Archive for the ‘Roadtrips’ Category

Taking stock

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

I remember back in our full-timing days that we used to tell people we had chosen lifestyle over money. In other words, our apparently footloose life was a compromise balanced against career advancement, possessions, community, and the sense of security that a stationary house provides. But this was just a convenient explanation for people who couldn’t understand why we’d sell our house and most of our stuff to go “out on the road.”

In reality, we didn’t give up much at all. I was able to grow Airstream Life slowly while we were traveling, and we had all the possessions we needed (and gained a new understanding of what’s really important), we discovered an entirely new traveling community, and we felt just as as secure in our Airstream as in any home we’ve ever owned. Few people who hadn’t tried the lifestyle would believe that.

However, there was one painful truth. When the business got to a certain point, it became less convenient for me to be traveling around full-time, and I found much greater productivity when I was able to stay home and sit at a desk with reliable high-speed Internet. I’m not saying that I couldn’t continue to travel, but once placed at home, things sort of blossomed, work-wise.

Now, five and a half years after we stopped full-timing, I find that I’ve managed to fill in all those hours that I formerly spent towing the Airstream and exploring national parks, and suddenly the work has taken over. It all came to a head on this trip, as I was trying to tow the Airstream east from Tucson to Sarasota, then run a week-long event, and then tow back to Tucson. There just wasn’t enough time in each day to take care of everything and it was getting frustrating to try.

So after Alumaflamingo, we stopped to take stock of everything. We dropped out of sight for a days, Internet- and phone-free, and spent some time in the driveway of our friends Bill & Wendimere. Think of it as a sort of personal retreat. Time to contemplate toes and get a fresh perspective.

The outcome is that, given all considerations, we should lean back a little toward lifestyle over money. For one thing, that means bringing on more staff to do things that I (and Brett) have been doing for both Airstream Life and R&B Events. It also means looking at everything else we do as a business and as a family, to decide what needs to be pared down so that we can start traveling with less pressure and more spontaneity.

These choices aren’t easy. It’s very much like moving out of a large house and into an Airstream: you have to be decisive and committed to the path or you’ll fail. In the case of downsizing one’s possessions (which we’ve done once before), success is indicated by the amount of “stuff” you stick in storage. If you put a lot of stuff in storage, you haven’t really pared down, you’ve just postponed the decision till later. It’s the same with lifestyle choices. If I offload work but continue to micromanage, I’ll be reminded of the folly of that strategy next year when a lengthy trip is interrupted and made stressful by numerous problems from the office.

It will all work out in the long run, but I also know that none of this can take effect soon enough to help me on the drive home. It’s over 2,000 miles back to home and my “to do” list is embarrassingly lengthy. My goal is to be closer to the footloose mode of travel by next year, albeit perhaps a little bit poorer financially. It’s worth it.

For the return run to Tucson there wasn’t much to do but to put on a smile and drive like a lunatic. The longer we take to get home, the more work piles up. The quicker I get home, the sooner I can start training people to do jobs that lighten my load. So while we aren’t going to get home quite as fast as we left for “Aluma-Zooma” we are going to be back no later than March 16.

Let’s see … what have we done so far? Wednesday March 5, we left the driveway near Kissimmee and headed toward the panhandle. After an uninteresting roadside stop overnight, we pulled into Henderson Beach State Park in Destin, FL and had a couple of days at the beach. We watched the seabirds and walked the white sandy beach. This visit set a pace that I liked: two days of zoom, two days of chill.

So we headed to Austin, TX next. Despite the fact that South by Southwest is going this week, we managed to snag two nights at Pecan Grove (near the epicenter of SXSW). I had a meeting downtown on Sunday night, which turned out to be an adventure in itself thanks to the colorful array of humanity attending SXSW, and another meeting on Monday at a barbecue place. To me, that’s a double-dip because Texas barbecue is pretty good stuff.

We logged a lot more miles on this trip than I had anticipated, so I also spent half of Monday at the local Benz dealership getting routine service done. Good thing the dealers all have fast wifi—it was just as productive a morning as I would have gotten at home, with the added benefit of free pastries and a comfy couch. The GL320, by the way, has 87,000 miles on it now.

Today, Tuesday, we started the trek across west Texas. There isn’t much to be said for the run along I-10 after Fredericksburg, so we made a point of stopping for lunch in Fredericksburg at one of the German restaurants, as a sort of last hurrah before plunging into the nothingness. Fredericksburg was a mob scene, as all the state parks are, because this week is also Spring Break in Texas. We had plans to hit a bunch of state parks on the way home, but that plan got quashed when we tried to camp at South Lllano River tonight and were told “all full”. Ah well, sometimes the footloose life isn’t easy. May we live in interesting times.


Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, February 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tucson to Sarasota
180 hours

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

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

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

Mogollon to McDowell Mountain

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which way to go?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Since we are in the last week of our trip, we are looking ahead every day to try to figure out how to make the most out of the time we have left.  Yesterday morning at the Datil Well BLM camp we realized we could just stay put another day rather than pressing on (as had been our intention) to Arizona.  As I mentioned, Datil Well is a nice spot, and it satisfied our general attraction to quiet and beautiful places that are off the beaten path.

The alternative was to continue to Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area in Show Low, AZ, which we knew was a nice place along our general route but also very popular. That might mean a shut-out if the park was full, and we’d be abandoning a place we knew we liked. Also, if we stayed two days at Datil Well, we’d have to sprint from Show Low directly home, which would result in a long drive on our final day.  I hate arriving home after a long drive, because arriving means lots of tasks in order to re-settle into the house. (Sometimes we resolve this by staying in the Airstream another night in our own carport, so we can tackle the job of transferring to the house in the morning.)

We couldn’t decide without a look at the map.  In the Tour of America days these early-morning talks would mean I have to throw on some clothes and grab the atlas from the car.  These days we pull out the iPad and start browsing the map on the AllStays Camp & RV app.  This allows us to see all of our options for camping while we look at possible routes.  (I don’t have a picture of this; you’ll have to imagine Eleanor and I sitting up in bed sharing an iPad.)

NM-AZ routeFrom where we were (green dot on the map), options to get back to Tucson were few.  We could turn around and take NM-12 south to NM-180, eventually ending up in Arizona at Safford.  We’ve driven most of this route, and it’s scenic but slow, and there wasn’t anything along the way we wanted to visit. (The famous Catwalk is along this route, near Glenwood NM, but weather conditions have closed it too.)

That left only one way to go: continue west on NM Rt 60 toward Arizona, our original plan. This would inevitably bring us to Show Low (red dot on the map), since the only alternate route south toward Tucson is the famous “Devil’s Highway” (Rt 191, formerly Rt 666), and trailers over 25 feet aren’t allowed on that road.

Pie Town NMThe good news was that this route would bring us past Pie Town right around lunch time, and Pie Town basically exists because of the shops along Rt 60 that sell … well, you can guess.

The bad news was threatening weather.  Show Low and most of the towns along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona were expecting serious thunderstorms.  When the weather service reports strong thunderstorms, the boilerplate statement usually says something about the “possibility of large hail” and “gusts up to 60 MPH.”  I’m not particularly concerned about gusts to 60 MPH when we are parked, because I know the Airstream can handle that, but “hail” is a word that strikes fear into the heart of any aluminum trailer owner.

So you can see that with all of these factors to consider we needed some time in the morning to figure out what to do.  I can’t think of a better place to have such a conversation that in a warm bed while waiting for the water heater and coffee maker to finish their jobs.

We eventually decided to compromise: we’d stay at Datil Well until checkout time (1 p.m.) and then migrate over to Show Low for a single night, then head south to some place in the desert for our final night and a short drive home the last day.  Pie Town was a bit of a bust since it’s off-season and the famous “Pie-O-Neer” is only open Thurs-Sun this time of year, but we found a decent lunch a little further on in Quemado.

The only weather we encountered was along the final leg of Rt 60 and it amounted to a feeble shower left over from the thunderstorm line that had threatened Show Low earlier in the day.  By the time we landed in Show Low it was sunny and gorgeous again, and of course being Sunday we had no trouble finding a space at Fool Hollow, so it was generally smooth sailing all day.

Emma has pointed out that until we arrived at Fool Hollow, our trip seemed to have an insect theme.  We picked up lots of spiders in Vermont and Ohio, a few houseflies in Missouri and Kansas, ladybugs in Capulin, butterflies in Mountainair, grasshoppers at the VLA, gnats at Valley of Fires, and at Datil Well the campground was nearly covered over in fat black fuzzy caterpillars.  Along the way we have evicted a few bugs from the Airstream, but mostly the damage has been more to the insect population than to us.  The front of the Mercedes and the Airstream look like we’ve been driving through chum, so I was grateful for the little showers we encountered on the road.  Our last stop before going home will be the local truck wash.

Fool Hollow AZ E E Fool Hollow has turned out to live up to its reputation.  The lake is small but pretty, with canoe and kayak rentals available.  There are nice gravel walking trails around the lake, well-designed camp sites, and even an ice machine and book swap in our loop. The neighbors did of course fire up the mandatory state park “campsmoke” (can’t really call it a fire—I wish more people had Scouting training & could build real fires) which forced us to close up all the windows, but other than that we really enjoyed the place.

Despite the pleasantness of this place, it’s time to get serious about going home.  We could do it in one day if we left early this morning, but since we have a little time our plan today is only to get about 150 miles south and then arrive at base on Wednesday in the early afternoon.


The Very Large Array, New Mexico

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

For years I’ve driven down I-25 in New Mexico and noticed the sign that says “The Very Large Array,” pointing off to the west. Each time I’ve reluctantly continued on down the highway because time wouldn’t allow the 55-mile detour to go see whatever it was. This time, we made time, and wow— we’re all really glad we did.

It was worthwhile for two reasons. First, Rt 60 through northern New Mexico is a quiet, fast, and scenic drive through the upper elevations. In the afternoon the light makes the yellow grasslands glow, and mountains all around keep the scenery interesting. Second, the Very Large Array (VLA) is abso-freaking-lutely awesome. (That’s a scientific term, the first of many you’ll encounter in this particular blog entry.)

Very Large Array New Mexico-6

You really have to see this thing to believe it. It is a giant radiotelescope, made up of 27 big parabolic dishes, each measuring 25 meters. All of them point to the same place at once, and the radio signals they collect from the heavens are combined (“correlated” in scientific language) using a big supercomputer into a single radio image. The effect is that the array acts like a single gigantic radiotelescope measuring 22 miles in diameter!

The array is placed far up in the New Mexico hinterlands, safely away from the radio signals of cities like Albuquerque, and high up on the plains (7,000 ft elevation) so that the signals have less atmosphere to pass through. Driving west on Rt 60 we could see the array from three miles away. It is so sensitive that visitors are require to turn off cell phones while in the area. I almost forgot to turn off the Airstream’s Internet until Eleanor reminded me. The VLA could detect a cell phone from Jupiter, half a billion miles away.

Very Large Array New Mexico-7Somebody thoughtful added a Visitor Center to this installation, which is easily accessed by RVs. Approaching the VLA, you get the sense that there should be barbed wire and armed guards anywhere, but in our entire visit (starting at about 4:30 p.m.) we didn’t see a single person other than a few other visitors. The staff works 24 hours a day but they are hidden inside buildings with the WIDAR supercomputer.

You just walk right into the Visitor Center, press a button to watch the movie, tour the exhibits, and then take a self-guided walking tour around the facility. The tour brings you right to the base of one of these behemoth dishes, close enough to see it move (which it did without warning, twice, while we were there), and hear the “cryogenic refrigeration compressors” keeping the radio receiver at -427 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Kelvin). That’s not a typo.

Very Large Array New Mexico-4Of course, not the entire installation is open to the public. You can’t walk around to the other antennas, and you wouldn’t want to anyway, since they can be spaced out as far as 21 miles. A rail system is used to transport the dishes as needed, changing their configuration in four different ways according to the needs of the scientists who are using the system. Yep, these 100-ton dishes are portable.

Very Large Array New Mexico-2The magnitude of the array is just astounding. It’s easily visible on satellite imagery if you care to look. But walking around the place is much more fun. I can’t count the number of times Eleanor and I kept mumbling, “COOL!” as we wandered the grounds and Visitor Center. It’s a real geek-fest, but even non-geeks will find this place amazing—and recognize some of the installation from movies like “Terminator: Salvation” and “Contact.”

Very Large Array New Mexico-5Very Large Array New Mexico-3There’s also some interesting bits of geek history, like the pillars that famous scientists have inscribed their names on, and if you look closely you might even spot some interesting insect life. Grasshoppers were practically a plague in the roadway by the grassy fields, flinging themselves out of the way of the Airstream as we slowly towed down the entrance road.

My only regret about the visit is that the tour does not include a peek at the supercomputer. I can understand why, but still I’d love to get into the room with a machine that can do 16 quadrillion processes per second.

Very Large Array New Mexico-1Overnight parking is not allowed, otherwise we might have just parked right there for the evening, since it was six p.m. when we were done. We hauled the Airstream another 15 miles or so up to Datil Well BLM campground, which turned out to be a very nice spot at 7,200 ft amongst juniper trees and rolling mountains.

For $5 a night this spot is really a bargain. The sites have no hookups and they aren’t level, but you get repaid for that in beautiful scenery and quiet. There’s even a tiny cabin that serves as a visitor center with information about the cattle drives that used to come through this area, and unbelievably, free wifi inside the cabin. I don’t know how they’re providing that. My phone reports one bar of Verizon or “No Service” and is unusable for calls. However, our Airstream Internet is working very well thanks to the booster and rooftop antenna, so once again I’m very pleased with the tech upgrade I did last spring.

We had a freezer incident yesterday. Somehow the door did not fully close the night before, and some of our food defrosted, including two of the steaks we bought in Capulin. So last night Eleanor cooked them in a cast-iron pan, and also roasted green beans, onions, mushrooms with red wine & garlic, and white beans with rosemary & garlic. It was a late night dinner followed by the last slices of almond cake with apricot cream that she made to celebrate the Harvest Moon a few nights ago. I imagine people in campsites nearby were wondering what the delicious smells were at 8 p.m., far up here in the New Mexico boonies.

A slow roam through Kansas

Monday, September 16th, 2013

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote the advice to aspiring Airstreamers that they should “make a [trip] plan, then plan to change it.”  That’s exactly what we’ve done, and it has worked out nicely.

In the previous blog entry I noted that we were watching the storms in Colorado and trying to time our arrival to miss the rain.  But once we got onto the road in Missouri (departing Stevyn & Troy’s place) Eleanor suggested we just slow down and forget all the interim goals I had in mind.  I thought about it for a moment as we were chugging west on I-70, then agreed.  We would just take it one day at a time.

This led to another decision: forget about Colorado this time.  The rain on the eastern side of the Rockies was persisting and we were just going to end up mostly re-tracing routes we’ve driven before.  Looking at the map, we saw lots of routes and stops in New Mexico that we had never explored, and suddenly we heard New Mexico calling to us.  One spot led to another, and soon we had a list of potential places to visit.

So we are still winging it with a rough plan that changes daily as events (weather and interest level) warrant.  We’ve abandoned the Interstate for “blue highways” across Kansas and that decision alone has made the trip significantly more interesting.  There was one long day in there on I-70, ending up in a restaurant parking lot for the night, but since then we haven’t seen the Interstate and certainly haven’t missed it.  It may seem strange to slow down in Kansas, a state that usually causes people to speed up, but a slow meander across the countryside does reveal a lot of rural charm (and occasionally interesting mid-century architecture) for those inclined to see it.

Lake Meade KS Airstream After that overnight in Junction City KS, we wandered southwest past Dodge City.  Eleanor has begun training as a driver of the Airstream, and this relatively quiet route gave her a good chance to drive 120+ miles, for which I am proud of her.  She didn’t enjoy it much, especially the construction zone … and the rotary … and a few other things … but she did very well.  The Airstream has no damage and I found it so relaxing to have her drive that at one point I nearly fell asleep.

Quite a while later, with Eleanor recovering in the passenger seat, we ended up at a remote oasis in amidst the sorghum fields called Lake Meade State Park.  Whoever thought of damming this little valley and making a park out of it was a genius, because it’s just a wonderful thing to find a lake nestled amongst tall shady trees after hundreds of miles of flat vast dryness.  We celebrated with a turn on the swingset by the lake shore.

Lake Meade KS swingAnd better still, since it’s off-season we were virtually alone in the place.  You have to want to go here, since it’s many miles off Rt 54.  Put it this way, it’s about mid-way between Dodge City and Liberal KS, and if you want to go get a quart of milk you need to drive about 16 miles just to get to the highway. Sometimes the places that are incredibly inconvenient are great.

Today was another long leg, but we’re already slowing down.  While at a fuel stop in the small town of Hooker, Oklahoma, we encountered the principal of the high school.  Emma was snickering at the sign across the street which identified Hooker as the home of the “Horny Toads” (a sporting team), and he said (good-naturedly) “Are you making fun of our town?”  I thought it would be a nice ice-breaker to ask where we could get lunch in town, and he not only directed us to a good spot, but actually led us with his truck to a place on we could park the Airstream.  I wasn’t entirely sure we needed to stop for lunch, but this was a local recommendation and a red carpet to boot, so we had lunch in town and ended up killing over an hour of the day.

Hooker KS Airstream

After lunch we cruised through Oklahoma’s panhandle and toward the continental divide to Capulin, NM for a visit to volcano country.  There are supposedly something like 200 extinct volcanoes here, but the best known is Capulin Volcano National Monument.  The plan at the moment is to explore this area for a while and then meander down into New Mexico further.  That’s as far as it goes.  We’re all cool with that.

By the way, if you are in Tucson in early October, check out Tucson Modernism Week.  It’s a relatively new event, only in its second year, but already growing and full of interesting talks, architectural tours, parties, and exhibits. I’m not one of the organizers (friends are), but I will be speaking at the event on Oct 5 on the subject of “Amazing Vintage Trailers,” and I helped them get started on a Vintage Trailer Show too.  (If you have a trailer that might be good for the show, check their ad on Craigslist to get an application.

Back into the routine

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Sometimes the best part of a long drive is the chance to think.  The road through the Adirondack State Park region of New York is scenic and winding, but also familiar, so as we meandered through on our way down to the I-90 tollway and Eleanor and Emma became engaged with their books (and in Emma’s case, Nintendo games) I had the chance to explore my own thoughts without much distraction.

At first I was mostly concerned with “feeling out” the Airstream.  Sitting for a long time means little surprises can crop up, and although it towed as nicely as ever and my pre-flight checks turned up no problems other than rusted hitch pin (which I replaced), I was on alert for anything unusual.  We weren’t even one mile down the road before I realized something odd was up with the braking; the trailer wasn’t stopping as well as normal.

At first I assumed it was rust on the brake discs, but after the rust wore off there was still a feeling that the trailer wasn’t braking as hard as it should.  I also got a bit of a sideways push on hard braking, which is sometimes a hint that the Hensley is not aligned perfectly straight.  That happens when the hitch is removed and re-installed, but we had already aligned it on the way east in May, so the theory didn’t fit.  The hitch alignment is a “set and forget” sort of thing.  You don’t need to re-align it unless you remove the hitch head from the trailer, but just to be sure I stopped on level ground and tweaked the adjustment a couple of times.

That didn’t seem to fix the issue. I realized the off-center push would sometimes happen to the left and sometimes to the right, which actually suggests that the hitch head alignment is fine.  (A minor off-center push in either direction is normal, caused by uneven road surface when you are coming to a stop.)  But I never had any type of push before, so what was up?

After about 80 miles of towing and fiddling, I realized the cause in a “DUH!” moment.  The Prodigy brake controller had somehow gotten set to a lower maximum voltage.  This reduces the braking action, which allowed the Airstream to push the Mercedes a little, and thus allowed the Hensley to articulate to one side or another in a stop depending on the slope of the ground.  I checked and the Prodigy was set to a max 8.8 volts where it should have been set to 10.0 volts at least (on our trailer, yours will likely be different).  I have no idea how it got altered, since the setting can’t be changed without the trailer attached, and the Mercedes hasn’t towed the Airstream since early June.

Once I corrected that, we had the normal sensation of the trailer brakes leading the car, which prevents the “Hensley bump” and returned the confident braking feel I’m used to.  Other than the brake issue, the Airstream seemed to be perfect, which was great.

That’s not to say we don’t have “squawk list” of things to attend to.  The silver beltline trim around the lower body edge has faded to chalky white, and in one place has peeled loose.  I’m going to get a big roll of the stuff and replace it (an easy job).  The plastic propane tank lid is deteriorating from UV exposure and although it’s only cosmetic damage, I’m tired of looking at it peeling up like a bad sunburn, so I’ll probably replace that too.  Both of these items can be picked up at Airstream when we drop in next week.  We’ve got two more Hehr window gears that are stripping and I only have one spare, so I will be ordering more of those soon, too.

Lest we die of boredom with the I-90 NY State Thruway slog, we detoured up through Rochester NY and to the shore of Lake Ontario for an overnight stay at Hamlin Beach State Park.  It was a well-reviewed park, with manicured green lawns and good access to the shoreline, with nicely forested campsites in several loops.  Being the week after Labor Day, it was barely occupied.  Since we arrived at sunset, the entrance gate and offices were all closed, but a friendly staffer passing by said to just grab a site and pay in the morning.  I appreciated his helpfulness, although we would have done that anyway.

After a long period of sitting, the Airstream did experience some internal discomfort in its black water holding tank.  The motion of a couple hundred miles of towing stirred up things inside the tank and the result was a pretty awful smell from the plumbing vent when we stopped.  The antidote is easy, a triple dose of enzymatic tank chemical and plenty of water—the travel trailer equivalent of Pepto-Bismol.

Two days of towing has brought us to Lou & Larry’s home near Cleveland.  This is the best courtesy parking spot in the entire USA, with full hookups, wifi, level ground, and lots of hospitality from our hosts.  We’ve come here many times over the years. This time Larry took me to a real camera store—quite a rarity these days—and then his daughter and our friend Loren took us to Cleveland’s Westside Market.Westside Market

When we are in cities it’s a big treat for Eleanor to hit the markets like this.  There are a few in the USA that always are worth a stop, such as Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Boston’s Haymarket, and Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market.  Cleveland’s Westside Market is definitely on that list.

For me the attraction is both the food and the architecture.  I love looking in the glass cases at the abundance and variety of food, but I often spend as much time looking for photographic subjects in the buildings themselves.  Westside Market has a nice feature in its tiny upstairs gallery that gives a great view of the hustling activity below.  The building looks almost like it was re-purposed from an old train station, like the Musee D’Orsay, and I love just looking at the fantastic arched ceiling.

Westside Market Eleanor

Eleanor of course scored a few interesting things that will pop up on our table in the next few weeks.  I don’t know exactly what she bought; I’d rather be surprised.

For now, we can’t seem to eat much of our own food, since Lou & Larry keep hosting parties every night.  Last night we had a birthday party for a relative, with about 14 people attending and countertops buried in tasty stuff, and tonight we’ve got more guests coming for corn on the cob and whatnot. We just try to calmly accept the constant flow of friendly faces, meals, and conversation.  This is what you have to put up with sometimes when you courtesy park.

Squeezed on time

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

We are hitching up this morning.

Those words are always fun to type, because they mean that something new is about to start.  On this particular trip we are reprising stretches of road that we have traveled before, departing from summer base camp in Vermont and heading west, but still there’s a little shiver of anticipation.  Anything might happen.

Of course along the way we’ll visit favorite stops, but on the NY State Thruway there’s not too much of that.  And we are pressed for time (I’ll explain why in a moment), so the major change-up in the trip will be our overnight stop.  Gradually, we are visiting every state park and interesting campsite within 10 miles of I-90 and Route 8 (in the Adirondacks), and I like doing that.

The trip was supposed to start a few days ago, and end in early October, for a leisurely 4-5 week tour of the USA on the way back to Arizona, but now it has been squeezed to less than three weeks.  For over 3,000 miles that means longer towing days that I’d like, and shorter stops, so some compromises in the trip plan are needed.

The squeeze started when my orthodontist dangled the prospect of having my braces removed eight months earlier than planned.  I have an appointment Sept 27 to do the penultimate check, and if all is well, they braces will come off a couple of weeks later.  After a year and a half of these things I’m eager to get rid of them, but I do want to say to all “older” people reading this that I am extremely glad I went through the trouble.  I plan to keep my teeth for my entire life, and this was a good investment, and a real quality-of-life improvement.  Braces aren’t just for kids anymore.

It’s funny, when you are an adult with braces, other adults want to talk about teeth with you.  When I was at Alumafandango in Oregon I was approached by two people:  the first said, “I’m so glad you’ve gotten braces!” and then proudly showed me her straight and lovely teeth.  She was well into her 50s and had just recently gotten her braces off.

The second person was a man in his mid-30s, with a very crooked set of teeth and new braces. His teeth reminded me of mine, before I started orthodontia.  He said he’d been embarrassed by his teeth most of his life, and was hoping the braces could correct the serious issues he had.  It was a nice feeling to show him my teeth and tell him confidently that he would be happy he made the choice.  So now you know what I really did at Alumafandango: I compared teeth with other people.

Quebec CityThe second part of the travel squeeze resulted when my brother and I were talking about a grand motorcycle tour we had planned up to the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec.  Various schedule conflicts made that trip impossible, but then we seized upon the idea of a quick two-day tour up past Quebec City.  We checked the weather, checked the BMW motorcycles, checked our calendars, and decided that still there was time to do it.  So we launched on Tuesday and came back Wednesday night.

It was a tough trip but a great experience.  The weather was completely the opposite of the forecast (cloudy, cold, windy instead of the balmy sunshine we had been promised), and we got rained on for about 30 minutes on the way back through Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.  I was chilly much of the time despite wearing six layers on top, and the temperature just kept dropping every hour.   Steve’s bike had a clutch cable failure in southern Quebec, which we had to do a “field repair” on in a parking lot, and we lost so much time in Quebec City traffic that we didn’t manage to complete the tour we had planned.

PoutineBy most measures it was a disaster.  But I had a good time anyway.  I got to practice a lot of motorcycle skills (like bumper-to-bumper traffic in Quebec City, and riding in the rain), I did my first really long trip ever (over 600 miles), and I had lots of time to experience the zen of motorcycle travel, with the machine thrumming beneath me and the wind whipping by.  There were bright spots too, beautiful scenery in the rolling hills and river valleys, the chance to eat poutine with roast beef, a couple of days offline in a land where everyone speaks French, and a peek at the first golden maples of fall up in the far northern regions of Vermont.

It was one of those trips where the telling of the story afterward helps make up for the discomfort of the experience.  No doubt the story will get better with time.

Quebec BMW motorcycle grade-1So that’s why our Airstream trip has been shortened.  We still have no firm trip plan, other than to stop at Lou & Larry’s house in Ohio and probably drop in on Airstream as well.  It’s most likely we’ll barrel across the country after Ohio, since the stuff we want to do is mostly out west, in Colorado and Utah.  The weather is ideal this time of year for high-altitude outdoors fun in those areas, and I really would like to get back to some of my favorite national parks.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to make more out of less, by carefully picking our stops.  I’ll be documenting the trip as we go.

Travels this fall

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine