Archive for August, 2011

Storm chasing

Monday, August 29th, 2011

My triumphant return to the northeast somehow became a story about a hurricane.  In the last 48 hours leading up to my dawn flight from Tucson to Manchester NH, I was suddenly getting emails (and a blog comment) from friends & family who were concerned about my apparent interest in flying into the midst of a famous hurricane, namely Irene.

Not to worry.  My flight was via Chicago, which meant that I didn’t need to worry much about in-flight weather and also that there would be an astonishing rarity in these days: a plane with lots of empty seats.  86 people on the Tucson-Chicago leg bailed out presumably because they couldn’t get their connections to eastern seaboard cities like Washington DC, New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk.  Without all the crowding, it was like flying in the 20th century.  (The illusion would be complete if only I didn’t have to turn my head and cough at the security checkpoint.)

We landed in Manchester in the late afternoon on Saturday, when people in North Carolina and Virginia were firing up their generators and bailing water, with only scattered clouds and no rain.  But not for long — the long gray tendrils of Irene reached us that evening and the excitement began.  Being from the area and having seen many an expiring hurricane dawdling up the east coast, I knew what to expect.  By the time they get up around Boston, the weather event is basically a lot like every summer afternoon in central Florida: torrential rain, occasional high winds, predictable flooding, plus a local bonus lots of hyper-excited news coverage.  I met my long-lost wife and we went out for dinner, then spent the night at a hotel listening to the splatter of an overloaded rain gutter splash the window.

The next day at noon, we took to the road.  The trusty GL was as surefooted as always, making the 200 mile drive up I-93 and I-89 a non-event for the most part, despite constant heavy rain.  Swish-swish went the wipers, the tires sliced through the puddles (as long as I stayed at a reasonable speed, far below the posted limit), and inside we had plenty of time to talk and listen to podcasts.  The best part was that virtually nobody was out, so the highways were wide open and there were no yahoo drivers to avoid.  We paused in Hanover NH near Dartmouth College to take in a long lunch and were the only people in the Chinese restaurant.  On the other hand, it was a bit sad to see spots where the White River and others had apparently overflowed their banks and flooded some farms and homes.  Up on the high ground of the Interstate we had little to complain about, but down below the damage was quite obvious and I’m sure many people are having a really rough time at the moment.

All of this is a long way of saying that we drove through a tropical storm (“hurricane” status having been stripped from Irene about the time she arrived in Massachusetts) for four hours and the most exciting part was lunch.  Things got considerably more interesting once we pulled into Vermont, where the Airstream has been stored all summer.  I was concerned that a tree branch might have fallen on the roof, but no.  The lake was rolling with huge widely spaced waves like you’d expect on Lake Michigan, not on our relatively small “sixth Great Lake.”  The power went out at the house, because this is Vermont and that’s what happens in virtually every storm.  We hung out with the family by candlelight for a while, then fired up the noisy backup generator that services the house on these occasions.

The Airstream needed no external power, of course, but as we attempted to sleep we were located far too close to the generator’s Sturm und Drang cacophony and it was a bit like being at the worst rally of our lives.  No “generator hours” here; we were the guests and without the generator the basement sump pumps in the house would cease working and then we’d have our own little tale of flooding to tell.  So we endured some noise until about 3 or 4 a.m., when the generator finally ran out of gas.  At 5:30 the hard-working representatives of Green Mountain Power arrived with a powerful chainsaw and proceeded to spend about half an hour rescuing power lines.  It was not the best night for sleeping, but the power was back on when we finally awoke for the fourth or fifth time.

And today it is the classic “day after” a major storm: startlingly clear skies, a beautiful view of New York state across the open waters of Lake Champlain, and the ground littered with downed branches.  I got out the wheelbarrow, ladder and tree trimmers, and with a little help from Emma cleaned up the overhanging branches in the driveway so that the Airstream will be able to depart in a few days.  The trees needed trimming anyway.  Tonight, friends will come over for dinner on the deck.  A precious few warm days remain up here in northern Vermont, so we’ll make the most of them while plotting a convoluted route down the east coast and across the south, in the Airstream, during September.

TBM wraps up

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Plot summary:  After the last burst of wonderful road-trip glory, Temporary Bachelor Man (TBM to his friends) finds himself in the sad anti-climax of his adventures.

I knew it would be hard to top the big three-city tour that I did last week, and upon returning to home base I had to face a mixture of painful realities:  (1)  the end of the 2011 TBM season was fast approaching; (2) I would have liked a drop-in visit by my wife/girlfriend (it’s a dual role this time of year) before returning to family life; (3) we had absolutely no plan for where we were going in the Airstream once we resumed travel; (4) I was bored with Tucson.

For me, the charm of a place is often inversely proportional to the amount of time I have to spend in it.  I have enjoyed weekends in absolute hell-holes and dull-as-a-butter-knife cities simply because they were novel to me, and I have completely lost my mind after eight days on the action-packed Las Vegas Strip.  It’s the experience of learning, exploring, and being stimulated by new things that makes a place fun for me, which is the same personality characteristic (some would say “flaw”) that causes me to shy away from the routine.  And lately, home base has become a little too predictable: not much happening, always hot, nearly always sunny, and everyone hiding indoors to avoid the weather, like northerners hide in the winter.

With only a few days remaining, I scrambled to find things to do, but at every turn was stymied by forces beyond my control.  There’s always work, of course, but with excess time the Winter 2011 magazine is not only well in hand, but actually — for the first time in years — somewhat ahead of schedule.  The Vintage Trailer Show for Modernism Week 2012 is almost ready to begin accepting trailer-owner applications, and we’ve got the new Alumapalooza 2012 website up, too.   That’s all good, but there’s got to be more to life than work.

More sensible people than I have all fled the desert southwest, of course, so few of my local friends can be found.  (Note for next year: plan more trips up into the cool country; this means FIND A TOW VEHICLE FOR THE CARAVEL, YOU DOPE!)  Over the weeks that I have been in TBM guise, I have satisfied myself with a little checklist of absolutely inane & mostly unnecessary goals, all of which I can accomplish solo:

(1) Eat ice cream at every local place within 2 miles (Baskin Robbins, Culver’s, Dairy Queen, and Frost).

(2) Buy a bunch of used books at Bookman’s for the long trip back in the Airstream and in the process reclaim my “Mayor” status on Foursquare.

(3) See every R-rated movie of interest that I can, either in a theater or via Netflix.  This summer I’ve managed about a dozen, including X-Men, The Trip, Potiche, Rango (OK, it wasn’t R but I’m a sucker for animation), The French Connection, Sucker Punch, The Adjustment Bureau, The Illusionist (another non-R animation but charming), Night and Day, and Inception.  I’m not recommending all these movies, by the way …

(4) Go for at least one hike above 8,000 ft. (accomplished 8/13)

(5) Cook my own dinner at least a dozen times.  This has been accomplished mostly through the miracle of pasta and a very robust sauce Eleanor left in the freezer.  I may not be able to face pasta again for months, however.  The Weber grill is also a TBM friend.

(6) Sell the Miata.  This has been done, although at painful cost.  We never intended to keep the car for longer than this summer, but our impetus to sell it became more urgent when the car began to puke up intermittent “Check Engine” lights.  The suggested repairs (from three different sources) ranged from simply cleaning carbon out of the EGR passage, to a basketful of repairs that would have cost $2,500.  Nobody really knew what the root cause was, and we didn’t have the time or inclination to get into it.  Finally we found a buyer who was willing to take on the car as-is, and so we sold it well below the price I would have liked.  It was a gamble, and ultimately a failed experiment, but in all failures there are lessons to be learned.

So with those momentous accomplishments behind me, I can turn to the final tasks of the week.  Mostly that means buttoning up the house and thinking about where we are going to head once we leave Vermont.  Planning travel would seem to be the really fun part, but I have to justify my miles with business along the way, so the planning gets complicated quickly.  When we were doing the Tour of America I didn’t write about all the business stuff I did along the way because it was not all interesting and some of it had to be kept confidential.  But regardless, nearly every mile had a purpose that related to growing Airstream Life magazine.  Marty says that I need to keep that justification in mind and document it better — daily —  in case I get audited.  In addition to that consideration, I’ve got more projects going on these days, so any time out of reach of cell phone towers is a problem.  It puts a high burden on the planning process.

At this point I can only say that we are planning to head down the eastern seaboard again.  Beyond that, we may be winging it.  If prior experience is any guide, many opportunities will pop up as we go, and the trip will turn out to be much more than we could have foreseen.  Traveling in the Airstream tends to go that way.  So I’m not worried about making the trip work, but rather anticipating interesting opportunities.  If you have any suggestions along the general direction of Vermont-Georgia-Arizona, let me know.

Roadtrip, weather or not.

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

If you would like the short version of this blog entry, here it is:  500 miles later, I’m back at home base.

But there’s so much more to it than that.  The day started beautifully in the best fashion of southern California, with a light summer fog in the air that was quickly giving way to sunny skies and views of green desert hills.  I opened up the car windows and sped over to meet Uwe for breakfast in Orange at 8 a.m. We talked for over an hour, sitting at one of the outside tables at the Watson Drug & Soda Fountain, watching as very fit-looking men in blue Fire Dept. t-shirts ran around the block a few times.  The second time they came by I felt like getting up and joining them (and I don’t run, that’s how inspiring the morning was), but then I came to my senses and tucked into the waffle I’d ordered.  Extra maple syrup, please, I’m going to have a long day.

After dropping Uwe off at his shop, I automatically headed east on CA-91 toward Riverside, but a few minutes into the trip I realized that I didn’t really want to rush back into the desert heat.  It was still gorgeous where I was, near the coast, and it seemed a shame to have to close up the windows and turn on the air conditioner.  I’ve been doing that all summer.  So I took a right onto the Rt 241 toll road instead, with the vague plan of enjoying a scenic route along the California coast all the way to San Diego.

This turned out to be a bonus.  Being a toll road, Rt 241 is lightly traveled, and it rises up dramatically into the hills on smooth new pavement.  The toll charge of $5.25 was well worth it for this driving experience — at least once — and after about half an hour I was dropped off at I-5 in the traffic south of Irvine.

Nearer the coast, the way became foggy and even cooler, to the point that I eventually rolled up the windows just to stay warm.  Listening to the radio and distracted by scenery (I took a quick stop at San Onofre State Beach), it wasn’t until I was well into the Camp Pendleton area that I realized I hadn’t gotten gas, and now the car was running drastically low.  I exited I-5 at the first opportunity south of Pendleton to fill up and consider exactly what I was doing heading toward San Diego.  This plan wasn’t making a ton of sense.  Here I was, eighty miles from my starting point and still only a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

Well, I had all day, so what the heck.  I don’t get to just wander around aimlessly very often (or at least, not often enough).  Despite appearances, my travel usually has a definite purpose.  Besides, it had warmed up a bit, and that meant I could I roll down the windows again for a few minutes before the upcoming plunge into the desert heat.

Only a few minutes later, I picked up I-805, and then finally I-8 to head eastward for the next 300 miles or so. The road climbs out of the San Diego area, through La Mesa and El Cajon, past the inevitable & lonely Indian casino, and up to 4,000 feet over the portion of I-8 known as the Kumeyaay Freeway. This is a beautiful stony scenic area through the Cleveland National Forest, followed by a long descent right back down to sea level through a series of fantastic twists to the flat desert floor near Ocotillo.  At that point there’s little remaining to see, and the speed limit opens up to 70 MPH.  As I traversed this part I had to fight the urge to hang a left onto Rt 79 and drive the road up toward Julian — there just wasn’t time for that detour.

As I left the San Diego area I was watching the temperatures climb and the landscape grow steadily more arid.  By Ocotillo, it was a rousing 113 degrees and only Mexican stations could be picked up on FM.  I tried to remember that only a couple of hours earlier I was freezing in the cool fog of coastal California, but it seemed to be only an impossible dream.

I-8 runs tightly to the border from here all the way to Yuma, tediously straight most of the way, and there aren’t many places to stop for a cold one.  Fortunately, I had a cooler full of drinks and lots of calls to make.  For a long portion of this road you are south of the Salton Sea and below sea level.  The highway gets pinched between canals (like the one that formed the Salton Sea) and the fences along the US-Mexico border.  Then there’s the Imperial Sand Dunes, and then you’re seeing another Indian casino and the AZ border at Yuma, followed shortly by the welcome increase in speed limit to 75 MPH.

Somehow I managed to completely overlook Dateland (AZ), which is a great place to try a date shake and pick up fuel.  Not much else.  Having missed that opportunity, I paused in Gila Bend instead, where it was still 106 degrees under a cloudy sky.  Thunderstorms were threatening in the distance, and I knew at that point I was going to have an exciting end to my trip whether I wanted it or not.

Five miles later, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and for the rest of I-8 was buffeted by winds and sprinkled by the remnants of thunderstorms.  Lightning was everywhere to the east and south.  By the time I reached the end of I-8 where it merges with I-10 near Eloy, the rain was occasionally torrential, the desert was puddled with water, and kamikaze tumbleweeds were blowing across the road.  I clipped one with the right wheels and saw the tumbleweed explode into a thousand dry match sticks in my rear view mirror.

The weather was getting seriously threatening. I stopped to check weather radar on the iPhone at a gas station, and the gas station turned out to be closed for lack of electricity.  I saw one serious accident with police & rescue on the scene (two cars in the median, heavy damage), then another a few miles later.  Brief sections of the road were flooded a few inches, and the radio was filled with warnings about dust storms and lightning.  I had that feeling again — was it really only an hour or two ago that I was blinking in the burning sun at a rest area and marveling at 113 dessicating degrees?

Finally, Tucson: 72 degrees in light rain, wind blowing, flashes of lightning over the Rincons, carport half flooded.  Whatever.  It didn’t matter if it was snowing, I was home.  Time for laundry, dinner, and a few days of catchup.  It’s nice to be back, but the trip was so great that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t zip out for a roadtrip somewhere again this week.  I have only seven days before my TBM license expires.  Hmm… what next?

L.A. story

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

OK, I dropped Brett off at the airport tonight so we now we can all talk about him.  He’s catching a redeye back to Florida and I’m spending one more night at some anonymous hotel in the Los Angeles area.

Actually, I’ve got no lurid tales to tell of life with Brett.  We’ve done the business trip thing so many times that it’s just second nature now, and we know how to get along like an old married couple.  (No wonder that when we go to Palm Springs we sometimes get offered a single King bed.)  And this was a particularly successful week, starting with our two nights in Denver, then two nights in Tucson, two nights in Palm Springs, and one night in Anaheim.  The summary: we got it all done and we had fun doing it.

Driving back from LAX after dropping Brett off I was starting to feel the L.A. vibe and start to regret that tomorrow I’ll be heading back home.  The car was bouncing along the uneven concrete of “the 105″ (as locals say it) with a 72-MPH/ 72-degree breeze blowing in the open windows and KLOS taking classic rock requests on FM.  I was zipping and merging according to the whims of Garminita, listening to Jimi Hendrix and getting whiffs of the Pacific salt when I was near LAX.  It all felt like an experience I could only have in mythical southern California.

You know that California has a huge car culture, which is why I always feel most at home here when driving.  Yesterday we took the twistiest possible route from Palm Springs to Los Angeles.  The highlights were the climb out of Palm Desert along Rt 74 (the “Palms To Pines Highway” pictured above), the climb up from Lake Elsinore (below), and the Ortega Highway.  With stops at scenic overlooks, the drive took us most of the day and I didn’t regret it for a second.  I’m tempted to take the same route back.

Towing the Airstream I tend to pick straighter routes, but now that I think back to it we have towed on curvy and narrow roads without hesitation.  I remember a few roads that we probably shouldn’t have been on (89A heading south to Sedona, for example) and a few that people recommended we avoid with a trailer (coastal Rt 1 in California comes to mind).  In every case the effort required to navigate the road with a 30-foot Airstream was well repaid in scenery and memories. So I’m not surprised that the road less traveled in California was a great choice yesterday.

Well, that was yesterday when we had all day to kill.  Today was a different story.  Our goal was to visit a few clients and friends in the area and get tours of their facilities.  I like to have a good handle on the resources available for Airstream owners, and it’s always useful to snoop around in hopes of finding an interesting restoration project or contact person for a future Airstream Life article.

Our first stop was M.E.L. Trailer in Orange.  Named for the three partners in the business (Mike, Erasmo, Lucas), this little shop is turning out some very nice work and seems poised for even better things in the future.  By the way, Mike Keenan is the organizer of the very popular annual Pismo Beach vintage trailer event.  This year he offered 300 spaces and got 600 applications.

Right down the street is Area 63 Productions, run by Uwe Salwender.  I’ve known Uwe casually for years, since he wrote a short article for Airstream Life, but we had not met in person until last February at Modernism Week.  Like M.E.L., Area 63 is doing great restoration and customization work and so I’d be proud to capture Uwe as an advertiser in Airstream Life sometime in the near future.  Bill K., another Airstreamer and blog reader, happened by while we were visiting, and he joined us for lunch in town at The Filling Station.

Since we were in the area, and because Dr. C suggested it, we zipped down to the Mercedes Benz Classic Center for a quick look at their Museum Of Unattainable Classic Cars.  That’s not actually what they call it, but it certainly struck me that way, especially the ones on the upper rack that could be glimpsed from below but not fully viewed.  Still, the cars are cool, and I am appreciative to Mercedes Benz USA for opening their doors in Irvine to let us drool for a few minutes.

Our final stop was C&G Trailer up in Bellflower, run by Rod and Darlene Beltran.  These folks have been in the Airstream repair business for 48 years, and Rod is the second generation since his father worked at the Airstream plant when it was located in the L.A. area.  Amazingly, they’re far from burned out; they seem to thrive on it.  Their shop has the unique appeal that comes from being a long-time specialist. In every corner are stacks of vintage parts, so much that we spent half our time there just marveling at all the goodies that we could use.  C&G Trailer has been an advertiser in Airstream Life for seven years and I love ‘em for it.  Just recently I sent soap opera actor Ingo Rademacher to them for an interior makeover of his Airstream Safari 30 bunkhouse.  The trailer came out great and we’re going to have a photo spread on it in either the Winter 2011 or Spring 2012 issue.

We had a few minutes to kill before dinner, so we got the car washed (all hand wash & dry, $7.99, only in L.A.!) and cruised around town a bit since the temperatures were perfect in the evening.  Having accomplished all of our work goals and feeling the summer air, I’m pretty sure we were both thinking that it would be much nicer if the other suddenly disappeared and was replaced by a friendly female.  Not that we don’t enjoy each other’s company, but that’s what happens after a week on the road without our ladies.

Brett will be back to his girlfriend tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, face a long and quiet drive back to Tucson tomorrow and no prospect of romance for a while.  I’ll use the time to digest the events of the week and prepare for whatever lies around the corner.  Temporary Bachelor Man still has a little time left on his clock.

Southwest road warriors

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

The transition from home life to road life can be jarring.  Things were moving in slow motion when I was in the house in Tucson, giving me the feeling that I was living in a world where Jello had replaced the air and I had to fight my way from one place to another.  Then suddenly the roadtrips began, and now things have sped up to the point that I have trouble keeping track of where I am and where I am supposed to be next.

My Friday return was classic Air Travel 101: the TSA confiscated my 3 ounces of toothpaste because it was in a container capable of holding 4.6 ounces, and I lost my watch in the confusion of undressing and dressing by the side of the conveyor belt.  By the time I realized that the watch was gone, I was in Terminal C, a solid 10-minute trip away from the security checkpoint by train and moving walkway.  I went back for the watch, which required me to go through the long security line again in order to retrieve it, and so 26 minutes later Southwest closed the door to the jetway and left me behind.  Brett got to Tucson at 9:30 in the morning with my bags, while I got re-routed through Las Vegas and arrived five hours later.

Saturday was quite a bit better. We blew off all accumulated work and spent the day up in the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson.  Not only was it much cooler than in Tucson but we had spectacular skies and great hiking weather.  The photo above is from Windy Point, an overlook along the Mt Lemmon Highway.

Near the town of Summerhaven we took a hike in the national forest that led us about 3.2 miles (roundtrip) past tiny waterfalls in deep canyons, then dropped in on the southernmost ski area in the continental United States for lunch at the Iron Door Restaurant.  The ski area is pretty minor when compared to those of Utah and Colorado, but for being located about 100 miles from the Mexican border it’s a minor miracle.

Sunday was another travel day, this time a long-anticipated road trip from Tucson to Palm Springs.  We’re in town to scout sites for next year’s Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Show (February 2012).  The entire valley is a tough place to park trailers, especially vintage trailers.  Some of the towns have rules against overnight parking even on private property, others have been intimidated by campground owners, some campgrounds won’t allow anything over 10 years old, some are “55+”, and many non-campground venues we approached won’t allow trailers on principle just out of pure snobbery.

Fortunately, the organizers of Modernism Week have good connections in town and had found a few prime spots near the center for us to evaluate on Monday.  We think we have a venue that will work very well, but won’t know for sure until we’ve had further discussions with the land owner.  I expect that by the end of September we’ll have the plan nailed down and can begin to accept applications for the show in October.  We’ll have only about 25 spots available, seven more than last year.

Let’s see, if today is Tuesday then we must be traveling again.  I would be tempted to spend the day in the valley here at the Indian Wells Resort Hotel (a golf course resort that is cheap in the off-season) but it’s scorchingly hot and the cool San Jacinto mountains are beckoning us.  Since we accomplished all of our site evaluations yesterday we are free to take our time heading to Los Angeles today.  I have a 143-mile driving route planned that is designed for pure pleasure (lots of twisties) and absolutely zero practicality; a real antidote to the sort of rush-rush straightline travel we’ve been doing.  We’ll start with the Palms To Pines Highway (Rt 74) from Palm Desert, and then pick up interesting roads to Temecula’s wine country and then Lake Elsinore, and San Juan Capistrano. We can take all day to do it, since we have no meetings planned for today.

So, time to get started.  It’s 7:28 a.m. and the heat is already building past 90 degrees here in Indian Wells, CA.  We’ll hit the hotel’s courtesy breakfast buffet, throw our road warrior gizmos into our bags, check that the cooler is loaded with drinks, and move on.  Another adventure awaits us along the road.




Lakeside Amusement Park, Denver, CO

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

The leisure of the past few weeks is over; now it’s time to get hustling.  The next month or two will involve a lot of travel, primarily by Airstream of course, but also a few unavoidable airline flights and at least one good road trip next week.  Today it’s Denver, a quick and easy hop from Tucson by air, where I am visiting a client, Timeless Travel Trailers, with Brett.

In the best mode of business, we concluded all the serious stuff in a matter of a few hours and then got on with the good stuff, which in this case was a late dinner at some local Italian place and an evening at Lakeside Amusement Park.  The park is one of those historical time capsules, begun in 1908, massively remodeled in 1934, and owned by the same family for decades.

I like the place.  It’s the kind of old park that hardly exists these days, right off off I-70 despite the pressure of development in the surrounding area.  It’s a tad rough around the corners and a few of the original buildings are in disrepair & closed, but we met the owners of the park (it’s small)  and found that they are extremely dedicated to the place. They are actively investing in refurbishing old rides, bringing in new ones, improving the landscaping, etc.  The lakeside setting is very nice, lit up with the reflections of neon signs from the classic rides and circumscribed by a narrow-gauge steam (or diesel) railroad that brings you far out and back in 13 minutes.

At night the park comes to life with the lights and crowds that fill the parking lot, even mid-week.  Admission is just $2.50 and all-you-can-ride bracelets were $17.75, although the price varies a little depending on day of the week and special promotions.   The park was packed last night with families seeking fun on a warm summer evening, even well past 11 p.m, when we were still bouncing from the bumper cars (“Autoskooter”) to the Ferris wheel to the ultimate ride in the park, the Cyclone roller coaster.  (Brett captured the picture of me exiting the Autoskooter.)

No question, the Cyclone is just plain awesome.  It’s one of those great rickety all-wood coasters from the golden era of amusement parks that you can ride again and again.  It starts with a dark curving tunnel, then the inevitable steep ascent where you get a good look at the peeling paint and wonder “is this thing safe?” –but you don’t get much time to think about it because in a few seconds you’re barreling through impossible turns and holding on for dear life.  About two and a half minutes later it’s over, depending on how fast the Cyclone is running that night.  (The speed varies with temperature.) We got a fast ride according to experienced folks who knew it well.

I particularly liked the little architectural surprises that are everywhere in the park.  One advantage of being old and not modernized is that the rides like the Wild Chipmunk, the Spider, Scrambler, Tilt-A-Whirl, and Hurricane have terrific mid-century design ticket booths, all different.  In other parts of the part you’ll see great Art Deco, both inside and out.  Curious and quirky features abound, right up to the giant neon exit sign that says simply, “R E D I T” (Latin for “to return”).

Closing hours vary but we were there until nearly midnight and the rides were still open.  I saw the last couple of riders puttering by on their blue Skoota Boats at 11:30, and there were still people dropping in at the snack bar for a cotton candy, Icee, or popcorn.  I have a feeling we’ll be here again, perhaps on our trip coming back east from Vermont in September.


Tucson neon hunt

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

Last night Carlos and I went back out on the prowl for neon and other historic signs.  We’ve been documenting the signs for over a year now, on and off.  Now we’re nearly done, with over 80 separate sites documented by my camera so far.

We picked up another five sites last night — a big night — in about two and a half hours of zipping from one location to another, rapid shooting with the Nikon, and then leaping into the car to race to the next spot before the light faded, like a pair of crazed scavenger hunters.  We’re getting pretty good at it now.  Carlos figures out a plan to hit the unlit signs in the “golden hour” before dark, works in some of the signs that combine neon and paint for twilight, and finally a route to all the neon signs that are still working in the darkness.  I drive and take pictures.

Tucson got aggressive about eliminating obnoxious signage after Life magazine printed a picture of one of our main boulevards and deemed it “the ugliest street in America.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung the opposite way.  Our historic buildings are nearly all gone, the dramatic neon signage that helped define the city is a mere shadow of its former glory, and that boulevard that was once the ugliest street in America has been promoted to being as ugly and generic as any other street overrun with retail chains.  Progress has its price.

In the past few months, Tucson finally passed the Historic Landmark Signs Ordinance, which amends the sign code to allow a narrowly-defined set of old and currently non-conforming signs to be taken down, refurbished, and returned to use.  The idea is to keep the most historic, attractive, and irreplaceable old signs in Tucson, lest the town become just another piece of generic America.

Since we started shooting these signs, we’ve noted that several have since disappeared, been horribly “tagged” by spray-painting vandals, or have been destroyed by neglect.  There’s a sense of urgency to the project, as we can actually see the remnants of Tucson’s 50’s and 60’s era sign architecture vanishing as we work.  It’s like we’re driving a 1960s muscle car with 1/8 of a tank of fuel remaining, and we can watch the fuel needle moving toward “E” as we search for a gas station.  I find the job exciting because we are capturing history, depressing because we are watching it disappear, and inspiring because a lot of civic-minded people are volunteering their time to try to bring it back.

I don’t yet know where this will end up, but we expect it will eventually become a book.  We’d like to raise awareness and appreciation of historic signs, especially neon.  Much work lies ahead: organizing, researching, writing, designing, and probably fund-raising. Right now we’re just having fun documenting and researching.  It may be years before this turns into something publishable, but that’s fine.  It’s a journey and for me a wonderful tutorial on Tucson’s modern history, neighborhoods, and architecture.  Not a bad way to spend a few 100-degree summer evenings.


Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!

Friday, August 5th, 2011

(Apologies to the good Doctor Seuss for ripping off his title)

The good part of things being quiet lately is having time to think.  So I strapped on my cap and fired up the thinker, and one of the things I thought about last week was that my office is a disaster area.

I don’t mean where I work at home.  I have a space rental office in town that is primarily a warehouse for old magazines and our store items.  It is a windowless box in an office building that I hardly ever visit.  My capable associates, David and Hannah, drop in a few times each week to fulfill store orders (mostly Newbies books these days) and mail out back issues, and other than that the place is empty.  I go there once a week to pick up checks and mail. The mail is usually a note from a subscriber (enclosed with their renewal check) that tells me how much they love Airstreaming or Airstream Life magazine.

So when I’m feeling a little down from working too much or a rough day, I can drive a few miles to the office and get a little morale boost in the form of something to deposit in the bank and an “atta boy” or two from a fellow Airstreamer.  There have been days that my entire perspective has been changed by just a single $24 check with a nice handwritten note paper-clipped to it.  I do love my subscribers, they’re such positive and fun people.

But lately the office itself has been looking a little shabby.  Since we are all just dropping in for a few minutes, nobody really takes ownership of it.  We handle a lot of paper in there, which means little scraps get all over the carpet, dust accumulates quickly, and flattened cardboard boxes nearly fill the place every few months.  I scheduled Hannah last week for a couple of hours to join me in what will likely be our annual cleaning event.  I brought the vacuum cleaner and cold drinks, Hannah brought the moral fortitude that comes with being in her 20s.

The big problem in the office is that we had an abundance of certain old issues of Airstream Life magazine.  Back in the early days I was required to buy 5,000 copies from the printer as a minimum.  Of course back then I didn’t have anywhere near 5,000 subscribers, and it was a massive financial strain to pay for those copies and then figure out how to sell them.  I donated a lot of copies to rallies to get the word out, distributed them for free to Airstream dealers, and worked hard to sell them as back issues.   For the most part this was successful.  In later years, when we finally exceeded 5,000 subscribers, I was able to order more precisely and so these days we have very few leftovers.

Part of the office cleanup job was to inventory what’s left.  We have no copies of issues published before #6 (Fall 2005), and no more than 200 copies of any other issue (far fewer in most cases).  Out of 29 issues published to date, 20 of them are still available in very limited quantities.

I’ve decided I want to clear out the back issues.  The IKEA “Expedit” storage unit I use in the office is full and it’s time to make space.  So here’s a bit of self-promotion. Airstream Life back issues are going on sale for the first time ever.  Single copies are still $8 apiece.  But if you want every back issue of Airstream Life we have in stock, they are now 40% off when purchased as a set.  In other words, all 20 remaining back issues — the equivalent of five years of Airstream Life — are just $96 plus shipping.  And when they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

I can’t take credit for this idea, because the thinking was really done by David.  I invited him to join me last night for a pizza and he rewarded me with a little brainstorm of ideas, of which this was only one.  (I think that makes dinner tax-deductible, too. I should have paid with the company credit card.) It’s a small thing but I’ve learned that the small things matter in a small business.  Do enough small things right and pretty soon it adds up.  Cleaning the office led to a pizza-fueled discussion, which led to a good idea.  I made things neater, got fed, had a nice chat and now we can sell the last of the back issues.  If every day went that way, I’d be a pretty lucky guy.

Perfect lightning

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Living an Airstream you tend to be more attuned to the weather.  Perhaps that’s because you’ve got less “house” surrounding you and therefore feel closer to the elements.  Two inches of fiberglass sandwiched by aluminum sheet is all that protects you from the threat of rain, snow, high winds or hail, and when precipitation comes down it makes a musical racket above your head.  Whatever is happening out there is something you can’t easily ignore.

This freaks people out at first, especially the first time they hear hail nuggets pinging off the aluminum, but eventually (I’ve found) the weather becomes an old friend that visits regularly, and rarely is it something to fear.  I particularly appreciate the sight of far-off lightning in the summer, which in the summer monsoon season of Arizona far outshines Fourth of July fireworks.  Now, out of the Airstream, I still pay more attention to the weather than I used to.

All summer I’ve been waiting for the perfect thunderstorms to come through Tucson.  By my definition, the perfect thunderstorms are those that arrive after sunset and dance around the city about twenty miles away.  They are discrete cells, surrounded by clear air, and often arrayed in a line that slowly marches by.  When this happens, we can see the lightning show but avoid the rain and high wind, and conditions are perfect for nighttime photography.

Eleanor had wanted to be here for such a night with hours of lightning.  There was one lovely evening when we drove up the mountain to an overlook and watched a few distant storms, but I’ve written about that already.  The “perfect” line did not occur before she flew back to Vermont, much to her regret.

Last night I began to see rapid flashes through the closed shades on the windows.  I had to go look from the front step, and sure enough it looked like a line of storms had set up to the south and west of Tucson.  I could see at least three distinct storms, each flashing like fireflies so often that the sky lit up every 15-20 seconds.

Even though I was dressed for bed, I had to grab the tripod and set up the camera.  My usual lightning photography gear is the Nikon D90, tripod, Tamron 10-24 super wide angle lens, and a headlamp (so I can see to adjust camera settings).  In this case, it was augmented by silk pajamas as I stood out on the concrete sidewalk in front of our house and snapped over a hundred time exposures ranging from 12 to 30 seconds.

Unlike my session last summer, I opted to let the exposure run a little longer, so that the sodium lamp glow of Tucson would give the sky an orange-pink cast.  This made a few lightning strikes over-expose, so after a particularly good and distinct bolt I would cover the lens with my hand until the timer ran out.

Lightning photography is fun because you never know what you’ll get and it’s a constant chase game.  The storms move across the sky, some peter out and others gain strength, and all you can do is try to guess where they’re going to hit next, set up an exposure, and hope for good luck.  Southern Arizona monsoon storms help out by providing lots of lightning — much more than we get in the northeast — so even an amateur has hundreds of strikes to work with.

The storms continued all night.  I finally wrapped up my photo session around 11:30 when things seemed to be waning, but in the middle of the night a new set came through and woke me several times with ear-splitting crashes and house-shaking booms.  At dawn another set came through, finally bringing us the first rain of the night.  When I finally dragged myself out of bed, the ground was wet, the sky was gray, and the air felt like a Florida summer morning, ripe with humidity and the smell of things growing.  It will stay like that for half the day, and then things will clear up back to the normal clear blue skies of the desert … until the next time.

More photos from last night on Flickr.

And more from 2010


About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine