Archive for November, 2010

New products

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

After seven years, I think we’ve finally got it.  This trade show has always been a minor thorn in my side.  I hate the weather up here this time of year, I hate the rush-rush schedule, and I hate the trade show food.  Business events like trade shows are often formulated to cause attendees to burn the candle at both ends, staying up late at the hospitality events, eating too much, standing too much, getting up early and doing it all over again.  Add in jet lag, heavy meals, cold rain and the ever-present possibility of a virus, and you can see why it can be too much.

But we’ve got it down now.  I mean, we have beaten the system. Every year it has been a slightly better trip, and now I think we’ve nearly perfected it.  Brett and I actually had a pretty decent time.  With some maturity to Airstream Life and our approach, we’ve had to chase fewer people.  With better planning, we’ve been able to accomplish all of our goals in a day and a half, rather than two days. A little knowledge of Louisville has yielded better places to eat and quieter hotels (not under the approach path to the airport).  We even had time to take in a movie on Monday night. For the first time, I’m leaving Louisville without feeling breathless.

Focusing our efforts more efficiently did come with a small price, however.  We didn’t roam the convention floor as much as we have in the past.  Rather than dropping in on dozens of manufacturer displays and browsing the products, we spent 100% of our time talking to prospects and partners.  That’s what we needed to do, but I’m afraid it also means no photos or reports of non-Airstream products.

rvia-eddie-bauer-intro.jpgBeyond the Eddie Bauer edition Airstream, the other news from Airstream is the Avenue, a B-van based on a Chevy gas engine platform.  It’s a bit cheaper than the popular Airstream Interstate (which is based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter diesel engine platform), at about $95k versus $125k.  I was told that it has 24 distinct advantages over the competitive B-vans from Roadtrek and Pleasureway, although I don’t know what they are.  It will eventually be sold by Chevrolet dealers in addition to Airstream dealers, just as the Interstate is sold by half a dozen Mercedes-Benz dealers.  I hope to get my hands on a demo unit this winter and take it out for a weekend.

Otherwise, Airstream was mostly showing some decor updates to existing floor plans.  We saw a 16-foot Airstream in the Sport lineup, and some interior variations on the International and Flying Cloud lines. The popularity of the B-van lineup was evident, as this is the first time I have ever seen equal numbers of vans and trailers in the Airstream display.  But the Eddie Bauer model was the big attraction, and I predict it will be a popular trailer.  People are already asking about getting the “sport hatch” feature in other trailer lengths.  In my opinion it doesn’t make sense in anything much shorter than a 25-footer, but ultimately the market will decide, and I’m sure Airstream will build trailers to suit the demand they can identify.

rvia-sfc-fuel-cell.jpgProbably the most intriguing product we spotted was the fuel cell being demonstrated by SFC Energy. This is an entirely new idea for the RV industry, but I think it has the potential to be revolutionary.  The little silver box in the picture is a kind of electrical generator which runs off ultra-pure methanol fuel from the jug at its right.  It’s called an EFOY (“Energy For You”).  It very quietly produces about 90 watts of power (at 12 volts) to recharge the RV batteries.

When I say “quiet” I mean nearly silent.  Running full-bore it comes in at about 23 decibels, or literally whisper quiet.  You could sleep with it running underneath your bed.  The reaction used to make electricity produces no harmful gases, just carbon dioxide and water vapor.  One 2.6 gallon “fuel cartridge” can run the gizmo constantly for five days, and it can be programmed to automatically run only when your batteries need charging.  You could literally camp for weeks with only this device to supply your power.

Now, you might be thinking, “My little gasoline generator produces 1,000 watts, so why would I want that thing that can only make 90 watts?”  Well, first you should read my blog entry “A Short History Of The Sun,” to understand why slow charging is much better than fast charging. In short, generators are massively inefficient at recharging batteries.

Second, most of the time, you are probably very happily camping with only 12 volt power.  (The major exception is running the air conditioning or the microwave oven.)  Your major power draw will be in the evenings, when lights, water pump, and furnace are running.   The EFOY can easily make up all of your day’s power needs by running for a few hours. Think of it as a solar panel that doesn’t require sun.  Day and night, it produces 90 watts of power as needed, leaving no fumes and no noise. In 24 hours the EFOY 1600 can produce 130 amp-hours, which is far more than we could possibly use.

So what’s the catch? Cost.  An EFOY 1600 will run about $4,500 right now, and the company has no distribution network in the US at present, for either the devices or the fuel.  The cost will certainly turn off most RV’ers right now, but look to the future.  Even today, a solar panel setup that can do half of what the EFOY can do will cost thousands of dollars. It may not be long before a fuel cell like the EFOY is the electrical power option of choice for RV’ers.

New ideas in Louisville

Monday, November 29th, 2010

As promised, I’m reporting from the annual industry trade show in Louisville.

rvia-eddie-bauer-airstream-closed.jpgWe had a chance to check out the new Eddie Bauer edition Airstream.  The official press conference is tomorrow, where we will learn more details, but here’s what I can tell you now.  It’s basically a 25FB (Front Bedroom) floorplan with a “sport hatch” at the rear.  The dinette seats and side couch fold up to go flat against the walls, and the table is easily removed, to allow full access through the hatch. You can store a kayak inside, although it will get in the way of foot traffic.

The hatch is similar to the one used on the Pan American trailer, but smaller.  A sliding screen comes down from the top to “let the outside in”when the hatch is open. A patch no-skid material covers the standard bumper cover, since it acts as an entry step.

rvia-eddie-bauer-airstream-open.jpgThe trailer features Eddie Bauer branding, fabrics, and other details.  Notably, it rides on a set of Michelin LTX Rib 16″ tires.   There are lot of other small touches as well — all of which will be documented in an article in the Spring 2011 issue of Airstream Life.

Airstream is also showing a 16-foot Sport series trailer, which is basically identical to the other 16-footers in floorplan; a 30-foot Flying Cloud; the new Chevy-based “Avenue” Class B motorhome in three floorplans; and several new decors in various existing models.  All of them look good.  I’ll get a few more pics tomorrow.

We had a little break in the middle of the day, so we decided to skip the usual fare and head out to something local.  We ended up at Mark’s Feed Store in their “old town” location.  louisville-marks-feed-store.jpgDespite the name that sounds like it oriented to feeding livestock, it’s actually a decent barbecue place.  An IBC Root Beer in a frosty mug was the highlight for me, though.  I’m often pleased by simple things.

The trade show really ramps up tomorrow, so I can’t say much about the product on display yet, except that I’m noticing a definite trend toward innovation. The manufacturers who are surviving the recession are also the ones thinking ahead and investing in new ideas.  I’ll be prowling more carefully tomorrow to see what great new ideas have popped up, both in Airstream and other brands.

The show is still smaller than it was a few years ago, but I see plenty of strength and lots of optimism, which bodes well for the RV industry overall. And that [insert big sigh of relief] bodes well for those of us who depend on the health of the RV industry for our little businesses.

Adjusting to stationary life

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Adjusting from long-term travel to stationary home life is actually more jarring than you might think.  In the first few years of owning our house, we underestimated the impact of the switch.  The obvious changes are easy.  You can see them coming.  You’ll have to unpack the RV, clean up the dust in the house, turn on the utilities, etc.  It’s the little changes that will catch you by surprise.

On the road, we had necessarily established a working relationship between the three of us.  There were certain unwritten rules and expectations, governing things like making room for each other, daily duties, and trip-planning.  If you’ve ever seen a submarine movie, you’ve probably noticed how the crew steps aside to make way for the officers during an emergency.  A 30-foot travel trailer with three people is similar.  You’ve got to make way for the other crew when they need space, and there can’t be arguments among the crew when things go wrong.  If the deck is on fire, you want everyone to grab a fire extinguisher and get to work.

The compensation for adhering to this arrangement is a smooth running ship, and an adventure.  “The world is our living room,” we used to say.  As long as the Airstream moved regularly, we were happy. There was always something new to see, someone new to meet, something interesting to taste or photograph. So an expectation sets in: I’m giving up personal space and the ability to do certain things, in exchange for the fruits of travel.

Coming back to the house, there’s an immediate change.  No longer does the scenery change every few days.  Gone is the invigoration of the unexpected and novel.  Fixed schedules tend to return, responsibilities change, and the enjoyment living small & light is replaced by the burden of a larger home to clean and maintain.   And the “unwritten rules” are different. There’s a definite mental gear-shift that has to occur before you can fully settle in.

More subtly, you will usually find that the problems and worries you left behind are still there waiting for you.  If the house was too big or too expensive when you left, it still will be when you get back.  If your job was unfulfilling, or you didn’t get along with your neighbor, or you were struggling with debt, you’ll find those things waiting for you.  This can be a crushing end to a wonderful travel experience, and one which often throws people into a depression.

For this reason, I always counsel would-be full-timers to clean up their lives (finances, relationships, obligations, battles, and other choices) before they launch.  If they can’t do that, they should at least use the new perspectives offered by their travel experience as motivation to clean up the lingering issues as they travel, because while they are feeling independent and strong they can often make the tough decisions that need to be made.

I have seen friends use their RVs as escape vehicles to deal with divorce, terminal illness, social problems, death of a spouse, collapse of a business, and financial problems. It’s not fun, but for some people the freedom of travel is a mental boost that helps them deal with the tougher things.

We did not leave many problems on the table when we departed in May, but there’s always something unfinished no matter how together you may think your life is.   This time we knew to expect the little shocks of “oh yeah I forgot about that” when we returned, and that made it a little easier.  It’s also easier now that we are comfortable with the house.  Before, when we spent a tiny fraction of our time here, it was disconcerting to move in and that always put us on edge; a bit like living in an unfamiliar hotel.  Now it’s more like home, and it gets more homelike every day. But still, there’s an adjustment period.

One reason that we came back a few days earlier than originally planned was so that we could get through that adjustment period before I had to zoom out again.  Today I fly to Louisville KY for the annual RVIA show.  All of the RV manufacturers show their new product there, and it’s an important event for Airstream Life.  It’s our opportunity to shake hands with our advertisers (past, present, and hopefully future) and look for new business. I don’t like going to Louisville this time of year because the weather is invariably gloomy and chilly with frequent rain.  The timing of the show is always right after Thanksgiving too, which means I get to fly crowded planes with coughing people.  But it’s a quick sting like getting a vaccination.  Once a year, and then I’m free again.  You should see my smile as I get back home to the sunshine.

I’ll report from the show this week when I get a chance.  Airstream will be introducing their new Eddie Bauer trailer with rear “sport hatch” and probably some other things.  I’ve reported every year from RVIA, so if you are wondering what it looks like, check the blog archives for December 2009, 2008, and the Tour of America archives for prior years.

Landed

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

We’ve landed in Tucson, and thus the Airstream has returned to home base after seven months of travel.  It is now tucked away in its carport, getting a well deserved rest after a total voyage of nearly 9,000 towing miles. Likewise, the Mercedes is chillin’, with 14,800 new miles added to its odometer since we left in May.

emma-growth.jpgThere are a lot of ways I could measure this trip, but the photo at right shows my favorite. Emma has grown an inch and a quarter, as marked on the door jamb of our Airstream bedroom.  By any measure, it has been a good period of growth for all of us.

The last phase of our trip was unremarkable by design. We basically bolted 350 miles from Padre Island to central Texas, where we camped overnight at the Caverns of Sonora’s little campground (W/E, $15).  caverns-of-sonora-cg.jpgIf you are driving through central Texas on I-10, there are few options for overnight stays, and many of them are of the down-and-out variety.  So Caverns of Sonora provides a very welcome oasis just about five miles off the highway.  The big attraction is of course the exceptionally well-decorated caverns, but Emma thought the peacocks that roam the campground were pretty worthy too.

Our next day was  another 350 miles, this time through west Texas and over to Las Cruces.  It was a stunningly beautiful fall day in west Texas, with azure blue skies and temperatures of around 78-80 degrees, but with one unfortunate aspect for towing: a strong headwind. Many times I am asked, “Does that Mercedes really pull that big trailer OK?” and the followup question is often “Well, how about in the mountains?” or “Yeah, but wait until you cross the Rockies!”  When people say such things I know that they aren’t really experienced at towing, because if they were they’d know that the true challenge of a tow vehicle is not the occasional mountain pass, but the long day spent bucking a 25-knot headwind.  That’s when you find out who has the chops.

See, you can almost always get up a hill one way or another.  You might have to go slower, or stop to let the engine cool off, but it’s very rare to find a hill so steep that you can’t climb it with any decent tow vehicle.  (We have never had an overheating problem with the Mercedes, but we did with the Nissan Armada. The Mercedes does high-elevation climbs much better, mostly because of the torquey turbodiesel, which isn’t affected by the thinner air at altitude.)  And hills are generally short.  In Colorado you can find a few 6-8% grades that run for eight miles, and in Wyoming there’s the Teton Pass at 10%, but that’s about as bad as it gets.

badly-hitched.jpgIn contrast, imagine trying to pull a trailer through a strong headwind for 350 miles.   That’s a whole different ballgame.  If your tow vehicle struggles from lack of power, or your trailer is being tossed around by gusty winds, or if you’re not hitched up properly, you’ll feel that misery for six hours.  That makes a 20 minute hill climb in the Rockies look like a happy memory.

You’ll run into that a lot when heading west through the central states.  I-90 through South Dakota, I-80 through Nebraska, I-70 through Kansas, I-40 through Oklahoma and Texas, or I-10/20 through Texas.  We’ve hit it in all of those locations.  The car can do it, and our ride is safe & comfortable, but fuel economy suffers horribly.  Sometimes we just stop for the night and try again the next day.

Our headwind on I-10 was pretty stiff.  I know because our fuel economy plummeted, from 13.5 MPG the previous day to a dismal 10.3 MPG.  Keep in mind that your speed relative to the air (airspeed) is what matters to your fuel economy, not the weight or length of the trailer.  If you normally tow at 65 MPH in calm wind conditions, a 25-knot headwind results in drag equivalent to towing at 90 MPH.  Because air resistance (drag) increases in proportion to the square of your airspeed, a headwind like that has a massive impact.

dash-gauges.jpgIn our case, the wind-induced penalty was about 30% of our fuel economy.  At one point we were getting just 9.7 MPG, the absolute worst I have ever seen from this vehicle.  But in west Texas, the options for stopping overnight are somewhat limited, and it didn’t look like the wind was going to abate much in the coming day.  So we plowed on.  By the time we reached the brutish traffic of El Paso, the wind had died down and it was relatively smooth sailing up to Las Cruces.

[By the way, the center display in the photo above deserves some explanation.  The display shows the distance and travel time since our last fuel stop (87 miles, 1 hour, 25 minutes), our average speed (61 MPH), our fuel economy average since last fuel stop (9.7, ugh), the outside air temp and the cruise control setting (65 MPH).  I normally tow a little slower but the speed limit was 80 MPH and I didn’t want to leave a huge differential between us and the rest of the NASCAR traffic.  The car tows very nicely in 7th gear at about 2200 RPM at that speed.]

After this expensive day of driving, we decided to cheap out and try parking at the Cracker Barrel again.  Actually, we stayed there in the hopes that this one would not catch on fire, thus proving that our experience in Louisiana was a fluke.  It didn’t, so we’re in the clear, jinx-wise.

airstream-wash-at-ttt.jpgOur final stop before parking the Airstream was the truck wash in Tucson.  I was amazed at how much salt and gunk was still on the trailer after our rinse-down in Corpus Christi.  Add to that the accumulated bug guts of an 1,100 mile high-speed tow, and you can imagine how the Airstream looked.  It deserved a good bath before we put it away, and now it looks shiny and ready for another adventure.

Transitions

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

We succumbed to a little bit of “get-there-itis” on Sunday and drove 350 miles west from Corpus Christi to Sonora, TX.  As I think about things I need to do at home base, the list gets longer and the vast spaces of west Texas and southern New Mexico start to appear further.  It is hard to do much in west Texas with only four days — the distances are so huge that you spend a lot of time just driving from point to point.  We have found ourselves in an odd position:  four days remaining on our timeline, but just not enough to really do what we’d like to do.

All of the interesting parts of west Texas (the national parks, state parks, historical sites, hiking, etc.) are about 500 miles from home base.  New Mexico, of course, is even closer.  This means all of those things are within a reasonable distance if we decide to come back during the winter or spring.  We’ll probably have less time pressure later, so our decision was to not try to rush through any of the possible western stops, in favor of spending more time on the eastern stops.  Austin and Corpus Christi were the limit of our definition of “eastern” for this purpose.

So now we are just heading west at high speed and waiting for inspiration to strike us along the road.  At least by covering a lot of miles on Sunday and Monday we will have a little extra time if we do see something that catches our interest on Tuesday or Wednesday: those interesting roadside stops that you see sometimes, the local cafe, the random desert art, or a photo opportunity. I’ll feel better about pausing once we are within 500 miles of Tucson.

Right around this time of year I always have the same revelation.  This time it hit me on Friday, as I was walking to Malaquite campground’s cold water showers, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  A camper nearby was playing music outside, some woman crooning “White Christmas.”  I had to do a double-take because it seemed so incongruous amidst the sandy dunes, blue skies, and breezy ocean air.  Then I realized: Ah, yes, this is late November and Thanksgiving is just a few days away.

lucy-the-doctor-is-in.jpgThe revelation is that I don’t feel depressed.  Like a lot of people, I have suffered from seasonal depression, and November has historically been a very tough month for me.  Living in the northeast most of my life, suffering the sudden darkness of the annual Daylight Savings Time change and the traditionally grim weather of November has been something that I formerly accepted as normal, along with the feelings of unease and gloom.   The recommended solution was anti-depressant pills, which I have never tried because I have found that a big silver twinkie works just fine for me.  In other words, before the weather gets cold and the sun disappears, I head south and stay there.  That has been my prescription since 2004: Take one Airstream, once daily.

I would not say this will work for everyone, in fact I’m quite sure it won’t.  But I enjoy the sensation of the annual revelation in November:  Hey, it’s almost Thanksgiving!  Why doesn’t it feel like Thanksgiving?  Oh yeah — I feel fine — how’d that happen?  If you hate winter and you’ve got the flexibility, try chasing 72 degrees down south.  I realized a long time ago that I’d rather live in a trailer park in Florida and subsist on a fraction of my salary than live in a mansion in the northeast and feel depressed.

I’m glad I’m feeling strong enough to roll with the punches, because not everything in life goes as you plan.  In my case, the new magazine venture I have been working on for over a year is now officially dead.  It won’t launch.  A combination of bad economic timing (advertisers won’t support it), illness of the appointed Editor (not me), and a distinct lack of manufacturer support sealed the coffin.  This little venture has cost me a considerable amount of money and time, so I have reasons to be depressed about it, but I’m really not.  I went through so much heartache and angst over the first three years of Airstream Life that I’ve learned not to let setbacks get to me.  There were many useful lessons learned, some great new contacts, and a few doors of opportunity remain open even if the primary concept has, as they say about Rolls-Royces, “failed to proceed.”

There are still some other interesting projects on the table — too many, in fact.  Alumapalooza 2011 is trucking right along.  We have 67 trailers signed up as of today and we expect it to be larger and more exciting than the first one.  Brett and I are working on another Alumapalooza-type event for 2011, but it’s too early to release details of that yet.   I’ve got a book project about half done that I’m very excited about — it should release in early 2011 if I buckle down in the next month.  And I’m busy re-inventing Airstream Life in response to reader comments.  We’re adding more photos, more Airstreams, and more brief articles to give a better picture of the Airstream world every issue.

Eleanor and I have been asked a few times recently if we are excited to get back home.  We both have mixed feelings about it, really.  Home base has its advantages (more space, opportunity to pursue projects, Tucson-area activities, settled lifestyle, Eleanor’s kitchen, etc.), while being in the Airstream of course offers a constantly changing environment, the excitement of exploring new places, and the freedom of a lightweight lifestyle.  Both are great.  There is a transition period between the two that is always a little awkward, but it gets to be less of a factor each time.

I think we are particularly comfortable with the end of our long voyage because we know we’ll get out again — soon.  We already have reservations for a New Year’s trip, and are talking about possible trips in the spring as the southwestern weather warms up.  There’s no feeling of being trapped in the house when we can see our escape pod in the carport every day.  So the drive we are doing now back to Tucson is not really an “ending” to be upset about, but simply another transition in our long voyage through The Maze.

Weekend on Padre Island

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

This morning we are moving out.  Our stay at Padre Island has been more than I expected, which is good because one of the joys of traveling is the unexpected experience.  I had anticipated a rather solitary stay on a gray sand beach but instead we found a lively community of people and diverse scenery, backdropped by the constant white roar of big ocean waves and fresh sea air.

Despite being here for four nights, we have hardly found time to explore beyond the island.  I spent half a day at the public library again on Friday, but otherwise we have not ventured into Corpus Christi, which means we have left the major sights of the city for another visit: the USS Lexington, the Corpus Christi museum, the aquarium, etc.

Our Friday afternoon was taken up with the campground’s fish fry.  About fifty people showed up, which I think was nearly everyone in the campground.  Most of the fish was whiting, which is rather tasteless until you batter and fry it, but there was also some black drum, and about an hour before one of the surf fishermen came by with a huge red drum too.

padre-island-malaquite-fish-fry.jpg

Eleanor made a rice dish to contribute, and a chocolate cake, both of which pretty much disappeared at the fry-up.  The weather turned balmy and humid again on Friday afternoon, which is what you’d expect at the seaside, and so everyone was in a fine mood for eating and socializing.  I was surprised to find how many of the snowbirds were either headed for Tucson, or had spent a lot of time there in the past.  This crowd is highly concentrated with full-timers.  Several of them were thinking about buying real estate in Tucson, as prices are still low and they’ve realized what a great snowbird stop it is.

While I was working at the library, Eleanor and Emma were at the park’s visitor center.  Emma charmed the volunteers there, with her multiple visits and questions, and then she found a partial shell of a turtle egg on the beach, which furthered her status.  The shell has been added to the “touch table” of interesting artifacts in the visitor center.

Saturday dawned beautiful again.  It got so warm that we’ve been sleeping with the windows open, which makes the trailer damp but allows us to hear the roaring waves all night long.  Being here reminds me of nights camped on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the proximity of dunes and waves (and no commercial development in sight) evokes a feeling of utter escapism.  I couldn’t bring myself to waste an hour driving to and from the library for Internet, so I skipped it, and instead we went to the visitor center again to get Emma sworn in as a Junior Ranger.

While I was there, I asked about the cameras at the entrance to the park.  Every time you go through the gate of the park (heading in or out), a huge array of cameras will take a picture of your car’s front and back as well as you.   The pictures are uploaded via satellite to some computer, where I expect that the government is running license plate identification software and saving the photos for all eternity.  Being a person who is concerned about the gradual erosion of privacy, this strikes me as fairly obnoxious, so I wanted to hear the park staff’s explanation.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that the three staff members I spoke to really didn’t know — or wouldn’t say — what was going on.  The explanation was vague: “This is a border park,” which is really a non-answer since Big Bend, Organ Pipe, Everglades, Gulf Island National Seashore, Biscayne, and several other national park sites meet the same geographic definition of “border park” and yet they do not take your picture as you come and go.

padre-island-eleanor-trash.jpgWe grabbed more trash bags while we were at the visitor center, and drove six miles down the “primitive beach” to a random spot to do a little trash duty.  This time we came equipped for the job, with gloves, fresh water for washing, and a picnic lunch.  The five bags were filled in less than an hour, plus a few large objects that wouldn’t fit in bags.  You just would not believe the stuff that washes up here.

padre-island-portuguese-manowar.jpgAfter lunch we observed the Portuguese Man O’Wars that wash up everywhere on the beach.  These creatures are not jellyfish, but rather a cooperative of four different animals that function as one unit.  The colorful top (or “sail”) is one animal, the stinging tentacles are another, the digestive portion is yet another.  Nowhere is there a brain.  Reminds me of a committee.

padre-island-windsurfers.jpgOn the north shore of Padre Island is Laguna Madre, known as one of only five “hypersaline” lagoons in the world.  Plants manage to live at its shores despite the very salty environment.  Humans know is as a great place to go windsurfing and kayaking.  The water is very shallow and much calmer than on the ocean side, and yet there’s great wind.  padre-island-bird-island-cg.jpgA no-hookup campground allows you to park right at the water’s edge and watch the action all day, or wade into the warm shallow water for some fishing.

I think this stop at Padre Island has been so memorable for us because it is the first really new stop we’ve made in over a month.  Since North Carolina, our route has mostly re-traced stops we’ve made before, especially in Florida.  While it’s nice to visit known favorites, it’s even nicer to discover new ones, with new things to explore.

padre-island-e-e-manowar.jpg

Today we are breaking camp.  First stop will be a car wash, to rinse off the rig, and then we’ll be making miles toward the west.  We don’t have a plan.  Our hard stop is Friday, so we have little choice but to drive for the next few days.  1,100 miles of pavement separate us from our home base, and much of that is in very spread out (read: empty) parts of west Texas.

Solar report:  Full sun has continued every day. Friday afternoon we ended up with -12.8 amp-hours, which is better than 90% battery charge.  After the usual use (no furnace) we were down 44 amp-hours on Saturday morning, which was a little better than Friday morning.

However, we got zinged by our water pump.  Occasionally, the limit switch does not turn off the pump after it has been used.  You can hear the pump running slowly with a low whine.   The solution is simple: just quickly open and close a faucet, and the pump will usually shut off.  I think this problem is either a failing switch or the result of a little air in the system somewhere, because it doesn’t always happen.

On Saturday we returned to the Airstream around 3 p.m. to find that the pump was running constantly.  I quickly got it turned off with the usual trick, but the damage to our battery power was done.  Even a slowly-running pump consumes a fair amount of electricity, so it had prevented us from getting a full charge.  I have no idea how long it was running, but the net effect was that we ended the day with -17.8 amp-hours when we should have reached a 100% charge.

That’s not a critical amount of power, and in retrospect we were lucky to have solar panels supplying power so that the pump did not kill the battery.  So it wasn’t a crisis, but we will have to take a closer look at that pump to see if we can prevent this problem in the future.

Being our last night of boondocking, Saturday night was our usual blow-out night with lots of lights, movies on the laptop, washing dishes, etc.  We woke up this morning with -66.4 amp-hours, which puts us at about 60% of our usable power.  Not bad for four days in late November.  We’ve been generating about 40-45 amp-hours per day, and the sun is expected to continue for a while so if we wanted we could stay for much longer.

The big stories of Padre Island

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Yesterday I promised a report on Texas brisket, so let me get that out of the way before I tell you some more about Padre Island.  We had samples of beef brisket from Louie Mueller’s (Taylor TX), Rudy’s (Austin TX), and Chisholm Trail (Lockhart TX).  If you’re not familiar with Texas brisket, it’s slow-cooked beef with heavy spices along the outside, presented in roughly 3/16” slices.  The brisket is normally a tougher cut of meat but the barbecue process makes it tender.

For us, Louie Mueller’s won.  The beef was evenly marbled, very tender, a little smoky, and the coating of spices was hearty and delicious.  Rudy’s was a very close second, and they may have had an unfair disadvantage with us, because we liked their pork ribs so much that they overshadowed their brisket.  Chisholm Trail’s brisket was fine too, but the meat was not as tender and we weren’t as in love with the spices.

All of which really proves nothing, because there is no “one” Texas barbecue.  Everyone does it a little differently, and it’s all good.  I recommend you come over and try it and decide for yourself, since that’s the fun part.  We’re bringing home a few pounds of this and that for later enjoyment in Tucson.

padre-island-beach-camping.jpgWe headed over to the Padre Island National Seashore visitor center and learned a little more about the park.  Birding is big here, as is primitive camping on the beach, but the big stories seem to be sea turtles and trash.  Around here the Kemp’s Ridley turtle is predominant, but endangered.  The park releases thousands of hatchling turtles several times a year during the summer, which the public is invited to watch.  There’s hope that the turtles can be brought back to the Texas beaches in greater numbers.

padre-island-trash2.jpgBut the other big story of Padre Island interferes with that.  Because of the shape of the Texas coastline and the currents of the Gulf of Mexico, Padre Island is the Dumpster Of The Gulf.  An enormous amount of floating trash ends up on the beach here.  It’s mammoth.  You can’t walk for fifty feet without encountering a bunch of junk that blew off a boat, or was deliberately dumped at sea.

You’ll see everything: ropes, plastic bottles, plastic bags, shoes, toothbrushes, sealed jars, even 55-gallon drums.  The park services gives out free bright yellow bags for anyone to use, and provides dumpsters at every beach access point.

padre-island-trash.jpgThe problem for sea turtles is that plastic bags and bottles look like their favored food source (jellyfish) and so the turtles are getting very sick or dying as a result of trying to eat all the misleading trash floating around.  I wonder if the sea turtle numbers can ever fully recover as long as people continue to put their trash in the ocean.

padre-island-full-trash-bag.jpgJunior Rangers are required to pick up a bag of trash to complete their badge requirements, so we drove out on the section of beach that serves as road and picked a random spot about a mile down to pause and pick up trash.

We quickly began to appreciate the scope of the problem.  Our single bag was filled in a few minutes, and we didn’t even manage to clean up a hundred-foot section of beach.  We could easily have filled a half-dozen bags in an hour, if we had them, without even walking far from the car.  The drivable beach section of Padre Island is 65 miles long.

Eleanor is now happier that we didn’t camp on the beach.  The knowledge of all that trash would have obsessed her.  We were all particularly disturbed by the diamond-shaped holes in many of the plastic bottles, which are the signature bite of a sea turtle, so we made a game out of it: whoever found trash that was especially dangerous to sea turtles got more “points.”

padre-island-trash-tossing.jpgIf we’d stayed on the beach, we would have spent most of our free time just combing the sand for trash.  It’s just not our nature to ignore trash on public lands. But this gave me an idea for an unusual sort of do-good  RV rally:  why not get a bunch of RV’ers together to camp on Padre Island for a weekend and have a competition to see who can fill the most bags?  We’d have some fun too, maybe with a Trash Queen competition? (Imagine the costumes.)  I’d do it — and donate a cash prize to the winners as added incentive.  We could have fun camping in a rare location while helping out one of our exceptional national parks.

Back in Malaquite campground, there seems to be little excitement about the trash problem.  People become inured to it over time, I’m sure.  The campground is filled mostly with senior snowbirds in large Class A motorhomes and fifth wheels, which make our 30-foot travel trailer look positively miniscule.  They are all staying for as long as possible.  There’s a 14-day limit, but you can get around that for departing for 48 hours and then coming back.  Since the seniors get a bargain $4 per night camping rate with their Golden Age Pass (age 62+), they don’t have much incentive to move on.

However, I’m not complaining.  One of the long-term residents, a surf fisherman, has accumulated a freezer full of fish and is holding one of his semi-annual Friday Fish Fries at 3 p.m. today.  We’ve been invited.  I’m told that there are 130 pieces of fish to be eaten and if everyone who is invited comes, it amounts to 5 pieces per person.  We’ll probably be pushing our mercury limits for the year at this one.  I’ll find out what fish it is (some species are safer than others) and see what Emma can have, since kids are more susceptible to mercury than adults.

padre-island-pelicans-diving.jpgAh, mercury, trash, endangered turtles, oil rigs off the coast, and — oh yes — Portuguese Man O’Wars washing up on the shore.  This blog is starting to sound like a real bummer. I hate to make Padre Island sound all bad, because it really is very nice.  After our trash run we were treated to a flock of pelicans diving for fish at sunset. They put on a fabulous show while the clouds turned pink-purple and the dunes lit up gold.  Then a nearly full moon came up with Jupiter (I think) just to the right, and the sky was filled with stars.

It’s nearly winter now, so the evenings are long.  Even this far south, by 5:30 it’s pitch-black.  We went for a walk around 8:30 to look at the stars, and noticed that some of the oil rigs blink at night.  The surf continues to pound away and the breeze keeps blowing the sea air to us.  It’s still a nice beach, even if people have messed it up, and with some effort it will be even better as those mistakes are corrected.

Solar report:  Maintaining 100% battery in near-winter conditions is difficult. The low sun angle greatly reduces power generation at the panels (my panels don’t tilt).  Also, the days are shorter, and that’s a double-whammy:  less time to catch the sun; more time with the lights on.  Still, we’re doing fine.

We started with 100% battery in Wednesday.  Wednesday night we watched a movie on the laptop and had the usual lights and water pump usage.  There was no need to heat, so zero furnace time.  I left the portable inverter on overnight to charge my cell phone, which increased the parasitic drain overnight (the inverter uses power even after the phone is fully charged).

The net result was that we woke up Thursday morning down by 28.6 amp-hours.  Not bad.  With full winter sun all day we could have fully recharged but I used the laptop for three hours, and recharged a shaver and a cordless drill battery.  So we netted out on Thursday afternoon at -6.9 amp-hours, which is nearly full.

Thursday evening we watched another movie, had the usual water pump and lights on, and at about 5 a.m. I ran the furnace for 20 minutes when the trailer temperature dipped to 58 degrees.  That left us this morning (Friday) at -48.0 amp-hours, so we’ve got some catching up to do today.  We should come close to being fully recharged, because I’m going to use the public library’s wifi again and so I won’t be requiring power from our batteries for the laptop computer.

Padre Island National Seashore

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

You’d think it wouldn’t be a surprise that Texas is really big, but for some reason I keep getting whacked over the head with that fact.  Our drive from Austin to Corpus Christi took five hours through endless flat terrain, with only a few small towns along the way to break up the scenery.

It wouldn’t have been a problem except that we were delayed in departure by a missing piece of mail.  I asked my assistant/office manager to forward some important mail from Tucson via FedEx to arrive Tuesday, but she took my instruction to mean any overnight service, and she chose USPS Express Mail.  The mail was “guaranteed” to arrive Tuesday by noon, but it disappeared from the radar on Tuesday and did not show up until five minutes before noon on Wednesday.

Departing at noon meant we pulled into Corpus Christi at 5 p.m.  Even this far south, that’s approximately sunset.  This changed our plan to camp on a deserted section of the Padre Island National Seashore.  I didn’t want to be driving the beach in the dark.

Padre Island is very long.  You first drive about 12 miles from the causeway bridge, heading southwest on Rt 22 into the national parkland.  That’s where Malaquite Campground and the Visitor Center can be found.  A little further down, the road ends at the beach and from there you can drive on the hard-packed sand for many miles.  In Texas, beaches are considered roads, so all the usual traffic laws apply plus a few especially for this beach.  Northbound traffic has the right of way, for example.

padre-island-high-surf.jpgThe first five miles are open to camping, and we had visions of parking the Airstream on the sand and having a spot to ourselves to watch the waves crash on the shore.  But  arriving late meant we needed to take a spot at Malaquite instead.

That turned out to be a good move.  The winds are high right now, which means lots of salt spray.  After our experience at Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts, where three days of salt spray resulted in a lot of damage, I didn’t want to subject the Airstream or the car to that again.  The sites at Malaquite are about 300-400 feet from the water’s edge, and partially protected by a low set of dunes with vegetation.

padre-island-malaquite-campground.jpg

Malaquite is not much more than a strip of parking lot with shade ramadas and bathrooms.  There are no hookups, but a dump station is nearby.  The showers are cold water, although I suppose you could technically say they are heated to about 70 degrees.  This may all sound very primitive, but keep in mind three things: (1) We are in an Airstream with all the comforts of home; (2) the campground costs just $8 per night; and (3) we’re camped right at the beach.

padre-island-oil-rigs.jpgIf we really wanted to camp directly on the beach — a rare thing these days — we could relocate today or tomorrow, but I think we will stay here.  The surf is very high and completely unswimmable, plus there are Portuguese Man O’Wars washing up.  It is only going to reach the upper 60s today, and with the fierce wind it feels kind of cold.  So we feel that we’re close enough to the water for now.  We can see the gulf oil rigs from our bedroom.

Along the road to Corpus Christi we paused in the town of Lockhart, another stop on the informal Texas Barbecue Trail, and bought a pound of brisket from Chisholm Trail BBQ.  This is for scientific purposes.  You see, we had dinner on Tuesday night at Rudy’s in Austin with our friend Gunny and tried their brisket (also their pork ribs and sausage).  Despite being a local chain, Rudy’s was really good, and so the next day when we saw from Rt 181 that we could fit into the parking lot of Chisholm Trail it seemed incumbent upon us to try their brisket for comparison.  I’ll let you know the results of that test soon.

I’ll also be reporting on solar again.  Being a no-hookup situation, we are back on solar power.  The forecast for the week is nothing but sunshine, so even being late in the year I expect we will have all the electrical power we will need.

However, the big downside to Malaquite Campground (other than the rattlesnakes that live in the dune vegetation) and beach camping on Padre Island is that cell phone service is close to non-existent.  Our phones do not work at all, and my Verizon data card is deeply troubled.  I managed to get my email last night after a few attempts, but file attachments and web browsing are out of the question.

So to post the blog, I have to drive for about 30 minutes to the public library for their free wifi, or at least to a point along the park entry road where Verizon’s signal penetrates.  This would be no good for serious work, but for Thursday and Friday this week I can make do.  We drove 250 miles to get here, and I’m not about to rush away from the beach even if it’s a little inconvenient.

Various items, dateline AUSTIN

Monday, November 15th, 2010

In our rush to go from Florida to Texas, we covered about 750 miles over two days, finally ending up in Austin TX.  Our plan is vague: hang out here for a few days while waiting for the weather to clear.  Then we’ll head down to Corpus Christi and camp on the beach.  Meanwhile, we are doing a few favorite things …

blue-bell-creamery.jpgItem: Along Rt 290 on the way Austin, in the town of Brenham, you can tour the Blue Bell Ice Cream factory. We were delighted to find that they have a special lot just for RVs, but our luck stopped there: no factory tours on the weekends.  Still, there was a “virtual tour” (a movie) and of course an ice cream bar that we couldn’t resist.

Item:  Whole Foods has a mega store in downtown Austin less than a mile away from our campground. Eleanor cannot resist the place, with its massive, exotic, and sexy (to a foodie) inventory.  We spent two hours and came away with a smorgasbord of delights, heavy on the desserts and cheeses this time.   Last night’s dinner was bluefish with a homemade mustard sauce, followed by an assortment of little desserts.

Item:  Zilker Botanical Park is also very near, is free, and has a wonderful Japanese garden that was really inspirational to us.  Next year we’ll be converting our blank backyard into something attractive and usable, and with ideas gathered at Zilker our plans are starting to gell.

Item:  The state capitol of Texas is worth seeing.  It’s huge, thanks to a massive underground expansion on the north side.  There’s also a good state capitol visitor center nearby.  All free.  Photographic opportunities are limitless, but regrettably I didn’t bring my camera.

taylor-tx-louie-muellers.jpgItem:  Texas barbecue remains our favorite in the country, hands-down.  Today we drove out to the small city of Taylor for a late lunch at Louie Mueller’s with our friend John.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Austin, so to make the trip even more worthwhile we took home two pounds of beef brisket from Mueller’s, and two pounds of turkey sausage from Vencil Mares’ Taylor Cafe.

round-rock-shaved-ice.jpgOn the way back from Taylor, along Rt 79 in Round Rock, we spotted yet another Airstream-turned-food-stand.  Rock-A-Billy’s is a relatively new one, established 2009.  Too bad it was closed when we went by; a little shaved ice would have been just the ticket after barbecue.

We’ve got two days left in Austin, which is hardly anything for a town as interesting as this one.  Extending our stay is not feasible if we are going to make the side trip to Corpus Christi, so we’ll just have to make do with the time we have.  At this point we have towed the Airstream 6,500 miles since we left Tucson in May, and we have approximately 1,200 miles left to go, and just 10 days before our hard stop date in Tucson.  I can feel the time pressure and that’s a drag.

In the Maintenance Department, I am pleased to note that our experiment with tires has been a glorious success so far.  We have towed the Airstream about 8,000 miles on the new Michelins that I bought in January, and have suffered not one puncture or tread separation.  On the Goodyear/Carlisle/Green Ball/Trailer King/Power King/etc.   ST (Special Trailer) designated tires that we used formerly used, we would have had at least one or two failures in this amount of mileage.  The Michelin LTX LT tires even hold air pressure better.  I haven’t had to adjust the air in months. Better still, I can’t see any wear in the deep tread of the Michelins.  I’ll measure them precisely when we get back to Tucson.

crazy-battery-warnings.jpgLast item. I got a new battery for my MacBook Pro because the two year-old battery in died an early death.  This was much harder than it needed to be, because Apple has designated my laptop battery as obsolete.  (By that measure, my shoes are obsolete as well.  I’m lucky I can still get shoelaces for them.)  Thus the battery can’t be purchased in Apple stores.  I found it in Apple’s online store at $129 and through various third parties at about half that price.  I bought mine through a Buy.com re-seller for $65, and it came with this helpful warning (click the image for a larger view).  I have refrained from nailing the battery to a wall because I was warned, and instead I put it in my laptop where it is working perfectly.

A night to forget

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

The weather was fine in Destin, Florida, but the campground was booked for the weekend along with all of the other state parks in the area.  We’d had a good week camped by the beach and it would have been nice to stay longer, but it seemed to be time to continue on our trek.  So we harnessed the Mercedes and pulled out for points west, picking up Rt 98 along the scenic panhandle coastline, and then I-10.

We had made a strategic choice to zip through the Gulf Coast states in favor of spending more time in Texas, so uncharacteristically we plowed through the day and into the early evening, stopping occasionally but mostly concentrating on putting miles of concrete behind us.  We flew through the tiny piece of Alabama near Mobile, raced past the casinos and recovering neighborhoods in Mississippi, and floated above the swamps of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya basin.  By 7 pm we’d landed in Sulphur, LA (just west of Lake Charles) and parked for the night at a convenient Cracker Barrel restaurant, 450 miles west of where we began.

This is often an M.O. for us as we are in a hurry: drive all day and crash out in a safe parking lot somewhere.  Wal-Marts are popular for this, but so are many other 24-hour stores, truck stops, and RV-friendly businesses.  Sometime you get a good night’s sleep, and sometimes it goes like this:

10 pm: go to bed

midnight: awakened by truck emptying the dumpster.  Huge BANG BANG BANG of the truck’s metal gate swinging shut repeatedly.

2 am: sounds of freight train horns, long and loud.  Sudden and unhappy realization that there is a major freight crossing just behind the hedge.

4 am: more train horns

5:30 am:  sirens, lots of them.  Coming closer … and closer …

5:34 am:  another realization, this time that the sirens are right next to you.

… and that’s when Eleanor and I popped up out of bed.  We looked out the windows. Fire trucks.  “Is something on fire?” said Eleanor. [Pause]  “Oh. The Cracker Barrel is on fire.”

sulphur-la-fire-truck.jpgAnd indeed, a plume of greasy smoke was visible in the pre-dawn darkness (lit by sodium lamps of the parking lot) rising from the kitchen of the restaurant, perhaps 30 feet from us.  On the other side of our Airstream, a fire truck was setting up shop.  Needless to say, this is not what you want to see when you wake up.

Talk about a “fire drill.”  I was out of the trailer in seconds, saying, “Get ready, we’re moving,” while Eleanor hurriedly stowed loose objects inside the trailer and woke up Emma.  When we are in overnight parking mode, the trailer is connected to the car and ready to move on a moment’s notice.   Normally I just drop the tongue jack to stabilize the trailer a little.  For some reason, this time I put the stabilizer jacks down, so the firemen were treated to the sight of me very rapidly winding up the stabilizer jacks with my DeWalt drill while wearing pajamas.

But practice pays off:  both Eleanor and I were ready to roll inside of two minutes.  I popped my head in the door and told Eleanor to stay in the Airstream with sleepyhead Emma while I moved the rig to an adjacent parking lot.  One minute after that, we were out of the way, parked at the gas station next door.

sulphur-la-airstream.jpgMy concern was not that we’d catch on fire; the fire was clearly very small and probably already under control by the time the Fire Dept arrived.  We wanted to be out of the way of the firefighters, and we also didn’t want to attract the attention of any local law enforcement in case it turned out that overnight parking was prohibited in this town.  Neither turned out to be a concern, so we watched the show from a safe distance, and took the opportunity to load up 14 gallons of diesel fuel and a cup of coffee.

(By the way, shutterbugs: my primary 50mm Nikkor f/1.8 turned out to be the ideal lens for this situation, although for hand-held shots I did crank the D90 up to ISO 3200.)

At this point we realized that none of us were going to get back to sleep, so we all got dressed, hopped into the car, and got back on I-10.  Why waste a good early start?  Frankly, we should have fires more often.  I don’t believe we’ve ever managed to get on the road by 6:15 am before.

So sometimes free parking works out well, and sometimes it doesn’t.  But hey, it could have happened anywhere.  One of our favorite spots in Tucson (before we bought the house) just had a fire this week, and it took out three rigs. Life isn’t safe, but hopefully it is at least interesting.

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