Archive for May, 2011

Alumapalooza, day 1

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

It’s game day.  We’ve been working toward this for almost a year.  It’s just dawn and I’m watching a dull orange glow creep up the eastern sky.  The 6 a.m. outdoor alarm just went off at the factory building, indicating that it is time for the workers to start their day.  They start early here because many of them are farmers as well, and will go home in the afternoon to work their second jobs.

Our job this morning starts with getting the staff, volunteers, and vendors parked in the main field.  Yesterday we carefully checked all of the parking fields with a heavy truck and a bunch of volunteers, to identify potential wet spots.  There’s a section in the northeast corner we call “Lake Bambi,” and there are two smaller spots we call the South and North China Seas.  They are pretty wet, so we have marked them off. There’s also a section we had coded-named “Cairo” that we won’t be able to use even though it is mostly dry, just because we can’t get to it.

But otherwise the field is drying out very nicely.  In the morning I estimated we could use about 80% of the available spaces, but at the rate things were drying we might be up to 90% this morning.  We had a nice hot breeze all day and lots of sunshine.  In any case, we’ll have no trouble parking everyone who is signed up for the event.

The tent went up yesterday, and it is just plain huge.  We’ve got room for 450 people in there, plus a large stage. It’s the first things you see as you arrive.  Looks like the circus has come to town. There are three smaller tents too, for registration, yoga classes, and vendors.

The Terra Port filled up yesterday, as we expected.  Adam and Susan are here in their unique Class C, Alex and Charon showed up with Laura (from our Anza-Borrego trip last December), Kirk the amazing sign guy showed up with his usual bag of swag plus this cool Happy Hour sign, plus Michael Depraida, Hunter Hampton, and many other well-known Airstream characters.

With all these people, it wasn’t surprising to see a couple of big chat circles set up under the shady trees every afternoon.  Eleanor and I had enough to do that we didn’t have time to join them for more than a few minutes.  She was off until mid-afternoon making an airport run again, and then we needed to go back to the tent area to drop off the registration trailer (a U-Haul) and set up some things in the main tent.  Then I had to go out with Brett & Adam to set up signs on the entry roads (which look awesome, by the way, thanks to Kirk).

We finally got a chance to clean up and break away around 6 p.m. in the Miata for a top-down cruise through the countryside — just us, away from the bustle and crowd for a few hours.  We zipped down to the old downtown of Sidney, checked out a few quiet spots in town, then had dinner and came back via the Interstate.  The convertible is surprisingly habitable at highway speeds, especially on a night like last night when the temps were still running about 88 as we cruised home.

So here we are, 6:25 a.m. now, and it’s time to get moving.  The sun has risen as I’ve typed this. I can hear a few people outside already.  They want to get going.  We’ll start parking the staff and vendors around 8 a.m., and the general public at 9 a.m.   I’ve got to get going now if I’m going to be hitched up and ready to lead the parade …

Sunday in JC

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Things are heating up for us in all sorts of ways.  We were blessed with a sunny day, temperatures in the upper 80s, and a nice breeze all day to dry things out.  With more sunshine forecast today it looks like we’ll have no trouble using the grass to park trailers on Tuesday.

Our major task for the day was to stuff 275 goody bags.  Dave Schumann of Airstream’s Service Center arranged for us to have access to the service bays, so I pulled the U-Haul full of stuff (that Brett brought from Florida) into the relatively cool and wind-free space.  We swiped a few tables from the breakroom and set up an assembly line, with Brett, Lisa, Alice, Tim and myself working on the project.  (Eleanor was off doing laundry.  She cut her finger rather badly on Saturday night and can’t do much with her left hand now.  She is going to be wrapped up in bandages for the week.)

We finished the bags in about three hours, including a post-project celebration with guacamole & chips that E&E brought over.  It’s sort of cool to be working next to an unrestored 1935 Bowlus and the Jesse James Airstream Chopper.  Strangely, “Schu” showed up to see how we were doing, at exactly the moment we finished.  I think he was watching through the windows…

Eleanor and I took a trip down to Dayton airport to meet my mother and hand off Emma.  She’ll be winging it back to Vermont today, and we’ll see her again in about ten days.

On the way back, the Mercedes was running very low on fuel, so of course I stopped to buy diesel.  The combination of a nearly-empty tank and high Memorial Day fuel prices set a record (for us) for most expensive fill-up ever: $108.  I know for a lot of folks with big truck tanks a three-digit fill-up is commonplace, but this is the first time I’ve ever spent that much for a single fill-up on any vehicle I’ve ever owned.  It’s a psychological shock, that’s for sure, but I’m reminded of what people told me when we first started full-timing in 2005.  Back then gas was running about $2.80 per gallon and I heard, “Boy did you decide to go traveling at the wrong time.  Wait a while until prices drop again.”  I’m glad we didn’t wait.  It always seems expensive at the time, but having been to Europe and paid $7 a gallon I know that we still have a cheap deal here.

Another pair of key Alumapalooza volunteers, Lou & Larry, showed up last night.  They are our dear friends from eastern Ohio, with whom we’ve courtesy parked many times.  This week they are also the Vice-Presidents Of Parking, or whatever title they care to give themselves.  Parking is the toughest job at Alumapalooza, and with the tricky logistics caused by all the rain recently, we are going to spend a lot of time today wandering the fields so we can finalize our strategy and be ready for the onslaught of 100 Airstreams that is coming tomorrow.


Arrived @ Airstream

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

We’ve landed in Jackson Center, OH, home of Airstream since the 1950s.  There’s a sort of reliability about coming here, because not much changes between visits in a village this small.  Because it is so small we tend to notice the little things, like the fact that one restaurant has closed and another has opened, or that the BBQ place has a new sign.  In Tucson they could demolish an entire city block and we might not notice for a week, but here we can notice a new crack in the pavement as we stroll through the four-block downtown.

On this visit my primary interest is getting prepped for Alumapalooza, so I’m more interested in the grass fields and parking lots around Airstream than anything else.  After incredible and constant rains, it appears the weather pattern has finally broken and we are expecting a mostly sunny week.  That’s good, because the local farmers haven’t been able to plant (costing an estimated $904 million in lost farming revenue in this state alone!) and they need some drying weather soon.  Of course, we do too, but I walked the Airstream fields yesterday and could see that with just a couple of days of no rain we’d have no problem using 80-90% of the available space.  So by Tuesday, when 100 trailers are scheduled to arrive, we should be fine.

At the moment hardly anyone is here, which is ideal.  The factory is, of course, closed for the weekend.  Last year the Airstream “Terra Port” filled up with early arrivals, which is something we try to discourage since the Terra Port is for Service Center customers.  It was a bit of a madhouse, especially by Monday when the last space was taken.  This year something has kept people away — maybe the weather?  In any case, it’s quiet and that will be great for us since we’ve got a lot of things to do.

Tim & Alice came here on Friday, Brett & Lisa arrived yesterday morning, and we arrived yesterday afternoon.  Today our jobs are to pick up some boxes of donated materials, stuff goody bags, and strategize parking scenarios, plus make a run to the Dayton airport.  Not bad, so I’ll also have some time to get work done before the real madhouse begins.  It’s a weird way to spend Memorial Day weekend, but all for a good cause.

South Bend, IN

Friday, May 27th, 2011

OK, so I didn’t really get much of the work done today that I said I would. From now on, I’ll have to stop saying publicly what I mean to get accomplished. You might start to get the impression that sometimes I blow off work and go do something more interesting …

Today was work of sort. I had an obligation to go to Elkhart to the RV / MH Hall of Fame to appraise a trailer that is to be donated. Yes, even the RV industry has a Hall of Fame, just like all the major and minor sports categories. I hadn’t been there since 2005, when they were in a much smaller facility, and it was nice to see how the Hall of Fame has grown, despite some serious financial challenges in the past couple of years. I met with Al Hesselbart, the facility’s historian, and spent about an hour browsing the collection of vintage RVs from the very early tent campers of the 1920s through the motorhomes of the 1970s. (By the way, there’s overnight courtesy parking there if you need it, right off the Indiana Toll Road.)

After that, Charlie led me to the incredible Tippecanoe Place Restaurant in the old Victorian district of South Bend, just for a quick look at the interior. It’s a large 1880s stone mansion reminiscent of some of the eastern Vanderbilt homes, resplendent in carved oak and fine craftsmanship. Absolutely beautiful, and well worth a visit. It was the home of the Studebaker family for over 40 years.

Studebaker, if you didn’t know, was based here in South Bend, and at one time employed 21,000 people on an enormous factory campus with over 150 acres under roof. So our next stop was, of course, the Studebaker National Museum, just around the corner. It’s a pretty nice example of a single-brand car museum, with about 70 drool-worthy cars on exhibit at any given time. For eight bucks it’s a decent deal for any car buff, or anyone who appreciates industrial design.

We’ve never really explored South Bend on our prior visits, so this is the first time I’ve had a chance to appreciate what the town has to offer. It has many small and large legacies of its industrial heyday scattered around, from Victorian homes to city parks and museums. Of course, not all of the legacies are good — in many places you can see the slow slide into urban decay as major manufacturing continues to depart, either from being exported overseas or simply driven out of business.

Yesterday I got out to Lowe’s for some materials, and spent about half an hour building a little deck from 2×2 and 1×4 boards and a bunch of wood screws. The deck is about 3×4 feet, and will be placed at the entryway of the Airstream this summer while it is parked in Vermont, to provide a place to put shoes and reduce the gravel that gets tracked into the trailer. We started carrying a miniature 1×1 ft. version of one of these decks last summer and it has proven very useful for muddy spots (much better than the entry mat, which just gets wet), so the one I built is just an expansion of the same strategy, for our long stay.

Tonight we joined about 20 of Charlie & Lynn’s friends and family at Moser’s Austrian Cafe, in nearby New Carlisle IN. I don’t know why we were in a small and obscure downtown German cafe, out of all the places we could have gone, but it turned out to be a fine place to have a celebration. In this case, the celebration was sort of a combination of themes: their anniversary (which was months ago, apparently), and their impending departure to Minnesota, and I suppose our mutual general love of Charlie & Lynn. At least, that’s how it looked to me from the many happy faces. Whatever — we were gate-crashing strangers to nearly everyone there and had a great time anyway, which says something about the kindness of their family and other friends.

Saturday we will head out to Jackson Center. I’m looking forward to Alumapalooza, because we will have hundreds of people with us having a great time. I’m dreading Alumapalooza because I’m partially responsible for those hundreds of people being there, and I want to make sure that they have a great time. If you’ve ever thrown a party for 440 people, you know the feeling. The work starts immediately and I won’t get a chance to relax until Sunday June 5. (sKY:: and ~slaDE, I may need a little yoga therapy mid-week!)

It’s going to be all right …

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

I wish I could have managed to hold my camera while driving I-80 from Joliet IL to Gary IN yesterday, but I was too busy juggling the steering wheel and the walkie-talkie. The pictures I would have captured would show an uneven concrete jungle crowded with speeding 18-wheelers, bridge construction, sudden slowdowns, and in the midst of it all, an Airstream trying to avoid being smashed from three directions at once and a tiny Mazda Miata cowering in terror, dwarfed even by the wheels of the trucks.

It was a final test for Eleanor, who has borne up well despite 1,900 miles of bone-rattling driving across the country in a ragtop car that has no soundproofing.  The I-80 assault was noisy even in the pampered environment of the Mercedes.  (I almost had to increase the volume on my iPod, boo hoo.)  In the Miata it was a deafening rumble of tanks crossing the desert sands of Iraq, a bladder-loosening flyover of B-17s in diamond formation, and a 7.5 earthquake in Japan, all at once.  After nearly an hour of physical and mental abuse, we reached the relative peace of the Indiana Toll Road and pulled out to a rest area, where Eleanor collapsed for half an hour in bed.  But she survived, and recovered well enough to drive the last fifty miles.

And now we are here in South Bend, parked on carefully-laid pavers next to an antique farmhouse, surrounded by a few well-manicured acres of grass and horse pasture.  The contrast from the noisy, smelly, crowded, and cracked I-80 Death Race Challenge is so dramatic as to seem unreal.

The 34-foot Excella belonging to Charlie and Lynn is parked with us, stocked and nearly ready to go for their upcoming trip to Minnesota.  We have been here many times before, and it has always been an oasis for us at the intersection of Chicago, Michigan, and Airstream.  We’re ready to relax and catch up on things for a couple of days.

This is great, and crucial, because I am supposed to have the Fall 2011 Airstream Life magazine completed for layout by next Wednesday. That isn’t going to happen, because Alumapalooza makes it impossible for me, but I at least will get 3 or 4 articles in process so that the entire magazine isn’t held up until I return to it.  Today and Friday will be dedicated in part to getting a bunch of editorial work done.  Fortunately, I have been greatly assisted with this issue by Associate Editor Tom Bentley, and at this writing I am also working to bring another Associate Editor up to speed for Winter 2011.

You may have noticed that photos in the blog for the past week have been of lower quality than usual.  That’s because I have been experimenting with using my iPhone as my “point and shoot” camera.  It is highly convenient but the photos aren’t great.  In particular the iPhone is very contrasty and can’t handle low light at all.  It also lacks optical zoom, and any sort of manual control over the image.  So when I get to Jackson Center I’ll switch back to the Nikon D90 for Alumapalooza pictures.

We have been granted a huge boon.  Five months of awful weather in Ohio have  finally broken, just in time for our event.  It has rained almost continually and will do so again today, but as of Saturday the sun is forecast to shine — and keep on shining — with very little prospect for rain next week!

Of course, the ground is wet and may not dry out entirely by Tuesday, but we have contingency plans to temporarily park arriving trailers on pavement if needed.  Personally, I think we’ll be fine to start using the field by Tuesday or Wednesday.  The ace Alumapalooza parking team of Lou, Larry, Terry, Brett, myself, Alex, Charon, Laura, Alice and Tim will all be on site in advance to finalize our parking and utility strategy.  Plus we’ve got support from Lisa, Eleanor, Kirk, and several other folks if we need it.  So when 100 trailers arrive on Tuesday, we’ll be ready for ‘em.  Look for us in the orange t-shirts, bearing walkie-talkies and trying to look competent.

The forecast suggests the usual JC weather pattern next week.  It will be damp and cool in the mornings, so you’ll come out of the trailer dressed in long pants and a jacket.  Shortly after, the fog will burn off and you’ll be roasting hot in the sun, so you’ll have to change clothes and find some sunscreen.  That evening, the temperature will drop suddenly after sunset.  At least once during the week a shower will pop up with little warning, too.  It definitely is a place where the old adage is true,  “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a while and it will change.”  Keeps things interesting, I say.

Woken up with a bang

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

You really can’t travel through the central states this time of year without encountering some thunderstorms, and this year they are popping up like spring mushrooms.  Last night was our first encounter, starting with an enormous BANG at 3:25 a.m. that woke us all up. It was one of those “way too close for comfort” sort of lightning strikes, and I won’t be surprised if later this morning I discover a shattered tree in the campground.

In these situations an Airstream is a great shelter, being an aluminum shell, so unless there is an imminent threat of tornadoes, we just unplug the laptops from the local power grid and check the Doppler radar to get an idea of the severity of things.  Last night’s line of storms was pretty active and some tornado damage was reported, but from the radar view I could see that we were getting just the southeastern end of the line.  By the time we were awoken by the Big Bang, the worse was over.

We’ll see more rain today on the highway toward South Bend — it’s virtually unavoidable.  Once we are moving I’ll be watching for high winds and suspicious cloud formations.  If it gets funky out there, we’ll pull over and try to park the Airstream in the lee of a large building or under an overpass.  Hail is the most typical cause of severe damage, but you can never find a shelter when you need one, so the primary consideration is just staying alive if the weather really turns nasty.

We’ve had a few close calls in the past.  I remember caravanning north on I-75 through Michigan after Airstream’s Homecoming 2005, and Eleanor watching the weather radar on the laptop as we rolled north.  Ten minutes before a major line of storms blew through, we exited the highway and found a relatively sheltered spot for the Caravel, then watched the drama unfold from the safety of a nearby restaurant, complete with flying tree limbs.  In 2008, we had a tornado blow right past us and had to take shelter in a Wal-Mart.  A Class A motorhome in the same parking lot as our Airstream blew over onto its side in that episode.  We were also threatened by tornadoes at a rally in Myrtle Beach SC once, and spotted a nice little tornado spinning by at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado. Hail has hit us in at least three different states, but never large enough hail to dent the trailer fortunately.

OK, so let’s look on the bright side.  Today will hopefully be much less eventful.  The Airstream has now had the last of the Arizona dust washed off of it, including the solar panels, so I don’t have to climb on the roof to clean them.  We have no leaks, unlike last year at this time.  And the weather forecast in Jackson Center seems to be FINALLY turning to sunshine for all of next week, which will be great for Alumapalooza.  A dry week in Jackson Center would be a very welcome miracle.

Springfield, IL

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

We’re 1,500 gritty long miles down our voyage.  The Merc is decorated with hundreds of smashed bugs, or at least it was before I ran it through a car wash tonight.  (The Airstream is likewise adorned, but it won’t get cleaned for a while yet.)  We’re camped in an old city park/campground in Springfield IL, the kind of place we never would have found if it weren’t for

The campground has a fairly crazy layout, with campsite driveways crossing each other at apparently random angles.  Some sites have water, most have electricity, a couple have sewer, but they’re just as unpredictable as the layout.  Our site has sewer and electricity, but no water.  To reach the utilities we have to block access to another site, but there’s nothing we can do about it.  Nobody cares anyway, since the place is only about 1/3 full and the atmosphere is mellow.  Fifteen bucks got us what we wanted, 30-amp power so we could run the air conditioner against the onslaught of increasing humidity and gradually rising temperatures.

Give me Tucson heat any day.  It was only about 86 degrees here, but with humidity and a flock of mosquitoes to greet us, our only thought was to hide in the Airstream.  Problem was, we were stir-crazy from too many days in the car.  Yesterday’s break in the state park wasn’t enough to make up for all the mileage, even though Eleanor and Emma took the afternoon off to walk around the park and then cruise around the almost-town of Cameron MO in the Miata with the top down.

So at today’s stop I broke with our standard policy, and unhitched the car from the Airstream on this one-night stay so that we could meander into town and hoof it around in open spaces for a while.  Once the sun went down, it was a nice night to roll down the windows and open the moonroof, and feel the damp air blowing around inside the car.  Combined with dinner, milkshakes, and a mile or so of walking, we all started to feel normal again.

We are approaching the point at which we can wind down a little.  We’ve got one more long drive, about 290 miles to South Bend IN, which will include the always-frantic stretch of I-80 from Joliet to the Indiana Toll Road.  Jersey barriers, rough concrete, rabid commuters, and plenty of toll booths are in my future.  It’s an interesting challenge for a trailerite.  Once we survive that, we’ll be able to chill for three nights in South Bend enjoying the company of civilized folk (at least as civilized as our friends get) in the shade of trees.



Wallace State Park, Cameron MO

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Many people wrote and called us yesterday to ask if we were OK, so let me get that out of the way first:  We’re fine.  The devastating tornado in Joplin MO and the other thunderstorms were so far east of us that we never even saw a cloud.  It was smooth sailing and clear skies all day as we cruised across Kansas, continuing on Rt 54, and eventually to Kansas City.

But our free pass has ended.  We’re now on the edge of the turbulent weather that is causing the thunderstorms and rain that have plagued the central states for months. There’s no doubt we are going to get the bugs washed off the car soon.

We spent the night in a parking lot in Independence MO last night, so that we could take the Miata in for a check early this morning.  At 7:30 I dropped it off at a local automotive shop for diagnosis of the “Check Engine” light, and it turned out to be a warning that the front catalytic converter wasn’t performing to spec.  Rather than drop $700-900 on a new converter, we reset the code and are waiting to see if it was just a fluke (the washboard road or a tank of funky gas).  Probably the light will come back one, but it won’t hurt the car to fix it later.

We’ve moved about 35 mile north to Wallace State Park in Cameron MO.  It’s a beautiful spot with a little lake and lots of deciduous trees for shade.  We’re nearly alone here, except for one tenter and the landscape staff who are rushing around to get the park ready for Memorial Day weekend.  Peace and quiet, no annoying smoky fires, no mosquitoes (how is that possible?) and Verizon Wireless is pretty solid here.  It’s gotten a bit hotter and more humid, so we sprang for an electric site at $21, and are now set up for work and homeschooling for the day.

We’ll move onward Tuesday, rather cautiously because of the constant threat of severe thunderstorms.  Fortunately, we only need to cover about 540 miles by Thursday, so we can afford to have a slow day or two, and park as needed to avoid heavy weather.  I’ve been using the iPhone and various apps to see the weather as we go, just for geek points.

The constant rain up in the Ohio Valley has been the inspiration for many conferences in the past couple of weeks with the Alumapalooza team.  It’s no surprise that conditions are wet up there, and the weather forecast says we can’t expect much drying before the event date, so we are making alternate plans to ensure that Alumapalooza comes off successfully no matter what.  We’ve secured dozens of parking sites on asphalt both at Airstream and the former Henschen plant, plus we’ve coordinated with Airstream to electrify several dozen alternate sites behind the manufacturing building.  That way we’ll be able to park trailers where conditions are most acceptable, and avoid the really wet spots.  The tent is bigger than last year too — big enough to house all 440 attendees with seating and room for the stage.  So no matter what the weather is doing, we’ll be dry and having fun.

Rt 54 in NM, TX, OK, KS

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

We made a mistake last night, when we impulsively jumped on the $10 RV park in Carrizozo without checking the Valley of Fire Recreation Area.  After leaving the park in the morning we went the extra four miles to check out Valley of Fire (administered by BLM) and discovered a beautiful campground sitting atop a height of land and surrounded by the exotic and mysterious black lava flow that gives the area its name.

Well-developed trails ran through the lava flow, so access looked easy, and from our experiences at the lava sites in northern New Mexico and Hawaii, I know we would have liked exploring the area.  Best of all, had we stayed here overnight we wouldn’t have heard the trains honking at the grade crossing all night.  It definitely would have been worth it to us to skip cheap full hookups and stay here.

Because of this, Eleanor suggested that we start a list of places we’d like to visit during our return trip in September, which Emma is now keeping on a notebook.  I used to do that sort of thing when we were full-timing, since we kept crisscrossing the country, and it paid off with an abundance of ideas no matter where we were.

As I had expected, following Rt 54 has given us a very different and worthwhile path to follow through New Mexico.  The road rolls and winds through a series of decayed villages and outposts, past mining ghost towns and recreation areas, and tiny slices of humanity clinging to remote homesteads despite the loss of any economic rationale.  There aren’t a lot of people, but for the independent and sharp-eyed traveler the road still has stories to tell.

Part of the story can be gleaned from the dead motel signs, all former neon, advertising places that seem to follow a narrow theme: Sands, Sun & Sand, Desert, Western.  Route 54 joins the famous Rt 66 in Tucumcari, and of course there you’ll find a slew of old road artifacts, but even when Rt 54 travels alone the signs hint of a past when this road was a main byway through the west.

For the most part the road is fairly smooth, but there are a few rough spots.  I hardly notice these in the Mercedes, cushioned by a full air suspension and extensive soundproofing, but poor Eleanor felt every kidney-pounding pothole and pebble thanks to the stiff suspension of the Miata.  That may have accounted for the bathroom breaks every 60-100 miles.

In Oklahoma and Texas the road flattens and straightens as it passes through vast grasslands and mammoth feedlots.  There’s not much to capture your eye except vastness, and the intermittent towns filled with grain silos and businesses that service the farming industry.  Oklahoma has one notable town (name withheld) that seems to be solely populated with single-wides.  The place gives the impression of being one tornado away from returning to grazing land permanently.

In keeping with our plan, we tried to make some mileage today, and ended up going 400 miles to Liberal, KS.  There was no firm plan of where to stay but Eleanor put in one criterium: stay away from the rail line, so she could get a good night’s sleep.  Unfortunately the rail line follows Rt 54 apparently forever.  We immediately rejected the first RV park we spotted along the highway because of the nearby railroad grade crossing.

This led to a minor “find” just a few miles further, the relatively unknown Arkalon Park & Campground, which I believe is run by the city of Liberal.  It’s a mile down a dusty washboard road, across the railroad tracks, and past the house with the Alaskan Husky who will pace your car for several hundred yards.  The campground sits in a shallow river valley, surrounded by tall cottonwood trees.  A railroad trestle is visible perhaps 1/2 mile away, but no crossing, so no horns.  The camp host was glad to see us since most people stop at the first RV park, and take our $15 for an electric site with concrete pad.

The only fault of this park, from my technophile perspective, is that Verizon offers only a weak bit of  “extended” signal here.  That means I have no Internet connectivity and intermittent data services on the iPhone.  I was able to post a tweet from the iPhone last night with some effort, but this blog is being posted from the road after leaving the campground.

We aren’t sure where we are going from here.  It’s still sunny, warm, and dry out in the west, and we know for sure that we will soon cross into the humid and flooded central states.  It’s hard to get psyched to continue plowing east (even though I picked up another obligation yesterday that requires our presence in Elkhart IN by Thursday), so we will probably will find a place to hole up on Monday for purposes of doing some work and malingering.  Also, as we were leaving the washboard road from the campground, the Miata’s “Check Engine” light went on, so we’ll need to look into that sometime (the engine is running fine and there are no other symptoms, so I’m thinking something got jostled loose).  All of those factors define our goal for today: find a halfway decent spot somewhere in eastern Kansas to spend a day or two.

Carrizozo, NM

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

We’re out of the house box now (and into the tube), traveling northeast.  Even though we left a day later than originally planned, we have plenty of time to get up to our destinations in the swamped central states.  And once we reached the bright sunshine and warm desert sands of New Mexico, I began to wonder if it was such a great idea to zoom-zoom north and away from this fine weather and scenery.

When we reached Alamogordo NM, we paused at the roadside to talk about this.  (Since Eleanor is in the Miata following Emma and me in the Airstream, we have our conferences during rest breaks.)  There was a fierce temptation to pause at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park just south of Alamogordo for a couple of days of hiking.  There are some nice trails in that park that we’ve wanted to explore since our first visit several years ago.

But we have only a few days available for play on this voyage. Stopping this early in the trip would force us to do more driving mid-week, when I’ll be needing time off for work.  Not only that, but we would have to do three or four days of driving in a row, which will make us all crazy.  We eventually decided that it would be better to press on and have a break on Monday and Tuesday even though that break will probably be in some dull flat mid-western town where rain will be in the forecast daily.

So we continued on, up Rt 54 through Tularosa and eventually here to the little town of Carrizozo, elev. 5400, pop. 1000.  The drive was beautiful but thankfully uneventful.  Uneventful is what you want when you are trying to cover miles.  The Miata seems to be in fine shape and turned in a remarkable 37 MPG on its first highway tank of fuel.  Eleanor is finding it reasonably comfortable for all-day driving, and she’s cocooned in there with a collection of CDs, snacks, drinks, and even a few leftover Mother’s Day mums in a tiny jar of water.

Part of the Miata’s exceptional fuel economy must have been the mild tail wind we enjoyed all day, since the Airstream/Mercedes combination gave us 14 MPG at a consistent 65 MPH. I’m glad for it, since it means we can coordinate fuel stops from here on in; each of us can easily go 300 miles with plenty of reserve.

There’s a steep climb out of Las Cruces heading west on Rt 70 to  White Sands Missile Range, which reminded me of the only weakness of the Mercedes as a tow vehicle.  It won’t blast up any grade at highway speed.  I don’t know the grade percentage of this particular stretch of road, but it felt like 10%.  Normally we blow past tractor-trailers on grades, but when steeper than >8% we start to lose steam.  In this case we ended up in the “slow lane” at 30 MPH for about half a mile.  The Merc’s 3-liter diesel six is very torquey, so it always gets there, but not always at top speed.

This is less of an issue than you might think, since such grades are rare and there’s always a lane for slower traffic.  My take is that it’s just a chance to observe the scenery in greater detail.  I actually don’t mind this, since our prior tow vehicle (Nissan Armada, 5.6 liter gas V8) wasn’t much faster on hills and either its engine or transmission tended to overheat when stressed.  The Mercedes doesn’t seem to have that issue, and the transmission is smart enough to tell the engine to limit power if it is in danger of overheating.  So while we weren’t tearing up the asphalt on the way up the mountain, I didn’t have to be concerned about damaging the vehicle.

We are getting back into the routine of Airstream living.  It has been nearly 7 months since we last traveled long-term, with only a week-long trip in December to keep our family-coordination-in-a-tiny-space skills in practice.  Each time we do this Emma takes up more space, which requires small adjustments.  Not only is she physically bigger (now 11 years old and 58 inches tall) but she is more of an individual each time with her own ideas.  When she was little she was more like (oh, don’t take this the wrong way) a pet.  Now she’s a third person.  Fortunately she’s an easy-going third person and isn’t yet trying to tell us everything that we are doing wrong.

We had planned to end up somewhere that was nowhere, and we have succeeded.  Carrizozo is not known for much except the large volcanic flow nearby known as either Carrizozo Malpais or more poetically “The Valley of Fire.”  Otherwise the major feature we have noticed is the active Union Pacific railway line directly adjacent to the diminutive motel/RV park where we spent the night.  The $10 full-hookup price is somewhat offset by the passage of fast-moving Ferromex and UP trains, four or so last night, each of which was obliged to give long and loud blasts of the horn because of the grade crossing nearby.  Still, we managed to get a night of sleep. The plan is to swing by the Valley of Fire overlook on our way out this morning a take a few pictures.  That will be the bulk of our touristic activities today.

Our route deliberately bypasses the quicker Interstates for a scenic tour through New Mexico, the tip of Texas, a fraction of Oklahoma, and a whole lot of Kansas, along old Route 54.  This is a very direct route, which promises to take us through grasslands today.  Perhaps not the most fascinating views but we’ve learned to accept that the central portion of the country is relatively featureless whether you travel through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, or South Dakota. You take what you can get, and at least this is different.  I bet we’ll spot a few oddities worth mentioning on the walkie-talkie, like the giant pistachio nut in Alamogordo that looks like “Audrey II” from Little Shop of Horrors.


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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine