Archive for April, 2010

Last week before launch

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

 It is our final week at winter home base.  That means we’ve dragged out the checklists from last year, and every day we try to check off a few items toward the goal of hitting the road in the Airstream.

It takes a long time to get three people (with homeschool and a business) ready to hit the road for six months.  But each year it gets easier.  My checklist for shutting down the house has only about two dozen items on it, all relatively simple.  The jobs fall into four categories:

  1. Shutting  down (like putting the Qwest DSL service on “vacation mode”, turning off the gas, and clearing out the refrigerator);
  2. Securing things for the time we are gone (backing up computers, putting fuel stabilizer in the car, locking up);
  3. Preparing the Airstream and tow car (oil change, equipment checks, packing);
  4. Cleaning up (cleaning the house and Airstream, giving away outgrown clothes, exchanging books at Bookman‘s, thinning out stuff in the Airstream’s storage compartments).

We’ve tried to optimize this process by keeping the house “lean,” meaning relatively free of stuff and obligations, but having good neighbors is an enormous help. The potted plants always find a home where they’ll be watered, and we have several people who will watch the place while we are gone.  I never worry about the house.  If something ever happened, we’d probably get half a dozen phone calls in fifteen minutes.

Theft while we are gone is a relatively small issue as well, by virtue of the simple fact of our minimal possessions.  In other words, there’s nothing worth stealing inside.  Not only do the computers come with us, a thief would find no Picassos on the walls or oxycontin in the medicine cabinet.  We don’t even own a TV.  (Note to would-be burglars: if you are interested in risking a felony conviction for some garden tools, or a kid’s room full of who-knows-what, I can point you to the right place.  Frankly, you’d be doing me a favor. I don’t like gardening all that much.)

Eleanor and I find that it works better to each have our own lists.  We both have our specialties, and we overlap enough that nothing gets overlooked. We both keep a checklist of preparatory “things to do” and “things to pack.”  The “to do” list usually starts about three weeks in advance because of time-consuming projects (house repairs, trailer repairs, trip planning) and the “to pack” list kicks in during the final week, which is now.

Packing is probably easier for us than for most people, because we leave the Airstream mostly packed and ready year-round.  Long ago we bought duplicates of the most commonly-used items, specifically to stay in the trailer.  The trailer even has its own silverware.  Those things that do get removed (such as tools, office equipment, stuffed animals) are stored in containers while in the house, so that we can easily grab the container and put it back in the trailer without extensive re-packing.   That’s a tip I got from a fellow Airstreamer years ago: bins are your friend.

Of course, we do try to advance our tools and our packing process every year.  For example, the Kindle e-book reader has turned out to be a neat addition to our equipment list.  I’ve added “Fill Kindle” to my checklist so that I can head out with at least half a dozen books ready to read, in one slim and lightweight package.  Since working on the Wally Byam Books project I have become aware of the abundance of free public domain books available online, and it seems an excellent opportunity to finally read some classics that I otherwise never would have enjoyed. I can also read newspapers and magazines on the Kindle (by subscription), something that I never did when we were full-timing, since all the paper was cumbersome in the trailer.  But Kindle aside, I still like to have a few paper-based books in my hands, so we’ll also load up with tradeable paperbacks.

(These thoughts are probably on my mind because of the upcoming Summer 2010 issue of Airstream Life magazine.  We have an article on new mobile technology and a separate article about using checklists. I learned some things from both of those articles, and I hope you do too. That issue will be mailed in about 10 days.)

We are generally the type to avoid making reservations, but there are a few points on this voyage when we will need them.  Yesterday my “to do” was to identify those points and book campsites that would otherwise be unavailable on particular dates we expect to be in certain areas.  I hope I’m not giving away too much of the story by saying that those sites included Cheyenne Mountain State Park and Cherry Creek State Park in Colorado, Alumapalooza at the Airstream factory (of course), Long Key State Park in Florida, and Ft Wilderness in Disneyworld.  There are a few others we’ll have to book from the road, when some things solidify.  We’ve also had to book a couple of airfares, and alert some friends that we’ll be looking for courtesy parking on specific dates.  That’s a lot of reservations by our standards, but that’s because this is a much more structured trip than we’ve ever taken before.

The biggest challenge of packing up for a six-month trip is that you’ve got to anticipate a lot of varied needs.  We will encounter all kinds of weather, terrain, and a wide range of activities.  It’s impossible to bring something for every possible circumstance, so some judicious choices have to be made.  We know we will be hiking in northern New Mexico, swatting mosquitoes in New England, and snorkeling in the Florida Keys, but what lies between?  Some challenges will have to be solved ad hoc, with loans of gear by friends and the occasional purchase. In a travel trailer, you really do get by with a little help from your friends.

This trip we are not taking the folding bicycles.  It was a tough call, but when we analyzed our trip we saw that the only times we were really going to use bicycles, we’d be able to borrow them easily.  That saves a bunch of room inside the car for other things. In prior years I wouldn’t have dreamed of going away for six months without at least one bicycle, but every year is different.

Now that I think of it, perhaps packing for six months isn’t really the biggest challenge.  The biggest challenge is to get mentally ready.  I have to admit that life in the house has been exceptionally pleasant lately.  We’ve had low stress, lots of friendly visitors, cheap movies on Tuesday night, and of course all the amenities of modern suburban life  (ice and water on the refrigerator door, a barbecue grill on the back patio, room for projects, daily mail service, pizza delivery, etc.).  In some ways, it is hard to leave.  But if I look forward to the many adventures that await, that homebody feeling goes away and gets replaced by a tickle of excitement.

The other thought that is in our minds is that it is very likely this will be the last year we get to go out and extensively roam the country as we have been privileged to do.  Too many things are cropping up to allow a six-month voyage in 2011.  The best we can hope for will be a month away here and there, before we are called back to home base for one obligation or another.  It’s the end of an era for us, but there’s nothing to be sad about, since it is simultaneously the beginning of a new era.  Change is good, and we will find ways to make the most of what we have.  As has been said many times, it’s not about getting what you want, it’s about wanting what you have. I can see how 2011 and the next few years are likely to be radically different from our previous lives, but only in superficial aspects.  The core values will stay the same, and we will still travel.

So here we go.  The countdown is T minus 8 before launch.

Suspension of disbelief

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Starting in the late 1950s, Airstream made one of the best marketing moves since Wally Byam started running caravans, when the company hired photographer Ardean R Miller III.  Ardean’s photographs of Airstreams in exotic locations were so visually stunning, so artfully composed, and so inspired that they have been a staple of Airstream’s marketing for six decades.

ardean-miller-4.jpg Take a look at the thumbnails here (click any of them for larger versions).  These are just a few samples of the great commercial work that was being done for Airstream in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Even today, it’s hard not look at these photos wistfully and wish you were somewhere in that scene. Tossing a ball on the beach in Florida, meeting a “real Indian” on family vacation out west, fly-fishing near the red rocks of Arizona, or toasting your sweetie on a hill in San Francisco — those were all moments that Airstream promised you could have with one of their trailers.  No wonder the company was regarded as such an icon of ardean-miller-12.jpgAmericana — Airstream’s marketing took every American’s fantasies about escaping the rat race and hitting the open road, and put them on steroids in these beautiful images.

Now pause for just a moment after looking at some of the photographs.  Were you thinking, “That’s a beautiful scene,” or were you thinking, “Hey, you’d never be able to park your Airstream there!” ?

ardean-miller-3.jpgThat’s the magic part.   The scenes in these photos tell a wonderful story at a glance, and you bought it automatically.  Even though the images are always fantasies, they are fantasies you want to believe in.  It’s the principle of “suspension of disbelief” — if a movie, story, or photo is good, you’ll suspend your cynicism long enough to enjoy what’s in front of you.  This is good stuff, and ageless because it touches universal human themes: freedom, adventure, and family.

ardean-miller-8.jpgThe other noticeable commonality is that in an Ardean Miller photo, the Airstream is always present but is never obtrusive.  He recognized that the product is only a means to a greater end.  People don’t buy Airstreams for practical reasons– they buy the aspirations that an Airstream enables.

ardean-miller-6.jpgThat’s a refreshing thing for me.  I spent a few years in corporate marketing, and a couple of years working in an ad agency, and I can tell you that most marketing managers have no clue of the subtle principles that induce people to buy.  Instead you hear comments like this from people with “vice president” in their title:  “Can we make the product bigger?”  “I don’t think the logo shows well enough.”  “Why don’t we add in a dog — because people like dogs.”

ardean-miller-9.jpgThere are many ways to kill great art before it has a chance to develop. Results like these take nurturing, and protection from bean-counting managers.  Any goofball with a camera can claim to be a commercial photographer, but only a real artist can repeatedly produce really great images that make you long for more.  Ardean had that sort of talent. Sadly, not many other photographers do.  Time has proved that Ardean was a tough act to follow.

Sometimes I wonder if modern businesses have simply given up trying.  Here’s a horrifying example from my favorite company:

as-postcard1.jpg

What’s wrong with this picture?  Well, to start off, the composition is all wrong.  Clearly the Airstream is the overwhelming emphasis, and the people in the front are awkward specks of foreground, mere props.  There’s no story here.  So right away, you start to doubt the contrived scene.  And that leads to uncomfortable questions.  What are they doing there?   Where did the Adirondack chairs come from?  Is that what people do when they travel — just stop on the road and pull out their guitar for a quick serenade?  Where’s the “adventure” in this scene?

as-postcard1cu.jpgAnd then you start to actually look at the extremely fake people … Now really, does anyone dress like that?  This postcard is from the 21st century, but “Suzy” here seems to be stuck in another decade. And “Jim” just looks like a dork. Didn’t someone tell him that wearing a sweater knotted in front is really not cool?   It makes me wish for a review by Charles Phoenix.

“Jim” here is obviously very impressive to his “wife” as he strums that guitar out in the middle of a lawn somewhere while his Airstream blocks traffic.  Her adoring gaze tells you everything you need to know (e.g., someone paid her to look that way.  When was the last time your wife looked at you like that?)

Note the staged iced tea, too — isn’t it just too perfect with that slice of lemon perched on the rim of the glass?  …  And now here we are, focusing on the minutiae and completely unimpressed with the product, because the scene surrounding it is so damn bad.

Honestly, do you aspire to be either of these two?  I didn’t think so. Personally, I’d run screaming from a product that might make me into one of these plasticine people.  If I ever start wearing a sweater knotted over a sport shirt like that on a summer day, please take me into custody.

as-postcard2.jpgYou could do a better job of inspirational photography with an Airstream parked at Wal-Mart.

I won’t even begin to pick apart the second image at right (I leave that as an exercise for you.  Click, and enjoy.)

Now, to be fair, these images may represent the nadir of Airstream product photography.  I’m not sure of the date of these two images but it was at least several years ago.  The work has gotten much better lately.  Airstream has even hired Ardean’s son (Ardean “Randy” Miller IV) to do some work for them recently.  Once again, the company has started to tap the romance, excitement, freedom, and togetherness that Airstream has been so closely bonded to over the years. It’s a matter of selling the sizzle, not just the steak.  If they can get even halfway close to the high standard of the 1960s, I think the company can expect a commensurate rise in public image and sales.

Chiricahua National Monument

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

For three years we have had this unit of the National Parks system on our “must visit” list.  Mostly this has been because Chiricahua sits in the southeastern corner of Arizona, not far from our winter home base, and it beckons to us.  A national park left unexplored is, in our lives, an unnatural vacuum. Missing one that sits only 100 miles from our home is inexcusable.

But we have had excuses nonetheless.  Chiricahua has presented two small barriers to our visitation.  For one, most of the park is between 5,600 and 6,800 feet above sea level, which means it gets snow in the winter and presents its best weather in spring and fall.  We’re usually busy with other things at those times, and often aren’t even in the state.

The other barrier is one of logistics:  the road through the park and the only campground are CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps)-era creations, with the usual gorgeous stone works and narrow, winding roads.  Our 30-foot Airstream would never be able to camp here.  The official limit is often stated as 29 feet, but that really refers to motorhomes.  For trailers, 22 feet would be a more practical limit, maybe even shorter.

Two years ago Bert and Janie Gildart took their 28-foot Airstream to this park and found out why: the CCC workers in the 1930s built two steep road dips through dry washes inside the campground.  The Gildarts added a long scrape of their own to the many others found on the roadway.  Just last week I got an email from some blog readers with a 25-foot Airstream and they, too, reported scraping.  (They had bumper damage, as well.)

We had planned to tent camp here, but with the arrival of the 17-foot Caravel we finally had a proper vehicle for Chiricahua National Monument.  Looking at the trip plan this year, I realized that we needed to either go this month, or pass on the park until sometime in 2011.

wonderland-of-rocks.jpg

The funny thing is that I hadn’t expected all that much.  Sure, we’d heard of the “wonderland of rocks” that has been promoted here since even before it was a National Monument, and others had told us that it was a very nice place, but that didn’t prepare us for the scenic beauty of the place.  Let me cut right to the chase:  Chiricahua National Monument is a really gorgeous, and possibly under-appreciated (only 56,000 visitors last year), national park.

The only campground in the park, Bonita Canyon, is classic CCC.  There are the narrow roads, as I mentioned, and there are the little stone and brown-wood bathhouses, and tiny tent-sized campsites that have been gradually co-opted by trailers and small motorhomes over the decades.

caravel-at-chiricahua.jpgA word about those campsites.  They are not friendly to big RVs and long trailers.  In addition to the impossible dips, the 90 degree bends, and complete lack of RV services (no hookups, no dump station), the sites themselves are generally sized for one ordinary passenger vehicle.  That parking space is probably not level, either, since when this campground was built people were expected to pitch a tent.  Only the tent spaces have been leveled.  We had to pull out every leveling block we had, and extend our tongue jack to the highest level to get the Caravel approximately level in site #12.

Still, I do not begrudge rustic little CCC campgrounds like this one in any way.  They are charming, shady, and quiet.  They take me back to days of camping many years ago.  It’s like traveling back in time, since little has changed in the seven decades since they were built.  I am not an advocate of expanding, leveling, and adding utilities to these campgrounds, since in almost every case, “improving” a CCC campground would utterly destroy the essential charm of it.  For many people, a wilderness area (an official designation that constitutes the bulk of Chiricahua) is cruelly mocked by massive infrastructure such as is seen in Yellowstone and other major western parks.

I consider it a privilege to stay in such a historic, beautiful, and primitive place for a mere $12 per night.  Apparently others feel the same way, since the 25-site campground fills up nearly every night in the spring and fall.  We arrived at about 12:30 pm and found that only a few tent sites remained available, besides the notorious Site #12 that eventually accommodated us.

Our friends Ken and Petey had arrived the night before, in their 16-foot 1961 Airstream Bambi.  After settling in, we met up with them and checked in at the Visitor Center to get oriented, pick up the Junior Ranger program, and plan our next 24 hours.

When you are in a tiny trailer, life is generally conducted al fresco.  It is difficult to find room inside for three people to function all the time, and a group of five for dinner is unquestionably an outdoor affair.  Fortunately, the entire weekend we received the typical southern Arizona April weather: dry, clear, and mostly bug-free.  (Emma, however, has gotten so used to not having bugs that the appearance of just one or two strikes her as cause for complaint.  “The bugs are awful!” She needs to spend a May weekend camping in northern New England sometime.)

emma-zoe-ken-at-chir.jpgThere are two major activities here:  hiking, and visiting the original ranch houses as part of a guided tour led by park rangers.  I can heartily recommend the hiking, and in fact you can’t really see the best of this park without doing at least a little.  The “wonderland of rocks” is a huge formation of volcanic tuff that has gradually eroded and split into tall spires and unlikely balancing rocks.  The photographic opportunities are endless, for both the bird-watcher and the rock-watcher.  The trails, again built by CCC labor, are excellent.  We covered 3.3 miles in one hike on Saturday, circling from the Echo Canyon Trail to the Upper Rhyolite Trail and then to the Ed Riggs Trail, and we wished for more.

faraway-ranch.jpgThe ranch tour (free, no reservations needed) is also well worth a visit.  It’s always interesting to hear the tale of how a national park was established.   The Faraway Ranch house is the centerpiece of that story.  Since the house is essentially a time capsule complete with furnishings, it has its own story to tell, too.

coatimundi.jpgEvery time we  travel to a southern Arizona park we hear from someone about the dangers of encountering border crossers from Mexico.  For the first time we encountered a Mexican immigrant who has taken up residence here in recent decades:  the Coatimundi.

This cute critter looks like a cross between a cat and a monkey, with an incredible long tail.  He climbs like a monkey, too, quick as a flash up and down trees.  We’ve never seen one before, even in a zoo (although I believe there are some at the Sonoran Desert Museum), so it was quite a surprise to have one slinking and sniffing not far from our campsite.  From the wildlife log at the visitor center, it seems the coatimundi drop by on a regular basis.

With only two nights in the park, our visit was too short.  Emma snagged the Junior Ranger badge of course, and we managed to take in several trails, but there is clearly much more to explore.  I’d also like to try the graded dirt road over the mountains to Portal AZ (on the east side of the Chiricahua Range), possibly with the Caravel in tow if the road conditions permit.  And just a few miles down the road, there’s Fort Bowie National Historic Site, which we missed on this visit.

We are already talking about going again in about a week.  It’s the perfect time of year and we’ve got our eye on a particular 6.9 mile trek the would bring us past most of the park’s best formations.  We would have just stayed another day on this visit, but unfortunately I am expected in the office on Monday for several important tasks.  There is no cell phone service in Chiricahua Nat’l Mon., nor Internet of any sort (even satellite would be tough with all the trees and canyon walls), so there was no possibility of extending our visit by working from the Caravel.  (Drat that “work” thing.)

This Sunday was our neighborhood’s annual block party, which we managed to get back in time to attend.  I told some of our neighbors about our trip and in doing so I met a couple of guys with trailers who started telling me about all kinds of wonderful boondocking spots in southern Arizona.  It seems that we’ve only scratched the surface of this region.  We have just a couple of weeks left before we must leave for points north, but now we have a long list of explorations to enjoyably work through while we are here — and next season as well.

The words of Wally

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Over the past few weeks I have been working on a very special project: reprinting the two books written by Wally Byam.

Now, to those outside the Airstream world, Wally Byam may be just a name.  But to those of us who travel in Airstream trailers, Wally is a demi-god.  He’s most famous for starting the Airstream company back in 1931, and introducing the first aluminum-skinned Airstream trailers in 1936.  Every Airstream owner travels in a direct descendant from those 1936 Airstream Clippers, even today.

But what really made Wally a hero were his famous globe-trotting Airstream caravans.  He was a man with “an itchy foot,” as he put it, and soon began leading ordinary people on extraordinary voyages all over world — in Airstreams.  In 1948, he toured post-war Europe in a custom built Airstream with his friend Neil Vanderbilt (heir to the Vanderbilt fortune).  This by itself was an extraordinary achievement, since Europe was hardly open for tourism at that time, and entire cities were bombed out.

In 1951, Wally arranged the first trailer caravan ever, when he took a group of untested and inexperienced Airstreamers into Mexico.  The group was bigger than he had expected, 63 trailers in all, and the trip was arduous beyond belief.  Roads were rough, power was hard to find, and they had to dig their own pit toilets at every camp site.  By Mexico City, one-third of the caravan turned around and went home.  The rest pressed on to Guatemala, through roadless jungle (via rail) and incredible conditions.  Wally wrote it better than I could:

The border crossing into Guatemala took several hours despite the advance arrangements, and since it was a hot day, we joined the Mexican children swimming in the river while we waited. After the red tape at the border, we crossed the Talisman Bridge, and most of the outfits had to be towed up the steep hill from the river — a significant introduction to our Guatemalan journey. Another stop for examination of documents, and we were off at a snail’s pace on the dirt-and-boulder road Guatemalans call a highway — a rocky, rutted trail through dense forests and underbrush. In the eight and a half hours until we found a clearing where we could camp for the night, we covered nineteen miles.

guatemala-lunch-stop.jpgThe terrific jolting on the road caused cabinet doors to fly open inside many trailers; when we parked, the weary owners were confronted with scenes of utter devastation. Broken glasses and bottles and their contents mingled with flour, sugar, pots and pans, on the floor. Learning a bitter lesson, Caravan housekeepers put everything on the floor that could possibly end up there before continuing this rugged journey.

The next day was another prolonged struggle with steep grades, rocks and dust. The trailers spread out for miles with the tow truck continually pulling them out of holes and up hills. One trailer was stuck in the middle of the road, blocking a bus, until all the passengers got out and pushed it up the hill. From eight-thirty in the morning till nine-thirty that evening we covered exactly sixty miles. I found a fair campsite on a river and went back along the road telling everybody how to reach it, but the last one didn’t limp in until the following evening. Meanwhile, Caravan wives did their laundry in the river exactly as we had seen Mexican women doing all the way along, and everybody went swimming to cool off.

Every disaster you can imagine – and certainly more than I ever imagined — occurred on that road to Guatemala City. Axles and springs broke; brakes and clutches wore out, transmissions failed. The power wagon carried tools for some repair jobs, as well as equipment for towing, but there were naturally many parts we did not have — nor did the nearest garages. They had to be flown in from Mexico City in some cases, which caused a considerable delay.

After they had been pulled up and eased down numerous steep hills, with hours spent waiting for the tow truck to come to their aid, many outfits just gave up. Some sold their trailers to local buyers, some shipped them home by rail or boat and either went with them or by plane.

By the time the caravan left Guatemala it had dwindled to twenty-two trailers. The rest headed to El Salvador, Honduras, and finally arrived in Managua, Nicaragua.  After a week’s stay to recuperate, they turned around and did it all again to get home — a repeat performance of the entire ordeal, complete with burned-out transmissions and other failures.  Wally cannibalized his own trailer for parts so often that he finally abandoned it by the side of the road.

Wally Byam came back from this trip with only 14 of the original 63 trailers.  He had lost 27 pounds and his hair turned gray.  And yet, he recovered from that adventure and led another caravan into Mexico just nine months later.  Then he went on to lead a Canadian caravan in 1955, a European caravan with 34 trailers in 1956, a Cuban caravan in 1956, numerous Mexican and US caravans, and then his magnum opus: the incredible Cape Town to Cairo Caravan across Africa in 1959-1960 — both ways, north and south.

The stories of these caravans were well-documented at the time, in magazine articles, films, and books, but most of those are hard to find today.  Wally wrote two books about the trailer lifestyle and caravanning, both of which are long out of print.  They were “Fifth Avenue On Wheels,” published in 1949 and 1953, and “Trailer Travel Here And Abroad,” published 1960.  These books are really marvels of travel history, documenting a unique golden age of worldwide trailering that simply can’t be duplicated today.

byam-books-cover.jpgUsed copies of these books are extremely expensive if you can find them at all.  Typically an original copy of “Trailer Travel Here And Abroad” will run $100-350.  This means that the vast majority of vintage trailer and Airstream owners have never seen them.  That’s a shame, because the stories, photos, and ideas that Wally shared half a century ago are still fascinating.

I’ve wanted to reprint those books for years, but the motto in the publishing world is that “reprints don’t pay.”  That’s especially true when you are re-publishing a book that will sell, at most, a few hundred copies.  It was to be a labor of love, if we were ever going to get them back in print.  After a few false starts, I discovered that Forrest McClure, had also begun working on the project, and we threw our resources together.

After four years of part-time work, scanning, correcting, and re-setting every word of Wally’s books, we have finally completed the job, and now both of Wally’s books are available once again.   In an effort to ensure that the books would be read by as many people as possible, we designed the books for lowest possible cost ($24.95 in the Airstream Life store).  We re-set the type for an 8.5″ x 11″ page size (to reduce the page count), printed in a paperback edition. But every fascinating word and every wonderful historic photo is included — plus a couple of new introductions and a memoir by Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn, who was on many of the famous caravans as a young man.

There will never again be a Wally Byam.  He was unique, and his accomplishments simply can’t be duplicated today.  The only way to appreciate this period of travel history is to read his books.  That’s why we went through all the trouble of getting them back in print today.  If you want to get a copy, visit the Airstream Life store.  Enjoy!

Goin’ campin’

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

There really is a difference between “traveling” by RV or trailer, and “camping”.  When we are in the big thirty-foot Airstream Safari, we travel.  We stay in campgrounds fairly often but we don’t make camp fires, or cook outside, or lounge around in hammocks. Instead, we go exploring the local area, do our grocery shopping, work, school, have business meetings, and get together with friends in the area. This can go on for months at a time, even years. It’s a great lifestyle, but it’s not camping.

Things are different in the Caravel.  We’re forced into camping mode just by the diminutive nature of the trailer.  We can’t carry much stuff, and the tiny size of the trailer encourages one to sit, nap, eat, and socialize in the great outdoors.

I find this to be a refreshing change from the full-time travel experience.  “Think Small,” was the slogan of Volkswagen in the 1960s, and it could as easy be the slogan for tiny travel trailers.  By thinking small, we are forced to focus on the under-appreciated little things, like the sweet smell of blooming flowers on a spring day as you sit outside with a book.  Suddenly, without many distractions indoors, you start to notice the bees pollinating nearby, the songs of birds in the morning, and the sensation of tensions easing as your subconscious accepts that today you have “nothing” pressing to do except relax.

Two weeks ago when we were at Picacho Peak I was reflecting on our neighbors, who were camping in teardrop trailers.  Except for motorcycle trailers, teardrops are the smallest camping units on wheels you can find.  The interior is usually just large enough for two people to lie down, or sit with a book.  Cooking is done, by design and necessity, outdoors from a “chuck wagon” built into the rear of the trailer.  If you want further shelter, you’ll have to pitch a tent.  This minimalist lifestyle strikes me as a great system when you really want to disconnect for a few days.  Only by stripping away all the accoutrements that we gather around ourselves, can you really get back to yourself.  I get the same feeling when we tent camp — it’s much less comfortable than either of the Airstreams, but it’s fun.

This weekend we are heading to Chiricahua National Monument in southeastern Arizona.  We’ll take the little Caravel and spend the weekend hiking the great trails.  There will be no TV, no cell phones, no water slides. But there will be a “wonderland of rocks” and splendid vistas from the peaks, plus plenty of quality family time of a type we don’t get when we are at home.  If you are in the area and interested in joining us, just drop by Bonita Canyon Campground (max trailer length 28 feet).  It’s first-come, first-served and the campground fills up most nights at this time of year, so get there early!

Ingo Vision backup camera

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

If you’re not already sweating with anticipation, just from the title of this blog post, you may wish to tune out.  This is a geek session.

I got my IngoVision backup camera installed yesterday, along with the Mid-City Engineering interface module for the Mercedes COMAND unit (that’s the factory-supplied “all in one” box for the radio/CD/DVD/nav/Bluetooth/iPod etc.).  The result has been exactly what I was hoping for — a good, clear, full-color rear view while towing.

mercedes-backup-cam.jpgHere’s how it attaches to the car.  The Ingo “PremiumCam” kit includes a very tough external connector which we mounted on a gusset attached to the receiver hitch. It looks just like a miniature version of the 7-way connector for the Airstream.

The rest of the kit (left, click for larger view) includes a coiled cable that runs between the Airstream and the Mercedes, a second plug to mount on the tongue of the Airstream, and a long run of cable that will go to the back of the Airstream.  The camera will mount on the bumper compartment lid at the back of the Airstream.

Inside the car, the Mid-City VIM164p interface box was attached to the back of the COMAND unit, and the camera cable was connected to the COMAND’s backup camera input.  That part of the installation is completely invisible, since it is all hidden inside the dashboard.

In the picture above at left, you can see all the cables and camera plugged into the Mercedes for a test, since I haven’t yet put it on the Airstream.  Ingo mounted the Airstream plug on his propane tank cover, which is very slick and looks like a factory design.  I’m mounting mine on the flagpole holder, which is bolted to the electric jack.  The cable will run in a protected loom under the bellypan, so it should be a quick installation with some ties and rivets.

mercedes-cam-screen-1.jpgUp front, the interface module allows the camera to be tied into the COMAND system as if it were OEM equipment.  I just press one button on the steering wheel and there’s the picture from behind the Airstream.  It’s a little stretched, probably due to the difference in aspect ratio between the Ingo-supplied screen and the Mercedes screen, but it looks good.

The camera also automatically activates when in reverse.  The nagging text you see at the top of the screen is superimposed by the Mercedes COMAND unit, not the Ingo system.

If you have a truck or SUV with more interior space, and don’t go for the fancy integrated nav screen deal that I did, you can get the same camera system for a pretty reasonable price.  The IngoVision PremiumCam (two-camera) system runs $599.  The BaseCam (one camera) system is $399. That gets you everything you need including the screen.  Installation can be DIY, or you can bring it to a local automotive electronics store and have them do it in a couple of hours.

I think this will qualify as a legitimate safety improvement.  I’ve seen a lot of Airstreams with backup cameras (usually older models and Classic motorhomes), which suggests to me that at one time it was probably a factory option.  Well, those cameras have come a long way since then — they’re smaller, cheaper, and have color, “night vision,” and better resolution.  I think it’s time Airstream consider bringing back this option as a way to improve safety for owners.

I can’t wait to get try this out on the road.  My first chance will probably be in May when we shove off for the big summer/fall trip. I’ll report on our experiences with it once we get moving.

Readying for summer 2010

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

As always, we are looking six to eight months into the future to plan our travels this season.  This year the plan is fairly ambitious for a family that is supposedly not full-timing anymore.  We will leave Tucson in early May and likely not return until mid-November.

I’m not entirely sure about this amount of time on the road this year.  Life in Arizona has been pleasant and easy, and I like to be here for at least a little of the hot weather.  Last year we stayed until mid-June and got a solid month of 100-degree days, which I actually like except for the air conditioning bill.  And usually we get back in October, just in time to catch the last week or two of hot days and warm nights.  So I find myself reviewing the tentative travel plan and wondering, “Do we really need to be out that long?”

2011tour.jpgBut when I flip over my Magic 8-Ball, the answer keeps coming up “Yes.” We have a lot to do this year.  I am launching a new magazine (first issue due out in October 2010, topic to be announced later) and that means double-duty on the road.  We’ll be doing both Airstream stuff, like Alumapalooza, and prep work for the new magazine all over the country.  Plus, we are expecting to attend a wedding on the east coast, and visit family.  So Eleanor and I have been playing “connect the dots” with the US map, and we’ve strung together a route that basically goes like this: AZ-CO-OH-NY-VT-MA-CT-VA-NC-GA-FL-LA-TX-NM-AZ.  I figure we’ll log about 14,000 miles all inclusive, over six months.

(Flags on the map are only the stops we know of at this time.  We’ll make others …)

This may be the last year we can pull off this sort of mega-trip.  Our daughter is reaching an age where she has responsibilities and long-term projects that can only be completed at home base.  I am gradually accumulating projects that may require a little more air travel, too. We’re going to have to face some tough decisions in 2011.  So as always, we need to look at this trip as if it might be our last, and try to make the most of it.

Part of our pre-expedition prep is to get the tow vehicle and Airstream in shape.  The Airstream is already set to go, in fine running condition thanks to work done on our California trip in January.  (I can’t wait to log some real miles on those new Michelin LTX tires and see if they live up to the promise!  Finally, a trip without multiple tire failures?  Wouldn’t that be nice?)

The Mercedes is also set to go, but I’m going to make a few improvements.  One item to be installed will be a clear paint protector on the hood, mirrors, and forward part of the fenders.  Here in Arizona you can tell the mileage of a car just by counting the chips in the hood and grill paint, thanks to our sandy/gravelly environment.  The Mercedes is less than a year old, but already has two chips in the paint on the hood and a few more on the mirrors.  Since I plan to keep it for a long time, I guess I’ll spend the money on the paint shield.  Bah.  We didn’t have to do this on the Armada, because its hood was much higher off the ground. I’ve noticed that the lower the hood on a car, the more quickly it gets dinged.

Another upgrade will be to install Ingo’s camera.  Last January when we were camping in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, a fellow named Ingo Werk happened to be camping nearby.  Ingo and I “knew” each other only via the Internet (a couple of years ago he contributed a small article to Airstream Life magazine), so it was nice to finally meet in person.  He’s an Airstream owner of course, but it turns out that he also has a company that makes automotive upgrades — and his latest product is “INGO VISION,” a very cool backup camera system with “night vision” and two cameras.  One camera goes on your tow vehicle, and the other goes on your Airstream.

I saw this in operation on Ingo’s rig and was very impressed.  There’s a 7-inch LCD screen that mounts in your truck and operates the cameras.  At the push of a button you can see the view from either camera.  The system is wired rather than wireless (so you can get a reliable and extremely clear view in color).  With his “premium cam” Ingo supplies wiring and connectors so you can hook up the Airstream camera from the truck using a quick-disconnect plug.  When you are towing, you can constantly monitor the traffic behind your Airstream on the LCD screen.  When you’re not towing, the backup cam on the truck still works, which is handy for hitching up.

There was only one problem for us.  The interior space of the GL320 is pretty limited, and I could not find a place to mount the 7″ screen where it would not crowd us.  In a typical truck or larger SUV there would be no problem, but we are already struggling with a GPS and tire pressure monitor in a fairly tight cockpit.  Fortunately, I discovered the wizards at Mid-City Engineering, who make OEM-quality upgrade modules for various cars.  They have a little magic interface box that will make the Ingo Vision camera image appear right on the built-in nav screen in the car.  Very cool.

So I’ve gotten that box and arranged for the local car electronics place to install it tomorrow, along with the plug on the back of the Merc for the Airstream’s camera.  I’ll still need to mount the Ingo Vision camera on the back of the Airstream, and string the camera wire from front to back of the Airstream, but that should be a reasonable DIY job.  Once it is all running, I’ll be able to watch the view behind the Airstream while towing, which should be a huge help to my overall situation awareness.  (Normally I’m all about looking forward and not backward, but in this case I’ll make an exception.)  I’ll post pictures of the setup in a separate blog post, later.

Finishing up house projects is the other major task before we go.  We have begun to take our house a little more seriously, so we are very slowly fixing the things that we have ignored over the past three years.  None of the projects are huge, but it’s important to tie up all the loose ends before we take off. Mostly that means planting a few trees and getting them established, fixing some drainage issues, finalizing some painting projects, zapping the weeds, and other such homebody tasks.

Doing these things helps motivate me to leave.  I don’t like doing house maintenance.  Once we are on the road, we can forget we have a house and just live in the moment. It’s always briefly disorienting, then freeing, and finally comforting to know that don’t need to a house and all the stuff that goes with it.  When we are in the house, that perspective is hard to maintain.

We’ve got one more camping trip planned locally before we take off.  Sometime in the next two weeks we’ll go to southeastern Arizona to explore the wonderful Chiricahua National Monument and some great national forest campsites nearby. This will be a Caravel trip, since the big Safari won’t fit in those campsites.  The mountains run about 5,000-7,000 feet, which is why we’ve waited as late as possible in the season to visit them.  Even in mid-April we’ll probably have freezing nights.  But this area has been on our “to do” list for three years and if we don’t go in April we won’t be able to go again until sometime in 2011.   There won’t be nightly blog reports since I don’t expect any cellular service, but I’ll post a full report upon our return.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine