Archive for December, 2010

A simple trip

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

It’s a bit unusual that, in preparation for our next Airstream trip, we are mostly unloading the trailer.  That’s because we haven’t fully finished reconfiguring our Airstream from its former role as full-time home, to its new role as escape pod. The compartments are somewhat unloaded, but many things still remain tucked away in the corners that really should come out.

I want to travel a lot lighter than we have in the past.  Not because this will improve our fuel economy, and not because we were overweight, but simply because life is easier in the trailer when there’s less stuff to dig past in order to get to what you need.  It will be nice to have storage areas that have free space, instead of being packed to the absolute limit.  We’re not going to be needing that snorkel gear in the southern California desert anyway.

defrosting-the-refrigerator.jpgI’ll appreciate being able to get to the bed without stepping over my ukulele.  Finding the beef jerky for a hike will be nicer when there’s no heap of summer clothing stored on top of it.  And on and on it goes … every space in the trailer is getting overhauled, and all of the “we might need this” stuff is coming out in favor of the “I plan to use this next week” stuff.

This is fun.  Instead of packing food for every contingency and having to cut package down in size to fit, Eleanor is just tossing in the full size packages of the things we plan to eat in the week-long trip that is planned.  We’re bringing only the games we want to play, the clothes we want to wear this week, the books we are currently reading, and we’re putting the rest into storage bins in the house.

For example, this time of year it’s hard to find reliably warm weather anywhere, and the southwestern desert is certainly not immune to cold. No snowstorms are expected in the low desert that we travel, but nights will be near freezing.  A rapid 35 degree drop in temperature after sunset is not unusual, so our clothes for this trip have been chosen with layering in mind.

The upside of the winnowing process is not the hundreds of pounds of stuff we have removed, but more rather that we’ve simplified life yet again.  Simple is good when you are going on vacation, and that’s the mental mode I want to capture with this trip.  Usually it’s work and play combined.  This time the work will be kept to a minimum while the play stuff takes over.  Eliminating the unnecessary has made room for a few bulky luxuries that we haven’t traveled with in years: the Weber grill, the folding bicycles, folding chairs, and the waffle iron.

I know for most people who have Airstreams, this perspective on packing is not very new.  Most folks pack the trailer for each trip, and they are usually packing for less than a week.  But we haven’t had that experience since 2005. I am enjoying the novelty of being “weekenders.”

Part of the fun is the anticipation of the trip, and the anticipation can be strengthened by the process of picking out the things you’ll need for the things you’ll do.  I can already see us hiking up a canyon in search of a palm oasis and bighorn sheep (note to self: remember hiking boots, backpacks, trail snacks, water reservoirs).  I’ll have fun snapping pictures (remember to pack all the camera gear) as we discover interesting bits of geology, history, and botany along the trails.  In the evening we’ll grill out by the awning (pick up portobello mushrooms and peppers at the grocery), and watch the bright stars as the coyotes howl (binoculars, tripod, headlamps, folding chairs, warm sweaters).  In the morning we’re going to experiment with a new waffle mix and serve ‘em with real Vermont maple syrup.

We are fortunate to have a full hookup in our carport.  This makes pre-trip prep a lot easier.  The trailer has been sitting since we got back, and there’s some cleaning to be done.  Eleanor defrosted the refrigerator quickly before we started repacking it, and I did a little mopping up of the desert dust that always accumulates even in closed spaces.  (In the photo above, she’s chucking a piece of ice from the refrigerator into the sink.) A quick check around the Airstream shows that everything is still operational except for a single bulb that burned out, so the prep is minimal this time.

The last simplicity accruing from this change in perspective is the ease with which this trip has come together.  Focusing solely on a closed-ended and brief trip, we have had to put less brainpower into the planning and packing.  Preparing for our last seven month voyage took weeks of prep, shopping, packing, and planning. It’s so much easier for this trip.  We need only pack for one season, one place, one week, and one intent:  have fun and relax.  Although I can’t wait to get going, these days leading up to departure are fine too.

Airstreams in the movies

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Up in the northeast, where I am from, it’s a modern tradition to pass much of the long cold nights surrounding Christmas by watching movies.  Heart-warming tale after tale eventually anesthetizes you sufficiently that you don’t notice that it’s dark 16 hours out of 24, and thus you survive a period where there is otherwise not much to do.

But my Christmas week is somewhat different, because I am working on an article for a future issue of Airstream Life, about “Airstreams in the movies.”  Instead of cheer, I am watching horror, and bad horror at that.  Instead of hearing saccharine songs of happy reindeer and Christmas miracles, I am listening to gruesomely bad musical themes (generally written by the writer/producer/director’s cousin).  No upbeat characters and plots here; instead, Airstreams seem to be most often featured in gory slasher flicks, spoofs, and satires of human oddities.

I’m talking about movies like “Mars Attacks,” and “Eight Legged Freaks” — and those were two of the better movies.  Most of the rest are just plain bad. Spend an afternoon watching “Evil Alien Conquerors” and “Idle Hands” and you’ll know what it means to have your brain cells nullified, one scoop at a time.

Perhaps the worst part of the process was today, when I discovered that (despite tips to the contrary), the Wes Craven horror pic “The Hills Have Eyes,” does in fact NOT feature an Airstream.  The hapless family eaten by mutant rednecks are staying in an ugly corrugated Shasta trailer.  I had to skim through the entire movie to discover that an Airstream was not going to appear.

motorhome-massacre5.pngWhy is it that Airstreams most commonly show up in horror movies?  Perhaps because they are cheap props.  “Motor Home Massacre,” for example, features a customized Argosy motorhome that was virtually the only set in the entire flick. Just add a few bimbos with huge implants, some stereotypical rednecks, and a few knives, and voila!  instant movie success thanks to an eager audience of teen boys.

Rather unfairly, Airstreams also show up in movies regularly whenever a connotation of “yokel” or “trailer trash” needs to be made.  This is the role in which “Mars Attacks” used them, and they were used to equal effect in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Legally Blonde,” and “Raising Arizona.”  Is it a compliment that movie directors so often choose Airstreams to depict the wide world of travel trailers, or an insult?

Fortunately, there are times that the Airstreams get star treatment, as the preferred choice of movie actors.  In both “Simone” and the animated movie “Bolt,” Airstreams are used as star’s trailers in the backlot — which happens to be a slice of realty.  Movie stars really do like Airstreams, and many many famous names you’ve heard have owned them.  So the scene is not all bad, but there’s no denying there’s a distinctly unfavorable tinge about the way Hollywood has treated the world’s most famous and long-lasting travel trailer.

I have a rough list of about 55 movies that theoretically feature Airstreams.  There is no way I’m going to watch them all.  Most of them are bad, and I need to retain at least some of my brain for future employment. But I will watch or skim at least a dozen of them for purposes of research.  Tonight, for example, the movie will be “Space Cowboys,” a ridiculous premise involving a group of over-the-hill test pilots who get NASA to put them on one last crucial Earth-saving mission.

Coming up:  “Quicksilver Highway,” “Beyond The Sea,” “Baghdad Cafe,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Air Bud: 7th Inning Stretch,” and “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.”  So you can see that the life of an Editor is not all glamorous (not that you thought that anyway).  If you’d like to spare me further pain, do me a favor:  put in a comment here, naming movies that I should see, or those that I should be careful to avoid.  The brain cells you may save thank you in advance.

Dear Santa

Sunday, December 26th, 2010

wi10-cover-medium.jpgI know it’s just one day after Christmas and you’re on vacation, but I’ve got a new Christmas list for 2011.  See, we’re getting ready for a trip into the California desert later this week, and as we re-pack the Airstream a few ideas have occurred to me.  Some of the things I want are pretty tough to find, so I figured you and the elves would appreciate a little extra time.

The first thing I’d like is a GPS that doesn’t get lost.  GPS is a technological miracle 99% of the time, but watch out for that one percent when it isn’t.  How many times has Garminita tried to send us down roads that don’t exist, or blind alleyways in the interest of chopping 15 feet off our route?  Why does it take three years to get a new road into the database?  It’s no fun having a navigator you can’t always trust.  I can see why you use Rudolph.

I’d also like a factory-approved bicycle rack for my Airstream.  That way I don’t have to carry folding bikes inside the car.  If I could pop a pair of full-size bikes on a bumper rack (with protective covers), it would be incredible.  I’d probably ride a lot more.  Some people say it isn’t possible, but I’m pretty sure Santa Claus can do anything.

A quiet fuel cell power generator would be great for long boondocking trips in cloudy places.  I love the solar panels we use, but a fuel cell would be a great auxiliary power source — silent, non-polluting, and long-running, under any conditions.  This is technology that exists today, so all you need to do is figure out how to get the cost down.

I don’t think this exists in the RV world yet, but how about a combination oven/microwave that runs on propane?  Right now the limited space inside a travel trailer is wasted by requiring separate convention and microwave ovens. Or better yet, how about a removable RV grill: indoors it’s a regular stove, but you can remove it for grilling outdoors!  That way we won’t have to carry our Weber grill in the back of the car.

Thanks for bringing me the Blu-ray player for the house. Now, can I get one for the Airstream?  This time of year, with long and cold nights, we tend to watch a lot of movies after dinner.  That old JVC DVD player that came with the trailer is past its prime.  We’d like to be able to see every one of Shrek’s nose hairs on the new HD screen I installed.  A new set of Bose speakers would be great, too.

Can you try to do something about the state parks in Arizona?  We have so few that offer camping, and nearly all of them are in danger of closure thanks to budget problems at the state level.  It would be nice if a few of them didn’t have to depend on community bake sales in order to stay open.

That’s probably too political for you, so if you can’t do that, how about arranging for biodiesel everywhere?  Every drop of biodiesel is effectively carbon neutral, reduces dependence on dino oil, and the exhaust smells like french fries.  Even B5 (5% bio, 95% dino) helps, and any diesel can burn that.  If I could find it more often, I’d use it more often.

I’ve got a bunch of other things I’d like, if you have room in the bag.  An instantly self-drying awning would be great for mornings where the fabric is covered in dew and we’ve got to get going.  That way it won’t get moldy when we roll it up wet.  I’d appreciate a stoneguard that can be left up on a windy night without rattling, compartment locks with unique keys, wheel bearings that don’t require annual re-packing and a truly unbreakable sewer hose.

I’d also like to thank you for some of the stuff I got last year.  I asked for trailer tires that actually worked, and I got them. I asked for 100 trailers at Alumapalooza, and I got 127.  You even delivered me that gift I waited for five years to get: an Airstream entry door that closes properly, with a light touch.  So I know you can work miracles.  After managing those gifts, I’ll bet my list for 2011 will be a cinch.

Thanks, and have a great vacation on The Keys.

Living cheap on the road

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Here’s another question I often am asked:  What does it cost to live on the road?

I think a lot of people ask this question because they assume that a life of travel has to be an expensive luxury.  This isn’t surprising, since (at least in the USA) most people’s view of free time is tied directly to the concept of “vacation” — and it isn’t a vacation unless you go somewhere and spend a lot of money.

It takes a little re-arranging of the brain space to grasp that full-time travel via an Airstream can be a really economical experience.  Some people try, and fail miserably, having spent many times more on fuel, admission tickets, and “supplies” (read: souvenirs), just like their vacations.  But I’m here to tell you that not only can it be cheaper than living in a stationary house, it can be a life-saver.

See, when I started Airstream Life magazine, I was severely under-capitalized: the curse of many small business entrepreneurs.  After a year of running the small and unprofitable business, it was clear that we needed to reduce our living expenses if our savings were to last long enough to reach profitability.  And our largest expense by far was the upkeep of our house.

The house was eating us alive, with mortgage, substantial taxes, maintenance, utilities, snowplowing, garbage collection … while we were traveling about 5 months per year on business. So after some consideration, we decided to sell it and live on the road for a while before building a smaller house.  A summer of living in our Argosy 24 turned into 36 months of life in our Airstream Safari 30.  Along the way we discovered that life in the Airstream was not only a lot of fun, but much more affordable than life in the house had been.

And that made all the difference.  I could not have succeeded with Airstream Life if we hadn’t lived on the road for three years.  Without the crushing burden of a house, we were able to stretch our savings to permit years of travel — combining a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a smart financial move.

Of course, we took care to ensure to cut our travel expenses whenever possible.  We saw people run through $50,000 in a year traveling by RV, and we saw people doing it on as little as $20,000 per year (and having the same amount of fun).  So we tried to emulate the folks who were having a frugal but wonderful time.

The “tricks of the trade” aren’t really tricks at all.  They’re just common-sense choices that you can make along the way, like limiting your driving.  There’s usually no need to zing back and forth across the country, but as I’ve said before, this is one of the top mistakes made by new full-timers.  One of our very best months was spent in the Four Corners region (CO, UT, AZ, NM) where we visited fourteen national park sites on a budget of $971.  You don’t have to spend a lot to experience a lot.

Why was it so cheap? First off, we rarely splurged on full-hookup campgrounds. Instead, we prefer to stay in the national park campgrounds whenever possible.  They’re more natural, better located, and cheaper, in exchange for the trade-off of generally lacking the amenities of commercial campgrounds.

Second, we limited our travel.  We stayed several days in most locations, and never towed more than 100 miles.  When we found a good place, we stayed a while.  Staying put is always cheaper than towing somewhere else. Although we rarely stayed as long as a month, you can really save a lot of bucks with campground monthly rates.

Third, we didn’t buy anything except necessities.  Our souvenirs are strictly limited (because of space limitations too!), so early on we decided what we’d collect.  Eleanor buys a national park pin in almost every park we visit.  Emma sometimes gets one too, or a book, in addition to the Junior Ranger badge she usually earns.  We don’t buy logo apparel because we really don’t need it and the trailer would quickly fill up with the stuff.  (After all, we’ve visited well over 150 national park sites.)  We avoid the cute gift shops in town, and when we do buy something local, it’s most often edible.  I know a lot of people like to shop as they go, and I’m not saying you can’t do that, but you can’t expect a habit like that to be cheap.

Related to this, we were also careful to limit eating out.  It gets expensive quickly, not to mention the rapid impact on your waistline.  This is tougher than it might seem, because everywhere you go, there’s someone who wants to celebrate your arrival (or your new friendship) with dinner out.

Fourth, we took full advantage of the great deal that our nation’s parks offer.  For $85 per year we have free admission to every US national park in the world, including the ones in Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands.  It’s a deal like no other.  If you are over age 62, the deal is even better: $10 for a lifetime pass.  Don’t miss it.

Fifth is the Big One: We sold our house.  You can’t leave cheaper on the road if you still have a house somewhere.  The house stills costs even if you don’t live in it, doesn’t it?  The only ways to make the economic formula work are to sell the house or rent it out while you are gone. We calculated the cost of owning our house at about $65 per day.  Once we had that burden lifted, it was easy to cost-justify the Airstream and the tow vehicle.  You’re even better off if you don’t have a loan on those vehicles.

“The cost of travel” is a red herring.  The cost of staying at home is the unspoken and dangerous story.  Unspoken, that is, until the recent mortgage crisis revealed how many people were living far beyond their means in the name of “home ownership.”  Dangerous, in the sense that if too many people realized how much better off they might be without the trappings of suburbia, the housing market could collapse further. Not everyone can break away from their current responsibilities and travel, but if you are lucky enough to be able to travel — even for a week or two — yes, you can live on the road and save money.

Modernism Week 2011

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Last February you might recall that I took the 1968 Airstream Caravel out to Palm Springs for a few days.  It was one of eight vintage trailers on display at the ACE Hotel, which was a small part of the big Modernism Week even that takes over Palm Springs every year.

The event was surprisingly popular, considering the small number of trailers that were on display.  Over 600 people came through to tour the trailers, inside and out.  So I proposed to the organizers of Modernism Week that R&B Events (our little company that organizes Alumapalooza) get involved and try to make the event larger.

They accepted, and so during February 25-27, 2011, we’ll have 18 really exceptional vintage trailers on display at the Riviera Resort & Spa in downtown Palm Springs. Most of them will be 1960s Airstreams, including a Bambi, two Caravels, two Globe Trotters, a Trade Wind, a Safari, and a Caravanner.  All of them will be completely restored, whether customized or original.

holiday-house.jpgIn addition, we are expecting several interesting non-Airstreams.  Already signed up are a 1935 Bowlus Road Chief, a 1960 Holiday House (pictured at left), and a 1950 Airfloat Landyacht. If you went to Alumapalooza in 2010, you might have seen John Long’s Bowlus already — it’s absolutely stunning.  Pictures of it were also featured in a recent issue of Airstream Life.

Kristiana Spaulding will be there with her “silver trailer” jewelry and her Caravel.  She’s a fun person to chat with, since her interests encompass many aspects of design including jewelry and vintage trailers. She and her husband Greg own a small fleet of trailers, some of which they rent for vacations.

John Byfield and Kate Heber will be there too, with their customized “Eco-Discovery Tour” Airstream (a 1962 Flying Cloud). This trailer was featured in Airstream Life. It’s sort of a rolling showcase of alternative ideas and materials that can make everyone’s life greener. You can see some pictures of it on their website.

If you’d like to come see the show, you should check out the Modernism Week website.  There’s a free “exterior” (closed-door) showing on Friday, February 25.  You can just show up at the Riviera Hotel and wander around from 5 pm to 8 pm.

Open-door tours, where you can see the interiors and talk to the owners, will be Saturday and Sunday, Feb 26-27.  There’s an admission fee for the interior viewings on the weekend, which I believe will be $15.  Hours are 10 am – 3 pm Saturday, and 9 am – 1 pm Sunday.  There will also be several vendors on site, with all kinds of modernism / vintage trailer inspired goodies.  I believe that David Winick, creator of the Airstream 75th Anniversary Bambi, will be there with his new book, too.

At this point we’ve got 12 trailers signed up to participate.  We haven’t made a public call for participants up till now, because it’s an invitation-only event.  The trailers have to be approved before they can be in the show.  This is to ensure high quality for the people who are buying tickets to tour the trailers.  Plus, we only have space for 18 trailers.

dsc_8421-web.jpgBut it’s a heck of a deal.  For an $85 entry fee you get two free nights in the Riviera hotel, two receptions, lots of fun, and the chance to win the new “Airstream Life Award,” hand-made by Stevo Cambronne.  (The award is something new we’ve developed.  Two will be given to great trailers at Modernism Week, and we are also planning to give a couple away at next year’s Alumapalooza in Jackson Center OH.)  Just hanging with the other owners should be worth the entry fee, since they are all interesting and motivated people with great restoration talents.

So if you’ve got a nicely restored vintage trailer of any make, and would like to attend, send me a few photos (use the Airstream Life “Contact Us” form to send an email and I’ll reply with an address). But hurry!  We’ve only got 6 spaces left, and they are going fast. Whether you’ve got a trailer to show, or just want to come through and see them all, I hope to see you in Palm Springs next February!

Why we picked this home base

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

After we sold our home in Vermont and started traveling full-time, we had the entire country to consider as a future residence.  We browsed and briefly lived in something like 46 states before we made our choice. So it’s understandable that one of questions we get asked most frequently is “Why did you pick Tucson?”

Really, the criteria was rather mundane:  we liked the desert climate (good for SAD and good for allergies), the cost of living is reasonable, we could buy a “lock and leave” house that wouldn’t need winterizing or constant air conditioning while we were gone, there’s year-round outdoor activity for adults and children, and Tucson has everything we need.  Having spent most of my life in rural country, I appreciate the convenience of living in a city even though it’s not as quiet as what I’m used to.

We don’t pretend that our criteria makes sense for anyone else, so after answering this question I am always quick to point out that it’s really up to everyone to figure out what’s important to them.  I probably don’t need to do that, since most of the folks asking the question are themselves frequent travelers and they tend to be very independent.  Of all the people who have asked the question, none of them have settled here. They’ve all found their own favorite places.

But we like southern Arizona a lot, especially for the diversity of things to do in the area.  Take Saturday, for example.  We decided that our mission would be to browse the Asian food markets in town.  Tucson doesn’t have nearly the Asian population of the California cities, but enough that we can easily find the exotic ingredients that Eleanor likes to use occasionally in her cooking.  We googled up a few likely spots and read the online reviews (mostly useless, as usual), and eventually came up with a list of three targets.  Right there, that’s a win — because in many other cities we’d just be plain out of luck.  I like the fact that I can find almost anything here.

tucson-leelee-market.jpgHaving just put some money into the Mercedes 300D for front end work last week, I wanted to give it a run. So we loaded up into the “Stuttgart Taxi” and cruised to our first stop, the Lee Lee Supermart in northwest Tucson.  This place tries to cover most of the major countries of far east Asia, so you’ll find Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc., all through the store.

I’m always intrigued with the strange and interesting new foods and ingredients in Asian markets.  It’s a temptation to start buying a little of everything, just to try it out.  But since we had three markets on our program for the day (two Asian and one “other”), we tried to be moderate in our choices.  I could easily see us filling the roomy trunk of the Stuttgart Taxi with a pile of groceries worth more than the car itself.

tucson-vermont-curry.jpgAnother fun part of this type of shopping is finding truly odd or confusing packaging.  There are things both lost and gained in translation from Asian languages, and sometimes the results can be laughable.  This keeps both adults and kids entertained.  Our first find was “Vermont Curry,” as seen here. Now, I’m from Vermont, and I can tell you that “Vermont” and “curry” go together about as well as “Kansas Lobster.” These days Vermont actually has a few ethnic restaurants, thanks to an increasingly diverse population, but as a child I remember that pizza was about as exotic as it got. If there were such a thing as Vermont Curry, it would probably have maple syrup in it.

tucson-steamed-potato.jpgAnother minor oddity was the House Of Steamed Potato brand kimchi crackers. Apparently this is a major brand in China, with several flavors.  I’m sure the name makes sense in Chinese, and I’m sympathetic to the problem of translation.  I wouldn’t want to try to translate “Ritz crackers” or “Count Chocula” to Chinese.

tucson-mang-gong-cake.jpgBut our favorite was found at our second stop, the Grantstone Supermarket: Mang Gong cakes. Nothing odd here, until you look closely at the bottom of the package. It reads, “The False Packing.”  It’s hard for an American to make any sense out of that.  Given the volume of illegal Asian product knock-offs, is this simply a pre-emptive attempt to admit that these are not real Mang Gong cakes? Perhaps in truth the package contains Nike sneakers.

Sometimes you can figure these things out by playing with synonyms of the words.  For example, could “false” be an attempt to say “low-cal”?  Or perhaps “imitation,”  “see-through,” “empty,” or “absent”?  Likewise, “packing” could mean “packaging,” or “wrapper”?  Maybe this is an attempt to advertise the see-through outer wrap, or to suggest that this has a decorative wrapper for gift-giving.  We need a good Chinese translator to help figure this one out.

tucson-biodiesel-fueling.jpgIt’s amazing that we managed to kill most of a day browsing Asian markets, but we did.  We are, as I’ve said before, easily amused.  I suppose the prospect of eating whatever Eleanor whipped up with the ingredients was helpful in keeping our patience in check too. By 3 p.m. we were wrapping up and heading home with the trunk only 1/4 full of groceries (fortunately for the budget).

There was just one more stop to make, at the Arizona Petroleum depot off 22nd Street, for biodiesel. I have been wanting to run some biodiesel in the Taxi, since it has an “old tech” engine and can eat almost any type of oil.  A little biodiesel helps clean out the fuel lines since it has higher solvency properties than dino diesel.  This pump dispenses B5, B20 and B99 (5%, 20%, and 99% biodiesel respectively) for $3.25 per gallon, which is about in line with local diesel prices at conventional fuel stations in Tucson right now.

I bought five gallons of B99 to mix with the 15 gallons of dino diesel in the tank.  It made the exhaust smell like a restaurant with a fryolator, which is actually quite pleasant.  Most cars I have smelt running B99 exclusively have exhaust reminiscent of french fries, and instead of annoying people, it usually makes them hungry.  I’d like to run this in the GL320 as well, but its super-high-tech engine and exhaust system are restricted to B5 at the most.

That’s not an atypical day for us, on a winter weekend in Tucson.  That’s why we like it here.  If we want to go to a festival, a farmer’s market, go for a hike or bike ride, attend a gallery opening, take sunset pictures, do some gardening, work on the car, roam the gardens, take a class, whatever — there’s always something.  You really can’t go wrong in Tucson this time of year, with lots of things happening and fantastic weather almost every day.

That’s our criteria for a place to live, perhaps because it closely mirrors the kind of life we had when we were traveling.  For me at least, once I had tasted the diversity and excitement of constant travel, I couldn’t fathom settling back into a town that didn’t have something going on all the time. No wonder it took years for us to find a place to buy a house.  Future full-timers beware: life on the road may be your dream, but keep in mind that you will face a tough job finding the ideal place to live afterward.

Myths and misconceptions

Friday, December 10th, 2010

It’s a quiet time for us, relaxing at home base in the holiday season.  We have no plans to take the Airstream anywhere until after Christmas, which means we will have spent a full five weeks here in the house.  In the hiatus, since we have no Airstream adventures to relate, I want to use a few blog entries to talk about questions that I am often asked when we are traveling.

The reason for doing this is simply that I am constantly reminded of how much misinformation exists on the Internet about RV’ing. Online forums filled with urban myths, badly-researched or biased magazine articles published by people who should know better, and poorly-edited books from “RV experts” are the primary sources of misinformation that new RV’ers come to believe.  It’s a travesty. Most people don’t understand the most basic concepts of trailer hitching, for example, even though incorrect hitching can result in their death.  Many RV dealers are complicit in this as well, by the common practice of just shoving a new trailer owner out the door with minimal instruction.

When I was learning to fly airplanes, I was impressed at how safety-oriented the industry was.  Everything in aviation is ultimately about safety, which is why it has an incredibly impressive statistical record. As a member of the Airline Owners and Pilot’s Association (AOPA), I received a glossy monthly magazine (AOPA Pilot) which was extremely well produced and loaded with useful information. My parents (also private pilots) subscribed to a newsletter by Belvoir Publications which analyzed the causes of aircraft accidents, which they passed on to my oldest brother (another pilot) and me.  We read it like our lives depended on it — because they did.

In aviation, pilots in training are often expected to read a book from the 1940’s, called “Stick and Rudder.”  In that book, author Wolfgang Langewiesche precisely described what happens when a pilot controls an airplane, in a way that defuses misconceptions that would otherwise occur among pilots.  It was a seminal work, so important that it remains in print today.  There is no comparable book on towing in the RV industry, which is why I asked Andy Thomson to begin writing articles for Airstream Life on that subject.  We hope that someday Andy’s articles will be recompiled into a book much like “Stick and Rudder,” which I will publish.

No question, part of the reason that there is so much good information for aviators compared to the dearth of good information for RV’ers, is the fact that aviation is a very high-profile and wealthy industry. Despite the fact that there a new Airstream runs $35,000-100,000 dollars (about the same price range as a new Mercedes) and that there are hundreds of million-dollar Prevost buses on the road, RV’ing is still too often viewed as the domain of country bumpkins and “trailer trash.”  The industry sells itself short.  When we were learning new concepts in aviation, like Instrument Flight, we considered it a good investment to buy a series of King videos for $80. We watched so many videos of John and Martha King in the living room that it felt like they were members of the family. But even if you are willing to spend in order to learn RV’ing concepts, where do you look for trustworthy information? Too much of what’s out there is either unreliable, or produced by “interested parties” with significant bias.

That’s probably why I’ve been increasing the educational aspect of everything I can touch.  Last year’s Alumapalooza included seminars on towing, axles/brakes, and maintenance.  We’ll do the same again in 2011.   I’m also working on a book of my own for new Airstream owners, which I expect to publish in the first half of 2011.

Andy’s book probably will take a couple of years to complete, but when it comes out I expect it to be an important and long-lasting work.  If you haven’t seen his towing series in Airstream Life, it’s worth the price of subscription all by itself.  (We have some of the back issues in the online store.)

Now, you may be thinking, “Come on — towing is just driving. It’s not nearly as complicated as flying.”  To a certain extent that’s true, but if you can die because you didn’t understand a basic principle, isn’t it worth learning more? I really hate it when I run into long-time RV’ers who say, “We’ve been doing this for XX years, there’s nothing anyone can tell us that we don’t already know.”  Baloney.  I find those are the folks who are most often full of misconceptions and half-truths, and are anxious to spread them around like a virus.

Here’s a really simple example.  How many times have you heard that reducing weight in your trailer will improve your towing fuel economy?  Like a lot of things, there’s some truth to that, but not nearly what people think.  Sure, lowering the trailer weight will result in less energy needed to get the trailer moving from a stop, or pull it up a hill.  But RV’ers spend most of their fuel budget pushing air out of the way, not pulling away from STOP signs.  Aerodynamics play a much larger role in fuel economy than weight.

The misconception about the impact of weight has led to the popular myth that you can save fuel by not carrying water in your fresh water tank.  It’s nonsense, but it is continually spread even by experienced trailerites.  I recently read a book by an Airstreamer who had bought into the myth that reducing his trailer’s weight by dumping his water supply would improve his fuel economy.  So, one windy day on the Interstate he dumped his water, and lo-and-behold his fuel economy did increase that day.

What really happened?  Most likely, the wind decreased slightly, or he reduced his speed a little.  The reduction of weight caused by the loss of 20 or 30 gallons of water, when traveling on the Interstate, is not going to result in significant fuel economy improvement.  If you don’t believe it, then consider this:  Does your fuel economy change materially if you add one passenger to your vehicle?  Probably not unless you strap him to the roof, where he can block some of the windstream.

I had a radical example of the importance of aerodynamics vs. weight last December, when I was towing my 17-foot Airstream Caravel from Michigan to Arizona with a diesel tow vehicle.  Along that 2,000 mile route, I averaged 13 MPG, which is about the same that I get towing the big 30-foot Airstream Safari. But the Caravel weighs just 2,500 pounds, while the Safari weighs about 7,500 pounds.  Triple the weight, almost double the length — and yet, about the same fuel economy.  If a 5,000 pound difference didn’t affect my fuel economy, why would a 160 pound difference (the weight of 20 gallons of water)?

The reason for the similar fuel economy lies in the fact that both Airstream trailers have approximately the same frontal area to pull through the air.  The Caravel is a foot narrower, but that doesn’t make much difference.  In either case, you’re still pulling a rounded block face measuring about 60-70 square feet through the air at highway speed, and that takes a heck of a lot of energy.

winnebago-1966.jpgLook at the boxy Winnebago pictured at left.  The fuel economy of those things at highway speeds is horrible, about 6 MPG on a good day.  Would you make an airplane that looked like that?  It looks like an origami project.  All the folds, flat faces, and square corners add up to incredible amounts of aerodynamic drag. Adding a couple of hundred pounds to that aerodynamic disaster wouldn’t be noticed in terms of fuel consumption.

Airstreams are inherently much more “slippery” than most other travel trailer designs, so we get better fuel economy overall.  Airstream claims about 20% better, which I can believe based on many conversations I’ve had with owners of other brands.  But it could be better.  Even an Airstream has lots of drag-inducing objects hanging off which reduce fuel economy, such as awning, air conditioner, door handle, etc.  When the economic justification is there (higher fuel prices), you’ll see more radical designs of travel trailers and motorhomes that eliminate the bulges and junk on the outside.

The industry is of course interested in reducing weight too, but that’s mostly a response to small tow vehicles with lower overall towing capacity.  The real fuel economy savings will come when travel trailers slip through the air with less drag.

This example of the “weight myth” is just one of dozens that permeate the RV space.  You’re not going to die if you don’t understand it, but there are other myths and misconceptions that are more dangerous, or which cause people to waste their money.  When I’ve spotted them in the past, I’ve talked about them, but perhaps not enough.  I think my tolerance for the “industry standard” level of ignorance and banality has begun to fade, so in the future I’ll call ‘em as I see them.

“How do you decide where to go?”

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

When we were full-timing, one of the questions we were often asked was, “How do you decide where to go?”  This question always mystified me, because it was never clear to me exactly what was meant by the question.  There were many possible interpretations.

Some people meant, “Of all the great places in the country, how do you choose which ones to visit?” This is the easiest variation to answer, because that’s how I see the travel opportunity.  North America is loaded with interesting people, geography, history, foods, adventures, etc.  There are so many possible places to investigate that an interested person can travel full-time by RV for over a decade and still find new and exciting things to discover.  We have friends who have, in fact, done this and are still on the road.

We chose places to visit based on a combination of factors that were unique to us:  business needs, personal interests, weather, family, invitations, etc.  I wouldn’t pretend that our criteria precisely matches anyone else’s criteria.  The beauty of RV travel is that you can customize your experience to your exact interests, with hardly anything to interfere.  You don’t have to worry about transportation timetables, baggage limits, availability of hotels, etc.  You can stay longer and pay less.  You bring all the comforts of home along with you.  So of course you always do whatever the heck you want, whenever you get the chance.

Other people who asked the question assumed that we traveled on a rigid schedule and therefore meant, “How do you decide how long to make your scheduled stops?” Even working, most of the time we had a fairly flexible schedule.  The first year we were out, we obligated ourselves to be at various Airstream dealers when they were having special sales events.  This meant we had to zig-zag all over the country at inconvenient times, ending up in Indiana in March (not an ideal time to visit).  After a year of that, we stopped promising to be at events and started drawing out a more rational schedule.

“Schedule” is much too strong a word for what we really had.  We kept a list of ideas, long-term obligations, and general goals in mind.  Our actual travel plan was worked out between 1 day and 2 months at a time, no longer. Anything more than two months away was simply a “goal” (such as spending summer in Vermont).  While we always hit the goals, we never let the plan become too organized because that would eliminate happenstance, lucky finds, changes of heart, serendipity, new friends, and unforeseen opportunity from playing their vital part.

Some people who asked the question were concerned with having only perfect stops, so they meant, “How do you know what places are good and which are not?”  Folks like this are usually oriented to the “vacation mode” of travel, where you have a very limited amount of time (a week or two) and want to make the absolute most of it with some sort of fantastic adventure.  To be reasonably sure this is going to happen, you usually need reservations and strict plans.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the mode of a full-timer, so the question really didn’t apply to us.  Full-timers don’t have the restriction of a vacation, and come to find that life on the road shares some realities with life in a house.  In other words, you can’t expect every moment of full-timing to be perfect and wonderful, any more than you can in stationary life.  There are fantastic days of adventure that you could never have anticipated or planned, and there are many more of the mundane days where you had to catch up on laundry or spend the day waiting at the service center.

But I always tried to answer this question anyway. I’d treat it literally, and tell people that we used various sources of information to guide us, including the Internet (RVparkreviews, various travel forums, National Park Service, etc.), tips and invitations from friends, and knowledge of events or rallies that we wanted to attend. Regardless of our pre-planning, we accepted that there would always be surprises of the pleasant and unpleasant kind.  If you fear the uncertainty of that, you probably should stay close to previously-traveled routes.

A few people who asked the question had no concept of what our travel was like at all, and meant, “What do you do if you’re not following the normal air/rental car/hotel/destination resort program?”  That represents a certain cluelessness about RV travel, but I liked that because it meant I could open someone’s eyes to an opportunity that they probably had never considered before.

However, these people broke into two subgroups:  (a) Those who were genuinely curious about what it was like to travel in an RV because they might like the concept for themselves someday; and (b) Those who were curious because they regarded us as nutcases and perhaps thought they would be amused by the tale of our oddball behavior.  The latter group would never seriously consider doing what we were doing, so I never invested a lot of time in trying to convince them to change their ways.  After all, RV’ing isn’t for everyone.

The former group (a) was more interesting.  People’s eyes tend to widen as you describe the idea of pitching the package trips and instead going on a wonderful free-flowing roadtrip where everything has the potential to be an adventure.  The trick here is to appreciate the small things along the road.  Those who were hung up on having a High Concept trip would eventually realize they would be happier flying to the resort in Maui and going to the nightly luau, than finding historic architectural beauty camped behind a deserted Rt 66 gas station in Oklahoma.

The literal answer to this version of the question is elusive in its simplicity:  You do whatever interests you.  If you aren’t interested or passionate about something, life can be pretty boring.  I think little healthy obsessions are part of what makes people stand out from the crowd.  Our obsession over the past several years has been Airstreaming, and it will continue to be for some time, because the lifestyle (full time or not) has yielded so many incredible benefits for all of us.  The Airstream is a vehicle to indulge our interests and discover new ones at the same time. Where it takes you depends on who you are.

Shifting gears

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

With the mental shifting of gears that accompanies our transition from Airstream to house, I am once again able to tackle the projects that I began this summer while I was alone in Tucson.  Working in the Airstream is very feasible and I did it successfully for three years straight, but in those times when we are paused in the house, I find I am able to tackle projects that otherwise would have lain in a heap on the side of my desk.

It’s the long-term projects that suffer when we travel, because there’s a certain workload involved just in the routine of hitching up and towing, researching the next place to go, meeting people, taking photos, and getting to know each new area.  That’s all part of the fun, of course, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it does tend to infringe on the paying work, and I need to keep an eye on that.  After all, I’ve got a kid who is getting braces on her teeth next month.

Besides, being at home means I no longer have to work out of a backpack. I’ve now got my own desk with room for printer, scanner, laptop, project stacks, and a cold beverage all at the same time. Instead of an occasionally dodgy cellular Internet connection, I have high-speed DSL. I can reliably expect my mail to arrive at my door, without having to notify my mail service of a new address every week.  For someone who has spent most of the past five years roaming, these things represent real luxury.

The Spring 2011 issue of Airstream Life is at the top of my list, of course.  I am particularly excited about this one, because we are in a transition to becoming a much more photo-rich publication.  I’ve always been proud of Airstream Life but it has also always irritated me that I have consistently struggled to get decent photography.  Finally I’ve been able to establish relationships with photographers and writers that are bringing in more & better images.  We’re going to showcase them starting with Spring 2011, by running more full-page photos, and even double-page spreads (kind of like the current “From The Archives” feature).

About 90% of the editorial for the Spring issue is complete, so as it moves into the layout phase, my personal workload will lighten, and that means other projects can get some attention.  The hiatus from traveling also is giving me time to think about the personal projects, and various “nesting” activities that we’ve never done before. Being stationary means a new perspective on everything.

In particular, the house is still a half-wreck after three years of ownership because we’ve never been motivated to finish the renovations, while the Airstream has had every possible attention lavished on it.  Houses are much too expensive for what you get.  When you add in the real cost of maintenance, repairs, utilities, taxes, furnishings, interest, etc., the total gets rather depressing, and that’s when I start thinking about our next trip in the Airstream.  But it’s time for the Airstream to sit a little (even though we still have a few things on the “upgrade/fix” list) while the house gets its fair share. Whether the house actually will get any money or effort thrown at it remains to be seen, but at least we have some good intentions …

The Mercedes GL320 will sit, too.  It’s a great car for our style of travel, but I find the maintenance costs too expensive to justify using it when we are parked at home. With 38,000 miles on it after only 19 months of ownership, it deserves a rest too.  At this rate it will be at 200,000 miles less than seven years from now.  So I am making a small investment in the old 1984 Mercedes 300D to make it into a completely reliable backup car.  It is in the shop today for front end work and hopefully a tweak to the vacuum system to make it shift a little smoother. There are a few other small things I’d like to fix on it later, as well.

As elderly as the 300D is, with 166,000 miles on the odometer (and many more undocumented miles since the odometer only turns on cold days), it is now my favorite car to drive.   I love the way it has that diesel rattle at idle, the serene ride at cruise, and the relative simplicity of a 1980s car.  This is one of the last computer-free cars.  Everything in it can be seen and felt, like mechanical objects should be, instead of being controlled by mysterious computers that randomly go bad for no fathomable reason.  In a world where my printer, television and the other car have to boot up before they are fully functional, it’s nice to have a car in which the pedals are attached to linkages instead of sensors, where the “nav” feature is a coil-bound map book that always works, and there is no “Check Engine” light.

This shift of gears (and gear) will persist for quite a while, but we do have travel planned here and there. In the meantime, rather than mooning on about my home projects, I’ll try to take the next few weeks to muse and comment on Airstreaming from a stationary perspective.

Kindle experiments

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

A lot of people believe e-books are the future.  To be more accurate, I would say they are in fact part of our present.  The famous Kindle seems to be getting adopted by a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in new technology; this is probably because it’s doesn’t feel “technological” to use one. My 10-year-old daughter uses one, and my xx-year-old mother uses one.  (Age deleted to protect senior modesty.)

It’s a great device for the Airstream.  I like the light weight, slim design and low power requirements.  It’s as if they designed it specifically for trailer owners.  One thin pad carries hundreds of books for me — or it would, if I had that many loaded into it.  In reality it only carries a couple dozen, but that’s still very useful.

So on the theory that if I like it for my Airstream, others will too, I’m playing around with publishing content for the Kindle. My first few attempts were horrible. Airstream Life magazine does not render on Kindle very well at all.  I checked a few other major magazines and they are equally bad.  It’s just not a good platform for color magazines.  I am sure the iPad would be better, but there’s a whole ‘nother set of technological obstacles there and (sorry to iPad owners) I’m not willing to jump through those hoops just yet.

On the other hand, the Kindle works very well for books, so I’ve adapted the Wally Byam books (Fifth Avenue on Wheels, and Trailer Travel Here & Abroad) to Kindle.  You can now buy them both in a single combined volume from Amazon.  I downloaded the sample last night and it looks good.  You can get a free sample at the link above, if you have a Kindle.

This blog is actually available on Kindle too, at the price of $0.99 per month.  I put it up there on a whim several months ago and was surprised to find that I got a few subscribers.  I just got my first author payment from Amazon last week, for a whopping $10.20.  It’s obviously not a living, but getting the payment was like finding a ten dollar bill in the couch cushions.  Thanks to those of you who subscribed.  Knowing you’re out there inspires me to keep writing even on those days that I really don’t feel like it.

I’m working on some new projects for 2011 (of course, because I can’t stand to leave well enough alone), and all of them will have an electronic publishing component.  In fact, from now on I expect just about all new content produced by myself or my company will be published on Kindle.  These e-book adaptations probably won’t do much for my bottom line, but if they are useful to people then I think I should make an effort to supply them.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine