  It’s more a matter of Milwaukee being not on the way to anywhere.  That big puddle called Lake Michigan blocks the way east.

Today we got up at 5 a.m. and headed back to Madison, to attend the final day of the International Rally.  As is usual, about 1/4 of the Airstreams had already departed and there was a trickle of aluminum slipping away all day.  But there were still plenty of people to make the flea market a big success, which was the reason for our visit.  We set up a table of our merchandise (back issues, t-shirts, hats, aluminum tumblers, silver slippers, etc.) and hawked it all until our throats were dry.  Emma was particularly good at promoting the tumblers, reminding everyone who came by that they were dishwasher safe.  We sold every single one, and went to Madison’s “Dave’s Famous Barbecue” for the post-market celebration.

There was a second Vintage Open House at the rally site, one to which the general public had been invited.   We hung around for a few hours, having final visits with the friends that we likely won’t see for months, or even years.  I had a chance to talk extensively to Airstream Life contributors, including John Irwin, Forrest McClure, Dale Schwamborn, Michael Depraida, and Michael Lambert.  Snapped a few good file photos, too.

A few people asked about the new tow vehicle, and so I had to deliver my “why I bought a Mercedes” lecture, which is getting pretty polished by now.  The fact that we got 25.7 MPG on our roundtrip from Milwaukee helped explain my interest in the new quiet & clean V-6 turbodiesels, but I’m finding that fuel economy is just the tip of the iceberg.  (Later I’ll write a blog post about why I like this technology.)


Toward the end of the afternoon I noticed that Airstreamer Freddie Davis was over at his Excella giving out haircuts.  Now that we’re back on the road, I have to resume my mission to try offbeat barber shops wherever possible.  What better place to start the experiment than in the shade of an Airstream awning?  So I plopped myself down in his chair and got a pretty darned good $10 haircut — all proceeds donated to the church mission for which Freddie volunteers his time.  I can recommend his services.

Tonight we are expecting fireworks over the state fairgrounds, which means that those of us parked in the campground will have a front-row seat.  We’ve received warning notices to take in our awnings, because they might be charred by sparks floating down.  Thus, our visit to Wisconsin will end with a bang, for tomorrow morning we will be heading down I-94 toward Chicago and around the southern end of Lake Michigan.

Miller Beer tour, Milwaukee WI

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

I don’t drink beer, much to the disappointment of many, and I don’t own a motorcycle, much to the disappointment of myself.  But I do like factory tours.  So while in Milwaukee it seemed incumbent upon us to go to at least two famous production facilities: Harley-Davidson, and Miller Beer.  Wednesday was designated Miller day (or as they repeatedly told us through the tour, “Miller Time”).

dsc_0710.jpgThe tour was fairly amusing because it started with the usual over-the-top propaganda film that has become the hallmark of factory tours everywhere.  Whether Coca-Cola, Tabasco, Celestial Seasonings (tea), Tillamook cheese, Corvette, Nissan, or any other we’ve done, there’s always that introductory bit where they try to convince you that their product is not only a major part of American history, but an nearly spiritual experience.  Just to be near it is to become a part of something much larger than oneself.

In the case of Miller, the thing that really got us going was the reiteration of the phrase “Miller Time,” which (since I am an admitted beer cynic) particularly struck me as comical after about the 30th or 40th time I heard it.  But the tour was admittedly well done, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes factory tours, or who likes beer.  Like other factory tours, there is free product to be had at the end, and Miller’s samples currently take the form of three tall glasses. No skimpy paper cups here.

The sheer numbers of production are staggering.  This is only one of several plants across the US, and they ship massive quantities of beer to ten states.  Imagine 2.25 million cases per week, going out on 250 trucks a day and something like 18 rail cars, too.  Interestingly, they say that Chicago takes a large share of the production, equaling as much as five other states.  Draw your own conclusions.

If you take the tour, you’ll see the movie, a filling and capping facility, a warehouse, the kettles, the historic “beer caves,” the Miller Inn, and of course the gift shop.  For the price (free), it’s a heck of a deal.

Harley-Davidson will be another day.  We have one more day in Milwaukee, and I’m still working frantically on the magazine, so the current balance is about six hours of work and a few hours in the afternoon for exploration.  We’ll probably catch the tour on Friday.  On Saturday we’ll return to Madison for just the day, so we can participate in the WBCCI flea market, and then we’ll be on the road again.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine