Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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.




Where’s there’s smoke … we aren’t

Friday, March 29th, 2013

I do hate to go off on rants in the blog, but hey, if you don’t rant once in a while it’s not really a blog is it? I usually confine my moments of exuberance or frustration to relatively benign things like yogurt and recycling, but today’s events gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about something just slightly more controversial: camp fires.

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that we were being bugged by the smoke from fires in the state park campground. Each of the two evenings we were there—as I was shutting the windows and turning on the air conditioner to escape smoke blowing in—I was thinking that it would be great to get back to the open desert where our nearest neighbor would be hundreds of feet away and we could leave the windows open all night to let in the fresh air of the desert.

Back at Clark Dry Lake, I set up the trailer almost gleefully on a flat spot near Brian and Leigh’s Airstream, and we had a very nice afternoon followed by a great little happy hour with B&L, Kyle and Mary, and some Canadians who were parked off in the distance in a fifth wheel. Bert Gildart dropped in for an hour or so, and it was fantastic to see him again. He and I talked about bicycle trips we would like to do next winter, and also the possibility of someday caravanning up to Alaska.


Eleanor made dinner, or perhaps more properly re-made it from the numerous leftovers we had, and we ended up with a great smogasbord. We said goodbye to Bert (he left with a plate of food from Eleanor), and then … the folks about 200 feet to the east lit up a fire.

It was just bad luck that the wind was perfect to carry the fumes from their fire directly to our Airstream, where we were sitting with every window open and the fans running. I don’t blame the people who lit the fire; they were perfectly within their rights to do so, and it wasn’t their fault that the wind was aimed at us. But the smoke was unbearable, and here we had no option to close the windows and run the A/C.

After a few minutes of commiseration with Brian and Leigh (who apparently share our dislike of camp fires), we faced the only real choice we had. It was nearly dark. I had to move the trailer or spend the night sucking up the fumes. Already the inside of the Airstream was smelling like a Russian disco.

So we quickly threw everything into semi-towable mode, hitched back up, and gently towed the Airstream across the bumpy desert dirt roads a few hundred feet south to another open patch, safely out of the smoke path. It was almost embarrassing, skulking away in the dusk, even though we had not met the people with the fire. I didn’t want to explain that we were leaving because of them, but I could not escape the irony of our situation, and it made me think.

I have to admit that in the past few years we have stayed at State Parks less than we used to, specifically because of camp fires. Eleanor had a massive migraine triggered by camp fire smoke years ago, and we don’t want to repeat that again. I am not physically affected by it, but I hate smelling it too. It pervades the interior, leaves a scent on everything, and masks the more delicate smells of the desert that gently waft through the air in the night. Sleeping with smoke in the trailer is nearly impossible for me because I keep thinking of fire and feeling that I’m suffocating.

Many times we have come to a state park only to find neighbors who are obsessed with having fire 24 hours a day. They are always the worst at making fires, too. Day and night they dump green or wet wood in a hopeless pile, resulting in a constant stream of black smoke, no heat, and little flame. Sometimes they add to the fun by burning their garbage (thinking they are being ecologically responsible?), which of course releases many interesting toxins from plastics, foils, and metals into the atmosphere.

There is never any hope of negotiating, since for them the constant “fire” is paramount to their enjoyment, almost of religious significance, as if it was essential to life like it was for prehistoric man in that old movie “Quest For Fire.” Take away the fire, and you’ve ruined the experience for them. What’s the point of going “camping” if you can’t roast things on an open flame and come home reeking of wood smoke?

But as I talk to people along the way, I’m finding that our feelings are far from unique. I have never met a full-timer who made camp fires, and many RV’ers never want them. They are a symbol of camping for the weekend set, and I know particularly for tenters that fires provide useful light at night, a little warmth, and a means to cook. The conflict comes between those rugged traditionalists who love them and people like us who don’t need them and avoid them.

No, let me be honest: we hate them. I know it’s Scrooge-like to admit publicly that we dislike something as cheery as the open camp fire, but would a tenter be shy about admitting that they hate big RVs? (I know I certainly wasn’t when we were avid tenters—and then everything changed when we had a child and found that tenting with an infant wasn’t much fun. Opinions change with circumstances, and everyone’s entitled to an opinion.)

Even now, on those occasions about once a year when I break out the tent for a little “real camping” I never make a fire. I never did, having learned low-impact camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Camp fires are strongly discouraged, even illegal, out there in the wilderness, because they leave long-lasting scars on the landscape, encourage scrounging of deadwood that serves a useful purpose in the local ecosystem, risk forest fires— and yes, create smoke that is annoying or unhealthy for animals and people alike. Even when tenting, we have always used a portable stove that is much safer, more useful, and simpler than a camp fire. I wish more people would.

The terrible part of this is that our avoidance of camp fires inevitably means we must stay in commercial campgrounds more often, since they typically ban camp fires or don’t provide fire rings at the sites. I regret that. We’d rather be in the open as we are tonight, or in a beautiful and natural state park, if we can. I am not one to call for new rules to fit every circumstance so I stop at wishing for outright bans on camp fires, but it would be nice if there was at least an established etiquette about when and how to have them. In the meantime, we’ve got wheels and we’ll continue to use them.

Rumors and evolution

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Alumaflamingo 2014For the past few weeks I’ve been working with Brett (and now Alice, the latest member of our team) to work out details for our new event, Alumaflamingo.  It’s the fourth major event in our program, to be held next February.

I talked about this a little before.  We were asked by the Director of the former Florida State Rally (FSR) to come up with something new, because the FSR was finally disbanding after four decades. We stepped into the breach, and now we’re committed.  It’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s a lot of work and we have no assurance at this point that we won’t lose our shirts financially. But if we hadn’t stepped up, there would be no major Airstream-oriented rally to replace FSR in 2014.  So it seems to be worth some extra effort and risk.

When you step in to replace something that’s been going on for decades and has lots of loyal customers, it’s inevitable that the rumor mill will start up, and there’s a tendency that many of the rumors will be unflattering.  We expected a certain amount of this, and it’s OK. We understand that people might feel threatened by change.

For example, people who had gotten comfortable with the super-cheap rally fee of FSR ($220 per couple) may be upset that Alumaflamingo will cost $335.  But if we ran the same event as FSR, we’d be facing the same slide in attendance that it suffered over the past several years. As they say, doing the same thing but expecting a different result is an exercise in futility.

So we are trying to upgrade the event to meet modern expectations, which means adding in more activities, better food, better informational seminars, more vendors, better entertainment, etc.  People who went to FSR primarily because it was cheap will probably be unhappy with any price increase, and choose to go elsewhere.  But on the other hand, people who stayed away because they didn’t think it offered enough fun & education will hopefully give Alumaflamingo a try.  Our past three years of experience at Alumapalooza seems to support this.

In the past few weeks I’ve heard some pretty wild rumors.  One guy was saying he wouldn’t go because we wouldn’t have liability insurance.  When asked why he believed this, he said he’d been told by “people.”  For the record, the Fairgrounds requires us to have a significant liability insurance policy, so that rumor was nonsense.

Another common rumor has been that our event will not be “an Airstream event” or somehow will be polluted because our policy is to allow non-Airstreams to attend. That one really kills me.  We allow non-owners to attend because we figure anyone wants to come to an Airstream-centric event must be considering buying an Airstream. These people are future members of our community, so we think it’s a good idea to let them know they are very welcome.

At Alumapalooza, we usually get about 4-5 “white boxes” attending, out of about 200 trailers. In Sarasota we expect about the same.  So 98% of the rigs on the field are Airstreams, there’s an Airstream dealer selling trailers, Airstream Inc. is present and providing service, we’ve got at least a dozen Airstream-specific seminars, and the event is sponsored by Airstream Life magazine.   Yeah, I’d say that qualifies as an Airstream event.

Another common rumor is that casual visitors to the event will have to pay to get in.  I don’t know why people think that.  I guess I’ll have to update our FAQ pages to specifically address this issue.  Of course friends can visit at no charge. There’s no gate at any of our events.  We only charge admission to people who want to camp, join the activities, eat the meals, or attend the programs & entertainment. Dropping in and taking a look, or visiting with friends, or shopping for an Airstream with the sponsoring dealer is always free.

(By the way, we always have a dealer sponsor showing trailers.  George M Sutton RV will be displaying trailers indoors at Alumafandango, Lazydays RV will be displaying at Alumafiesta, and Bates RV is expected at Alumaflamingo. )

Perhaps the most painful rumor we hear is that the demise of FSR (and decline in attendance for certain other club rallies) means that the WBCCI is doomed.  We don’t believe this.  We think the WBCCI will continue as a viable club even if some major events are organized by third parties. The club represents the history of Airstream, many of the most enthusiastic and supportive owners, and it remains an important means for Airstreamers to meet in person, travel together, and share experiences.

Sure, Alumaflamingo is not an official WBCCI event.  But why does that matter?  The club is more than welcome.  In fact, at Alumaflamingo we are giving the Region 3 officers meeting space so that they can conduct some of their official activities on site. They can even publish their own event schedule for members or officers, if they like.  They get all the benefits of the FSR, without all the work.  Makes sense to me.

This means that we regard WBCCI as a partner and are looking forward to working with our friends in the club for many years to come. By launching Alumaflamingo, we’re hoping to be part of the road forward.  It may not be a comfortable road for us until the dust settles, but it’s exciting to contribute to positive change.

Memories of a rainy morning

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

It rained last night.  We woke up to a steady pouring rain, the kind I associate with northeastern autumns, where calm windless showers wash the streets clean, gurgle in the gutters, and drag the yellow maple leaves off their branches to cover the lawn.

Here in southern Arizona that’s a much more rare occurrence.  This is a “winter storm,” in local parlance, but using the word storm seems far too harsh for what we experience.  It’s just a nice steady rain that rinses the dust off, not even enough to fill the dry washes with brown floods like the summer thunderstorms will do.

I laid in bed for a while because the sound of rain on the roof seemed so novel, and it took my mind back to many times in the Airstream when I lay in its bed and listened to the patter of rain on aluminum.  I remembered lovely quiet mornings in the Florida panhandle where the sand hisses as the rain hits it, cold deluges in June in Vermont, and days in the dark green rainforest of the Olympic peninsula. We’ve had great rainy days all over the country, everywhere except in the desert southwest.

The rainforest sticks with me the most. We visited the Hoh Valley five years ago in October, a particularly rainy month even by rainforest standards, when thirty inches of rain will settle on the moss and keep the wild-looking Salt Creek rushing gray and chilly.  I remember that it never stopped raining in the campground, not even for a second, over two days.  But strangely the rain was inoffensive; it was a constant “pink noise” that reminded me of a pleasant humming.  The air was still, the rain fell straight to the earth and dripped off the Airstream’s awning, and the sound of each little droplet splashing down was muted by the grass and the omnipresent thick moss.  The effect was to make the quiet campground into a sort of Zen Garden where you almost could not raise your voice or tread heavily or think angry thoughts.  It invited contemplation.

And it invited homey thoughts.  After hiking around the mossy trails and visiting the National Park rangers, we checked out the creek, hunted for animal signs, and eventually settled into the Airstream for Eleanor and Emma to bake apple pie.  We had apples that needing eating or cooking, but I believe that the steady cool rain had something to do with the inspiration too.

At the time I wrote in our blog about the events of the days, but when it rains now I think back to those places and times with a different perspective.  If I close my eyes and just listen to the light drumbeat of rain on the roof I can travel back to those places and experience them again.  It’s different, as if I have been able to actually go there and feel the same magic of the first discovery with our 7-year-old child, but reflect on things that didn’t occur to me the first time.

I find I am doing more of this lately, reliving the highlights of those three glorious years when we were free to travel North America as much as we wanted, and revisiting places with the perspective of today.  It’s a cheap way to travel.  But it also reminds me that we need to do a little more of that in the near future, just to build up the cask of memories and keep us from only reliving the past.  I don’t like the thought that our biggest and best life experience might be behind us, and I’ve got plenty of friends who are much older than us who are continuing to have spectacular adventures.  They prove that even though circumstances will change, you can get out there and experience the real world anytime you can hitch up the Airstream.

The rain has stopped now and puffy cumulus clouds are now drifting through a deep blue sky.  The breeze is up.  That’s Arizona for you.  It’s as if the rain never happened.  It’s time to go outside and check that the Caravel is still dry inside.  Perhaps we’ll go for a walk too.  But even though the storm is long gone, the memories of rain will stick with me for the rest of the day and give me ideas, and maybe even wish that tonight it rains a little again.

It’s as easy as bungee jumping

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Quiet blog?  Only above the surface.  Back here at Airstream Life World Headquarters, things have been pleasantly busy.

These days my work as Editor of Airstream Life has been almost a backdrop to putting together events.  Financially this makes no sense, as the magazine pays the bills and the events are more of a hobby business, but I can’t stop myself.  Either Brett or I will come up with an idea for “something cool” and then suddenly we are spending far too many hours to make it come off.  I think we are both just compulsive about building new things, and we enjoy that more than our day jobs.

Back in late October we flew out to Oregon to do a site visit to the Seven Feather Casino/Hotel/RV Resort, wondering if we could put on an event there.  (By the way, I think that I spent more nights in hotel rooms last year with Brett than I did with my wife, and that’s slightly disturbing.)  Once on-site, we found a charming and well designed campground and a staff of extremely nice people who convinced us that it was the place to go next, and that’s how Alumafandango Seven Feathers was born.  We announced it a few weeks ago, for August 6-11, 2013, and now we are hustling to get seminars, entertainers, and tours put together so that everyone who comes will have a great time.

But before we can pull that off, we need to get Alumapalooza 4 on track.  I got tired of some of the repeat seminars, so we’ve basically started over with a list of new ideas—which of course means a lot of work.  Only a few favorites will repeat, and they will all have interesting twists.  Alex & Charon are coming back but instead of vacuum-sealing Alex in a bag they are going to do something else horrible.  We’ll do the Backup Derby again but this year I think the windows of the tow vehicle will be blacked out.  We’ll have yoga again, but this time it will be in the nude.

Just kidding about that last item.

And before we can pull off Alumapalooza 4, we need to get past Alumafiesta in Tucson.  That’s coming up in two weeks.  Registration closes today, so soon I’ll be putting together all the attendee lists and various other things we need, and then Eleanor and I have to finalize our trailers.  Yes, I said “trailers” plural.  Because Brett & Lisa are flying in, we have to supply them with our 1968 Airstream Caravel for housing, completely furnished & equipped.  We have never loaned out this trailer before so it has meant a lot of extra prep work to turn it into a “rental”: lots of cleaning, re-packing, testing, and counting the silverware…  I may have to ask Brett for a security deposit.

Ah, kidding again.  I’ll just replace the silver with flatware from Home Goods.

Things have been complicated lately by two factors:  (1) This is the season for all good snowbirds to arrive in Tucson.  A few friends have popped by already, and in a week or so we will be inundated.  I wouldn’t dare complain about this, since we look forward to our friends coming to town, but it means that all our prep has to be done well in advance.  (2) It has been unbelievably cold (for Tucson) lately.  To put that into perspective, keep in mind that here we never have to winterize the trailers.  We just leave them parked and turn on the furnace for a night or two.

Since New Year’s Eve we’ve had at least five freezing nights and more are forecast through Thursday (then we get back to the normal stuff for this time of year, 68 by day and 45 by night).  Our propane ran low very quickly, so I popped an electric space heater in each trailer instead and went off to the local LP supplier to get four 30# LP tanks filled plus a 20# for the gas grill.  This is what we call “winter” in Tucson.

In the process I discovered that one of the propane “pigtails” on the Safari was leaking.  These are the flexible hoses that run from the propane tank to the regulator (see video explanation from last year).  They’re stupidly unreliable lately.  I don’t know if the quality of construction is dropping or I’m just buying the wrong brand, but lately it seems I can only get a year out of them before they start leaking at the crimped metal connections.  The current pair date from last summer.

I called Super Terry for a consultation on this, and he recommended going from 12″ to 15″ lines so that there’d be less stress on them.  I ordered four new ones (about $11 each), being quite sure not to get the same brand as before, and will just keep a pair in the Airstream from now on as spares, along with the wrenches needed to remove and install them, and my soapy-water spray bottle and plumber’s tape.  You know yours have gone bad when you smell gas around the propane bottles, and your furnace quits.  Usually this happens in the middle of the night.  Once you have the pigtails in hand they take only a few minutes to swap, but sometimes finding the right type and length is harder than you’d think, so I’d recommend everyone carry at least one spare with them.

I had a nice meeting with the people at Lazydays last week to finalize details about our event and the food & beverage.  They are really rolling out the red carpet for us, including an open bar & appetizers at our first Happy Hour, and generally first-class service all around.  I had a pre-event dream last night, which always happens to me a few weeks before we do an event, and for the first time it wasn’t a nightmare.

We must be getting better at this event business.  At least I should hope to have learned a few things, after all the ones we’ve done: Two Vintage Trailer Jams, two Modernism Weeks, three Alumapaloozas, one Alumafandango, and in 2013 three more events.  That’s eight behind us and three ahead, plus two on the drawing board.  I guess people are taking notice, because in the past month we’ve had two inquiries about running events for other people.  Probably only one of those will actually pan out.  It’s flattering to be asked in any case.  I don’t know if it makes business sense since (like bungee-jumpers) we are mostly in it for the thrill, but you never know where an opportunity might lead.  I’ve learned to check out every opportunity that pops up, as sometimes even things that look hopeless will take an unexpected turn for the better.  Except at a Bourbon Street bar, looking is usually free.

Give your Airstream some winter love

Friday, December 7th, 2012

I know that most Airstream owners have put their trailers away for the winter, and perhaps are sighing as they see their beloved trailers slowly being covered in snow. A few are flipping the pages of Airstream Life and noticing the cozy Airstream on the cover parked in a Florida state park, or being tempted by the ad for Alumafiesta in Tucson.

But if you just can’t get away right now, at least you can do something for your Airstream to make it a better place to camp in next season. Even when our trailer is put to bed, I get into it as often as I can just to tweak little things, clean, or think about what improvements it needs.

In our first three years of owning the Safari, we had our share of mechanical problems, ranging from the little things like screws backing out, up to major problems like a wheel separating from the trailer. I gradually developed a toolkit and spare parts for fixing most of the problems that crop up on the road, and I recommend that you do the same. This is a good time of year to think about that, since you can share the list of tools and parts with people who want to get you Christmas presents —or take advantage of post-Christmas sales!

The tools you need depend on the jobs you are willing to take on. At a minimum, I suggest you carry parts and tools to:

  • change a tire
  • replace a fuse or light bulb
  • disconnect / re-connect the battery
  • clean up corrosion on metal
  • detect a gas leak and tighten a gas connection
  • replace a rivet
  • fix a 12 volt electrical connection
  • tighten a loose screw
  • test a power outlet
  • fix a water leak

You don’t need a ton of fancy tools to do those jobs. A cordless drill is very helpful and you probably already own that. The only other expensive tool you need is a good torque wrench (and a 6″ extension & socket), so you can be sure you’ve got the lug nuts tightened properly when you change a tire. The rest of the tools are pretty simple and not terribly expensive, even the rivet tool used to replace pop rivets. Screwdrivers (a single driver with a set of different bits is ideal for storage), an adjustable wrench or two, a little spray bottle for soapy water, some sandpaper, butt splices, an outlet tester or voltmeter, a wire cutter/stripper, a tire pressure gauge, assorted fuses, rivets, and bulbs. Some tapes (electrical and plumber’s), glue, a razor blade, a hammer, and zip-ties wouldn’t hurt.

If you travel for long periods then you’ll want more stuff. The trick is knowing when to stop packing tools. I’ve seen guys traveling with pickup trucks that were basically big rolling tool boxes. I used to ask, “Are you planning on rebuilding the trailer on the road?” but then a friend of mine actually did rebuild his trailer while courtesy-parking at a friend’s house. So it all depends on the state of your Airstream and how much you care to do yourself. I bring things like a tube of silicone caulk for periodic replacement in the shower and kitchen, and that’s only because we take the Airstream out for about five months each year. I’ll bring a relatively rarely-used tool or part if it’s light or small, but there’s a point at which I’m going to find a service center.

My personal goal is to be prepared for anything small that might seriously disrupt a trip, which is why I put emphasis on tires, fuses, gas leaks, electrical problems, and water leaks. It’s really annoying to be somewhere remote, like Big Bend National Park or the north rim of Grand Canyon, and find you have power problems because of a simple bad ground. Do you really want to hitch up and tow 70 miles to the local garage mechanic just to have him clean a contact with sandpaper that you could have done yourself in one minute? That’s the stuff I try to be prepared for.

After eight years or so, my tool kit has matured. It’s pretty solid, but it occurred to me that I still don’t have everything I should. Several times I’ve had to pull off onto the highway breakdown lane, with traffic whizzing by at 70 MPH, to check on a tire or investigate a strange noise. It can be a pretty frightening experience. I don’t have flares or orange cones, and during the day I don’t think flares really show anyway. You’re probably more likely to get whacked by a car while you’re setting them up.

So I’m going to pack a high visibility colored shirt, in green or orange, that I can throw over whatever I’m wearing when I have to get out and tend to something by the side of the road. You can get these at Home Depot, cheap, along with a lot of other safety equipment. I’ve heard that in Europe high-vis safety vests are being mandated in passenger cars and you can get a ticket for not having one (which I think is a bit of European safety ov erkill). But they’re still a good idea.

The other thing you can do this winter is check over your Airstream periodically. Two things kill Airstreams: accidents, and water. Water damage is insidious and usually slow, so it’s easy to catch if you just make a small effort. This time of year people put away their trailer for the winter not realizing there’s a slight leak, and in the spring they find a smelly, moldy, and water damaged mess. Believe me, a slowly-melting blanket of snow atop the roof will severely challenge the waterproofness of the seams and rivets, even those that didn’t leak in the last gentle rain. So it’s a good idea to get inside to check everywhere (especially inside closets and around the floor edge) for moisture. A flashlight and paper towel will help you find any wet spots.

We’re running a short article in the Spring 2013 issue of Airstream Life about all the things that have expiration dates in your trailer or motorhome. There’s quite a list: fire extinguisher, smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, propane detector, tires, water filter, First Aid kit, batteries, and propane tanks. If your trailer is over two years old at least some of these items are either expired or need new batteries, and if your trailer is over a decade old then it could need everything on this list replaced. This is why RV owners think 9V batteries are a good stocking stuffer. So go around your trailer and make notes of all the things that may have expired, or at least pack spare batteries and water filters for your upcoming trips.

Finally, I want to talk about the First Aid Kit. You probably don’t have one, because it didn’t come with your trailer. It is surprising to me that the RV safety code calls for installation of a fire extinguisher but not a First Aid Kit. This suggests that they are more worried about saving the RV than they are the people inside it. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Let me tell you from personal experience, when you are traveling most urgent medical issues happen when you are miles away from health care, or on the Friday night of a long weekend in a small village like Jackson Center. I don’t know why. The point is, you need a First Aid Kit. You can buy these pre-made, or just build your own like we did. We went to Wal-Mart the day after Eleanor sliced her finger open with a kitchen knife, bought a zippered case, and filled it with goodies like bandages, tape, gauze, anti-bacterial, scissors, gloves, hydrogen peroxide, Benadryl, etc. We also got some advice from friends who were formerly nurses, EMTs or MDs about treatment methods and tricks. The next time we have a domestic injury while camped somewhere remote, we’ll be much more able to take care of it ourselves.

So, I’m sorry if you are stuck in the snow, or facing a long gray winter with no fun travel plans, but at least if that’s the case you can do a few things to make next year’s Airstreaming more fun and more safe. I sometimes recommend to people that they periodically go spend an afternoon in the trailer even if it is parked in storage or in your driveway. Plug it in, fire up the furnace, turn on the lights, put on some music and snacks. Make the place feel alive again. You can watch a football game on the TV, read a book, or just hang out for a while. With nowhere to go, you’ll have time to think about what you’d like to do next, and what you can do to improve the Airstream. Trust me, spending a little time with your Airstream will make you feel better, like a mini-vacation, and may well extend its life too.

Somewhere in this pile …

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

At one point we had thought we might be leaving for Colorado today … but it became very apparent last week that I had absolutely no chance of being ready to hit the road anytime soon.  Everything is happening at once, and I’m locked down in Tucson until I can get it under control.

For years I advocated how you can work from the road, and that’s still true.  In fact it’s even more true today than ever before, because the Internet-based software tools and connectivity options have improved dramatically.  But “from the road” doesn’t really mean from the road, it means “while parked somewhere in your RV.”

To really get serious work done, you have to stop driving, stop sightseeing, and just do the job.  The fantasy of working from your Airstream while the scent of pine trees wafts in your open window, and the Grand Canyon looms just a few feet away, is replaced by the reality that the best place to get work done is often an RV park in a city, with the doors & windows shut.  And if you’ve got to get somewhere in a hurry, it’s pretty hard to get much of anything done.  I’ve never mastered the technique of driving and typing on my laptop at the same time.

I realized that with all the things I need to get done, it was pointless to hitch up the trailer.  We’d just end up driving 300 or 400 miles and then sitting there while I pounded away at the laptop keys and raved about lousy Internet connections.  Eleanor and Emma would have to find something to do, perhaps not in an ideal location, and all told we’d probably be less productive than if we just stayed here a few more days.  So we are.

The Fall 2012 magazine got done last week, and is off to the printer, but that didn’t end my work on it.  A few other things have to be checked off the list before I can forget about it, such as cutting a postage check (a painful moment; postage is my second-highest expense), invoicing the advertisers, invoicing subscribers, updating the online store, updating the website, building the Online Edition, cutting mailing lists, and a few other jobs.  Most of that is now done.  I’m working on the Winter 2012 and Spring 2013 issues when I have time.  Fall should be in the mail by late next week.

We launched Alumafiesta last weekend and that is going well.  People are signing up quickly, which is great to see.  I think we’ve got a winner there.  I’m working on the schedule now and hope to have something to release in draft in about two weeks.

We’re going to have a Track A/B/C system for Alumafiesta.  Track A events will be “active”, meaning hiking, bicycling, and walking. Brett and I will lead most of these personally.  Track B events will be physically easier stuff, mostly museums (like Pima Air & Space) and parks (like Tohono Chul) with guided tours by docents and volunteers.  Track C will be “self guided” suggestions for each day, including driving tours, tourist attractions, and gem show venues.

This will all be in addition to the usual daily get-togethers, evening seminars, meals, and entertainment on-site.  I’m having fun picking out and researching the activities.  Today we are going out for lunch to see if a particular 4th Avenue restaurant will be suitable for an optional lunch get-together for our group, and this weekend we will go check out a park or two and inquire about guided tours.  In September or October, when the weather is cooler, I’ll ride some of the local bike paths to scout out a route we can do, with lunch stop built-in.

The Airstream renovation project is plodding along when I have time to think about it.  The upholstery shop came by for an interior tour, and their quote on re-doing the dinette came in at $1,728 (with new foam, and fabric assumed at $37/yd).  It turns out that the dinette will use about 14 yards of material, which is more than I had thought.  So upholstery is going to be a huge part of the budget. We will probably try to cut that by shopping fabrics carefully, and getting a competitive bid.  Tom M tipped us off to, where we can get Ultraleather at about $21 per yard.  That alone would save us $224.  But no question, it’s going to be tough staying inside of $6k for the whole project.  The Marmoleum floor is looking like about $900 for the material, and I haven’t yet got a quote on the installation.

Alumafandango is in the final stages, with far too much happening at the 11th hour, but the bulk of the details are now complete.  Over at Lakeside they’re racing to finish clearing up the site and installing the power system.  Of about 91 trailers slated to arrive (as of today), more than half need/want 30-amp power, which caught us by surprise.   The hot summer in Denver has really freaked people out.  So the local electrical shops are  being cleaned out of connection boxes by our electrical crew.  Brett & I bought the old power distribution system that was owned by the Vintage Trailer Jam partnership (2008-2009) and that’s being cannibalized to distribute power at Alumafandango too.

We had a serious monkey wrench tossed in the works a few weeks ago.  A micro-burst thunderstorm hit Lakeside Amusement Park and washed out our camping area.  An estimated 300 cubic yards of material was relocated from the main parking area, through our campsites, and into the lake.  It also washed out the track for the steam train that circles the lake.  Brett H of Timeless Travel Trailers led the heroic effort to recover the park as quickly as possible.  They’ve brought in several 4-yard front end loaders, various other machines, and 90 cubic yards of crushed concrete.  There was a lot of stored old park “stuff” that got flooded, and as a result over 30 dumpsters full of soggy material have been hauled away.

All in all this has turned out to be a good thing for us.  The campground will have little grass this year, but we will have a fresh new surface, graded with a swale to prevent future wash-outs.  A lot of eyesore debris is gone, many dead trees have been removed, and overall the camping area will be considerably nicer than it might have been.  Work is still ongoing and things are a bit messy at this point but it should be done well before the event starts on August 21. We’re in daily contact with our people at the park, and revising the parking map & schedule of events a couple of times a day just to keep up with all the new information.  I would rather this was all done months ago, but who can tell a thunderstorm when to hit?

And then there’s the “miscellaneous”. I’m supposed to be giving a presentation on “my favorite mobile apps and tools,” which I have yet to begin writing.  We’re still recruiting volunteers.  The t-shirts need to be shipped tomorrow.  We need to build the geocaches, confirm the ice cream vendor, publish the Survival Guide, pick up the awards, build a temporary dump station, finalize some catering details, order the volunteer shirts, …. At times it does seem endless.

So life is temporarily a little crazy.  We’re trying to do the work of two dozen people with a skeleton crew.  It’s all I can do to keep my desk functional. I have lists upon lists, just to keep all the ideas and tasks straight.  Somewhere in the pile of data that is my computer’s desktop I actually have a list of lists.  There are photos and maps, spreadsheets and layouts, online registration systems (two separate systems covering four events), custom reports, and all sorts of shared documents in the cloud.  If I lost my laptop this week I might as well just move to a country with no extradition treaty because there would be several dozen people looking to kill and/or sue me.  (Which reminds me, I need to do a hard drive backup today.)

This would be depressing except that I live for challenges like this.  Brett and I wouldn’t kill ourselves putting together these events if we didn’t really enjoy it.  The standard we set for ourselves is high, but when it comes together at the end and people say “You guys did a great job!”, it all seems worthwhile—and then we start planning for the next year.

In the meantime there are sacrifices, and the primary one right now is that we will not be able to get into the Airstream until at least sometime late next week.  I haven’t begun packing yet, although Eleanor has done much of the household stuff.  My packing should be simple, since I didn’t take much out of the trailer when we got home a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a small pile of clothes to add from the laundry and then my office stuff (laptop, cameras, etc).  Over the years I’ve gradually accumulated separate “Airstream clothes,” and “Airstream equipment,” so for example I don’t have to load in my flatbed scanner or printer because the Airstream has its own that never get unloaded.  This saves a lot of time. And that’s a good thing, because time is definitely something that is a bit scarce right now.


About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine