Archive for August, 2010

Separation

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

There are a lot of types of separation, and as I’ve discovered, parting is “sweet sorrow” only sometimes.  We are gearing up to depart Vermont, where the Airstream and our daughter have been parked all summer long.  That means the usual five-day process of catching up on everything before we head out.

It’s not that re-packing the Airstream is all that hard.  In fact, it’s quite easy.  What makes the job hard is re-organizing, cleaning, culling, and making decisions.  Imagine that every six months you took everything out of your house, decided what to donate or toss, and then put it all back.  Don’t forget every scrap of clothing you have, and add in a growing 10-year-old with a wardrobe, and you’ll start to get the picture.  We’ve got t-shirts and plastic forks left over from Alumapalooza, dust from Ohio, spider webs from Vermont, and receipts from the NY State Thruway. You can ignore this gradual accumulation of junk in your house because it’s so much bigger, but in 240 square feet any bad habits of housekeeping quickly catch up with you.

Then there’s the detritus of three months of courtesy parking.  Emma’s stuff is spread all over an acre of property. The solar panels are covered in tree mulch and bird droppings.  There are the unfinished projects to sort out, shopping to do, tires to re-inflate, things that need lubrication and things that need cleaning. And while we are doing this, there are the friends who want “one last visit” before we go, who we sometimes (regretfully) have to say “Sorry” to because we need every spare moment to get all of our projects done.

One project in particular that is vexing me (I’ve never spoken of myself as being vexed before but that’s how it feels) is removal of the old Tour of America decals.  Officially the Tour of America ended in October 2008 when we ceased full-time travel, but we left the decals in place (a) because we like them; (b) it looked like a difficult and uncertain job to remove them.  Indeed it has been.

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I decided to start with the most obviously out-of-date decal, the big purple Tour of America sign on the curbside.  There were several questions:  How do you get it off?  Will it leave behind a shadow from differential sun fading?  Will it damage the clearcoat?  I did some online research but couldn’t find anyone who had removed decals from an Airstream before, so I took my best shot at it.

It turns out that the vinyl peels up rather slowly and with considerable effort, if you use hair dryer to heat it up as you go.  There was no damage to the clearcoat, and no fading or shadowing.  But the decal left behind a nice sticky layer of adhesive that resisted most chemical attacks.  I had to be careful when experimenting, as some chemicals might also remove the clearcoat.  Goo-Gone was anemic, as was mineral spirits. The chemical M.E.K. did a pretty good job but the fumes were amazingly horrible.  Goof-Off worked just as well and was less difficult to be around. Even the best treatments took 4-5 passes to completely remove the adhesive with a plastic scraper.

At this point about 80% of the adhesive is removed.  I’ve been at it for about an hour or two each day for three days — about as long as I can stand the fumes.  Separating adhesive from clearcoated aluminum is a job I can live without.  When time comes to remove the other decals, I may take it to a automotive vinyl graphics shop and pay to have professionals with respirators and bunny suits do it.  But now that I’ve started this one, I have to finish it before we head out.  Otherwise, our trailer side will effectively be a 4×5 foot piece of flypaper.

We don’t plan for the trailer to go naked, however.  What will go on the trailer instead?   That’s a difficult question to answer.  Right now Brad, Eleanor, and I are kicking around various designs and ideas.  Here’s one that I really like, but which we won’t be using (mostly because I need to promote magazines, not this blog).

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No matter what we ultimately choose, I think you will still be able to easily identify us as we roll by.  But it will be a few weeks before the final decision is made.  We will have to live with whatever we choose, for quite a while.  And I don’t want to have to remove decals again for a long time. It’s one form of separation that has no sweetness associated with it at all.

Becalmed

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Good news for those who are only interested in Airstream travels … we will resume our Airstream explorations sometime next week, with a three month voyage down the east coast and then westward back toward Arizona.

I have re-settled in Vermont, joining Eleanor and Emma in the Airstream, currently parked in my parents’ driveway along the shores of Lake Champlain.  The Airstream seems to have survived its very wet summer fairly well, with only a dozen or so major spider webs strung along the wheels, hitch, and roof vents. It rarely sits in one place so long.  I am sure there will be some maintenance items before we can head out again, but hopefully nothing worse than greasing the hitch and adding air to the tires.

Likewise, the Mercedes has survived.  You might think that was a no-brainer, but I was receiving regular reports that made me a little nervous.  The car’s parking space is drastically humid, with daily bird overflights that result in frequent acidic attacks on the paint.  But Eleanor has tried to clean up the messes promptly, and I will forgive her for letting Emma eat Cheez-Its in the back seat.  The car had its 30,000 mile service last week, which shows how much we’ve been using it.  It is only 16 months old. We’ll need a new set of tires, and possibly brakes, before we get back to home base in November.

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Coming from Arizona, where hot “summer” weather will continue well into October, to Vermont where summer is already winding down, is quite an adjustment.  Everyone is grabbing the last moments of beautiful weather and outdoor activity here.  Last night a gang of friends showed up to race the Hobie Cats on the lake, but the wind was light and it turned into more of a leisurely sail.

hobie-cat-2-lake-champlain.jpgEleanor and I invited our friends Guy & Katie to come over as well, and we watched the Hobies depart while we had grilled dinner on the deck.  Due to their slow speeds, there was plenty of time to eat dinner and hop in the Boston Whaler to intercept them as they came back across the broad section of Lake Champlain (about 3 miles).  There wasn’t a lot of white-water action, but it was a good night to enjoy the blue-green view of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains as the sun set.

In the picture above, you can see Steve and Carolyn puttering along with the distinctive shape of Camel’s Hump in the background.  Camel’s Hump is a regular summer climb most years, about 4,000 feet in elevation.  There’s some wreckage from a WW II era plane crash near the summit, and spectacular views.  I may see if I can recruit someone to do that hike this weekend.

becalmed-lake-champlain.jpgI hustled at work last week so that this week would be relatively easy.   This is just past the peak of summer in Vermont, and in some ways it is the very best time of year.  The bugs are signing out for the season, the humidity is gone, temperatures are in the 70s most days, thunderstorms are less frequent, the lake is perfect for any activity, and the sunset is still late enough for a quick boat ride after dinner.  This is the season of county fairs and chicken suppers.  There’s still fresh corn on the cob to be had, the gardens are still producing, and ripe apples are just around the corner.

In late August, the frantic rush-rush of summer is over.   Vermonters have done their bike rides, scenic walks, farmer’s markets, historic house tours, swimming, boating, fishing, and dinners out on the patio.  Late summer comes with a feeling of satisfaction, if you’ve played it right.  Anything after this point is bonus time.  You can get becalmed on the lake at sunset, and it doesn’t seem like any big deal to have to paddle the last few hundred yards back to port.

This is probably the last really quiet week we’ll have for a while.  The travel plan calls for numerous stops in September and October.  We’ll be on the move every few days.  I can see half a dozen visits just between Cape Cod and New Jersey, and we’ve got about ten stops planned in Florida during October.  This next week will be about getting mentally re-charged and prepared for an extended trip, and it looks like I’ve timed my return perfectly, because it looks like the perfect week to do it.

The birthday card

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

While paused in Tucson as Temporary Bachelor Man, I recently had a birthday come and go with minimal associated excitement.  This was the plan; we’d have a small party when I got back to Vermont with Temporary Bachelorette Woman and her trusty sidekick.  So I didn’t think much about my birthday until today, when I received the most incredible hand-made birthday card in the mail.

Our friend Lou W (a sweet lady who, along with her husband Larry have hosted us several times at their home in Ohio) makes cards for every occasion.  She has an incredible home office which is stuffed with every sort of rubber stamp, paper, ribbon, glue, lace, stencil, and paper punch that you can imagine.  All of this is neatly organized for efficient card-making whenever the occasion should arise.  Emma, being a “crafty” sort of kid, likes to go down into the basement office and make things under Lou’s direction.

Lou’s card for my birthday was so special I felt it deserved public recognition, so here it is:

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ABOVE:  As received.  Note the ribbon at the bottom.  Pull this, and the top illustration flips backward to reveal … birthday-card-2.jpg

“Keep on rolling”.  Pull again on the ribbon and it becomes …

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… a hand drawn illustration of a little trailer parked in the sun.  Pull again on the ribbon, and you find …

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… encouragement?  Recognition?  Perhaps both! And the arrow directs you to continue the Road Trip by opening the card at last.

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Inside, signatures of Lou & Larry, their daughter Loren and soon-to-be son-in-law Mike, and some surprise bonuses!  I had directed our friends Bert & Janie Gildart to Lou & Larry’s home for the finest courtesy parking in Ohio, and they arrived to find “Artist@Large” Michael Depraida courtesy parking as well.  You can see their signatures as well.  All are wonderful friends we made while traveling in our Airstream.

We’ll see you all soon.  I know we’re going to intersect with the Gildarts in late September, in Virginia, and we’ll see Michael at the next Alumapalooza if we don’t run into him earlier while out west this winter.

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Finally, on the very back, Lou’s personal stamp and a bit of advice.  Lou, you didn’t have to tell me!  This one’s a keeper.  Thanks to you, and everyone else, for a really special birthday card. Now it feels like my birthday.

Pendleton blankets

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Everyone has got to have a hobby, right?  Well, most of the Airstreamers I know have several.  It seems to be part of the Airstream owner psychological profile to be interested in lots of things.  Perhaps it comes from our deep-seated need to explore.

My friend Fred Coldwell is a prime example.  In addition to being the foremost authority on historical Airstreams (and hence a frequent contributor to Airstream Life magazine), he is also very well-versed in the history of WW II Jeeps and “agrijeeps”, and lately, Pendleton blankets.

He’s written two articles for Airstream Life about the history of Pendleton’s long-running “National Park” blankets, and he also has a website on the subject, for collectors.  Fred claims that Airstreams and National Park blankets naturally go together. In his first article he suggested that it would a most sublime experience to visit some of the parks in their 100th anniversary years, and then go to sleep in your Airstream beneath a warm woolly blanket from one of those very parks.

Visiting Fred’s house, I’ve always been struck by the incredible collection of vintage national parks blankets he has.  His bed is literally buried in them, so many that I wonder how he is able to get in bed at night.  He has chests full of them, each with a very specific historical significance that he can explain.   The stripes and designs of each blanket have meaning, and many of them are limited editions or historical versions that are no longer produced.  It seems almost as if there as many variations to collect as there are with Hummel figurines.

grand-canyon-blanket.jpgFred has been single-handedly responsible for my interest in the Pendletons, too.  Not long after he wrote his first article, Eleanor and I spotted a limited edition Grand Canyon blanket at the North Rim, and we bought it as an anniversary present to ourselves.  A few months later, I bought another one on eBay, “Homage To Spider Woman.”  (No, not Spiderman’s girlfriend, but a person from Native American lore.)  That one was featured in a fine art post card by Facerock Productions (no longer pictured on their website) and came to me with some red dust still in it from the photo shoot.

man-in-the-maze-blanket.jpgThe Spider Woman blanket was used on our couch for the winter, and has since gone into the Caravel.  The Grand Canyon blanket covered our bed in the house until this summer when I bought three more Pendletons in a bit of a blow-out sale.  A guy had gotten these using coupons he’d won at an Indian casino, and was selling them on eBay for cash. Fred, again, was the motivating factor. He emailed me to say, “You’ve got to have this one!” and looking at the Man In The Maze pattern, I decided he was right.

the-record-keeper-blanket.jpgWhen the buyer came over, he offered me a deal I couldn’t refuse on “The Record Keeper” (pictured at left), so now we have a total of four Pendletons. One for each Airstream, one for Emma’s bed, one for our bed. I plan to rotate them around, since I love all of the designs.

Pendleton makes the collecting habit even more addictive by creating limited-production versions for special groups.  For example, the special Grand Canyon blanket we bought could only be purchased at the North or South Rim stores, and only for a year or so.  It wasn’t even advertised.  You had to go there in order to get one.  The “Man In The Maze” blanket is only sold by the Tohono O’odham community in Arizona.  My Spider Woman blanket is also no longer available.  There are zillions of really cool designs that you simply can’t buy today, unless you can find one used. This ensures scarcity of certain designs, and drives collectors into a frenzy to get “rare” blankets.

But the only really bad thing about collecting these Pendletons is that they are expensive.  Typical retail is $200+, although I’ve managed some bargains.  They last forever, with appropriate care,  and can become heirlooms, but there’s no doubt that collecting blankets is not cheap.

And that brings me to the key point of today’s blog. Pendleton Woolen Mills is running a video contest in which you can win a full set of National Park blankets.  Their “Celebrate the National Parks” contest runs through November 1, 2010.  To enter, make a short video of why you love our National Parks or describing your favorite National Park, and post it on YouTube.  (Details here.) If your video has the most views by November 1, 2010, you win.  So, if you are heading out to any national park this summer or fall, take the video camera and maybe you can win the entire set!

A night of lightning

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

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On Sunday night I was out photographing neon again, when an enormous set of thunderstorms rumbled through over the Rincon and Santa Catalina mountains.  I grabbed my last picture (Mama Louisa’s Italian Restaurant on Craycroft), and headed home to get some photos.

lightning-strike-near-house.jpgI’ve been waiting all summer for a really good lightning storm to show up.  The year-round residents promised me a light show like I’ve never seen before, if I would only stay through the monsoon season.  This year has been a bit of a bust so far, but Sunday night made up for it.  There were hundreds of lightning strikes visible from our neighborhood in a couple of hours.

I’ve never photographed lightning before, so I played around a little and shot several hundred images.  (About 80 of them can be viewed on my Flickr site.)  Conditions were perfect where I was standing: no rain, no wind, and a clear sky with great views to the storms.

My technique was fairly simple.  To maximize my chances of catching a lightning bolt, I used the super-wide angle lens (Tamron 10-24 mm) set to 10 mm.  This allowed me to capture a large swath of sky.  I mounted the camera on the tripod, set the ISO to 100, and manually fixed the focus at infinity.   Rather than choose a pre-set exposure, I let the camera choose but I dialed in three to four stops of underexposure to make the lightning bolts show up.  I have no idea if this is similar to the technique used by professionals, since I just made it up, but it worked well.

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The real trick of lightning photos seems to be patience.  It’s basically a matter of aiming the tripod where you think the bolts are most prevalent, and pushing the shutter over and over again.  If the storm cooperates, you can frame up a nice image in advance, using foreground objects to set the scene.  But storms don’t cooperate with anyone, so you have to stick with it until that lucky confluence of preparation and timing occurs.  My exposures ran about 5 seconds.  If there was a strike in that time, I’d get it.  But most of the time the lightning was obscured by clouds, which resulted in a well-lit sky but not a visible bolt.

If you try this, get ready to hit that Delete key a lot later. Most of the shots I took were duds.  Don’t pause to edit on the camera — just keep shooting.  If you stop to delete photos from the camera, you’ll miss that great lightning burst, guaranteed.  This means a big memory card is also an asset, to store hundreds of photos.

This is the sort of storm that Eleanor and I were watching a few weeks ago when we were tent camping up in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  We were fortunate that storm never reached us.  (We would have been much safer in the Airstream, thanks to the protective aluminum shell and the “skin effect“.)  Watching the fury of these summer lightning bolts on Sunday, I was grateful that I was safely near home, and not in a tent.  The monsoon may have been mild for Tucson most of this summer, but one night like this demonstrates just how fierce it can be — and what fun it can be if you happen to be standing in the right spot for a view.

The Sonoran Hot Dog test

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

My friend Bill says that Tucson is famous for Sonoran Hot Dogs.  And here I am, alone again in Tucson with a week left before I am reunited with my family, never having tasted one of these artery-clogging specialties.  What’s a Temporary Bachelor Man to do?

Of course there’s only one response to that. On Saturday I recruited my neighbor Mike to be wingman as I crossed the threshold to this medically-cautioned treat, plunging headlong into a sea of mayo, mustard, and jalapeno sauce.  We piled into the old Mercedes diesel and clattered our way across to 12th Street on Tucson’s south side, where the two undisputed champions of Sonora hot dogs can be found:  El Guero Canelo, and BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs.

El Guero Canelo’s name refers to the founder, “the blonde Mexican guy.”  I have no idea what BK stands for, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the owner’s initials.  Both of these restaurants have opened other locations in Tucson, but both keep their original 12th Street locations as well, almost directly across the street from each other.  The hot dog business must be good.

bk-sign.jpgBK was our first stop.  An open-air restaurant, it features a tall, happy (and apparently suicidal) hot dog welcoming you to come and eat it.  Perhaps this hot dog is smiling because it knows that real Sonoran dogs are smothered in ingredients.  Nobody’s going to eat that naked thing.  It’s almost perverted to think of a hot dog so undressed when you are expecting the rich, fat taste of one wrapped in bacon and buried beneath beans, onions (grilled and fresh), tomatoes, mayo, mustard, and jalapeno.

bk-sonoran-dog.jpgWe decided that the BK dogs would be best with a “Mexican” Coke (meaning, in the original style green glass curved bottle that you hardly ever see in the USA anymore). A bottled soda tacks $1.75 onto your tab, but even still the meal of a Sonoran dog plus a Coke comes to less than $5.

The Sonoran dog, whether it comes from BK or El Guero Canelo, is a minor work of art. The sauces are decoratively zippered across the top, providing fair warning to those who attempt to eat them.  As with the Double-Double with extra sauce at In’n’Out Burger, you WILL need a napkin.  And possibly an angioplasty.

chowing-down.jpgBeing old guys, Mike and I both anticipated this glorious pig-out and ate lightly for the previous day.  We were hoping to earn cholesterol credits (at least in our minds) that would offset the highly unbalanced (but delicious) meal of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and doused in mayonnaise.  I think the only way we could have really earned these would be to have jogged all the way across Tucson, but being 104 degrees today, we weren’t even considering that.

The BK dog had a definite jalapeno bite to it.  Three bites later, however, and my taste buds were so busy struggling with the unaccustomed “full fat” flavor that I stopped noticing the jalapeno.  No doubt my tongue was also coated by then, protecting it from the sharpest of the spice.

Five or six bites later, it was gone.  My brain said, “MORE!” even though these things are surprisingly filling.  I was ready to call it a day after my first Sonoran dog, but Mike insisted on pressing onward.  We had come all this way for a hot dog trial and we weren’t going to shy away from the challenge now.  So we fired up the Mercedes again and drove all of 300 feet to El Guero Canelo for Round Two.  (Exercise was definitely not part of the plan.)

el-guero-canelo.jpgLike the competition across the street, El Guero Canelo on 12th Street is an open-air place with a roof for shade. I like the extremely casual atmosphere of the place.  It’s somewhere between a street vendor and sidewalk cafe, on the ambience scale.   If you want a Sonoran dog, you can get one at dozens of locations in Tucson, but still plenty of people from all over Tucson come down to 12th Street to eat at one of these two restaurants.

el-guero-canelo-sonoran-dog.jpgFor the second dog, I switched from Coke to Jarritos orange soda, and found there’s absolutely no impact on the dog-eating experience.  A Sonoran dog will overcome anything.

I did like the El Guero Canelo touch of a roasted pepper on the side.  But overall, I couldn’t decide whether I like BK or El Guero better.

They say we are hard-wired to love fats and sugars, as a survival instinct.   If so, it will always be hard to resist the lure of a Sonoran dog and a sweet soda.  Eat it, and not only do other tastes fade away, but soon you can’t even remember what was bothering you earlier.  You float gently on a raft of lipids, and your biggest challenge in life seems to be chasing those baked beans that rolled away.  It’s a bit of escapism in a bun.

I think that in a year or two I’ll have earned enough dietary credits to have another Sonoran dog.  I wouldn’t recommend them as part of a regular diet, any more than I’d recommend the dreamy chocolate cake that Eleanor left in the freezer, but as a treat they are pretty special.  It may well be, as Bill implied, that eating a Sonoran dog is an essential part of the Tucson experience.  I may start recommending them to people who visit — or at least, those who don’t already have heart conditions.

Tucson’s historic neon signs

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

tiki-motel.jpgWhile I’m in Arizona enjoying the summer monsoon season, one of my projects is go out at sunset and take pictures of signs …

I’m co-authoring a book with Carlos L., a local architecture enthusiast here in Tucson, about historical neon signs in Tucson.  Tucson’s stock of historical buildings is vastly depleted due to years of careless re-development.  Carlos runs a Yahoo group called “Vanishing Tucson” that tries to document places that are about to get torn down, and work with the community to save things when they can. Recently they were involved in the re-purposing of the massive handmade sculptures at Magic Carpet Golf.  (Many of the sculptures have been saved and a few are now permanently installed elsewhere.)

silver-saddle-steak-house.jpgWe still have a good stock of historical signage in Tucson, but it is severely endangered.   Most of the signs are neglected, dysfunctional, and non-conforming with current law.  Once they come down, they can’t come back.  And they can’t be fixed unless they come down!  Catch 22.  So activists in the city are working on a Historic Sign Amendment that will protect and grandfather those signs.

owl-lodge.jpgJust before sunset, when the desert heat is beginning to abate, we go out on photo safaris to find the signs and capture pictures of those that are lit.  On weekends, we make daytime trips to the signs that are no longer lit (which, sadly, is most of them).  Others are badly maintained and only partially lit, like the famous Tucson Inn sign pictured below.  I drive the car and jump out to take pictures, while Carlos rides shotgun with his laptop and updates his database of signs with details about their current condition.

tucson-inn.jpgBefore the Interstate, the main entrance to Tucson was a highway from Phoenix that became Tucson’s “Miracle Mile.”  Strung along it were scores of motels, restaurants, and other businesses, lit up with signs and beckoning the hot desert traveler with “Refrigerated Air,” swimming pools, and Color TV. The road continued down what is now Drachman Street, 6th Avenue, and out to Benson Highway.  Of course, the arrival of the Interstate changed all that, and now huge swaths of this formerly dramatic and bustling road are degraded, disregarded, and even disconnected from the former alignment.

abc-market.jpgStill, a lot of the historic signs have held on through the years, advertising apartments, “motor courts,” markets, and steakhouses. They are a largely under-appreciated resource of Tucson and many other cities, perhaps because old neon signs are associated with seedy parts of town.  But most of these signs are in front of thriving businesses.  If the Historic Sign Amendment can be passed, over 100 signs will be eligible for preservation. Hopefully then the owners will be able to take them down temporarily and have them refurbished to their former glory. I could even see this amendment spurring the founding of new local neon restoration businesses. There’s plenty of work to be done.

We’re doing this only because it is interesting to both of us, and it’s really needed.  We hope that the book will raise awareness and appreciation of historic signage, and perhaps provide inspiration for people in other cities that also have a historic sign resource worth preserving.  It’s a long term project with no specific completion date, but I hope we’ll be ready to publish in about a year.

Anyone who has old pictures of signs in Tucson as they appeared in their heydey, or information to share about signs, please get in touch with me by clicking here.  We’d welcome contributions and acknowledge them in the published book.

The hunt

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

 The fun is in the hunt.  I don’t know if it’s cave man instinct, or the human ability to problem-solve, but there’s something very satisfying about analyzing your prey, pursuing it, and capturing it.  Has there ever been a hunter who hasn’t been grinning (at least on the inside) while dragging home their latest acquisition?  It doesn’t matter if it’s a deer, an antique Chesterfield, a car, or (in Eleanor’s case) a fine salmon from the fish market.  You feel a sense of pride in having bagged the right one, especially after a long and grueling search.

That’s where I find myself right now.  For the past several months, I have been hunting a fairly common quarry: the Mercedes 300D, built between 1976 and 1985.  Being based on the famous Mercedes W123 chassis, they’re everywhere — literally millions sold worldwide — so, like wild turkeys, it’s not rare to spot one, but it is rare to spot and bag the “right” one.

mercedes-300cd-ad.jpgI’ve been looking for one for complicated reasons that probably deserve an entirely separate blog entry.  Suffice to say, I’m intrigued by something about those old diesels.  One car reviewer described them as “the automotive cockroaches: they’ll eat the grease out of your dirty frying pan, and you can’t hardly kill them.”  Like the 2009 GL320 we use to tow our Airstream, the 300D is a 3.0 liter turbodiesel, but the resemblance ends there.  The Mercedes 300D is a solidly-built touring car, beautifully engineered, but the 5-cylinder engine used in it is a loincloth-wearing primitive compared to the ultra-complex electronic GL320 spaceship.

The GL320 has a bunch of computers in it to run everything from climate control to trailer lights.  The 300D uses vacuum hoses from the engine to control nearly everything, including the door locks and transmission shifts.  It’s like comparing email to a pneumatic tube.

The GL320 is barely audible at idle, while the 300D exposes its diesel truck heritage proudly and loudly. This is one of the things that I like about it.  The GL320 doesn’t sound like we all expect a diesel to sound, thanks to super-high-pressure computerized fuel injection.  When I’m in a campground and trying to make a quiet getaway at 7 a.m., I appreciate that, but I have to admit there has always been some disappointment that the GL320 doesn’t sound just a tiny bit more musical as it runs.

Three decades lie between the technologies of these two vehicles, and yet the 300D is still a remarkable car to drive, a real pleasure as it serenely — and reliably — floats down the road.  It’s not fast (zero to 60 in 14 seconds), it’s not powerful (125 hp, 170 ft-lbs torque), and it’s not sporty.  But it’s a marvel of its time, and a car I could only dream of when it was new and priced at well into the $30k range.

The 300D and many variants (such as the very common 240D) were all built on a common chassis, called “W123″.   In this video, Mercedes says 6.7 million of them were made worldwide, although the official Daimler press release says 2.7 million.  Regardless, the combination of incredible durability, economy (in fuel), quality, and relatively low resale cost has made them very popular, and many people collect them.  When fuel prices go up, so do the values of W123 diesels, because they convert fairly easily to run on Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) or Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO).  (Interestingly, the resale value of WVO or SVO converted Mercedes cars is pretty poor, at least from my experience.  Perhaps this is because aficionados believe that running veggie oil shortens the life of the engine, and the conversion, with necessary gauges and switches, decreases the originality of the car.)

w123-red.jpgIn Europe, the W123′s were often taxicabs. Rather famously, a Greek cabbie set a world record for durability, logging 2.8 million miles in a 1976 Mercedes 240D (with eleven engine swaps).  It’s a great story, but it was on a W115 chassis, not a W123.  Not being highly concerned with accuracy, eBay sellers love to tell a mutated version of the story in which the record-holder is a W123.  This is probably why you can see auction after auction on eBay claiming that “these cars often run a million miles or more!!!” — which is hogwash.   Most of the W123′s in North America died from owner neglect, accidents, or rust.  If you treated yours well, kept it garaged, didn’t drive it in winter, and adhered strictly to the maintenance cycle (with valve adjustments every 5,000 miles, etc.), it would last.

w123-light-blue.jpgMost people didn’t take such care, and so those cars are gone.  Or worse, they’re for sale right now.  I can’t tell you how many really crummy examples of sadly abused W123′s I’ve seen in the past few months.  Craigslist is a rich source of horrific 240D’s and 300D’s in brutalized condition, with delusional sellers who think they are Teutonic gold mines. Well, they are holes in the ground, but not the right kind of holes I’m afraid.

w123-blue.jpgThe eBay sellers are particularly dangerous.  Pictures taken from 20 feet away reveal very little about the condition of something as complex as a car.  The seemingly beautiful car in the photos can become a rusted nightmare when you take delivery.  “Car flippers” who don’t know or don’t care to share the history of the vehicle will take your money and smile.

So in the pursuit of the right 300D, I enlisted the help of friends when I could.  Dr. C was instrumental in teaching me the fine points of classic Mercedes — and especially how to recognize the warning signs of troublesome cars.  Thanks to him, I can glance at a 300D from 50 feet away and tell you what problems to expect on the inside.

Other friends took the time to visit the cars that were far away, on my behalf.  The red 300D pictured above was investigated and photographed by my friend Todd H up in the Phoenix area.  The dark blue 300CD (door pictured above) was investigated and photographed by my friend Andy G in the Boston area.  In both cases, their on-site inspections revealed several serious defects that the sellers failed to photograph or acknowledge in their ads.  I can’t believe people buy cars from thousands of miles away, just on the basis of a few eBay photos and some breezy seller promises (“everything on this car is primo!”), but they do every day.

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The hunt finally ended last Friday, and amazingly the car was found just five miles from my house.   A tip from a local Benz independent mechanic led me to a lovely couple in their eighties who were preparing to downsize to a smaller house across the country.  They had a beautiful, one-owner 1984 Mercedes Benz 300D that had been garaged for 22 years and driven regularly.  They’d maintained it as if they were going to keep it forever (which they very nearly did!)  Best of all, they were very fair on the price. They were the rare type of people who really did want it to go to a good home and weren’t concerned with making a killing on the sale.

So I bought it.  I need a third car like I need a third Airstream, but I bought it anyway, and now it sits in my carport.  And it’s beautiful.  I could sell it tomorrow for double what I paid, but I’m not going to.  I’m going to drive it, and take it to car shows, and listen to the diesel engine with the sunroof open, and when I’m not driving it I’ll keep it under cover in the dry Arizona climate so that it lasts another 26 years. In six years, I might even let Emma drive it.

The only small disappointment in this is that I had expected to find a car far away, at least in California.  Part of the thrill of the kill is dragging home the prize. I had envisioned a wonderful one-way bonding roadtrip, just me, the car, a sleeping bag, and the open road.  A breakdown along the way would have made a good story, too.  But this trip back to the cave required only fifteen minutes (plus a stop at the DMV for a Historic Vehicle plate).  After I get the oil changed, I’ll have to invent a trip just for the sheer pleasure of it.

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A very wet hike in Arizona

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

I’m in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, during summer.  All around me is nothing but sand dunes and shimmering waves of heat, right?

Well, no.  Actually we are blessed with beautiful “sky islands” in southern Arizona, which are tall peaks that rise from the desert and provide blissful cool forests and completely different ecosystems to explore.  Just north of home base are the Santa Catalina mountains, probably the more accessible range because of the excellent road that winds to the top, and the multiple hiking trails.

I’ve talked about this range before. From our home base, it is the first thing we see every day through the window, a stunning range of brown (down low) and green (up high) frosted with white peaks in the winter.  Everyone who I’ve talked to, even the residents who have lived here for their entire lives, says they never get tired of the Catalina view.

My friend Brent from the Phoenix area invited me to do some tent camping last weekend.  Like us, he owns an Airstream Safari 30 “bunkhouse,” and like us, he sometimes wants to get back to the basics once in a while.  There’s something about tenting that makes you really feel the experience. Just you, a thin shield of nylon, and an outdoor fire.

During the preceding few days the summer monsoon had finally kicked in, and I had been watching huge thunderstorms sitting atop the Catalinas, so it was a pretty fair bet that we’d get rained on up there, but what the heck.  Tucson averages just 12 inches of rain per year, so a little rain would be a somewhat novel experience. Besides, for a New England camper like myself it would just be an average camping trip.  Or so I thought.

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There are several campgrounds located along the Catalina Highway.  In the summer, most people avoid the two National Forest campgrounds that are below 5,000 feet (because they are too warm), and head for the three that are located at 6,000 feet or above:  General Hitchcock,  Rose Canyon, and Spencer Canyon.  On weekends, that means you’d better show up early if you want to snag a spot.

When we arrived on Saturday morning, the camp host told us that terrifying thunderstorms had plagued the campground the night before.  Some people bailed out and drove back down to Tucson, apparently leaving their gear to fend for itself.  One camper told us he slept in his car, probably to avoid getting fried by the frequent lightning strikes.  We figured we were in for more of that on Saturday night, so we quickly set up our camp and anchored the tents as best we could.

The minute we left the campground, the rain started. At the trailhead, just five minutes later, it was a steady drizzle.  Being tough hikers, we decided to plow through.  “A little rain won’t hurt us!”

mt-bigelow-mushrooms-2010-07.jpgFor a while, the rain was intermittent and I captured a few shots during the drier moments, but that was not to last.  The rain poured down, so much that our conversation turned to rain forests we’d visited in Washington state and Puerto Rico.  There were no views except dripping plants, the occasional mushroom, and fog.

Soon our “water proof” gear began to surrender to the relentless rain.  My hiking boots soaked through and flooded, leaving me “squinching” with every step.  The sleeves and edges of my Gore Tex rain jacket became soaked, and the water migrated by capillary action up the sleeves and onto my forearms. My exposed hands became chilly from being constantly wet, and the rain was growing colder.

The cotton shorts I’d worn for the hike turned out to be a particularly big mistake. As hikers up north say, “cotton kills,” because once it gets wet it starts to leech your body heat.  Normally this isn’t a problem in the southwest, but in these mountains the temperature was only in the upper 60′s, and the humidity was 100%.  We were in the hypothermia zone, and those soaked cotton shorts were chilling my body rapidly.

By this time we’d turned around and were climbing up a steep hill, so my concern was minimal, but it was still a sobering revelation that, if something went badly wrong, one of us could die in these conditions.  People die in the summertime from hypothermia. Imagine having a serious sprain that left you unable to hike out.  In these conditions, you could easily suffer severe hypothermia while lying on the trail, waiting for help to arrive.  The cold ground would steal your body heat, while the constant rain would ensure no chance to warm up.

Imagine the irony of dying of the cold just a few miles from Tucson in August.  I told this to Brent to cheer him up — it didn’t work.  He said, “I’ve never been this wet before in my life.”

Rather than head back to camp, we drove further up the mountain to the village of Summerhaven, where there is a little pizza and cookie restaurant in a log cabin.  Looking like two people who had jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed, we recovered from our adventure while eating pizza and dripping water all over the floor.

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Of course, the rain stopped completely once we got back to camp, and the skies were clear all afternoon and night.  The cumulative rain total for the preceding 24 hours was 4.5 inches.

You know how good it feels to get out of cold wet clothes and into dry ones?  Well, it feels even better when you’re camping in a tent.  Those little pleasures are amplified by the starkness of your resources.

So we set up the fire and ate leftover pizza for dinner, told stories, and let the world revolve without any help from us at all, until late at night.  There’s no exciting ending to this story.  We just hung out, slept in our tents, and got up the next morning for some hot cocoa.  It wasn’t long before we were talking about how we’d like to do it again soon.  That’s good camping.

Full-timer: Homeless by another name

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

One of the fun parts about being Editor of a magazine is that I get to meet all kinds of interesting writers.  One of the writers to recently join the Airstream Life team is Becky Blanton, a very interesting person.  Becky is a middle-aged single woman and accomplished writer with several awards to her credit, who just happened to become homeless late in life.  She has since turned circumstances around again, so that now she is able to live as she pleases, but she chooses to continue as a “homeless” person while she writes for Airstream Life and many other publications.

Becky recently raised the question in a provocative blog entry over at Change.org:  When she travels and lives out of her rickety old van, is she “homeless” or is she a “full-timer”?   She makes the point that homelessness is an attitude, not a condition, because it is not defined by “living in a van” but rather by choices and status.

This resonated with me because we spent two years “full-timing” in our Airstream with no home or apartment to come back to.  The Airstream was our home.  We often told people that we were “homeless by choice.”  It was less expensive to live in the Airstream than the house we previously owned, but we didn’t move to the Airstream because it was cheap.  We wanted to improve our lives.  Along the way, we tried to help people understand that having or not having a house is irrelevant, and could even be a detrimental factor, to having a good life.

Homelessness is descriptor that defines nothing.  You can be living in a trailer or van and having the dream adventure of your life, or you can be down-and-out and addicted, or anywhere in between.  Quality of life is a factor that, barring mental or physical illness, is within our control. After selling our house in Vermont and going on the road in 2005, I realized that I regarded myself as more successful and happier than I had ever been before. Eleanor and I traded the trappings of success for freedom.  My startup business, Airstream Life magazine, was not able to pay me a salary for years.  Our living quarters encompassed a measly 240 square feet — for three people.  So why was I so much happier?  As we said many times along the way, “We are paid in lifestyle.”

Coming back to a house, it was obvious that we could easily get caught in any number of house ownership traps again, so we did what we could to avoid it.  We bought a small, moderately priced house that could be left empty for months at a time, should we choose to go traveling again.  We refused to get into the trap of buying furnishings and other stuff to make it into “house beautiful.”  (Our living room is still so empty it looks like a zen garden.)  We have fought hard against accumulating “stuff,” especially stuff that doesn’t fit into the Airstream, on the theory that if we can go six months without missing it, we don’t really need it.

Even now, it’s still unclear which is our primary home: the house or the Airstream?  But it’s just academic.  A stripped-down life on the road brought us back to the things that were really important to us, and now we have a better perspective on the choices that lie ahead.   Homelessness — or at least the positive mental attitude about having more with less — can be a factor to improve one’s life, under the right circumstances.  Whether you live in a Malibu beach home, or a van down by the river, the bottom line is, “Are you happy?”

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine