Archive for the ‘Airstream’ Category

Frozen

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

I have to admit that living in Tucson has changed our perspective on winter a little.  All the news stories on TV about major winter storms, freezing temperatures, airport & highway problems, etc. have seemed a bit unreal as we have shivered our way through days where the temperature barely reaches 72 degrees.

But as we were preparing to leave Tucson we heard a few warnings from those who had come west.  “Watch out,” they told us.  “You’ll run into nasty weather soon enough.”

We figured that by the time we got to the southeast the weather would have changed and I-10 would be a safe route to get to Florida.  Indeed, as we drove through New Mexico yesterday under clear skies and warm air, the prospect of bad weather seemed impossible.

And yet, in the afternoon after leaving El Paso (where we stopped for some nice Texas brisket), there was a chill in the air.  By the time we reached Van Horn it was distinctly cool, enough to make me shiver in a long-sleeved shirt, and then to our dismay we watched as the temperature dropped into the thirties in a very short time.

By the time we reached Balmorhea State Park in west Texas, it was nearly freezing and the sky had clouded over in a grim and vaguely threatening way.  Even though the spring-fed outdoor pools were as warm as bathtubs in this park, it was far too cold to enter without calling it a Polar Bear Dip.

IMG_3419In the morning we found the Airstream covered in ice, and a forecast of “freezing fog and freezing drizzle” along our route.  We delayed a while, then hit the road, but I wasn’t happy with conditions as the temperature remained in that dangerous zone of about 27-28 degrees where freezing rain is possible.  We stopped for lunch in Ozona, but the weather was unimproved when we moved out again.  Finally, with the prospect of making our destination near sunset and a very fine mist on the windshield, I called Alex on the radio and announced we were going to bail out.

IMG_3420Since we only covered 200 miles today, this is going to put us behind schedule, but continuing on wasn’t worth the risk.  Fortunately we were near Caverns of Sonora (Sonora, TX) where there’s a pleasant little campground that we’ve visited before.  And I needed some time to catch up on work.

So all seemed well, and I was happy with the decision to stop early.  The weather outside remained just awful outside but warm enough in the Airstream and we have an electrical hookup too.

IMG_3421Then the next problem cropped up.  The water pump started cycling when we weren’t using the water.  There’s only one reason for that: a leak in the fresh water plumbing system. I went outside to find water dripping from the bellypan, then started tearing out drawers inside, in an attempt to find the leak.  Eventually I isolated it to the fresh water fill.  It has sprung a leak.  There’s nothing I can do about it (because there’s no convenient shutoff valve) except leave the water pump off when we don’t require water pressure.

This has changed our plan yet again.  We were already accepting that tomorrow we might not get on the road until afternoon, when the threat of freezing rain is supposed to abate, and now our first stop will have to be an RV parts store somewhere along I-10.  Oh well, at least it’s a 30 minute fix and I have all the tools and caulk here with me.  Looks like we will be late getting into Sarasota, but I won’t officially make that call until Thursday, when hopefully the weather will be better and we have had a chance to make up some time.

Tonight we are going to have dinner together here in our trailer, and forget our troubles in the warmth of an Airstream. What else can you do?

Aluma-Zooma

Monday, February 10th, 2014

This may go down as one of the most busy February months of our family’s life.  On Sunday we wrapped Alumafiesta in Tucson, which was a considerable event in itself, and now we are embarked on a 2,000 mile cannonball run across the southern tier to Florida, where we will work on Alumaflamingo for another week.

Fiesta was a success.  We had about 100 Airstreams in the campground (after a few last-minute cancellations) and it seemed that just about everyone had a great time.  The program was as packed full of activities as we could make it, and so Brett & I were busily running around for five days making sure it all happened as we’d planned it.

During the week Eleanor was commuting from our house to complete preparations for the heavy travel yet to come, and finalizing all those other details that come before departure.  Emma, meanwhile, was parked inside the Safari with a cold, not doing much except Pokemon-related activities. (You might be surprised to realize what a wide range of Pokemon-related activities exists, but listing them all is far beyond the scope of this blog.)

After running all the activities of the event (many seminars and off-site tours, five Happy Hours, a bike ride, two walks, one hike, two breakfasts, one dinner, three Open Grills, four evening presentations, Food Truck Friday, a ukulele practice session, etc.) we were all completely exhausted.  And that’s where Aluma-Zooma comes in.

IMG_3406Due to a series of circumstances mostly beyond our control, we have a second event this month: Alumaflamingo in Sarasota Florida.  Because it is the first year for Flamingo, we decided it would be best if we took the Airstream to that event rather than flying in, which means that on the last day of Alumafiesta we were re-packing for immediate departure east on I-10.  We have to traverse seven states in a week, a rapid pace in the best of circumstances.

These are not the best of circumstances.  On the last day of the Fiesta I began to detect the impact Emma’s cold virus on myself, and then Eleanor began to feel some symptoms too, so our tow vehicle became a sort of plague ship with the three of us all sporting various symptoms—and nearly 2,000 miles of rapid driving ahead.

IMG_3413Brett, meanwhile, has flown ahead and will be spending the next week trying to get all the remaining pieces of the Flamingo event puzzle into place; not an easy task with nearly 240 trailers expected, 23 vendors, and a schedule just about as packed as the one we just completed in Tucson.  I can’t do much to help while I’m driving, so at this point I’m just a telephone consultant with a hoarse voice.

Fortunately we are joined on this adventure by our supportive friends, Alex and Charon (famous for their talents in the sideshow arts, including fire breathing and swordswallowing) and their hairless cat Brundlefly.  With us they form a 2-Airstream caravan, and it is making the trip much more fun to travel to together.  Alex has painted a sign on the back of their 1960s-era Airstream Overlander which says:

ALUMA-ZOOMA
Tucson to Sarasota
180 hours

We left Tucson at about 3:30 pm on Sunday and pulled into Lordsburg NM that evening for an overnight boondock behind a restaurant.  I was feeling pretty poorly and crashed into bed at about 8:00, waking at 4:45 with a raging sore throat, but got back to sleep and by 7:00 a.m. was feeling much better and looking somewhat less like a person with terminal fatigue.  Eleanor pitched in later on Monday by towing the Airstream 100 miles of our 350-mile daily quota even though she wasn’t feeling top-notch herself, and so tonight we are in Balmorhea State Park in west Texas and all is well.

IMG_3417As expected, we have driven out of the balmy southwest weather and into that deep freeze that we keep hearing about on the news.  Even here in southwest Texas, it was 38 degrees before sunset, a horrifying change from the lovely 70s that Tucson is currently enjoying.  I couldn’t hook up the water hose because it is going to freeze tonight.  Balmorhea is famous for its crystal-clear warm water springs, and normally we’d go swimming or snorkeling here, but even with water at 80 degrees or so it is just too darned cold outside to even consider the idea.  So instead we just fed the catfish and watched the turtles swimming before the skies became dark and fiendishly cold.

The trip plan is to drive about 300-400 miles daily all the way to Sarasota.  With time being short, it’s going to be Interstate highway all the way.  Not very interesting. Still, since we’ve all done this trip many times (but not as a caravan) we have the opportunity to share our favorite roadside stops with each other, and that’s fun.  I’ll update the blog as often as I can while we are traveling, and you’ll also see brief updates and more photos on Twitter (follow @airstreamlife).

A great week ahead

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

That energy level I mentioned in the previous post has very suddenly kicked into a higher quantum state.  (Apologies to real physicists who are wincing at that statement.)  Airstreams are pouring into Tucson from all over, and it’s impossible for me to remain calm about it.

Lately I can’t drive in the southwest corner of Tucson without seeing one on the road.  Normally Airstream spotting is a rare event, but this week it’s a regular thing.  Today I made my daily trip to the Alumafiesta site and found silver dots all over the 400-site campground.  Right now they are a minority but by the end of the day Monday a giant aluminum formation will take shape: Airstreams lined up in rows, signalling by their shiny presence that something interesting is about to happen.

My main mission today was to drop off the ’68 Caravel for Brett to use.  While I was trying to set it up in the site, two non-Airstream owners came by separately to talk about vintage trailers, and one Airstream owner as well.  This was fun but it made setup take about an hour.  That Caravel sticks out in a crowd.  There is no flying under the radar in a vintage Airstream.

In just a couple of hours I ran into Koos and Stefan (who flew in from The Netherlands to attend Alumafiesta), Rob, Chris, Stevyn & Troy, Numeriano, and a few other people who waved from a distance. I’d say there are about 15 Airstreams in the park right now, and that’s just the beginning.  That’s in addition to the several Airstreams that are boondocked in BLM land off Rt 86, near Saguaro National Park West.

Tomorrow I will go over to drop off the Safari in site 1415. The guy occupying my space today is in an Airstream but he is not coming to Alumafiesta. He came last year, and so tomorrow he’s heading to Sarasota to attend Alumaflamingo!  Lucky guy—he’s got two weeks to make the trip, so he gets to spend six days chilling in Destin FL on the way.  We have only one week to go the same 2,000 miles, so we have to zip along I-10 in a sort of Airstream Cannonball Run with no fun stops.  (Alex & Charon are making the trip with us, and Alex is already calling it “Aluma-zooma”.)

Yesterday I had lunch with Chris and Leslie.  They are attending Alumafiesta in a brand-new 30-foot Airstream bunkhouse.  Leslie writes for Airstream Life, and Chris is the developer of our new—TA- DA!—  iPad app.  Yes, Airstream Life is finally available in digital format on iPad. Almost every issue published (minus two) is available, which is pretty remarkable considering most have been out of print for years.  If you’ve got an iPad you can check it out (free) by clicking here.  We’ve got a special limited time offer on eight of the back issues for $0.99 each, and if you are a subscriber you get four issues for free!

I had a small surprise this week after sending out a notice to attendees that we would be doing an informal “beginner class” on ukulele.  I figured that maybe two or three people would be interested.  Suddenly about 15 people came out of the bushes waving ukuleles, and about a third of them had never actually played one.  So I’ll be leading a group at 1:00 on Tuesday, and if it goes well we will probably have a few sessions during the week. I’m excited about that.  Maybe we’ll get a few songs up to performance quality and play for the attendees at one of the Happy Hours.

Tonight we are having a pre-event “kick back” dinner at home, before the heavy action begins tomorrow.  This is our last chance to have a meal as a family at home, so Eleanor has made some nice mushroom risotto and a cake, and I’ll be grilling steaks.  Tonight we feast, for tomorrow we enter the fray …  It should be a great week.

Aluminum energy

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

“It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon …”  So starts many a tale from Garrison Keillor, and many times I have been tempted to lift that line in prelude to a blog entry that, like a Wobegon story, gradually reveals events that are anything but quiet.

Here in the desert I can feel the energy ramping up.  While the polar vortex captures the attention of those in the north, we have our own sort of vortex which re-directs RV travelers to Arizona right around February every year.  First it’s the annual migration to Quartzsite, where thousands of RV’ers congregate for cheap camping and flea-market shopping every winter.  Now Alumafiesta has entered the picture in a small way, bringing our Airstream friends from all over the country to Tucson for a week or two of warm weather and camaraderie.

I can tell by many signs that the Airstreams are approaching.  The most obvious sign is the mail piling up in our front hallway.  Several friends have asked if they can have their mail forwarded to our house, and of course we always agree because it’s the right thing to do for fellow Airstreamers.  When we were full-timing we often were helped by people along the way who received mail for us, so this is a sort of “pay it forward” gesture.  Looking at our hallway right now I see three boxes, two large flat envelopes, and four other large boxes that contain Alumafiesta supplies sent by Brett.  My email inbox contains a bunch of tracking numbers for additional packages to arrive this week.

Another sign of the impending aluminum invasion can be seen at our friend Rob’s house, not far away.  He has a bit of acreage and a few hookups, and the word got out, so now he has four RVs camped by his house, one of which is waiting to attend Alumafiesta.  On the southwestern side of Tucson there’s a bit of BLM land that allows free camping, called Snyder Hill, and the first Airstreams have appeared there as well.  Over at the Alumafiesta campground (Tucson/Lazydays KOA), I can see a few glints of silver starting to take over.  In nine days, about 110 Airstreams will be camped there.

Airstream at RockhoundLast week I started getting emails from people who are on their way.  One photo came from Rockhound State Park in Deming, NM (at left).  Other emails have come from central California, Texas, Florida, and a few from frigid parts of the north country.

Everyone wants to get together, of course, because Airstreamers are generally social types and we see many of our good friends only once a year or so.  This year it’s a little frustrating because we are deeply engaged in getting ready for two major events (Alumafiesta and Alumaflamingo) and about six weeks of Airstream life/travel between here and Florida.  Eleanor has been working on a new food demo that she’s going to do at both events, and I’ve been trying to get the Summer 2014 magazine at least 70% done by February 1. Plus, Emma has been working toward a higher rank karate belt and so we’ve been taking her to practice five nights a week.  It’s really a drag when work and school get in the way of having a good time.

A few days ago I pulled out the “Safari Departure List” that I maintain for pre-trip preparation. This list has checkboxes for about eighty things that we need to do before we head out on a multi-week trip.  It covers everything: what to pack, taking care of the house and utilities, prepping the Airstream and car, and various notifications we need to make.  Completing this list takes about two weeks if I don’t rush, so every day I’m trying to check off at least five or six items.  Lots of them are easy, like filling the car with fuel and updating our mail forwarding order, so it’s not terribly hard, and having the checklist means I don’t have to try to remember what’s next—which is good, because with everything going here I can barely remember what comes after I put toothpaste on the brush.

With all the activity comes a certain amount of excitement.  Great things are about to happen. We’ll see lots of Airstream friends, travel cross country, present talks and demonstrations, tour Tucson and Sarasota, lead a ukulele band (at Alumaflamingo in Florida), and then hit the beach on our way home for a bit of vacation.  It’s hard to complain; Airstreaming is fun.

The anticipation keeps us energized.  Some would say “stressed” but I prefer to think of it as all positive energy.  A hundred+ Airstreams parked together will raise the temperature of Tucson and make everyone smile.  All these people coming to town with great intentions, friendly faces, and interesting thoughts to share, will infuse us and give us the boost we need to get it all done.  So I say, “bring on the aluminum energy!”  The fun is about to begin.

Old fashion socializing

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

The past few days in Anza-Borrego camping without my family has been an enlightening experience in some ways.  I have realized that when I am camping solo, I prefer to be away from campgrounds.  Campgrounds are filled with other people and their families and I find them strangely distracting. It’s the “alone in a crowd” feeling.

I don’t usually notice much about the other campers when we are traveling as a family, because we are engaged in our own lives and there’s usually something that needs to be done.  But when solo, there’s a stillness about the trailer that invites contemplation (navel-gazing, I suppose).  At those times, it’s great to be out in the desert with not much else around.

So I know that the next time I am looking for an opportunity to be alone and contemplative, taking the Airstream out for some boondocking will be just the ticket.  That may not be for some time, since we have a heavy travel schedule through February and March.

On this trip it was nice to see all my friends happily engaged in their lives.  Brian & Leigh were busy working on their respective jobs in their “office” at the dinette.  Likewise, Alex and Charon both seemed to be deep into creative projects of various types, although I did manage to break Alex away for one day of recreation.  Stevyn & Troy have been exploring the world of full-time travel, and while they are still getting their footing, I can see that it probably won’t be long before they have a regular routine with their two kids as well.

Anza-Borrego Slot canyon TroyI took their family out for a little exploration, since they’ve never been to Anza-Borrego and had no idea of the many curiosities and phenomenae to be found.  The Slot Canyon, always a favorite, was a big hit.  It was as much fun for me to show it to them as it was for them to explore it.  I was particularly gratified when Troy turned to me and said he was having that peculiar sensation you get when you actually see something in person that you had previously known only from photographs in National Geographic.  I know that feeling—it’s one of the reasons we travel.

In the evening all of our local Airstream circle gathered by the tailgate of Troy’s pickup truck, with my old gas camping lamp hissing, and we talked for a couple of hours.  I had picked up an apple pie in town (nearby Julian CA is famous for those), and Leigh warmed it in the oven and split it among us.  It all seems so mundane as I recount this, but at the time it was the perfect thing to do.  As simple as it was, it felt like a great moment in life.

Anza-Borrego social night

That’s perhaps the best thing about this sort of camping.  We have no shopping, no school, no jobs except what we bring with us, and few distractions.  The nights are cold and long in the desert winter, and you’ve got to make your own entertainment.  This encourages more of that introspection I was talking about, and it encourages old-fashioned socializing.  Bonding together over pie and conversation is what it’s all about.

Anza-Borrego Caravel Mercedes GLI could have happily stayed out for another week, traveling through California and Arizona, but my time was up.  Appointments, obligations, and demands of work  were calling me back to home, so that evening I pre-packed the trailer and started thinking about the long drive back.  There are very few good overnight stopping points along I-8, and I needed to get back ASAP, so in the morning the only thing to do was to hitch up and hit the road as early as possible.

Airstream Caravel highwayThe Caravel has passed the test.  It’s always going to be a tiny and somewhat inefficient little trailer, but at least it’s a trailer in which everything works!  I have a list of about a dozen improvements that could be made, which I’m going to file for next summer.  For now, it’s ready to go, which means Brett will have a place to stay during Alumafiesta and—if I can work out a second tow vehicle—someday I’ll have it for TBM season…

I’ve never seen that before

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

I’ve been coming to this park for years, partly in a park this big there’s always an opportunity to see something new—if you just make the effort to look.  The rangers and volunteers who staff the visitor center, and the people you can find camping in the less-traveled areas, are a great source of tips.

Yesterday I pulled Alex away from his computer to get out for “an adventure.”  We decided to do a little off-roading near 17 Palms, a palm oasis that’s a couple of miles off S-22, starting at the primitive Arroyo Salado campsite.  The roads are always sandy, potholed, and occasionally a bit “technical” requiring some driving skill to avoid getting stuck.  None of the roads I’m going to talk about are passable with a 2 wheel drive vehicle, or any vehicle that doesn’t have high ground clearance.  I mention this because we still remember the Tale of the Sinking Dutchman, who thought that a Subaru Outback constituted a suitable conveyance on the local trails.  It has become a favorite campfire story among the 4WD owners.

The Mercedes GL is a remarkably capable off-road vehicle.  I know that probably 99.9% of owners never take them off pavement, but they should give it a try.  We’ve off-roaded with ours in many places over the years, and it has always been surprisingly good it, despite its bulk and street tires.  I’m selective about where we go because I don’t want to strip the paint off by rubbing a piece of sandstone, and I sure don’t want to get stuck.

Anza Borrego17 Palms was very nice, but I’d seen it before and after a few minutes of marveling at this strange palm oasis (the result of an underground water supply) we decided to press onward to a place we’d never been: the “Pumpkin Patch.”

Pumpkin Patch

Pumpkin Patch

This is an area of “concretions”, which are basically like pearls made of natural cement.  Wet sand sticks to a “seed” object like a pebble, and becomes cemented to it.  Wind erosion shapes the concretions as they gradually become exposed to the surface, hence the pumpkin shape.

Pumpkin Patch is in the adjacent Ocotillo Wells Off-Highway Recreational Vehicle Area, which is a long way to say that it’s where the ATV’ers and motorcyclists are allowed to ride.  We met up with a few of them and they tipped us off to a hidden spot where supposedly there were “statues” made of rock.  They weren’t sure where exactly they saw it, and sent us on a wild-goose chase down the Pumpkin Patch Trail.

Mercedes Benz GL off-road

(Not my photo, but we did a lot of stuff like this)

I can now attest that this trail is passable by cars … but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really like off-roading in tricky conditions and have the right vehicle.  It’s really Jeep country.  Since Alex and I were, uh, “rather concerned” by the conditions as we slowly drove through, we didn’t stop to take photos, but we probably should have.  If you drove this trail in a Jeep you would not believe that we’d done it in a Mercedes GL.

Of course we never found the rock statues, but by the time we escaped Pumpkin Patch Trail and settled into the relatively flat washes, we didn’t really care.  It about another 90 minutes to work our way out of there and back to the pavement of S-22, plus time for a stop at another spot we’d never seen before: Vista Del Malpais.

Anza Borrego-4Alex called Vista Del Malpais “the best view in the park,” and I think he might be right.  It’s a lot like the view from Font’s Point but even more panoramic.  The Salton Sea is visible to the east, badlands spread out in front in Technicolor beauty, and mountains ringing three sides.  It really can’t be fully captured in a single photo.  Going to Vista Del Malpais is mandatory if you really want to appreciate it, like seeing Grand Canyon in person.

After all that, it seemed like a good idea to head over to the Palms At Indian Head Hotel for a burger by the swimming pool.

Just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, Alex & Charon put on a show for all the RV’ers in their encampment (about 1/4 mile from my site) and for anyone else who cared to show up.  This is the same show they’ll be doing at Alumafiesta next month in Tucson, full of sword swallowing, fire breathing, and other specialties of the sideshow arts.  I’ve seen it probably eight times and I still love it.  From the reaction of the crowd (from age 3 to 60+) it was clear they loved it too.

Today’s plan is much like yesterday’s plan: no plan.  We shall see what happens.  It’s another beautiful day in Borrego Springs CA (sorry to all of you trapped by the snow & cold right now), and probably it is my last day before heading homeward, so I’m going to try to make the most of it.

Out in the desert

Monday, January 6th, 2014

Yesterday I relocated the Caravel out to the open desert, just beyond the boundaries of town.  No more full hookup for me on this trip.  The Caravel’s systems all worked beautifully while I was in the state park campground for two nights, and so the next step is to test everything in boondock mode (without hookups).

I’m very pleased with the way the trailer is finally working out, after years of tweaking it.  There are still things I’d like to improve, and I suppose there always will be, but it is eminently usable right now.  I’d like to get the main door to open and close more easily, and it needs a 12v power outlet somewhere, and perhaps a couple of USB power outlets by the dinette.  Stabilizer jacks would be nice, as would a vintage-style awning.  Oh, and while I’m at it, a discrete rooftop antenna for cellular Internet, an easier way to convert the gaucho to a bed, a lighter dinette table, and I’m sure I can think of many other things too …

1968 Airstream Caravel dry camped in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

1968 Airstream Caravel dry camped in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Somehow I doubt I’m going to get to all of those projects, at least not until I start using this trailer on a more routine basis.  The Caravel is a fun trailer for one person, but not highly practical.  You can do only one thing at a time in it. You can cook, eat, sleep, shower, or work—pick any one, and put everything away before switching to the next.  There just isn’t room to leave anything out.

When Eleanor and spent our first night in this trailer, back in August 2003, we were traveling without Emma and found the Caravel to be delightful.  It rained that first night, and I remember feeling wonderfully encompassed in the tiny aluminum shell while the rain pattered on the roof.  Later when we traveled with Emma (age 3) it never seemed too small, probably because our point of comparison was a tent.  Today I think I would describe it as “romantic” for two if you like cozy surroundings.  (I mean “cozy” in the real estate sense:  small.)  The three of us no longer fit in it, at least not at the same time.

The real point of a vintage trailer like this, if we’re going to be brutally honest here, is that it attracts lots of admirers because it’s just so darned cute.  Everyone comes over and admires it. I give a lot of tours, so I feel obliged to try to clean it up every morning just to be ready for the possibility of someone wanting to peek inside.  Being so small, it doesn’t take long to see it all, in fact you can see it all just by leaning in the front door.

Being out here in the desert is much quieter than the state park campground.  By unspoken agreement, the RVs parked out here are scattered very widely unless they are deliberately camping together, so my nearest neighbors are Brian & Leigh about 100 feet away.  Stevyn & Troy are probably 200 feet away, and other than that I am mostly surrounded by open space and dry creosote bushes.  I prefer it, these days, to a campground, even though the Caravel isn’t optimized for boondocking.

It’s not bad even with only one battery, because the trailer doesn’t need much power.  I converted all the lights to LED and so the only significant long-term power draws are the circuit board in the refrigerator (even on gas it will use 6-10 amp-hours per day) and the laptop.  To make up for that, Brian has lent me his portable solar panel, which generates 120 watts peak, and that’s more than enough to recharge my daily needs, in about an hour.

There’s no furnace in this trailer either, just a catalytic heater which uses no electricity. The past two nights have been balmy, which is pretty rare right now since the eastern half of the country is in the deep-freeze. I hadn’t even needed to turn on the heater until last night when the overnight temperature dropped to 35 degrees F.  Around 5 a.m. I finally couldn’t stand it and fired up the catalytic heater, and then of course I couldn’t get back to sleep so I ended up at dawn taking pictures.  That wasn’t really so bad, especially later when I found a photo in my email from my friend Charlie showing his home in Indiana covered by 10 inches of snow and temperatures dipping to -14 degrees F.

Today’s plan is to roam around the park with Alex, rather aimlessly.  We plan to buy a Julian apple pie, otherwise it’s a solid plan of do-nothingness.  Last night a few of us went to Font’s Point to see the badlands at sunset, when they are just stunning, and I think that set the tone for the next few days. We’re just going to take in the beauty of this place and not worry about agendas.  Or anything else.

The bandwidth war

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

Traveling solo in the Airstream Caravel, and now parked in a lovely desert state park, you would think that my thoughts would go to poetic descriptions of the desert flora, or reflections on solitude. But in fact I’ve been thinking about wireless Internet.

Here’s why:  the phenomenon of mobile working-class people living in motorhomes and travel trailers has really begun to gain momentum.  When we started traveling full time in 2005 and I was working on the magazine, I rarely ran into anyone who was doing the same thing.  Part of the reason was that cellular Internet was not so great, with “2G” networks in this country and connectivity so slow that I would find a Panera Bread if I needed to do serious downloading.  Campground wi-fi was spotty and indifferently supported by the campgrounds, meaning that usually it didn’t work.  Some traveling friends used satellite connections on tripods, and if you’ve ever seen the rigamarole involved in setting one of those up, and then suffered the tedious upload speeds, you can understand that they were really desperate.

A few years later it was an entirely different situation, and now in 2014 we have fairly high-speed cellular all over the country, and with usable signal in places we could only fantasize about a few years ago. A small industry has sprung up to provide us with high-gain antennas, cellular-compatible routers, wi-fi extenders, and signal boosters.  Even campground wi-fi has gotten a little better (although still terribly unreliable on the whole).  The bottom line is that anybody can get online almost anywhere.

And so we are.  Lots of us.  The numbers of “knowledge workers” living in RVs and traveling nomadically seems to have skyrocketed.  I don’t think anyone really knows how many of us there are, since we are hard to track, but I see them in greater numbers every year.  They are easy to spot by their relative youthfulness, the fact that they stay inside most of the working day, and because of the cluster of antennas on the roof. Even people who aren’t reliant on a job have begun to regard Internet connectivity as essential as oxygen, and I see them too, watching Netflix on their laptop at night and using Skype to talk to the grandchildren.

The result is that in many nomad hotspots, the network still sucks.  It’s just like 2005 right now in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, in terms of Internet quality, not because of any fault of Verizon or AT&T, or the state park management, but simply because too many people are inundating the network.  A few years ago on the 3G network I was flying along, getting work done efficiently because I was the only person in the park who was goofy enough to sit in my trailer on a nice day and work on the laptop.  Everyone else was sensibly out on a hike, or touring the park, or starting their campfire.  Now a bunch of them are sitting inside their trailers and watching YouTube.  The result is that it took three minutes for me to load a simple web page this morning.

I drove over an area just east of Borrego Springs, where the border of the state park and some fortuitous geology have combined to create an ideal free camping spot for mobile workers.  Two years ago at this time of year the area had a scattered of RVs, and perhaps a quarter of them were working folk. The rest were just out for vacation, or retired and living cheap off the grid.  Today, I found over a dozen RVs out there sporting big rooftop antennas for collecting wi-fi, satellite, cellular signals—and inside, people with laptops, smart cell phones, iPads, etc.  Many of those people will report to work on Monday, and they need Internet to do that.

But the network … alas.  It just doesn’t have the oomph to reach out there and give everyone high-speed Internet.  This has spurred a sort of arms race, because he who has the biggest antenna and booster setup will get a stronger signal and hence more bandwidth.  It has also spurred a land grab, because only a few spots exist in that part of the desert that can really get a good line-of-sight view to the cellular tower in Borrego Springs.  He who has the highest spot on the ridge gets more signal, too.

When I talked to a few of the people who have been there a while, they were considering relocating to better spots.  Keep in mind that all the spots offer the same desert dust, creosote bushes, jackrabbits, and solitude.  The only reason to move is to get signal, and moving is a giant pain because they’re already very settled into their spots.  They won’t move the rig for something like water (they’d rather pay a day-use fee to use the showers in the state park), but they will move the rig for Internet. So you can see how important it is to them.

Campground managers I have talked to recently tell me that they can’t keep up.  Everyone shows up with a computer these days, and often they also have smart phones and tablets, each of which wants to connect to the campground wi-fi. One manager said he had spent $20k in the last month upgrading the campground system and upgraded the data plan to the maximum available, and it still wasn’t enough.  So the next step is for campgrounds to start blocking certain services, like streaming video (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc), streaming audio (Skype, iChat, etc).  That won’t make customers happy; they see wi-fi as a right.  They view blocking as an unfair restriction, like telling you that you can use the campground water for drinking but not for showers.

Meanwhile, I’m back in my 2005 “work-around-the-slow Internet” mode. I’m only doing the bare minimum that I need to do online, because otherwise I’ll be staring at my computer forever.  Anything that takes serious bandwidth will get done at dawn, before all the kids start watching cartoons, and before the workers who are operating on east coast time start teleconferencing.  The blog doesn’t have pictures (but I’ll get some later).   I’m saving a list of things that require high-speed Internet (like big file uploads) and I’ll do those at some public wi-fi spot in town.

Another good trick is to use the smart phone instead of the laptop.  Mobile apps are designed for narrow bandwidth, and you can do quite a lot with a tablet or phone.  For things like banking, short emails, and social network updates, today’s smart phone apps are definitely a great way to go.

This bandwidth situation reminds me of the constant battle between hardware engineers and software engineers.  Ever since computers were invented, software engineers have always wanted to design programming that outstripped the capabilities of the hardware.  This spawned a famous saying (at least in computer geek circles): “No matter how clever the hardware boys are, the software boys piss it away.”  This is why your new 2013 computer doesn’t boot up faster than your 1998 computer, even though the hardware is nearly 1,000 times faster.

It’s the same with the network.  The 4G LTE network I’m using can be up to 30 times faster than the 3G network it replaced, but we’re all using a lot more data than before, too.  In 2008 we had a couple of laptops, one of which was rarely used.  Now we have six mobile devices and when we are traveling all of them are heavily used.  We’re hardly unique in that respect, especially among travelers.

The problem is worsened by the software boys’ relentless attempts to get us to do everything “in the cloud.” This means all of our commonly used applications automatically connect to the Internet to check for updates, download advertisements, and synchronize files.  This is frustrating when you are paying for every gigabyte of data, and it slows things down.  I make it a mission to find and kill programs that insist on sending large amounts of data without explicit permission.  You’d probably be surprised how many there are on your laptop and cell phone.

I don’t expect this problem to get much better.  Cellular networks have come a long way, but as they gain, there’s always some new application that will suck up every bit of excess bandwidth plus some.  The “arms race” for serious mobile workers will continue.

This trip I’m not going to be a contender in the battle, because I’m in the Caravel and it doesn’t have a rooftop antenna nor a signal booster.  It also doesn’t have a solar panel, so I’m limited to what I can do with one little Group 24 battery.  When I move to the boondocking spot among all those hard-core mobile workers, my best move will be to go for a hike somewhere in the vast desert where cell signals don’t penetrate anyway.  So that’s what I’m going to do … tomorrow.

Readying for a solo mission

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

After a few weeks of concentrating on non-travel stuff, I’m ready to get out on the road again–and back to a favorite destination.

For the several years we had a tradition of spending time in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park around New Year’s Eve. It has always been a relaxing experience, slightly tinged with magic on those cold dark desert nights, where coyote howls are more common than fireworks or music.  We always ran into friends and fellow Airstreamers on that trip, and during the days we hiked and explored the back roads, badlands, washes, and mountains of the park.

Two years ago the tradition was broken when our disc brake actuator failed, preventing us from leaving the driveway.  Last year, we elected to stay home and see Paula Poundstone at Tucson’s downtown Rialto theater.  It seems like the spell that drew us annually had finally been broken.

Part of that is the result of changing circumstances.  We’re all older now, and we’ve got more going on in our lives than ever before.  Priorities change.  Hard decisions have to be made about how to spend time and money.  Eleanor and Emma have obligations near home for the next couple of weeks that they can’t shirk.  But for me, there’s still a faint siren song I can hear from Anza-Borrego, and as winter deepens the song gets a little louder.

So this year Eleanor has encouraged me to take the trip solo, in the tiny 1968 Airstream Caravel.  I rarely travel via Airstream without my family, so at first I resisted. This is something we’ve always done together.  Unless I have a defined goal for the trip, I always feel like I’m just wasting time and fuel driving hundreds of miles solo.  It feels lonely and strange to be camping out in the desert by myself, although know people who love doing that, for the privacy and peacefulness.

I’m trying to capture that spirit as I gear up for this trip.  Perhaps while I am out there I will find inspiration in the expanse, and write something fantastic and new.  Perhaps I will meet new friends and have an adventure out in the wilderness.  Maybe I’ll finally get a good photo of a scorpion or tarantula (probably not—wrong time of year).

At least I know that a few friends will be there as well.  I’m planning to meet up with Brian & Leigh from Aluminarium, which is always fun.  They have become hard-core boondockers and it’s fascinating to see them working their high-tech jobs in the open desert half a mile from the nearest road.

I’ll also spend a few days in the desert with Stevyn & Troy, who are new to Airstream full-timing and boondocking.  I feel slightly responsible for them because last September when we stayed at their home in Missouri, we encouraged them to try full-timing and now they are.  With Brian & Leigh’s help, we are going to give them a practical taste of “Boondocking 101″ for a few days.  It will be a steep learning curve for them, but fun for us to pass on the knowledge.  If you are a Airstreamer who will be in the Borrego area this weekend or next week, let me know and I’ll send you the coordinates.

1968 Airstream Caravel interior 2014-01

While prepping the Caravel the past few days, I’ve been feeling like a total noob.  The Caravel hasn’t been used by me since October 2011, and it has undergone quite a bit of renovation work since, so it isn’t pre-packed for travel like the Safari.  As a result, I have to think carefully about everything that will be needed for the trip:  tools, clothes, food, hoses, kitchen supplies, office equipment—everything, right down to the tow ball. (The Caravel tows on a ball, whereas the Safari uses a square “stinger” for the Hensley hitch.)  It’s amazing how much stuff I take for granted because the Safari is so well set up for full-timing, and always kept prepped to go.  Half the time I can’t even remember where things are supposed to go in the Caravel.

Eleanor has been helping in her usual way, by providing me with abundant food and remembering to check for the practical items that I would typically forget.  (“Dish soap and a sponge?  Oh yeah, that.”)  Together we will get it done and I’ll be well-equipped in the end, but it is taking much longer than I would have thought to pack a 17-foot trailer for five or six days of bachelor travel.  (Yes, I’m bringing the TBM gear, too!)

You might recall that a few weeks ago I finished a project to completely re-plumb the Caravel’s fresh water system.  I also had a new power hitch jack installed, and new safety chains.  And earlier in the year I replaced the propane regulator and associated hoses & hardware.  Part of the reason for taking the Caravel to Anza-Borrego is to road-test all that work.  It would be much easier to take the Safari, and the fuel economy isn’t much different for the big trailer, but Brett will be borrowing the Caravel next month during Alumafiesta so I’d like to have it fully debugged before he gets here.  A few hundred miles of towing plus five or six days of camping should shake out the bugs, if there are any. So part of my packing list is a bag of tools and a box of leftover plumbing supplies.  If the plumbing springs a leak, or a gas line needs to be tightened, I should be able to fix it even in the middle of nowhere.

Really, the only part that worries me is the fresh water system.  Leaks are so frustrating and can be subtle, yet devastating.  I tested the plumbing again this week and everything seems fine: no leaks, no problems.  The final step for that system is to sanitize, which is easy.  (The procedure is described on p. 59-60 of The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.) I took care of that yesterday, and today I’m going to finish most of the packing and do a little dusting inside the cabinets too.  Every time I get in there to pack things I come out with dusty hands; the poor Caravel has sat unused for far too long.

And of course there’s all the stuff that I will have to check on the trailer itself, like the tire pressure.  It all amounts to a lot of prep work for a short trip.  I’ve concluded that it’s really much easier if you use your Airstream frequently, like we do with the Safari.  Leave it ready to go as much as you can, keep the batteries charged and the cabinets stocked with non-perishables, have a dedicated set of tools and utensils that never leave the trailer, and you’ll be on the road that much quicker.  We are starting to work toward that with the Caravel.

The trip will begin on Friday with a long-ish drive to Borrego Springs, CA (380 miles).  I’ll have Internet even in the boondock sites, and probably lots of time to write, so a few blog posts from the road are likely.

News from the industry, late 2013

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

I just got back from the annual RV Industry Association trade show, which is held in sunny Louisville, KY the first week of December each year.  This is a trip I normally dread, because it’s right after the Thanksgiving travel season and the airplanes and convention center are inevitably filled with people who have viruses to share. Being a human virus magnet, I almost always get sick.  And it always rains in Louisville this time of year.

So it is with great trepidation that I force myself to leave sunny southern Arizona to spend a few days under the big tungsten lights.  But this year, I’m glad I did.

Sometimes the big draw for me is the chance to see the latest things from Airstream.  This year the big draw was the knowledge that the RV industry has fully escaped the doldrums of the recession and for the past year the manufacturers have been cranking out product at full speed.  The RV industry is a “leading economic indicator,” which means that when the RV industry speeds up, the rest of the economy is not far behind.  (Of course, this goes both ways—about eight months before the Bush administration admitted we were heading into a recession, we knew the bad news because RV sales had already plummeted.)

I was looking forward to smiling faces and busy people at RVIA, and I was not disappointed.  For example, Brett & I were approached by our friend, the president of Zip-Dee, who suggested that perhaps we should suspend his full page ad in Airstream Life for an issue because, “everytime it comes out our phones go nuts for two weeks, and we can’t keep up!”  Only in boom times will you hear such a complaint.  (Instead of suspending his ad for the super-cool Zip-Dee motorized awning, we are going to run a different Zip-Dee product ad in the Spring issue.)

Airstream, you may have already heard, is having the biggest year they’ve seen in decades.  In terms of dollars of sales, it’s their biggest year ever.  The Airstream Interstate motorhome continues to be the best-selling Class B moho in the industry, despite also being the most expensive.  Trailers are flying off dealer lots, and the production backlog is several months long.

Despite knowing all this before I went, I was absolutely astonished at the level of bullishness we found at the trade show.  We signed more new advertisers for Airstream Life on the spot than we have done in the last three or four years combined.  We found eager new sponsors for our R&B Events, including Alumapalooza and Alumaflamingo (we’ll announce those when the deals are finalized).  Every aftermarket manufacturer we talked to was interested in sending someone to represent their company.  The Grinch of prior years was thoroughly banished.

What’s behind this?  Well, recessions don’t last forever.  Also, the baby boomers, who have been retiring in droves for several years, are eagerly buying Airstreams so that they can finally indulge life-long fantasies of freedom and travel.  Airstream says about half of their new buyers are new to RV’ing entirely, meaning that they went from nothing to an Airstream.

This has changed everything, no exaggeration.  The content of Airstream Life, the content of our events, the future projects I’m working on, the design of Airstreams, dealerships—nothing is untouched by this massive change.  It used to be that Airstreams were the trailers you ended up with after years of climbing your way up the ladder through lesser brands, but now we have all these newbies showing up who very suddenly want to live the dream.  So everyone who makes, sells, or supports Airstream has to look what they do and figure out how to do it differently.  I think this is great fun.

In terms of new products, we saw only a few things of note.  The re-boot of Trillium fiberglass trailers seems to have faltered a bit, but they are now being sold by Great West Vans as the “Sidekick Trillium“.  Certainly well worth consideration by anyone looking for cute weekender on a budget.  Jayco was showing a European spec caravan to attempt to show American dealers how EU models can make a lot of sense.  Primus Windpower Airstream RVIA 2013The guys at Primus Windpower picked up the pieces from another RV wind power company that failed last year, and will be having a product re-launch in 2014, which I’ll be watching.  The Airstream Interstate has been updated for the new Mercedes Sprinter chassis, but it’s essentially the same as before, meaning quite long and very plush.  Likewise, the $146k “Land Yacht” trailer has been updated a bit.

Airstream Land Yacht RVIA 2013We met with Dicky Riegel of Airstream2Go to talk about his new Airstream trailer rental business.  He showed us the incredibly cool app that they give, pre-loaded on an iPad Mini, to each rental customer.  It has maps, explanatory videos, helpful guides, checklists, equipment lists, even song playlists.  It’s first class, and I was very impressed.  Sometime next year it will also have a full set of Airstream Life back issues pre-loaded, too.

I have to admit I was a skeptic about the concept of Airstream2Go, but Dicky seems to have found and tapped into a base of well-off customers who really want to rent new Airstream trailers for a “vacation of a lifetime” but don’t want to buy one.  If that’s you, there’s no better option than Airstream2Go.

martinesphoto.4946I also had a rare chance to sit down with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes a series on towing that we publish in Airstream Life.  His last article, about load capacity, really tweaked a few people because Andy showed how some cars which aren’t rated to tow much at all can actually perform better than the traditional pickup truck.

A few people asked my why I’d publish such an article (which gored a sacred cow in the towing world), and I tried to explain that the discussion of the vehicle and hitch dynamics helps us all understand what we are doing.  You don’t have to like Andy’s choice of vehicle to benefit from his knowledge, no matter what you drive.

The same people typically suggested that I shouldn’t publish such articles because (a) I’d get sued; (b) “somebody will get killed”; (c) Andy doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.  I don’t buy any of those excuses.  My response is usually that you may not agree what you read, but don’t ask me not to publish it.  Cancel your subscription or flip to the next page.  I believe in the free exchange of knowledge and I’m not in favor of quashing new thinking.  If you pay attention with an open mind, you might just learn something.

I tell ya what, I certainly learned a few things this week.  In addition to all of the above, I learned not to eat the egg & guacamole biscuit thing at the hotel breakfast buffet.  By 4 pm on the final afternoon of my trip I was feeling a bit “off,” and by 11:30 pm I was doubled over in agony.  Didn’t sleep much that night.  My personal “Louisville curse” got me again.  On the plus side, I also learned that Louisville airport has very clean bathrooms, after visiting several of them in the pre-dawn hours the next morning while waiting for my flight.

Well, as my associate David told me, “a stomach bug is a small price to pay” for a successful week.  (Of course, that’s easy for him to say.)  My take on it is that I learned, I lived, and overall I’m glad I went.   Of course, there is one other bit of sobering news to consider:  this means I have to go again next year.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine