Archive for the ‘Airstream’ Category

Hot sauce

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

I’m sure there’s some great saying to be quoted that ties together travel and adversity, but I’m going to skip the Internet search for clever quotes and just draw my own conclusions. After all, it’s our own voyage and our own adversity to deal with.

Not that this has been a bad trip!  On the contrary, we have overall had a very nice few days of Airstream travel. But even on the nice days there is usually some small aggravation or diversion from the plan that has to be dealt with. Perfection, in travel and all other things, is hard to come by.

On our first day we were quite lucky in many ways: we had a pleasant and uneventful drive through the Adirondacks of New York state, west along the Thruway to the Buffalo area, and ended up snagging one of the three remaining sites at Darien Lakes State Park on a Thursday night.

This is a particularly good result considering that the Airstream has sat in Vermont for a couple of months, under trees which rain down an acidic combination of dead leaves, blooms, and branches (mixed with a little bird dropping for extra toxicity). It has been neglected and taken for granted all summer, and then—after a roof wash and a quick inspection—put back into service and expected to operate flawlessly for 360 miles on the first day out.

Since storage kills Airstreams quicker than use, I was pleased to find that all of the critical systems survived and we had no major problems, other than a few mice that Eleanor successfully trapped out in the two weeks before departure.

(You might ask why storage is more deadly than use, and the short answer is that during use the Airstream is maintained and problems are caught early; whereas in storage problems tend to fester and cause damage while your back is turned.)

The plan was to clear Canadian customs the next morning and drive to London, Ontario, to meet Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes the Towing column for the magazine, and we are talking about putting together a very interesting new event with him for 2015. But our travel schedule was tight, allowing us only four hours to get to London, and I was feeling the pressure all morning, probably because I was aware that we really didn’t have a lot of leeway if something went wrong.

Something did go wrong. In Brantford ON we got mired in a traffic jam on the freeway, which eventually ground to a complete halt. We sat there for over 30 minutes, parked among the semi-trailers, reading books while the more agile cars broke loose and took an entrance ramp ahead (going the wrong way) to escape. This was not an option for the trucks and us, being too long to make the 300-degree right turn necessary to get on the entrance ramp. Eventually, all the cars were gone and I realized we now had room to make a three point turn on the highway, drive in the wrong direction down the breakdown lane, and then up another entrance ramp further back in the direction we had come from.

This might seem nerve-wracking but it felt like great fun to me.  How often do you get to drive backwards down the freeway—with a travel trailer? Coming up the curved entrance ramp in the wrong direction was a little odd, especially when I came to the police car with lights flashing that was blocking the ramp, but amazingly there was just enough room to squeeze the Airstream through, across two lanes of heavy traffic, and once again into a legal travel configuration.

Eleanor got a really fun part of this. While we were parked on the highway she had gone into the trailer to make sandwiches.  A few minutes later I got the opportunity to escape the highway and warned her that we might start moving at any moment, with her inside.  I half expected to find her later looking like Lucille Ball in “The Long Long Trailer,” covered with ingredients and bruises from being tossed around inside the Airstream, but when I finally found a parking lot a few miles later and pulled over, she was ready inside the Airstream with three sandwiches neatly bagged up and ready to serve. It turns out that it’s a pretty smooth ride in there.

After our detour and a quick nosh on those sandwiches we were a solid hour behind schedule. We raced up to London, grabbed Andy, and headed onward together to Grand Bend to do some scouting.

Grand Bend is a nice little beach town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, just about an hour from the Sarnia ON-Pt Huron MI crossing. I’ll talk more about what we found there in a later blog entry, but suffice to say now that it’s a very nice spot and after just a couple of hours of scouting we decided that we definitely are going to launch a new event there for July 2015. I promise that it will be absolutely unique, and if you travel anywhere within 1,000 miles of Michigan next summer you should plan to go.

Andy had to head back home but we spent the night at the Pinery Provincial Park (the equivalent of a US state park).  Pinery is a very nice place, quite massive, which feels a lot like an overgrown Florida State Park. There are about 1,000 campsites, all tucked under tall pine trees on sandy spots in a forest. People reserve it a year in advance to get a summer weekend, which is why we could only get Thursday night.

I wasn’t really unhappy about having to leave after one night.  The park was too big for my taste, too crowded (even though it covered hundreds of aces and the entrance road was over 4 km), and the campground loop was too tight. We had to do some careful planning to find a route out of our campground loop that would allow the Airstream out without hitting a tree or scraping an overhead branch. In all the hundreds of campgrounds we’ve visited, this one ranked above all others in sheer difficulty to navigate with a 30-foot trailer.

I was also a bit peeved that we had reserved an electric site, paid a total of CAN$56 in fees, and got Dunes site #25 which is marked on the Pinery map as having electric—but did not have electricity anywhere that we could find. If we’d had more time I would have taken it up with the staff but we were again on a tight schedule and in the end it just wasn’t worth the hassle. We had more scouting work to do on Friday before the 2 pm checkout time, so I decided to just focus on work and then head to some place that was less popular.

In our travels we’ve usually had the best times at quiet places, but it’s hard to find campground that is both pleasant and unpopular on a summer weekend in the north.  At this point we had no idea where we were going to spend the night.  The good part was that we also had no itinerary for the weekend.  My next scheduled stop was at Airstream and there was no point in getting there until Monday, and it was only 264 miles away, which meant we could go anywhere we wanted in the meantime.

So after heading southwest from Grand Bend we stopped at Point Edward park under the famous Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia, ON.  This is a sweet little spot for a break, where you can watch the gorgeous blue-green water flow by in the river, walk the grassy park, marvel at the enormous bridges overhead, and ogle your first view of America just across the river in Pt Huron MI. We spent the afternoon.

The traffic on the Blue Water bridge is so bad there’s an app you can download to watch the traffic and figure the best time to try to make it through.  It’s bad because US Customs is right on the other side, which causes traffic to back up over the bridge and often a mile or two back into Sarnia. At 5 pm we launched into it; at 6:30 pm we finally cleared customs, having traveled a mere two miles or so. It was a frustrating end to the day, but if you look at the bright side, we had a nice long view from the top of the bridge…

So was our trip good, or bad?  I say it’s a matter of how you view things.  I think (being an optimist most of the time) that it was very good. Eleanor agrees. It wasn’t perfect but here we are, still standing, still traveling, still together, and more adventures lie ahead. My conclusion: a little adversity is the “hot sauce” that makes travel all that much more interesting.

Turtle shells and teddy bears

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Let’s see, if this is Tuesday then I must be in Vermont.  That’s because last week I was in Montreal and the weekend before I was in Tucson.

Traveling is fun, but too much of it can be overwhelming. Eleanor and I have to make an effort to try to stay grounded when we are really moving a lot.  This is a skill we honed during our full-timing period, when the scenery was always changing and the only constant was ourselves and the Airstream.  You have to develop a sort of mental turtle shell that you carry around all the time, which is a sense that no matter where you are, you are still safe and still you.

Emma’s pediatrician called this the “inner teddy bear” for kids, but it’s the same thing.  Emma developed her inner teddy bear a long time ago and it has served her well since. Kids are far better equipped to build up their turtle shell or teddy bear, if we just let them and don’t fill them with the same fears we adults often have.

I meet a lot of adults who are fearful of travel, and I can understand this because strangeness of surroundings, people, food, languages, climate, etc., is intimidating. But I also feel sorry for the adults who are full of regret for the travel experiences they have not been able to enjoy, because they seem to be unable to find the self-confidence they need to do what they want. It’s harder for adults to change themselves, and yet we must if we are to continue to grow. Having traveled in Airstreams for the last decade certainly has forced us to change.

This summer has gone well so far, meaning that most of the things we wanted to do have come off more or less according to plan, and we’ve had no major disasters.  We might regret whatever we haven’t accomplished, but on the whole the positives far outweigh the negatives, and that’s about as close to perfection as real life ever gets. We ran a great event (Alumapalooza) at the Airstream factory, then got to Vermont for nice visits with family, and my motorcycling trip was a success. Eleanor and I got to take side trips, I got to play TBM for a few weeks, and the Interstate motorhome trip through California was pretty awesome. I have a souvenir of the motorcycling, namely a tiny bit of mobility loss in my left shoulder, but that should clear up with time and some more physical therapy.

Today Eleanor is working on getting the Airstream re-packed after several weeks of being parked. As always, our belongings (mostly Emma’s) are scattered all through my mother’s house and the Airstream needs a good cleaning in and out. I’ll be on the roof this afternoon, washing off the accumulated blooms and leaves so that our solar panels will work again. Tomorrow, the Airstream rolls out.

Our itinerary this week includes a stop in Ontario, where we are going to be scouting a site for a possible new event to be held in 2015. After that we’ll drop in on Airstream for a couple of days, and then we really don’t have a plan other than getting to Tucson no later than Aug 24. Might go through Colorado this time, but who knows? After such a rigidly planned summer, I think it will be nice to have a loose schedule for a week or two. The inner teddy bears are telling us that whatever we decide to do, we’ll be OK.

Sleepless ferret time

Monday, July 28th, 2014

I left off in the last blog about halfway through my 10 day trip in the Airstream Interstate. … and then, silence. That’s because I got back from the trip and immediately launched into a couple projects atop my day job of being the Airstream Life magazine Editor & Publisher, not the least of which was to write a guidebook about the Airstream Interstate.

Writing a guidebook is not really such a bad job, unless you, for reasons that cannot be fully explained here, have a deadline to complete the entire thing in three weeks. Then it’s an exercise to see how long you can stand to (in the words of Hunter S Thompson) work like a sleepless ferret, and still produce readable prose.

Not only readable, but accurate. These days, in the era of e-books, anyone can be a publisher, and sadly there are a lot of guidebooks available now that lack reliability and comprehensiveness. So I spent the last three weeks gorging on information and attempting to become expert on the intricacies of the Interstate motorhome, while typing out pages as quickly as I could.

So my blog stories of the Interstate trip suffered, but the good news is that I finished the first draft of the book last night. It’s off to my illustrator, and then I’ll run it past a few folks at Airstream and Airstream dealerships for fact-checking.  With luck, the ebook can be out in September. It will probably run about 80 pages long in the final version. I’m just glad it’s off my desk and out of my head, so I can think like a normal person for a while.

I owe you a conclusion to the blog series I started.  After I finished coastal Route 1 I headed up to spent a couple of nights in friendly driveways in the Silicon Valley area. I have a few friends up there, and one of them had a nice long fenced-in driveway in Los Altos that was just perfect.

After that I took the inland (101) route back to the Murphy Auto Museum Oxnard and spent the Fourth of July having dinner in Malibu with a friend.  I’ve never been to Malibu before, but now that I’ve had a chance to see some of the spectacle there (lots of elaborate parties going on, and the people-watching was fantastic) it’s possible we’ll make another visit as a family someday.

On Saturday the fifth I took the Airstream down the coast to San Pedro (where the cruise ships depart Los Angeles) to meet some other folks. I got there a little early, so I found a spot in a Home Depot parking lot where a Mexican food truck was making quesadillas, and had a casual lunch in the Interstate under the shade of some trees. At this point I was feeling completely at ease with the motorhome; we were a team of urban explorers willing to go anywhere.

Tom M, a friend and blog reader, wrote in to ask:

- Was there anyplace that it was too big to park?

Well, yes, you can’t fit a 25-foot motorhome just anywhere. Some friends I wanted to visit in Sunnyvale CA had a driveway that was less than 25 feet long, and HOA rules about “oversized vehicles” being parked overnight on the street, so I stayed in Los Altos and they picked me up. But in Veterans Memorial Park in Monterey CA, there was a rule supposedly prohibiting vehicles over 23 feet or so.  Half a dozen white box “Cruise America” rental motorhomes were camped there, all much longer than the limit, so I found a campsite that fit the Interstate and spent a peaceful night. Otherwise, I took it just about everywhere I wanted.

- Was it a hassle to pack-everything-up when you wanted to take day trips from the campsite?

Not for me, but then I was traveling light & solo. You can’t really spread out a lot in a B-van, so getting ready to break camp was mostly a matter of doing the dishes and tossing a few things into cabinets. I was usually ready to go in less than 10 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

The portability of the machine was its best feature, at least to a guy who has spent the last nine years in a rig 53 feet long. I took every opportunity to park it in places I’d never go with our 30-foot trailer, including parallel-parking on the street in Santa Barbara, pull-outs along California Route 1 and Tucson’s Catalina Highway (pictured below), grocery store parking lots, and undersized campsites.

 

Perhaps my favorite stop was on the coast north of Malibu at Point Mugu. I would have spent the day there if I didn’t have an appointment later that day…

Airstream Interstate at Pt Mugu CA

After finishing business in Los Angeles, it was time to head toward home. My conundrum was where to stay.  All week I’d been wrestling with this: toward the coast it was pleasantly cool but the holiday travelers had everything booked up in advance, while inland I’d find plenty of uncrowded places to stay–all of which would be scorching hot. So leaving Los Angeles was bittersweet.

I finally opted for heat, but with a compromise.  North of Palm Springs is the Morongo Casino, which offers free overnight RV parking. Being a little higher in altitude and not quite as far into the Coachella Valley it was not terribly hot (by my standards) which meant a night around 80 degrees. It wasn’t practical to run the generator all night for air conditioning, so I just lived with it.

The next day was my torture test for the Interstate. Seven hours of driving through 100+ degree temperatures, at 75 MPH most of the way, including a 1000 ft climb where the road signs say to turn off the air conditioning or risk overheating.  The Interstate was impressive, and I got 16.0 MPG despite the fast drive. It was too hot in the back, where the dash A/C couldn’t reach, so at one point I ran the generator and the ceiling air just to see what would happen. (It worked fairly well.)

I spent one night at home in Tucson, then took a day to drive up to the peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains to get caught in a thunderstorm, then drove the Interstate to a meeting in town (again no trouble parking) and finally spent the night in Casa Grande AZ before dropping the motorhome off in Scottsdale in the morning. Total: 1,600 miles of driving in ten days.

DSC_1871

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  This was a fun trip. People who drive these things really have an interesting range of opportunities available to them. Obviously you give up a lot in terms of space, but on the other hand you get a lot of flexibility.

In fact, I’m hoping to get another shot at it later. Airstream is bringing out a new B-van in September, to be called “Grand Tour,” and it is supposed to be more camper-ish (less seating, more space for living).  I want to get my hands on it. That’s going to be difficult for a while, since production will probably be limited and I expect demand to be high.

Now that the Interstate trip is over, and the book is mostly done, what’s next? Tomorrow I fly back to Vermont to be reunited with my family, and in a week or so we’ll start the next adventure, our 3,000 mile trip back to Arizona, via Ontario.

 

An ideal TBM vehicle

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Traveling in the Airstream Interstate turned out to be a good TBM*  adventure. I recommend it.

(* = Temporary Bachelor Man)

As a solo travel vehicle, it’s pretty roomy.  I didn’t need all the nine seating positions, but during the course of the trip I managed to try all of them out anyway.  In the evening I could watch a movie on the Blu-Ray player from one of the seats in the second row, or from the bedroom/rear couch in the back.  Sometimes I’d swivel the front passenger seat around and use it as my workstation with the dining table.  Other times, like when I was parked at the beach, I’d put my feet up on one seat in the back (don’t tell Airstream I did this with their loaner) while sitting on the opposite seat, to read a book.  When the bed was set up, I had the equivalent of a King all to myself.

Being TBM my plan was to move fast and travel light, if you can call having five tons of vehicle “light”.  What I mean is that I stocked the fridge with only a few essentials, slept in a sleeping bag rather than setting up the bed nightly with sheets, and moved every day.  I wasn’t going to be living in the Interstate like a full-timer, but I intended to use every system on the rig that I could, because there were four major goals to the trip:

1. Learn how the Interstate works, for a book I’m working on.

2. Gather information and photos for an article for The Star, the Mercedes-Benz Club of America (which will appear in the Sept/Oct issue).

3. Build up a stock photo library for future Airstream Life articles.

4.  Cover a lot of miles to get plenty of driving experience.

But driving around aimlessly is no fun, so I set a goal to get up to the Silicon Valley area to see some friends, taking the scenic coastal Route 1 highway to get there. This turned out to be a great decision.  The last time we did that highway was with the 30-foot Safari in tow, and it was one of the most memorable drives we’ve ever done. With a 25-foot motorhome, it was even easier.

Grant me a moment for a minor car review here:  The Mercedes Sprinter is an awesome basis for a motorhome.  Considering its bulk, it handles remarkably well, accelerates and brakes well, gets good fuel economy (on diesel), and is really easy to drive.  Anyone with decent driving skills would have no trouble taking it on a curvy, hilly, occasionally intimidating road like California Route 1.  And I really liked the fact that I could pull over in any of the small dirt spaces alongside the highway to stop and take pictures.  So I did that a lot.

DSC_1681

DSC_1750

The weather along this road is pretty changeable, thanks to fog banks that reside just offshore.  When the fog was away, it was generally about 80 degrees.  When the fog crept in, suddenly it would be as low as 55 degrees.  I liked that.  In one day I got dozens of shots for my photo library, with radically different scenery.

DSC_1782

In Monterey I found a public parking lot with dedicated RV spaces for “RVs up to 25 feet”. Well guess what, mine was 25 feet, so I plunked myself down next to the harbor for a day just to listen to the water sounds while catching up on some work.  Monterey even provided free public wifi, and a short walk away at Fisherman’s Wharf I was able to get a nice salmon sandwich for lunch and listen to the sea lions bellowing for a while.  If they hadn’t had a “no overnight sleeping” ordinance I probably would have never left.

DSC_1785

DSC_1799

This was where the size of the Interstate really worked for me.  Not only was it easy to navigate downtown Monterey, but I was able to squeeze into a little city park at the top of a hill for the night.  The park is too small for most travel trailers and it didn’t take reservations, so by just showing up I actually scored a nice campsite for a night despite the masses of holiday campers elsewhere.

The next day I didn’t have as much luck.  I made sure to dump and fill before leaving the campground because I knew I might not get another campground for a while.  Sure enough, I finished the coastal drive as far as Big Sur, but every campground along the route was full.  Eventually I ended up at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which also had a “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign.  From prior experience I knew that despite the sign it pays to ask, and sure enough they had an overflow area where I was allowed to stay for the night.  It wasn’t a deal, since I had to pay the same rate as a campsite ($35) for what amounted to a parking space in a neglect asphalt lot, but given that it was July 1 in Big Sur, it was lucky to get anything at all.

No problem, this gave me another chance to experience boondocking in the Interstate.  I was getting to know this machine pretty well, and even starting to feel a little pride of ownership (except that it would only be mine for a few more days).  At this point I’d figured out all the key stuff: the efficient way to take a shower using the hand-held showerhead in the wet bath; where things fit best in the refrigerator; how to convert from seats to bed in less than a minute; how to change lanes in traffic without crushing somebody in a Mini; which outlets were powered by the inverter, etc.  But I never did figure out what that hammer was for …

Cool day in a cool van

Monday, June 30th, 2014

My goal for the Interstate was to try to find its natural place in the world, in other words to see what it was best at doing.  Having pulled a 30-foot Airstream travel trailer all over southern California, I had the opportunity to compare experiences and go where the big trailer couldn’t.

There was a problem with this great plan, however.  June 28, my first day, was also the first day of a holiday week.  In my part of the world people don’t begin celebrating July 4 until at least July 2, but the Californians apparently feel differently.  They crowded every available campsite from San Diego to San Francisco for the entire week and I discovered my chances of getting a nice spot anywhere near the ocean were virtually nil.

Had I not had several years of experience at finding alternative overnight stops, I might have given up right then and headed inland to the scorching desert.  No problem getting campsites in places where the temperature is running 110 degrees or so. But I wanted to experience the coast, so it was time to call on every resource I had.

My Saturday night stop was easy.  I just stayed parked at the Murphy Auto Museum overnight.  I hadn’t planned to spend the first night without hookups, but it seemed like a good chance to test all the Interstate’s systems.  Sunday morning I took a drive up to Ojai, then wandered down to Santa Barbara on country roads past orchards and ranches, staying off Hwy 101 for as long as possible.  That’s one of the nice things about the Interstate compared to a travel trailer.  I didn’t have any hesitation about trying narrow, winding road that might eventually force me to make a U-turn.  Twenty-five feet of motorhome isn’t exactly compact, but it’s a breeze to turn around compared to 53 feet of truck and trailer.

In Santa Barbara I got my first tank of diesel.  Turns out the Interstate has the same fuel capacity and slightly better fuel economy than my GL320, so it was a familiar experience, and not nearly as traumatic as I had feared it might be.  At the fuel station I got the first of many inquiries about the Interstate.  This is not a stealthy vehicle. People can’t help but notice it, and quite a lot of them will ask questions or even hint for an interior tour.  I ended up giving 15-20 tours over the course of ten days.  People want to know what it costs and what fuel economy it gets, and then they are often amazed to find that it has a full bathroom with shower.

A little further up the road I saw a sign for El Capitan Beach State Park and decided to drop in there, just to park in the day-use area for a while.

IMG_3875

For $9 I had this spot for the entire day, and it was a truly beautiful day.  I opened all the windows, broke out a cold drink and a snack and a book, and settled in for a while.  I could hear people walking by and saying, “That’s a cool van!” and similar comments.  With the blackout windows and the day/night shades in “day” position, they couldn’t tell I was in there.

Later, when I felt like company, I slid out the big side door and got a spontaneous visitor about every twenty minutes.  One guy claimed the Interstate cost $300,000.  Another was so excited he went back to get his wife and kids for a second tour.  One woman got in, then gave me a look that said Uh-oh, I just got in a van with a strange man, but stayed for the tour anyway and then got her husband and friends. Lots of people took photos of themselves next to it.untitled

I couldn’t spend the night here, so I wandered further up the coast on the PCH, ending up in Buellton.  There’s a good RV park there that I figured was far enough inland to maybe have a site available, and that turned out to be a good guess.  $63 with taxes reminded me that I was indeed in California.

Interstate day 2 map

Well, I needed a chance to hook up and try out all those systems too.  The full hookup site gave me a chance to try the fancy new macerator dump that the Interstate uses (no more stinky slinky) and I was favorably impressed with the neatness of the system.  I found a small water leak coming from the rig but it turned out to be just a dripping P&T valve on the water heater.  That’s an overpressure protection valve, and it’s a common issue that is easily rectified, but I just let it drip because it’s not significant and I didn’t expect to be using the water heater much.

untitled-2

This evening I tested the video system by playing a movie on the Blu-ray DVD and both LCD TVs.  With a Bose active noise-cancellation headset plugged into the headphone jacks (by the second row seats), I couldn’t hear a thing from outside nor the vent fan humming above my head, and I got totally immersed in the movie.  This Interstate experience was starting to feel very decadent, especially compared to the two weeks I just spent on a motorcycle. I was beginning to think that after ten days it might be hard to give the thing back.

Hi, ho, silver Interstate!

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

After the motorcycle trip in Quebec I only had a week to get ready for the next trip.  I don’t expect you to sympathize with me, if you like to travel. Having to rush around and re-pack between exciting trips is the way I would be happy to spend the rest of my life.

Really, re-packing is easy and takes little time, especially since I had months of advance knowledge of the trips.  The important tasks have to do with family and work. My wife is always my partner in travel even when I’m traveling without her, but if we have been apart it’s a high priority to spend some time together.  You can only connect so much via email, phone, and the occasional video chat. It’s just as important to share a dinner, or go grocery shopping, or any other routine thing.  The same goes for my teenage daughter, who probably noticed I was gone but was too busy to worry about it.  Even if she didn’t pine my absence, the comfortable assurance that comes with sharing day-to-day life can’t be replaced any other way that I know of.

It was especially important in this case, because I was gone for nearly two weeks and now I’m embarking on another trip that will have me away for a month. After years of trying, Airstream and I finally managed to coordinate the loan of an Airstream Interstate touring coach. I’m going to take it from Los Angeles and get to know it as intimately as possible, over a period of 10 days.

I flew from Vermont to Los Angeles on June 27 and spent an uninteresting night at an airport hotel before being picked up by Victor, who is currently the finance guy at Airstream of Los Angeles.  Victor is a 19-year Airstreamer and has apparently been a fan of Airstream Life magazine for years, so we had a lot to talk about on the hour-long drive over to San Gabriel in morning traffic.  I got a quick tour of the impressive Airstream of LA facilities with Wes Nave, General Manager, and then a ten-minute walk-thru of the Interstate’s systems with one of their service guys, and they handed me the keys and wished me luck.

IMG_3857

I have to admit I was a bit stunned.  This moment had been years in the making.  The Interstate was standing there, ten feet tall and 25 feet long, gleaming in metallic silver paint, with the big Mercedes logo on the front and AIRSTREAM on the sides and back.  It looked confident and expensive, and it is—$150,000 worth of German automotive engineering and American RV design layered together.  I’ve driven some expensive rigs and pride myself on being able to drive just about anything, but with the keys in my hand for 10 days—no questions asked—it took a moment before I gathered myself enough to actually climb into the driver’s seat.

I was feeling like a total newbie.  The Airstream motorhomes are really nothing like the travel trailers that I know so well.  My head was spinning with thirty or forty details that the service tech had just run through with me, and which were all rapidly departing.  Where’s that switch for the power awning, and the hidden 12 volt outlet?  What are the six or so steps for setting up the bed, again? Where is the propane fill?  At one point he had shown me where the vehicle registration was, but a few days later I realized I had no idea where it went.  (I didn’t find it until Day 10, when my friend Rob showed me the hidden dash compartment.  Good thing I didn’t get pulled over at any point.)

Even worse, somebody had kept the Owners Manuals, so I didn’t have any help from Mercedes-Benz or Airstream (at least in print) figuring out the systems.  But I didn’t actually mind this because most new owners don’t read the manuals anyway, and so my experience would be closer to that of the average person.

Because this was a “media” loaner, the PR people had outfitted the Airstream with a bunch of “camping” equipment, which was nice but made me chuckle a few times.  The flashlight, dish soap, sponge, towels, tank deodorizer, and bed linens were great.  The hammer, 300-pack of paper plates, jumper cables, and massive frying pan—not as much.  The frying pan was about twice the size of the two tiny burners on the SMEV stove, and the automotive reporters who typically take this media loaner out aren’t generally going to be cooking beans over a campfire.  You don’t really need jumper cables since (if the starter battery is dead) you can press a button on the dash to use the coach’s auxiliary battery for extra juice.  I don’t know what the hammer was for.

I was actually pleased that the Interstate came with a few basics, because I knew I would need to get stuff for the rig right away, and at least my list was shorter by about six items.  But going to the grocery store seemed like a dull way to start the trip, and soon afternoon traffic would be building up, so if I was going to get out of LA County easily, it was better to make tracks now and shop later.

Eighty-five miles of stop and go traffic from San Gabriel to Oxnard taught me a few things.  That Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500 EXT chassis is really sweet. Airstream ordered it with a bunch of premium options including suspension upgrades and a bunch of neat safety items (like lane-keeping assistance).  It’s really easy to drive, and the 6-cylinder diesel is super-torquey.  Most importantly, it has great brakes.  I learned that over and over as I worked down the Ventura Freeway.

IMG_3864

My first stop was at the Murphy Auto Museum in Oxnard.  My friend David Neel runs the place, and he had invited me to bring my ’68 Caravel to join in a special weekend vintage trailer show.  He was a bit surprised when I showed up in a 2015 Airstream Interstate motorhome, but since Airstream of LA had helped sponsor the event     we rolled the Interstate right into the middle of a bunch of 1960s Shastas, and I spent the rest of the afternoon showing it to everyone.

IMG_3865

Well, that’s not all I did.  David gave me a tour of his museum (small, but lots of fun, open weekends only, $9 admission), and of course I checked out some very cool rigs outside in the show.  The big star was this rare GM Futureliner, and there was also a sweet 1949 Greyhound bus converted by a boat builder into an RV in the late 1950s.

IMG_3862

That evening, David offered me the keys to the museum’s 1984 Maserati Quattroporte III, to go do my grocery shopping.  Sheesh.  With great reluctance (ha!) I took the keys and had a very fun evening driving a Maserati to Wal-Mart, and then to meet David’s family in Oxnard for sushi.  What a rough day.  First Airstream gives me their top-of-the-line touring coach, and now I get a Maserati to run my errands in.

IMG_3866

To be honest about my tribulations, David did mention that the car had $20 worth of gas in it, which in California is less than five gallons, and it is a Maserati (did I mention that already?) so it was iffy how far I’d get on that amount of fuel.  But hey, if I had to put another twenty bucks to cruise the 101 in southern California on a beautiful evening, it was going to be well worth it.

Feeling sorry for me yet?

Maybe the best Palooza yet

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

This might have been the best Alumapalooza ever.

Going into it, I was thinking maybe it would be a little quiet because we had a smaller crowd this year (about 120 trailers on the field).  But we’d done a ton of work putting together a bigger and better event program than ever before, and that paid off.  We added off-site tours, more vendors, more new Airstreams on display, a kettle corn stand, and new seminars to the old favorites, and Mother Nature cooperated by bringing us nearly flawless weather all week.  I realized we had a winner when people started coming to me on the second day and saying, “We’re having a great time!  Thanks for putting this on.”  Usually it takes a couple of days before the compliments flow.

APZ5 crew

It was also less stressful than other events we’ve done, because we had an awesome crew of people. There has been some change every year, but most of them have been working Alumapalooza for years and they really know their jobs.  This year we added two new volunteers (Loren & Mike, on parking) and our jazz diva Laura was summarily promoted to “Trash Wench”.  (Her job was to collect the trash in the mornings. Before anyone objects, let me say that she picked her own title.)

Airstream Life flags

There was a nice breeze every day, so we flew the Airstream Life flag for the first time in several years.  It was nice to see lots of other flags flapping in the wind all week as well.  Felt festive.

The events of the week were so complex that I can’t really do justice to them here.  You can download the schedule from the Alumapalooza 5 website if you are interested. Basically we stayed busy from about 8:00 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. every day. Big hits included Open Mic night, the Aluminum Gong Show, Happy Hour, Josh Rogan, Eric Henning’s magic, and most of the seminars.

Killdeer chicks

Early in the week, someone spotted a killdeer nest just about ten feet from the vendor tent.  This was staked off immediately and dubbed the “Jackson Center Temporary Killdeer Preserve.”  Momma Killdeer sat on four eggs all week, and on Saturday they hatched—which got a big round of applause when we announced it at Happy Hour.  That was the first birth we’ve ever had at an event.

APZ5 Alumapalooza overview

The photo above shows only about 1/3 of the field.  Since the field was dry, we could spread out and give everyone as much privacy as they wanted.  Most clustered close to the main tent.

Airstream always offers some cheap deals on parts during Alumapalooza, but this year they went nuts and filled a service bay with scratched and used items that were mostly taken off other trailers or returned under warranty.  The bargains were incredible. We scored a convection microwave, barely used, for $100 (retail about $500), which Eleanor will use to develop a convection microwave cooking seminar for future events, and an 18-foot curbside awning for $150 (retail about $900). Why so cheap?  The awning has one tiny hole in it, made by someone with a 5/16″ drill bit.  We’ll patch that easily.

I also got a water heater cover for the Caravel for $5, and a bunch of other $5 items.  Brett landed a nice pure-sine inverter, unbelievably cheap.  (Wish I’d seen that first!)   Super Terry filled his trailer with parts and still couldn’t fit everything he bought. The bargains alone would be worth the price of a trip to Jackson Center.

Jim Webb Zip Dee

Since I now had an 18-foot tube in my possession that I couldn’t fit in the car, I needed to get it installed right away.  Fortunately, Jim Webb, the president of Zip-Dee Awnings, and Greg Blue (a Z-D rep) were on site.  They were busy all week with service calls, so they didn’t get to my installation until about 8 p.m. on Friday.  The sun set while they were working, so they ended up finishing the job by flashlight with a crowd of onlookers. A few people couldn’t believe that the president of the company would be doing this … but that’s the kind of company Zip-Dee is, and the kind of guys Jim & Greg are.  They finally wrapped up at about 10:30 pm, just in time for Jim to drive five hours back to Chicago.

(By the way, guys — I love the new curbside awning.)

It was a long week, but also the time flew by.  It ended the way they always do, with lots of people smiling and wishing they didn’t have to go home, a big dinner, a concert, and a slightly sleep-deprived staff.  On Sunday morning we watched all the trailers depart, cleaned up the field, and put away our stuff.

Elder Theater Airstream Life seatThat afternoon E&E and I wandered down to the local one-screen cinema, The Elder Theater, to see Maleficent.  Airstream Life had made a donation to help the theater switch to digital projection, and this was my first chance to see the plaque the theater had mounted on a seat in thanks.  If you go, look for the Airstream Life seat in the center section, about 2/3 down, one seat in from the left aisle.  I was pleased to sit there and enjoy the digital picture, knowing that this old gem of a theater was still able to operate thanks to the financial donations of dozens of people.

Alone at Airstream

That night the Terra Port filled up with people who were waiting for service appointments in the following week, so we just stayed parked in the field alone that night.  Why move?  It was peaceful, and we still had power and water. So while Eleanor and Emma had one last visit with people in the Terra Port, I was able to chill out with a “guy movie” and a Klondike bar all by myself in the green grass, while the sun set beautifully in the west one more time.

And now we are in our usual decompression spot, the driveway of our friends Lou & Larry, near Cleveland.  We’ve got one day here, and then we’ll be trundling east on the final legs to Vermont, to start the next adventures. Coming up: motorcycling through Quebec and New Brunswick.

Pre-Palooza activities

Monday, May 26th, 2014

The Airstream is happy.  It traveled about 2,000 miles from Tucson to Jackson Center OH without incident.  Being a bit rushed, the trip didn’t encompass a lot of great overnight spots, but we did manage to take in two state parks (Twin Bridges in OK, and Onondaga Cave in MO) … and two Cracker Barrels and a Wal-Mart.  So overall, it was successful.

We landed in Jackson Center a day earlier than planned, Friday, and most of the key staff also were in early, so pre-event work has been reasonably light.  Just the usual stuff: marking & flagging the field, pre-inspection of the water and electric, organizing, etc.  In between actual work, the Terra Port has been busy with maintenance and socializing.  Most people are socializing and enjoying the spectacularly nice weather.  People are trying out Jackson Center’s new restaurant (replacing the Verandah, which closed a while back), or buying baked goods from the Amish couple across the street.  E&E and I walked downtown for ice cream one night, and I see Matt & Beth scooting around on their folding bikes, Emma and Kathryn are zooming around doing young teenager things, there’s a lot of chit-chat under the awnings, etc.  But Brett and I have also been spending time ticking off items on our accumulated “bug lists,” with the assistance of Super Terry.

Our Airstream’s list included replacing the leaking toilet bowl seal, fixing a couple of latches, cleaning and adjusting the water heater, and inspecting the disc brakes.  Nothing too major, but the toilet bowl seal isn’t really an appetizing job and of course we had to work around loss of the bathroom and hot water while those things were being serviced.  As always, I learned a few things watching, er, “assisting” Super Terry on those jobs.  Doing the water heater in particular was useful because I afterward I was able to finally finalize that section of my Maintenance Guide with first-hand knowledge.

Upon inspection we found the disc brakes to be in perfect condition, and the Michelin LTX tires are also looking good.  The tires don’t show much wear compared to last year’s inspection about 10,500 miles ago, but they should probably be replaced later this year just on the basis of age.

Brett’s motorhome needed some new radiator hoses (and because they run all the way to the water heater in the back, there’s a LOT of hose), and a few other tweaks, so he was underneath it for the better part of a day, and then with Super Terry he replaced the main awning fabric too.

There are two things you can be sure of when Airstream maintenance is happening at a rally:  (1) There will be a lot of tool-swapping, as people borrow what they need from neighbors; (2) A crowd will gather for any interesting mechanical procedure.  At this point we are all used to it, so it’s completely expected and fine when people show up and make themselves at home on a chair to watch you work. At least six people got a good look at my toilet once it was out on the bench for the seal replacement.  (It’s amazing what we find interesting.) It’s actually very nice because at any point if you need a tool or supply, someone in the group will get it from their truck for you.  Saves trips to the hardware store.  But I did think that we are some sort of weird people who want to spend Memorial Day weekend working on our trailers in a parking lot.

Now it’s Monday, Memorial Day, and the pre-Alumapalooza vibe is gelling.  As this writing the Terra Port is full with event staff and Airstream service customers, and there are another seven Airstreams with attendees boondocking in the Service Center parking lot. Another 15-20 will show up later today, and we’re going to have a cookout (courtesy of Airstream) on the grass this evening. Tomorrow at 9 a.m., we’ll open the main field for parking, weather permitting.

Right now conditions are excellent.  We’ve had temperatures in the low 80s daily, nice light breezes, cool evenings, and hardly even a cloud much less rain.  This means the field is dry and ready to hold 100+ Airstreams on Tuesday, even if we do a get some rain during the day tomorrow.  This is a far cry from a couple of years ago when it rained for weeks prior to the event and the ground was so wet we had to park trailers on asphalt while we were waiting for the mud to settle, and for days afterward some spots were still flooded.

So our luck is holding.  All the signs are in place for a very successful Alumapalooza 5.  Check Twitter for @alumaevents or #APZ5 for updates and photos, and also the Alumapalooza Facebook page.  We should have regular postings all week there.

All the same, but different

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Every voyage is different. Even though we are once again in the Airstream that has been our second home for six years (and our first home for three years before that), and we are once again traveling to the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, there is a mental aspect of each trip that is unique.

I used to think that this was by design, a result of my effort to find new things to see and do along routes we had previously traveled, but during preparation for this trip my adventure-planning stalled out and we were left with nothing but the same old route that we had done before. Neither Eleanor nor I were particularly excited about the 2,000 mile drive that faced us, and we delayed our departure a couple of days. We spent the extra time finalizing things at home and enjoying the last few gorgeous dry warm days in Tucson before the summer heat attacked.

Delaying, of course, put more time pressure on us to get to Ohio, and it seemed we were faced with nothing but a tedious slog along the Interstates, lacking time even for a few small detours on the “blue highways” where America keeps its most interesting diversions.

And that has turned out to be true for the most part, but yet something odd has occurred: the trip is unique. There’s a mental aspect I hadn’t anticipated. We are all a year older than the last time we drove this route (and in Emma’s teenage world a year is a huge difference), we have new ideas and views of our travel, different concerns, changing attitudes. The Airstream is the same, the road is the same, but we are just a little bit different—and that changes the flavor of the trip. The Airstream once again shows us that it is a vehicle in more ways that one.

All this is part of the inner view we each carry; often unspoken, but which colors our attitude toward what we experience and how we interact. Practically speaking, we drove from Tucson to a point just west of Albuquerque on Sunday, a total of 480 miles, and on Monday covered about 525 miles Oklahoma City, and then Tuesday a shorter drive of about 200 miles to a quiet state park in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.

This puts us 1,200 miles closer to Jackson Center, so with 60% of the traveling done, we can slow down and explore a little. Last night in Twin Bridges State Park was an antidote to endless concrete roadways and truck traffic: peaceful, green, shady, and it smells like summer here. We opened all the windows on the Airstream and let the fans blow the warm summer air around. I took a nap and tried to recover a little. Eleanor and Emma took an exploratory walk, and then Eleanor made dinner (with extra for a future night when we might not have a full hookup), and we ate ice cream and generally got comfortable. No high-concept entertainment here, just a little of the relaxation that you can’t often find at home.

I say “you can’t find at home” because we are conveniently cut off from modern distractions. Our location in the state park is shadowed somewhat from radio waves, so we can’t place calls and Internet access is nearly impossible. My phone will send and receive text messages (very slowly, sometimes taking a few hours to send a single message) but that’s enough to keep in touch with the rest of the Alumapalooza team as they work on final details before the event. Otherwise I’ve got no communications with the outside world, and that’s fine after three days of juggling steering wheel and cell phone while dodging trucks. We will be back in the connected world all too soon anyway.

I know someone will ask, so here’s a report: The Airstream is behaving very well. A couple of things are on our bug list, but nothing substantial. The toilet bowl seal has been slowly leaking for the past few months (causing the water in the bowl to drip into the tank), and so we are going to replace it at Airstream. It’s an unpleasant job and the seals are moderately expensive, so I had put it off until a convenient moment. With Super Terry on site, it should be much quicker and easier than if I had attempted it myself at home.

I also have a replacement bath vent fan to install. The handle broke on that part last year, and I’ve been carrying around the replacement since October but in the carport at home there’s no room to get on the roof for a job like that, so it’s actually easier to do while on the road.

Other than that, we just have a single cabinet latch that broke. I’m going to replace it with a magnetic latch because this particular location has always been a problem. That’s easily done with just a shopping trip to a good hardware store—and the tool kit that we always carry.

20140522-134341.jpg

What’s remarkable is how many things haven’t gone wrong. I did a rough calculation yesterday during my copious hours of freeway driving and it seems that the Airstream has traveled over 120,000 miles at this point. It’s a well-traveled 9-year-old. Of course, we’ve replaced or upgraded almost everything except the body itself at this point.

Likewise, the Mercedes GL320 is purring along. It is about to pass 90,000 miles on the odometer. When I bought it my plan was to accumulate at least 250,000 miles before getting a replacement tow vehicle and now I’m thinking I might bump that up to 300,000.

Today’s trip plan calls for another short drive, into Missouri. After that, well, we’ll see how the experience unfolds and decide as we go.

Socrates wasn’t infallible

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Introspection is good, in moderation.  “The greatest good for a man is to discuss virtue every day,” said Socrates, adding the famous statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  These days blogging is the common man’s method of self-examination, revealing quite a bit about the bloggers to the world even if the bloggers themselves aren’t aware of it.

But there’s only so far you should follow the advice of a guy who has been dead for 2,400 years.  (Socrates himself made a point of the fact that he didn’t know everything, which he viewed as a slight advantage over people who think they know everything.)  So after about ten years of nearly constant blogging (first in the Vintage Thunder blog, then Tour of America, and now Man In The Maze), I finally got to a point where it felt better to be quiet for a while, and just enjoy life.  And that is the short explanation for the long absence of this blog.

Now it’s time to get back to it, because the Airstream is about to move and our plans have been laid for the next six months.  We have much to do, and many places to go.

First, we need to get up to Ohio for Alumapalooza.  This is the fifth year we’ve made this exact trip, and while Alumapalooza is always fun, we’re all getting a bit bored with the drive.  We have tried just about every route between Tucson AZ and Jackson Center OH, running anywhere from 1,900 miles to 2,400 miles one way.  Last year we were so desperate to have a change of scene that we went all the way east to the Great Smokies before heading north.  It was a good trip, but now our options for seeing new landscape will have to bring us up to North Dakota, and that’s just too far out of the way.

So I’ll find some things to see and do along the way that we have missed before.  Not sure what yet.  We may end up going off on weird little side trips, like our quest for “Forbidden Amish Donuts” a couple of years ago.  I’m open to suggestions.  (No giant balls of twine, please.)

After that, we will set up the Airstream in Vermont, and then I’ve got a two-week “adventure motorcycling” trip scheduled in June.  Three guys on BMW F650 bikes (3 of the 4 members of the former Black Flies gang) will wander up into Quebec, around the Gaspé Peninsula, through New Brunswick and northern Maine, basically seeing what there is to see.  I hope to spot a few puffins and get some nice photos of the scenery, but those are optional. My only real desires are to stay dry (it’s rainy up there) and avoid incidents.  With luck, my cell phone won’t work most of the time.

Late June gets really interesting.  Airstream is lending me a new Interstate motorhome for a couple of weeks.  This is a real privilege, because (a) the thing costs $140,000; (b) it’s super-cool.  My plan is to take it from Los Angeles up the coast to the SF Bay area, then back south through the desert, then via Palm Springs to I-8 and back to Tucson.  During the trip I want to meet as many Airstream Interstate owners as possible, so if you have one please let me know if you can cross paths between June 28 and July 7.

In July I’ll pay the price for all this fun by parking my butt in Tucson and working like a dog at the computer, and in August we’ll haul the Airstream back west—and right now I have no clue what route we’ll take for that.

In early September, Brett & I will be running Alumafandango in Canyonville OR.  That was great fun last year and I expect it will be even better this year.  We’ll have all-new seminars, more off-site tours, bicycling, all-new entertainment, and of course an Airstream display indoors.  Since we moved this event to September instead of August, the weather should be even better, too!  I’m told that early September is a spectacular time to be in southern Oregon.

And finally, in October we’ve got another trip on the drawing board, which (if it comes off) I’ll talk about later.

All of this moving around comes at a price, and I don’t mean dollars.  There’s a lot of prep.  We’ve been getting ready for months, arranging dates and flights, twiddling with the Airstream, scheduling appointments months in advance, collecting destination information, cleaning, re-stocking, upgrading, etc.  The motorcycle trip, for example, kept me engaged for a couple of weeks just figuring out what gear I would need and how to pack it all.  But really, this is good.  During the off season, travel planning is a great way to build anticipation and pass the time on dark winter nights.  When I think of it that way, it doesn’t seem like a “price” at all.

In the Airstream, Eleanor has made a special effort this year to pull out a lot of stuff that had been accumulating, and culling down to the things she really needs.  So I’ve done the same, and it’s amazing how many things I don’t need anymore.  I would say that the Airstream is going to be a few hundred pounds lighter, but it looks like all the ballast we’ve ditched is going to be made up with new stuff.  Partially this is because our interests and situations have changed.  The Airstream is no longer young, and so I’m carrying a few more tools and spare parts than I used to.  We’re eating differently than we did just a few years ago.  Emma is a teenager, and I probably don’t have to tell you what a massive change that has been.  We’re no longer carrying snorkel gear—instead Eleanor packs equipment for cooking demos in some of that space.  It’s all good because it’s a reminder that the Airstream reflects who we are, rather than defining us.  That’s why they’re shiny.

I had lots of plans for upgrades to the Airstream but in keeping with the decision to pause blogging, I decided not to take on any huge projects in March or April (when the weather here is usually ideal for outdoor work).  Instead, I took care of a few small things and otherwise left the Airstream alone.  No worries, it’s ready to go, thanks to all the updates and repairs I made last year (backup camera, new storage unit, 4G mobile Internet update, flooring and plumbing, window gears).  The only significant task this year was to finally get rid of the factory-installed Parallax Magnatek 7355 power converter, which I’ve never liked because of its lame charging capabilities, and install a Progressive Dynamics Intellipower 9260 in its place.

This was a a little out of my comfort zone but worked out well.  High voltage isn’t my thing, so I Googled a bunch of reports from other people who had made similar conversions, and eventually realized that there’s no single “best” way to do it, and that the job isn’t really that hard either.  Over-simplified, it came down to disconnecting four wires (two AC wires and two DC wires) and connecting five (I added a ground wire on the AC side). One trip to the hardware store for an outlet box and some wire, and the job was done in about two hours.

The only way you can visually detect the change is by the little “Charge Wizard” stuck to the wall (this gizmo allows you to overrride the automatic function of the charger), but the Intellipower documentation (and my voltmeter) tell me that we should now have far superior charging.  That means the batteries should recharge faster, be automatically “equalized” (essential for their long-term health) and I no longer have to worry as much about overcharging while in long term storage.

The real joy of this, if I’m totally honest, is that I did it and nothing blew up.

Well, perhaps that’s the joy of everything we try outside of our comfort zones.  I think I would be OK with an epitaph that read something like, “He did many things … and nothing blew up.”

In fact, that’s pretty much the goal for the next six months.  I’ll keep you posted.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine