Archive for May, 2013

The Aluminum Gong Show

Friday, May 31st, 2013

I’m sitting here thinking about everything that happened yesterday, and it’s all a jumble of images in my head.  Too much stuff is happening to keep track of it all!  Brett and I walk around with little notepads in our pockets so we can make notes about things that we need to address for future events, or announce at happy hour.  This year our notes are considerably less than the first couple of years, which I think indicates we are getting everything smoothed out.

Yesterday everything went as well as can be expected.  Our trailer numbers swelled to 128 parked on the field, plus several more in the Service Center and the Terra Port.  We should hit about 140 today.  I heard from a few people who had problems on the road, but they all eventually pulled in with big smiles and a sense of relief.

Andy Thomson was a little late getting here to do his famous Test Drives, but by 10:30 he was taking people out for a spin in a Ford Taurus SHO coupled to a 30-foot Airstream Serenity.  I took a ride in the back seat and was impressed, as always. Eleanor is going to drive it this afternoon.

Tim Maxwell and Dave Schumann of Airstream held two seminars and packed the room, talking about Airstream maintenance topics.  We also had seminars from Phil May of Techno RV and Colin Hyde.  Despite the threat of thunderstorms most of the day, Yoga, Kite Flying, and the Bike Ride around Jackson Center all were well attended.  But the afternoon Pool Party at the JC Municipal Pool was deterred by a quick cloudburst that hit almost exactly at 2 pm, when the party was due to start.  We’ve had no luck organizing Pool Parties at Alumapalooza—every year we either get rained out or it’s too cold that day.

The weather here is unpredictable, as I’ve often said.  All you can be sure of is that there will be rain, fog, cold, heat, humidity, calm wind and high wind, often all in the same day.  We’ve had two fantastic days but today it is a certainty that the thunderstorms are coming in soon.  It’s such a shame because right now (at 7 a.m.) it’s just beautiful: about 72 degrees, moderate humidity, calm wind, and beautiful clear skies.  By 9 we’ll be getting rain, alas.

Last night we saw clouds on the horizon around sunset, and after checking the radar and with our resident meteorologist Alex, we sent a text message (to everyone who registered to receive them from us, about 70 attendees) warning them to pull in awnings.  For a few people, the message arrived too late, due to the vagaries of the local cellular network, and they had awning damage. The storm was brief but severe, dumping 1/4 ” of rain in less than 10 minutes, and the main tent suffered some light damage which will be corrected today, plus a lot of stuff was blown around.

For situations like this we have emergency procedures in place, including assistance from the Fire Dept, several First Responders on the field, and access to the manufacturing building in case of tornadoes.  We’ve rehearsed these routines every year but never had to use them, fortunately.  It’s Ohio in the summer and the weather can be a little challenging at times.

APZ4 Santa BabyThe big fun yesterday turned out to be the Aluminum Gong Show.  We had more acts signed up than we could present in the time allotted, so we pared the list down to 10.  First we gave out a ton of great door prizes, and then kicked off the show with Eleanor and performing “Santa Baby.”  I played ukulele badly, and Eleanor sang.  Neither of us could hear ourselves, and we thought we might get gonged, but the crowd sat through our act and even tossed a few dollars in the Charity Jar.

After that, we had a good guitarist, and then Brett recited Dr Seuss’ “Sam I Am” in the voice of William Shatner (he got gonged), and then we had a Human Calendar Calculator, and after that the acts got better.  It was hilarious. Alex & Charon stole the show with their duet recitation of a Gertrude Stein Dada-ist poem.  Probably half of this will end up on YouTube or our Facebook page, so you can see it eventually.  We raised a ton of money for charity with this show, and we’ll announce the total tonight at Happy Hour.

Alumapalooza jam sessionLast night’s entertainment wrapped up with Laura F singing torch songs and then a great “Jam Session” that went for a couple of hours with Kirk McKellar, Curtis Remington, Art Martin, David Winick, and several others.  Bob Wheeler of Airstream and his family showed up on the field and are camping in the Terra Port this week, so we had a chance to visit with them after the lasagna dinner at the local Methodist Church (an annual tradition).

I’m pretty sure I’m missing about ten other things that happened today and were worthy of note, but as Ramona Creel (one of our presenters) would say, “There’s just too much stuff to keep in mind head!”  So I’m going to move on. It’s time to get dressed and join the rest of the staff for what promises to be another exciting day.

Life at Alumapalooza 4

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Everyone here keeps asking me how things are going for us, since we are now entering our third day of Alumapalooza.  I have been replying that his has been the easiest and best year yet.  Many of the troublesome issues from years past have been worked out, and we have an absolutely awesome team of “orange shirts” who have just nailed every problem that crops up, even before I know about them.  As a result, we’re having a pretty good time.

This is good because we are already thinking hard about the challenges of next February’s Alumaflamingo, to be held in Sarasota FL.  We’re going to be have to be at the top of our game to make that event meet our standards the first year out, especially with (likely) 200-300 trailers on the field.  Normally it takes about 12-18 months to plan a new event, and at this point we have just nine months left, so it’s definitely on my mind, and Brett’s.

But we’ll talk about that later.  You want to read about Alumapalooza, right?  What can I say—it has been great.  The weather has been excellent since the early sprinkles ended mid-day Tuesday.  We’re expecting lots of sunshine and temps in 70s and 80s through Friday, then probably a few thunderstorms will roll through.  That’s typical.

The events have been well-received.  I’m not going to go through a list of everything we’ve held, because it’s all in the online schedule, but suffice to say the attendees have been kept completely occupied, from Yoga at 7:30 through the Roving Happy Hours in the evening.  Yesterday a lot of people missed half of Marty’s talk about “Running a Business On The Road” because they were trying to chow down a little lunch between activities.  We may have programmed the day a little too tight because we had so many things we wanted to present.

Well, that’s just a warm-up because today’s schedule has a lot more on it.  We’ve got seven seminars and activities for today, plus towing “test drives”, plus the Aluminum Gong Show (Eleanor and I will be doing an act in it), plus a Pool Party, two factory tours, door prizes, Open Grill, and this evening’s Jam Session.  Eleanor and I went through today’s schedule at 6:30 just to plan what we were going to do.  She and Emma are starting their day with Yoga at 7:30.

We are taking care to pace ourselves so that we aren’t burnt out by Saturday. I’m trying to get to sleep around 10 p.m. but it doesn’t always work out.  Regardless, I have to be up at 6:30 or so to get ahead of the day, take care of email, slather up on sunscreen, and check in with everyone.  (By the way, “Sammy The Solar Squirrel” gets on the staff radio channel every day to remind the staff to take care.  Today he is going to be joined by “Harry The Hydrated Hippo,” to remind them to drink the cold water we keep in a cooler by the main stage.  We have fun with our radios …)

The new Internet system is working very well.  Instead of the marginal and occasionally slow Internet I normally get while at Airstream, my system is flying along at good 4G speeds all the time.  I’m getting a consistent -73 dBm.  Brett has a similar system with a different antenna and he’s also getting awesome performance and a better dBm rating (-59 dBM) so I think his antenna is a better one. I may switch later.  Colin Hyde has one too, and he’s very happy.  Alex is next door to Colin and finding poor reception so I suspect he’s the next one to upgrade.

Gotta go — the day has already started!  For more about what’s coming, check the Alumapalooza Facebook page.

Pre- Alumapalooza 4

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The blog has been quiet the past couple of days because we’ve been deep into the Alumapalooza pre-event routine. We’ve settled into a pattern for the set-up of these events, which started before we arrived.  This year we have a slightly larger staff than before, and they are all really excellent, so the workload for us has gotten much lighter.  When we pulled in to Airstream’s Terra Port on Saturday, everything was so well under control that there was little to do but get updated, and on Sunday instead of joining the goody-bag assembly line, I was able to spend the day with Super Terry doing some maintenance to our Airstream.

Airstream Safari CircleThe maintenance was primarily about inspecting our tires and wheel bearings.  It has been over three years since the bearings were re-packed, and many miles, which is far beyond the usual RV industry recommendation.  Paradoxically, our heavy and regular use of the trailer is one of the reasons we’ve gotten away with it. Sitting still isn’t great for the bearings, as it offers an opportunity for condensation to get in.  I’ve also periodically checked the bearings to ensure they are running cool, and whenever a wheel is up in the air I check for smoothness & quietness of rotation.

Still, it has been nearly two years and probably over 12,000 miles since the last time Super Terry and I took the wheels off to check things out, so it was definitely overdue.  We found that the Michelin tires are still doing well, but wearing more on the outer edge of the tire tread, so we took them over to the Wal-Mart Super Center in a nearby town to get them flipped.

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Now the white-letter side of each tire is facing out, and the tires have been swapped from side to side so that they will have the same direction of rotation.  This should even out the wear a little.  Based on the wear I saw, I’d guess we could get about 50k miles out of them.  They’ve already gone over 30,000 miles, and the date code says they are five years old so they are probably going to “age out” before they wear out.

Airstream Parbond caulk-1Our inspection revealed that the brake pads were fine except on one wheel, where the disc caliper sliders had gotten dry.  When that happens, only one brake pad gets all the wear, so we replaced that set of brake pads and re-lubricated the caliper sliders.  Otherwise all was good.  Super Terry re-packed the wheel bearings, and re-applied gray Parbond (a sort of thin caulk used for small seams on the exterior) to a few spots that needed it, and that completed our day of maintenance.

Over the weekend I had a few minutes to look around Jackson Center to see what has changed.  We knew that the Cafe Veranda, the best restaurant in town, had closed.  The building is still for sale.  I hope someone buys it and turns it back into a B&B.  It’s a gorgeous house and has some interesting history.  I’ve heard that Wally Byam used to stay there many decades ago.

The one-screen downtown movie house, the Elder Theatre, is in danger of closing for the same reason as many other old independent screens across the country.  The mandatory change to digital projection is too expensive for this little Mom & Pop operation, and so they’ve launched a Kickstarter effort to raise $25,000 to save the theater.  Check it out and pledge if you love the little village of Jackson Center, OH.  This country is going to lose hundreds of little downtown theaters if they can’t make the digital conversion this year.

Phil’s Cardinal Market, the old grocery store, has been replaced by a spankin’ new Family Dollar store.  It’s nice to see some investment in the downtown.  It just opened last week and seems very fine.  This week the Alumapalooza-goers will flood it and probably clear it out of milk and bread, as they usually do.

On Monday the big deal of the day was the arrival of the tent.  Normally the tent crew arrives in the late morning and has it up by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, but this year things ran late, so we didn’t have a chance to get in there and set up our stuff (lights, sound, kitchen, Internet, refrigerators, etc) until after 6 p.m. This was an inconvenience but really not much more than that, so overall I would say setup went extremely well this year.

All weekend we’ve had early arrivals showing up and parking in the Service Center parking lot.  At this point I think we have about 25 Airstreams there, plus another ten or so staff trailers in the Terra Port, and probably 6-10 more service customers.  Everyone gathered on the grass for the Memorial Day cookout, which was a huge success.  The rain we had gotten in the morning cleared up for the afternoon and early evening.  It rained again last night and there is still the occasional patter on the roof as I type this (at 6 a.m. Tuesday) but the forecast is calling for improving conditions all day and fabulous conditions through Friday.  Only a little rain and not too much heat is a pretty good week in JC this time of year.

Airstream guitar Yesterday Dave Schumann showed up and took a few of us into his office to show off a new Airstream guitar.  So far only two have been made, but Airstream will get more and sell you one for $2,250 if you are interested.  One of our attendees is going to play this one on stage this week.

All week Eleanor and I have been practicing for the new Aluminum Gong Show, which is a featured part of Alumapalooza this week.  We’ve got a little routine which involves both of us and a ukulele.  If the performance is not great, at least it will be entertaining.  I am hoping a few more people sign up to be in the show.  Any act is welcome, even pet tricks.  It just has to be a minimum of 90 seconds long and a maximum of four minutes.  If you are attending Alumapalooza you really don’t want to miss this show, trust me …

It’s time to get moving now.  This is going to be one of those days where we do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.  By 8 we will have a caravan of staff trailers heading out to the field, and by 9 parking of the general attendees will begin.  Alumapalooza begins now!

Arrived at Airstream!

Friday, May 24th, 2013

We’ve completed the final leg of our long long trip to Airstream headquarters in Jackson Center, Ohio, at last. Yesterday we towed 330 miles from the Great Smoky Mtns to a spot somewhere between Dayton and Cincinnati to crash for the night, then the final 100 miles or so this morning.

I was pleased to see that even though our battery was severely depleted after three days of shaded camping, we managed to pick up 47.5 amp hours through the solar panels while we were towing. It was a beautiful day, and with the battery back up to about 76% it was no problem to spend another night without plugging in.

We’ve been lucky to avoid a lot of weather trouble along our route this year. Normally we’d follow a route across I-40 or I-70 to get to Ohio, and if we had, we’d have risked tornadoes and nasty thunderstorms. This year we opted for I-20 to I-30 only because we were heading for The Great Smoky Mtns National Park, and coincidentally lucked out on the weather. All we had to deal with was a lot of heat across Texas, and some humidity in Arkansas and Tennessee. Now it’s just about perfect in Jackson Center, OH, with days peaking around 70 degrees and dry air.

That won’t last, of course, because there’s nothing as changeable as Jackson Center weather. All I can hope is that the inevitable thunderstorms won’t be too severe, and right now the long range forecast seems to support that. We shall see, because even a 48-hour forecast really can’t be counted on for much. Every day’s a surprise.

The rest of the crew are here, and by the time we arrived they had the field all staked out. Tim & Alice were busy arranging the water system and checking on the power. Brett and a small crew were marking the tent locations (they’ll be put up on Monday). In other words, business as usual. Tomorrow we’ll stuff the goody bags and Terry & I have plans to do some service on our Airstream, but it’s generally light work. Nobody is too busy yet.

I see four Airstreams belonging to attendees who have arrived early; they’re all in the Service Center parking lot. Little impromptu Happy Hours and get-togethers seem to be forming, which is nice to see. Tomorrow it should pick up quite a bit, and by Monday we expect at least 25 Airstreams to be boondocked in the lot for the Memorial Day cookout.

It’s nice to see Jackson Center again. It’s always like a Homecoming. We have a lot of memories here and of course it’s the home of the company that my entire business is based upon. It’s a tiny village in the middle of a lot of corn & soybean fields, and I never would have come here if it weren’t for this amazing phenomenon called Airstream, but since I have it has become a place I think of fondly.

This afternoon has been spent settling in, and catching up with friends who we haven’t seen in months. There’s a lot more of that ahead, I’m sure. If Alumapalooza is anything, it’s a giant social occasion—and Airstreamers are very social people. This promises to be a very fun week.

Out of the woods

Friday, May 24th, 2013

It is just before 8 a.m., and it is time to start packing up for departure. I would be doing that now but the rest of the family is still snoozing. It has been a restful night, with light showers in the early morning tapping on the aluminum roof, and fresh air coming in the window. A cold front is expected today, which will sweep away the relentless humidity we’ve been experiencing and eliminate the thundershowers too. It should be a good driving day.

I mentioned earlier that we didn’t expect to get any solar power from the panels because of the extensive forest canopy above us. This turned out to be true. During the day the most power I saw flowing was 2.5 amp-hours, and that was only for a few minutes. We managed only to generate enough power to make up for the parasitic drain during the day, in other words, hardly any power at all.

If we’d had a third solar panel on a 30-foot cord, like I’ve wanted to get for years, we might have been able to place it in a sunny patch near our site and pick up a few more amps in the morning. But it still would not have been much relative to our normal daily power consumption.

So, this morning the Tri-Metric meter tells me that we have 48% of our power remaining, which equates to 89.4 amps consumed. We could stay in the park another day without a problem, but having had solar working for us on other trips, I really miss coming back to the trailer at the end of the day and seeing that meter read 95%.

On the other hand, draining the battery may have been just what we needed. A few weeks ago I blogged that I thought the problem of flickering LED lights had been cured. It had been a real annoyance when boondocking whenever we used the water pump. I cleaned up the main grounds (electrical connections), unplugged the trailer for a quick test, and the problem seemed to be cured. But I was mistaken—the problem recurred on our first night out on the road. This led me to believe that the issue might be in the battery itself.

This wasn’t a theory that made me happy, because the solution might turn out to be replacement of the $600 battery (we have a large Lifeline 4D). The flickering lights plagued us for the first two days of our boondocking adventure in the Smokies, but this morning I noticed that the problem had stopped.

Hmmmmm. We’ve used half our battery power and now the lights just dim slightly when the pump is run, rather than flickering like disco strobe lights? I’m thinking that this also points to the battery as the source of the problem. By exercising the battery we may have removed some internal resistance. It was plugged in all winter, except for our short trip last month, so perhaps it “stiffened up” like an unused muscle. Now it’s working better.

We’ll have to test further the next time we boondock. I’m not sure when that will be. We will have a power hookup everywhere we plan to go for the next couple of months, so it may be a matter of just disconnecting for a day or two (assuming we don’t need air conditioning) and doing further testing.

While in Gatlinburg yesterday I took advantage of the appearance of a cell phone signal to check in on the situation up in Ohio. Half of the Alumapalooza team is already on site, and the rest are expected this weekend. My phone revealed a total of 39 email messages and nine voicemails, which was depressing at first, but then I discovered that other team members had dealt with seven of the voicemails already and about half a dozen of the emails. Good people, especially Brett, Alice, and David, who have picked up the slack during my brief disconnect.

Still, it’s time to get up to Ohio and pitch in. We’ve got a dozen pre-event tasks to manage before the crowds arrive on Tuesday, plus we are expecting about 25-30 Airstreams to show up early for a Memorial Day picnic that Airstream is throwing for us. I’ll have to go wake up the crew in a few minutes, and start packing up for the road. We’ve got 300 miles or so to cover today.

Waterfalls, inside and out

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Since we are settled into the campground, there is time to take care of little things. As when we were full-timing, we have to do various jobs as we travel because it doesn’t pay to let them accumulate until the end of the trip. Eleanor has been re-packing some of the provisions that she didn’t have time to deal with before we left Tucson, which means the big pile of stuff in the bedroom is slowly disappearing into the cabinets (or being consumed).

We discovered on Tuesday that our shower is leaking at the corner where the wall meets the shower pan, just below the faucet. This is a routine job. It needs fresh caulk. I had done the other major leak point over the winter, but didn’t think this spot needed service yet.

Digging around my bin of repair supplies in the back, I found a tube of white silicone caulk that I keep specifically for this job. Unfortunately, it was a previously opened tube that (despite careful re-sealing) had fully cured in the tube since the last time I used it, probably a year or two ago. We’ll have to come up with a temporary seal (likely a strip of tape) for the shower, and buy some fresh caulk at a hardware store on the way to Ohio.

This may not sound much like a camping trip, with re-packing and re-caulking, but that’s life on the road. We do a little of the obligatory stuff each day and spend the rest of the time having fun, so I don’t want to make it seem like we are primarily focused on household duties. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will still get our attention

Today’s plan was to seek out some of the many waterfalls in the park. This is a huge park, so we focused on those along the northern edge of the park by the Little River. A couple can be seen from the road with no hiking. We picked out two roadside falls and two that required 2.5 mile hikes (roundtrip).

I can’t say enough about the scenic beauty of this place, but it is sadly complemented by massive crowds almost everywhere. The parking lots were overflowing at every trailhead we visited, despite being mid-week and theoretically not yet in the peak season. We abandoned plans to hike one trail after seeing the hordes at the parking lot, and tried it again at 5:30 pm when things had quieted down. Even a mile into the woods on a muddy trail there was nothing approaching solitude. Normally I find hiking in the woods to be relaxing but this felt more like we had gotten off the tour bus.

This led to a new Eleanor-ism. Speaking of one of the more crowded trails, she said, “Well, that seems worth not doing.” We spent the rest of the afternoon’s hiking trying to identify other things that seemed worth not doing. (And for those of you who are long-time blog readers, yes, Reagan is still dead.)

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Getting to two of the waterfalls on our list required us to break my earlier commitment not to leave the park, because it’s necessary to exit through downtown Gatlinburg to reach the “Motor Trail.” This is a horrifying shock if you have been camped in the forest of a few days. In seconds you go from dense green forest to a crowded and visually noxious tourist center, filled with every food chain imaginable, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, ersatz fashion outlets, and (oddly enough) multiple pancake restaurants, all stacked up against each other in a mish-mash example of urban planning gone amok. Eight stoplights of this before you can make a right turn and escape back into the woods.

So that’s where all the day-trippers are coming from. I had no idea, but now that I do I feel like retreating further into the woods.

Despite the crowds, we did manage to finally complete our four waterfalls, hiking a total of about 5.5 miles for the day and amazingly not encountering any thunderstorms. The day’s drive totaled 73 miles, more than I would have preferred but every inch of it scenic and astonishing (even Gatlinburg, in its own way).

We returned to the Airstream around 7 p.m.to find that I had missed the fact that the center roof vent was open. A splatter pattern on the new vinyl floor showed that a rainshower had come through while we were gone; fortunately, not a flood and no damage done. The good news here was that the rain had kept the camp “fires” at bay, so the smoke level was low for a chance and we could open up the windows to let in some cool air. It is nice to smell the sweetness of the pines and the delicate odor of moss, if only for a moment.

And finally, because the Gatlinburg restaurants had planted a seed in our brains, we made pancakes on the stove with blackberries and maple syrup, and wrapped up the evening with a couple of games on the iPad.

Great Smoky Mtns National Park

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

As expected, traveling into the Great Smoky Mtns National Park meant total isolation from wireless communications. Once in a while that’s a good thing, because for about 360 days a year I’m tied into email and phone. It’s nice to be unreachable for a while. For those who can’t bear the thought, I will only hint that if you electronically sniff around certain buildings you will find open wifi. For the record, I am not admitting that I checked my email at any point during this trip.

We set the Airstream down in the Cades Cove campground, which is sheltered by a mountain ridge so that outside influences are beyond view or detection by our technology. There are no buildings, antennas, city lights, or clearings to be seen from the campground; we are in a bowl of greenery which is only reached by occasional thunderstorms and light breezes.

It was a tight fit into the campsite, even though the ReserveAmerica site touted it as being suitable for 35-foot RVs. If you actually put a 35-foot anything in the site, you’d have no place for a vehicle. Our 30-foot Airstream fills the space to the extent that the Mercedes must be parked sideways.

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But the real trick was backing into the site. The recently-repaved campground roads are single-lane width, and turning radii are challenging to put it mildly. It took us three or four separate maneuvers to get the Airstream into the space, working around trees, stones, and other obstacles, and we’re not exactly beginners at this sort of thing. I may have to make a couple of passes to get the Airstream back out, later.

This park is one of the big ones, and reputedly the most visited national park in the US park system. I can believe that. While it’s not peak season now, there are a lot of day visitors milling around everywhere and occasionally the roads feel like they are overcrowded. This feeling is exacerbated by the narrowness of the roads, typically lacking shoulders and sometimes one-way. The park service seems to have striven to keep some of the feeling of old times, by avoiding the temptation to turn all the roads into 4 lane highways. Between the campground and the roads, everything feels a bit tight. I’m not complaining, just observing.

So far there have been no surprises, good or bad. We had expected a deeply forested, quiet, and pleasant campground in Cades Cove, and we have that. We expected daily thunderstorms, dense humidity, historic buildings, and lots of wildlife, and we have all of those. The campfires smouldering at every third or fourth site are pretty much as expected, too, alas.

Yesterday when we arrived the Airstream had gotten pretty warm in the sun, so we opened the windows and ran all the fans to try to cool it. We were not making much progress on cooling it, but we were filling it with smoke pretty well, until a massive thunderstorm barreled through. Soon the outside temperature was 64 degrees, hail the size of cherrystones was bouncing off the roof, and all the fires were neatly quenched, which gave us a chance to air out the trailer with cool evening air before the fires started up again.

This was our battle again today, but the thunderstorms have been on our side, so we have a reasonable compromise between those who must have smoke filling the campground and those of us who would like fresh air. I know we can’t win this battle, because some of the nearby campers came armed with (I am not exaggerating here) half a cord of wood and/or several four-foot logs. Plus, the park service allows people to collect deadwood from the forest floor and burn that, too. (That’s a mystery, since collecting deadwood is a big no-no in most national parks.)

The sun is another outside influence that barely reaches us. The tree cover is nearly 100%, so our solar gain each day has been negligible. No problem, we expected this and there’s really no need to use much power anyway, since we have no Internet, and no need for furnace this time of year. Our first night we splurged by watching a DVD on one of the laptops (plugged into the inverter, which means it was running off the house battery) and it cost us about 12% of our total power reserve. We won’t be doing that again on this trip.

For blogging purposes, I am testing the iPad with a keyboard. This is working well. It’s not as convenient in some ways as the laptop, but the iPad has the enormous advantage of using hardly any power, and being easily recharged from a 12-volt socket. I definitely recommend it as a boondocking-friendly appliance, along with the optional digital camera adapter sold by Apple, and a commonplace 12 volt USB plug.

Having just driven 1,800 miles in five days, we really wanted to do just about anything today other than sit in the car. Alas, most of the attractions of this park do require some driving, but we kept it down to less than 12 miles all day by doing the Cades Cove scenic loop and browsing various historic buildings from the settlement days.

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Although the buildings (churches, cabins, a mill, etc) get a lot of attention, it was interesting to note all the wildlife. We spotted a black bear, two deer, wild turkey, a large salamander, a snake, and many butterflies. All of the mammals were seemingly unafraid of the gaggles of humans hanging around and taking pictures, which is something we’ve noticed before in national parks where generations of animals have been completely protected from human molestation.

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Otherwise, we have done very little. A game of Monopoly on the iPad in the evening, a walk around the campground, reading—all camping-type things. Nothing “exciting.” We haven’t bought any t-shirts or ridden the rides at Dollywood down in Pigeon Forge. In fact, we have no plans to depart the park until we leave for good on Friday.

Cumberland Mtn State Park, TN

Monday, May 20th, 2013

It hasn’t been any joy spending day after day in the car, but at least at the end of each day we’ve found a nice spot to spend the night. Last night’s stay in Forrest City TN was surprisingly quiet considering that the little Delta Ridge RV Park was close to I-40. It was the first non-state park night we’ve spent on this trip so far. Normally we are reluctant to stay in the type of RV park that caters to overnighters because they tend to be scuzzy, but this one was just fine.

I particularly liked the check-in process last night. Too many RV parks make you wait in line, then hand over a dozen pieces of identifying information, then hand you a long list of Rules and an insincere wish that you’ll enjoy your stay. After eight or nine hours in the car, I don’t have much patience for people asking me for the age of my child and explaining the bathroom lock code. Last night’s park was more like it: slap a $20 bill on the counter and write down your name, then “go ahead and take any space you like.”

Today’s stop is really wonderful, in a different way. We are in central Tennessee, at the Cumberland Mountains State Park, about six miles south of I-40. This is a large, landscaped, historic, and quiet place with lots of old school amenities, like a restaurant and shady campsites among the trees.

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As usual, we didn’t book in advance. It’s Monday and not a holiday weekend, so we know our chances of getting in are excellent. We arrived after 6 PM and the office was closed, but the campground host was happy to direct us to a primo space just vacated by his cousin, level, long, and with full hookups. We don’t really need full hookups but it will be nice to wash the reluctant teenager and get everything else cleaned up too. Tomorrow we move to a campsite with no hookups at all.

That’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park I’m talking about. I did go to the effort of reserving our site there, because the campground seems popular. We’re getting a zero-hookup site because that’s all they offer. That’s OK for three nights with careful conservation of water and electricity. Normally electricity wouldn’t be a concern at all but all of the sites are shady so we may not generate much power from the solar panels.

I have no idea what to expect for cellular connectivity, so if the blog suddenly goes quiet you can assume it’s a lack of signal rather than a sign we’ve been eaten by bears. It should be a good test of the new cellular booster and antenna, at least.

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One other thing makes this stop wonderful. We are going to have a short drive tomorrow (about 120 miles) and then spend three nights just relaxing. It’s about time. We’ve covered about 1,800 miles so far, in a short period of time. Starting Tuesday afternoon we get to slow down and reinvigorate before plunging into the craziness that is Alumapalooza.

Diesel fried chicken

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

The long days of driving are already taking a toll on us. It’s not fun spending all day in the car, and as Emma grows into a teenager she is finding the car rides less agreeable. When she was younger we could drop her in the backseat with a few books and not hear a peep for hours. Now she has a Nintendo DS, several books, a bag of snacks, an iPod, and a slew of other distractions, and she’s bored.

I am thinking that we should make some effort to avoid having to do this rush-rush drive next year, by leaving earlier. It won’t be easy because of our schedules, but the alternative is slow torture by concrete Interstate.

Perhaps because of our lack of motivation to do the same thing today that we did yesterday,we got a late start this morning. I woke up at 4:00 for some reason, did a little bit of work on the computer, then went back to bed. We slept until nearly 9, and with a little puttering around and a walk around the campground loops, we managed to not depart Lake Bob Sandlin until noon. This meant a shorter drive day, which was fine with me.

The drive was just as tedious as the other days, with the same sorts of distractions, namely bad signage. There is a serious problem in America with basic punctuation, but anyone who frequents an Internet forum already knows that. I can’t even count the number of signs we’ve seen with superfluous apostrophes (“HOT DOG’S “) over the years, so I have stopped paying attention to those. But today we spotted a few cases where a little extra punctuation probably would have helped:

(at a truck stop) DIESEL FRIED CHICKEN
Mmmm-mmm good!

And in Pleasantville AR: ROMANS USED TIRES
Now, we have serious doubts about that. I’ve seen Ben Hur and I’m pretty sure the Romans used wooden wheels.

Eleanor also reflected on the sign we saw yesterday (“Hell is hot”), noting in the 88-degree temperatures of the morning, “at least it’s not humid!” The thermometer says it’s 10-15 degrees cooler than it was in west Texas, but it certainly feels worse. We have left the desert far behind and I miss it.

The highlight of the drive today was on I-40 somewhere east of Little Rock, where we encountered a 12 mile “construction zone” in which exactly 0.3 miles were actually under active construction. Traffic was weird; stopped dead for 10-15 minutes, then roaring ahead at highway speeds. We went through this for nearly an hour and then finally traffic broke free for a few miles.

But we weren’t out of it. I was about a tenth of a mile behind the next car, fortunately, because traffic suddenly came to a screeching halt just over the crest of a small bridge. I had to lock ‘em up, all four trailer tires smoking. With no breakdown lane at that point andthe left lane blocked off by large orange traffic barrels, my avoidance options were poor. For a few seconds it looked like we were going to plow into the back of the stopped Toyota Highlander in front of us.

At the last second I swerved between the orange barrels like a slalom course, as a gambit to buy a little more stopping room. That bought us a few feet only, because just ahead the construction crew had left a few Jersey barriers. But we stopped in time and all was well.

I was impressed that the Airstream handled so well. We’ve spent years tweaking it for just such a circumstance, with disc brakes, the Hensley hitch, and the Michelin tires, but still you never know until the pressure is on. It was nice to feel the rig perform exactly as it should have. It stopped quickly, there was no “Hensley bump” or push from the trailer (which is typically caused by having the brake controller set too low), and at no point did I lose control of the vehicle. It steered right where I wanted even under severe circumstances. So the incident turned out to be nothing but a little smoke.

This whole incident was a little ironic since you know I was bloviating a couple of weeks ago about the importance of having your weight distribution correct because “someday it will matter.” For us, “someday” turned out to be today. Of course, it’s really about more than just the weight. Brakes, tires, hitch, and tow vehicle all enter into the equation. For example, I am certain that without disc brakes on the Airstream and an excellent brake actuator we would have had a front-end collision today.

I stopped at the next exit and checked all the tires carefully, but there was no sign of damage. For the next 25 miles I was a little jumpy about the cars that cut in front of us (a frequent occurrence along I-40) and any hint of vibration from the tires. Even though I can’t see anything wrong with the tires, there may be hidden damage so I’ll be watching them carefully as we continue down the road.

We finally bailed out around 6:30 in Forrest City, AR at a little 18-site campground. Full hookups for $20, and it’s actually a decent spot for an overnight. It looks like we’ll get into Tennessee tomorrow and hit the Smokies sometime Tuesday. One last big push tomorrow and that should be the end of the big mileage days.

500 miles to Lake Bob Sandlin State Park, TX

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Last night as we walked through the Monahans Sand Hills State Park we found that after we arrived somebody had clipped one of the campsite utility pedestals and broken open the water line. Water was gushing from the ground. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to compute that soon the park staff would show up and turn off the water to the entire park. This turned out to be true, a couple of hours later, but fortunately Eleanor had already filled the fresh water tank, so we weren’t inconvenienced.

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The folks who clipped the pedestal, on the other hand, had a large headache. Not only would the state parks department be communicating with their insurance company, but their motorhome had a nasty gash along the front driver’s side storage compartment and slide-out. That bit of inaccurate driving is going to cost a chunk. But at least they were responsible about it: they called the park staff to report the accident.

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Despite working against time zones every day (causing us to lose an hour on Thursday from Mountain Standard Time to Daylight Savings Time, and then another hour on Friday to Central Time), we got an early enough start to log some serious miles across Texas. It ended up being a rather dull 500-mile day all the way through the Dallas/Ft Worth Metroplex and out the other side, with little to speak of other than a few interestingly misspelled or inappropriate signs. My favorites:

(an enormous banner seen on the side of a warehouse) CARPET OULET

(a sign tacked to a tree in rural Texas, seen on a 95 degree day) HELL IS HOT

Our original thought was to just drive 420 miles and crash for the night in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, but when we got there I was still feeling OK to drive further, and it was still 92 degrees. We decided we’d rather spend the night in a pleasant Texas state park with power to run the air conditioner, than boondocking in a parking lot by the highway. Lake Bob Sandlin State Park was 80 miles further down the road, and we made that our destination.

This turned out to be a great move. The state park is forested and green, with widely spaced campsites in three loops, and it feels very pleasant. I definitely can’t complain about the 30-amp power either, as it has already turned the Airstream from an Easy-Bake Oven into a comfortable hotel room.

But the big win was Vaughan’s. As we were driving in here I was thinking about another trip through East Texas along I-20, where we discovered a great catfish place. I was thinking, “This is catfish country,” and (note that here I’m giving you a fresh insight into my personal foibles) I really like catfish. As we pulled off I-30 and began the 12 mile drive to Lake Bob Sandlin, I mentioned to Eleanor that the one thing that could make the day end perfectly would be discovering a nice little catfish restaurant.

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And just 0.2 miles from the entrance to the state park, there it was. If there was ever a sign from the heavens that I’ve done something right in my life, this was it. After nine hours of drive time, nothing could look better to me that that sign. We found a site in the campground quickly, unhitched in record time, and zipped over to Vaughan’s for what turned out to be a fun meal.

This place is one of those little “finds” that we like. Local, unique, and good. The restaurant is almost devoid of interior decor (think college cafeteria with two big screens showing Major League Baseball) but that just shows that the management knows they have good food. No pretense, just solid meals served family-style, friendly service, and a spectacular view of the sunset over Lake Bob Sandlin. We liked it. The catfish definitely hit the spot for me, with sides of beans, hush puppies, coleslaw, pickled green tomatoes, and a slice of coconut meringue pie for dessert. Now I don’t feel like I just towed a trailer 500 miles.

Our plan for tomorrow is pretty much the same as the plan for today. This is a slog right now. We’ll probably try to cover another 400 miles and get into Tennessee somewhere along I-40, then hit the Smokies by Monday afternoon. At that point we can slow down for a few days, to chill out a bit (and get some work done) before we launch into Ohio for the pre-Alumapalooza prep work.

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