Archive for the ‘Tucson places’ Category

The Sonoran Hot Dog test

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

My friend Bill says that Tucson is famous for Sonoran Hot Dogs.  And here I am, alone again in Tucson with a week left before I am reunited with my family, never having tasted one of these artery-clogging specialties.  What’s a Temporary Bachelor Man to do?

Of course there’s only one response to that. On Saturday I recruited my neighbor Mike to be wingman as I crossed the threshold to this medically-cautioned treat, plunging headlong into a sea of mayo, mustard, and jalapeno sauce.  We piled into the old Mercedes diesel and clattered our way across to 12th Street on Tucson’s south side, where the two undisputed champions of Sonora hot dogs can be found:  El Guero Canelo, and BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs.

El Guero Canelo’s name refers to the founder, “the blonde Mexican guy.”  I have no idea what BK stands for, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the owner’s initials.  Both of these restaurants have opened other locations in Tucson, but both keep their original 12th Street locations as well, almost directly across the street from each other.  The hot dog business must be good.

bk-sign.jpgBK was our first stop.  An open-air restaurant, it features a tall, happy (and apparently suicidal) hot dog welcoming you to come and eat it.  Perhaps this hot dog is smiling because it knows that real Sonoran dogs are smothered in ingredients.  Nobody’s going to eat that naked thing.  It’s almost perverted to think of a hot dog so undressed when you are expecting the rich, fat taste of one wrapped in bacon and buried beneath beans, onions (grilled and fresh), tomatoes, mayo, mustard, and jalapeno.

bk-sonoran-dog.jpgWe decided that the BK dogs would be best with a “Mexican” Coke (meaning, in the original style green glass curved bottle that you hardly ever see in the USA anymore). A bottled soda tacks $1.75 onto your tab, but even still the meal of a Sonoran dog plus a Coke comes to less than $5.

The Sonoran dog, whether it comes from BK or El Guero Canelo, is a minor work of art. The sauces are decoratively zippered across the top, providing fair warning to those who attempt to eat them.  As with the Double-Double with extra sauce at In’n’Out Burger, you WILL need a napkin.  And possibly an angioplasty.

chowing-down.jpgBeing old guys, Mike and I both anticipated this glorious pig-out and ate lightly for the previous day.  We were hoping to earn cholesterol credits (at least in our minds) that would offset the highly unbalanced (but delicious) meal of a hot dog wrapped in bacon and doused in mayonnaise.  I think the only way we could have really earned these would be to have jogged all the way across Tucson, but being 104 degrees today, we weren’t even considering that.

The BK dog had a definite jalapeno bite to it.  Three bites later, however, and my taste buds were so busy struggling with the unaccustomed “full fat” flavor that I stopped noticing the jalapeno.  No doubt my tongue was also coated by then, protecting it from the sharpest of the spice.

Five or six bites later, it was gone.  My brain said, “MORE!” even though these things are surprisingly filling.  I was ready to call it a day after my first Sonoran dog, but Mike insisted on pressing onward.  We had come all this way for a hot dog trial and we weren’t going to shy away from the challenge now.  So we fired up the Mercedes again and drove all of 300 feet to El Guero Canelo for Round Two.  (Exercise was definitely not part of the plan.)

el-guero-canelo.jpgLike the competition across the street, El Guero Canelo on 12th Street is an open-air place with a roof for shade. I like the extremely casual atmosphere of the place.  It’s somewhere between a street vendor and sidewalk cafe, on the ambience scale.   If you want a Sonoran dog, you can get one at dozens of locations in Tucson, but still plenty of people from all over Tucson come down to 12th Street to eat at one of these two restaurants.

el-guero-canelo-sonoran-dog.jpgFor the second dog, I switched from Coke to Jarritos orange soda, and found there’s absolutely no impact on the dog-eating experience.  A Sonoran dog will overcome anything.

I did like the El Guero Canelo touch of a roasted pepper on the side.  But overall, I couldn’t decide whether I like BK or El Guero better.

They say we are hard-wired to love fats and sugars, as a survival instinct.   If so, it will always be hard to resist the lure of a Sonoran dog and a sweet soda.  Eat it, and not only do other tastes fade away, but soon you can’t even remember what was bothering you earlier.  You float gently on a raft of lipids, and your biggest challenge in life seems to be chasing those baked beans that rolled away.  It’s a bit of escapism in a bun.

I think that in a year or two I’ll have earned enough dietary credits to have another Sonoran dog.  I wouldn’t recommend them as part of a regular diet, any more than I’d recommend the dreamy chocolate cake that Eleanor left in the freezer, but as a treat they are pretty special.  It may well be, as Bill implied, that eating a Sonoran dog is an essential part of the Tucson experience.  I may start recommending them to people who visit — or at least, those who don’t already have heart conditions.

Tucson’s historic neon signs

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

tiki-motel.jpgWhile I’m in Arizona enjoying the summer monsoon season, one of my projects is go out at sunset and take pictures of signs …

I’m co-authoring a book with Carlos L., a local architecture enthusiast here in Tucson, about historical neon signs in Tucson.  Tucson’s stock of historical buildings is vastly depleted due to years of careless re-development.  Carlos runs a Yahoo group called “Vanishing Tucson” that tries to document places that are about to get torn down, and work with the community to save things when they can. Recently they were involved in the re-purposing of the massive handmade sculptures at Magic Carpet Golf.  (Many of the sculptures have been saved and a few are now permanently installed elsewhere.)

silver-saddle-steak-house.jpgWe still have a good stock of historical signage in Tucson, but it is severely endangered.   Most of the signs are neglected, dysfunctional, and non-conforming with current law.  Once they come down, they can’t come back.  And they can’t be fixed unless they come down!  Catch 22.  So activists in the city are working on a Historic Sign Amendment that will protect and grandfather those signs.

owl-lodge.jpgJust before sunset, when the desert heat is beginning to abate, we go out on photo safaris to find the signs and capture pictures of those that are lit.  On weekends, we make daytime trips to the signs that are no longer lit (which, sadly, is most of them).  Others are badly maintained and only partially lit, like the famous Tucson Inn sign pictured below.  I drive the car and jump out to take pictures, while Carlos rides shotgun with his laptop and updates his database of signs with details about their current condition.

tucson-inn.jpgBefore the Interstate, the main entrance to Tucson was a highway from Phoenix that became Tucson’s “Miracle Mile.”  Strung along it were scores of motels, restaurants, and other businesses, lit up with signs and beckoning the hot desert traveler with “Refrigerated Air,” swimming pools, and Color TV. The road continued down what is now Drachman Street, 6th Avenue, and out to Benson Highway.  Of course, the arrival of the Interstate changed all that, and now huge swaths of this formerly dramatic and bustling road are degraded, disregarded, and even disconnected from the former alignment.

abc-market.jpgStill, a lot of the historic signs have held on through the years, advertising apartments, “motor courts,” markets, and steakhouses. They are a largely under-appreciated resource of Tucson and many other cities, perhaps because old neon signs are associated with seedy parts of town.  But most of these signs are in front of thriving businesses.  If the Historic Sign Amendment can be passed, over 100 signs will be eligible for preservation. Hopefully then the owners will be able to take them down temporarily and have them refurbished to their former glory. I could even see this amendment spurring the founding of new local neon restoration businesses. There’s plenty of work to be done.

We’re doing this only because it is interesting to both of us, and it’s really needed.  We hope that the book will raise awareness and appreciation of historic signage, and perhaps provide inspiration for people in other cities that also have a historic sign resource worth preserving.  It’s a long term project with no specific completion date, but I hope we’ll be ready to publish in about a year.

Anyone who has old pictures of signs in Tucson as they appeared in their heydey, or information to share about signs, please get in touch with me by clicking here.  We’d welcome contributions and acknowledge them in the published book.

A very wet hike in Arizona

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

I’m in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, during summer.  All around me is nothing but sand dunes and shimmering waves of heat, right?

Well, no.  Actually we are blessed with beautiful “sky islands” in southern Arizona, which are tall peaks that rise from the desert and provide blissful cool forests and completely different ecosystems to explore.  Just north of home base are the Santa Catalina mountains, probably the more accessible range because of the excellent road that winds to the top, and the multiple hiking trails.

I’ve talked about this range before. From our home base, it is the first thing we see every day through the window, a stunning range of brown (down low) and green (up high) frosted with white peaks in the winter.  Everyone who I’ve talked to, even the residents who have lived here for their entire lives, says they never get tired of the Catalina view.

My friend Brent from the Phoenix area invited me to do some tent camping last weekend.  Like us, he owns an Airstream Safari 30 “bunkhouse,” and like us, he sometimes wants to get back to the basics once in a while.  There’s something about tenting that makes you really feel the experience. Just you, a thin shield of nylon, and an outdoor fire.

During the preceding few days the summer monsoon had finally kicked in, and I had been watching huge thunderstorms sitting atop the Catalinas, so it was a pretty fair bet that we’d get rained on up there, but what the heck.  Tucson averages just 12 inches of rain per year, so a little rain would be a somewhat novel experience. Besides, for a New England camper like myself it would just be an average camping trip.  Or so I thought.


There are several campgrounds located along the Catalina Highway.  In the summer, most people avoid the two National Forest campgrounds that are below 5,000 feet (because they are too warm), and head for the three that are located at 6,000 feet or above:  General Hitchcock,  Rose Canyon, and Spencer Canyon.  On weekends, that means you’d better show up early if you want to snag a spot.

When we arrived on Saturday morning, the camp host told us that terrifying thunderstorms had plagued the campground the night before.  Some people bailed out and drove back down to Tucson, apparently leaving their gear to fend for itself.  One camper told us he slept in his car, probably to avoid getting fried by the frequent lightning strikes.  We figured we were in for more of that on Saturday night, so we quickly set up our camp and anchored the tents as best we could.

The minute we left the campground, the rain started. At the trailhead, just five minutes later, it was a steady drizzle.  Being tough hikers, we decided to plow through.  “A little rain won’t hurt us!”

mt-bigelow-mushrooms-2010-07.jpgFor a while, the rain was intermittent and I captured a few shots during the drier moments, but that was not to last.  The rain poured down, so much that our conversation turned to rain forests we’d visited in Washington state and Puerto Rico.  There were no views except dripping plants, the occasional mushroom, and fog.

Soon our “water proof” gear began to surrender to the relentless rain.  My hiking boots soaked through and flooded, leaving me “squinching” with every step.  The sleeves and edges of my Gore Tex rain jacket became soaked, and the water migrated by capillary action up the sleeves and onto my forearms. My exposed hands became chilly from being constantly wet, and the rain was growing colder.

The cotton shorts I’d worn for the hike turned out to be a particularly big mistake. As hikers up north say, “cotton kills,” because once it gets wet it starts to leech your body heat.  Normally this isn’t a problem in the southwest, but in these mountains the temperature was only in the upper 60’s, and the humidity was 100%.  We were in the hypothermia zone, and those soaked cotton shorts were chilling my body rapidly.

By this time we’d turned around and were climbing up a steep hill, so my concern was minimal, but it was still a sobering revelation that, if something went badly wrong, one of us could die in these conditions.  People die in the summertime from hypothermia. Imagine having a serious sprain that left you unable to hike out.  In these conditions, you could easily suffer severe hypothermia while lying on the trail, waiting for help to arrive.  The cold ground would steal your body heat, while the constant rain would ensure no chance to warm up.

Imagine the irony of dying of the cold just a few miles from Tucson in August.  I told this to Brent to cheer him up — it didn’t work.  He said, “I’ve never been this wet before in my life.”

Rather than head back to camp, we drove further up the mountain to the village of Summerhaven, where there is a little pizza and cookie restaurant in a log cabin.  Looking like two people who had jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed, we recovered from our adventure while eating pizza and dripping water all over the floor.


Of course, the rain stopped completely once we got back to camp, and the skies were clear all afternoon and night.  The cumulative rain total for the preceding 24 hours was 4.5 inches.

You know how good it feels to get out of cold wet clothes and into dry ones?  Well, it feels even better when you’re camping in a tent.  Those little pleasures are amplified by the starkness of your resources.

So we set up the fire and ate leftover pizza for dinner, told stories, and let the world revolve without any help from us at all, until late at night.  There’s no exciting ending to this story.  We just hung out, slept in our tents, and got up the next morning for some hot cocoa.  It wasn’t long before we were talking about how we’d like to do it again soon.  That’s good camping.

Mt Wrightson hike

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

When we bought our house in Tucson while we were still full-timing in the Airstream, I explained to everyone that we never intended to spend summers here.  Now, three years later, here I am in ARIDzona in June, when daytime relative humidity runs in the single digits and every day is 100 degrees or hotter.

But I really don’t mind, as it turns out. Yes, it’s hot, but I don’t spend my days standing in the direct sunlight.  And in Arizona there’s always a cool respite at the top of a nearby Sky Island, high above the desert floor.

Brett is in town for a few days.  We have to head out for business this week, but it is traditional that when he comes to town I abuse him as much as possible by taking him on a tough hike.  He lives in Florida you see, and as such he is altitude-deprived.  No mountains.  Last year I took him up Picacho Peak, which is a short (2 mile) but challenging trail, especially when the temperature is above 100 during the hike, as it was that day.

He survived that and came back again, so this time I brought out the big guns.  I’ve wanted to hike Mt Wrightson ever since I first read about the trail to the summit.   It’s about 30 miles south of Tucson, not far from Green Valley.  The hike starts at 5,400 feet and ascends rather steeply and steadily up to 9,453 feet.  In addition to being a hike that “everyone should do once,” according to one hiking guide, it would also be the first time I’ve climbed a mountain over 6,000 feet.  Brett, for his part, was game for anything.

Being at relatively high elevation, the temperature at the trailhead was only about 80 degrees when we started, and for the rest of the hike things never got much hotter, since we were ascending most of the day.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that the dryness of the air only gets worse as you go up.  We both consumed about 100 ounces of water, and ran out about halfway during the descent.  All of that water went out through the pores and we were never sweaty, thanks to immediate evaporation.

Mt Wrightson was almost my undoing.  I haven’t spent much time at altitude lately, and I haven’t been hiking much lately.  At about 8,500 feet I started to hit the wall, and the problem was simply that I couldn’t get enough oxygen.  My rest breaks become more and more frequent.  Suddenly, I felt rather old, and it didn’t get better when the 20-something hardbodies from the local university started passing us like we were geezers.  It worse when, during a gasping break around 9,000 feet, a woman passed us on her second complete ascent of the day.  Now that’s just wrong.


As people always say at the end of a brutal hike, “the view was worth it.”   But I’ll be honest with you.  The view was spectacular in every direction, but it wasn’t worth it.  What made the strenuous 10.6 mile hike worth doing was simply the feeling of achievement.  Now I’ve hiked to nearly 10,000 feet.  Now I’ve seen a hundred-mile panorama from the tiny summit of Mt Wrightson: Tucson to the north, Patagonia and Sonoita to the east, Green Valley and the copper mines to the west, and the mountains of Mexico to the south.  Now I don’t ever have to do it again.


Hiking down again, of course, is much easier.  But I could have done without running into the woman who was on her way back up for a third complete ascent in one day.  At that point Brett and I were both feeling every bit of the late-40s man, complete with twinges in the knees and muscles begging for Advil. The uber-hiker woman didn’t look too happy either, on her way back up again, but she at least had the excuse of being (A) about 22 miles into it; and (B) obviously, completely insane.

When we landed back in Tucson, it was about 102 degrees but we were told we missed the real heat of 109 earlier in the day.  So I guessed we picked the right place to be on Saturday.  The rest of the evening was recovery: showers, re-hydrating, a quick trip to Bookman’s for cheezy paperback sci-fi novels to read during evenings of our business trip,  a pair of burritos from Nico’s Taco Shop, and a really early bedtime.

Desert bloom at Picacho Peak

Sunday, March 28th, 2010


picacho-blue-lupine.jpgAs we had hoped, the rainfall this winter is turning the desert into a virtual carpet of green.   Little yellow flowers are lining the hillside with long yellow streaks punctuated by tall saguaro cactus.  Once your eye focuses on the details, you can see blue lupine (?) everywhere, and tiny white flowers just now budding in the shadows beneath taller plants.

picacho-hike-photos.jpgAfter a morning of pancakes out by the Fabers’ Bambi, I collected all the excuses for why nobody wanted to do the full hike to the top of Picacho Peak.  No matter — there is a shorter, easy hike (0.7 miles) up to a low saddle with an excellent view that almost everyone was able to do.  Eleanor stayed behind to do battle with that virus, but Emma, Craig, Ken, Petey, Rick, and Mike all came along. Even for folks over 70 years of age, and those with questionable knees, the hike was easy thanks to plenty of photo stops along the way.


I mentioned yesterday, this was an official Tin Can Tourists event.  We were surprised to get visits from other TCT members who had read about it in the newsletter and decided to drop in on Saturday afternoon, just to see what was up.  Three guys with a 1960s Silver Streak motorhome swung by, and another guy came by with a custom hot rod.  We also had a visit from a nice couple who left their converted GMC bus at home. If we organize more TCT events in the future I’m sure we’ll get a chance to see that bus.  That’s motivation for me right there — I love to see the buses.

The TCT crowd is an exceptionally nice and diverse group of people, which makes camping with them a really great experience.  There’s always something to talk about and stories to hear.  That probably explains why we never did get away from the campground for that Dairy Queen Blizzard … but in the evening there was the traditional campfire (courtesy of Rick and Judy’s wood) and birthday pie in honor of Eleanor.  Too bad she was back in the trailer snoozing again.  We’ll do her birthday again later this week when she can properly enjoy it.

The Caravel test has been a success.  Yes, it’s very small and we have to work around each other to function in the trailer.  But it still works as well as it did the last time we camped in it — five years ago. Better, actually, since it no longer leaks or smells funny.  The larger refrigerator is more usable, the beds are more comfortable, and we’ve learned in the intervening years how to pack it properly so we can actually fit what we need.  I was really wondering if we’d come out of this weekend planning to sell it.  Instead, we’ve got a plan to go camping again in two weeks up in the Chiricahua Mountains, where the national forest campgrounds are too small for our 30-foot Airstream.

A Blizzard at Picacho Peak State Park

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

The phenomenon that passes for winter in southern Arizona has ended, and that means it is prime camping season down here in the desert southwest.

This spring is expected to be particularly fine. A Pacific El Nino effect brought us storm after storm (amounting to a few inches of rain here), which is inspiring the colorful desert flowers to bloom with vigor.  Plus, the special funds that pay for state parks were raided by our state politicians so that two-thirds of the meager Arizona state park system will be closing this year.  So time is running out for everyone to visit the state parks.  After that, you can just keep driving on I-10 to California, if they have any parks left…

So, a  few weeks ago I extended an invitation to the Tin Can Tourists to join us at Picacho Peak State Park for this weekend.  Besides the flowers and the imminent doom of the parks, I wanted to climb the dizzying Picacho Peak one more time and hopefully bring Eleanor and Emma up too.  We also wanted to camp in the Caravel for the first time as a family since 2005.

Alas, reality stepped in, in the form of a virus.  Two weeks ago we went to a karate tournament, where Emma picked up two 3rd place medals and both she and I picked up a souvenir case of food poisoning (we think) and a cold virus.  We spent the next two days unpleasantly — I’ll spare you the details — and the following week going through what turned out to be a particularly tough cold.  A week later we were both entering the final grim stage of borderline sinusitis and then of course Eleanor got it and the routine started over again.   So we arrived at Picacho Peak yesterday afternoon with Eleanor in a fairly limp and weakened state, and me with a distinct lack of breath that made it clear I would not be leading a hike up the mountain.

dsc_5185.jpgWell, despite all that the park is looking fine.  There are little yellow flowers everywhere, as well as a blue flower that looks sort of like a cross between a bluebonnet or lupine.  I’m not strong on flower identification, but it’s all pretty, so who cares?  The bloom is definitely not at peak yet, and it would be well worth anyone’s time to come visit the park over the next couple of months.  By June, the flowers will be in decline and the park itself will be closed.

We have six rigs here: ourselves in the 17 foot 1968 Airstream Caravel; our friends Ken & Petey Faber in their latest project (a 1961 Airstream Bambi, 16 feet of cuteness); Betty in her kit-build teardrop; Craig in his 1969 Newell motorhome; Judy & Rick in their late 80’s Airstream Sovereign 23; and Mike & Rosemary in their late-model Airstream.  Some friends of Betty’s are also here in another teardrop trailer.


petey-painting.jpgNobody seems to be planning to hike to the summit.  We are the youngest in the crowd, and everyone else has an excuse involving knees, lungs, viruses, or a strong commitment to a sedentary lifestyle.  I think if I went today I would be quite alone.

So instead we brought two cans of Batter Blaster and a pair of griddles, and we will be making pancakes for all at 8:30.  After that, we shall let the day unfold as it will.  There is “nothing” to do here except hike, take pictures, socialize, explore the new visitor center, picnic, make campfires, paint (as Petey is doing in her Bambi in the photo at right), read trashy novels, take tours of each other’s trailers, nap, and make pancakes.  Oh, and there’s a Dairy Queen at the rest area a mile away …  can you say “Blizzard”?

So don’t feel badly for us.  Life is good in the desert these days, despite bacterial and virus infections, and we are all pleased to get to try out our baby trailer again. Although I have to admit it doesn’t seem all that small compared to the 16-foot Bambi next door, and the tiny teardrops parked just up the hill.   I’ll report further on life in 17 feet later this weekend.

Sunny rainy days

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Ironically, as I sit down to write up this blog which is eventually going to discuss solar energy, the weather here in Tucson is astonishingly wintry.  Three Pacific storms are blowing by this week, each one bringing more rain and wind than the previous one.  Last night we heard the unfamiliar sound of heavy rain pounding our flat house roof in the desert, and this morning we woke to crystal clear air, sidewalks and driveways scrubbed clean of dust, a few downed palm fronds, and beautiful views of snow in the Catalinas above 6,000 feet.


Webcam image courtesy of UA Computer Science Dept.

tucsonwx.jpgEven when our forecast looks like this, it’s usually sunny most of the day in Tucson.  They get excited about rain here, for obvious reasons, and a “winter storm” has an entirely different meaning than it does in the rest of the country.  Here, it means wind, a little rain, and maybe a thunderstorm.  “100% chance of showers” doesn’t mean rain all day; it means definite rain at some point in the day.  Freezes are rare except in the mountains.

emmas-foot.jpgNormally after a big snow we’d go sledding in the mountains, but Emma has one foot in a cast that can’t get wet, and she can’t climb snowy hills anyway.  Broken fifth metatarsal, nothing serious. And we’ve got carnies in the driveway, and I’m afraid to leave the house unguarded while they’re here.  (Just kidding, they’ve been good courtesy parkers).

So instead of karate, hiking, biking, and sledding, we’re forced to some sedentary activities like cheap Tuesday night movies and Tucson Roller Derbydsc_4366.jpgThe ladies of TRD put on a good show Saturday and now Emma is sporting a cast covered with the autographs of roller derby queens, which is just extremely cool.  Not everyone has the autograph of Bev Rage, Furious Oxide, Pinky McLovin, Hellbent Betty, Zippy’s Takeout, Dirty Duchess, Blanka Trohl, and others on their foot.

The breaking of the metatarsal also means we’re staying home for a little while.  So, it’s time to clean up the inbox and respond to various inquiries.  Yesterday, blog reader Vernon wrote to me about solar panels:


It seems that I get more real world data from your blog than most ‘data’ sources… Have you ever logged hour-by-hour amp output from your 230 W solar system under ideal conditions? I see your daily totals and they seem well below the system theoreticals …  Thanks!

I often watch real-time amp-hour output from the panels and I’ve found that theoretical output is not very useful in the real world.  There is huge variation depending on sun angle, time of year, time of day, cloudiness, dust on the panels, and shading from trees.  There’s also some loss inherent in the wiring.  As a result, on a sunny day at noon we might generate as little as 8 amps, and as much as 12 amps.

The rest of the day the output will be considerably less.  In December, even on a clear day, output will generally run less than 3 amps until 9 a.m., and after 3 p.m.  Thus, on a clear winter day we might generate just 25 amp-hours per day.  On a partly-cloudy day, that can be cut to as little as 15-20 amp-hours, which is not much at all.

dsc_4469.jpgBut under “ideal conditions,” we can generate quite a lot more.  In late June or early July with full sun and 16-hour northern daylight, we could certainly produce more than 60 amp-hours per day.

We’ve never been able to measure our true total potential capability because, ironically, you generally need the least power in summer when it is most easily generated.  Thus, our batteries are always full by 2 or 3 p.m. in the summer.  Once the batteries begin to reach full charge, the system stops absorbing power and we have no way to determine accurately how much more power we might have been able to store.

Winter is the relevant challenge.  That’s when you have short days, low sun angle, and much higher power consumption due to increased furnace and light requirements.  It takes a powerful solar charging system and good weather conditions, to generate and store enough power to make up a typical day’s use.

It is for this reason that I recommend serious boondockers go for much more panel capability than the standard 55-watt installed as part of the Airstream “solar package.”  You want to have the power to get through a couple of partly-cloudy winter days if you camp during that season.  Having tilting capability on the panels will also boost power production considerably, but this is difficult to implement on an Airstream.  The best way to look at it is that solar generally just makes your batteries seem bigger.

The other piece of the solar equation is the capability of your solar panel controller.  Most solar controller incorporate good charging, so that when you have sun the batteries can enjoy the maximum capacity available. However, when you go plug in (whether to campground power or a generator) your factory-installed power converter kicks in, and those are often pathetically bad at recharging batteries.  Read about our experience here.  It makes sense to replace the factory converter/charger with a better 3-stage charger if you are going to use a generator to top off your batteries in addition to solar.

The pecan harvest

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

One things leads to another in a most interesting way, if you care to think of things that way.

Follow me on this, if you can.  It all started a week ago, when I fixed up my old beater bicycle so that I could go for rides around Tucson.  Yesterday I hopped on that bike and took my first substantial bike ride in many years.  Tucson has a very nice multi-use paved trail along the Rillito River, 11 miles in each direction, which I happily rode to the very end.

The trail ends abruptly at railroad tracks.  I stopped to rest and drink water, while watching the long freight trains scream by.  An older man was walking along the tracks with his dog, and we started talking. He’s retired, but volunteers extensively and writes Christian novels.  I heard about the time his dog was bitten by a rattlesnake (a distinctive fang scar still on his snout), and the places they walked together.

He pointed out a grove of pecan trees across the tracks, on the east side of Interstate 10, in which he often walked.  The pecan grove is owned by a local gravel company, but as long as he stayed clear of the gravel pits and helped keep the orchard clean of trash, they let him walk his dog there.  “The pecans are ripe now,” he told me.  “You may as well go pick them before they all rot.”


So this morning Emma and I drove over and found the trees.  We had never been in a pecan grove before, so it was mostly for the novelty of picking pecans that we went.  With Emma on my shoulders, it was easy to pick a partial bag of pecans in fat green husks.  We took just enough to have a small batch to eat, since at the time we weren’t sure of the proper procedure for cleaning or roasting them.

dsc_3769.jpgPecan husks split nicely along a natural segmentation into quarters.  We proudly took our bag home and demonstrated for Eleanor how to husk them. And then we realized something:  pecan husks stain your fingers dark brown.  Permanently.

I have probably the worst-looking fingers in the family because I shucked more pecans than anyone, but all of us have degrees of stained fingers now.  Nothing removes the stain because it penetrates the skin, like a henna tattoo.

Normally I would find this amusing and nothing more, but it just happens that next week I am scheduled to attend a major RV industry conference.  I’m going to shake hands with our current and future clients — or at least, I would if they would want to touch me.  I may have to walk around with my hands behind my back, like Prince Charles, although body language experts say this is viewed as untrustworthy.  Well, is it better to look like I haven’t washed my hands since I mucked out the stalls?

I suppose I could have a t-shirt imprinted that says, “Pecan Farmer.”  Or I could look on the bright side of this:  now I’m less likely to catch a cold while I’m up in the frozen north on the business trip. Or I could wear gloves and pretend I’m afraid of germs — or just unfathomably fashionable.

Apparently abrasive cleaners can have some effect, eventually.  So, having fixed up my bicycle last week means that I’ll be scrubbing the skin off my fingers every day this week.   And that’s how one thing led to another.

All Souls Procession

Monday, November 9th, 2009

dsc_3613.jpgIn the southwest, the dead are very much with us, as they reputedly are in southeastern cities like Savannah and New Orleans.  Influence from south of the border brings the dead close to us, particularly at this time of year, when the Mexicans observe El Día de los Muertos, or The Day Of The Dead.

The dead are not scary here.  They are remembered as loved ones who have moved on, and even in their skeletal form they are looked upon fondly.  It can be a little startling to a northerner to see altars in shops and homes featuring little skeletons dressed in their best clothes, alongside incense and gifts and remembrances.  But to many people here, the dead are still family and their graves are places to visit.

Between October 31 and November 2, Mexican families in southern Arizona will go to their relatives’ gravesites and honor them.  They’ll sweep the site and decorate it with gifts and flowers.  They’ll repaint the name of the deceased on the cross, and perhaps spend the entire day visiting.  The dead are remembered well, and their final resting places are not neglected.

So it is not surprising that Tucson (along with some other western cities) has several cultural events around this time. The biggest is the All Souls Procession, a 20-year tradition that looks like a mashup of Mardi Gras and Halloween, with a touch of Burning Man thrown in.  At first impression it is a parade, with a route starting in Tucson’s funky Fourth Avenue district and winding through downtown Tucson past the historic Congress Hotel and Rialto Theater, for a mile and half.

dsc_3582.jpgBut the All Souls Procession is more than a parade for many people.  Those who walk in the route run the gamut.  There are artistic displays, actors on stilts and unicycles, fantastic costumes, and even a “dead” array of marching bagpipers.  There are also individuals waving photos of dear friends now gone and shouting out a description of their good character, and people waving posters of their dearly-departed cats.  There are families pushing strollers, with even the children wearing skeletal face paint, and slackers slouching along with clove cigarettes in their street clothes.

Good wishes to the dead can be written on a form provided by the organizers, and burned in an altar at the end of the procession, but there is no formality at all to the proceedings.  Whatever sort of remembrance or mourning you wish to do is generally accepted, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other people.

dsc_3693.jpgWhen we arrived at the parade route along Congress Street we were reminded of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but then the differences began to appear.  The streets are not littered with drunk celebrants. There’s no screams of “throw me something, Mister!” or people flashing their body parts for trinkets.  All Souls is a subdued celebration, and a family event.  Anyone can participate.  Dozens of people walked the parade route pushing baby strollers. There are signs of respect for the dead, and respectful protest (“Iraqi war dead,” “Death of the Pima County Library,” “Men, Women, and Children Killed By AIDS”).  And just when it starts to feel like a carnival, somebody walks by with a somber look carrying a photo of a friend mounted on posterboard, with a list of that person’s wonderful attributes.

In this culture, people die three deaths. The first death is when bodies cease to function, the second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground and disappears from sight, and the third death is when there is no one left alive to remember.

I think there’s something in that.  It is habitual for some to forget the dead and never speak of them again.  But when you forget someone, all the lessons and experiences that person brought to your life are just as easily forgotten.  El Día de los Muertos reminds everyone, especially the children, that the dead are more than markers in a graveyard; they are the people who made us who we are.  I can see why the Latin American culture respects them every year.

More photos here.

Copperstate Fly-In

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Traveling via Airstream is great, but I also love being able to park at an event and spend the night.  At the end of a day at the fair, jam, balloon fest or rally it’s really nice to just retire to your home rather than getting in the car to drive away.  When you’re camped at the event, you’re usually away from the general parking crowd and close to the action, too.  That’s why we took the Airstream to the Copperstate Fly-In rather than just making a long daytrip out of it (80 miles from our home in Tucson).

dsc_3037.jpgThe Copperstate Fly-In is not so large that access is a problem even for casual visitors, but still it was nice to be camped just a few feet from the flight line.  The RV camping area is just a dusty parking lot with white chalk lines to delineate sites — nothing fancy at all.  No hookups, just blue porta-potties and trash cans.  For $10 a night it was a decent value because of the proximity.  We could see the aircraft taking off without even leaving our site, and easily hear when some warbirds were starting up for some formation flying.


The only downside for us was the generators.  Quiet hours were posted for nighttime, but during the day several RV’ers left their generators running up to six hours.  We were unlucky enough to be parked near several of them, and the fumes were constant.  I’ve seen many cases where people did this in hot weather because they (or their pets) needed air conditioning.  Dealing with heavy generator use seems to be a regular factor when we attend these sorts of events.

dsc_3027.jpgBeing October in the Sonoran desert, we could have gotten any kind of weather.  We were lucky enough to get near-perfect weather for a fly-in: highs in the low 80s, clear skies, and not much wind to kick up dust.  Visibility was typical for this area, about 20-30 miles.  Like most fly-ins, access to the airplanes and the owners was excellent, so we could walk up and talk to anyone about anything we saw on the field.  I spent a lot of time with the Cirrus guys and sat in the SR-22 G3 Turbo X (fantasizing), and also chatted with owners of powered paragliders, warbirds, biplanes, helicopters, and light sport aircraft.  There were also amphibious aircraft, homebuilts, and a gyrocopter.

By the way, Emma was very comfortable in the Cirrus’ back seat, and it looks pretty easy to fly.  Does anyone want to make a donation?  I just need another $600,000 to buy it.

If you want to see more pictures from Copperstate, check out my Flickr album.  I uploaded 156 photos there, enough to satisfy all the airplane buffs in my audience, I hope.
dsc_3066.jpgWe spent three nights camped at Casa Grande Municipal Airport, so there was plenty of time for side trips to the area around Phoenix.  One stop we made was to the Queen Creek Olive Mill, to take the $5 tour.  It’s a relatively brief one, involving an informative talk about olives, olive oil, and the pressing process, and then a quick look at the room where the extra-virgin oil is pressed out.  The pressing machine itself is the least interesting thing.  It’s basically a large box from which oil and “pomace” (leftover olive bits after pressing) come out.  But the guide and informative signs all around are educational, and the gift shop/restaurant are well done. I recommend the gelato.

dsc_3360.jpgThis trip is one of the very few times we’ve done an “out and back” short trip from our winter home base. The nature of these trips changes a lot of our assumptions about how we travel and what we do.  Most people do only these sorts of trips, but for us it is the exception, and we are still getting used to it.  Some aspects are really great, like the low fuel consumption.  In four days we used only 1/2 a tank of fuel including 140 miles of towing and about 150 additional miles not towing.  Other aspects are not so great, like the day we spent re-packing the Airstream.

If there were more multi-day events available in the area with RV parking, I think we’d do more … something for event organizers to consider.  I certainly intend to take my own advice.  Here’s a sneak preview.  Next year, Airstream Life magazine will be hosting a major event.  It should be great fun, with seminars, vendors, entertainment, a barbecue, and much more.  It will be open to all RV owners (Airstream and non-Airstream, new and vintage), but be warned, if you show up in an non-Airstream trailer we will convert you on the spot!  As to location, all I can say is that it will be east of the Mississippi.  I can’t reveal more at this time but there will be a formal announcement with all the details sometime in November.

The corollary to this is that the popular Vintage Trailer Jam will not be back in 2010.  The co-sponsors of the event have decided not to continue with it.  We all had fun but we’ve decided to let it go.  So if you’ve got time next summer, keep an eye open for the new event.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine