Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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.

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.

Pineapple season

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a sigmoidoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

The smarter Airstream

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Last week Elon Musk (of Tesla and Space-X) released his vision for the Hyperloop, a sort of Jetsons/Futurama-style pneumatic tube system for shooting people up the California coast at incredible speeds.  I’d sooner squeeze myself into a hamster’s Habitrail than that claustrophobic nightmare, but I do admire the spirit of Musk’s proposal. Knowing he wouldn’t personally be able to execute on the concept, he released his plans to the world in the hopes that someone else would take it forward.

In keeping with that spirit, I am going to tell you about the next big idea in travel trailers.  Before I begin, I should acknowledge that this is not my original idea (neither was Musk’s; it was an advancement on an old idea).  My good Airstream friend Brian first suggested this, and then I pushed it forward in conversations with Tom (an automotive expert and Airstreamer), and then I realized two things:

  • I’m no Elon Musk
  • It’s a pretty wild idea

But I like it, and I hope you will too.  Here’s the elevator pitch: Imagine an Airstream that is impervious to sway or loss-of-control issues, can park itself in a campsite, has huge electrical power capacity, and actually improves your fuel economy when you tow it.

tesla_battery packIt’s possible.  The giant 85 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery used by Tesla for its ground-breaking electric cars is the key.  It’s patented technology but it is based on readily available lithium-ion battery cells that are getting cheaper all the time.  The battery pack is heavy and flat, so it fits in the bottom of the Tesla and lowers the center of gravity.  Having a low center of gravity is a big part of the reason why the car handles extremely well and doesn’t want to roll over.

Let’s fit one under an Airstream frame (OK, some frame mods would be required for this), and also instead of the basic trailer axle, we fit in the electric motor and regenerative brakes of the Tesla too.  (See image below of a Tesla Model S electric motor, brakes, and battery platform.)

Up front, we have a very clever ball coupler that replaces the standard one.  This coupler senses the pressure of the tow ball so it can inform a microprocessor whether the trailer is being pulled by the tow vehicle, is coasting, or (going downhill) is pushing the tow vehicle. It’s kind of like a smart surge brake.  Sensors at the wheels also provide information about the direction of travel, by measuring the difference in wheel rotation.

tesla-model-s platformAll of this 21st century cleverness means that when the Airstream is being towed in a straight line, and the tow vehicle is pulling hard, the Airstream can contribute some power.  Not enough to push itself out of control, mind you, but just enough to help compensate for the natural aerodynamic resistance of the Airstream, and thus restore some MPGs to the tow vehicle.  So perhaps your 20 MPG truck gets 20 MPG even when towing, instead of 10 MPG.  That would be nice.

When turning, backing, or coasting, the Airstream would act like an ordinary trailer, just spinning its wheels. When slowing or stopping, the regenerative brakes would put a little power back into the big battery.  Those brakes would be plenty strong and much more reliable than standard trailer electric drum brakes.

Now, a “smart trailer” like this would know if it was swaying or otherwise misbehaving, and it would be independently capable of correcting it.  Say goodbye to sway problems forever.  Likewise, it would be able to stop itself very smoothly if the coupling came loose, or the breakaway switch were activated.

When you get to camp, there’s another really nice perk.  Disconnect the trailer at a convenient spot and then use a handheld remote control to self-drive the Airstream right into your campsite, or a parking space.  This may seem science fiction, but in fact this technology is already in use in Europe with the Reich Move Control (start watching the video at 5:16 to see an Airstream doing this).  No more need to stress out over backing up the trailer into a tight spot.

Recharging is no problem at all.  If the campground has electricity, plug into the 50-amp connection and the battery should regain about 30 miles of range for every hour you are camped.  One overnight stay, and you’re charged up for another day of power-assisted towing.

Or, if you haven’t used up the battery pack during towing, it’s a huge house battery.  The standard pair of wet-cell batteries in an Airstream provide less than a kilowatt-hour of usable power.  The Tesla battery holds 85 times as much!

This system could even enable a sort of “Holy Grail” for people who really want to make RV’ing “green.”  You could potentially tow a self-powered Airstream a couple hundred miles using an electric vehicle such as the upcoming Tesla Model X.  Zero petroleum, zero emissions, and a free recharge at night while you camp.  On a typical 200-mile tow that’s a cash savings of about $60-85, more than enough to pay for a really nice campsite.

Of course, the campgrounds might get wise to this someday, and charge an electric surcharge.  I wouldn’t be surprised, but still it’s much cheaper to “fuel” an electric vehicle than any fossil-fueled vehicle.

This idea is definitely half-baked.  There are huge cost issues here, no question.  The battery pack alone would be in the $10-20k range.  Right now nobody in the RV industry is going to explore this because they know that nobody will buy it.

Also, there could be drastic regulatory issues.  Does a trailer change classifications with the Dept of Transportation once it is self-powered?  What sort of regulatory barriers might exist? I haven’t looked into any of that.

So I humbly present this idea to you, solely to spur your thinking.  Realize that the way we do things today will change.  Someday our practice of driving fume-belching trucks pulling “dumb” trailers will be as much a part of our past as steam locomotives. Somebody is going to reinvent the RV’ing industry, when the time is right, and I just hope I’m here to see it.

In fact, I want to be part of that future, so if anyone is planning to do some work with this idea, please bring me in as a consultant.  I want to be the first guy to go on an all electric camping trip, 200 miles from home with my “smart” Airstream trailer.  Don’t you?

Tesla dreams

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I spent yesterday in the carport with Nick, working on both of our cars.  Nick is my local “Mercedes buddy,” a fellow enthusiast who owns a 1980s era Mercedes 300D like mine.  Neither of us are accomplished mechanics but we both enjoy learning and so periodically we get together to tackle car repairs together.  So far we’ve had good luck and no major disasters.

Yesterday’s jobs were to replace the front door seals on my car and the speedometer cable, and on Nick’s car we replaced the engine mounts, replaced the fuel primer pump, and changed the oil.  My carport is the preferred location for this because it has a nice smooth concrete floor and is fully shaded.  With the Airstream Safari summering in Vermont, there’s plenty of room for both cars. Unfortunately, Tucson hit 108 degrees yesterday so even though we started early in the morning, it was a brutally hot and dirty experience.

I say “dirty” because these cars are relics of the petroleum-burning era, producing copious amounts of soot and nitrogen oxides with minimal emissions controls.  They are about as far from “earth friendly” as you can get, and a fact revealed on every greasy carbon-coated engine part.  We wear gloves while working on them but still get our arms and faces smeared with black very quickly.  It’s hard not to think about where all that mess comes from, and realize that the car is really an obsolete rolling polluter.

The clunky old diesel engines do a particular job very well, namely motivating 3,000 pounds of steel for up to half a million miles. For this reason they are coveted by people who see them as the pinnacle of automotive engineering: user-repairable, computer-free, and incredibly durable.  I look at the mechanical engineering that went into it and I have to really respect it.  The thought and effort that went into every part to design it perfectly for the task is just amazing.

But honestly, I am conflicted about my car.  I run 99% biodiesel in it because it reduces emissions and is good for the fuel system, but that’s not going to make it a “clean” or “green” car.  It still emits much more unburned hydrocarbons, NOx, CO2, and soot than a comparable modern car.  If even a quarter of the country drove around in cars like this, the world would be a nasty place.  I’d probably be first in line to have them banned.  The only reason we get away with it is because most people drive newer cars which pollute only a fraction as much.  So as much as I love my 300D, I also know it’s an unsustainable antique.

The future, I’ve come to believe, is electric cars.  A few years ago I would have scoffed at that idea, since “everyone” knew that electric cars were silly toys that couldn’t go more than 80 miles and needed 10 hours to charge.  But Elon Musk and his team at Tesla have changed my mind.  The Tesla “Model S” and the national infrastructure envisioned by Tesla have changed everything—and despite widespread press, I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in to most of the car-driving public.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the changes Tesla has implemented.  The Tesla can easily go 200-300 miles on a single charge, with the option of picking up a 200-mile range boost in 20 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger station or swapping out the entire battery pack for a fully-charged one in 90 seconds.  That’s quicker than filling a gas tank.  With an in-home charger your car is always “full” every day you start to drive it.  And using the Supercharger stations is free.  Tesla even has installed solar panels at each station so that the station generates more power than it uses.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Imagine owning a car that has no engine, no transmission, and no emission or exhaust system. That means you never have to get an oil change, tune-up, belt replacement, radiator service, filters, emissions check, etc.  No more Midas Muffler, or Jiffy Lube.  No more 10,000 mile services at the dealership.  Heck, even the brakes won’t need service because they are regenerative (meaning they put energy back into the battery) and hardly ever wear out.

You can’t get any “greener” than an electric car.  Any traditional car (even a hybrid) burns petroleum.  Ain’t nothing green about that, even with a miniature chemical factory mounted on the car to reduce the emissions, which is what we have to put up with these days.  The electric car has zero emissions and can be powered (indirectly) through electric generation from lots of sources, including solar, hydro, wind, natural gas, nuclear, oil, and coal.  If the source of the power is dirty, at least it comes from one plant where emissions can be controlled more readily than on 100,000 separate vehicles.

I have come to realize that a lot of the negativity about electric cars comes from viewing them from a petroleum-powered perspective.  In other words, we tend to let our preconceptions taint our view.  An example is fear about the giant battery pack.  In eight years to ten years, you’ll have to replace it and that will cost a lot.

Sure, but in eight years of gasoline burning you’ll have to replace belts, hoses, plugs, fluids, filters, gaskets, water pump, battery, muffler, and probably a few other things, in addition to the risk of a major repair to the combustion engine.  Add to that the hard-to-quantify costs like health problems resulting from dirty air.  Then, add to that about $20,000 in petroleum fuel cost over 100,000 miles.  Suddenly that battery pack isn’t looking so bad.  We are so inured to the ongoing cost of maintaining our dirty little petroleum combustion engines that we don’t consider how expensive (and resource-consuming) they really are.

Another common gripe is what the automotive press calls “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of power and not be able to charge up again quickly.  Tesla addressed that one with their Supercharger network, which is being built out right now.  In 2015 you’ll be able to drive almost anywhere in the USA with a free 20-minute Supercharge (or battery swap) available within 200 miles. You can’t say that for hydrogen or natural gas fueled vehicles, and it probably won’t ever be true for those because of the cost of building those complicated infrastructures.  Electricity, on the other hand, is already piped everywhere.

An electric car won’t yet replace our tow vehicle, and I wouldn’t expect such a thing to be available for many years.  For now, we’ll continue to run the “clean diesel” Mercedes GL320 to tow the Airstream around.  Likewise, gasoline cars will continue to be the majority of the market for a long time.  The Tesla is still financially out of reach for most people.  But it shows us what the future will hold.

Every time I look under the sooty hood of my 1984 diesel Mercedes and compare it to the much-cleaner, computerized 2009 diesel I can see the progress of 25 years.  Looking at the elegant engineering of the Tesla S electric car, I see the progress of the next 25 years.  I’ll hold onto the old Mercedes as a reminder of the great engineering of that day, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can drive the future.

That intolerable silence

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible questions

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of queries from people who want to understand RV’ing, or Airstreams specifically.  I’ve noticed that commonly I’ll get questions that really have no single answer, like “What tow vehicle should I buy?”, “What’s the best length of Airstream?”, “Where are the best places to go?” or “What budget should I have for full-timing?”

Lately these questions have been increasing in frequency, probably because the rate of people entering the Airstream community has taken a sudden jump this year.  Lots of Baby Boomers are buying Airstreams (half of them buying Airstream as the first RV of any type they’ve owned, according to Airstream) and indulging life-long desires to get lost in America.

When I get these queries I try to give some sort of answer, but all too often the best answer is “it depends on you.”  With all the complexities of switching from a stationary home to a traveling home, it’s understandable that people wish a few things would just be easy, with pat answers and well-established procedures, but experienced has shown me that “One Size Fits All” advice (OSFA) is usually not the best.

Really the only good way to give an answer that makes sense is to start by asking questions.  To know what works for you, you first need to know something about yourself.  What’s your travel style: fast, slow, long stays, short stays?  What do you like to do: visiting friends, getting away from civilization, glamping, outdoor activities?  All of this plays into the answers to the commonly asked questions.

Camping Style illo by Brenda MintonTo help with this problem, we are running an article in the upcoming (Fall 2013) issue of Airstream Life entitled “So, What’s Your Camping Style?”  In it, author Renee Ettline lists a few personality traits that have a big affect on Airstreaming, and asks you to rate yourself (and your traveling partner) on a scale.  It might seem like a silly exercise but really it’s an essential first step to knowing what will work for you—and what won’t.

The problem is that it’s hard to know your camping style when you have never owned an RV before.  I know we had absolutely no clue what it was going to be like when we bought our first Airstream.  Even after a year of ownership, our style kept mutating as we learned more about what worked for us.  Our style of travel underwent a big change again when we switched to full-timing.

Well, if you are going into it ab initio, you’ve got to make some choices and hope for the best.  So here’s my best shot at OSFA advice, for people who really are adrift or paralyzed by their options:  talk to your partner, or talk to yourself.  Be honest about what you think you want, and listen to what that means.  A lot can change when you move from a 2,000 square foot home to a 200-square foot home, but your essential nature and your personal needs will probably stay the same.  This is what Renee is trying to show you with her personality questions.

Generically I can suggest a bits of common wisdom that often apply (but not always!)  First, many people get a trailer smaller than they really need or want, because they are attracted to the “cute factor” of small trailers, or because they are fearful that a big trailer will be hard to deal with.  They’re right, smaller is easier, but once you get some experience it becomes less of a factor.  It’s a mistake to go too small because it usually is expensive to trade up to a larger size later.  Bite the bullet and get the Airstream you really want or need.

Personally, I would much rather tow the Argosy 24-footer that we used to have, than the 30-footer we have currently.  The Argosy is lighter, easier to maneuver in cramped spots, and fits in more places.  But when we had the Argosy we discovered a 24-footer just wasn’t practical for our style of traveling at the time:  full-timing with three people and a small business.  So we faced reality and tried the intimidating 30-foot Safari.  Life got a lot easier when we didn’t have to make up the beds every day, and that trailer has served as our full- and part-time home for eight years.

It will be a bittersweet day when Emma is off to college and we downsize to something smaller, because I will be happier wrangling something in the 25-27 foot range but we’ll miss having Emma with us.  (If you want a nice used Airstream Safari 30 Bunkhouse in 2018, give me a call around then and we’ll see if I still feel that way.)

The second piece of advice is that nobody’s budget and nobody’s style matters but your own.  Don’t bother trying to figure out “the cost of full-timing” based on what other people spend.  That’s like trying to figure out the cost of having a house based on what other people spend.  We’re all different.  I am pretty sure Matthew McConaughey spends more on his Airstream travel than we do, and there are many people who spend less, but neither has any bearing on what we spend.  Everyone has their own special conditions and values that determine the cost of full-time travel.  Do you have fixed itinerary points?  Medical issues?  Personal obligations that will affect your schedule?  Do you cook, or eat out?  What sort of campsites do you prefer?  What’s the condition of your tow vehicle and trailer?  Do you do your own maintenance?  Do you have friends who will courtesy park you at their homes?  How much Internet access do you need? Will you be traveling internationally?  Etc.

The third thing you should know is that most people don’t understand towing dynamics and hitches at all, even though they can readily regurgitate plenty of platitudes they read on the Internet from “experts”.  You’ll hear all sorts of advice about tires, receiver hitches, trailer hitches, weight distribution, and tow vehicles, and I can tell you with great confidence that most of what you will be told is either utter nonsense or badly twisted fact.  It’s a real shame that the industry finds itself in this position, because it shouldn’t be such a problem, but almost nobody in the RV’ing industry (and this includes the manufacturers of RVs as well as the manufacturers of hitches, cars, trucks, and tires) is willing to stick their neck out to give up-to-date advice.  Here’s a place where we could use an industry standard, but it is an unavoidable fact that there are too many possible combinations out there to allow that.  Also, there’s a certain amount of potential liability involved, and being a lawsuit-happy country makes manufacturers highly concerned with avoiding litigation.

Don’t write to me asking for hitching advice either—I’m just as concerned about liability as the next guy.  I’ll talk about what I use (as I have in this blog many times) and I’ll tell you a few things not to do, but I won’t tell you what gear to buy because it only takes one stupid lawsuit to ruin my day.  The industry standard has been to give out OSFA in vast quantities, sometimes repeated from brochures first written up in the 1960s before we had independent air suspensions, no-sway hitches, integrated computerized brake controllers, assembly-line (rather than custom-built) receiver hitches, and 3/4-ton trucks capable of towing a 10,000-lb trailer up an 8% grade at 65 MPH.  There is no up-to-date “best practices” document in North America for modern trailer hitching—only OSFA advice designed to limit liability … which puts the onus on you to interpret the advice for your situation and figure out what works.

Go forth and be prolific in your reading.  Our long-running series about towing by Andy Thomson is a good place to start.  If you aren’t the type to do that, then you’ll probably go with the most common approach: buy a bigger truck than you really need, buy any decent hitch & follow the manufacturer’s instructions to set it up, and tow at reasonable speeds. You’ll be OK.  This will get you on the road and hopefully you’ll continue to pick up knowledge as you go so you can optimize your rig.

Finally, avoid a few traps that can cause your Airstream dream to become a nightmare.  Get your financials in order—I’ve met a few Airstreamers who left home with a burden of debt that ultimately collapsed their travel plans.  Similarly, don’t hit the road to escape your problems.  They’ll follow you.  Start with as clean a slate as you can, including clearing out the house and getting rid of “stuff” that is psychically weighing you down.  Head out with the Airstream in good shape, if you have a used one.

Divers have a saying, “Plan the dive, dive the plan.”  But it’s different for Airstreaming.  I recommend you make a plan for every trip, and plan to change it as you go.  You’ll enjoy Airstreaming a lot more if you allow yourself some flexibility to blow with the wind.  There’s no single answer to most of the questions, no magical list of “best” destinations that work for everyone.  That’s why I like reading blogs of Airstream friends who are traveling.  They have completely different perspectives, different destinations, and have unique experiences even at places we’ve gone. They inspire fresh thinking.

So many of the questions are impossible to answer.  But if they all had OSFA answers, I think our lifestyle would be much less interesting.  It is the fact that my journey will not be your journey, that makes it worth doing.  In other words, grasshopper, do not request answers to questions you should answer yourself.

Escape from New York

Friday, June 28th, 2013

The aftermath of a great trip is sometimes hard.  “Back to the real world,” people say, and for sure there’s been some of that. But overall, coming back to our summer camp in Vermont has been pretty easy. The memories of recent travel definitely soften what could have been a harsh transition.

Not that everything went smoothly.  Our arrival was certainly more complicated than expected.  We had booked a hotel near JFK Airport so we could spend one night recovering from time zone adjustment before driving 300 miles back to base.  The hotel shuttle was slow to respond and left us standing at the airport for nearly an hour in 91 degree heat, and then when we got to the hotel they told us nobody could check in because “the system is down.”  A growing group of tired travelers were collapsing all over the lobby, which (for some reason) had no air conditioning, so it quickly became a refugee camp with bodies sleeping in chairs, on the floor, sweating in the heat, and one woman coughing ominously.

We waited about 40 minutes to allow the hotel staff to straighten out their situation, and they made multiple promises to me that “soon” they would start checking people in manually.  But I discovered they were telling everyone who came in the door that “You’ll be the first person we check in as soon as the system comes back up,” and they really had no idea what to do in this situation (their mini version of a post-computer apocalypse).  They couldn’t figure out how to check in the guests, they couldn’t cancel reservations, and they seemed content to just wait a few hours for some higher power to restore the system, with a lobby full of disgruntled people.  It amazed me that they didn’t have a backup procedure for something as simple and predictable as a reservation system failure. After an hour I called the hotel chain’s national reservation number and after four tries to get through, I cancelled the booking.

Now our job was to attempt to flee New York at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, while being thoroughly exhausted (we had gotten up at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time).  Rush hour traffic had begun already.  After two hours of battling heavy traffic we managed to travel just 30 miles.  After three hours we had gone only 60 miles, but things were getting better.  We finally escaped the traffic and spent the night at a hotel off I-87, getting to bed after 22 hours of rental car, airplane, shuttle, dysfunctional hotel, and NY traffic.

(We’ll never again drive to JFK for a flight.  It’s not worth it.  The tolls, traffic, parking, and hotels are all outrageous, easily wiping out any savings on airfare we might have achieved, without even getting into the hassle factor. Next time we’ll choose a more accessible airport.)

And after all this we still thought we had a Great Trip, so you know that the travel endorphins were pretty enduring.

Back at the office, I discovered that my health care provider had relocated the office of my primary care physician 15 minutes further from my house (“to serve you better”), and coincidentally my health care premiums are going up 25% starting July 1.  That took a bit of a shine off the day, but still I could have come home to worse news. All other things in our world seem to have hung together.

 

Rain is the theme for Vermont this week, so any thought of motorcycle trips has been quashed, as well as boating, fishing, or anything else recreational.  In the sunny gaps I’ve taken walks down the country lane just to get some exercise; otherwise it’s desk time.  The R&B Events team has been hard at work during my absence, and my major task this week has been to rejoin the crew and help summarize what we know so that we can finalize plans for all the upcoming events.

The frequent rains have given me a chance to check the Airstream’s waterproofness. So far I haven’t found any hints of leaks.  The poor trailer is covered in the usual Vermont-summer mess of decaying flowers, tree branches, spider webs, and pollen, which I hate to see, but otherwise seems OK.  Anything that can rust is busy rusting, so I can tell when I get it back to Arizona I’ll be doing some more scraping and painting. I think our Airstream ages a full year for every three months it spends here.  Fortunately, it hardly ages at all when it is parked under cover in Arizona, so perhaps it averages out.

Can you keep a secret?  I’ve got four days before I fly back to Tucson to assume my secret identity as Temporary Bachelor Man.  That’s just four days to get all fatherly-and husbandly duties in place as best I can before leaving my family for seven or eight weeks.  After that, you may not recognize me.

Civilized life in aluminum

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

My plans for the past few days included a little more than just catching up on work and packing for our next trip.  But that’s all I can do, since the weather here has been pretty poor.  The northeast gets enough rain in June without the remnants of a tropical storm wafting up the coastline, and this time we got both, which translates to five or six days of rain.  That is enough to quash any hope of a nice motorcycle tour through the region.

VT Airstream rainy day-2So here I am, in the Airstream listening to the splatter of accumulated raindrops from the trees.  I can’t hear the actual rain.  It’s really more of a gentle mist that never stops.  It reminds me of the days we spent in the Olympic rain forest in Washington.  Emma is off having fun with her grandparents, and Eleanor is shopping, so I’m alone here and free to do whatever I want … as long as it doesn’t involve outside activities or using the car.

Ah well, I’m certainly not suffering, just a little bored.  On a day like this the Airstream is a pretty nice refuge.  The key, I’ve discovered, is warmth.  If it’s cold in the trailer, it just doesn’t feel like home.  The high temperature outside  will not break the upper 50s and it is chillingly damp. Even indoors with the furnace cycling occasionally, I worked rather uncomfortably for a few hours this morning, until I remembered that we have a catalytic heater.

That’s the ticket on a cold and rainy day.  The catalytic heater hisses quietly and produces a nice, bone-warming heat that gradually pervades every corner of the Airstream.  Somehow it feels much more even and comfortable than the furnace, which blows around hot air that quickly dissipates.  I cleared a few things away from the face of the catalytic heater and fired it up.  It was a little reluctant to start at first, or maybe I’m just out of practice.  We haven’t needed it since … uh … last June when we were in exactly the same spot in Vermont.

VT Airstream rainy day-1Before she headed out, Eleanor put a hot cup of decaf coffee with Torani hazelnut and cream by my computer (I don’t drink regular coffee, and I only like decaf when it’s abnormally sweet).  That was a bit of civilization, and it reminded me that I am, after all, in an Airstream.  I began rummaging through the DVDs for a good spy movie to watch.  If I’m going to make a rainy day into a nice day, I might as well go all the way.

I remember a day back in 2004, when we were still fairly new to Airstreaming but already completely under the magic spell of these trailers.  I was at a rally where someone was holding an open house of their 1968 Airstream Overlander.  The trailer was magnificent, all original, with cherry cabinetry that had mellowed over the decades to a rich brown.  At the time I was still reeling with the concept that it was a complete home that you could take anywhere.  Plop it down in the middle of a desert or a green rally field with 1,000 other trailers—it didn’t matter.  No matter where it was, you could open the kitchen faucet and water would run out.  You could cook dinner, take a shower, watch a movie, play games on the living room table, anywhere.  For some reason, this floored me, and the impression remains with me to this day, even after living in our Airstream for years.

In years past we tended to just drop the Airstream in the driveway with a basic 10-amp power cord and try to survive the summer without any real hookups.  This forced us into the house for the bathroom, showers, to escape very hot days, for cooking, and even to get decent Internet for work.  We basically just slept in the Airstream.  For a short visit this is fine, but during a month or two of visiting it felt very limiting.  Eventually I realized that without using the Airstream the way it was intended was only a little better than sleeping in a tent on the lawn, so we began to arrange things to be more comfortable.  Now we have a 30-amp power line that reaches the trailer so we can air condition when needed, and I’ve got cellular Internet that actually works, and a few other details have been arranged to make the Airstream the home that it should be.

On a day like today I really appreciate that.  There’s no need to be uncomfortable.  I can reach into my closet and pull out my warm socks and sweatshirt.  I can slowly toast the interior with heat, and mix up tasty beverages and snacks from the refrigerator.  I can stream a movie from Netflix or Hulu, communicate with the entire world, bake some cookies, or take a nap.  And at anytime I can hitch it up and do all this again anywhere that I can reach with a car.  It’s still amazing to me.

Thoughts like this make a dull day in the Airstream more appreciable.  Having time on my hands today turns out to be a nice thing.  I’ll plan future trips, write blog entries, talk to friends on the phone, watch movies … It sure isn’t “camping,” but today I make no apologies for that.  With rain in the forecast for another couple of days, camping isn’t really what feels best right now.  My Airstream life does.

Decompression session

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

With Alumapalooza behind us, we’re off on the next leg of our voyage.  This will be the fourth year we have spent the two days following Alumapalooza courtesy-parked at the home of Lou & Larry in the “premium spot” next to their house.  They provide a very comfortable place to decompress, with a full hookup and access to the house wifi, and they make no demands on us (quite the opposite in fact, since they feed us and help with minor trailer repairs), so it’s a wonderful first stop on the way east.Ohio courtesy parking

We had extra food from the catering on Saturday night that we couldn’t let go to waste.  On the four hour trip from Jackson Center to here (near Cleveland) a lot of aluminum trays of food rode in the shower.  When we arrived, Eleanor repacked it to fit in our refrigerator and freezer, but still there was so much that we were able to prepare a sizable gift for some neighbors here who need it, and give a bunch to our hosts as well.  Even giving away many pounds of food, we will have enough ribs, cornbread, and green beans to serve the whole gang of family & friends once we reach Vermont.

Being here for Monday has given me a chance to reflect on this year’s Alumapalooza. Overall it was highly successful, with few glitches and lots of positive feedback.  People have been writing in all day to say how much they liked it, and there were a lot of memorable moments.

APZ4-2Later this week I’ll have over 480 photos from our official photographers and will definitely post an album of them online. I think those pictures will tell the story better than I can.

The things that didn’t go well are also memorable, and I’m writing them up as notes for our team so we can find ways to improve them for Alumapalooza 5.  We’ve already got a lot of neat ideas for new activities, and I think some clever solutions to the few remaining problems.  All of this will be very helpful as we plan for the big Alumaflamingo event in Sarasota.

Airstream familyIn two days at our Ohio courtesy parking spot, a lot can get done.  I managed to get a good night’s sleep, get office work under control, have some time with our friends (including Lou, Larry, Dan, sKY, slaDE, Loren, Mike, Al & Shinim), and eat a lot of good stuff.  Eleanor took care of our shopping and did the laundry. I also noticed and replaced yet another bad propane pigtail (hopefully the last of the unreliable ones I bought last year).

So with all that done, it’s on to the next adventures.  I’m feeling ready for tomorrow’s drive.  It will likely be a long one across Ohio, Pennsylvania and much of New York, so we’ll be starting as early as possible.

 

 

 

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine