Archive for July, 2012

Announcing Alumafiesta!

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

A few weeks ago I grumbled that the workload of all the events was reaching my personal saturation point, and soon Brett and I would need to either find some help or start reining in our ambitions.  That was probably because we’ve been simultaneously working on four events, and now I’m finally able to unveil them.

First off, we have Alumafandango in Denver, which is coming up in just a few weeks.  This one has been a real bear to organize, because the logistics of our unusual camping location have been tricky, but it’s coming together at last and I do expect it will be a big success.  We just released an email to all the people on our “Alumapalooza/Alumafandango Updates” list, letting them know some of the cool stuff we’ll be doing in Denver (which you can see here).  Meanwhile, I’m working on the Survival Guide (program) and Pre-Event Info, which will all be released to the registered participants in a few days.

Then there’s Alumapalooza in Jackson Center.  You’d think that going into our fourth year we’d have this thing all wrapped up, but long ago Brett and I decided we weren’t going to do it that way.  If it’s always the same, then why come back?  So we mix it up a little every year to keep things interesting.  That means a new logo design, t-shirts, new seminars, new contests, etc.  We just finished the Alumapalooza 4 logo design and opened registration last week—phew!

But that’s far from all we’ve been doing.  In the background I spent some time over the last winter scouting out a venue here in Tucson for a new event to be held next February (2013).  We finally nailed it down and signed the contracts last week, so I’m here to tell you that we now have a third event each year! This one will be called “Alumafiesta.”

Alumafiesta will be completely different from the other two.  We’ll be staying at a premium RV campground in central Tucson.  Every attendee gets full hookups plus cable TV on a 40-foot site, and most of them have a citrus tree.  There are two swimming pools, great facilities, an on-site restaurant, and all of our events will be held in a 10,000 square foot indoor event center.

The dates (Feb 5-10) are in the midst of the peak season, right in the middle of the world-famous Tucson gem show season.  Over 70 separate events happen in the first two weeks of February, covering gems, minerals, fossils, Native American crafts, and what-have-you—virtually taking over the city.  It’s very difficult to get accommodations in Tucson this time of year, but we’ll have a reserved block of premium campsites right in the center of the action.

Plus, it’s the middle of the winter, and I can’t think of many places I’d rather be than Tucson in February.  No snow here (we never even winterize our trailer).  Typically days are mostly sunny with daytime highs in the 60s and 70s, although a cool break happens occasionally.

Alumafiesta is designed to show you the best of Tucson.  Every day we’ll lead a couple of excursions, and you can choose one major excursion to join each day. We’ll take scenic drives to the top of Mt Lemmon and Kitt Peak, walk the historical and cultural sites of downtown, roam the Tucson Botanical Gardens and Tohono Chul Park, and there will be numerous self-guided opportunities such as Pima Air & Space Museum and the Sonoran Desert Museum.  We’re working on organizing special lunches at some of the more eclectic restaurants in town, too.  In the evenings we’ll have our traditional Happy Hour with door prizes and fun, followed by local speakers.  One talk will be about the ancient native petroglyphs and pictographs that can be found in this area.  Another talk will be about gems & minerals and things you’ll see at the gem show venues.  More talks are in the planning stages now.

The event will also include two full breakfasts, one dinner, discounts at the on-site restaurant, and on Saturday, a special performance by Antsy McClain (of the Trailer Park Troubadours).

We just launched online registration for Alumafiesta last night.  Right now we don’t have a lot of information up about the event, but we will be updating the website all week.  Since the event will be during February when all campgrounds are full, we expect a sell-out.  So if your plans include coming to the warm desert southwest next winter, I suggest you register early.

If you are in the local area and want to come just for the Antsy concert, we have extra seats and tickets are available for $20 per person online. (The ticket sales site accepts PayPal, and credit cards via PayPal.)  There will be a cash bar set up during the concert, and plenty of parking.  It should be a great show!



Thinking about the renovation

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

We have roughly two weeks between the end of one trip (coming back from Vermont) and the beginning of another (going to Colorado).  It’s unusual for us to stop off at home base for a short time like this, but it has been an unusual travel year for us in general.

The two weeks were earmarked for various practicalities, like appointments, the final work on the Fall 2012 issue of Airstream Life, and Alumafandango.  Beyond that, I had hoped to have some free time to get started on our Airstream renovation, but very little has been done—I’ve just been too busy.  We have samples of Marmoleum in hand, and some definite ideas about upholstery and curtains, but so far haven’t managed to actually get out to the various suppliers and finalize the choices.

Eleanor did remove some of the curtains to see if we could get them clean.  Her plan is to re-cover the existing curtains rather than creating new ones from scratch. She did this on Emma’s back window a few years ago and the result was great: a completely “new” looking curtain without all the labor.  With the additional fabric overlaying the old, she was able to make the overall curtain a little wider so that it wouldn’t need to be pulled quite as tightly to close, and add all new hook & loop fastener for better closing.  Plus, the light-blocking ability of the curtain was greatly improved, which is a nice feature in the bedroom.

Our dinette curtain looks horrible right now. It bears the indelible stains and other marks that testify to the presence of a small child eating spaghetti a few inches away.  Emma began living in that trailer when she was a mere five years old, and now she’s 12 and I think at this point she deserves a clean start rather than forever eating next to the minor errors of her youth.  And we wouldn’t mind nicer curtains either.

Washing was ineffective.  The stains are permanent.  It doesn’t matter since they are going to be re-covered anyway.  We’ve chosen darker fabrics than the dingy off-white original material, which will cover the underlying history and match the other fabrics and materials that will be installed later.  For the upcoming trip to Colorado she is going to install a temporary solution of ribbon strips and new hook&loop so that we can close them better, and in September they’ll come off again for the permanent fix.

Tomorrow we will drop in on an upholstery place, or two, and try to get some samples of fabrics for the dinette.  We need to find a good shop to fabricate the new countertops as well.  That would be easy if I were willing to install typical household-style counters, but I want these to be the same thinness as the factory ones to keep the weight down and avoid hassles when re-fitting them.  Also, we’re going to install a larger, deeper sink, and cut a hole for a NuTone Food Center, enlarge the splashguard, and add in a good quality cutting board, so I’ll be looking for a company that we can work with on the details.

Much of the shopping has been online.  In particular, I’ve been researching inverters because a major goal of the renovation is to improve our power situation. Right now we have a great solar power system, but it can’t power appliances like the TV, microwave, NuTone, laptop computers, toaster, and coffee maker.  These are all things we would like to be able to use when off the grid.  A 2000-watt pure-sine inverter will take care of that problem handily.  The LCD TV consumes only about 110 watts, and the laptops are only about 85 watts each, so the electronic devices are easy to run.  The NuTone is rated for 625 watts, the toaster and coffee maker are both less than 1000 watts, and the microwave is an unknown (since we are getting a new one) but I expect it to come in at about 1100 watts. We’ll have to be careful not to make toast and coffee at the same time but otherwise it should work fine.

A big decision was to wire the inverter to the whole trailer with an automatic transfer switch so that every outlet will be powered when we are running on batteries.  This does require us to remember to set the air conditioner off, but that’s no problem.  (With a starting load over well over 2,500 watts, it would trip the inverter.)  Wiring the whole trailer simplifies the connection of the inverter.  It will sit in a front compartment near the battery so that the DC wire runs are short, and a long AC wire will run to the main breaker box and transfer switch, through the belly pan.

To keep the budget down, I’ve been collecting some items as we travel.  I found the NuTone Food Center at Alumapalooza, being sold by David Winick. We already had a big box of NuTone accessories from our days in the Argosy 24 “Vintage Thunder”.  We were parked next to a service customer of Paul Mayeux’s last October and bought their used Intellipower 65 amp converter/charger cheap (they were upgrading to a big solar charger).   I’m still scouting for someone with some Safari interior cabinetry so I can scavenge that, too.

You can see that nothing is going to happen quickly here.  The first real disassembly won’t start until sometime in September.  That’s OK.  The project is going to be expensive. I want to think everything through carefully.  We won’t be doing this again for several years at least, perhaps a decade.  So it’s not just a matter of picking out curtain fabric, it requires envisioning what we’ll be doing with this trailer in the next decade, and the challenges it will face in our future expeditions.

I also want to see if we can find ways to actually reduce the weight.  Usually in renovations trailers tend to get heavier, as owners add more equipment and household-grade furniture.  I can tell a difference of 500 pounds when towing up an 8% grade, by the way the Mercedes’ engine bogs down.  When we are lightly loaded it’s a much easier tow.  So it would be nice to trim even as little 100 pounds in the cabinetry, and as we take it all apart I expect we’ll find a few places where weight can be cut out.

After tomorrow I doubt we’ll have time to work on the renovation much.  But I will be making notes as we take this next trip, to try to discover the little things that could be done to make our Airstream more usable and efficient.

The renovation project

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

For the past couple of years I’ve been thinking that the interior of our 2005 Safari is looking pretty tired.  The vinyl floor is scarred and dull, the curtains are stained, the dinette foam is going flat, and the countertops are scratched.  Like a house, an Airstream does require a periodic interior makeover, and it’s looking like time has come for ours.

Two years ago I wrote a blog entry in which I advanced the theory that an Airstream can last a lifetime, with proper maintenance.  Now I have to live with those words, as we are beginning to reach the point at which shabby appearance must be dealt with.  Spending money on cosmetic upgrades is pretty low on my list.  I’d much rather improve the comfort, safety, or functionality of the trailer.  But if it doesn’t look good, it’s easy to fall into the trap of neglecting functional items because some little voice in the back of your mind says, “This trailer really isn’t worth it any more.”

Eleanor and I started talking about this a few months ago, and the first question we had to answer was whether we were going to keep the trailer long enough to justify further investment.  We decided we were.  As long as Emma is living at home (at least 6-7 more years), we’ll want a trailer that can allow us to travel as a family, and this is the only floorplan Airstream ever made with two full-time bedrooms.  They may come out with another two-bedroom floor plan in the future, but we like this one and we’ve customized the heck out of it already.  So we didn’t foresee making a switch anytime in the near future.  Perhaps once we are empty nesters we’ll downsize to a 25 footer, but that’s a long way off.  In the meantime, I know we’ll take many more long trips together.

Even though some investment is justifiable to keep the Airstream looking good, we’re going to try to keep the cost of this makeover down by focusing on the areas that need attention the most.  We won’t be gutting the entire trailer.  The front bed, dinette, and kitchen galley will come out, and the refrigerator compartment, rear bedroom, closets, and bathroom will stay in place.  We will not significantly alter the floorplan or plumbing.  The cosmetic goal is primarily to replace the floor, countertops, upholstery, and curtains.  Of course, while we are touching those parts we’ll also take the opportunity to improve a few things.

We can’t begin to tear the trailer apart right now, because in two weeks we are leaving for Colorado and Alumafandango.  So I’ll use the latter part of July to line up outside contractors, select colors for those items, and order various parts.  We’ll start the actual work as soon as we get back, approximately September 1, and I think the Airstream will be out of commission through at least November.  Other than the specialized jobs of upholstery, floor, and countertops, all of the labor will be done at home in our carport by Eleanor and myself (and any local friends who happen to volunteer).

There’s a good chance we’ll find some hidden issues once we start to disassemble the interior.  After all, this trailer has seen over 100,000 miles of towing and the equivalent of about five years of full-time use.   I know that we will find missing screws and loose brackets inside the cabinetry, because we have noticed some furniture starting to separate from the interior walls.  We plan to reinforce those connections so that the trailer will be ready for rough-road travel, in case we decide to do the Dempster Highway in Alaska or the road to Chaco National Monument.  I figure that it’s best to find the little problems proactively rather than when we’re on a long trip somewhere or after the little problems have become big ones.

I’ve got a long list of parts to order in the next few weeks.  I’m trying to find someone with a late-model Airstream with the same blonde faux-wood cabinetry who is gutting or renovating, so I can buy some used cabinet materials (drawers, doors, hinges, slides, and sheets of wood) to re-make into a custom cabinet in our trailer.  I’m planning to build a combination bench, laundry drawer, magazine rack, shoe cubby, recycling bin, and storage bin along the curbside wall to replace the kludge we’ve got currently.

We’re going to do a full replacement Marmoleum floor to replace the current vinyl floor and bedroom carpet, and ultraleather on the dinette.  Eleanor is going to cover the existing curtains with new material and Velcro so that they are more light-blocking and more easily closed.  We will also add a big pure-sine inverter to power the TV, microwave, or some kitchen appliances while boondocking.  To improve charging while plugged into shore power, we’ll replace the current charger with an Intellipower with 3-stage charging.  In the kitchen, Eleanor will get a new (bigger, deeper) sink, a NuTone food center, and inverter outlets for the toaster or coffee maker.  We are also considering a water filtration system if we can recover some wasted space under the counter, so I’ll be doing some plumbing improvements there and installing some dividers for better storage.

Little things include completing the conversion to LED lights throughout, a new microwave to replace the one that just died, replacing the hopeless ceiling speakers with surround-sound speakers (so we can actually hear a movie when the A/C is running), adding a good folding cutting board, removing the CD changer we’ve never used, adding an aux input jack, and adding lots of inverter-powered USB power outlets for portable devices.

My intention is to fully document this renovation this fall as it happens.  I’ll even be honest about costs, since most people don’t talk about them in their renovation blogs.  Right now I have a guesstimation budget of $6,000 for this project, using our own labor.  Once we’ve talked to the contractors I’ll be able to come up with a more accurate estimate.  In any case, it will cost more than I want to spend, but probably end up as good value for all the use & pleasure we get out of it.

Birds, bats, bugs, bulbs

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Waking up each day with the birds chirping and the cool morning air streaming in the windows has been a great part of the Guadalupe Mountains experience, for me.  It has been such an antidote to the heat that we’ve found everywhere else.  I had been pining for a tenting trip up our local mountains in Arizona just so I could sleep in the fresh forest air without an air conditioner running, and had even pitched the idea to Eleanor.  After four days in Guadalupe, the need has mostly faded.  Being here has been terrific.

Our Sunday plan was really more of a wind-down.  Our ambitions have weakened each day as we’ve settled into an increasingly lazy pattern.  After puttering around in the morning we headed over to the Visitor Center so Emma could complete her research to achieve both Junior and Senior Ranger patches, plus a Guadalupe Mountains National Park badge to add to her collection.  Eleanor says this is #65.

We also walked the Pinery Trail, but it was just a 1/3 mile nature trail which ended at the ruins of a Butterfield Stage stop.  This is what I meant by not much ambition.  We really should have gotten an earlier start and hiked McKittrick Canyon, which is about eight miles east of the campground.  Although it runs about four or five miles, it’s not a terribly hard hike since it follows a stream through a canyon (thus not much elevation gain).  It has a good reputation for scenic beauty.  We’ve left it for a future visit.

Back at the campground we did finally meet up with the other Airstreamers who parked right next to us despite the largely empty RV parking area.  At first I thought it was because birds of a feather flock together, but I think now that it was really just so that they’d be in the shade.  The trailer turned out to be a 1974 Trade Wind.

We spent the afternoon in the Airstream, me reading,  Eleanor making a big lunch and mixing up cold soft drinks, and Emma doing various kid-like things such as hunting interesting insects.  I took a few shots of the more curious or colorful bugs and butterflies she found.  It was rather warm in the afternoon but not intolerable even without air conditioning.

By 5:30 we had accomplished our primary goal of not doing much and took the car north to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  We had always wanted to do the  9.5-mile scenic loop drive (a rough gravel road) but never had because on all of our prior visits we’ve had the Airstream in tow.  This was our chance, and it fit right into our program as a low-stress “activity” that required us only to look out the window.  Of course, we did step out of the car long enough to check the Rattlesnake Trail from an overlook and ponder whether we’d want to hike that one on our next visit too.  It looks interesting.

The real point of driving 45 miles up to Carlsbad was to see the evening bat flight.  This is another thing we’d missed on our prior visits.  If you’re interested in bats, it’s well worth the time, as a park ranger spends about 30 minutes answering questions and then everyone goes quiet as thousands of bats begin to stream out of the cavern.  It takes two hours for all the bats to leave, but after about 30 minutes it’s too dark to see them anymore.  No photos or even cell phones are allowed, as they disturb the bats, so if you want to see this you need to show up in person.

It was the right call to stay boondocking in Guadalupe and dismiss the Siren’s song of full hookups at White’s City (nearer Carlsbad).  Our elevation was the key to comfort; at White’s City it was running 10 degrees warmer.  And when we got back at night, the stars were absolutely amazing.  I can’t recall such a vivid view of the Milky Way galaxy in years, even in other famous “dark sky” parks.  Speaking of which, Bert Gildart has written and photographed a great article about Dark Sky Parks which will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of Airstream Life.

I’m really happy with the LED lights we recently installed.  They’re working perfectly, and so efficiently that lights are no longer a factor in our power budget.  We can leave as many of them on as we need, and it’s rare that they even consume a single amp.  Since we’ve also put in an alternative to the power-hungry furnace (a catalytic heater), this leaves only the laptops, vent fans and water pump as major power consumers.  There’s not much we can do about those items, and they don’t really matter much when the sun is shining.  After four nights of boondocking, we are leaving with 79% of our battery charge still available, and in a few hours it will be back up above 90%.  Based on this success I’m planning to order more LEDs to outfit the rest of this trailer and the 1968 Caravel, when we get home, which will be Tuesday.

Another day at Guadalupe

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Saturday morning yielded a decision to stay another day here in the Pine Springs campground at Guadalupe National Park. We’ve just enjoyed being here so much that now going anywhere else seems foolish. There’s almost nowhere we can go that won’t be over 100 degrees anyway, and after so many contiguous days of driving last week it feels very good to just stay here and soak up the scenery.

It doesn’t hurt that the campground is still dead quiet and virtually unoccupied. It wasn’t like this on our last visit, in October. I am guessing visitation is low now because people think it will be hot here—since it is scorching hot everywhere else in Texas. From a glimpse at the NPS weather data, it seems that the average daytime high at Guadalupe is only about 88 degrees all summer, and it cools into the upper 60s at night, so it’s reasonably comfortable by our standards. The awning and a couple of fans running during the day is all we’ve needed. There’s an Airstream Life tip for you: take advantage of this great park in the summer before everyone else figures it out.

We have been joined by one other camper, a 1970s Airstream (probably an Overlander but I haven’t peeked closely yet), making a total of three RVs in the lot. The only other people around are the day hikers, who began to arrive around 6:30 a.m. in their cars to start up the trailheads that begin at the edge of the lot. Being Saturday, there was a small wave of day hikers, eventually reaching about a dozen cars. I was glad we did our big hike in solitude on Friday.

Since we had nothing in particular planned for the day, it became one of those great relaxing camping days where everything happened at a leisurely pace and we just did what felt right. Eleanor started the day by making pancakes—a rare treat, especially when camping without hookups. Normally on a long boondock we’ll be super cautious about water use, which means we avoid choosing meals that will require a lot of dish cleaning afterward. But since there’s a dishwashing sink nearby, I have been encouraging Eleanor to cook, and she has. I take all the dishes over to the outdoor sink in a box and it’s quick work to clean them all up in the giant sinks provided by the NPS.

The extra day also gave us a chance to spend some quality time in the Visitor Center, where one of the park rangers gave us a quick personal tour, describing the birds of prey we might see on a hike to Smith Spring. They also had a good collection of pinned insects that allowed us to identify some of the dramatically colored bugs we photographed while on the Bear Canyon hike. Emma picked up four workbooks: Junior Ranger, Senior Ranger, Junior Paleontologists, and Wilderness Explorer. The ranger programs will be completed here for a badge, and the others will be mailed in later for special patches.

By chance I discovered that the Visitor Center offers free wifi, a fact which does not seem to be advertised anywhere. This is always welcome because it means I can post my blogs and do some research about where we are heading next. This is always unwelcome because it means the evil email temptation will be there, and I could end up spending more time in front of the computer than I should while in the beauty and diversity of a great national park. I am going to pretend that the wifi only works for blog posts.

Since the ranger enticed us to visit the springs, we headed over to the historic Frijole Ranch, where early American settlers lived here from about 1906 through 1942, and then followed the Smith Spring trail to Manzanita Pond (where white-chested swifts were aerobatically dipping into the water) and then to the spring itself, in the shadows of tall trees at the edge of the escarpment that was once a massive reef on the edge of an ancient sea. This hike is 2.3 miles and maybe 300-400 feet of elevation gain, which isn’t much, but it was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived which means a fair bit of sweating. At least this time we were well stocked with water.

Other than birds, we have seen no wildlife. Not a single rabbit, badger, deer, elk, mountain lion, coyote, snake, or even a rodent. They’re all here, somewhere, but not hanging out where we have been. We have seen a lot of curious insects, scat, interesting holes, even a few snails that manage to eke out a desert life, and are getting to know the plants fairly well too. Now we talk about the red-green Texas Madrone and the odd Gray Oak, the Jewel Beetle, and the Jimson Weed as if we were locals. That’s a sign of a good visit, in our book.

Eleanor cooked up a fantastic dinner of spicy tilapia and we finished off some chicken with rice and molé sauce, which meant lots more dishes for me but that’s a fair trade-off for a great meal in a peaceful national park. In the evening we went to a ranger talk about ethnobotany (native uses of plants for food, medicine & clothing) and we were three of the five people in the audience. Back at the trailer we played games on the iPad and ate frozen “tacos” with peanut butter ice cream & chocolate sauce.

Guadalupe has turned out to be a better “find” than we expected, so you can understand why we want to stay yet another day. We aren’t due in Tucson until Tuesday and the evening bat flight program at Carlsbad sounds interesting. It’s a 45 mile drive from here to there. We could move the Airstream up to Whites City (the nearest campground to Carlsbad) but even the promise of a full hookup isn’t motivating me to take the Airstream out of this location. Our water supply will stretch for one more night, and we have plenty of electricity from the sun. So I’ll get some change from the rangers this morning (campground fees are cash only, $8 exactly per night) and happily fill out one more self-registration slip.

Bowl hike, Guadalupe Mtns National Park

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is known for great hiking.   For years I’ve been wanting to go explore the back country of this park, ever since Eleanor and I first happened upon it in early 2000 on a pre-Airstream road trip.

Emma was in the womb then, and at seven months pregnant Eleanor wasn’t prepared for hiking many miles (and also it was winter), so we made a note of the place and vowed to come back.  Come back—yes, we did, several times, but each time one circumstance or another kept us from going on a serious hike.

Like a lot of national parks, Guadalupe isn’t convenient.  It isn’t near anything, being 50 miles from Carlsbad and 120 miles from El Paso.  It isn’t just off an Interstate highway, and there are no accommodations other than tent or RV for at least 20 miles. Even now, parked here in the comfort of our Airstream we have no hookups and no dump station to use when we leave.  So you have to really want to come here.

Being here is only the beginning, because to see the back country you must hike up mountains that erupt steeply from a desert landscape.  We pulled out all of our gear yesterday morning and got assembled for a full day of hiking, with the plan to make a circumference of some of the mountains that would run about eight miles.  As always, our gear included sun hats, sunscreen, packs, snacks, trail shoes, cameras, and lots of water—although not quite enough, as we discovered quickly.

Some hiking friends of ours will read this blog, so I’ll detail that we left the campground at 9:30 a.m. and took the Foothills Trail to Frijole, then up Bear Canyon, left on Bowl (now above 8,000 feet), and followed Bowl to Tejas and back down.  That makes it seem straightforward (you’ll need a map from the Visitor Center), but the really relevant part of the description is we didn’t get back until 5:45 p.m.—eight hours later.

Yes, it was a bit beyond what the parks usually describe as a “strenuous” hike.  Still, none of us regretted the hike, and it had many rewards like spectacular vistas throughout and lots of little surprises in geology, plant life, and scenery.  The climb up through Bear Canyon was particularly rewarding, which was crucial because this was the steepest and longest climb of the hike, taking us over two hours to complete.

Before we reached Bear Canyon Eleanor and I realized that we had drastically underestimated our water needs.  I had my big 100 oz. Camelbak filled, but they did not have their Camelbaks on board the Airstream and so (on my hasty and poor advice) had only three 16 oz. water bottles each.  They should have had at at least five bottles each (80 oz).  We had a conference after two miles of hiking to decide whether we should continue or abort the hike.

A big part of the problem was that the air temperature at our starting altitude was already in the 80s and climbing, plus the first few miles of trail offer no shade.  Eleanor and Emma consumed 1/3 of their water before the serious climbing even began.  Still, we decided to proceed because I had more water than I needed and could share.  I filled an extra 16 oz. bottle for each of them from my supply and we continued up.

The steep climb through Bear Canyon, with its many switchbacks, would have been psychologically demoralizing if it weren’t for the great scenery.  None of us had done any serious hiking in about a year, and we also didn’t have any time to acclimate to the altitude, which atop the water concern gave us plenty of psychological challenges.  The trail was rocky and hard on the feet even with hiking boots.

I knew that we would make it physically, but in situations like this the big enemy is your own brain telling you that maybe it’s time to panic because you’ll never make it, you’ll be stuck here halfway up a mountain without rescue and no water and you can’t go another step, etc.  And maybe your brain is right, because running out of water plus a twisted ankle could easily equal a very bad situation.

Of course we did make it, with lots of rest stops, photo opps, happy conversation, and a few energy snacks.  Atop the mountains we found a beautiful park-like glade with scattered pine trees, and sat down on a bed of needles to have lunch.  This long break seemed to re-energize everyone, and of course from there on the trail was gentle and fairly easy.  It wasn’t long before we were looking down from a high cliff and realizing with a slight sense of awe just how far we’d gone.  The vertical ascent of this hike is claimed by the Park Service to be 2,300 feet, but I can tell you that it looks and feels like a lot more.  I felt like I’d climbed the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

We predicted early on that we’d run out of water before we got back, in the last mile or two, and we did run out right on schedule.  No matter, at that point we were down to nearly base camp elevation and it was an easy final stretch back to the Airstream (with plenty of motivation).

I want to point out something significant.  During our entire eight hours of hiking, we did not see even one other human being.  This has never happened to us before on a long hike.  Such solitude is like nirvana for hikers, with the caution that this also means if something happens to you (like a twisted ankle or running out of water), you’re on your own.  There’s no calling 9-1-1 out there either, so self-rescue is your only option.

Late in the hike after we’d run out of water Emma wanted to take an extended rest break, thereby handing me a wonderful parental privilege, the opportunity to say with a straight face, “Would you rather hike back to the Airstream with us and get an nice drink of cool water, or stay here and die?” —and have it be perfectly true.  Too often parents have to resort to exaggerations in our attempts to motivate children, but out here the forces of nature make exaggeration unnecessary.

By the time we dragged our enervated bodies back to the campground we were bone-tired, dry inside and sticky outside, with eyes burning from drips of sunscreen and joints aching from miles of walking on uneven rocky trails.  We had covered 8.5 miles.  One of the great joys of such a hike comes afterward: stripping off the dusty clothes for a shower, then slowly re-entering the civilized world of Airstream living. Eleanor assembled a casual smorgasbord dinner of bread, several cheeses, cold cuts, salad, guacamole, and cottage cheese, and picked over it in our zombie-like state, then I made some popcorn and we watched a movie before collapsing into bed.

When we first came back to the campground after our hike we were struck by the lack of campers. Being Friday night we had expected that the place would fill up.  After all, the weather is beautiful and I would expect this to be peak hiking season. But nobody showed up. It’s still just us and one other guy in the RV camping area.  I’m amazed but I can’t complain.  The campground is dead quiet most of the time (just a few day hikers driving in, or tent campers walking over to use the bathrooms), and it feels like was have the park almost to ourselves.

So we are seriously contemplating spending a third night here.  It’s only $8 per night (no hookups, no dump, but there are bathrooms and a dishwashing sink to help extend your holding tanks) and the climate is far better than where we are about to go.  Our solar panels are getting the batteries up to about 95% of capacity because it’s summer, so electricity isn’t an issue, and we have plenty of food.

If we do stay today, there’s another hike nearby that I’m tempted to sell the family on, called Devil’s Hall, and it’s only half the length of yesterday’s hike with a piddling 400 ft ascent.  There’s also the park Visitor Center that we should visit, and if nothing else I could be happy just reading a few books and listening to the birds.  At this writing, everyone else is asleep, so we’ll hold a family conference later this morning to decide.

Life out of the box

Friday, July 13th, 2012

We are out of the box at last! By that I mean that finally we have reached higher altitudes in the west and have escaped the muggy hot weather that has plagued us since we left New York state. After a final push from Palo Duro State Park, we have reached Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat, TX and are comfortably parked at an elevation of 5,700 feet.

It’s beautiful here. The RV portion of the campground is nothing special (tenters get nice sites but RVs are laid out in an asphalt parking lot separated only by white painted lines), but you come here for the scenery that surrounds you. And that is spectacular: a 2/3 bowl formed by the mountains that this park is named for, and the remaining 1/3 a crystal clear view east to west Texas. It’s one of those places where you step out of the Airstream and realize that it’s not the campsite that’s important.

Our plan to arrive on Thursday worked perfectly. We pulled in around 6 p.m. (Mountain Time) to find the campground nearly empty. There is only one other RV in the parking lot. We had a beautiful and quiet night with the windows letting fresh air drifting in and the sound of crickets, instead of a night sealed up against oppressive air and the air conditioner whooshing constantly.

That’s the big change from being in “A/C weather” versus “camping weather.” Even our day off from driving (in Tulsa OK) was spent locked up inside the Airstream with the air conditioner struggling to hold back the outside, and so it didn’t feel very much like we were enjoying the great outdoors. At times like that, we’re not even close to “camping,” we’re just hiding inside a silver tube with the shades drawn, like recluses.

Now we have the ideal air around us, and the Airstream is set up the way it should be: windows wide open, screen door instead of solid aluminum door, a fan or two running, curtains open, solar panels supplying all the power we need instead of a 30-amp power cable connected to a pedestal. It’s a massive change in attitude, comfort, and spirit. With the windows and door open, the Airstream is in “social mode,” ready to receive visitors or let a child run and out with little discoveries of rocks and bird feathers from nearby.

So now you can see why I’m happy to be parked in an asphalt parking lot with no hookups. We will be here two or three nights, living off our supplies of water, propane, and a refrigerator stocked with Eleanor’s ingredients, which is certainly no hardship at all. I’d much rather be boondocking in the desert on a pleasant day like this, than in a full hookup campground somewhere with the air conditioner blasting away.

Palo Duro State Park, Canyon TX

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Our campsite in Tulsa was located right next to a highway, cramped, and featureless, yet ideal for the two nights we spent there.  There’s no question we all needed a day off from the incessant driving.  400 miles a day is nobody’s idea of fun, and the burnout factor was off the charts.

All I wanted to do was stop driving and get some work done, and for that the campground suited just fine.  The wifi was fast and  worked well (rare for a campground), the 30-amp power didn’t sag in the peak of the heat & humidity (96 degrees), and the water pressure was exemplary.  I plugged in and got busy.

Eleanor got busy too, with a chance to use her crockpot and simultaneously test a “no heat” cooking method she’s going to demonstrate at Alumafandango.  We took one break, to go grocery shopping, and otherwise were in the Airstream just doing our stuff.

The layout of the Fall magazine is about half done and progressing on schedule, we continue to forge ahead on Alumafandango, we’re nearly ready to open registration for Alumapalooza 4 (and wait till you see the cool t-shirts!), and Brett & I were able to advance another joint project that we will hopefully announce in the next couple of weeks.  It’s yet another Aluma-event, but I can’t say more than that until the contracts are signed.

A job on the “personal” list was to look ahead while we had good Internet, and decide on our reward.  See, the crazy long driving days have an upside: because we covered 2,000 miles in six days, we have a few extra days to meander around in the west before heading home.  So, how to squander our remaining time?

After considering a lot of options, we have decided to go for Guadalupe National Monument in Texas, just south of Carlsbad Caverns.  We’ve dropped in there a few times but never had the right weather to go hiking in the mountains, and that’s really what Guadalupe is all about.  The park is at about 5,000 feet, with higher mountain peaks, and summer is the time to be there so we’re going for it.

This means major sacrifices, however.  My dream of browsing the Mogollon Rim with its glorious cool forests will fall by the wayside.  We’ll have to miss Valley of Fire Recreation Area and a lot of scenic driving in northern New Mexico.  Going to Guadalupe means we will exit at El Paso on I-10 and follow a well-worn path through the lower desert across New Mexico and Arizona.  It’s not an interesting drive after the first dozen or so times, and the temperatures will be abominable.

There’s one other sacrifice as well.  We drove another 400 miles today (OK, to be accurate it was only 380) to Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Canyon TX, just south of Amarillo.  We arrived at 6 p.m., just in time to take a peek and get our campsite set up. This is a beautiful place that deserves more exploration than we’ll be able to give it, because we have to leave tomorrow morning to drive another 380 miles to Guadalupe.

I had considered spending two nights here, as we really should, but if we do that we’ll be arriving in Guadalupe on Friday night and there’s a good chance that the campground will be full.  They don’t accept reservations there, and the campground is small.  So our best strategy is to arrive on Thursday and squat on our site through the weekend.  That will give us lots of time to go hiking and decompress from the cross-country drive.  In other words, we are sacrificing Palo Duro and a few other things to get a really good visit in at Guadalupe.  I think it will be worth the tradeoff.

Blog note:  Verizon doesn’t work in this canyon so today’s blog is being posted on Thursday and backdated.  Also, prior experience has shown that our Internet connection  is extremely marginal at Guadalupe, so it’s questionable whether the blog will get updated over the weekend, but I’ll try.

We’ve hit the limit

Monday, July 9th, 2012

I think we’ve discovered how many days in a row we can tow 400 miles.  The answer is “four.”

I find it very convenient that someone, back in the early days of American westward emigration, conveniently spread out certain cities exactly 400 miles apart. Burlington VT – Buffalo NY – Jackson Center OH – St Louis MO – Tulsa OK – Amarillo TX.  That was great forethought, pilgrims.

But 400 miles is too far in the long run.  It’s just too much time in the car.  Back muscles begin to stiffen, eyes glaze, bowels seize up, and gradually your mind begins to go.  We found ourselves asking what day it was, what state we were in, and (worst of all) actually interested in roadside attractions just as a way to escape the car for a few minutes.  Somewhere in Missouri, Eleanor ended up buying a set of steak knives.

This morning didn’t start out very well for me.  We slept late, which was well needed, but that just meant that the temperature was already spiking as I worked outside to prepare the Airstream for departure.  I had some extra jobs to do today, like lubing the Hensley hitch.  The old BAL Tongue Twister came apart while I was using it, too.  It has been rebuilt once already and needs replacement, but I gave it a quick partial reassembly and threw it in my box of tools.  By the time all things were ready I was also ready for a fresh shower.

Well, no time for that, so we headed out and promptly got on the wrong highway, then stuck in some crazy traffic caused by a wide load, and all the while the loose parts on the Tongue Twister were making an incessant rattling noise.  Eventually it was all sorted out, but it wasn’t much later that I was looking for a break, and we hadn’t even gone 100 miles yet.  By 3 p.m. I was worn out and abruptly pulled the Airstream into a rest area to do something we almost never do in those places: actually rest.  Thirty minutes later we resumed rolling down I-44, and I was just hoping that somehow I’d make it to Tulsa.

We did, finally, but not until 7 p.m. and it was again hot, at about 96 degrees.  It will be ironic if the coolest stop we make is in Arizona, and at this point I’m guessing it will be, somewhere around Eager AZ just north of the Apache National Forest.

The refrigerator has been way too warm lately.  Eleanor defrosted the coils less than two weeks ago, but all the humidity has caused them to frost up again and this drastically impedes cooling.  Some sausages had to be thrown out upon arrival in Tulsa, so we did an emergency defrost followed by turning on the electric boost fans.  I think we will run the boost fans while towing from here on in, at least as long as the temperatures are above 90.

We’re taking a break here.  The RV park we are in is nothing special, and Tulsa has no particular attraction, but we all need a day out of the car to move our bodies and recover our minds.  I’ll spend most of the day working on Fall magazine layouts and Alumafandango stuff, and then we’ll hit the road again on Wednesday.


Air conditioning at any cost

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

I think, amidst the endless concrete and mediocrity that adorns the American Interstate highways, we have managed to work up a Plan.  Brutal heat and humidity continue to dog us through the midwest, as expected, but we will escape to the high desert and Ponderosa forests that begin in New Mexico.  It may be just as hot there but at least it won’t be as humid.

So our day unfolded much like the previous two, rolling down I-75, I-70 across the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  The day started well.  I woke up feeling like I hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep but still very refreshed after a shower and a night of blessed air conditioning.  We got up early because we were expecting a visit from Dave Schumann, the veep of Airstream’s service department around 7:30.  He and I have been trying to get together for months to talk about some future projects, including his participation in the upcoming Alumafandango, and this was at last a chance to sit down face to face.  While he and I talked in his office, E&E got prepped for the day, and sometime after 9 a.m. we were on the road again.

It’s good to start off the day in a good mood and feeling strong, but I knew that I was short on sleep and at the end of our third 400-mile day in a row I was going to need to take some time off.  By 5 p.m. it was hitting me, but we had reached our goal of St Louis MO and in the process crossed a time zone, so we all get to sleep an extra hour tonight. Plus, we aren’t expecting any visitors in the morning.

Knowing that we’d need air conditioning again (100 degrees as we arrived) we had already researched campgrounds.  St. Louis has always been a tough place to camp, at least for us.  The pickings are dismal among commercial campgrounds and there aren’t any state parks with camping in the area (somebody correct me if I’m wrong —I wish I was).  This time we tried the Casino Queen RV Park, which is in East St Louis, just across the river from downtown.  We can see the Arch from here, and there’s a free shuttle to that, and of course the casino.  Those of you who know East St Louis know that it’s not exactly a dream destination, but this RV park has the advantage of being right off the Interstate for those weary travelers who just towed 400 miles from central Ohio and are desperate for a level spot with 30-amp power.  We are paying a royal price for this privilege, $46 for a night and we will not be visiting the casino.  This is what desperation will drive you to.

We had a partial plan to courtesy park with Stevyn and Troy, folks we have not yet met but who will be at Alumafandango, at their home about an hour west of St. Louis, but that was too far off our route to justify.  We’ll have to wait to meet them in August.  I found myself explaining to Stevyn that we don’t normally travel this way, roaring across the country without so much as a sniff of the flowers, but this was an unusual year for us.  We are crossing a swath of the USA that would normally take us three weeks, in roughly six days.

So here’s the Plan.  We will continue our great race two more days to Tulsa (about 400 miles) and then Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Amarillo TX (another 400 miles).  Once we reach northern New Mexico where the air is cooler, we’ll begin to slow down and take about five or six days to meander through NM and northern AZ, skimming the edge of the Mogollon Rim and then—at the very last possible moment—make that final drive back into the low desert and home.

It seems like a great plan, but I don’t really know if it will pan out that way.  Work will undoubtedly interfere at some point, and the need for decent Internet connectivity may force us out of the forests and back to the Interstate, or at least towns with cell phone service. Since I can only loosely predict what’s going to happen work-wise in the next week, we’ll have to stay flexible.  But flexibility shouldn’t be a problem once we are out from under the threat of massive thunderstorms and energy-sapping humidity.  We’ll have more choices of where to camp because we won’t be restricted by the need for air conditioning at any cost.  Tomorrow, we will hit the highway again…

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine