Archive for September, 2009

State parks and specs

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

We’re now in the Denver area, staying at our favorite central stop, Cherry Creek State Park in Aurora.  We’ll be here a few days catching up on work, visiting friends and Airstream Life contributors who live in the area, and taking care of a few minor maintenance items.

I editorialized in the Fall 2009 Airstream Life about the budget cuts that are closing state parks and/or reducing services all over the country.  More states are charging day use fees in their parks on top of the camping fees, and the fees are rising.  We’ve been forced to buy annual passes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado so far because the day use fees are more than the cost of the annual pass after just a few days.  The windshield of the car is starting to get obscured by all the big stickers. In South Dakota we also paid $15 for a one-week pass because they don’t offer a single-day pass.  Texas and California also have annual state park pass programs, Arizona is considering it, and I’m sure there are many other states as well.

Wisconsin’s pass isn’t too expensive but Colorado’s is a monster at $63.  Day use fees here at Cherry Creek are $8, so an eight-day stay justifies the pass.  We won’t be here that long but we do plan to visit a few other Colorado state parks this month.  All told, we’ve dropped about $120 in state park passes so far.  I’ll have to add that expense into the budget for future trips, since user fees seem to be the trend these days.

On another subject, blog reader Vernon writes:

Have you considered adding a spec’s page to your blog? Specifically, what equipment are you using – camera, computers, upgrade specifics to the ‘stream such as solar panel sizes… I have been able to search both blogs and usually find references but it would be nice to have it on a single link.

We did have something like that on the Tour of America blog, but it is now out of date.  I’ll put the current specs and major equipment here so people can find it using the “search” box on this blog.

RV:  2005 Airstream Safari 30-ft “bunkhouse”.  Empty weight 6400, GVWR 8400. Upgrades include: two 115 watt “Evergreen” solar panels, four Optima “blue top” AGM batteries, Tri-Metric 2020 battery monitor, Blue Sky Solar Boost 2000e MPPT solar controller, Kodiak disc brakes with Actibrake hydraulic brake actuator, 5000# axles, Dometic NDR1026 10-cu. ft. refrigerator, MaxxAir “Maxxfan” for ventilation, Northstar catalytic heater, Centramatic wheel balancers, stainless steel furnace & water heater covers from Roger Williams Airstream, many other minor modifications/upgrades.

Tow vehicle: 2009 Mercedes GL320 Bluetec.  V6 turbodiesel, 398 ft-lbs torque, 215 hp, 121″ wheelbase, with modified hitch receiver, otherwise stock. Typical fuel economy: 14 MPG towing, 25 MPG solo.

Hitch: Hensley with straight receiver bar (slightly curved for better weight distribution), custom drilled hole for shorter overhang.  I carry a set of spare parts for the Hensley including spare zerk (grease) fittings, and a grease gun.

Cameras:  Nikon D90 with 18-200mm VR zoom, Nikon D70 with Tokina 10-24mm wide angle zoom, various filters, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, Canon Powershot.  (Note: I do not own Photoshop or any other photo-manipulation software and so all of my photos you see in the blog and in Airstream Life magazine are exactly as taken by the camera.)

Computers: A 2009 MacBook Pro “unibody”, and a 2004 iBook G4. We also carry several backup hard drives, a battery-powered printer (HP OfficeJet H470), and a CanoScan LiDE60 flatbed scanner.

Internet:  Verizon USB card with Cradlepoint CTR500 cellular wifi router.

I think that’s the majority of the stuff. Post a comment if you would like me to add more info here.

Buffalo roundup!

Monday, September 28th, 2009

 This blog is meandering off its intended course as an occasional brain dump, and becoming a travelogue like the old Tour of America blog, but I suppose I’m OK with that if you are.  And wow, what travels we have had in the past few days!

dsc_2498.jpgWe left off with you at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. We caught the last two ranger programs of the season on chilly evenings and luckily also got some superb weather.  On Sunday things turned chilly and gray, but not before I snapped the photo to the left in the early morning.  Emma picked up her Junior Ranger badge and off we went.

Our next stop was back over the line to South Dakota, and into the heart of the Black Hills.  Custer State Park is the enormous centerpiece of the Black Hills, so large that it boasts hundreds of campsites, several lodges, lakes, several scenic highways, and even a playhouse.  It is a truly remarkable place and well worth a visit despite moderately high camping fees.

We dropped the Airstream in Stockade Lake North campground and immediately headed north along the winding Route 16-A to Mt Rushmore.  Two years ago Eleanor and I towed the Airstream up this route, which includes many hairpin turns and three one-lane tunnels.  Driving just the car I kept thinking, “Did I really tow on this road?”  It is possible, even with a 30-foot trailer, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Poor Emma got a little carsick along the way but recovered quickly once we pulled over.  (I was NOT going to let her hurl in the back of a new Mercedes Benz.  The Airstream’s carpet was never the same after that 24-hour virus she got in Albuquerque last year.)

dsc_2507.jpgdsc_2540.jpgShe was well enough by the time we reached Mt Rushmore to take a ranger-led hike and complete the Junior Ranger program, which meant she had achieved a personal best: two badges in a single day. And then we tested her resolve by taking Rt 87, the Needles Highway (view from the road pictured at left), back to the campground.  This road is even crazier than Rt 16-A, with one tunnel only 8 feet 4 inches wide.  Don’t take the trailer on this one!  It’s a spectacular drive, especially at sunset, even if it does look like a pile of spaghetti on the GPS display.

We were lucky enough to have arrived for the annual Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park.  This morning, along with thousands of other people, we arose early and drove across the park (35 minutes) to a viewing area.  Once we arrived at 8:44 a.m., the road was closed and we waited in a grassy plain for about an hour.  dsc_2580.jpgEventually we spotted the buffalo coming over a hill, pushed by a team on horseback and four-wheel drive trucks.  The rush of buffalo lasted for just a few minutes.  Once they were corralled safely, the road was re-opened and we were allowed to leave.  Later in the day a process of examining, vaccinating, and culling of the herd would begin, but we couldn’t stay for it.

The peculiar thing about camping in Custer State Park is the dearth of dump stations.  Apparently there’s only one in the whole huge park, and it can be a 20-30 minute drive from some campsites such as ours. Devils Tower also lacks a dump station, so it had been three nights in the trailer and we were beginning to wonder when we’d have a chance to deal with the necessities.

Well, set such worries aside, because — look!  There’s Jewel Cave National Monument right along the road west!  Time was short but not so short that Emma couldn’t … well, you know … collect yet another Junior Ranger badge.  Three in two days, another personal best.

And then we stopped in the small town of Newcastle WY to pick up our mail at General Delivery.  By this time it was past 2 p.m. and we had nearly full holding tanks, very little water, and 150 miles left to drive.  We did it again: we packed too much into one day and now it was time to pay the price.

Things would have worked out better if there hadn’t been so darned much road construction along Hwy 18.  We had two long delays, one of over 20 minutes.  Then there was that tire I’ve been watching — it finally went completely bald along the outer edge and that made me nervous, so we stopped in the tiny burg of Lusk WY and changed it.  At a rest stop we discovered that Eleanor had forgotten a cup of milk in the microwave, and after 100 miles of towing we finally hit a bump big enough to knock it over, so there was a big cleanup session too.  (Why didn’t it tip over sooner in all that rough road construction? Airstreams ride smoooooooth.)

There was one more stop after that, when we found a dump station at a I-25 rest area.  It’s days like this that teamwork helps.  With each new task (tire, milk, dump, water fill) everyone sprang into action and did what was needed.  We got it all done somehow.  Our last one was like a pitstop: dump tanks, fill fresh water, check lug nuts, grease the Hensley hitch, and we did it all in about 10 minutes including washing hands afterward. We may have to get team shirts someday.

dsc_2609.jpgSo we made it to Glendo State Park in eastern Wyoming as the sun was setting.  That’s cutting it a little fine, but good enough.  This park surrounds a man-made lake and features zillions of random unnumbered dirt sites all around the perimeter, much like its neighbor a little further south, Guernsey State Park.  Camping-wise, it’s the wild west because the campgrounds are really just zigags of dirt trails running amongst the trees.  Some sites can be identified by picnic tables and fire rings, and many others seem to be just spots battered out by the herd.  Fortunately, there’s no competition for the sites. It’s late in the season, weekday, and the lake is mostly dry (whether by intentional action or drought, I don’t know).  We will likely be completely alone with the wind tonight, and tomorrow we’ll be off early to get to our major stop, Denver.

Badlands, Wall, Spearfish, Devils Tower

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

We had planned to take our time covering the 200 miles from the campground at Badlands to our next stop, Devils Tower National Monument.  First there was a leisurely putter through about 20 miles of the Badlands Loop Road with several stops at the scenic pullouts.  Then we paused in Wall, SD for the obligatory visit to Wall Drug, where we browsed the bric-a-brac and took in some milkshakes and ice cream.  (Try the pumpkin flavor, it’s great.)

Next stop was for lunch and groceries in Spearfish SD, and because we didn’t rush it was about two hours later that we were finally back on I-90.  By this point it was past five o’clock, and I realized we’d pushed our leisurely day a little too much.  Our arrival at Devils Tower was projected as 6:45, just about sunset this time of year.

dsc_2482.jpgThere are several reasons I don’t like to arrive that late in the day.  First, it was Friday night of a weekend with absolutely fantastic weather in the forecast, and we thought there was a risk that the national park campground would be full.  (Turns out that’s not a concern at Devils Tower — the campground offers no hookups and no dump station, which encourages people to stay at the nearby KOA. More on that in a moment.)

Second, trying to get into a campground before dark encourages speeding, which is never a good idea with a big trailer behind you.  This risk is complicated by the fact that a dusk the deer are out.  We spotted many mule deer in the last 20 minutes of our tow, and had to slow down to about 20 MPH at one point to avoid a group that was crossing the road.

Third, if something goes wrong, you’re solving the problem in the dark.  I mean problems like a flat tire, a full campground, taking a wrong turn, or backing into a tricky campsite.

And finally, it’s not fun to arrive at a campsite exhausted and grumpy after a long drive.   Fortunately we arrived in a good mood.  The drive across western South Dakota and into Wyoming was relaxing, with beautiful Black Hills scenery, late-afternoon sun lighting up the red outcrops, and the Airstream chasing us along the gently twisting roads.  The campground here was unexpectedly nice, and we pulled in with 20 minutes to spare before the evening ranger talk in the amphitheater.

dsc_2472.jpgIt’s hard to believe this is the last weekend for ranger talks in this park.  Conditions are just perfect: sunshine, cool nights, warm dry days. The old aspen trees that give the campground partial shade are just starting to turn yellow. The campground features big pull-through sites that are well-spaced in two loops, neatly kept and a bargain at $12 per night.  We can see the Tower from our site, and even hike right from the campground up to the trails that circumscribe it.  Best of all, it is peacefully quiet most of the time.  We had budgeted two nights but I could easily be persuaded to spend three, even at the price of skipping Wind Cave on Monday.

We are in “full boondock” mode, meaning that the refrigerator is running on propane rather than electricity, we get our heat from the catalytic heater rather than the inefficient and power-hungry furnace, the stove and oven take over jobs that would have been done by the microwave, and we rely on solar energy to replenish our batteries.  We haven’t plugged into power since we left Mitchell SD on Wednesday morning, and may not see a power outlet for several more days.

Power is no problem as long as the sun shines (and it looks likely to for a while), but we do need regular replenishment of liquified propane gas. In this mode of camping, propane becomes a mandatory supply like fresh water.  Without propane we would lose our refrigeration, heat, hot water, and cooking capability all at once. I normally check the propane before each tow as a matter of routine, but this time of year I’ll check it daily because we can use up a tank (7 gallons) every week if the nights are freezing.

Our first freezing night may be as soon as Sunday.  We are at 4,400 feet, and from here on in we are going to be at higher altitudes until we get to southern Arizona.  It’s hard to be bothered by freezing nights when the days are so spectacular.  Fall in the west can be even better than summer.  Scenic places are less crowded, daytimes are not scorching hot, summer thunderstorms are generally ending, and the hiking can be fantastic.  I wish it could last longer.

Badlands National Park, SD

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

We were so inspired by Bert Gildart’s article in the latest Airstream Life (Fall 2009) that we decided on this trip we finally had to make a visit to Badlands National Park.  That’s a big part of why we chose to go west across South Dakota rather than dipping south first. And it has been worth it.

Every fall we come back west and the first taste of the west we usually get is when we drop in on a national park.  It puts us right back into the western mood, and that gets me thinking of desert camping, rodeo events, prickly pear cactus, Rocky Mountains, and brilliant sunny days where you can see to the horizon.  Badlands has had that effect.  Suddenly we’re talking about extending the trip and not returning to Tucson until “later.”  No decisions yet, but now that we’re out here in the crisp fall weather, it seems a shame to head back to home base already.

In the Badlands campground we met up with a couple from the United Kingdom who just bought a 1966 Caravel at P&S Travel Trailer Service and are traveling for six months across the United States with it.  Rather bravely, or insanely, depending on how you look at it, they are doing this with a three-year-old and a four-month old child.  That’s a lot of people in a 17-foot vintage trailer with no gray tank, but they seem to be doing just fine and I applaud their effort. We joined them last night for some tea and then a look at the sunset over the Badlands, which is spectacular.

dsc_2337.jpg dsc_2351.jpg

A note about the campground options here.  Just north of the park by I-90, and south of the park in the tiny village of Interior, are several RV parks with hookups.  These are very convenient to the park itself, so if you want amenities they are the way to go.  We chose the park’s Cedar Pass campground, which has no hookups but does have bathrooms, water, and a dump station for $10 per night plus $1 per dump.  Amazingly, Verizon cell phones work here sometimes, although they don’t in other parts of the park. I’ve chosen to pretend I can’t get online or make phone calls for a couple of days, so we can all relax.  (Posting the blog tonight is the sole exception — because I know a few people are wondering where we are!)

dsc_2379.jpgBadlands National Park is long and narrow, with only one paved road through the park and a handful of short trails.  We were able to hike most of them in half a day, starting with an 8:30 a.m. ranger talk. Most are easy, with no major elevation changes.  The only significant hazard is the unevenness of the terrain.  Even the local prairie rattlesnake is very timid and nearly impossible to spot before it slithers away.

Despite looking rather forbidding, the park is actually full of living creatures.  Once upon a time there were grizzly bears here, but not any more.  There remain: mule deer, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets (nocturnal), ground squirrels, cliff swallows (and many other birds), lots of insects, and other things.  It’s not desolate at all, although it lacks potable water for humans.

The big story of this park is fossils — lots and lots of fossils, and more appearing with every heavy rain.  The Visitor Center has a great exhibit about the geological history of the park, and the rangers hold daily fossil talks.  No dinosaurs, because this part of South Dakota was part of the ocean in the dinosaur era, but they did have one heck of a giant swimming thing that looks like a cross between a T-Rex and an alligator.

dsc_2415.jpgThe park is rapidly eroding (in geologic terms), and in about half a million years they say it will be gone.  So plan your trip soon, and keep an eye out for bones of some giant titanothere sticking out of the clay. I recommend the hikes, if you want to get a good feel for the place.

Stopping in Mitchell for two nights before coming here was definitely the right move.  We waited out some truly lousy weather (50’s, rain, wind) in full-hookup comfort and got a bunch of work done, then arrived here just in time for spectacular fall weather.  (We also got 14.0 MPG on the drive over, now that the horrible headwind is gone.)  It is perfectly gorgeous now, and in a couple more days things will go downhill again, so the timing was perfect.

The only downside of this is that we can only give Badlands just two nights, which is really not enough time to see everything, because we want to get to Devil’s Tower for the weekend.  This is the end of the season in this area and that means ranger talks, guided tours, and evening campground amphitheater talks are becoming scarce.  Those things add a lot of value to the park experience, so we’re going to try to take in as many as we can before it’s time to start migrating south.

Blue Mounds, diesel, and The Corn Palace

Monday, September 21st, 2009

dsc_2265.jpgNew Ulm was good for the weekend event celebrating Hermann but disappointing for the lack of German cars.  “Over 100″ were projected by one flyer we saw, and in reality eight showed up. Oh well.  We still got to eat bratwurst, listen to traditional music, and watch the battle reenactment. The local paper was headlined, “Romans Will Lose Today — Again.”

We also went back to a used bookstore in town where we’d bought a few books on Friday, and dropped off about a dozen books to free up some shelf space in the Airstream.  That gave us $21.50 in trade credit, and so of course we picked up another eight or ten books.

dsc_2310.jpgAs I promised myself, we are done withe killer long drives, so on Sunday it was a relatively short 130 miles to Blue Mounds State Park in the southwest corner of Minnesota.  Blue Mounds features a bison herd, which wasn’t in evidence when we visited, but our real destination was Pipestone National Monument about 20 miles north.  Eleanor and I visited this park a couple of years ago without Emma and we wanted her to experience it — and of course do the Junior Ranger program, which she did.

dsc_2327.jpgThe campground at Blue Mounds is very nice, although I never did find out what the Blue Mounds were.  For Sunday night entertainment we thought we’d visit the “historic downtown” of the nearby town of Luverne.  Unfortunately it’s one of those rather dead downtowns that are found everywhere in the midwest, and on Sunday night they roll up the sidewalks early.  Entertainment for the evening was limited to “burrito night” in the trailer and a Scooby Doo movie on DVD — and finding diesel fuel.

When we switched to diesel power I knew that we’d face a greater challenge in finding fuel.  That’s OK, because the extended range of the diesel more than makes up for the difference.   We can tow 380 miles, which is over 100 miles further than we could with the Armada. And not towing, our range is 600-650 miles!

What I didn’t know was how tricky fuel stations can make diesel.  There are two types of pumps, for cars and for big rigs.  The big-rig pumps are sometimes labeled “truck diesel” and sometimes the car pumps are labeled “auto diesel” but not always.  The problem here is that the big-rig pumps use a huge nozzle that won’t fit into the car, and which pumps fuel at such a tremendous rate of speed that using it would likely mean a backup in your filler and a giant mess.  When we go to the diesel pumps we have to hunt out the nozzles that will fit. Sometimes the nozzle on only one side is for autos, which can be hard to get to when we have the Airstream in tow

Then there’s the #1 and #2 trick.  This got us in Wausau. Diesel was advertised at $2.62 per gallon, but after I started filling I noticed I was actually getting charged $2.85 per gallon.  Why?  The left diesel pump was subtly labeled “#1″ and the right pump was labeled “#2″.  The #2 pump was the cheap one.  Surprise!  (Difference between #1 & #2 diesel.)

Using either fuel is not a problem as long as it is Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD), and both were labeled as such.  Across Canada and the US the conversion to ULSD is complete, so this is not a problem anymore, but last I heard there were still stations in Mexico delivering the older formulation of Low Sulphur Diesel (LSD).

In Luverne we learned a new trick.  The station had two diesel pumps, one dispensing “B5″, which is code for fuel that is 5% biodiesel, 95% dinosaur diesel.  I was half-done filling with the B5 before I noticed the little sticker that identified my pump as the biodiesel pump (and 3 cents per gallon more expensive).  Fortunately, Mercedes has rated the engine for B5 fuel.  Still, I’m getting wary of diesel pumps.

This morning we hitched up for another 100 mile drive, this time to Mitchell, South Dakota.  There was some temptation to just plow through to Badlands National Park, which is our next major destination. But that would have been 340 miles of driving, through what turned out to be fairly poor weather.  We were facing a stiff headwind on I-90, which reduced our towing fuel economy to the worst we’ve ever seen with the GL320:  a lowly 11.5 MPG. At Mitchell we gave up and found a campground.  Instead of battling the weather, we’re going to park ourselves here for a couple of nights and work instead.  I’m finalizing articles for the Winter 2009 issue (due out in November), and Emma needs to get hustling on her fourth grade work.  By getting our work done in a couple of intense days, we can all go to Badlands and drop off the grid for a couple of days with clear consciences.

Mitchell is well known for two major attractions:  The Corn Palace, and Cabela’s.  We’ve actually spend a night at the Cabela’s in the past (it even has a dump station, which attracts RVs like flies), but never dropped in to find out what the heck a Corn Palace is.  Turns out it is a sort of civic center/auditorium that is annually re-decorated with murals made of 13 colors of corn on the cob.  It isn’t actually made of corn, which in this climate is definitely a good thing.  A fire at the Palace would be an interesting thing.  You bring the salt, I’ll bring the butter.

The nearby downtown of Mitchell is suffering the fate of so many others, but it is still alive for the moment.  It needs an injection of creativity and boldness if it is to survive. With the Corn Palace nearby, it at least has a chance. I see these places and I think of the differences between the ones that have deteriorated to nothing but trash and decaying buildings, and the ones that are still vibrant (like Burlington VT’s “Church Street Marketplace”), and I realize that often the key is somebody being entrepreneurial and aggressive.  When the old formula doesn’t work anymore, it’s time to invent a new one.  I hope somebody figures that out in Mitchell.

New Ulm, MN

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

Why New Ulm?  After many hectic days of long drives and one-night stands (camping), it’s time to stop for a few days and regroup.  We could go to any small town within a reasonable day’s drive of Bloomington, as long as it had the basic amenities.  The Mercedes enthusiasts convinced us to head to New Ulm because this weekend is a festival honoring Hermann, the Cheruscan chief who spearheaded the struggle to defend Germanic tribes against the Roman imperial army in 9 A.D.

You see, if Hermann hadn’t successfully repelled the Roman onslaught, instead of driving Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Volkwagen, car enthusiasts would all be driving FIATs.  At least, that’s the logic behind bringing 100+ German cars here as part of the weekend festival.  And so we picked New Ulm over Austin, MN — the triumph of bratwurst over SPAM.


On the way here we paused at Jim’s Apple Farm, a highly visible roadside stand along Rt 169 that features apple bakery items, candies, dozens of different root beers and licorice, and many other things.  It’s a good stop before you disappear into the seemingly endless corn and soybean fields on the way to New Ulm.

img_5215.jpgNew Ulm is a quiet little town of about 13,000 people.  It is regarded, we are told, as “the most German of all Minnesota communities.”  Up on the hill the townspeople have erected a huge monument to Hermann, and he stands atop the monument in statue, larger than life, with his cloak waving in the breeze and his sword triumphantly raised.  For $1.50 you can climb the stairs to the top of the monument and get the best view of New Ulm there is.  Or, for free, you can walk on the grass around the monument and get the second best view of New Ulm.

We’ve set up camp at Flandrau State Park, directly bordering town, on the assumption that cell phones would work there. They do, sort of, but the campground sits in a bowl which inhibits the signal and so calls have to be made standing outside the Airstream.  Our cellular Internet works only intermittently.  This often happens when we camp in state parks, and so I always have a Plan B for getting online.

In this case, Plan B was the Mega Wash laundry about three miles away, near the Super Wal-Mart.  “Free Wireless Internet” said the sign, and so while Eleanor did the wash I parked myself at a table and got a bunch of real work done at broadband speed.  I’m used to seeing signs that say “Broadband Wireless Internet” and then discovering that it doesn’t work or is tediously slow, but the Mega Wash didn’t let me down.

img_5237.jpgNew Ulm has a lot of minor tourist attractions, which we briefly checked out in the late afternoon when work was done.  In addition to Hermann’s monument, there’s “the first free-standing carillon tower in North America” downtown, lots of German restaurants, and Schell’s Brewery (“the 2nd oldest family owned brewery in the US”).

img_5210.jpgThe carillon plays several times daily according to a posted schedule.  It reminds me of the carillon in Frankenmuth MI, but New Ulm is otherwise nothing like Frankenmuth.

Schell’s is worth a stop even if you don’t do the tour.  The tiny brewery features a nice garden with peacocks wandering around, a little visitor center and gift shop, and a beautiful brick mansion (not open to the public, alas).  We arrived too late for a tour but might check it out again today, after we pay homage to Hermann at the festival.

Bloomington, MN

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

We spent last night parked near a Mercedes dealer, Feldmann Imports, in Bloomington.  One parking lot is pretty much like another, but we were in this particular one because we were the guests of honor at an informal gathering of Mercedes owners from the Twin Cities area.  There is a Mercedes Club of America (MBCA) with local units all over the country, and the leadership of this particular unit got wind that we would be in the area.  So they invited us to join their members to talk about towing with a Mercedes — a rarely discussed subject indeed.

At this point we have 10,000 miles on the GL320 and it was time for the first scheduled maintenance interval, during which the dealer basically does an oil change with a lot of inspections, and refills the AdBlue (urea) tank which for the Bluetec emission system.  This made it convenient to stop at Feldmann’s in the morning, unhitch the trailer in the overflow parking lot, and get serviced while working comfortably in the Airstream.

For those interested, the AdBlue tank required 4.5 gallons of fluid, which is about half the capacity of the tank.  This is despite about 7,000 miles of towing and 3,000 miles of general purpose travel.  So we have proven that even with a high percentage of towing, I don’t need to be carrying spare bottles of urea around between service intervals.  We’ll have another service at 20,000 miles and the AdBlue tank will be flushed and refilled at that time.

In the afternoon we had a couple of hours to zip over to the famous Mall of America (just a few miles down the road), just to say we’d done it.  If you like malls, this is heaven, and if you hate malls, well … it’s hell on earth.  Like most things, it is what you make of it.  One nice perk is that you can buy a Caribou Coffee and then walk around the mall getting free refills at any of the other Caribou Coffee outlets, which are everywhere.  That, of course, was all Eleanor needed to know for her bliss.

We didn’t have time for shopping and we didn’t really need anything, even from the “Barbie Store”, but we walked all three circular levels of the mall just for the exercise.  Then we ruined any possible benefit of that exercise by pigging out at Dave’s Famous Barbecue.  Overall, I think that’s a net win.

The MBCA meeting was held in the parking lot beside the Airstream. Imagine about a dozen people milling around in a parking lot with a few distance sodium lamps providing dim light, all excitedly talking about Airstreams, travel, and Mercedes cars. Beside us the representative from Feldmann’s set up a table with desserts and drinks, and of course each of the members showed up in their Mercedes.  This group is a lot like the Airstream’s WBCCI group in age and obsessiveness, and like Airstreamers they own everything from vintage to new (and often several of both). Airstreamers aren’t all millionaires, despite what people think, and the same is true of Mercedes owners.  The ones we have met have turned out to be very nice and very dedicated to their cars, even the old clunkers.

Speaking of clunkers, the other noticeable element in the parking lot was several rows of older SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans.  These are the remnants of the “cash for clunkers” program, and all are destined to be scrapped under the Federal guidelines of the program.  They were a pretty rough-looking bunch, especially when contrasted with the new Mercedes and Nissan cars being unloaded nearby.

We’re on the way out of town now, heading for a quieter spot for a few days, so we can catch up on work, laundry, groceries, and homeschooling. It looks like the SPAM Museum will not be on our route after all, due to limited camping opportunities in the area. We’re moving west again ….

A tip about tires

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I’ve written about tires so many times in the past four years that I am wary of bringing up the subject again.  I have to wonder how many blog readers’ eyes have glazed over permanently.  But I keep learning new things, and I feel obligated to share them here in the hopes that these lessons will help someone else.

A few weeks ago I had mentioned on the blog that we had unusual tire wear along the outer edge of some of the Airstream’s tires, and this was the thing that caused us to go to Jackson Center for an axle alignment.  As it turned out, the axles were out of alignment. After the service, I resolved to keep an extra sharp eye on the tires, to see if the wear returned to a more even pattern.

This morning, after yesterday’s 350+ mile tow, I noticed the left rear tire was looking very funky.  Wear was occurring rapidly in isolated spots, and there was a distinct bulging in the tread.  Those are the signs of a belt breakage inside the tire, and I’ve seen them before.  We got some local advice and towed the Airstream a few miles over to Mill’s Fleet Farm in Wausau for a replacement.

These days, when I have a tire problem, it is my habit to remove and reinstall the tire myself.  This saves a lot of hassling and potential screw-ups by technicians who (a) don’t know the proper way to jack up an Airstream; (b) will use an air wrench to over-tighten the lug nuts; (c) want to argue with me about using tire pressure sensors (“Just throw those things away, they’re the cause of every stem failure I’ve ever seen.”)

So in the parking lot we removed the left rear tire (a Carlisle) and sure enough, it was a disaster.  The tire rolled like a jelly bean, and had bare patches on it.  It looked fine the day before, which shows how fast they can deteriorate once a belt starts to separate, break, or shift.  We rolled it over the shop, where it was quickly replaced with a fresh tire.

Then I took a careful look at the other tires and discovered that the left front tire (a PowerKing TowMax) also looked a little suspicious.  I asked Jason, the Service Manager, to take a look and he agreed it was probably also suffering belt breakage.  We removed it out of caution and confirmed that it was indeed out of round.  While it wasn’t as bad as the rear tire, it was heading that way and needed replacement.

So now the question was, why were these tires failing?  At first I was theorizing that the tires were stressed.  They had been wearing in a particular way before the axle alignment, and now they were being forced to wear differently.  Could the change in alignment be the cause?

Then Jason pointed out something interesting to me.  Both tires had been patched (we have rolled over a lot of road debris like nails and screws in the past year).  Both tires had belt separation centered in the exact spot where the patches were installed.  At last, we had a smoking gun.

The problem was that these were “flat patches”, meaning that they covered up holes from the inside of the tire like patches on your blue jeans.  Flat patches do a good job of holding air, but the original hole in the tread can still allow water to get inside the tread.  Over time, that water will rust the internal steel belts of the tire, and suddenly they break.  This is what I believe happened to my two tires.  Left unattended, the next step is a blowout.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association says not to use flat patches.  The recommended and best way to patch a tire is with a patch plug, which is a patch that also fills the hole permanently and keeps it dry. Too bad that the last few shops to work on my tires never mentioned this option.

Well.  I am glad that tire inspection vigilance prevented us from having a more serious problem, but on the other hand I wish I’d known about patch plugs before.  A pair of them might have saved us from buying $200 worth of new tires today.  I may begin carrying a patch plug in my spare parts kit, just so I can hand it to a tire shop guy if he doesn’t have one.

The two tires on the right side of the trailer are fine so far.  I don’t recall if either of them has been patched in the past, but they are wearing appropriately at the moment so I’ll just keep an eye on them.  Both of them, by the way, are Goodyear Marathons, and the rear one is actually nearly worn out, which suggests that it is approaching 30,000 miles.  My experience with numerous trailer tires over the years has been that no particular brand holds up any better than the rest, so I buy whatever is available.  At this point we have three different brands rolling on the trailer.

Interestingly, I had been noticing since Grand Rapids that our fuel economy was mysteriously declining.  We normally get 14-15 MPG towing with the diesel, and suddenly we were getting 12.5 – 13.3 MPG.  It seems that the tires were the problem.  Now that we’ve replaced the bad tires, we are back to normal fuel economy.  The broken belts “squirm” as the tire rolls, and in addition to causing rapid tread wear, this apparently increases the rolling resistance as well.

We are in Minneapolis tonight, parked on the street in a quiet neighborhood (with permission of the homeowners and their neighbor).  Local law says we can stay one night if we don’t unhitch, and that is our intent.  We had dinner on the deck with our hosts this evening on this balmy 82-degree September evening, and will be heading to Bloomington for routine car maintenance tomorrow.  Now that we are here, we are done with big-mileage days for a while.

Rib Mountain State Park, WI

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I write to you from the strangest places, and that’s the way you like it.  When we are parked in Tucson for months at a time, blog readership plummets and I get emails from people asking “When are you going to back on the road?”  When I am blogging daily, with a different location every night, everyone seems happy.

Tonight the blog comes to you from the top of Rib Mountain, in Wausau WI.  There is a nice little state park campground on the top of the mountain, with sites alongside the edge of the mountain that have clear views to the north.  We’re in one of those sites tonight, just a short walk from the two ski lifts that serve this mountain in winter.

Should you decide to check out Wisconsin’s Rib Mountain State Park with your trailer, keep in mind that the park is designed primarily for tent camping.  Many sites can accommodate trailers, but there are no hookups, no trash collection, and no dump station.  Still, it’s worth the visit just for the view.  (We’re going to check out the Rib Mountain Travel Center nearby tomorrow for a dump station.  When we are courtesy parking a lot, as we have been lately, I use to find dump stations along the way.)

A little further up the road from our campsite is a large TV transmitting tower and a large wooden tower with three viewing platforms. The top platform puts you above the trees and basically on par with the TV antennas.  Cell phones are obliterated by the interference and don’t work at the top of the platform, as Emma found out when talking to her grandmother, but when you are at the very top of Rib Mountain and looking down at a glorious 360 degree panorama, it doesn’t matter much.  The view is spectacular and I imagine it is particularly good during fall foliage.

The mountain is basically a big hunk of quartzsite, a very hard stone that didn’t erode as fast as the land around it, which is why this is the third-highest point in all of Wisconsin.  The Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Wisconsin are not known for their mountains, and that made our day’s drive somewhat less interesting.  The most interesting part of it was that for several hours we rounded the top of Lake Michigan and yet the water kept appearing off to the left as if it had no end.  You really get a sense of how “great” a Great Lake is when you try to circumscribe even a small part of one.

The other item of interest was of course pasties.  We discovered on a prior visit that the UP is pasty country, those sturdy concoctions of pastry dough and meat, potatoes, and spices.  Pasties actually come in many flavors, but the classic formula seems to be beef with potato.  They are by no means diet food, but everyone can splurge once in a while, right?  We stopped at a local restaurant in one of the small towns along the route and bought one for lunch.  The thing turned out to be so huge that all three of us could have made lunch out of it, but since we actually ordered two other lunches, the pasty became part of tonight’s dinner.

Dinner was necessarily light tonight. Eleanor and Lynn spent Sunday afternoon building an enormous multi-course feast which took the entire evening to consume.  The proposal is that we do this every week when we are all in Arizona this winter, but that’s completely out of the question.  We’d simply explode like Mr. Creosote.  As it is, we’ve been eating a lot of heavy meals and not getting much exercise.  But this morning we left De Tour Village with regret, since our visit was too short.

In addition to eating too much, we are driving too much lately. Today’s drive was a solid 360 miles, a tedious ordeal made somewhat more pleasant by podcasts (including some stories of Canada’s greatest superhero, The Red Panda). We have one more oversized drive ahead of us tomorrow, to Minneapolis, and then we can relax a little.  I will be glad for a few days well away from the car and on a trail, or at least walking around a city.

On the other hand, I have noticed that we will be near the famous SPAM museum in Austin MN later this week.  I may not be able to resist one more splurge. Maybe I can get a SPAM pasty?

De Tour Village & Stalwart, MI

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

De Tour Village, as its  name implies, is not a town you are likely to pass through on your way to somewhere else.  Situated on the furthest eastern point of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it is the seasonal home of perhaps 420 people, and certainly many fewer in the winter.  The only place further east in Michigan is across the passage by ferry to Drummond Island.

We are here to visit with our friends Charlie and Lynn, fellow Airstream owners, at their home on the north shore of Lake Huron.  Our Airstream is tucked neatly next to their house within about 100 feet of the lake, so that we can hear the waves at night.  De Tour is a place for that sort of recreation.  The “things to do,” by traditional tourist brochure definition, are scarce.  You have to be happy with playing by the lake, relaxing on the deck, socializing … that sort of thing.

Our big activity of the day was to drive 20 minutes through scattered Timothy hay fields to the Presbyterian church in Stalwart, where an all-day “Thanksgiving” supper was being held.  I was amused to see how much it was like the church suppers I remember from growing up in Vermont: lots of white-haired people sitting at round tables with paper plates loaded with country staples, a buffet line staffed by cheery volunteers, racks of different homemade pies for dessert, no music, and plenty of “Good to see you!” type conversation.  We each loaded up a plate with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and vegetables, and proceeded to stuff ourselves.  Then we went back for dessert.  Our choices were chocolate cake, mixed berry pie, chocolate pie, and raisin cream pie, but there were many other flavors.

Just a few steps from the church was the Stalwart County Fair, a 100+ year tradition, and probably the smallest county fair you’ll ever find anywhere.  No rides, no midway, no vendor area, just the classic agricultural elements of county fairs many years ago.  We walked through the cow barn, the horse barn, the crafts & food exhibit, saw the rabbits and chickens, and then (all of 10 minutes later), emerged at the oval track just in time to catch some of the horsepulls.


Now that’s an impressive sight.  These massive horses pull heavier and heavier loads across a dusty track.  We saw teams of two pulling over 6,000 pounds of concrete, and they hadn’t hit the limit yet.  Judging from the crowd in the grandstand, this was the popular event of the County Fair.

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Now, for tax purposes, I should probably mention that we are not wandering through Michigan just for fun.  If we were, we would have stopped at many places along Lake Michigan’s shoreline on the way up, and we’d be making more stops in the Upper Peninsula on the way west this week.  But we are actually following a fairly rigid schedule of meetings with various people for magazine purposes.  This schedule will draw us to Minneapolis in a few days, 500+ miles away.  Normally we’d take several days to cover that kind of mileage, but circumstances deem that we rush to meet the schedule.  This doesn’t make any of us happy — too much time in the car, not enough sight-seeing — so my compensation is to remind any future tax auditors that this is all a business trip.  We’ll still try to have some fun this weekend, because having fun is not a violation of IRS rules yet.

By the way, we spotted yet another egg-shaped fiberglass trailer on the way through Grandville on Friday, appropriately called “Egg Camper.” It joins the Casita, Scamp, Burro, and Oliver trailer crowd, as well as the now-defunct Boler, Trillium, and Bigfoot, and many other brands of fiberglass RVs.  These things are a cute and aerodynamic option for folks who want something a bit different from the white boxes.  I’ve always liked the rounded fiberglass trailers and almost bought one before we got our first Airstream.  Even today I like to see them.  Their neat and tidy shipboard look is appealing, plus the durability of the streamlined fiberglass exterior.  Perhaps I’m just pining for our Caravel to be back on the road.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine