Archive for October, 2010

Open road ahead

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

We’ve got just about nine days left in Florida before we head west.  Our next stop is five days camped at Disney World, and then up to Green Cove Springs for a night or two to conclude business there, and then we head west.

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Between Green Cove Springs FL and Tucson AZ are about 2,000 miles of interstate highway.  It’s a route we’ve driven many times, and we’ve always had a good time stopping at the Florida panhandle beaches, New Orleans, Austin & the Texas hill country, Big Bend, and the southern New Mexico state parks.  It would be easy to re-trace our usual route but I view each trip as an opportunity to explore something new, so I’m looking for nominations from you — our blog readers — of things we should see/do/explore/hike/snorkel/photograph/eat/cook/play along the general path of Interstate 10 through Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico.

That’s 2,000 miles of great American country, so don’t act as if there’s “nothing to do”!  Tell me what you recommend.  Should we take in some white sand in Florida’s panhandle, or investigate the status of the oil spill at the national seashores of Mississippi?  Camp in the newest state park in Louisiana, or drop in on New Orleans for some beignets and chicory coffee at midnight at Cafe Du Monde?  Park on the beach in Corpus Christi, or chow down on the Texas Barbecue Trail?  Walk through the Caverns of Sonora, or Carlsbad Caverns?

The good news is that we have such great choices.  Also, I have no business obligations or appointments along the way (although they have a tendency to pop up). We can set our own schedule for the home stretch, as long as we get back by our “hard stop” date of November 26.

You might be thinking, “Three weeks?  That’s a lot of time!” but it’s amazing how quickly three weeks vanishes. Given that we rarely drive more than 300 miles in a day, and usually less, we have to budget 8-11 days just for driving.  That leaves 9-12 full days for exploring, plus fractions of days left over after towing.

A really good destination stop like Big Bend takes a minimum of 3 days not counting travel days.  Likewise for an interesting city where we have friends, like Austin or New Orleans.  Just two major stops takes up at least six of our 9-12 full days. That doesn’t leave much room for other stops.  So we’ve got to be careful about our choices, and especially any detours from the general I-10 route.

In the past we’ve tried to rush through a bunch of stops, carving down places that would normally take several days to just a quick overnight, and it’s very unsatisfying.  It’s better to have a good stop at a few places than a lot of rushed pauses.  If you make a suggestion and we don’t take it, don’t take it personally.  We really can only do a few things on the way back and there’s a lot of country to cover, but that’s all the more reason to consider our options and make the most of what time we have left on this great journey.

Back to the sponge docks

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Now, as much as I have been talking about finding new experiences in the Tampa area, there are a few favorite spots that we are virtually obliged to visit.  One of them is the Sponge Dock section of Tarpon Springs, a Greek neighborhood just a mile or so off US Rt 19.

The main drag of this tourist district, Dodecanese Blvd, runs along a waterway, so that the boats are docked right along the sidewalk just like the cars parallel-parked on the street.  You can catch a dolphin-watching cruise almost anytime, as well as buy a LOT of sponges, strappy gold-lame sandals, and excellent Greek bakery goods.  We go for the food.  Brett and Lisa joined us (Brett took the pictures).

We haven’t been here since 2006, but nothing seems to have changed.  The big shot in town is still Hellas Restaurant.  The Sponge Museum is still showing the same free movie.  The signs in town are still misspelled (“WATER VEIW”).  Even the boats anchored along the water seem to be in the same places — I wonder if some of them ever move?

tarpon-springs-spitball-lessons.jpgOur first stop is always the National Bakery, down a side street.  Eleanor likes to buy a gallon of olive oil there, plus whatever’s fresh in the bakery case.  That gallon of oil will last her for months.  Then we browse the street for a couple of hours, and eventually end up having dinner around sunset at one of the Greek restaurants in town.

This time we hit Plaka, which is downscale from Hellas but has great food.  The casual aspect is probably was why I felt able to teach Emma how to shoot a spitball there.  The restaurant used to advertise themselves as “The Greek Answer To McDonald’s” but that sign is gone now.  Just as well, I think.  That wasn’t really the best advertisement for them.

Hellas still got our dollar, however, since we went there after dinner to raid their long glass dessert case.  As always, it was a tough choice so we all got something different and shared, plus we brought home a few coconut macaroons, almond cookies, and other goodies.

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You can’t say there’s a lot of excitement at the Sponge Docks, but there is something relaxing about the apparent timelessness of the place.  How many other interesting places can you find unchanged after four years? If you live there and pine for something new, it’s boring, but if you only visit once every few years, being frozen in time is a novelty.

Tampa, part II

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

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Florida is so flat they have to make hills on the bike trails.

Despite the unusual heat this late in October, it has been good bicycling weather in the mornings.  Florida has a nice network of rail-trails statewide, especially around Tampa.  So on Sunday morning Brett came over to the Airstream with two bikes strapped to the back of his Rover and we went out to cycle a chunk of the Pinellas Trail before the heat set in.

The trail roughly follows the coast north-south, past parks and backyards that once were only seen by freight trains hauling phosphate.  A little further south the scenery is best described as “urban landscape,” not necessarily pretty, but interesting in its own way. We cycled about eight or nine miles south from Clearwater, and then back before it got too hot.

Along the route we discovered a very nice KOA, tucked up against the water in a quiet secluded location, directly adjacent to the bike path.  It was one of those uber-KOAs, “President’s Club Award Winner,” with the cleanest and best facilities, and I briefly considered it as an alternative spot for us on our next visit to Tampa.  But then I saw the price — $62 – 84 per night (including the $4 extra for our child) — and decided we had it pretty good where we were. That’s about what we’ll pay for our nights at Disney’s Ft. Wilderness, and although this KOA appeared to be excellent, it wasn’t Ft. Wilderness.

Having full hookups, Eleanor is doing more elaborate cooking lately.  We’ve been meaning to videotape another episode of “Eleanor’s Airstream Kitchen” because the food has been just awesome.  Sunday’s lunch included a wonderful butternut squash and apple soup, and puff pastry stuffed with sauteed red onions, apples, and walnuts.  (She’s trying to use up all the apples we’ve been picking lately.)

Our evening was spent at a unique local event, “Zoo Boo” at Lowry Park Zoo.  This time of year the zoo has a series of haunted houses open on the weekends from 7 pm to 10 pm.  Each house is rated from 1 skull to 7 skulls.  Emma had never been to a haunted house before, and was a little cautious about the concept, but game for a try.  We launched right into a 7-skull house at the outside, which Emma got about 20 feet into before retreating.  For the rest of the evening she was at the 5-skull level or below.  The rest of the adults (four of us) went into every house and loved them, the scarier the better.

It was hot again that evening, so Eleanor, Emma, and I piled into a single log “flume ride” car and caused a devastating tsunami that completely drenched us. We were not hot for the rest of the evening, as we squinched our way through the rest of the park … and once again I was glad we had vinyl (ahem, “MB-Tex”) seats in the car for the soggy butts that rode home that night after the park closed.

New discoveries in Florida

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Our Florida visit hasn’t turned out to be much like I had envisioned months ago when planning our route.  Since we’ve been here many times, I had thought we’d spend a month circumscribing the state, down the Atlantic coast and up the Gulf coast, but instead we have abandoned southern Florid and are spending nearly two weeks in Tampa — a city we hadn’t planned to visit at all.

The reasons for this are described in my previous blog, and they are still good reasons, but that doesn’t make the feeling of deja vu go away.  We like to explore new places in addition to revisiting our favorites.  Too much retracing past trips can be disorienting and boring, so we are trying to mix up the central Florida portion of our travels by seeking out new things to see and do.

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Before leaving our courtesy parking spot in Haines City, we spent a day at the Lake Mirror Classic Auto Show in Lakeland.  This was a really nice “find” — a huge auto show that takes over much of downtown Lakeland and surrounds the little lake in the center of town.  I had expected 3-4 hours to view the show but in fact we spent most of the day there, joined by Brett, Lisa and Wendimere.  The show covers all sorts of automotive genres: long fin-tailed American cars from the 1950s, minicars, amphibious cars (the Amphicars were tootling around Lake Mirror), Mustangs, motorcycles, muscle cars, pre-war luxury cars, Mercedes, British cars, Deloreans, and many others.  I’ve posted a small album of photos from the event on Flickr.

Florida is having unusually warm weather for this late in the year, which I completely failed to anticipate.  Once again we’ve had to dig into the storage compartments and dig out a new set of clothes for the season. The shorts and lightweight clothes we packed while we were in Virginia have come out again, and the long pants are tucked away under the bed now.  With the warmth we’ve also had powerful Florida sunshine, and I got a sunburn while viewing the cars all day at the Lake Mirror Classic.  So we’ve also dug out the sunscreen that we had put away long ago.

We are now parked in a rather unusual stop for our style of travel: the grandiose “RV Resort.”  Normally the words “RV Resort” are our cue to keep looking for somewhere else to stay.  I can’t think of a more abused term.  Most RV Resorts we see are pathetic dumps with excessive rules , ridiculous prices, and minimal upkeep.  But the place we are staying in Tampa is a nice exception, and we have used it before for extended visits to the area because of its excellent location, peacefulness, and quality.

Also on the plus side, “resort” means we get full hookups with cable TV, a nice swimming pool, a couple of docks onto the creek for fishing and viewing, mature shade trees, the cleanest bathroom/shower rooms I’ve ever seen at any RV park, gated entry (!) and other excellent facilities. The negative side is the cost: nearly $400 for 11 days, even with the weekly discount. That’s about our average budget for a month on the road, averaging in the free parking that we typically do at people’s homes.

honeymoon-island-emma-beach.jpgOverall it makes a fine place to re-stock (because we are close to all services and stores), explore, and get ahead on work/school.  The Winter 2010 issue of Airstream Life is finally off to the printer, and I’m working on Spring and Summer now.  Eleanor and Emma are working to get some of her home school program completed too.

But at the end of the working week we broke out for a little exploration.  Saturday’s excursion was to nearby Honeymoon Island State Park, just about ten miles away in the Gulf of Mexico.   The result of some landfill and a busted development plan, this island is a great little getaway just a short drive from Tampa, with a nice stretch of beach and plenty of shallow water offshore.

honeymoon-island-shell-chart.jpgI was surprised at the  lack of crowds on the island when we went. Despite being an absolutely perfect beach day (temps in the 80s, 100% sunshine, light breeze, beautifully warm and calm water), the parking lots were only about 10% full.  Maybe the $8 state park day-use fee drives away the Floridians, who can easily find free beaches in the area.  We spent most of the day building sandcastles, collecting shells, and walking the shoreline.  It is best to stay near the beach and established roads, since the rest of the island is inhabited by rattlesnakes.

dunedin-elis-barbecue.jpgOne of our goals while traveling the south is to find excellent barbecue.  The best barbecue in the USA ranges from Florida to Texas.  But Eleanor started off on the wrong foot, making the mistake of ordering ribs at a chain “barbecue” restaurant up in St Augustine, and she had a disappointing culinary experience.  She tried again in Haines City at our favorite local chop house, but it was apparently an off-night in the kitchen there too.  On Saturday night after leaving Honeymoon Island we wandered down to downtown Dunedin and stumbled upon a real find: Eli’s Barbecue.

airstream-elis-barbecue-ribs.jpgThis was the sort of place we like to find as we are roaming the south: small, local, and with a powerful reputation built up over years.  You know that when a restaurant is only open Friday and Saturday, only for take-out, and offers no amenities, yet has a line of people anxiously awaiting their chance to get something to eat before the food runs out  … well, a place like that has to be really good.  So we got in line at Eli’s Barbecue and managed to snag a big heap of dry-rub ribs, beans, and the last of the coleslaw.  My advice is to get there early.  They close at 6 pm.

Finally, barbecue that didn’t disappoint!  That was some seriously fine cooking.  I’d be inclined to go again, but we’ve got some other culinary plans for this week.  And besides, the Texas Barbecue Trail awaits …

Overall, Saturday was a big win for us, because we found a nice new beach and a really terrific meal all in one day.  That’s the kind of day I’d like to have more often.  If we can keep finding interesting things, it won’t seem like we’re just retracing our steps.  It takes a little more effort but it’s well worth it.

Tough choices

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Once in a while I’m reminded that although we are out on a long trip (seven months!) we aren’t really full-timers any more.  And there is a difference.  Any deadline, even one far away, affects your thinking.  When we were full-timers, we could slowly wander along with little concern for distance because we were always home and never getting “too far away”.

But now we are part-timers, and we have a schedule.  We need to get back to Tucson by the end of November, and we need to watch the mileage and the budget more carefully.  Every stop on our tour has to be justified in some way, because the meandering path we took so blithely before now looks more like a series of needless and expensive detours.

Our plans, made way back in the spring, included a wedding in Ft Myers FL at the end of October. This is what we call “a hard stop,” meaning that there’s no flex in the date or the location.  So we built a few other destination plans around this hard stop, including a very hard-to-get reservation at Long Key State Park.

Since then, the wedding has been moved and delayed, and we no longer have a reason to go to southern Florida, except for this reservation.   I kept it because it’s so hard to get a campground space in any of the Florida Keys state parks, and because we haven’t been to the Keys in about three years.  I like it there.

But now, facing a 300+ mile trip (one way) down to Long Key, I am thinking twice about the reasonableness of this detour.  The reservation is for only three nights.  It can’t be extended or changed because all of the campgrounds are booked.   Those three nights will cost us $129 in campground and reservation fees, plus about $140 in diesel fuel, plus wear-and-tear costs of the car (another $60) — in total, about $110 per night for our little 3-night stay.

… and the whole time I’m driving those 14 hours roundtrip south and north through central Florida, I’ll be thinking, “Is this really worth it?”

But forgoing our reservation leaves us few options.  It’s peak season in Florida and all of the good state parks are booked solid every weekend.  We really want to get some beach time, go snorkeling, watch the palm trees sway, and have a family picnic while watching the blue water and white sand. But we also need to be back in central Florida in 11 days because we have reservations at Disney World.  (See why I HATE reservations?)  So if we are skipping the Keys to save the mileage, it doesn’t make sense to go somewhere else that’s more than 100 miles away from central Florida.  That kills the option of places like Sanibel Island, or Ft Myers Beach.

This  is the classic “tough choice.”  Options are limited and nothing seems ideal.  Fortunately we are courtesy-parked with our friends Bill & Wendimere in central Florida right now, and they have extended the welcome mat for as long as we wish to stay.  This has given us a few days to think carefully before we make our next move.

After pondering, we’ve pulled out an old standby: a campground near Tampa that we have used extensively in the past and which is reasonably near a lot of things we like to do.  We’ll relocate there tomorrow, and settle into 11 days of comfortable full-hookup life, albeit at a very high price.  Instead of snorkeling off the Keys, I’ll make-believe by snorkeling off Caladesi Island or Honeymoon Island State Parks, which are just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa.

Our reservation at Long Key hasn’t been canceled yet.  I have until Friday to do that with only a $17 penalty.  So, if anyone reading the blog this week wants to snag it, just let me know before Friday and you can have it for $110.  I doubt we’ll find anyone but I would feel remiss if I didn’t make the offer, since sites are so hard to get there.

Blue Spring State Park

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Before we moved from our days of dealing with bureaucracy and car repairs, to the hectic days of visiting ahead, we decided to squeeze in one night of camping at Blue Spring State Park, in Orange City FL.  Not only did this stop break up our trip from St Augustine to central Florida, but it gave us a chance to do some family snorkeling.

Blue Spring is one of the several First-Magnitude freshwater springs in Florida.  The spring emerges from a submerged cave with such force that the water almost appears to “boil” at the surface, and the volume of water is enough to create a river roughly 30-40 feet wide and 3-4 feet deep.  At the spring itself, you can snorkel over the cave and watch as scuba divers and free divers disappear into the opening (the free divers, of course, quickly come back up).  Toward the spring end of the river there are no fish but just a few hundred feet downstream they are in abundance, along with an occasional turtle.   Over the winter (starting November 15) the spring is closed to swimming, snorkeling, and diving so that manatees can live there peacefully.

The water is always 72 degrees F, which feels pretty good to us transplanted Northerners, especially with shorty wetsuits on.  The park provides docks and stairs for easy access to the water, and we entered at the dock furthest downstream, to paddle up to the spring.  There’s quite a strong current at some points, which eventually defeated Emma about 100 feet from the boil, but she did not mind because at that point there were no more fish to look at anyway.  Also, the sight of the gaping rock maw of the cave disappearing into the darkness can be disconcerting to children — it looks rather scary, although I always find it fascinating.

There are several good springs like this in Florida.  Wekiwa State Park in central Florida offers a similar spring but less snorkeling opportunity, and near the Gulf Coast, Manatee Springs State Park is very similar to Blue Spring. The camping at all of them is classic Florida, with sandy sites, lots of vegetation, and a nice quiet “natural Florida” feel.  In my opinion, Florida has the best concentration of excellent state parks in the country.  While our next stop will be courtesy parking, we’ll be hitting more of the state parks over the next couple of weeks.

Green Cove Springs, FL

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Technically we are in St Augustine, but right on the western edge at the banks of the St Johns River.  Just across the river is Green Cove Springs, a quiet small city that happens to be the official mailing address of Airstream Life magazine.  I am often asked by people who call on the phone, “How do you like it in Green Cove Springs?” but we’ve only been here once before, and that was for just a few hours. We receive our mail here, and we’re incorporated here, but until this visit it has been just another stop along the road.

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It has been a good stop.  Eleanor has been making maximum use of our relatively rare full hookup campsite, by making special meals.  This means we eat well but also periodically Eleanor has to go out to find unusual ingredients, like apple brandy, which apparently must go into a dish she is preparing. Apple brandy was not available at any of the local stores (on the west side of I-95) so she made a compromise version with a reduction of apple cider and cognac.  The sauces required for this dish are now done, but we won’t get to eat the actual meal until Friday, when we will be courtesy parked in Haines City.

I was able to get our tow vehicle serviced, and I’m very glad I did.  The dealer in Jacksonville had the car in for its “day of beauty” all of  Wednesday, and replaced all four tires, aligned the wheels, flushed the transmission, replaced a blown fuse, and washed it.  Although the price of the tires still has me reeling, I have to admit that the car once again drives like new.  The worn tires were making a lot of noise and the roadhandling was definitely not as good as it was, plus it was pulling right a little.  It may have been my imagination, but I also thought the transmission was not shifting quite as smoothly as it should, with occasional subtle balks and flares.  I did a 19 mile test drive on the way back from the dealership and everything feels perfect again.

st-augustine-eleanor-on-dock.jpgWe had a surprise visit yesterday from a group of manatees, at the Trout Creek that borders the campground.  Manatees need warm water, and so in the fall and winter they swim upstream from the salty ocean to fresh rivers where the water never drops below 72 degrees.  A group of about eight manatees showed up with a calf, and slowly swam back and forth in Trout Creek past the docks where they made a nice spectacle for the people sitting on the back deck of the main campground building.

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Manatees are wonderful mammals that live very placid lives, munching on green undersea vegetation and floating through the water with no apparent goals in life.  Little wonder they are often called “sea cows” — they’re about the same weight and definitely have bovine characteristics to their personalities.  Their skin is like an elephant’s, and they can grow to be very large and heavy, so although they are quite benign they are also a bit startling when you encounter them while snorkeling.

st-augustine-manatee-propeller.jpgTheir very nature of calmness and lack of fear works against manatees. The big killer of manatees is boat propellers, and it is easy to spot a manatee with a set of slashing white scars along its body from a close encounter with a turning propeller.  There are lots of regulations in place designed to prevent manatee-boat collisions but they can be difficult to avoid, especially since they are often interested in checking out what the humans are up to.

We are leaving this site today but will be returning in a couple of weeks.  One piece of bureaucratic business remains unfinished, and until a certain official piece of paper arrives I can’t complete it.  Coming back here will be a detour from our planned route, but I don’t mind terribly since the campground has been pleasant and Green Cove Springs now feels like a symbolic kind of home.

On the road to St. Augustine, FL

Monday, October 11th, 2010

rutherford-bad-lug-nut2.jpgMaintenance complete (or so we thought), we pushed onward through South Carolina. Since the wheels had all been removed, it was incumbent on me to stop and check the lug nut torque a few times as we went.  I typically do this around 15 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles, although it doesn’t hurt to check a little more frequently.

That’s when another maintenance issue cropped up. We’ve had these crummy “capped” lug nuts on the trailer forever (pictured at right).  They are the cheap-o version.  Instead of being solid metal, they have a thin chrome cap over a steel nut, sort of a “falsie.” The problem with this type is that eventually the chrome cap can loosen and even come off.  Super Terry had pointed this out as a potential problem, and honestly I have been meaning to replace all of them for years but just never got around to it.

So of course, about 15 miles out in a lonely piece of rural North Carolina, one of the caps started spinning loose, meaning that I couldn’t properly torque the nut.  Now, being a prepared sort of Airstreamer, I carry 4 spare lug nuts, the solid kind.  I took them out and discovered that they require a 13/16″ socket, but the largest socket I had is 3/4″.  So I couldn’t install them.

After pondering the situation and trying a few tricks (like the car’s lug nut wrench) the ultimate solution was simply to tow to the nearest auto parts store, where I bought the appropriate socket and 20  more of the solid chromed metal 13/16″ lug nuts. I didn’t want to take all the wheels off right there to replace all the nuts, so I installed just the one I needed and tossed the rest in the storage compartment for future use.  My idea was to replace them one wheel at a time whenever a wheel needed removing, but of course about 150 miles later when I checked the nuts at the end of the day I found another loose one. So now I have 22 nuts that require a 3/4″ socket, and two that require a 13/16″ socket, which makes it much more amusing to watch me checking the nuts.

The other maintenance item is the tires on the Mercedes.  I’ve been watching them carefully for a long time, and was hoping that they’d last until we got back to Tucson.  At 29,000 miles, when we had the last dealer service, they looked OK, but now at 33,500 miles it is clear that they need to go.  The front end of the car is somewhat out of alignment, a fact that was revealed only in the past week when the right front and left front tires started showing excess wear at the outer edge. I could rotate the tires one more time (front to back) and probably gain another 1,000 or 2,000 miles, but I don’t care to push them quite that far.  Towing, as you know, puts high stresses on tires.  The last time I tried to stretch a tire (on the Nissan Armada) we had a blowout at low speed.  So a set of tires and an alignment are part of this week’s plan.

Our base of operations for the next few days will be St. Augustine, FL.  Normally we stay over on the coast, but this time I’ve got obligations in Green Cove Springs, which is west of  St. Augustine, so I’ve selected a rustic old campground near the St John’s River.

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We have all the little cues that tell us we are Florida.  It’s balmy and humid.  Everything is green with life, and there’s a particular scent in the breeze that speaks of ocean salt, inland swamps, and natural decay.  Spanish Moss hangs from every tree, and grayish sandy soil is underfoot. Eleanor even managed to get bitten by a red ant within 10 minutes of arrival.  Ah, yes, Florida.  I love it here but you’ve got to watch out — there are more biting and stinging things here than Arizona, by far.

The campground is many decades old.  It is a classic piece of “old Florida”: well shaded, unpretentious to a fault, and straddling the line between marginally maintained and moldering neglect.  There are ducks and chickens and feral cats all over the place.  The river is alive with water birds and fish (and probably alligators).  We like it.

The campground is under threat of development, but not any time soon.  The owners, who have run various businesses on the property for 80 years, announced in 2005 that they were going to sell the whole thing for condominiums, but so far nothing has happened, so we should be fine for the rest of this week, while we take care of business.

Maintenance day

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

Perhaps as a reminder of how quickly things can change, the river behind our campsite has nearly dried up. Apparently it is dam-controlled, and the water releases are only Monday through Friday.  By Friday night, it was a mere trickle about two inches deep, but still pleasant to be camped near.

Super Terry and Marie arrived, and on Saturday morning the ladies all headed out for a day of activity around Asheville while Terry began his maintenance checks of our Airstream.  The first task was a four-wheel brake and tire inspection.  I’ve been anticipating this for a long time, since we’ve historically fought with our disc brakes and tires.  At nearly every previous service stop, we’ve found the disc pads wearing unevenly, once to the point of catastrophic failure, and the repeated belt separations on our tires are embarrassingly well-documented on this and the Tour of America blogs.

rutherfordton-disc-brake.jpgSo I was extremely happy to find that on all four wheels, the brakes are only lightly worn, wearing perfectly evenly, and need absolutely nothing. At last!  Super Terry gets all the credit, since he did the last four-wheel brake job in January.  With these Kodiak disc brakes, it seems critical to properly lubricate the slider pins and some mechanics (in our experience) don’t do it right.  Given the light wear on these semi-metallic pads, we should have many more miles of use ahead, but I’ll check again every 10,000 miles or so.

rutherfordton-michelin-tire.jpgAt the same time, we examined the new tires.  Readers of this blog may recall that, after years of frustration with various brands of ST (Special Trailer) designated tires, we finally ditched them for a set of Michelin LTXs.  They have performed beautifully. The wear is very light and even, at about 9,000 miles, and we’ve had no punctures. They look good for many more miles, and should easily outlast the STs they replaced.

As each tire came off, I took the opportunity to look at the axle torsion arms, the shock absorbers, and the wheel wells.  Everything looked good (undamaged, clean, dry, tight).  So with no repairs needed, we turned our attention to other projects.  I hadn’t realized how many little things we needed to do until we started going over the trailer.

The first project was to install a zerk (grease) fitting on the hitch coupler.  This allows me to grease the hitch ball without removing the Hensley hitch.  I have to grease the hitch ball about 4-5 times a year, and before installing this zerk, the job took about 15 minutes because of the labor involved in loosening the hitch and then re-installing it.  Now, it takes just a few seconds with the grease gun.

rutherfordton-drilling-zerk.jpgThis is a simple job but it requires one specific tool.  We hitched the Hensley to the car, loosened the strut bars, then released the ball coupler and raised the trailer off the hitch ball, using the power jack.  Then we covered the ball with a piece of plastic wrap to keep metal shavings from getting all over the greasy ball.  Super Terry drilled the proper size hole through the very thick metal of the hitch coupler, and threaded it using a thread tapper.  He screwed in the zerk, and the job was done. Total time: about 20 minutes.

The steel step by our entry door is bent somewhat toward the rear of the trailer.  This was probably caused by hitting a curb long ago.  It hasn’t been a major problem but lately we’ve noticed that the bend makes the step difficult to raise.  Lubricating it helped only a little bit, so Terry applied a prybar and bent the step back into alignment enough to alleviate the issue.

For some time, our water heater has been intermittently screeching as it heats, which was caused by a poor air-fuel mixture.  Adjusting the mixture is a simple matter of loosening a bolt and sliding a vent until the flame burns strong and blue.  I should have done that one a long time ago.

Another bug was our entry door.  After we had the entry door adjusted to close more smoothly, last summer at the factory, we noticed that the door lock no longer worked.  We’ve been using the padlock exclusively ever since.  So today Super Terry removed the lock, diagnosed the broken part, “convinced” it to behave, and re-installed the lock, all in about two minutes.   Like the water heater fix, it’s one of those things that is easy when you know how.

A few days ago Eleanor was plugging in our Doran 360RV tire pressure monitor and the 12v  cigarette lighter adapter broke in her hand.  We really rely on that monitor to warn us of tire problems, so its absence was felt.  Terry and I picked up a replacement 12v adapter at Radio Shack today, and he wired it up in a few minutes.  Another problem solved.

Since we were rocking along so well, I went looking for other bugs to fix.  Bugs … hmm … stinkbugs … and then I remembered, our center Fantastic Vent was absolutely disgusting with greasy dirt and dead bugs.  That vent is the closest to the kitchen and gets all the cooking smoke, so it gets the dirtiest. It’s impossible to fully clean the vent without getting on the roof of the trailer, so I borrowed Terry’s folding ladder and got up on top, with a roll of paper towels and some orange cleaner.  Cleaning the vent cover, fan blades, and surrounding area took only about ten minutes.

While I was up there I noticed that the black rubber gasket of the vent had come loose. Super Terry to the rescue again!  He had a tube of 3M Weatherstripping Adhesive, which I applied lightly to the gasket.  We closed the vent for a few hours to hold the gasket in place while the adhesive cured, and the problem was solved.  I got all the dead stinkbugs out of there, too.

While Terry was inspecting my work on the roof, he pointed out that the white caulk surrounding the Fantastic Vent is cracked and approaching failure.  Long-term sun exposure will do that.  That particular vent was factory installed, so the caulk is older than the other two vents on our trailer.  I’m going to have to buy the appropriate caulk and a scraper, and get up there in the next few weeks to correct that problem before we get a roof leak.

That was the last of the work for today, but there was one other thing I should mention.  A few days ago we noticed that the shower was leaking at the wall next to the toilet.  This has happened before. The silicone caulk eventually loses its grip in this spot, probably because it is trying to adhere to a wood wall with waterproof wallpaper covering.  This needed immediate attention, because the leak could quickly cause a much more significant wood rot.  I did the fix on Thursday afternoon before we left Clemmons, and the shower was ready to use again by Friday night.

It’s a good feeling to have done the checkup on the running gear, and especially to remove the little annoyances like the screeching water heater, the filthy fan, and the disabled door lock.  You don’t realize how those things begin to weigh on you until you resolve them.  Letting problems accumulate tends to make people feel that their investment is slowly turning to junk, and then the self-defeating idea of “trade in” begins to appear.  On the other hand, fixing the little bugs and doing a little cleanup can make you feel good far out of proportion with the actual effort involved. I’ve advocated that a single Airstream can last for your entire life, so I have to take my own advice and keep ahead of the creeping crud of neglect that will defeat even the best-made product.

Tomorrow we will begin our trip to Florida with a good feeling about our equipment.  We’re out of time for our east coast tour, and need to get down to Florida (for many reasons), so the next 450 miles or so will be covered at an uncharacteristically quick pace. But now, we’re ready to get going.

Camped down by the river

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Lately, when I’m thinking about where we are, I am reminded  of the excellent description given by Verne Troyer in the movie “The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus,” when he is asked “Where are we?” by Heath Ledger:

“Geographically, in the Northern Hemisphere.  Socially, on the margin.  And narratively, with some ways to go.”

Sometimes that’s how I feel too.  If you overdo it when traveling, all the campgrounds can start to look the same, making your location seem less special and more like “somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.”  And socially, we are occasionally reminded that not everyone views our life in an Airstream as exotic; for some, we are itinerants who live in a trailer.

In fact, today that’s exactly where we are: living in a trailer down by the river. In fact, it is the Broad River, running silently and swiftly about 20 feet behind our back bumper through the shady trees. I view this as a fine location for camping, but I’m sure there are those who cannot fathom what in the world makes us choose this quiet spot in west-nowhere-North Carolina instead of a fancy hotel in a cosmopolitan city.

This is not the sort of place we normally choose to camp.  It is a commercial full-hookup campground in the middle of nowhere, where our phones barely work, and we bypassed a couple of interesting-sounding state parks to be here. That’s because we are meeting Super Terry and Marie, and they picked the campground.   But this is a good thing, because it looks nothing like the places we have been lately and that aspect of diversity helps us stay oriented.

Also, I like the break. Having no “bars” on the cell phone means I can justifiably turn it off and have a phone-less weekend.  The campground has satellite-based wifi, so the blog can continue, but it’s slow and that justifies leaving the computer off most of the time too.  Although it is Friday afternoon on an absolutely gorgeous Fall day (75 degrees, sunny, dry), there are very few campers here and so the place is nice and quiet.  We floated little leaf-and-stick boats down the fast-flowing river to the “rapids” and watched them sink, then we played a board game on the dinette, and now I have the enviable option of lying down on my comfy Airstream bed and reading a book.  At times like this, our trailer magically transforms from our home and office on the road, to a getaway vacation cabin, all without packing or unpacking.  Time to break out some cold drinks, chips, and guacamole, and snack our way through dinner.

The town is Rutherfordton, which we have not seen since we are in the boondocks (and there may in fact be no town center).  The name sounds to me like they couldn’t decide:  “Rutherford, or Rutherton?  What the heck, let’s call it both: Rutherfordton.”  Rutherfordington Center would have been even better.  I’ll post that in the town’s Suggestion Box if I can find it.

I have to post  a small warning about stinkbugs.  These guys have been plaguing us since Pennsylvania, the origin point of these annoying fat flying insects. They are harmless but in the Fall they will invade an RV in massive numbers if they get a chance.  We caught the beginning of the stinkbug invasion season in September at French Creek State Park, then encountered them again in Falls Church VA, and have been finding a dozen or so every day inside our trailer ever since.  They are seemingly endless.

The strange thing is that we never actually saw more than a few flying around while we were camped.  They have an amazingly ability to sneak into refuge points when you’re not looking.  I’ve found them in the screens, in the vents, rolled up  inside the awning, inside windows, and every other possible crevice that they can get into.  I would like to say we’ve got all of them, before we carry the little nuisances to Florida, but as the temperatures warm, more of them show up.  And there seems to be no practical solution other than to find them all by hand (or by vacuum cleaner).  Fortunately, Emma likes to capture them with her bare hands.

This weekend while Emma is catching the bugs, Super Terry is going to take a look at our brakes, bearings, and tires.  We last serviced all those items in January 2010, back in Riverside CA, and since then we have logged about 8,000-9,000 miles.  That isn’t a tremendous amount of mileage but we have historically had problems with brakes pads wearing unevenly, and tires failing and so I’m being extra-cautious.  If there are any hints of trouble, I’d rather know now.  On Sunday and Monday we are going to log a lot of miles very quickly, and from there we will be doing a lot of towing around Florida.  At this point I have no indications of trouble (tire wear appears nominal and braking is excellent) but we’ll pull all four wheels off and take a look anyway. I’ll post an update on that later this weekend.

In other words, narratively, we still have some ways to go.

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