Archive for May, 2012

Alumapalooza, Day 2

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

The Alumapalooza routine has set in again:  up at 6 a.m. with the sun rising into a beautiful blue sky, quick blog entry, breakfast, on the walkie-talkie by 6:30 (in case I’m needed) and out doing whatever needs to be done by about 7 a.m.  The hardest part of each morning is getting Emma out of bed so that she will go to bed at night at a reasonable time.  Being 12 years old, she really doesn’t like waking up early

The orange-shirted staff are running things so well that Brett and I sometimes find ourselves filling the time by counting attendees to seminars (to see which ones are most popular), selling books, refilling the ice chests, and troubleshooting little problems that come up.  It’s so much nicer than last year for us.  Of course, now certain members are referring to us as management—or even more inaccurately, “Central Intelligence.”  We’re really more like tropisms than intelligence.

Eleanor, Emma and I were scheduled to do a talk about “life aboard an Airstream” from a family perspective, and I was pleasantly surprised to find 84 people in attendance.  We did a 60 minute Q&A session with the folks there, answering questions about full-timing, where to go, maintenance, campsites, traveling with a kid, selling the house, and many other things.  A 42 minute slide show ran in the background while we talked, with photos of us starting in 2005 when we first began full-timing, and going through early 2008.

All day long I kept getting buttonholed by people with interesting questions and great personal stories. This event is generating quite a few leads for future articles in the magazine.  I think that honestly I spent more time talking to people than doing any sort of physical work, which is quite a bit different from prior years.  Again, that’s because the team is really hustling.  The parkers (Lou, Larry and their team) fit in another 25-30 trailers yesterday, working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Matt was everywhere from the sound board (for the stage) to the grills (for Dutch Oven class and Open Grill).  Alice & Tim were making the water/electric job look easy, and Beth and Lori had Registration completely handled.  Lisa and Eleanor are still on the Injured Reserve list but both are functional now and doing light duty.

The only problem seems to be the cursed Garbage Pickup job.  Lisa was supposed to drive the Gator around every morning at 7 a.m., but that was before she was injured.  We recruited Al & Shinim to take over, and they did a great job yesterday.  But late in the afternoon, Al showed up with a large hemotoma on his leg from bashing it against something.  Elly (a veteran of the Vintage Trailer Jam and an LPN) diagnosed it and sent him off with ice and orders to stay off it, so that wiped out our second team.  A third team has been recruited and they did the job this morning, but we have given them fair warning about the history …

OK, quick summary because I’ve got to get out of the trailer and onto some jobs this morning.  We had 13 ovens going at once during the first Dutch Oven cooking seminar, and huge leftovers (fruit cobblers) for everyone to sample.  Open Grill was a big hit.  People cooked for hours in a steady stream over the three big grills we set up. The ice cream leftovers from the Kids Social got wiped out last night by the grillers, so that’s good. Roving Happy Hour was a big hit too, and we’ll do that again tonight. (Photos today are all courtesy of Lisa Forsyth, Injured Reserve.)

This morning HGTV will be here to tour the factory and interview the staff for a show they are going to produce this fall.  I’m on the interviewee list, but probably won’t appear in the final show.  But that adds a complexity to this morning that I really didn’t need, so it’s rush-rush-rush to get everything done.  Off to work—I’ll update tomorrow.



Alumapalooza Day 1

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

It was a longer day than I expected.  After I finished the blog in the early morning yesterday, my attention turned to a line of slow-moving thunderstorms that were creeping northeast and bearing down on us.  The plan was to move all the staff over to the rally field at 8 a.m., but by 7 a.m. it was clear we were going to be in the midst of a potentially large storm at our scheduled move time.  At 7:30 Brett & I had a quick conference and decided to move everyone who was ready immediately.  It was already raining and the wind was blowing hard.

Most of us were lined up and ready in less than five minutes.  We parked the Airstreams in the field and set up, wearing raincoats, while Eleanor and Lisa took the Gator back to the Terra Port to escort the stragglers past the security gate.  The storm dropped half an inch of rain according to weatherman Alex, and made the field muddy enough that we felt obligated to delay the start of parking for a couple of hours.

Meanwhile, eager attendees were lined up at the north gate on Jerry Drive, and by 10 a.m. they were around the corner, which means we had a line about half a mile long waiting to get in. We passed on the bad news (“be prepared to wait until at least 11″) but the wind dried up the worst of the mud pretty quickly and by 10:30 or so the gates were opened.

This made for a lot of really dull video on the GoPro camera we had mounted high above the field, as you can see from the still posted here.  But our weatherman assured us that there would be a dramatic change once the front passed, and he was right.  By noon it was time to shed the jackets and break out the sun hats.

We parked about 75-80 trailers today, which is about right.  102 Airstreams were scheduled but not everyone shows up on the day they are reserved.  We left one area unparked because it was still a little damp and we didn’t want to dig ruts, but it will fill in today.  The field is already looking great with aluminum everywhere.

Our new online iPad-based registration system completely let us down, riddled with technical glitches that we could not overcome, so the parkers resorted to paper check-in instead and it worked out fine.  We will be having a serious talk with the company that provides our reservation software later.

The only real bad spot of the day was a couple of staff injuries.  Eleanor strained her back due to lifting things improperly and managing to fall into a cooler (this takes particular talent), and was restricted to quarters for the rest of the day with some pain medication.  A few hours later, the sliding door of the U-Haul trailer landed on Lisa’s neck, giving her a nasty bruise to the trapezius muscle and sending her to the E.R. for a scan.  They are both going to be fine, but with restricted movements and pain pills neither will be on duty today.  Al & Shinim, friends from Ohio, were recruited by Larry to take over the morning garbage pickup from Lisa, and Charon will help Eleanor do the staff laundry today.  So once again, people have jumped into the breach to help out.

Emma made a friend at the Kid’s Ice Cream Social today, who seems to be a sort of clone of her. They are about the same age, read the same books, love the same things (snow and dogs in particular), and became instantly inseparable all day.  Parents on both sides are thrilled.  We had to break them apart at 9:30 after Mike Depraida’s short documentary on The Slabs ended, and the ice cream for Lou’s birthday was consumed, and the paper lanterns flew away.  We had to get Emma to bed, because her parents were exhausted and today is going to be another big day.

Pre-dawn, Alumapalooza load-in

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

It’s 4:53 a.m.  I have not awoken this early for any particular reason that I can think of.  It is the big morning of our load-in to Alumapalooza, but although that’s an exciting time, I don’t think I’m up because of the anticipation.  I just woke up, having slept well and having had lots of interesting dreams. Although our alarm was set for 6:30 a.m., I guess I’m up for the day.

There are various “industrial” sounds of machines and whirring fans that always accompany a work day at the Terra Port, murmuring beneath the usual morning bird songs.  Everyone who has camped here is familiar with them.  Soon the Airstream staff will begin to arrive and get to work building Airstreams and opening the Service bays.  They are going to have a busy week, just like us.  At 7 a.m., the tractor will come out to the Terra Port to pick up the first Service customers.

I know from prior years that in the next hour a lot of guys will start stumbling around outside their trailers in the dawn light, puttering with various pieces of equipment and generally killing time until it’s socially acceptable to fire up the old diesel pickup and start hitching for real.  This year I may be one of them.   I’ve got to dump the holding tanks and pack up a few things, and I might as well get started soon.  Besides, it’s hard to sit inside the Airstream this morning.  It’s exciting to line up the first group of Airstreams (all the Alumapalooza staff, about eight trailers) to parade into the field and take our designated spots at 8 a.m.

Everyone will be up and watching, including our little “eye in the sky,” a GoPro Hero2 sports camera mounted to a 30-foot pole.  It will be shooting a time-lapse video of the parking process today.  We tested it yesterday while the tent was being set up, and it’s pretty cool.  I’ll try to get the video of the Airstreams parking today uploaded to YouTube later this week.  We are expecting 102 trailers today.

Yesterday was another hot one, but the weather service (our own Alex K) says that today will be a little cooler with a few showers in the morning, than comfortably cool all week.  The day started with setting up the eye in the sky, while our parking crew flagged the fields and set out the big yellow “ALUMAPALOOZA” road signs.  The big old & ugly box trailer that we use for winter storage was towed over and we unloaded all the gear, including a complete Airstream kitchen and stage sound and video equipment.

This year we’re trying a much more streamlined online check-in process, so I held a brief training seminar with most of the staff after the main tent was set up.  We all stumbled through the process with a clutch of iPads until we’d finally worked out all the issues.  Despite a few challenges, I think it’s going to work fine and save everyone considerable time.  Two staffers will have laptops and the ability to fix any problems that the iPad users in the field might encounter.

A few people have arrived early and are parked in the Service Center lot.  They have no hookups of course, but seem to be fine with that.  I should note that arriving early is discouraged and there’s a risk of being turned away unless you are staff or have a service appointment on Tuesday.  Also, arriving early doesn’t get you in to  Alumapalooza early.  These folks will be parked at the same time as everyone else, after 9 a.m. today.

But those who were here seemed to make the best of the situation, heat and all.  I got a chance to take a break around 6 p.m. and wandered into a group of merry-makers who were playing and singing some of Kirk McKellar’s songs.

Kirk is the middle guy in the photo with the blue hat.  Every year he writes a theme song for Alumapalooza.  The first year it was the Alumapalooza Anthem.  The next year it was “Wally Byam Would Be Smilin’ “, and this year he has something new that we haven’t rehearsed yet.  Regardless, we will be singing it from the stage today.

Thanks to Nick Martines for this photo.  He’s one of our official photographers, and you will see his panoramic photo work from last year’s event hanging in the Airstream Service Center.

The “snake killers” are on the job

Monday, May 28th, 2012

One of the important aspects of planning the Alumapalooza prep schedule is to leave in lots of time for “contingencies.”  You never know what will crop up, but it’s virtually guaranteed that several things will.  The other key is to be surrounded by people who are really capable, so when a problem does pop up, they just jump on it without even having to be asked to do it.

I’m reminded of a quote from Ross Perot, the billionaire founder of EDS, after he got involved with General Motors:  “At EDS, the first person who sees a snake kills it.  At GM, they form a committee on snakes.”  Our core team members are all snake-killers, figuratively speaking.

So when I awoke in the morning to one of the worst sounds you can hear in an Airstream—drip drip drip—I was dismayed but knew I was surrounded by people who could help.  The air conditioner had run most of the night to beat the incessant heat and intense humidity, and apparently the condensate drain tube was clogged. This caused an overflow of water in the drain pan, and when that happens you get a light rain shower in your trailer.

One of the many handy folks parked in the Terra Port with us is Super Terry.  I threw a couple of salad bowls beneath the air conditioner and went to get him out of bed.  This took over  an hour since he had slept poorly and had his own water problem to deal with as well.  A water line had sprung a leak right underneath his bed, which needed to be fixed immediately.  S.T. put a temporary patch on his leak and then came over to help me, a gauge of his Super-helpful character.

The problem was readily remedied by blowing out the drain tube, but as we were in there S.T. spotted daylight coming through.  The air conditioner, when replaced last fall, didn’t get a layer of double-sided tape between it and the drain pan. This is not a serious issue, as rainwater won’t normally get through the gap, but in wind-driven rain or while towing we could have a minor leak.

By this time it was 9 a.m. and time for me to join all the volunteers are our little appreciation breakfast at the Verandah.  Normally we just treat the volunteers like rented mules, with nary a thank-you card for their efforts sweating in the field all week.  This year our hearts softened enough to buy them breakfast at the best restaurant in town, which happens to be a short walk from Airstream.  Eleanor and Emma even dressed up a little for the occasion.

Once back, we had to do some prep for the new Backup Derby event.  We ran the course several times (with plenty of onlookers) and worked out a nice little routine that took “the Stig” 59.6 seconds.  We expect most people will take about 90 seconds to complete it.  You can get full details about it by going to the Alumapalooza website.  This is going to be a seriously fun event.

Meanwhile, our crack team of volunteers was inside the Service Center stuffing 200 goody bags.  We have a rented Gator to shuttle all the stuff around this year, from our U-Haul trailer to the Service Center, back to the trailer, and then eventually to the field.  In previous years we used our car, but the Gator is a lot more convenient.

This year we have a nice black zipper bag that even had a little iPod pocket in it.  It’s a great souvenir of the event, and it will (as always) be filled with treats and coupons and the all-important Survival Guide.

As predicted, the heat and humidity were brutal on Sunday, but we were ready for it. Brett kept a large ice chest filled with water for all the volunteers, and everyone had their sun hats and sunscreen on.  It was only really bad for us because in the middle of the day Super Terry returned (with some of the special double-sided tape) and removed our air conditioner in order to apply the tape.  I got up on the roof with him and we managed to get it done in about half an hour.

Of course now the heat was nearing peak and the trailer had become completely heat-soaked, so it would take two hours to cool off again.  I say “would” because then Eleanor began cooking an elaborate dinner of beef tenderloin, orcchiette pasta with a smoky mushroom tomato cream sauce, white bean & roasted garlic puree for the bread, and sfogliatelle (an Italian stuffed flaky pastry, courtesy of Elsa) for dessert.   All of this meant all three burners of the stove and the oven running for two hours, which completely overwhelmed any good the air conditioner could do.  We ended up turning it off and running fans despite the 91 degree temperatures outside.  It was actually cooler that way.

Well, dinner was worth it.  I mean, really, it was.  And since we suffered in a trailer that was hotter than the outside (where the “heat index” was 100 degrees), you know it had to be good chow.  But we won’t be eating like that again this week.  Too much time involved, too much work.  This week we’ll be mostly cooking on the Open Grill with the rest of the people who are coming this week.

The trip to the Terra Port

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

We are at Airstream, in the village of Jackson Center, Ohio.  I took a day off blogging yesterday, so here’s a rundown of the past two days.

Our drive from Johnson Saulk Trail State Park to our next stop of South Bend IN was uneventful.  This would not be news except for our history: every other year we’ve driven past the Chicago/Gary area, traffic on I-80 has been horrible with congestion and construction.  This year the work seems to be mostly done, and it was a smooth ride on new concrete all the way to the Indiana Toll Road.  We landed at Charlie & Lynn’s house in South Bend right on schedule.

It has become a sort of tradition for us to stop with Lynn and Charlie nearly every year.  They were our first stop in October 2005 when we began full-timing with the Airstream Safari, and they’ve made us so at home that we just keep showing up. The last three years we have made their driveway our home as a final stop right before Alumapalooza. It’s a last chance for us to recover from the long drive before we jump into the tempest that is Alumapalooza.

This year was no different.  We set up the Airstream, visited the horses, and took Charlie’s vintage Mercedes (300SEL, I believe from 1959) down the country roads to get some pizza.  It was exactly what we needed: a chance to unwind and hang out in a peaceful, low pressure setting.

And the weather was just spectacular.  Perhaps that’s what inspired us to clean the trailer’s windows and the mini-blinds in the kitchen, the next morning.  They had suffered from a year of dust and uck while parked in Vermont last summer and all winter in Arizona, and were long overdue for a good cleanup.

Or perhaps we were just delaying the inevitable.  The forecast was quite different for Jackson Center, 200 miles away by road:  90+ degrees and “oppressive” humidity, and none of us were eager to get into that for the weekend.  But we did arrive in J.C. by 2:45 p.m. and it was indeed oppressive.  In fact, Alex K was already on site (he’s acting as our resident weather reporter this week) and he declared that the heat index was officially 100 degrees by late afternoon.  It’s supposed to stay that way through Monday, but then cool down nicely for Alumapalooza.  In the meantime, air conditioning is our friend.

We seemed to be nearly the last members of the advance team to arrive.  Brett & Lisa got here Thursday, Alex & Charon also, Tim & Alice got here Friday, Matt & Beth were probably here a couple of days ago, and Lou & Larry beat us to the site today by about 15 minutes. In our defense, let me note that our drive was further than anyone’s at 2,450 miles total.

We did a little chatting about details of the event setup, but the real work won’t begin until tomorrow.  Tonight Matt organized a small potluck dinner at the picnic tables under the hickory trees that border Airstream’s Terra Port, and despite the heat we all had a nice evening.  Tomorrow we are holding a small appreciation breakfast for the volunteers who work the event, and then the work begins with flagging the sites and stuffing the goody bags.

For those of you who are coming to Alumapalooza, the field looks nice and dry and evenly mowed—just perfect for the event.  The chance of rain is very low for the next few days (except for a 30% chance on Tuesday) and the temperatures should be ideal.  If you planned to come this year, you’re in for a very fun week!

Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area, IL

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

You know we’re on a serious mileage-conquering roadtrip when we drive until 9 p.m. and spend the night at a Cracker Barrel.  That was yesterday.  It’s not as bad as it sounds, since our drive was pretty pleasant and the night was reasonably quiet, but still it’s not an experience I care to repeat any time soon.

We’ve been lucky this year because the weather has been extremely nice as we have descended slowly from the altitudes of Colorado and into the plains and river valleys.  Even tonight, east of the Mississippi, the humidity is low and it hasn’t been scorching hot, so we can boondock without the dramatic suffering of years past, if we care to.  The forecast for Jackson Center OH (the home of Airstream and Alumapalooza) is surprisingly good too, without a lot of thunderstorm action predicted. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The story of today is high winds.  It started off as a light breeze but by 11 a.m. it was a nasty crosswind out of the south and it just wouldn’t let up.  White box trailers were dancing around in their lanes and it made me extra cautious even though our Airstream was handling very well.  By 3 p.m. the wind was a solid 30 MPH with gusts, and by 4 p.m. the gusts got to 40-45 MPH (according to the weather service).  We were trying to make it to Starved Rock State Park in Illinois but around 4 I decided to cut the drive short and look for some other place to spend the night.

I did this not because the Airstream couldn’t handle the weather, but simply to maintain my safety margin.  I’ve done a lot of high-risk activities (ultralight flying, diving, motorcycling) and I know that safety does not come from any single choice, but from multiple layers of good choices.  I’m talking about things like good skills, driver fitness, appropriate speed, safety equipment, and situational awareness.  Make all the right choices and you’ve got a padding to help keep you out of trouble—or resolve it successfully.

When layers of that safety padding start to fall apart, it’s time to end the trip.  This time I saw extreme high winds, driver fatigue, and increasingly rough roads with heavy truck traffic as we approached the Chicago area.  Three bad factors are my limit, so even though I have high confidence in our tow rig and high confidence in my own abilities as the driver, we looked for somewhere to call it a night.

This turned out to be a fortuitous move.  We discovered a park we’d never heard of before, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Illinois.  It’s a very nice park set inside a pine and oak forest, only 6 miles off I-80.  The campground is a large circle of widely-spaced sites surrounding a tranquil grassy center.  We got an electric site for $20 and the Airstream is pointed into the wind so, although the wind is howling, we aren’t rocking on the stabilizers.

Stopping an hour early has given me some time to catch up on some work, and Eleanor has time to make us all a nice dinner. We’ll have to get started a little earlier tomorrow in order to make up the lost time, but otherwise this was a nice tradeoff.  I don’t envy the folks who are still on I-80 in Iowa or Illinois this evening.


A drive I’ve already forgotten

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I woke up this morning knowing that it would be a long day.  Yesterday I realized I’d made a mistake in our trip planning by not allowing enough time to drive from Denver to Jackson Center.  As I mentioned in the previous blog, it is about 1,250 miles and we wanted to be located on Airstream property no later than Saturday morning, which meant we needed to cover an average of just under 400 miles each day on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

That’s far more than we usually travel (as a family) in a day, but there was nothing to be done about it now except get going.  But first, I needed to get a mail delivery from the local post office.  Our mail forwarding service had sent a Priority Mail envelope on Thursday and it was supposed to be in Aurora by Monday but when Eleanor went to check, it wasn’t there.  So I had to battle morning rush traffic to try again this morning at 7:30 a.m.

I was told the package still wasn’t there, but then I got the Delivery Confirmation from the mail forwarders which proved it had actually been delivered on Monday.  After a second wait in line, when presented with the irrefutable evidence of delivery the clerk took another look and found the envelope.  With drive time, this episode took about an hour, so my hope of an early departure was already dashed.

E&E were still packing up anyway.  Our Airstream friends Forrest & Patrice, who had shown up in the site next to ours on Sunday, dropped by to say goodbye, and the owners of another Airstream pulled up to ask a few questions, and then the volunteer camp hosts dropped by to wish us a good trip (they’ve seen us there every year for at least four years), so it became a leisurely departure.  I also got a call from a local paper in Shelby County Ohio, wanting details about Alumapalooza. In between all the chatting, I took the time to lube up the Hensley hitch, fill the water tank, and charge the cordless drill batteries.  We finally got going around 10 a.m.

The drive ahead was nothing we wanted to contemplate.  We’ve done this run too many times: I-76 from Denver to I-80 in Nebraska, and then the long straight drive through ranchlands and grasslands as far as possible.  Like last year, the winds came down the prairie from the north and gave us a strong & steady crosswind all day, which eventually eroded our fuel economy to a fairly poor 11.8 average for the day. Of course, the fact that we were towing at 70 MPH might have had something to do with that too.  It takes a lot of discipline to tow at 60 or 65 when you know that 400 more miles of Nebraska lie ahead.

520 miles later, just past sunset, we landed in Lincoln NE and parked the Airstream for the night.  We get to do this again tomorrow, thanks to my error in planning.  You’d think that after doing this a few times, I’d know that 2,000 miles is a helluva long way to drive, but for some reason I’m always struck by the magnitude of the trip.  Emma has been a good sport about it, although having an impressive array of diversions in the backseat is probably the key there.  She’s either reading, playing a game, studying dog breeds, or corresponding via email to one of her friends.  I am grateful that we don’t have to entertain her any more on these long car trips.

For those who are interested, the car seems to be operating perfectly, with no further Check Engine lights.  Our local dealer has agreed to credit us $132 against a future service, for the mistake, which is fine with me.  Driving across the windy plains today I was reminded that when you’re out on a long trip your satisfaction is very much tied to how you feel about your tow vehicle.  A purring car or truck is like a faithful friend, and a balky or unreliable vehicle is just a nightmare.

The Airstream is equally happy.  We’ve had to chase quite a few moths out of the trailer over the past couple of days (not sure how they got in) but other than that there have been no issues.  The only concern is that the interior is looking quite tired.  The 6+ years of heavy use are really starting to show.  Mechanically the Airstream is in great shape, but the curtains are splattered with stains, the vinyl floor has a couple of rips and is turning permanently gray, the countertops are riddled with scratches and knife cuts, the dinette foam is going flat, and the front bedroom carpet needed replacing a couple of years ago.  Eleanor and I had a discussion about this and are considering a DIY makeover in our carport this fall.  We’d outsource the floor covering installation and upholstery, but do everything else ourselves.  This would also give me a chance to do some electronic upgrades I’ve been wanting, like a permanently-installed inverter.  We’ll keep thinking about it.

The rest of the Alumapalooza advance team will be hitting Jackson Center starting Friday.  Tomorrow we’ll decide if we are going to get to J.C. on Friday or Saturday, but either way we’ve got to keep hustling if we are to make it on time.  Alumapalooza is just around the corner.

Something stupid under the hood

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

In the last blog our trip through Colorado was just beginning.  Colorado is always interesting for the many mountain passes that offer spectacular views, dramatic climate changes, and occasionally an exploded bag of chips in the closet.  Altitude changes everything, especially in a rolling house.  For example, we’ve learned over the years to be very careful when opening toothpaste after a tow up to higher altitude, as an air bubble in the container can result in you ending up with a lot more toothpaste than you needed at the moment.

This trip was uneventful except for a strange loss of power when climbing, and another Check Engine light on the car as we approached the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70.  We were at 11,000 feet, but since the car is a turbodiesel the altitude should not have affected the power quite as much as it did.  This called for an appointment at the Denver Mercedes dealer, but I also called Super Terry for a consultation once we were settled into our campground.

Super Terry suggested I look for “something stupid” under the hood, so I did and immediately discovered that one of the two cold-air intakes to the engine was disconnected.  Our home dealership had just serviced the engine last week, touching this very intake hose.  This seemed like a proverbial smoking gun, but S.T. advised having the Denver dealer check it out anyway, just to make sure the problem wasn’t something more serious.  The diagnosis turned out as I expected: the Check Engine light was caused by the disconnected air intake, which allowed hot engine air to get in where cold air was expected.  The bill for this diagnosis was $132, which I have passed on to the dealer that disconnected the line, for their careful consideration. Ahem.  [Update: they agreed to credit us the full amount against a future service.]

There was supposed to be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday evening, but clouds in Denver prevented us from seeing most of it.  A shame, as there won’t be another one in North America for many years.  We had even built a cereal-box viewer for the occasion.

But our evening was not entirely dull, as we had an unexpected visit from the Zimmer family, local owners of a 1963 Airstream Safari.  They were passing through the park and spotted our Airstream, and ended up coming in for a tour and visit.

The big point of coming to Denver was to conduct a site visit of Lakeside Amusement Park, where we will be holding Alumafandango in August.  I met up with Brett Hall of Timeless Travel Trailers and we walked every inch of the site to consider logistics such as power, parking, entry /exit points, seminar space, sewage, lighting, etc.  There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into prepping for a big event like this, and it’s doubly complicated when you are basically trying to build a campground too.  Still, it looks like we’ll be ready in time.   (By the way, there’s a new Wal-Mart going in next door but it won’t be open until November.)

One of the nice parts about walking Lakeside in the heat yesterday was the informal guided tour we got from Brett Hall.  He has been associated with the park for decades as the Consulting Engineer, and has done a lot of historical research. The place has quite a few interesting stories.  Brett will be leading guided tours of the park during Alumafandango so everyone who comes can hear the tales.

Now that the site visit is done and the car is set, we have one day to do work, household stuff, and school before we head east.  Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday will be roadtrip days either on I-80 through Nebraska or I-70 through Kansas.  That’s a drive of about 1,250 miles.  We don’t have any particular plans or stops worked out along that route, since it’s just going to be a slog if we are going to get to Ohio on schedule. I always feel badly about short-changing NE or KS when we go through in a rush, but long-time blog readers know that we did make many stops in those states back when we were full-timing.

Meanwhile, the phone is ringing like crazy lately, as people with last-minute Alumapalooza questions are popping up.  Like us, many of the attendees are already on the road, and others are packing to leave next weekend.  Everybody seems pumped, which helps us, because as close in on our big week of Alumapalooza, we can feel rising tension and excitement.  Alumapalooza is a great week but also a really tough one for those who work the event.  It feels to me like the days before the opening of a musical.  Despite all the rehearsals and planning, there’s always a fear that something might go wrong … until the moment you open the curtain and realize it’s all going to work out just fine.

Colorado National Monument, Grand Jct CO

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

As we expected, the cool night in Sunset Crater National Monument’s “Bonita” campground was excellent for sleeping.  The first night in the Airstream is sometimes a little hectic, since we are adjusting to life in 200 square feet again, and we are usually still figuring out where things should go.  That tends to keep us up late, but this time I was so exhausted I collapsed at about 8:45, and E&E were not far behind.

We didn’t have time on this trip to go to the companion park, Wupatki National Monument (connected by about 20 miles of loop road), so we made a note to come again sometime.  Wupatki offers five ancient pueblos and some box canyon dwellings, all of which we’d like to see.  We packed up and headed out at 8:30 with the intention of making some serious miles—but also covering some seriously scenic territory.

The route we planned was sort of a Arizona/Utah dream trip, up Rt 89A and then Rt 160 deep into the Navajo Nation, then up through the incredibly beautiful red cliffs and buttes of Monument Valley, and then up the edge of Utah past some great parks we’ve visited before (Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands), through Moab, and finally into Colorado.

The route goes up and down quite a lot, but I never saw us below 4,400 feet and never much about 7,000.  The important thing is to bring three items:  a camera, a bucket of time so you can stop frequently, and a full tank of fuel.  There are fuel stations but of course prices tend to run high in the more remote areas.  We had the cameras and fuel but not as much time as we would have liked, so for us it was primarily a driving tour (and a fine one).

I am happy to report all systems are functioning well on the Airstream and Mercedes.  The Merc did an odd thing yesterday during a steep climb, giving us a Check Engine light.  It wasn’t overheated and the light cleared itself overnight.  I can’t detect any issues with the car, so I’m not going to sweat it for now.  The car’s computer will store the fault code and we can get it read out later if we want.  The Airstream seems perfect. The fridge is cold, the tires needed no air at all (after five months of storage!), the hitch is silent, etc.  At this point we’ve run up about 700 miles and everything is fine, although I’m noting a few things I’d like to update soon.

We stopped at a rest area south of Moab where there’s a great sandstone arch that you can easily climb to.  If you are in this area and missed Arches National Park, this is a nice consolation prize.   You can also get a nice shot of your Airstream down below in the parking lot if you want (and of course, I did).

We decided to make our overnight stop at Colorado National Monument, in Grand Junction CO.  Faithful blog readers Jay & Cherie suggested we stop at the James Rob Colorado River State Park, which is just off I-70 at the same exit as the National Monument.  We checked it out and it does look very nice, but this we had our hearts set on driving up to the monument.  We’ve been here twice before and never managed to camp in the monument’s Saddlehorn campground, so it was nearly a mandate for us.

There was another reason for coming up the extra few miles to the monument.  We’ve recently acquired a GoPro Hero2 sports video camera for use at Alumapalooza, and I wanted to try it out shooting a video of the Airstream climbing the hairpins and tunnels that lead up to Colorado National Monument.  We shot video looking forward on the way up, and we’ll shoot video looking backward tomorrow morning, on the way down.  I’ll have the video edited and uploaded to YouTube in the next few days, and I’ll post when it is available.  Should be very interesting!


Sunset Crater National Monument, Flagstaff AZ

Friday, May 18th, 2012

We’re off … and blogging again.

This time of year the sun comes early into the east window of our bedroom. It may have been the bright light, or just the anticipation of finally taking off in the Airstream that got Eleanor and I up and working on the final prep at 6 a.m. We needed to start that early if only to avoid the heat that quickly builds each morning in Tucson in May. I let the air conditioner run in the carport as long as possible just to offset a little of the heat that the Airstream was destined to absorb today. Around 9:30 a.m. we were ready to go, so I unplugged the trailer, pulled it out into the sun, gave it a quick rinse to get the worst of the storage dust off, and then we were off.

Our drive today brought us west on I-10 to Phoenix, then I-17 north all the way to Flagstaff. I-17 heading north has a couple of tough climbs, the type where signs warn “Turn off air conditioner to avoid overheating”. They mean it. It was about 95 when we hit the first steep grade north of Phoenix. I watched the engine temperature and mostly it was stable, but there was one point at which it started to rise and so we went without a/c for a few minutes.

The GL320 is a good tow vehicle in most circumstances, but its weak spot is climbing steep grades. Anything over 8% with our 7,000 pound trailer in tow means slow going. We usually end up with the 18-wheelers, moaning up the hill at 35 MPH with flashers on, while cars zip by at 65. That’s the result of having 400 ft-lbs of torque, but only 210 horsepower. It’s kind of like having a diesel tractor. We always get there, but we don’t get there fast. I don’t sweat this, because the slow part ends up being five or ten minutes out of an eight-hour drive, which hardly seems worth getting excited about. The rest of the time we can tow at any speed we care to.

After a few hours the brown desert began to give way to the pine forests and cooler temperatures of high altitude. Flagstaff is at about 7,000 feet, only a part-day drive from Tucson but worlds away in terms of climate and geography. We stopped here to pick up 20 gallons of diesel and then headed north on Rt 89 towards Page, with the intention of continuing on to Navajo National Monument, a place we’ve visited and enjoyed before.

And then something great happened. We passed by a sign for Sunset Crater National Monument, and Eleanor said, “Why don’t we stop here instead?” It was only 3:30 in the afternoon and we hadn’t covered the miles I had hoped for. I wanted our first day out to be a big one, so we’d have less pressure in the next two days to get to Denver. But I was feeling tired, and we’d never visited Sunset Crater before, and there was a little blue symbol by the road indicating that it had a campground. We considered the pros and cons, and then turned around and drove a mile back to Sunset Crater.

This turned out to be a good choice. Sunset Crater offered much more than we expected. As you drive in a few miles along the entrance road, there’s a spectacular view of the dormant volcano, and you can immediately see from the red and purple cinders along the crater’s edge how it got its name. It is just beautiful.

The campground is very nice (no hookups, $18), with sites set among tall Ponderosa pines and well spaced. We parked the Airstream in site #13 and headed to the Visitor Center, which was small but well-done. Then we drove a short distance to the one-mile Lava Trail and took a walk to get a better view of the volcano and shake off the hours of travel.

It was a stunningly beautiful afternoon, with temperatures in the 70s, beautiful sunshine, dry air, and a pleasant breeze. You couldn’t ask for a better day to visit this great National Park, and yet the campground was half empty (on a Friday night) and the trails were uncrowded.

We had all changed into long pants and grabbed sweatshirts for the trail, and as the afternoon began to fade we were glad we had them. It seems like the heat of Tucson was weeks ago, but we have a souvenir in the Airstream—it’s 80 degrees inside from the heat accumulated during towing. That will fade quickly. Tonight we are expecting a low of 37 degrees in the campground. Eleanor and I added blankets to our bed and we expect to sleep well and rise early. Our roadtrip is well and truly begun.

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