Readying the ship, 2012

We’re very nearly the time to launch for the season, and that means it’s time to get busy. Under the best of circumstances prepping the Airstream for a multi-month voyage is a fair bit of work, but this year it’s even a little harder because it hasn’t gone anywhere since October.  Readers of this blog will recall that our mid-winter trip to Anza-Borrego was nixed by a faulty disc brake actuator, and then just last month the hitch receiver on the Mercedes had to be sliced apart, removed, and re-installed and welded.

So we’ve messed with arguably the two most important parts of our towing setup:  the thing that lets us pull the trailer, and the thing that makes the trailer stop.  Knowing this has made me keen to do a test run well in advance of our trip, to ensure we won’t have any rude surprises when time comes to pull out in May.

Alumapalooza now dictates our departure date, at least a little.  Every May we need to drive from Tucson AZ to Jackson Center OH.  It’s about 1,900 miles on the straightest possible route.  We vary the route each time, so this year we are going via Denver and the total will be over 2,000 miles.  It’s no fun barreling across the country without time to stop and see things, so our bare minimum travel time is nine days and even that’s really pushing it. I would rather take a couple of weeks to do the trip, but other obligations are preventing that.

That gives us about three weeks to get ready, which is plenty of time for packing.  But it’s hardly any time at all if we had to get into some sort of major repair.  So yesterday afternoon, when the springtime desert heat had declined a little, I hitched up the trailer and recruited my neighbor Mike to come along on a trial run.  I told him I wanted someone with me if the hitch receiver broke, the propane lines split, and the brakes failed.  He gamely hopped into the passenger seat and off we went on a 10 mile test run through Tucson.

The car and trailer felt like a comfortable old pair of shoes.  Everything seemed exactly as it should. I actually had to dial down the brake controller voltage a bit, since the new Dexter disc brake actuator seems a little more aggressive than the old Actibrake it replaced.  Otherwise, braking was perfect.

The hitch receiver was also behaving well.  The new bolted section (where it had been cut, see previous post) seems fine.  I was listening intently for any sort of unusual noise transmitted through the body of the car, and also by opening the driver’s window and listening as we accelerated, braked, turned, and hit bumps.   I’ve long been an advocate of getting to know the sounds your rig makes, as a slightly-off note can be the first indication you get of a serious problem.  On this test drive the hitch was silent, which is exactly what you want.

Now back in the carport, the Airstream faces a couple of weeks of prep.  I will go over every major system to verify that everything is working, and do any routine maintenance.  The Hensley hitch will get closely examined and re-greased, the propane system will be checked for leaks and tanks will be filled, and all of the systems we haven’t been using over the winter will be tested.  Since we leave the trailer in “guest house mode” all winter, we already know the refrigerator, air conditioner, water pump, dump valves, electrical system (including lights), furnace, and plumbing are all fine. Minimal cleaning will be needed as well.

The big job is to clear out stuff from last year that we don’t need in the trailer, and re-pack everything for this summer.  With the cooking Eleanor always does, that means a major task just to figure out the culinary items.  Emma’s constant growth means her clothes will be all-new, and since we are going to be doing some different things this year, I’ll be slightly altering my personal items as well.  Here’s one hint: I’m packing a helmet this year.

There will also be some office equipment changes, as the pace of new technology is relentless, and I like to make the most of it.  For example, we will be packing an iPad, which will serve as Emma’s personal computer, a registration/check-in device for Alumapalooza & Alumafandango, and our in-Airstream family game system.  Last week Leigh and Brian, good Airstream friends, parked their Airstream in the carport for 6 days and tipped me off about how well the iPad does at standard board games.  It’s perfect for the Airstream, as it can store dozens of different games for us to play together those quiet nights on the road, and frees up a lot of space we had previously used for storing “travel size” versions of games.

Leigh is particularly keen on this concept, since she has recently launched a free service that reviews the best board game apps.  I had no idea that the iPad was so good at games until Leigh brought hers into the house after dinner and we started playing.  For some games we could even network our iPhones so that each of us had our own little play station.  She’s currently writing an article about it, which I hope to publish in the Fall issue of Airstream Life.

Other technology has changed as well.  I’ll have a new (“4G”) cellular connection for our Internet service on the road, and a whole slew of handy apps on the iPhone to allow me to do many routine tasks even when away from my computer.  The trick is to make sure that every piece of technology allows you to do things more easily, rather than just complicating life.  I’ve been testing work-related apps all winter and quite a few of them haven’t made the cut.

I’ve noticed quite a bit of chatter about high fuel prices. This happens every year in the springtime, as fuel prices traditionally rise in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day.  Sign-ups for Alumapalooza were a little slower this year because fuel price fears, but I’ve been interested to note that as we get closer to the event (and fuel prices begin to decline a little) people are changing their mind and signing up to drive across the country anyway.  One guy even cancelled his registration in February because of fuel prices, then re-registered for Alumapalooza in April when he realized that he’d been snookered by media hype.  In reality, US average gas prices are lower this year than last year. The average retail price of unleaded on 4/28/2011 was $3.89, and today (4/28/2012) it’s $3.82.  You can check this yourself at GasBuddy.com.

Even if fuel rose by a buck a gallon, it would only increase the cost of a 2,000 mile Airstream trip by $200 (assuming 10 MPG towing).  That’s not enough to make us stay at home.  If we were really concerned, we’d look for shorter trips rather than just giving up.  My Airstream is not yet ready to become a permanent guest house.

This week we are really going to dig into the preparation process.  It should be interesting, and even a little fun.  That little test tow I did yesterday has gotten me anxious to re-bond with the Airstream and get it out on the road for real.  Everyone knows that the anticipation of a trip can be half the excitement, and once we start our work I think we’ll get psyched for the adventures that lie ahead.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine