Archive for November, 2009

Little Rock AR-Louisville KY

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Now remember why some people don’t like roadtrips.  Driving all day just to crash, exhausted, at some hotel with strange disinfectant smells, and then having to hunt up some restaurant in an unfamiliar neighborhood, just isn’t fun.  It’s work.  You might as well be a long-haul trucker and get paid for it.

Which is what I am right now.  This is no pleasure cruise, this is a mission.  I’m going up to Michigan in December for the only possible thing that could get me to drive voluntarily to the north in wintertime: our beloved vintage Airstream.  This week I am a long-haul trucker, and thank goodness, I’ve completed nearly the deadhead portion of my trip.  In a couple of days comes the payload.

There is nothing I can say about today’s drive that would be of interest to anyone.  Perhaps later I’ll feel differently, but my overwhelming sense at this moment is that I’ll never get those three days back.  I should have been listening to my Spanish lessons on the iPod so that at least I’d be getting something out of the time, instead of listening to 300+ songs and seven podcasts.  Although I have to admit, Season 2 of The Red Panda is pretty good.

What did we do on long roadtrips before the iPod?  Oh, I remember, we would either flick around for tolerable radio stations every ten minutes, or bring a bunch of cassette tapes.  In college I had a bag loaded with about 20 BASF Chrome cassettes, each one holding a recording of a vinyl album (approximately, since the tapes were 45 minutes per side and sometimes that wasn’t enough to fit both sides of the LP).

[Editor’s note: Anyone born after 1980, please consult with an older person for translation of the terms “LP,”  “vinyl record,” and “chrome cassette.”]

The cassette tape solution was good for the times, but not good enough.  During a trip to the Florida panhandle for Spring Break I discovered that my collection of Pink Floyd tapes did not suit my college compatriots, and ended up listening to AC-DC’s “Back in Black”about seven or eight times.  I haven’t been able to listen to that band since.  My iPod carries about 2,000 songs at present, enough to carry me to the great wet north and back.

One thing I noticed today is that thanks to the Interstate highway system, it is possible to cross this great country not only without seeing anything, but without speaking to anyone.  The iPod provides entertainment.  Automated fuel pumps eliminate the need to speak to gas station attendants.  Pointing and grunting will get you through most fast-food places.  On Sunday I didn’t utter a single word to anyone except myself and my wife (via phone) until the moment I checked into the hotel and found myself trying to find my voice for the desk clerk.  (No, I didn’t grunt to order lunch … I skipped it on Sunday.)  Too many days of that and I’d probably start to lose contact with humanity.  I’ll make up for it in the next two days as I contact a whole convention center full of humanity.

So here I am in the final hotel of the trip, facing the same questions I’ve faced the past two nights.  Where to get dinner?  Why does the room smell like deodorizer?  What did it smell like before the deodorizer?

Down the street is a Denny’s and a Cracker Barrel.  It is often said that the prevalence of chain restaurants and hotels make all American cities homogeneous, but I’m not fooled. I know I’m not at home in Tucson.  (For one thing, I don’t stay in hotels and eat at Cracker Barrel when I’m home.)  Identical services across the country are a blessing and a curse.  It’s of little comfort to me to know exactly how boring the room will be before I get to it.  It’s of no interest to eat the same stuff I could get at a thousand other chain restaurant locations.  I’m in Louisville — I want to taste it, smell it, feel it.

But not tonight. Today I have driven 522 miles, watched a whole lot of pine trees and concrete go by, and I can’t stand to drive another inch in search of somewhere more interesting to have dinner, especially not now during Louisville rush hour in the winter dark.  I guess that’s what keeps the chains alive. They are convenient, and that’s the blessing.

Tonight I have to go out again, to pick up Brett at the airport.   We’ll run down our action plan for the show, and then hit the convention center floor early tomorrow.  I will bring my camera, so if there’s something interesting by Airstream on display, you’ll see it here first.

Nuggets of wisdom

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

The drive across Texas is the source of many comments from those who’ve done it.  Mostly people say they can’t believe how long it takes.  I think there would be more humorous comments if the drive did not cause one’s brain to turn to mush.  That may be what happened to mine, somewhere in the vast vagueness that is I-20 from Midland to Dallas.  In any case, I survived but I remember very little about the day other than the fact that it was LONG.

Really long. The car computer says I logged over 650 miles today driving to Little Rock, Arkansas.  (For comparison to yesterday, average speed 66 MPH,  fuel economy 27.7 MPG.)  All I know is that I’m glad it’s over.  The day started rough.  The hotel room was hot and the air conditioner was ferociously noisy.  The discomfort woke me up at 12:30, 2:00 and 4:00.  I finally gave up about 5:15 a.m., had breakfast, showered, and hit the road by 6:40 a.m.  I figured if I couldn’t get a full night of sleep, at least I could start early.  I was on I-20 in the pre-dawn dark, watching the sky lighten to a streaky gray with occasional light showers.

By 9 a.m. I was already flagging and had to break out the emergency can of caffeinated Pepsi.  I normally avoid caffeine, since it affects me rather dramatically, completely preventing sleep for up to six hours, but in this case it was exactly what I needed. It took me 90 minutes to finish the can, and it kept me startlingly awake until late in the afternoon. But the downside is that when it wears off, all the accumulated sleep deficit hits.  For me, that was somewhere between Texarkana and Arkadelphia, and I had really wanted to make it to Little Rock so I’d have a shorter day tomorrow (522 miles).

I’m lucky to have a good support network. I got Eleanor on the speakerphone and she checked hotels out for me on her computer while I drove up I-30.  By Arkadelphia, we decided I could make it to Little Rock and she got me a nice room online at a sweet rate.  I made my once-a-day stop for diesel fuel outside Little Rock (25.1 gallons to across most of Texas and big chunk of Arkansas, not bad!) and found the hotel just before the sky went dark and a line of thunderstorms swept through. It’s nice to have concierge service, and nice to have someone to talk to once or twice in a ten hour day of highway solitude.

chicken-nugget.jpgEver since we went through the Thanksgiving leftover cycle I’ve been craving some Chinese food, so as soon as I had checked in I asked the front desk clerk for the closest Chinese take-out restaurant.  It turned out to have changed names (twice!) since the front desk menu was printed, and three times since the GPS database was updated. I finally gave up on looking for it and pulled into the parking lot of another nearby Chinese restaurant, which turned out to be the one I was looking for, two generations of owners later.

I can see why it keeps going out of business.  Even for a Sunday night in downtown Little Rock, this place was dead.  When I see a staff of three in a big empty restaurant, I always wonder how places like that manage to pay just the electric bill.  Certainly the $9 they charged me for “Ginger Chicken” wasn’t going to keep the doors open for long.  The Ginger Chicken turned out to be more like nuggets of theoretically chicken-related parts, in meatball form, slathered in a generic brownish sauce with sliced onions.  It could have been the mushed-up brains of other people who just drove I-20, for all I knew.  The rice was good, and I was hungry enough to eat anything, so it didn’t matter much until I got to the end and started to wonder what the heck it was I just ate.  Road food is rarely good for you.

I MUST get some sleep tonight. On Eleanor’s advice, I checked the air conditioner as soon as I checked in, to verify that it won’t make the horrific monster-trapped-in-the-dungeon noises of the other one, so I’m clear on that issue.  I don’t need to leave before dawn to make it to Louisville on schedule tomorrow, so I may take a couple of hours to lounge around the room or go for a walk.  (Other than walking to the bathroom at rest stops, I don’t think I’ve used my legs since Friday.) I should probably arrive in Louisville looking and feeling somewhat human, since the two days there at RVIA will be a health-sapping whirlwind of bad food and hyperactivity.

blue_hand_2.jpgSpeaking of human appearance, the pecan stain from last week has faded completely except for three of my fingernails.  I will have to trim them very short because the black stain simply will not come out.  I’ll do that at the last possible moment on Tuesday, and hope that I can remove all the grim reminders of my pecan-shucking folly. Or, I can just wear blue gloves and get Brett to do it too.  (The geeks in the crowd know what I’m talking about.)

One more day …

I-10 from Tucson AZ to Midland TX

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

I woke up at 4 a.m.  Without looking at a clock I knew it was far too early to be getting up for the big drive today.  The Great Horned Owl was still shrieking in the back yard, warning off his potential rivals in between soft hoots.  His warning call is like the screech of a frightened small child, and it always wakes us up.  But he never does it in the morning, so I knew I had to get back to sleep if I was to be ready for ten hours of driving.  I rolled over and tried not to think about what lay ahead.

The strange thing is that we go on roadtrips all the time, and I don’t have this sort of nervous anticipation normally.  Something felt different about this one, but why should I be surprised?  Traveling without E&E, hotels instead of Airstream, and a rigid 600-mile per day schedule.  Everything was different.

Well, I did get a few hours more sleep, and was finally rolling away at 7:50 a.m.  The trip started off with a bad omen: the GPS would not power on.  It worked fine just two days ago.  Why should it suddenly die?  I took it along anyway, thinking that by wiggling some cords or perhaps applying some other form of persuasion I would get it working again along the way. The day’s route was as simple as could be.  Get on I-10, and stay there for 600 miles.  I didn’t think I’d need it for a while.

I did stop at The Thing in Arizona, but the sky was gloomy and my photographer alter ego said to try again on the way back, when I have the Airstream in tow.  I took a few half-hearted snapshots of the exterior and continued on.

Along the road I counted five Airstreams, all headed west.  One of them was a Caravel, just like the one I’m going to pick up, which gave me a pang of wistfulness.  I wished I had it in tow already, and I was heading for Big Bend National Park instead of Louisville.

But for today there was the compensation of just driving the heck out of the car without anything in tow. Mercedes enthusiasts says it is “autobahn ready,” which means theoretically I should be able to go 150 MPH with no trouble.  In reality the car is electronically limited to 130 MPH, and even in Texas that’s a big ticket.  The speed limit was 75 through Arizona and New Mexico, and once I was about 30 miles past El Paso things opened up to a neat 80 MPH, which meant I could at least flirt with what the car could do in those big empty spaces between El Paso and Van Horn.

midland-motel.jpgBy the numbers:  622 miles total driving, average speed 73, fuel economy a startling 26.7 miles per gallon!  I hadn’t expected such good fuel economy at 80 MPH, but speed doesn’t seem to affect the fuel economy on this car very much.  After 622 miles the computer said I could go another 59 miles, but when the orange “low fuel” indicator went on I decided to call it quits.  I was in Midland, where I had planned to stop anyway.  It was just a matter of finding the hotel I had reserved.  And then I remembered: no GPS.

The dead Garmin is still a week inside it’s one-year warranty period, so tomorrow I’ll call for a return authorization, and when it comes back we’ll have a GPS for each car.  In the meantime, I need a functioning one to navigate my way around half a dozen cities on this trip.  Fortunately, all along America’s highways one can find handy superstores, so I stopped at the first one I saw and bought a replacement GPS.

And with that, I found my hotel, grabbed some takeout dinner, unloaded my valuables into the room, and settled in to update you with the millionth re-run of “Caddyshack” playing on the TV in the background.  I think the presence of a cheap room, cheap takeout, and a brainless old movie at the end of the day completes the requirements for this to be an official roadtrip. It has been a long day, and tomorrow another long day lies ahead.

The ghost of Thanksgiving future

Friday, November 27th, 2009

For us, Thanksgiving was last weekend.  We’re splitting off into different directions tomorrow, and Eleanor wisely did not want to make a her normal “ginormous” meal and then have nobody around to eat the leftovers, so we did the big feast last Sunday.  Three of us and two guests cut into the delicious goodies Eleanor made, and we barely made a dent.

We’ve been eating leftovers since.  Twice a day, every day, it’s turkey, gravy, roasted vegetables, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, pumpkin soup — probably the same sort of thing that you are salivating over today.  Well, let me tell you, enjoy it while it’s still a novel experience.  Because I’m your future, and I can tell you that in three days, you’ll be begging to be released from leftover jail.


(Image credit: Brad Cornelius)

Emma mutinied this morning.  I was prepared to surrender on Tuesday but after seeing how much was remaining of that 23-lb bird I felt it was my husband-ly duty to persevere, even though my mouth was craving something — anything — different. We managed to wipe out the soup, 90% of the vegetables, the cranberries, 80% of the stuffing, and the gravy, but that darned fowl is still sitting in the refrigerator, taunting us from under a tent of aluminum foil.  When Emma cracked, I lost my willpower as well and we declared the season of Thanksgiving leftovers officially over.

Tonight I want Chinese food with lots of unidentifiable MSG-laden sauce.  Or maybe spaghetti with spicy meatballs and lots of chopped garlic.  Anything that has pungent odors for the palate and alternate textures for the tongue will do.  Just please, no more “white meat or dark meat?” this week.

So without traditional Thanksgiving things to do, we are spending the day packing.  E&E are flying up to Vermont for a visit to the seasonal gloom and wet (just kidding, they’re really going to see family), and that is an adventure that requires much packing, analysis, unpacking and repacking (repeat ad infinitum).  I am leaving for a major roadtrip to Louisville KY and Grand Rapids MI, among other spots.

The roadtrip will be a screamer compared to the way we usually travel.  Being solo, I can roll out of bed, jump in the car, and knock off 800 miles before dinner.  Bathroom stops will be brief & infrequent, lunches can be eaten with one hand at 75 MPH (or during a very short rest area stop), and the route will be 100% high-speed Interstate highway.  My route is easy to remember — I-10, I-20, I-30, and I-40 — but being Interstates, the drive itself should be pretty forgettable.  Thanks to the wide-open spaces of the west, in my entire first day I will pass through only one major metro that could slow me down (El Paso).  The rest of the time the speed limit is 75-80 MPH and there’s not a whole lot to bother stopping for.

Actually, I might detour very slightly in Arizona to drop in on “The Thing.”   I know what The Thing is (but I’m not telling!)  My reason for stopping is to get a few photos for an upcoming article in Airstream Life (Spring 2010) about “America’s Favorite Tourist Traps.”  But other than that, I don’t plan to stop for much until at least Odessa, TX.  That’s 600+ miles from Tucson.   I don’t even expect to stop for fuel, ’cause like the other Mercedes Bluetec diesels, the GL320 can get up to 700 miles out of a tank when there’s no Airstream dragging it down.  That’s a feature I haven’t had a chance to test out yet.  So with a few distractions like these I’ll try to make the trip more interesting for myself.

In case you are wondering, the thing pictured above isn’t The Thing.  But it’s a Thing anyway.  I don’t know what the heck it is, really.  It seems to be the result of Brad working out a nightmare he had.  He’s a brilliant illustrator and that means sometimes odd things come out of his head.  He’s the guy responsible for the Alumapalooza poster design, as well as all the Tin Hut illustrations that have appeared in Airstream Life, and if you come to Alumapalooza next summer you can meet him.

One last thing to do tonight: cut up the remaining turkey and freeze it.  Eleanor says there’s enough left that we can have it for Christmas, and the carcass will become soup.  It seems the ghost of this turkey will be haunting us for some time to come.

The pecan harvest

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

One things leads to another in a most interesting way, if you care to think of things that way.

Follow me on this, if you can.  It all started a week ago, when I fixed up my old beater bicycle so that I could go for rides around Tucson.  Yesterday I hopped on that bike and took my first substantial bike ride in many years.  Tucson has a very nice multi-use paved trail along the Rillito River, 11 miles in each direction, which I happily rode to the very end.

The trail ends abruptly at railroad tracks.  I stopped to rest and drink water, while watching the long freight trains scream by.  An older man was walking along the tracks with his dog, and we started talking. He’s retired, but volunteers extensively and writes Christian novels.  I heard about the time his dog was bitten by a rattlesnake (a distinctive fang scar still on his snout), and the places they walked together.

He pointed out a grove of pecan trees across the tracks, on the east side of Interstate 10, in which he often walked.  The pecan grove is owned by a local gravel company, but as long as he stayed clear of the gravel pits and helped keep the orchard clean of trash, they let him walk his dog there.  “The pecans are ripe now,” he told me.  “You may as well go pick them before they all rot.”


So this morning Emma and I drove over and found the trees.  We had never been in a pecan grove before, so it was mostly for the novelty of picking pecans that we went.  With Emma on my shoulders, it was easy to pick a partial bag of pecans in fat green husks.  We took just enough to have a small batch to eat, since at the time we weren’t sure of the proper procedure for cleaning or roasting them.

dsc_3769.jpgPecan husks split nicely along a natural segmentation into quarters.  We proudly took our bag home and demonstrated for Eleanor how to husk them. And then we realized something:  pecan husks stain your fingers dark brown.  Permanently.

I have probably the worst-looking fingers in the family because I shucked more pecans than anyone, but all of us have degrees of stained fingers now.  Nothing removes the stain because it penetrates the skin, like a henna tattoo.

Normally I would find this amusing and nothing more, but it just happens that next week I am scheduled to attend a major RV industry conference.  I’m going to shake hands with our current and future clients — or at least, I would if they would want to touch me.  I may have to walk around with my hands behind my back, like Prince Charles, although body language experts say this is viewed as untrustworthy.  Well, is it better to look like I haven’t washed my hands since I mucked out the stalls?

I suppose I could have a t-shirt imprinted that says, “Pecan Farmer.”  Or I could look on the bright side of this:  now I’m less likely to catch a cold while I’m up in the frozen north on the business trip. Or I could wear gloves and pretend I’m afraid of germs — or just unfathomably fashionable.

Apparently abrasive cleaners can have some effect, eventually.  So, having fixed up my bicycle last week means that I’ll be scrubbing the skin off my fingers every day this week.   And that’s how one thing led to another.

Alumapalooza 2010!

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

sample-promotional-ad.jpgFinally I’m able to reveal a project I’ve been working on for several weeks: Alumapalooza!

For the past two years I’ve helped organize the Vintage Trailer Jam each summer.  I can honestly characterize those two years as a tremendous learning experience, and I mean that in a positive way. VTJ ’08 and ’09 taught me a lot about how to structure an event for the Airstream community.  That’s because we started off with a blank sheet of paper. Steve, Colin, Brett and I talked about what sort of event we’d like to go to, and what we needed to supply, and then we built up the Trailer Jam from there.

The first year we made a lot of mistakes, but the event came off well anyway. People begged us to do it again, so we did.  The second year we made fewer mistakes and it was much easier, but by then the four partners were getting distracted by their core businesses — all of which were feeling the pain of recession — and so we decided to disband the event.

After all the effort, six months of organizing, dealing with a dozen vendors, accountant, tax and incorporation forms, insurance, permits, and sweating in the heat while I helped haul trash — and a thousand other details that weren’t much fun — I thought, “I’ll never do this again.”

But either we’re getting smarter about it, or the passage of time has helped me forget the pain, because now I find myself partnered with Brett to organize an even bigger event next summer.  We call it Alumapalooza 2010.

Actually, the real reason I’m once again plunging into the event business is because I am a believer in the value of re-inventing ideas, starting with blank sheets of paper, and thinking outside the box. (Also, apparently, I’m a believer in business cliches.)  It bugged me that we hadn’t yet perfected the event formula.  On top of that, Brett kept calling me and suggesting we do something completely new.  I think he knew he was hitting a weak spot in my personality.  I couldn’t just leave it alone.

Whatever you call it, there’s value in starting without preconceptions.  That’s what made Alumapalooza possible.  We looked at recent history, and the needs of potential partners, and realized that there was a distinct need we could fill.  See, Airstream used to run “Homecoming” events at the factory in Jackson Center, but they died out, in part because they got too expensive for the company.  By keeping the spirit of Homecoming but re-inventing the structure, we figured out a way to hold a really fun Airstream event that would work for everyone (organizers, participants, Airstream, the village of Jackson Center, and vendors).  We even picked a different name, so that it would be clear we were going for something completely new.

You know when you’ve got a good idea when everyone else starts piling on, the minute you announce it.  That’s a validation clue that I always look for.  First we bounced ideas off each other, and when we had a concept that felt good, we took it to Airstream.  They loved it, so we told a few other people.  Next thing we knew, we were getting ideas and assistance from the village, the local businesses, the Airstream club, Airstream vendors, and even Airstream Europe!  While not everyone can get everything they want, we have explored every avenue that has opened, and I would guess that about one-third of the new ideas have become part of the event.

So, Alumapalooza is being organized by Brett and I, but that just means our main job is to bring everyone else together.  The real contribution is coming from many others.  At last count, four of the Airstream service and management staff are planning to attend and give talks.  Ultimately I expect we’ll have six or seven from the factory.  Eleven other people have agreed to deliver seminars and slide shows, too, coming from all parts of the US, including Airstream Life contributors Bert Gildart, J. Rick Cipot, Jody Brotherston, and Forrest McClure.

We have already lined up several vendors who will be giving demonstrations and selling products — and I expect many more to sign up in the coming months.  David Winick just signed up for a vendor space this morning, and Michael Depraida joined a few days ago.  David is contributing some of his fancy custom screen door guards as door prizes, and Michael is contributing his fun “Artstream” t-shirts.  The village of Jackson Center is making an incredible contribution with their concurrent event downtown, called “Jackson Center Community Days.” They’re giving us an advance purchase rate on ride wristbands.  A nearby hotel is offering us a special rate for those who are not staying in their Airstream.

And of course the biggest contribution comes from the people who are attending.  Hardly a day goes by now where I don’t hear from someone who plans to bring something cool (a restored vintage trailer, some art, a door prize, some special food, etc.) or who has a good idea.  Our community is filled with interesting people who all add something good to the whole.  Even people who can’t attend due to schedule conflicts are helping out, like our friends the “executive hobos” Alex and Charon.

One of the big “blank sheet of paper” ideas that we’ve implemented is to invite everyone, regardless of what brand of RV they own.  We figure if you want to show up at the Airstream factory, you’re probably interested in learning more about Airstreams.  You don’t have to own an Airstream to subscribe to Airstream Life, so why limit attendance at Alumapalooza to only people who own Airstreams?  It’s the common interest in the lifestyle that binds us together. We’ve already got a couple in a vintage fiberglass Trillium trailer planning to come.  Diversity makes life interesting.  And yeah, we’ll probably get some of those “other brand” owners to buy Airstreams in the future!

Another idea is self-parking.  Most rallies I’ve gone to have had dedicated volunteers who direct you to parking.  We’ve taking a big leap and set up a self-parking system.  That saves half a dozen people from having to spend all day, every day, in the hot sun waiting for trailers to arrive.  We all park ourselves at every campground we go to; why can’t we park ourselves at Alumapalooza?  Of course we can!

Yet another idea is flexible attendance dates.  Some people only can show up for the weekend, others are free to spend the entire week.  We’ve set up the registration form so you can choose whether you want 3, 4, or 5 days on site, and you only pay for the days you want.

More ideas?  How about online registration: The whole system is automated, saving paper, labor, and time.  Online registration means you can pay by credit card, get instant directions from Google Maps, join up with other attendees via Facebook or AirForums, and shop for Alumapalooza merchandise.  Plus, it allows us to hold down the event price since we don’t need someone to process registrations.  Pretty much everyone has access to a computer these days, but if someone doesn’t we can still take a registration via phone (802-877-2900 extension 4).

And another idea:  why not let kids come free?  They don’t take up much space, they add excitement, and it makes attendance a lot easier for younger Airstreamers with families. So we set that policy too.  It worked very well at the Vintage Trailer Jam.

It’s fun, building a new paradigm (whoops, there goes another business cliche!)  Tearing down the old way of doing things makes sense if you’re willing to build something up in its place. Dreaming up ways to make a better mousetrap (cliche #5) is like a game once you get rolling:  how many ways I can think up to improve my product? It makes the job more exciting.  Each new idea that works is like the thrill of finding an Easter Egg. This is a game that any small business owner can play.

Now that we’ve gone public and launched registration, I can talk a little about what goes on behind the scenes.  As things progress, I plan to write about the little lessons learned and how it’s going.  We still have six months before the event, so there’s a lot of work yet to do, and many interesting challenges undoubtedly lie ahead.  I hope we’ll see you at Alumapalooza next summer!

The story of the Caravel

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

It has been a long time since we last camped in our first Airstream, a 1968 Caravel.  I suppose that a first trailer holds the same romantic spot in one’s heart as the first love, the first car, or the first house.  It may not be the best one you’ll ever have, but it will always be the one that started you off on a road of adventure and travel.

Owning the Caravel was a life-changing moment for us.  Emma was only three, and I was in another career.  We had muddled our way through a few marginally-acceptable “family vacations” with the usual stresses and disappointments that go with shuttling a toddler around with aircraft and hotels.  I was looking for a better way, and after months of research, I settled on the Caravel as something worth trying.  We plunked down $5,500 and bought a car that could tow it, and struck out for a few trips together.

It was a hit — a huge hit.  Between August 1 and October 12, we were out in the Caravel 20 nights, which is a lot for a rookie couple with a toddler and a full-time job.  We camped at the biggest balloon festival in Canada, visited Acadia National Park in Maine, and explored numerous places in New England.  I was so entranced by the lifestyle that I started Airstream Life magazine. It was a sad day when we had to finally winterize the trailer in mid-October (Vermont has a short camping season).

Since that 1968 Caravel, we have owned a series of other trailers, each with its own particular character and advantages.  The 1977 Argosy 24, for example was a wonderful “upgrade” from the Caravel, with much more space and modern comforts.  It was my first involvement in a full-blown DIY trailer restoration, starting from a severely water-damaged and virtually abandoned mess found in a damp Florida backyard.  Together with Brett, we put half a year of restoration work, 600 hours of labor, and over $22,000 in parts into it.  We sold it only because we had begun to travel full-time and needed more space.

A lot of other trailers have passed through our hands, some which we used and some which we re-sold without restoring despite their obvious assets.  The 1953 Flying Cloud we found was a great trailer with a lot of potential, and so was the 1952 Cruiser … and the 1952 Boles Aero, and the 1963 Serro Scotty.  All of those have found good homes and are either restored or in process.  But we never adopted any of them in our hearts like the tiny 1968 Caravel.  At just 17 feet, it is really too small for us to co-exist in it for long, and it had a lot of body damage and vintage quirks.  Caravels are regarded as highly desirable, and we could have sold it easily at any time, probably for a profit.   Yet, we kept it for sentimental reasons.

For the last five years the Caravel has been disassembled for restoration, with its guts torn out.  We brought it in for a replacement axle in 2004 and discovered rampant floor rot, among many other problems.  The scope of the job kept growing until we found ourselves with $18,000 sunk into the trailer, and completion still far away.  The project came to a stop in 2005 and for the most part, the trailer has sat since, tightly sealed against the elements and wholly unusable.

In the summer of 2008 I finally decided to start the Caravel project again, but using my own labor (with Eleanor’s help) to complete the interior work.  You can read about that in our Tour of America blog.  We got about 80% of the woodwork done before we ran out of time.   This summer, I had an invitation from my good friend Ken Faber to let his private restoration shop complete the job for me.  (That same shop restored Ken’s one-of-a-kind Airstream named “Der Kleine Prinz” which was recently donated to the RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame.)

img_3307_2.jpgEven in the final stages, a restoration means lots of phone calls and debates about details.  We thought we had all the hard work behind us, but still there were the details of things like hooks, hinges, trim and handles.  These items seem small until you get them wrong, then you realize how important they really are.  For the past few months we’ve been figuring out faucets, fabric, foam cushions, and finishes, and passing along all the information by phone to the guys who are doing the work.

And now, the trailer is nearly complete.  Only the upholstery work remains.  From a scratched, dented, rotting, and rusted (but well-loved) trailer, it is emerging as a shiny, clean and ship-shape silver pod that I can’t wait to sleep in. Ken has been teasing us with a few scattered pictures of the work in progress, and we made one interim visit back in September, but for the most part we haven’t seen the finished product yet.

img_3306_2.jpgEverything will be done  in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be off to Michigan to pick up the trailer.  So right now I’m thinking about all the things I’ll need in the car to outfit the trailer for the return trip to Tucson.  It’s a more challenging pack job than you might think.  I need to bring all of my personal stuff, my office stuff (so I can work from the road), all the furnishings for daily life like dishes and blankets, tools & parts, RV supplies, and work clothes for two days I’ll be stopped in Louisville KY for business.  All of this will go into bins in the back of the Mercedes for the 2,200 mile drive north.

Of this list, perhaps the most important is the tool kit.  Completely restored trailers always have bugs to work out.  I may have to tighten a water fitting, replace some screws, or re-rivet a corner of the belly pan.  When the trailer was new to us (35 years old), I was rather accustomed to having to fix or patch something on every trip.  Paradoxically, at age 41 it should be more sturdy now. I wish that were true of people.

In the photos you can see a few details of the trailer that came about in this restoration.  Colin Hyde oversaw the heavy work, handling all the exterior sheet metal replacement, removing the dents on top, adding a spare tire carrier, rebuilding the entry door, and many other things.  Inside he installed a new plywood floor covered by Marmoleum, rebuilt the black tank, and refinished the entire bathroom.  The Marmoleum was a big expense but I’m glad we chose it.  It is incredibly durable and beautiful material.  You can also see the new refrigerator (no more frozen lettuce and miniature ice cube trays!), the new catalytic heater, and the Marmoleum countertop. All of the furniture you can see in the photo was built and finished by us in summer 2008, and finalized & installed by Ken’s guys, Garrett and Jim. They did a nice job fitting the Marmoleum to the countertop and building matching wood trim for it.

What you can’t see is all new plumbing, a giant gray tank, new insulation throughout, new axle, brakes, tires, dump valves, window seals, wiring, power converter, battery, 12v breaker panel, window glass, door locks, and a thousand other details that have gone into this trailer.  Like every good restoration I’ve ever seen, it has turned out better than hoped, and certainly much more expensive.

Now the question arises, what would anyone do with two Airstreams?   We had considered keeping one in the northeast for excursions up there in the summer, but for various reasons that idea failed.  We plan to keep the Caravel in locked storage in the Tucson area, somewhat pre-packed and readily accessible for spontaneous weekends.  The sky islands in southern Arizona are mostly national forest lands, and they are dotted with gorgeous little campgrounds connected by dirt roads. These roads and campgrounds can generally only accommodate trailers of the sub-20-foot variety.  That has kept us from exploring some great places in southern Arizona, like Chiricahua National Monument and the surrounding area.

We could have tented in those places, but when we are usually in Arizona the national forest campgrounds are cold because of their high elevation.  A little Airstream with snug insulation and a catalytic heater is the perfect vehicle.  It’s also the right choice for short trips where we want to get away from the “liveaboard” lifestyle that the big Safari allows, and get closer to a sense of “camping”.  In the big trailer, it’s too easy to hole up inside, since it is so comfortable.  The size of the Caravel forces us to live outside, and that’s a good thing when you want to engage your surroundings.

All of this anticipation has me actually looking forward to the marathon drive north after Thanksgiving.  I plan to go alone; that way I can move quickly. If all goes well I’ll be back in a 10 or 11 days, but since I hate being on a tight schedule I will pack for two weeks and take my time on the way back if necessary.  Want to come along?   OK, cross your fingers and join me here for daily updates, starting November 28.

All Souls Procession

Monday, November 9th, 2009

dsc_3613.jpgIn the southwest, the dead are very much with us, as they reputedly are in southeastern cities like Savannah and New Orleans.  Influence from south of the border brings the dead close to us, particularly at this time of year, when the Mexicans observe El Día de los Muertos, or The Day Of The Dead.

The dead are not scary here.  They are remembered as loved ones who have moved on, and even in their skeletal form they are looked upon fondly.  It can be a little startling to a northerner to see altars in shops and homes featuring little skeletons dressed in their best clothes, alongside incense and gifts and remembrances.  But to many people here, the dead are still family and their graves are places to visit.

Between October 31 and November 2, Mexican families in southern Arizona will go to their relatives’ gravesites and honor them.  They’ll sweep the site and decorate it with gifts and flowers.  They’ll repaint the name of the deceased on the cross, and perhaps spend the entire day visiting.  The dead are remembered well, and their final resting places are not neglected.

So it is not surprising that Tucson (along with some other western cities) has several cultural events around this time. The biggest is the All Souls Procession, a 20-year tradition that looks like a mashup of Mardi Gras and Halloween, with a touch of Burning Man thrown in.  At first impression it is a parade, with a route starting in Tucson’s funky Fourth Avenue district and winding through downtown Tucson past the historic Congress Hotel and Rialto Theater, for a mile and half.

dsc_3582.jpgBut the All Souls Procession is more than a parade for many people.  Those who walk in the route run the gamut.  There are artistic displays, actors on stilts and unicycles, fantastic costumes, and even a “dead” array of marching bagpipers.  There are also individuals waving photos of dear friends now gone and shouting out a description of their good character, and people waving posters of their dearly-departed cats.  There are families pushing strollers, with even the children wearing skeletal face paint, and slackers slouching along with clove cigarettes in their street clothes.

Good wishes to the dead can be written on a form provided by the organizers, and burned in an altar at the end of the procession, but there is no formality at all to the proceedings.  Whatever sort of remembrance or mourning you wish to do is generally accepted, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other people.

dsc_3693.jpgWhen we arrived at the parade route along Congress Street we were reminded of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but then the differences began to appear.  The streets are not littered with drunk celebrants. There’s no screams of “throw me something, Mister!” or people flashing their body parts for trinkets.  All Souls is a subdued celebration, and a family event.  Anyone can participate.  Dozens of people walked the parade route pushing baby strollers. There are signs of respect for the dead, and respectful protest (“Iraqi war dead,” “Death of the Pima County Library,” “Men, Women, and Children Killed By AIDS”).  And just when it starts to feel like a carnival, somebody walks by with a somber look carrying a photo of a friend mounted on posterboard, with a list of that person’s wonderful attributes.

In this culture, people die three deaths. The first death is when bodies cease to function, the second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground and disappears from sight, and the third death is when there is no one left alive to remember.

I think there’s something in that.  It is habitual for some to forget the dead and never speak of them again.  But when you forget someone, all the lessons and experiences that person brought to your life are just as easily forgotten.  El Día de los Muertos reminds everyone, especially the children, that the dead are more than markers in a graveyard; they are the people who made us who we are.  I can see why the Latin American culture respects them every year.

More photos here.

My week in tweets

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

From time to time in the course of a friendly conversation I’ll be asked why I don’t have a Facebook page, or why I don’t “tweet” on Twitter.  A lot of my friends do, and I certainly am happy that they are having a good time doing it.  Generally I give the quick and easy explanation that I have this blog, the Airstream Life web store, a photo/video site, and considerable email correspondence to keep me glued to the computer.  I don’t really want any more.  Besides, if there’s something you wanted to know about me that isn’t already revealed somewhere in the past five years of blogging (Vintage Thunder, Tour of America, Man In The Maze) then you are probably getting a little too close and personal.

Now that I think of it, that does seem to be exactly what people want.  I mean, how many Twitter feeds are out there where people are talking about what they are eating right at that very moment?  Twitter celebrates the mundane moments of our lives and encourages narcissism for even the most boring people. If you can convince friends and family to “follow me on Twitter!” you’ve created an audience for any sort of blather you might generate.  You can tweet away in 160-character bursts, secure in the knowledge that all of those subscribers are forced to receive the latest news about your manicure or even your bowel movements.

Well, that’s true at least until people wise up.  It’s as easy to tune out the noise as it is to sign up in the first place. For that reason, and because of a little business intuition, I will predict that the popular tweet-fest will subside rather rapidly soon, and the media will move on shortly, as they did with MySpace (remember them?) and dozens of others.

The gist of Twitter is that you can bore people, er, I mean “communicate with people,” in succinct 160-character notes.  Because you can Twitter right from your mobile phone, you can do this all day long as you go through the motions of any day in the developed world.  But I figure we can do one better than Twitter.  With blog technology, I can give you all the tweets you’ve been dying for, all at once.  In other words, why sit by your computer awaiting the next tidbit of my fascinating life, when you can sign in right now and get the week’s worth of news in one easy session?

So without delaying you even one more second (because we’re operating on “Internet time” and even ten seconds is too long to expect anyone to wait), here’s my week in tweets:

Back from Copperstate Fly-In.  3 tries to get Airstream in carport. Embarrassing.

Found more mouse droppings in kitchen.  Can you say “hantavirus?”  LOL

Looking for yellow tape at Lowe’s to mark carport.  Maybe now E can back me in straight.

Eleanor back from grocery store.  $200, and she used coupons!  But got apple cider so I’m happy.

@bnsf  Yes, she bought mouse traps too.

Can’t sleep waiting for SNAP sound all night. Why don’t they just leave voluntarily?

Why did the diesel pump at Fry’s shut off when my tank was just 5/8s full?

Remembered cider gives me gas. ROTFL.  Actually, not exactly laughing.

Cold snap in Tucson:

8 presenters signed up so far for next year’s trailer event.  Woo-hoo!

Emma’s bat costume is nearly ready.  I’m squirreling away Butterfingers & Snickers for myself.

Planning solo trip to Louisville starting Nov 28.  Anyone need a trailer hauled from the southwest?

Cleaning Weber grill with heavy tools.  Last night’s salmon stuck to it.  Not LOL.

@lrko  No sauce, just Deep South Tangerine Pepper dry rub.  Sprayed the grill but it stuck anyway.

Winter 2009 issue of Airstream Life printed today. Should be in mail in a week or so.  YMMV

Car show in Tucson:  Cops and Rodders. Shot 100+ pics.

Eleanor’s new MacBook arrived.  Logic board and hard drive dead on old iBook G4.  (4sale)

About 40 kids for Halloween.  Nice warm night.  Then I watched The Big Lebowski.

And there you have it.  Fascinating, eh?  An utter failure to inform in a meaningful way, and a nearly-complete failure to entertain, in easily-digested bursts of 160 characters or less.

There’s a lot of credence given to the theory that “today’s generation” doesn’t read, doesn’t have an attention span, respects only what they read online, etc.  People point to the failure of daily newspapers all over the country as evidence that someday, everything will be online.  Maybe it will be.  But that day will be a long time coming.  There’s still value in old media.

Perhaps I’m biased as a publisher of a print magazine, but I don’t think so.  After all, I’ve introduced an online version of Airstream Life.  I believe in the value of online as a new medium.  My suspicion starts when people assume that semi-literate yakking about trivia will replace deliberate thought.  No, Twitter won’t replace the beauty of good composition, exchange of intellect, a well-researched report, or meaningful debate.  (Daily newspapers could have remained relevant in an online-oriented world, if they had less arrogance about their exalted position in society, and more willingness to re-invent themselves to suit the modern competitive environment.)

For many people, tweeting is a way to have their own little reality show.  Like “reality TV,” the only compelling stories are faked, exaggerated, staged, or incited.  Some people are happy to fight with their spouses (or someone else’s spouse, a la Wife Swap) on TV for money.  Most of us would prefer to keep that sort of thing private.  It’s the same with Twitter: those who have something to promote or gain will contribute, and many of them will lie or tell only the truth that suits them; the rest will be boring.  Very few people have the ability to say anything interesting and true in 160 characters.

But now everyone, regardless of talent or motivation, can have their own communications channel to the world.  It’s like blogging, except that the signal-to-noise ratio is much worse. There’s not much chance of meaningful value being conveyed with a tweet.

So now you know the real reason I don’t use Twitter.  I could break down my day into 160-character blips, but the nuance and richness of life, the exploration of ideas, the ability to invoke emotion and sway opinion, and much more would be lost.  As a writer, I can’t find satisfaction in writing only shallow phrases, while foregoing sentences and paragraphs.  As an editor, it’s hard for me to respect the content that comes through the Twitter stream. The pen is still mightier than the sword, but only for those who know how to use it.

PS: If you comment on this blog entry, please restrict your thoughts to 160 characters or less!

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine