Archive for the ‘Maintenance’ Category

Cat scratch fever

Monday, October 14th, 2013

OK, we’ve been off the road for a few weeks.  But is that any reason to be going to the cats?

I would say “going to the dogs” but we are admittedly cat people, and you know that Eleanor and Emma foster kittens from the local Humane Society in between trips.  It was not long after we landed in Tucson that the first batch arrived: six cute kittens needing two medications each in the morning, and three medications in the evening, plus a little of our patented kitty socialization school.

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Having a batch of kittens will turn anyone’s life upside down.  Kittens want to jump, claw, fight, eat, and sleep—all the time, and if they can figure it out, all at the same time.  Kittens have no respect for litter boxes, so twice-daily cleanups are just part of the routine.  They don’t know how to share, and if it suits them to tip over a bowl full of water in the middle of the night, well, you just have to get up and deal with it.

In short, kittens are born with the knowledge that humans exist to serve them.  But in this house they are also patients, so we don’t take much flack when it comes to medicine time.  Their claws get trimmed (by me usually), and then with their defenses lowered we deal with them assembly-line fashion: first a squirt of medicine in the mouth, then a dab of ointment in each eye, and finally the despised nose drops.

It’s not all grief for the little beasts, though.  We do our best to give them back to the shelter with a better opinion of human beings.  Lots of snuggling, playing, attention, belly-rubs, snacks, and general carting around seems to work well in convincing them that we are worth keeping in servitude forever. Some lucky person will get one of these kittens and find that it has been pre-programmed to encourage human bondage.  (We don’t feel guilty about it–these guys need homes.)

In anticipation of some of my Airstream projects, I moved the trailer over to Rob’s place to borrow his somewhat taller carport.  Working there gives me a little more room for jobs that require access to all sides of the trailer and the roof.  Not five minutes after I parked the trailer, his cat “Chester” jumped from the roof of the house to the roof of the Airstream.  “Mmmmm… ” I could hear him saying, “a new roof to sit on.  How nice of you to bring it over for me.”

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After a few minutes of exploration, Chester decided to depart the roof.  But jumping back to the house wasn’t appealing to him, so he decided to see if sliding down the front dome of the Airstream would be appropriate.  During the testing phase he stepped just a bit too far out,  and began to slide down the dome.  I watched, completely helpless to do anything, as Chester put out his claws and ever-so-slowly, excruciatingly, slid down the aluminum dome leaving a foot-long claw scratch in the clearcoat.

Anyone who owns an Airstream can feel my pain.

Fortunately for Chester, he’s a very friendly and fluffy cat.  I couldn’t bear to gut him on the spot, as was my initial instinct.  Also, Rob was there watching.  So I picked Chester up, rubbed his tummy, and told him if he ever did that again he’d become a small yellow bath mat.  Chester later redeemed himself by catching a pack rat beneath the trailer, and the scratch in the clearcoat was shallow enough to buff out. So Chester and I are friends again.

(But I’m going to get on those projects soon.  I don’t know how much I can trust Chester.)

Time to fix

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Mogollon to McDowell Mountain

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

When the weather is hot in the low desert, it’s always hard to come down off the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona.  This rim is the dividing line between the high elevation north and the gradually increasing heat of the south.  There’s a point just before AZ Rt 260 begins to descend where you can stop at the Mogollon Rim Visitor Center (a small log cabin) and stand on a deck at the edge of the rim to look over the broad view of green pines and valleys one last time.  We always stop there.

Mogollon Rim-1From this lofty overlook at 7,500 ft elevation, the air is nearly always cool and redolent with the scents of Ponderosa Pine and small blooming flowers. Just down the General Crook dirt road you will find a few nice places to have a picnic lunch while taking in the view (your Airstream can remain safely in the paved parking lot at the Visitor Center.)

Mogollon Rim-2Proceeding from this point is difficult because we know that the next time we step out of the car we are likely to be at least 3,000 to 4,000 feet lower, and thus back in the heat.

Indeed, in our case we continued on to one of the southern Arizona desert’s low spots, the Phoenix area, and got out of the car at 1,600 feet elevation in 93 degree temperatures.  The higher they camp, the harder they fall, I guess.

Well, as they say, it’s a dry heat, and that really does mean something.  If you aren’t in the direct sunshine 93 degrees can actually feel reasonable thanks to the low humidity.  The park we’ve chosen, McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, AZ (near Scottsdale) has 30 amp power but we decided to just run fans because it wasn’t terribly hot as the sun began to set, and Eleanor was planning to bake a pie.

The pie is a response to our disappointment at Pie Town, a sort of consolation prize to fill that gap in the alimentary psyche.  Using the oven in the Airstream (which hardly anyone ever does) has a particular downfall:  the oven produces much more heat than the air conditioner can remove, so baking results in a net heat gain and it builds up inside the trailer very quickly.  The only way to deal with it is to crank all the fans up to their highest setting, open all the windows, and convince yourself that 93 degrees is a good thing.  Or at least convince yourself that raspberry pie is worth it.

McDowell Mtn Airstream 2Being late summer, the park is nearly deserted.  Nobody wants to camp in the dry low desert at this time of year, when you could be up in the sweet-smelling pine trees surrounded by greenery.  In a few months that situation will reverse, but for now we are left alone with a few other hardy (or foolhardy) campers in a vast desert park, visited only by lizards, birds, and the occasional Sheriff’s patrol.

Through the past few weeks I’ve been accumulating a “squawk list” on the Airstream’s white board.  I thought I would have nothing to fix after this trip since I did so much work last spring, but that was overly optimistic.  The squawk list is ten items long at this point, none of which are huge problems.

Usually I fix things as we travel, a habit of being full-timers, because that way things don’t snowball.  There was a little of that on this trip:  I replaced the propane tank lid in Airstream’s Terra Port, and while parked on grass at Stevyn & Troy’s home I replaced two belly pan rivets and re-sealed a gas line entrance in the belly pan with butyl tape that Troy gave me.  But I have to admit that I’ve just not been motivated to tackle the other items, with all the traveling we’ve been doing.  It’s hard to keep up with maintenance when you are moving every day or every second day.

Two of the list items require me to get on the roof.  The bathroom vent fan is starting to fail (clogged with dust after eight years of heavy use) and the handle broke last week.  I expected that one, but was surprised when the MaxxFan in the bedroom also suffered a failure.  I turned it on last week and it rattled, then spat out two acorn nuts and a washer.  The entire motor/fan assembly has come loose, and it has to be accessed from the top (I can see loose nuts resting atop the fan but I can’t reach them), so between the two fans I’ll be on the roof for a couple of hours.

We’ll be home in a few hours.  To prolong the trip just a tiny bit more, we plan to make a stop or two in the Phoenix.  And just so we don’t have to think that the Airstream will be parked until January, we’ve already planned a little 3-day weekend in October.  I’ll get my squawk list items addressed by then.  The Airstream is returning to base … but not for long

Travels this fall

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I’m in my last week as TBM.  This weekend I’ll be riding a Boeing back to New England, and then driving up to Vermont to regroup with the family.

This year my TBM experience has been a bit of a bomb.  I lost too much time to illness, work, Alumafandango, and obligations at the house.  I had great plans to go for a tent camping roadtrip, which clearly is not going to happen now.  But don’t feel too sorry for me, because in September the entire family will be back in the Airstream and towing west, with a full month to burn if we want to.  It will be our last chance for a long leisurely family roadtrip for several months, if not a year, so we are planning to make the most of it.

For the last few weeks Eleanor and I have been thinking about the trip plan, and neither of us has come up with much.  Usually we are overcome with ideas of things we want to see and do on a cross-country trip, but after having made this trek something like 10 or 12 times, we are running out of major attractions.  (For us, a “major attraction” is not a theme park, but rather a national park, or perhaps a gathering of Airstreams.)

I never thought that would happen.  Are we getting too jaded, too experienced, or are we just not trying hard enough to broaden our horizons?  I think it may be the latter, so I am re-doubling my efforts to seek out the little things instead of the big ones.  To that end, Eleanor and I are planning to follow a pattern we used when full-timing: have a long term destination (like home base) in mind, and then take the trip day by day.  This leaves lots of opportunities for the unexpected, and often that’s when the most interesting adventures occur.

The process has already started in a sense.  In the past week I have been contacted by three Airstream friends, each of whom—completely coincidentally—is likely to cross our path as we head southwest.  Just spending a day or two with each of them is likely to result in some new experiences.  Think of it as Airstream cross-pollination.  We get a taste of their style, and they get a taste of ours, and together we discover things that individually we might miss.  It’s always a good thing.

So when we head out, our route will be affected by the routes of other Airstreamers, and we’ll go places we might have skipped.  This is tough on fuel budgets, but to be on the safe side I’m planning for about 3,300 miles of towing, which means a fuel budget of about $1100.  Seems like a lot but for a month of roaming I think it’s a bargain.

Eleanor is already thinking about getting the Airstream in shape for the trip.  She’ll be cleaning the interior and stocking up on supplies; I’ll be checking all the systems and cleaning the exterior once I’m there. Everything should be in good shape, but after a summer of sitting still amongst the trees and insect life of Vermont, you’d be surprised what little problems can crop up.  I’ve learned to start checking at least a week before any major trip, just in case I find a problem that requires a parts order or a trip to the local RV service center.

The Safari, by the way, will celebrate its eighth year on the road with us in October.  I have lost track of the miles it has traveled, but it is certainly above 100,000. I can’t think of any other purchase we have ever made that has given us such a great return, in terms of life experiences and pleasure. When it’s not our home on the road, it’s a great guest house. People talk about houses as “investments,” and RVs are just “depreciating assets” but I have to disagree. Our house is worth about 2/3 of what we paid for it (not counting the cash dumped into fixing it up), and it costs many times more to keep running than our Airstream.  It’s a nice house, but in the end it’s just a house.  Our Airstream is probably worth about half of what we paid for it, but it has changed our lives and enriched us in ways we can hardly enumerate.

So by my accounting, the Airstream is the bigger bargain by far, and we will once again prove that in our month-long saga with our recently-minted teenager.  She still wants to spend time with her parents, and I think some of the credit for that can be given to the Airstream as well.  Going out this fall will remind us all of those precious years (2005-2008) that we spent full-timing with Emma, and I bet we’ll all want to recreate a little of that magic as we roam westward.  I hope so.

Thinking of it that way, I realize it doesn’t really matter where we stop along the way.  The memorable moments will happen.  We just have to get out there and let them come to us, with our Airstream to keep us comfortable along the way.

 

That intolerable silence

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

The blog has been quiet lately, and I’m sure a few people are wondering what hole I’ve managed to fall into.  A friend once accused me of being a compulsive blogger, needing some sort of intervention and a 12-step program, but none of my friends seemed to care to stop me.  So what has kept me quiet for so long lately?

It’s just life.  A couple of weeks ago I was wrestling with my motivation to solve a giant problem, one of those huge problems that can’t even be fully understood at the outset, like a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.  I’m talking about my very slow-progressing Airstream maintenance book, which I think is going into its third year of “work.”

I have to put “work” in quotes because I can’t honestly use that term to describe the herky-jerky progress I was making for the first two years, interspersed by long period of contemplation and (let’s be honest) distraction.  Like the massive jigsaw puzzle, I had found all the easy parts and put them together, leaving a giant framework with 4,900 pieces yet to go.  This was a motivation-killer.

I mention this because you might think motivation comes easy to me.  I don’t talk about my failures enough (people complain it’s depressing).  I wrestle with things like every human being does, and there was a long period in which it seemed this project might be just a bit more than I was equipped to complete.  Failure WAS an option, and always is an option even if you like to pretend it’s not, because sometimes in failure you can learn something that will help you succeed next time. Like, “don’t take on a 200 page book project if you really don’t have time for it.”

But it’s harder to abandon a project of one’s own design.  After all, who or what can you honestly blame for the failure?  It was a jail of my own making and I’d told too many people about it, so I kept plugging away, adding a figurative puzzle piece every week or two, and then suddenly a wonderful thing happened.  It was that magical moment known to all writers of long texts and jigsaw puzzle fanatics alike.  I could see for the first time the beautiful picture that my puzzle would eventually form.  Better yet, it was all so obvious now.  I knew exactly what I needed to do, and without any motivational struggle at all I found myself gleefully opening up the document and adding text at every opportunity.

Suddenly I was finding time to write after dinner, before breakfast, between phone calls.  The first day after the breakthrough I added three pages of text to a 30 page document.  The next day I added five pages.  The next, 10 pages.  By the end of the week the project that took over two years to grow to 30 pages had doubled in size to 60.  It was almost worth waiting two years to have that experience.  Breakthroughs like that feel great.

Alas, my next act was to get sick with a virus, which has cost me a week of productivity already and will probably take another week to clear up fully.  I stopped working on the book because it took all of my virus-limited brainpower to just keep the basic operations going (keep in mind, I’m still TBM so I’ve got to do things like grocery shopping and laundry in addition to moving the Winter issue of Airstream Life ahead).  Now, I’ve got to fly up to Oregon to help Brett run Alumafandango, so there’s another big hiatus in the book project ahead.

This has led to the intolerable silence of the blog.  I make no apologies, as we aren’t actively Airstreaming at the moment and TBM’s adventures have been sadly muted, but I thought you should know that I haven’t abandoned you.  No, quite the opposite, I’m plotting all kinds of things to talk about in the future.  I will be blogging from Alumafandango as much as time allows over the coming week, and upon returning I’ll have just about two weeks to get all my TBM-decadence done, so that should be fun.  I already had a bacon-wrapped Sonoran hotdog but that’s just a warm-up for the real goodies…

A Mixmaster, a Mercedes, and a zombie

Monday, July 15th, 2013

When I’m TBM I must admit that I don’t eat as well as during the rest of the year, when Eleanor is here to cook.  But it’s an opportunity to eat like a bachelor, and believe it or not that’s not entirely bad.  It inspires independent thinking, for one thing.

Sure, the blueberry/chocolate smoothie wasn’t my biggest success (nor the caramel/bacon smoothie).  And my annual survey of Tucson’s Sonoran hot dog stands (ongoing at the moment) is a health fanatic’s nightmare.  It doesn’t matter.  The essence of TBM is trying new things, following sudden inspirations, and taking small risks to uncover the answers to questions nobody cares to ask.

This can encompass culinary topics as well as almost anything else.  For example, which is the best zombie movie of the past few decades?  The only to be sure is to watch as many of them as you can. I personally favor old-school classics like “Omega Man” with Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe, but I recognize I may be in the minority with that choice.  More recently “Shaun of The Dead” with Simon Pegg & Nick Frost could be a contender for its relative originality, and I think “I Am Legend” with Will Smith deserves a vote.

As you might be able to tell, I’m not a huge fan of the straight horror-style zombie flicks filled with shuffling idiots.  I like the ones with something new to push the theme forward, while respecting the genre.  To keep my research complete, Rob and I went out to see a late showing of “World War Z” last week.  I thought it failed to have a good plot climax, but it was good to see that the movie industry is still revisiting this tried-and-true theme.  Zombie movies are sort of self-mocking, since the movies themselves are often “undead” versions of those that came before.

Another aspect of TBM has been the traditional buying of an unnecessary car.  I haven’t blogged all the cars I’ve bought over the past few years, but basically I seem to find one every year or so, and then sell them a year or two later after sorting them out.  The green Mercedes 300D was only bought last fall and I am planning to keep it for a long time, so I told Eleanor I would not break with tradition and not buy a car this summer—and then promptly discovered a flashy red Miata at an estate sale and put a bid in on it.  To be fair, I called her first and she encouraged this irresponsibility, because she wants it for herself!  (I lowballed the bid so we probably won’t get it anyway.)

At the same sale I found a Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 12 (made from 1957-1967) in fairly good condition.  Eleanor already has a Mixmaster Model 9 (late 1940s) that was handed down through her family, which she still uses regularly.  We thought the Model 12’s beaters might be interchangeable with the Model 9 beaters, but as it turns out the Model 12 won’t release the beaters at all. I’m going to have to take it apart to fix that problem, and while I’m in there I’ll clean up the gears and motor parts, and re-lube it with new food-grade synthetic grease.

Two Mixmasters is really more than we can use, so I’m not sure what we will do with the Model 12 after I’ve fixed it up.  Right now I’m admiring it as a great example of durable American mid-century mechanical design.  It just looks good sitting there, and it’s amazing to me that these old machines still work as well as they do after fifty or sixty years in the kitchen.  It’s also neat that they are still so inexpensive and easy to find, despite being antiques.  I paid $22 for this one complete with beaters and two original milk-white glass bowls, all in good condition.

Sunbeam Mixmasters model 12 and 9These Mixmasters are analogous to my Mercedes W123: built in abundance, well-designed, long-lasting and hence beloved.  In a way they represent a pinnacle of engineering, because they achieved everything that could be hoped for at the time.  I wonder if the builders knew that they’d created things that would not be surpassed for durability by anything to follow.

I really like things like that, machines that are timeless in both design and function.  I’m not a fan of disposable industrial design.  “Disposable” is for Kleenex.  This bias is probably most of the reason why we have Airstreams, too.  Of all the things we own, the mid-century products are the ones I respect the most.

The machine that makes my smoothies is another antique, a Sunbeam Vista blender from the 1960s. When it just keeps working for decades, why replace it?  In that vein, we recently acquired the final bits we need to install a NuTone Food Center in the Airstream Safari.  The NuTones are highly sought by some RV owners because they are designed to be mounted in the countertop (thus saving valuable space when not in use).

We had one in our 1977 Argosy 24 known as “Vintage Thunder,” and kept most of the accessories that we’d collected for it.  The NuTone motor is permanently mounted under the counter, and you just pop whatever appliance you want on the power head at the countertop:  blender, coffee grinder, juicer, mixer, food processor/slicer, knife sharpener, etc.  Collecting the accessories is easy on eBay but the prices tend to be high these days because they’re out of production.  Our final piece was the motor base, and we got one of those from David Winick at Alumapalooza.  I plan to install it over the next winter, when I’ve got to get under the kitchen countertop to re-fasten it anyway.

Speaking of Airstreams kitchens, the Caravel’s new dinette table has been cut.  The dimensions are identical to the current table, but by using solid poplar instead of plywood/ash/Marmoleum, it is 8.1 pounds lighter (23.1 lbs).  That may not seem like a lot, but it makes a huge difference.  We’ve trimmed the weight by 26%, enough to allow one person to heave it out of the wall mounting bracket and convert it to a bed without help.  And it looks better already.  Neither Eleanor nor I were crazy about chunky look of the previous table.

I’ve got to let the wood settle for a few days before I proceed with sanding, shaping, finish, and hardware, so for now it’s just resting flat on the floor of the living room.  It may also require a little bracing underneath to ensure that the table never warps.  I’ll get to that over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to contemplate why it matters to me to fine-tune the Caravel, a trailer that we hardly ever use and are seriously over-invested in.  It’s really for the same reason that I’ll take two hours to disassemble an old kitchen mixer that we really don’t need, and carefully clean & lube it so that it can work as designed for another few decades.

You could look on it as a form of recycling, but it’s more than that.  The 1948 Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 9, the 1968 Caravel, the 1971 General Electric P7 oven, the 1984 Mercedes 300D, and the 1970s era NuTone could all be replaced by modern equivalents, but none would be as durable, or as inspirational to me.  These things seem to deserve attention and respect and repair.

They were made to last, in part because they were built in a time when “value” meant more than lowest price.  More importantly, they have lasted, proving their designer’s principles were correct. If you want to make a product today that will last for ages, you don’t need to guess the future—you only need to respect good design.  Not to get too romantic about it, but those few antique machines we still use and value prove that great principles endure.

Just like zombie movies.

 

 

The hangar queen

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

I mentioned in the previous blog that our 1968 Airstream Caravel is a bit of a hangar queen.  I’ve come to accept that, viewing it as (a) an heirloom for Emma to use someday; (b) an investment vehicle (so far a spectacularly bad one, since we have more invested in it than market value); (c) an interesting ongoing project to advance my general “handyman” education.

The last rationalization is probably the best one.  The Caravel has advanced my education in woodworking and plumbing in particular.  Someday I may even put those skills to use in the house, although I never seem to be as motivated to work on house projects.  Houses are sort of boring—they don’t move.

In the next few weeks the Caravel will get some more attention, this time in the area of the A-frame.  I bought a replacement hitch jack for it because … well … to be honest, because of a long series of stupid events.  Let’s see if I can get this all straight:

  1. Last February the propane regulator began to leak, so I bought a replacement.
  2. The replacement regulator had the red/green “flags” which indicate if the tank is empty or full on the “front” of the regulator, but on the Caravel the regulator is supposed to mount facing the rear.  This meant that the flags were not visible.  The spare tire blocked any view of them.
  3. Rather than returning the regulator for one with the flags on top because that would be “too much trouble,”  (and therein lies my big mistake) I decided to mount it facing forward.  This was more complicated than it would seem.  The job required numerous hardware store trips, a longer main hose, replacement “pigtail” hoses to the tanks, a pair of brass elbow fittings, four stainless screws, and numerous washers so that the mounting hardware would fit correctly.
  4. With that job finally done, I discovered that the handle of the manual crank hitch jack collided with the new regulator, making it very difficult to raise and lower the trailer’s tongue, so I decided to replace it with a power hitch jack.
  5. When I attempted to remove the original hitch jack, I discovered that it had been welded into place.

And that’s where I am today.  I didn’t have time to deal with it back in April and May, when I was doing a lot of work on the Safari, so I set the problem aside.  Now that I’m back—and lacking a tow vehicle—the only way to proceed is to get a mobile welder out here to cut out the old hitch jack and then re-weld the necessary plate for the new one.  I’ve made a few calls and should have someone out here in the next week or two.

If I were smarter I would have simply returned the propane regulator for the right one, and avoided this entire mess.  This debacle is going to end up costing about $400 counting all the miscellaneous parts, welding, and jack.  But at least I can console myself with the knowledge that now I’ve got a fancy power hitch jack on the trailer that we never use.

In the interest of continual investment for little actual return, I have also taken the dinette table out of the trailer to have it re-made.  The table we have currently was overbuilt by a well-meaning friend and weighs far too much to be easily handled when converting it into bed mode.  The same shop that built the black walnut countertop for the Safari a few months ago will duplicate the Caravel dinette top in poplar, which should be considerably lighter.  I’ll shape it, finish it, and attach the hardware in the next few weeks.

The plumbing project that I began last spring is about 80% complete.  With the hot weather this time of year, I’m not inclined to go out to the carport to finish that job, even though the Caravel has air conditioning.  It feels like a job to be done in the fall, when we return from Airstream travel and the Tucson weather is perfect for projects.  Around here, that means November and early December.

Someday soon this trailer is going to be absolutely perfect.  I’ll have to take it somewhere.

I break for motorcycling

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

There wasn’t much time to catch up on life after we returned from Europe, and the frequent rain in Vermont didn’t help.  You might think that having a few rain days would help office productivity, since the distraction of a sunny day at the lake wasn’t tempting me away from the laptop, but really I wasn’t in the mood to get back to heavy desk work and the rain just made me want to stay in bed in the Airstream.

This has been one of those cold Junes, with lots of thunderstorms and humidity.  Among other things, it put a serious damper on my plans to go motorcycle touring, but then over the weekend we had a little break.  Saturday morning we had a few hours of decent weather, and so the local “gang” got together, four of us (three BMWs and a Honda).  Not willing to risk a long ride lest the weather change again, we rode down to Vergennes (the smallest city in Vermont, one mile square) and got breakfast at the local cafe.

Sunday was the only really good weather day, and coincidentally the day of a charity ride to benefit an animal shelter.  We joined up with a few dozen other avid Vermont motorcyclists (a category which implies people of strong character since motorcycling in Vermont’s climate requires patience and resilience) at Cycleworks in New Haven VT and went on a really nice tour of about 95 miles through Addison County.

IMG_2418Now, I grew up in this area and have spent part of almost every year of my life around here, and still this tour brought me on some roads that I’ve hardly ever seen.  It reminded me of the beauty of the Vermont countryside–the roads that don’t go conveniently in a straight line, bringing you past the old farmhouse architecture, the rolling green hills and fields, and much more if you will only take the time to drive them.  If it weren’t for this charity ride I probably wouldn’t have gotten out to see all of that.

IMG_2410

At this point I had my eye on my impending trip to Tucson.  Whatever I needed to do in Vermont had to get done quickly (and while the rain was paused).  In the afternoon following the ride, I got up on the roof of the Airstream to clean off all the organic debris that had covered it in the past four weeks.

There was a lot, even more than we usually get, thanks to some tree that flowered extensively and dropped thousands of buds on the roof.  In the weeks of June rain, all of those flowers decayed to brown mulch, mixed with sticks from the locust tree, and it was really a mess up on the Airstream’s roof.

IMG_2422Usually this job gets done at the end of the summer, just before we leave, but this year I’ll be doing it twice.  It’s really not comfortable getting up on the roof when it is wet and covered with decaying plant matter.  I take some precautions to avoid slipping off, but still it feels dangerous with all the slippery gunk.  At the Airstream factory they have a neat harness rig from the ceiling that keeps service center workers from falling off roofs.  I wish I had a Willy Wonka skyhook here.

Lately we’ve had a strange problem with the water pump in the Airstream.  It will sometimes refuse to shut off after we’ve run the water.  Rather than stopping automatically when the pipes are pressurized it continues to run at its lowest level, making a sort of perpetual moaning noise.  We thought at first that the pump’s shutoff switch was going bad, but after a while I traced the problem to air trapped in the water pipes.  The pump can’t get the water pressure up if there is air in the line (because air is very compressible), so it keeps trying forever.

Running the pump briefly with all faucets open (including the shower, outside shower, and toilet sprayer) lets the air out and cures the issue for a while but after a few days it recurs. At this point I’m thinking the problem is in one of the fixtures, perhaps the shower valve, letting air in and somehow trapping it, but I haven’t managed to narrow down which one is the culprit yet.  In any case, the pump itself seems to be fine.  I checked it for leaks last week.

That’s about as exciting as it got this week.  I took care of a few other small things, packed my bag, and headed to the airport on Tuesday.  Vermont is east of me now, along with E&E, and the next phase of summer begins with the new blog post.  Temporary Bachelor Man is coming up!

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.

Airstream Michelin tire wear 2013-1

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!

All systems go

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Our countdown to the summer-long trip is into the single digits now, and so it is time to run the “Airstream systems check.”  This is a routine that I started integrating to our pre-trip prep about a year ago, after we had to cancel a long-awaited trip because the brake actuator died while the Airstream was stored.

Although that situation was sort of a fluke (the actuator was part of a run of bad units that were later recalled), it demonstrated that we can’t take our Airstream for granted.  It is almost nine years old now, and has seen heavy use.  This spring I’ve been going through the areas of the rig that have shown wear.  Through a process of refurbishing, repairing, and updating it has been put back into good shape, better in some ways than it has ever been.

In addition to all the stuff I’ve blogged, a few smaller projects got done in the past week.  For example, I added LED light strips to the under-bed area.  These turn on automatically when the bed is lifted, thanks to a magnetic switch.  It was a surprisingly painful job, because I had to squeeze myself into the front storage compartment to connect wires, but worthwhile because before we never could see well when rummaging around in that storage area.

IMG_2174While moving the backup camera I discovered a second main ground wire, hidden inside the rear bumper compartment.  This one was also somewhat corroded, despite being a bit more protected, so for good measure I disconnected it and cleaned it up as I had the front one.  I also lubed all the locks and hinges with graphite, replaced the two big zerk fittings on the Hensley (they have special spring-loaded plungers that tend to wear off), replaced a bad cabinet spring latch, and other such simple stuff.

Since we’ve fiddled with the flooring, furniture, plumbing, windows, antennas, camera, hitch, belly pan, refrigerator, bathroom sink, and microwave in the past couple of months, it seemed especially important to do a good road test before we hitched up for the real thing.  I recruited Mike, and we towed the Airstream down to the local highway truck stop, the TTT.

IMG_2173A good local truck stop can be a boon.  At the TTT we were able to get months of desert dust and last summer’s bugs finally washed off the Airstream, then go around to the CAT scale to get weighed (and re-weighed after adjusting the weight distribution a little), and on the way there and back were had opportunities to check the brakes and dial in the hitch head adjustment on the Hensley.  (This latter adjustment is crucial, as an off-center hitch head will cause the trailer to push the tow vehicle off-course in a hard braking maneuver.  We only had to do this because we disassembled the hitch for painting, otherwise it’s a “set and forget” item.) If we’d been in the mood we could have topped up the diesel and had lunch at Omar’s Highway Chef, too.

Mike kept the ladies at the TTT front desk entertained while I went through the CAT scale.  The report told me that the Airstream was lighter than it has ever been when loaded for travel with full water, at about 7,260 pounds.  It has run as high as 7,800 pounds, but usually less.   We haven’t yet finished loading some of our stuff, so when we leave it will probably be right around 7400-7450, which is fine.

While we were at the TTT I had a chance to walk around and inspect the tires, see if anything came loose (especially things I fixed!), and adjust the strut jacks on the hitch to move a little more weight to the front axle.  I went around for a second weigh and verified that the tweak moved another 60 pounds forward. (By the way, our hitch weight came out to 660 pounds, or 9%.  People often assume it’s much higher because of the size of the trailer, but it has always been around 9-11%, verified over the years by truck scales.)

The road test to and from the TTT verified that the new position of the backup camera is awesome.  With the high mounted position I now have a clear birds-eye view of the traffic situation behind us—three lanes wide.  I’m going to really like that when we get into heavy traffic situations like Dallas/Ft Worth. It’s also more useful when backing into the carport.

The test tow was about 40 miles roundtrip and it verified that everything seems tight, right, and ready to go. No surprises.  Even the new cellular antenna clears the carport entry as planned.  And it’s shiny again.  So all systems are “go” for launch.  We just need to get the crew on board and that should happen by the end of the week.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine