Archive for December, 2009

They’re blowing up the bridge

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

champlain-bridge-map.jpgSince 1929, when New York Governor Franklin D Roosevelt inaugurated it, the Champlain Bridge has been the preferred way to get across the southern portion of Lake Champlain — and tomorrow (Monday, December 27, 2009), they’re going to blow it up.

Lake Champlain runs about 140 miles north-south, dividing New York and Vermont.  It’s the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the US (right after the five Great Lakes), and quite deep at up to 400 feet, but most people have never heard of it.  I grew up on the shoreline of this lake and it’s not too much to say that it has been a defining element of my life. In addition to being recreation, scenery, and weather-maker for lakeside residents, Lake Champlain is a barrier between the Adirondack region of upstate New York and most of Vermont.

I remember as a child looking at the broad lake, which was three miles wide where we lived. To me it was an ocean, crossable only by a grand voyage in a ship.  Beyond lay the uncharted land of New York, which I had rarely seen on foot.  One day I heard there was a “bridge over Lake Champlain,” and for months I had dreams of a mythical bridge that somehow crossed miles of open water.

There are a few ways to cross the lake.  There’s a boring causeway bridge over the shallower part of the lake up by Rouses Point NY, near the Canadian border.  Several ferries cross the lake at various points, and a very short bridge crosses the extreme southern end where the lake peters out to a mere canal.  But in the middle, where the the lake is wider, the Champlain Bridge has been the well-worn path for decades, joining the rural town of Chimney Point, VT with Crown Point, NY.

It was an amusing surprise when I first found it during a random exploration at age 18 with my VW.  After all those years of knowing that there was a bridge over Lake Champlain, but not knowing where it was, I felt like I’d found a secret passage.  The bridge was nothing like I expected.  Rather than being long and flat, it was dramatically arched and crossed the lake at a narrow spot (1/2 mile).  But that made it even more fun.  I was happy to pay the $0.50 toll and for the first time, drive my little 1967 VW Bug over the lake to New York state.  (The one-way toll was discontinued in 1987.)

champlain-bridge-view-from-top.jpgEvery time I’ve crossed the Champlain Bridge since, I’ve been struck by its uniqueness and beauty.  It rises steeply up, hundreds of feet above the water, far higher than necessary since no tall ships can navigate this shallow part of the lake.  For some, the sharp rise brings a touch of vertigo, which is exacerbated by the narrowness of the bridge. Just two 1930’s-era lanes cross the bridge, so that as you are carefully studying the painted lines, you are also intimately acquainted with fellow bridge travelers heading the other way.

From the top, the view is always spectacular, like riding to the top of a Ferris wheel.  The lake tends to be calmer at this shallow channel, with gently rippling and brilliant blue water lined by pine trees and backdropped by the Adirondacks.  When you land (heading west), you find yourself in the midst of the ruins of a historic Revolutionary-era fort at Crown Point and a pleasant little campground.

I have never crossed the bridge without wanting to stop and take in the view.  Alas, that is impossible. The bridge has no pedestrian lane, no place to stop, and during the summer it is always busy.  I once rode my bicycle over it on a summer day, and hoped to be able to pull off to the side, but there were too many cars.   I had to pedal furiously to keep up with the traffic (speed limit 25 MPH) while throwing glances to each side in an attempt to memorize the view.

steel_condition.JPGPerhaps that was actually a good thing.  For the past several years, it has been obvious that the bridge was deteriorating.  Maintenance was never able to keep up with the rusted steel and crumbling concrete.  Towing the Airstream across the bridge (as we did at least twice a year), I couldn’t help but think of our 14,000 pounds flexing the elderly span, and filling every inch of the narrow lane between steel abutment and oncoming traffic.  With a closer look at the bridge, I might have lost my interest in driving over it.

The bridge is a mess.  Road salt, freezing/thawing lake ice, and generally tough weather conditions have destroyed the bridge’s structural elements to the point that it is practically unfixable.  The state sent divers down in to the murky lake water to look at the piers and they came back with some disturbing video.  After a bunch of public hearings and Vermont-style debate, the conclusion was to blow it up and start over.  We’ll all be able to watch the kaboom live on the Internet tomorrow here, which beats the heck out of standing around in the cold to see it in person.

Eighty years since the bridge was completed, designs have changed.  New York State has floated a few design concepts, none of which look quite as exciting as the old arched steel span, but I expect that at least they will feel and be safer as we tow the Airstream over them again in years to come.  In summer 2010, when we return to Vermont, the new bridge will likely still be under construction, so we’ll use one of the ferries or the southern route instead. I will definitely look forward to the new bridge, even though the bridge that I remember so well as the one that first opened up my traveling ways will gone.

 Bridge photos courtesy of NYSDOT

Vintage Airstreams and Modernism

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Hey, west coast vintage Airstream owners:  there’s a Modernism show happening in February 2010 in Palm Springs, and they want YOU to show up!

Modernism Week is an annual event in Palm Springs, CA, filled with exhibits, presentations, and house tours.  The Ace Hotel is planning to show vintage Airstreams along a promenade that winds through the hotel property, and sell tickets to tour the trailers at $10 per person.  If you’ve got a restored vintage Airstream up to 26 feet in length, they want to hear from you.

Other than open houses at rallies, it’s not that often that vintage Airstream owners get to show off their trailers.  Classic car shows are a dime a dozen, but classic trailer shows are a lot more scarce.

Of course, coming to events like this can be expensive for the owner.  Fuel alone for me to tow our 1968 Caravel to Palm Springs would run about $200 round-trip.  The hotel is offering to share 1/3 of the receipts from tours with the trailer owners to help defray the cost.  No telling how many participants there will be on the tours, but they do plan to offer four tours on Saturday, February 20, at 10:00, 11:00, 1:00, and 2:00.  I wouldn’t count on this to cover my fuel, but it’s better than nothing — which is what you usually get for displaying your Airstream.

The hotel has reserved a room for each vintage trailer, so participants won’t be actually camping.  You can stay in the hotel instead, at no cost.  From the website, the Ace Hotel looks like an interesting and fun sort of place.

Participating owners are asked to bring a “fact sheet” to hand out to people on the tour, and are encouraged to make a poster board display with information about the trailer and its restoration.  Also, if you’ve got a vintage trailer to sell, you can make it known during the event, which would probably yield some offers.

If you are interested in participating, email Christy Eugenis for an application. You’ll need to give some info about your trailer and include interior and exterior pictures.  Deadline is January 15, 2010.

The Caravel goes to Q

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

Quartzsite has historically been a major RV’er mecca in the winter.  It still is, but not so much this year.  The slowdown of the economy seems to have dinged this portion of the RV community more than others.  Quartzsite is traditionally visited for months by vast numbers of budget-conscious desert boondockers, who pay as little as $180 for six month in the BLM’s Long Term Visitor Area.  They pass the days browsing the flea markets and “shows” (essentially flea markets with themes), and contemplating the desert, I suppose.  Whatever they do, this year they’re coming here in considerably smaller numbers to do it.


Super Terry met me here to camp together for the weekend, and replace my broken front window.  That’s his 1974 Sovereign parked with my 1968 Caravel.  We’re in a private boondocking lot for $7 per night.  There are a lot of these types of places in Quartzsite.

Super Terry’s first night was a little rough, since he got caught in a serious traffic jam on I-10 near the AZ/CA border.  After two hours parked on the Interstate, and then some back-road wandering, he finally arrived far too late for anything but dinner. We tried Trader Joe’s “Thai for Two” and it was pretty decent for bachelor chow.

In bright morning sunshine of Quartzsite, we got to the task at hand.  Super Terry removed the broken glass and ruined frame of the front window, and went through the particular procedure required to rebuild a 1968 Airstream window.  He also very carefully removed one of the two curved side windows and replaced the original glass with a new piece that I bought from Airstream.  The new glass is considerably tougher than the original Corning stuff.  I decided to pre-emptively replace that glass just because I’ve experienced a side window failure in the past, and it’s a real pain to deal with on the road.

Each window needed to sit for two hours while the caulk set up in the hinge, so we took a break for lunch and were pleasantly surprised by a visit from Mike B.  Mike is one of several Airstreamers we know who are camped in one of the LTVAs for a few months.  We would have camped with them, but the LVTA isn’t set up for short visits (hence the name: LONG TERM Visitor Area).  The minimum permit is for two weeks, which costs $40. Later in the day we dropped in on the Airstream encampment and saw a few other folks we know from rallies and the Internet.

Sadly, the tape I used to hold the temporary Lexan window in place did not come off entirely.  I was warned about this by Colin Hyde.  After a few days in the sun, the adhesive won’t come off the aluminum.  I’ll have to get busy with some Goo-Gone stuff when I get back to Tucson.

dsc_3916.jpgLife in the Caravel as a single person has been very comfortable.  I could live in it for a while if I had to.  The tricks to living in a small space like this are to be extraordinarily organized (a place for everything and everything in its place)  and regularly cleaning up the detritus of each activity as it is completed.  You can’t leave the breakfast dishes out while you try to work on the computer.  The bed has to be made back into a sofa before you can gain access to some of the storage compartments.

With three of us, there’s an added trick: stay outside.  There’s really no room for the three of us to function in this tiny space all at once.  That’s actually not a disadvantage, since it encourages outdoor living.  When we want to travel with a rolling apartment, we’ll take the 30-foot Safari.  When we want to go “camping”, we’ll take the Caravel.  I would like to add an awning rail and a vintage-style awning later, to expand our outdoor space.  (I’m making a list of improvements and accessories for our first family trip.)

Although I know a few things to do around the Q, there isn’t enough here to hold me for long.  On previous trips I’ve hiked the popular hikes, visited all the shows, climbed “Q Mountain,” saw the historic and geographic landmarks, etc.  The really social action doesn’t kick in until January.  Right now it’s a bit quiet.  So on Sunday I’ll head back to Tucson with my list of improvements. With Christmas this week, I expect work to be very quiet, and combined with Tucson’s traditionally pleasant December weather it should be a good opportunity to get started on the Caravel projects.

17 Feet o’ Fun

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Wednesday was National Chocolate Covered Anything Day, which is a major holiday among women who recently discovered it, like the two who inhabit my house.  This led to chocolate fondue Thursday, a day late but when you’re dealing with a serious topic like chocolate, some leeway is apparently allowed.  And hey, if you’re doing fondue, might as well have cheese fondue for dinner,too!  That balances things, nutritionally.

fairy_godmother.jpgWe don’t normally eat like this.  Yesterday’s dinner was the sort of dietary faux pas that will turn us into manatees if we keep it up.  So now we are waddling around the house in a post-cheese & chocolate trance and wondering exactly what sort of conspiracy comes up with ideas like “National Chocolate Covered Anything Day.”  I suspect Fairy Godmother involvement:  “Get me something deep fried and smothered in chocolate.”

I have been spending the past three days rushing around, trying to simultaneously prep the Caravel for travel while completing major work on the Spring 2010 issue of Airstream Life.  The magazine is now 90% in the hands of the Art Department, which means that unlike the past two weeks, if I drop out of sight for 24 hours the world will not come to an end. Lately I have felt like one of those guys spinning plates on tall poles — it all looks great as long as you’re there to keep the plates spinning, but step away for a second …

I would not be rushing to prep the Caravel except that I have an opportunity to go to Quartzsite this weekend and visit some friends who are boondocking out in one of the BLM’s desert Long Term Visitor Areas. It’s the last such chance I’ll have for at least six weeks, and I really want to do it. So I ran down the list of the most urgent things to make the trailer fully functional: plug it in for charging, fill the water tank, lubricate the stubborn locks, test all the systems, vacuum out the sawdust inside and the broken glass outside, etc.  Of course that also included loading up with food, utensils, dishes, clothes, tools, and all the other accessories of fine trailer living.

In the process I discovered a few more things for the “bug list.”  The fresh tank water drain leaked at the shutoff valve. Over the years somebody replaced the water drain line but kept the original 40-year-old shutoff valve.  I don’t quite get the logic of that.  40-year-old valves leak, and a complete replacement costs just a few dollars. Eleanor and I rebuilt that little bit of plumbing this morning, with new water line, brass fittings, hose clamps, and a little Rescue Tape for extra insurance.  (Silicone tape is a new thing to me, but it’s turning out to be extremely useful, so now it’s a permanent item in my traveling toolbox.)

dsc_0620.jpgWhile testing the water heater I discovered an old paper wasp nest attached to the exhaust vent.  This was easily removed, and provided a nice bonus:  a little homeschool lesson for Emma about insect homes and honeycomb construction. But I also found that the bathroom faucet seems to be clogged or defective (no water comes out), and a switch to the Fantastic Vent seems intermittent. Plus I need a new 12v reading light, clips for the Magic Chef stove grates, some replacement clips for the 1968-style windows, etc.  I’ve already placed a hefty order at Vintage Trailer Supply this week and I can see another order needed in January for the vintage stoneguard and a few other pricey goodies. Having an Airstream and a “Sparestream” means double your pleasure, double your cost.

I got a new Reese drawbar for the Caravel, eliminating the need for the heavy equalizing hitch head I was using.  It also raises the ball two inches, so now the Caravel rides level.

68caravelbrochure.jpgI’m afraid to test the air conditioner — it is too expensive to have to deal with if (after five years of sitting) it no longer works.  Frankly, if it needs expensive repair I might be inclined to remove it altogether and put in a skylight instead.  Our Caravel was a “base” model when it was ordered, having none of the factory options then available, and certainly not air conditioning.  Over the years it has gained modern accessories like a TV antenna, air conditioner, patio light, and spare tire, but given the way we intend to use it, we would never miss the TV antenna or AC, and they ruin the vintage lines of the roof.

Now with some of our stuff back in it, the trailer is starting to feel like “ours” again.  During its five year absence it was like an old memory.  But our house was filled with children yesterday afternoon, so I took the laptop into the Caravel and made it my office, and bonded with the trailer.  I like the feel of the new dinette table.  The edges have soft radiuses, easy on the forearms when I type.  The Marmoleum top is neither cold nor warm, and yields slightly, making it nicer to the touch than hard Formica.  The trailer has good light and the foam of the new cushions is just perfect.

I love old magazine ads, and the brochure (pictured above) for the 1968 Caravel is a treasured addition to my collection.  I particularly like the fact that Airstream claimed the Caravel had “luxurious accommodations for six.”  Six what?  Elves? Trust me, with three people inside and both beds set up, it’s plenty tight in there, with no room to stand.  Sleeping six would require two people in each “double” bed, plus one in each of two optional bunks.  We’d be like snakes in a woodpile. Heaven help you if someone needed to go to the bathroom.  That probably explains why I’ve never seen a Caravel with the optional bunk beds.

Today I will head over to “Q” and field-test everything for two days and nights.  I have yet to use the shower, or dump the holding tanks, or just be in the trailer in an actual camping situation. You don’t really know how things work in a camper until you really go camping.  That’s when you discover where things need to be stored, where a hook is needed, where your hat goes, how long the battery lasts, etc.  As always, I’ll blog daily while I’m traveling, with thoughts about the roadtrip, Quartzsite, and life in 17 feet.

Caravan dreams

Monday, December 14th, 2009

Even in Tucson we have a sort of winter, where the sky clouds up for a few hours a day, the daytime temperatures linger in the 50s and 60s, and little sprinkles are eagerly anticipated by all residents.  Along with this “winter” comes a sort of winter doldrum for me, a person who is happiest around 90 degrees (in the dry desert).  With the early sunset, cold overnight temperatures, and holiday distractions, we don’t do as much camping this time of year.  And so I start dreaming of places to go, where “travel adventure awaits,” as Wally Byam put it in his marketing materials sixty years ago.

I’ve been trying to figure out what direction we will head in 2010.  I don’t mean compass direction, but more of a philosophical direction.  What’s the goal, where’s the trend, what makes sense for us at this point in our lives?  It’s a process that involves taking into account a lot of complex factors, such as our careers, our ages, Emma’s needs, finances, and strategic business goals.  Every year I’ve stared into the mirror, trying to figure out how we might spend our time, not because I had to change anything, but because I like a dynamic life where things grow and change constantly.  (Warning: It’s not for everyone, and it certainly wreaks havoc on relationships of all types.  I have a compatible spouse, an absolute prerequisite.) Once I’ve got a few ideas, Eleanor and I make the final decision.  Some years it’s easy, but in other years it’s a lot harder to read the crystal ball.

That annual thought process has determined our route across North America over the past three years, but in a broader sense it has also led to the life we live today.  Since I’m not a fatalist, I figure it will also lead to the life we live tomorrow.  Making thoughtful choices for one’s own life is a responsibility that seems worth taking on.  We only get so much time.

We’re not limiting our choices to Airstreaming in North America this year.  We’ve been nursing some ideas for international travel, and 2010 may be the year to stretch out and do that.  Or in the words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “now for something completely different.”  No conclusions yet, just a lot of interesting possibilities in this very interesting world.

For years people have been asking me if I would someday start leading caravans based on our  travel experience. I’ve always said that there are others (commercial operators, clubs, individuals) who are better suited to that job than I.  But this year I find myself considering even that possibility.  I could see a changed-up sort of caravan that busted all the rules and took some worthwhile risks, for a very small group.  It would be for people who are willing to get their hands dirty and feet sore, people who want to touch life rather than watch it through the window.  You can really only get a sense of a place after you’ve spent a few days living like a resident, doing something harder than browsing the visitor center.  That takes an extra effort, and I wonder how many people would be willing and able to try a caravan like that.

A few ideas have popped up.  I like the idea of a Four Corners archeological tour of remote Ancient Puebloan sites.  We’d hike a lot every day, and probably spend a couple of nights in tents when we were too far from the Airstreams.   I am also extremely intrigued by a rugged route from Newfoundland up the coast of Labrador, to see icebergs, moose, fishing villages, 16th century historic sites, and track down the elusive bakeapple.  We could even try to arrange a swap with a European Airstream owner while we’re at Alumapalooza (about 50 of them will be attending).  There are other ideas as well, all riddled with logistical challenges and gumption blocks.  That’s part of what makes them interesting.

In the end, I doubt we’ll lead even a tiny caravan anywhere.  I like showing people around and sharing, but I don’t really want responsibility for anyone else’s good time.  (Hey, it’s hard enough just figuring out our own route to happiness.)

But thinking along these lines leads to fresh ideas.  At this point everything is on the table. We might even spend part of the summer here, absorbing the heat and watching the lightning shows of the monsoon.   We could finally get to those great high-altitude parks in the west that are only fully visitable for short windows of the summer, like Lassen, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia.  Anything is possible.  That’s the cool part.

Peace and tranquillity, shattered

Monday, December 7th, 2009

My plan to visit Bert, Janie, Eric, and Sue was thwarted last night when I realized that I still had 100 miles to go and it was nearing 9 p.m.  I had covered 660 miles and felt it was time to get some rest, so I parked at a Cracker Barrel in central Albuquerque and settled in.  However, after dinner and the blog I was still wide awake, so I began to fiddle with things in the Caravel, and unpack.

I packed very carefully for this trip, but forgot one critical tool every vintage trailer owner needs: a lighter.  The stove, water heater (and the refrigerator, before we replaced it) are not self-lighting.  So while I had a few gallons of water, I didn’t have any way to warm it up — and that water was near freezing from the long day of towing across the plains of Oklahoma and north Texas.  I gritted my teeth and made do with a sketchy sponge bath in icy water.

The next job was to fix a leak in the toilet’s water supply. That was easy: teflon tape and a wrench.  So I had made some progress in getting the Caravel from “aluminum tent” mode to full-blown camping mode.  I now had a functioning cold water bathroom, plus a space heater, lights, and refrigeration.  I  was feeling pretty good about it when I went to bed.   The trailer was warm, the night was quiet, and I was sleeping peacefully.

… until 4:24 a.m.

Bang! Crash!  The front window of the Caravel spontaneously shattered into a bazillion little shards of glass — and believe me, that’s one heck of a wakeup call.  My first thought was that someone had thrown a baseball at it, because that’s what it sounded like.   But upon inspection, it was clear that once again I had experienced the phenomenon of the amazing self-destructing Airstream windows.

This problem seems to happen primarily to Airstreams made in the late 1960s, when Airstream switched to a (then) high-tech window glass provided by Corning.  The glass was chemically tempered, meaning that it was treated to be stronger, and if it broke it would break into small pieces instead of large dangerous shards.   The 1966-1968 Airstream in particular have an exotic version of this glass that matches the curvature of the trailer for a beautifully streamlined look.  That’s all good.  Unfortunately, the glass does not hold up well after four decades.  In cold temperatures, or when excessively jostled, it can suddenly and violently shatter.

I lost another window on this trailer back in March 2004, also in sub-freezing conditions.  I was towing through West Virginia when a curved side window collapsed.  That gave me no end of trouble, because in 2004 there was no replacement available for the curved windows.  Nobody, anywhere, made them.  I ended up replacing two of the three side windows with Lexan, which was a poor substitute.

Since then the glass has become available again from several sources. During the restoration of the trailer I replaced the two plastic windows with glass.  Three windows remained original: the front, the rear, and one side window. Now the front was in a heap in front of the Airstream.

I closed the front shade to keep the heat in, turned the catalytic heater to High, and climbed back in my sleeping bag to think about the best course of action.  After a few minutes, I turned on my phone and woke up the laptop, and began looking for answers.  By 5:30, thanks to good friends who were awake on the East Coast, I had a plan of action.

It was lucky that this happened right in Albuquerque, rather than on the road like the first one.  A Home Depot was half a mile down the street, where I obtained a sheet of Lexan cut to 39″ x 21″ and some heavy-duty aluminum tape.  Fifteen minutes of taping in the parking lot, and I was ready to hit the road again.

Oh, the joys of vintage ownership. I had forgotten the regularity with which things fall off or fall apart on vintage trailers.  In my opinion, the key is to fix things better than they were originally, so that the problems don’t repeat.  That’s why I bought replacements for all three of the remaining 40-year-old Corning windows the last time I was in Jackson Center.  It is expensive to preemptively replace the glass, but the alternative is waiting for one of them to dump glass shards during a camping trip.

The temporary repair was good enough to last for a while, but I decided to skip visiting with Bert, et al, and head home instead.  The factor keeping me from moving onward to the town of Grants was a storm approaching from the west.  Grants was expecting snow, possibly a lot, and I didn’t want to get stuck there.  So I passed on my regrets to my friends and hustled down I-25 toward lower altitudes and blessed warmth.


Despite 450 miles of intense headwinds after departing Albuquerque, here I am in Tucson.  Back at home base, safe and sound. The storm began raining on the house just minutes after I arrived.   The Caravel is parked in the carport temporarily, while I work on a few interior upgrades.  The GL has 4,200 more miles on it than it had 10 days ago.  All of us (Rich, car, trailer) will be happy to just sit still here for a while.  If I learned anything on this trip, it’s that there’s no place I’d rather be right now.

Geek on the road

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Today was the longest driving day of this entire trip: 660 miles from Tulsa OK to Albuquerque NM.  Eleven hours. I’ve discovered that the way to make states seem boring is to try to zoom through them on the Interstate. I bet that Oklahoma would have been great fun if I’d only slowed down and spent a few days exploring. But on this trip, that was not to be.

My first night in the Caravel was very comfortable. The new foam in the cushions is perfect for both sitting and sleeping, so I’m glad we sprang for the good stuff.  The little Wave 6 catalytic heater is well matched to the size of the trailer and kept me toasty all night despite freezing temperatures.  I discovered a few more items for the bug/upgrade list, most notably a large draft coming from beneath the refrigerator.  When I get this trailer to Tucson there will many weeks of happy tweaking to get it set up just right.  But except for having no water, it seems to be “all systems Go.”

Along the highway today I sought out water, and finally found a very slow source at a Flying J somewhere in Oklahoma.  It was so slow that I put in only a few gallons, just enough to mix in some bleach to sterilize the water system.  Thus “de-winterized,” it became my task to keep an eye on the temperatures, in case they dipped below freezing while I was towing.  The temps were up and down all days, but mostly in the safe zone, and even in Albuquerque at 5000 feet it was above freezing when I arrived.

Technology has been my companion on this trip.  The GL has four 12 volt outlets, all of which have been utilized.  The two front outlets powered the GPS and the Doran tire pressure monitor.  The 2nd row outlet powered my inverter (which charged my phone and my laptop).  The trunk outlet powered the Cradlepoint cellular router with Verizon Internet card attached.  Thus, I had a rolling wifi “hotspot” and was able to pick up podcasts from the Internet (using an iPod Touch) as I drove, and listen to streaming audio content.  At rest stops I’d check email messages and weather on the iPod, too.

In addition to all these devices, I have the Prodigy brake controller mounted on the dash and the GL’s own Nav screen which shows direction, time, and altitude.  As a result, the driver’s area of the car looks pretty geeky.  But it’s fun to have the toys and the info when you are navigating the Interstate across mostly flat terrain for 11 hours.

Tom asked about my hitch.  I have an Equal-i-zer brand hitch for this trailer, but it is overkill. Somehow, in the naive early days of Airstream ownership, I ended up with a hitch rated for a 1,400 pound tongue weight.  The Caravel’s tongue weight is in the range of 250-300 pounds.  Certainly a weight-distributing hitch rated for 1,400 pounds is not necessary, and I actually don’t feel that any weight distribution is needed at all for this particular combination (Caravel + Mercedes GL320).  So for the moment I am using the Equal-i-zer’s hitch head but not the weight distributing (a.k.a “torsion”) bars.

Now, most hitches incorporate sway control into the weight distribution system.  Without the bars in place, I have no sway control.  This gave me reason to be very cautious in the first few hundred miles of towing.  Over that time, I observed the behavior of the trailer at different speeds, in headwinds and crosswinds, as trucks passed by, over potholes and ruts, and (on a lonely flat straight stretch of I-55) in simulated emergency lane changes.  I’ve been very impressed.  The Caravel tracks beautifully, and I haven’t seen any hint of wandering.

There are still possible situations which could induce a sway, however.  A worst-case scenario might include loss of brakes, a gusty crosswind, and an emergency maneuver.  I won’t say that it is impossible for the trailer to sway, but I am fairly confident after 1,500 miles of towing that the Caravel is highly stable.  My intent is to ditch the current hitch and find a simpler setup with a basic sway control for future trips.

Interestingly, this trip has demonstrated that I get about the same fuel economy towing the Caravel (2,500 lbs.) as I do when towing the Safari (7,500 lbs.)  As I’ve mentioned before, weight and length of an Airstream have little to do with overall fuel economy.  It’s mostly about aerodynamics, and in that respect the two trailers are similar, despite one being twice as long and three times as heavy.  The frontal area of both trailers is of similar size and shape, and the effort of pulling that shape through the air is what you’re really paying for at the pump.

I am in Albuquerque NM rather than Midland TX only because this morning I discovered that friends Bert & Janie Gildart, and Eric & Sue Hansen, just came out of Chaco Culture National Monument in northwest New Mexico.  I’ll let Bert tell the full story on his blog, but the short version is that they nearly froze to death up there.  I had warned Bert that it would be cold, but he’s from Montana and he thinks it’s only “cold” when it is below zero.  In any case, the gang is up in Grants NM, about 70 miles from my location, and I’ll go look them up on Monday.

Following Route 66

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

When I planned this trip, I hadn’t anticipated sub-freezing temperatures all the way down to St Louis.  It was a cold start in the morning from Lincoln, IL.  The car said it was 24 degrees but it seemed colder.  Everything was coated in heavy frost, and the air was so nippy it hurt to breathe in through my nose.  I’m glad I didn’t try to spend the night in the Caravel.  I really needed that hotel room and warm shower, and I slept 10 hours very solidly.

Heading south long I-55 all morning I saw frosted brown stalks of corn fields, and half-frozen cattle stomping around on white grass.  It didn’t warm up until late in the morning, and by then I was crossing into Missouri.  Worse, there was a strong wintry headwind slowing me down, and the GL was getting only 12.5 MPG fighting it.

It hadn’t occurred to me until this morning that I was approximately following the historical Route 66.  The “mother road” used to run from Chicago to Los Angeles, paralleling I-55, I-44, and I-40 — exactly my route.  But watching the scenery closely (and what else is there to do alone in the car for ten hours?) I began to notice the quirky roadside signs and attractions that are today’s hallmark of historic Route 66.


The Pink Elephant Antique store was the first good sign of Route 66 I noticed.  I am a fan of architecture and giant-sized mid-century outdoor kitsch, so at first their classic soft-serve stand caught my eye; then the shell of a Futuro House (only the second one I’ve ever seen; and then a “Muffler Man“.  I’m fans of all these things, so to find them all in one spot was worth exiting the highway and doubling back for three miles along the frontage road.  The bonus was discovering that the frontage road was formerly Route 66, so I felt very good towing my little vintage Airstream to see the Pink Elephant.

The temperatures this time of year naturally discourage camping in the north.  I gave up looking for an open campground in Illinois, but was still hoping to fill the Caravel’s water tank along the way so that I could sanitize it while I drove.  (Eleanor and I mixed up a pre-measured batch of bleach and water to dump into the tank.  After four hours, all the bugs that might be living in the plumbing will be dead, so I can drain the system and refill with pure water.) But the Flying J I visited in Missouri had turned its water off for the season.  I took this as a sign that I was still too far north, and proceeded on.

Pulling into a rest area sometime later, I heard a strange clanging.  One of the Caravel’s wheel trim rings fell off just as I was slowing down, and it rolled along right behind me to finally stop 20 feet behind the trailer.  That’s something I was rather accustomed to back in the days when the Caravel was our primary trailer: things falling off in transit.  With the refurb, I expected those days would be mostly behind me, but I guess not. To be on the safe side, I removed the other trim ring and tossed them in the car for safekeeping.  I’ll have to figure out how to secure them better in the future.

Being cautious, I am towing at no more than 62 MPH (and usually 60 MPH), so it’s difficult to cover as many miles as I was a few days ago.  After nine hours of driving I managed 520 miles and then parked in Tulsa OK.  This will be my first night in the Caravel.  It’s still cold, but not nearly as cold as before (about 40 degrees as I type this), so with the catalytic heater pumping out warmth, and my sleeping bag, I should be completely comfortable.

This is “dry camping,” meaning that I have no water in the trailer and thus can’t wash, use the bathroom, or do dishes.  Cabin-fevered northerners often do this when their trailers are winterized, just to have a brief getaway.  The usual technique is to have a few gallons of water for drinking, and rely on the campground bathroom for everything else.  Since I’m stealth camping in the middle of Tulsa, I’m using the bathrooms of local stores and restaurants.  Can’t get a shower this way, but at least I can cover the basics, and meals are only a short walk away.

The weather is clear along my route, so it’s my choice whether to take the quickest way home or an alternate.  The quick way is still 900 miles, on I-40 to Albuquerque and then down I-25 to I-10.  Problem is, that brings me up to 6,000 feet elevation.  Albuquerque — my overnight stop — will be freezing at night again, and not too warm by day either. If I dip down into Texas via Wichita Falls and Abilene, I’ll have a much warmer climate at the cost of an additional 50 miles and about two hours of travel time.  Right now, I’m craving warmth so I am leaning toward the Texas tour.  I’ll figure it out before I get to Oklahoma City tomorrow.

Snowy and cold on the road

Friday, December 4th, 2009

I knew that the logistics of this particular trip would be challenging.  Going up to Grand Rapids MI to get a trailer in December is just asking for trouble.  I wasn’t expecting sunshine and tropical breezes, but I was hoping for at least a lucky break where there would be no fierce headwinds and no snow.  No such luck.

The drive up from Louisville to Grand Rapids was uneventful.  I started at 8:30 a.m. under gray scudded skies and occasional light rain, but with temperatures in the upper 30s.  The roads that hadn’t yet frozen for the season so there was no risk of ice.  I covered the 400+ miles quickly and arrived at Ken’s shop by 4 p.m.

The Caravel was awaiting me in the shop. It looks pretty good.  I did an pre-departure inspection and discovered that the refrigerator wouldn’t come on, and the water pump wasn’t connected to 12v, and a few other minor bugs.  We fixed the fridge and the pump, found my hitch, loaded the miscellaneous parts & pieces, and I was ready to go.  My friend Charlie had come up from South Bend to see the trailer and check out Ken’s shop, and after hitching up the trailer, Ken & Petey invited both of us to dinner at their house.

By the time dinner was done, we had three inches of fluffy powder on the deck.  It made the trailer look very picturesque.  That’s about all I can say in favor of it.  I had planned to tow down to Charlie’s house, to get a jump on the first 100 miles of my trip southward.  I wasn’t excited about towing the new trailer in the dark and in a snowstorm.  After much consulting of The Weather Channel, we realized that the bulk of the snow was landing away from the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The route to South Bend is mostly along the shoreline, so we decided to make a run for his house.

At first this appeared to be a big mistake.  We drove right into one of those horrible blinding snowstorms of fat white flakes that rush at your headlights and obscure the view.  Traffic on the Interstate was moving at 30 MPH and the car was getting shoved around by ruts in the snow.  I considered heading back but after seven miles things began to clear up, and then as we reached the shoreline the snow ended, just as we’d thought it would.

Still, I wandered around South Bend for ten minutes, momentarily lost, and didn’t pull into the driveway of Charlie’s house until nearly 10:30. We sat up another hour talking and then I settled into their guest bedroom, since the Caravel was winterized and empty of propane.

I got a start on making the trailer habitable today.  I filled up the two 30# tanks with propane, and bought some small plastic storage bins to organize my stuff.  I also fired up the catalytic heater to see how well it worked (very well, as it turned out).  That’s as far as I could go without water.  My rule of thumb is that I can de-winterize a trailer (fill the tank, water heater, and plumbing lines with fresh water) if the daytime temperatures are above freezing. That way the trailer won’t freeze while towing.  But the temperatures in South Bend were unseasonably low — 26 degrees, with a biting west wind that made it seem much colder.

This was disappointing but not unexpected.  It’s cold nearly everywhere in the US today.   The only solution seemed to be to drive south and hope for better temperatures tomorrow.  So I hauled out at about 2:30, drove about 250 miles, and got a hotel.   With a hotel rather than dry-camping in the Airstream, I’ll have high-speed Internet to catch up on work, a hot shower, breakfast, Weather Channel on TV, and plenty of heat.  It’s going down to 16 degrees tonight!


Since it’s low season for this particular hotel, I was able to park my rig right outside my window and keep an eye on it during the evening.

From here I have only the vaguest of plans.  I need to get back to Tucson fairly soon, to get a pile of work done on deadline.  Weather is the dominant factor in determining my route.  At this point it looks like the best route will be right through the heart of the country.  Once I get to I-40 I’ll have to make a decision whether to go high-altitude through Texas and New Mexico, or dip straight south into Texas for possible warmer weather.  I don’t expect really warm temps anywhere in the next few days, so lack of precipitation will be the best I can hope for.

The poor Caravel was looking gorgeous in the shop, but now the front is covered with frozen slush and the sides are streaked with road gunk.  The Mercedes isn’t looking too good either.  I am dreaming of a warm sunny day in southern Arizona, where I am stopping at a car wash to get all the northern winter grime cleaned off the polished aluminum.

Day Two of RVIA

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

 We must be getting the hang of it after five years of visiting RVIA, because we had a rather less complicated second day, with less rushing around.  Just by hanging out at the Airstream booth in the morning we were able to find several people we wanted to speak to.  I felt like a spider in a web, just waiting for people to blunder into my snare.  This knocked quite a lot of business off our “to-do” list and gave us the afternoon to browse some of the more startling RV’s on the show floor.

dsc_3834.jpgWith the downturn in the industry, the overall show is quite a bit smaller (in square footage) than previously.  Predictably, the giant Class A’s in the $500k and up range are fewer, but they are still popular offerings.  When the heavy business is done, I like to take a walk through some of the really over-the-top rigs just for entertainment value.  Winnebago was trying hard with scaled down A’s, but Tiffen and Fleetwood (among others) still are supplying the people who really need a Class A motorhome with granite countertops, five large TVs, two bathrooms, marble floors, power window shades, and four huge slideouts.   I can’t say I wouldn’t like to live in some of them, but it would feel weird to me to drive around a luxury condominium that costs more than any house I’ve ever owned.


The big joy of the day was meeting Sean and Kristy Michael of The Long Long Honeymoon.  They were camped outside the convention center and had dropped in for a couple of days to see what RVIA was all about.  (If you are thinking about going, keep in mind that it is industry-only, so you must be qualified, and camping on the asphalt is $50 per night.)  We were happy to find that the Michaels are just as friendly and fun to talk to as their many online videos demonstrate.  I would not be surprised at all to find a video collaboration in our mutual futures.  We spent the afternoon talking about ideas and making plans to get together again.  They are also now planning to come to Alumapalooza next June, to give a talk and show some of their camping videos.

Airstream made some announcements at the show to the gaggle of financial analysts who always show up at these things.  The big news from Bob Wheeler is that production of trailers doubled recently, to 24 trailers per week.  That’s still below historic highs but a huge jump and an indicator of the revival of the industry.  The whole of Thor Inc. (Airstream’s parent company) is feeling rather bullish about the coming year, and so am I.  There are still a lot of companies trying to kill themselves by cutting their way to “survival”, which is like slicing off your arms and legs so you need less food to eat.   But more of the companies we saw are making investments and strategic plays for their future, and they came to us with strong requests for new media solutions to help them along.  It will be a VERY interesting 2010 for the Airstream Life worldwide media conglomerate…


I know I’ve griped about convention center food and road food many times, so it is my distinct pleasure to tell you about a really good place to eat near the Kentucky Expo Center.  Just a couple of miles away is the Windy City Pizzeria, where you can get a Chicago-style pizza, several varieties of microbrews, and a cozy family atmosphere.  We found it by chance, in the pouring cold Louisville rain last night. Nobody recommended it, which made finding it kind of fun.  We had just hoped to find something local and not too expensive, and this place exceeded our expectations by adding friendly service and great pizza.

I can see it becoming an annual stop for us on RVIA trips in the future.  If we can just find one or two more good spots like this, we’ll have the whole trip covered.  Then we dsc_3864.jpgcan stop going to (a) ridiculously expensive business-class restaurants; (b) el-cheap-o and boring chain restaurants.

RVIA runs another day but  it is time for us to go.  Brett is flying home and I’ve got a 6 hour drive to Grand Rapids to do today, under the threat of lake-effect snow near Lake Michigan.  Phase III of my trip begins today, so the blogging will continue.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine