Archive for the ‘Mercedes GL320’ 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.

Someone to blog over me

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Hmm.. another long absence from the blog.  I can only plead guilty.  Life has interfered with blogging in so many ways I can’t begin to count.  But here’s a synopsis of what’s been going on.

The virus I mentioned earlier dogged me right through the week when I was supposed to be getting ready for Alumafandango, and then into the event itself.  The Saturday prior to the event I dragged my pathetic self out of bed, drove to Phoenix, caught a plane to Portland, and then rode four hours with Brett down to Canyonville to do pre-event work.  Sadly, I was in no shape to do any of those things, and so upon arriving at the hotel I collapsed into bed and proceeded to be fairly useless all weekend.  Brett did the heavy lifting, demonstrating once again that we could only do this as a partnership.

It was looking like I might even miss a few days of Alumafandango, but then on Monday things began to improve and by Tuesday when our first guests appeared I was able to approximate a smile and help kick off the event.  From there it was a marvelous week.  I didn’t have time to blog at all from the event, but you can probably read more about it from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and various blogs (Casarodante, TinCanz, Notes From The Cabin) than I could ever say.  (If you Google it, be sure you’re looking at comments about Alumafandango Seven Feathers, not the 2012 Alumafandango in Denver.)

What I really need these days is someone to read my mind and blog for me.  That’s not likely, so I recommend following my Twitter feed (“airstreamlife”) as a way to keep abreast of events.  These days I’m much more likely to get a quick tweet and a photo out, than a full blog entry.  I am, however, in active talks with a few folks who each want to become Editor of Airstream Life, and I have high hopes that one of them will work out and thus free up some time.  And I doubt I will ever stop blogging entirely, as it is a very useful outlet for thoughts.  As fellow Airstream blogger Ramona Creel says, “There’s too much stuff to keep in my head!”

Where were we?  Ah yes, Alumafandango.  We had about 65 Airstreams on site, and people just raved about everything: the campground, the seminars, the activities, entertainment, meals … Even the wildfires in the area were blowing away from us, so we had virtually no smoke.  The weather was great except toward the end where we had some pretty exciting thunderstorms.  Three awnings were damaged in the first round of storms, which the Sutton guys fixed on the spot using parts scavenged from their new display Airstreams.  After that everyone knew to pull in the their awnings when they were away.

Brett and I ran a seminar in which we accepted written questions on any subject related to Airstreaming, which we called “Airstreaming for Newbies” but really got into some advanced topics.  Nobody stumped us, and I got a few good ideas of topics to cover in the upcoming Maintenance book, from the questions people asked. We will definitely do that one again sometime in the future.

The highlights of the week were many: Randy Grubb’s “Decopod,” Antsy McClain & Edgar Cruz performing on stage, the frankly awesome seminars by Thom the service manager at George M Sutton RV, the Saturday night banquet, the on-site wine tasting and off-site winery tour, several really fun Happy Hours, Indian drumming … I knew we had a hit when people kept smiling at us and saying things like, “Wow, it just keeps going!”  About 1/3 of our attendees told us they were already planning to come again in 2014, and we haven’t even announced where or when we’re doing it again!

Now I’m back in Tucson, picking up where I left off two weeks ago, and thinking about what’s coming up.  There’s a lot of work ahead.  Our event planning team (Brett, me, Alice) is already working on the programs for our February 2014 events: Alumafiesta in Tucson and Alumaflamingo in Sarasota.  We want to have the tentative programs released in October.  Alumaflamingo already has 100 trailers signed up, so it looks like it will be a big one and we want to respond to that vote of confidence with a truly amazing program of activities.  It’s pressure, but the good kind.

I’ve also got to get the Winter 2013 issue in some sort of shape for publication this month, even though it’s not due to layout until later.  It’s looking like a good issue but there’s about 20 hours of editing work ahead.  And lately I’ve been consulting to the organizers of Tucson’s new Modernism Week event (now in its second year) on how to put together a vintage trailer show this year.  They are trying to get about ten nice vintage rigs for their show in the first week of October this year.  I may do a presentation there on the history of vintage trailers as well, if they need it. It will be a great event to attend, in any case, with lots of architectural tours.

Back in Vermont, Eleanor has managed some repairs to the trusty Mercedes GL320.  It had some minor body damage from two separate incidents (one dating back a couple of years), and we finally took it to the body shop to get all of that cleaned up.  Little dings can add up: the insurance claim was over $3,000 thanks to a ridiculously expensive front bumper part.  It’s the sort of stuff that could be—and was—easily ignored but I hate to see it accumulate and make the car look junky before its time.  The GL has about 74,000 miles on it so far, mostly towing, and I certainly intend to keep it for a few more years, so it was time to bite the bullet and pay the deductible to keep the car looking good.

In two weeks I need to head back to Vermont and then set out with the Airstream (and once again, E&E) on our voyage west.  We don’t have the slightest plan yet what route we are taking.  All we know is that we need to be back in Tucson by Oct 1, which gives us about a month to travel roughly 2,500-3,000 miles (depending on route).  I’m looking for little things along the way to fill up our itinerary so we won’t go too fast.

This is a nice problem to have, after last year’s mad dash over the concrete Interstates. Slow travel is the best.  It won’t be a vacation, but at least it will be an opportunity to take in some fresh new scenery in the Airstream before we settle back into home base for the winter.  And there will be plenty to blog about!

Classification: kittens for sale

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

A friend called Eleanor the other day and noted that the blog was quiet.  When that happens, she said, either Rich is working on projects he can’t talk about (yet) or there’s not much happening.  Turns out that it’s a little bit of both lately.

Home life has been quiet … so quiet in fact that our major form of entertainment has been the foster kittens. They have kept us entertained day and night, even at times when we’d prefer they were sleeping.  They arrived here underweight and left today, three weeks later, each nearly a pound heavier and in peak form to be adopted.

It’s a shame to let them go back to the Humane Society when they are so darned adorable, but they need homes.  We’ve done what we can to bring out their natural irresistible cuteness, and make them completely comfortable with people and typical household life.  As I told them at today’s graduation ceremony, “Boys, the rest is up to you.”  They seemed prepared for the task.  We’ll get a new kitten or two shortly, and begin the process anew.

Meanwhile I have fulfilled my pledge to do something about the spare tire issue.  This turned out to be fairly easy.  I ordered a fifth tire from Discount Tire to match the four new Bridgestones that are on the car, and they mounted it up last week.  The only catch was that the tires for the Mercedes are a lot bigger than the ones for the Airstream, so it wouldn’t fit in the spare carrier on the Airstream without some modification.  The Merc tire is about two inches wider and 2-3 inches larger in diameter.

So the first step was to do some careful measuring to confirm that the larger tire would fit in the Airstream’s belly recess.  It seemed like there was plenty of room in there, almost as if Airstream had foreseen this situation.

The spare carrier comes off easily, with just two bolts toward the rear holding it in place.  A 3/4″ socket and a short extension on a ratchet wrench are all you need.  Well, that plus a little elbow grease.  Once it was off, I loaded it up along with both the Airstream and Mercedes wheels, and took the whole pile to my favorite welding shop.

The modification was fairly simple.  The two bolt attachments needed to be extended by about two inches so that the entire carrier would hang lower.  This would allow the bigger spare to fit and yet still be pressed tightly up against the belly of the Airstream so it wouldn’t move.

I also asked the welding shop to figure a way that I could go back to carrying the smaller Airstream spare if I wanted to.  You can see their solution above.  They simply bolted on a pair of height extensions, welded on new outboard “arms” to accommodate the larger diameter, and fabricated a new latch with two holes.

If I wanted to go back to the Airstream spare, it would be just a matter of unbolting the two extensions, and using the lower hole on the latch for the locking pin.  The tension of the tire pressed up against the belly of the trailer will keep the tire from shifting much.

The new spare was a tighter fit than I had expected. While there was plenty of room in the recess, I had failed to consider the process of getting the tire under the Airstream.  The struts of the Hensley partially block the path, and there’s not quite enough clearance to slide the tire atop the carrier and beneath the battery box.  To get it in, I have to wind the Hensley strut jacks up into towing position (not a problem since that’s where they’d be anyway), and I have to use the trailer’s power hitch to lift the nose about 2-3 inches.  It’s also a much heavier wheel to deal with, so pulling this thing out on a rainy day by the side of a muddy highway will not be much fun.

Once it’s in place, there’s plenty of ground clearance.  The tire still hangs above the height of the hitch weight transfer bars.

This amounts to a very expensive spare tire.  I bought the Mercedes 20″ rim from a guy in California for $300 (new ones cost about $900!), the tire was about $250, and the fabrication work ended up at $125, for a grand total of $675.  But it will get used, because we need to do a five-wheel tire rotation every 10,000 miles (to keep all five tires evenly worn), so I’ll get my value out of the tire at least.

And it’s nice to know we have it.  Now if we have a tire failure on the tow vehicle, we can still drive. If we have a tire failure on the Airstream, we can tow on three wheels or unhitch to go get a replacement Airstream tire.  We have better options.  If we ever decide to go to Alaska or Newfoundland, we can still throw the (smaller) Airstream spare into the back of the car for added insurance.

OK, enough about that.  I hope to not need to write about tires again for quite a long time.  I want to talk about another project, the new Airstream Life Classifieds section.

Places to list your Airstream for sale are everywhere on the Internet.  I used to maintain a list of them that ran to about thirty different sites, all free.  But once in a while I get a call from someone who has a special, rare, or high-value trailer, and they want to see that ad in print, in Airstream Life.  We’ve never been able to accommodate this, but I’ve finally set up a site where you can post your ad online and have it appear in the next issue of the magazine.

So it’s in a trial mode right now.  (I’m sorry, that’s not cool enough for the Internet.  I’d better say it’s “in beta” instead.)  You can try it out right now at  Online-only ads are free, and print ads cost $75.  But here’s the sweetener: since this is the first run, you can actually get a print ad for free.  When you fill out the ad form, at the bottom of the page will be an option box that says “Ad Package”. Choose the “Print ad in Airstream Life magazine” option and just below that, enter the coupon code FREE_ASL_AD and your ad will appear in the Winter 2012 issue for free!

Now, I do have to put in a few limitations.  Only one free ad per customer, and all ads must be submitted no later than October 5 to receive this deal.  If I don’t get enough ads to launch the section, this offer will be void (but your ad will still run online for free).

I’m interested in your feedback.  If you’ve tried it out and have some comments that might help improve it, let me know with a comment on this blog post.  If it works and people find it valuable, I’ll make it a formal part of the magazine going forward.  It’s up to the community.  Personally, I think that even in an era of Internet everywhere, there’s a certain credibility that you can only get from print, so I’m hoping that we get some interesting Airstreams in this section.

Tired again

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Yesterday, (Sunday of Labor Day weekend) we were 550 miles from home and needed to get a jump on our southward trek in order to make appointments set for Tuesday in Tucson.  But before we headed out this morning we took another crack at the Slickrock Foot trail because we’d been shut out the day before by thunderstorms.

We managed to cover the entire 2.4 mile trail in about 90 minutes, and it was well worth the effort.  We got some of the best views yet of the Needles rock formations that give this district of Canyonlands its name, and several dramatic overlooks into canyons near the Green River. Still, when we got back to the campsite we discovered we were late to depart, since checkout time for Squaw Flat is quite early at 10 a.m. Usually checkout is at noon.  Hustling everything together, we managed to clear out and be on the road about 15 minutes after getting back to the site.

On the way in or out of the Needles you will pass the Newspaper Rock State Historic Site.  There are actually several “newspaper rocks” in the southwest, including one at Canyon de Chelly that we’ve visited before.  They are simply large flat areas of sandstone covered with centuries of desert varnish and riddled with dozens of petroglyphs.  We’ve seen a lot of petroglyphs but these were still remarkable for their clarity and descriptiveness.  In some cases it’s anyone’s guess what a petroglyph means, while others are perfectly understandable as drawings of commonplace animals, events, and humans.  Take a closer look at the photo and decide for yourself what centuries of rock artists were trying to convey.

Other than that, our drive for the rest of the day was uneventful, the way you want things to be when you are hauling a trailer long distances.  We made a quick stop in Blanding to dump the tanks and refill the fresh water, and encountered some thunderstorms as we drove through the vast Navajo Nation in northwestern Arizona.  It was still raining when we pulled into the Bonito (Coconino National Forest) campground next to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument just north of Flagstaff AZ that evening.

This was to be our last night on the road, so we had let some supplies dwindle away, including milk and most fresh vegetables. Eleanor made a salad of what was left, and spaghetti with meatballs, and we settled in for the evening while the temperatures outside dropped into the low 50s.  I was thinking how novel it would be to need blankets on the bed at night for this one night, before returning to the desert heat on Monday.  And it was indeed a pleasantly chilly night.

But our plan to make Tucson on Monday was foiled.  We left early and were descending down the 6% grade about 50 miles south of Flagstaff when suddenly we began to hear a “thwap-thwap-thwap” noise.  That’s never a good sound.  Neither the trailer’s nor the Mercedes tire monitor reported any loss of air pressure, so I was fairly sure it wasn’t a blowout. Still, it had to be investigated immediately.  Traffic was heavy, but I managed to get the Airstream off to the breakdown lane within a half mile and from there Eleanor and I searched for causes.

We didn’t find anything. The Airstream was secure, the car looked perfect, and yet … upon driving away, the sound returned.  I took the next exit and found a dirt lot where we could search further.  Eventually we found the cause: a 1″ wide strip on the inner edge of the right rear tire of the Mercedes had neatly peeled off. In other words, we had a tread separation.

This is a sadly familiar situation.  We had numerous tread separations when we were running various brands of ST (Special Trailer) tires on the Airstream, but that problem was resolved when we switched to Michelin LTX Light Truck tires.  (They still look like new, by the way, with hardly any visible wear after 21,000 miles!)  But I hadn’t expected to suffer this type of failure on the Mercedes.

We’re running the factory-specified tires on the Merc, which are Goodyear Eagle 275/50 R20 RunOnFlats.  Our first set was replaced at 34,000 miles, which I was told is “pretty good wear” thanks to the highway miles we tend to cover.  The current set has 32,000 miles and I had already made some inquiries about replacements since I figured they had only about 2,000 miles left in them.  All of the tires have tread above the wear bar indicators, have been rotated regularly and kept at proper inflation, and are evenly worn, but the one that failed definitely has a little less tread than the others.  That doesn’t excuse the failure—it simply should not happen with usable tread still on the tires, even with the added load of towing. I’ll be looking for a different brand this time.

So let’s look at our situation:  (1)  Tread separation while towing and we have no spare tire (this car comes with Run Flats and no spare carrier).  (2) It’s Labor Day, so there are no open tire stores.  (3) We’re in a part of northern Arizona where there are few services and no alternate roads to the busy 75-MPH Interstate.  (4) Our car takes an odd size tire so a call to Roadside Assistance probably wouldn’t be helpful.  The tire will have to be ordered.  In short, we found ourselves in the “nightmare scenario” that made me hesitate when I first bought this car.

Although the tire was holding air, there was no way it was going to be safe for another 200 miles at Interstate speeds and in desert heat.  Our conclusion was to find a place to park for a night or two, and wait until a set of proper tires could be ordered in.  So we pulled up the Allstays app on the iPhone and found a nice RV park in nearby Camp Verde AZ, and gingerly towed the Airstream at reduced speeds another 16 miles down the Interstate to our safe haven.

My plan is to call the tire stores first thing tomorrow and order in what we need, with the hope of getting back on the road by Wednesday afternoon.  Prescott AZ is nearby, with plenty of choices, so I’ll be over there tomorrow once someone tells me they can get us five appropriate tires.  I say “five” because I have a spare Mercedes rim back at home, and one tire will be mounted on it.  The spare will go in the Airstream’s tire carrier, replacing the Airstream spare.  Since we switched to Michelin LTX tires on the Airstream two years ago (in other words, real tires instead of that ST-class junk the industry favors), we haven’t had a single puncture or failure, so I don’t mind not carrying a spare for the Airstream.  Besides, the Airstream can be towed on three wheels, and the car can’t.

And so our trip has been involuntarily extended.  Things could be worse.  We’ve got a friend to visit in Prescott.  I’m working on the Winter magazine from here, using the campground wi-fi, and we had a nice swim in the pool, and Eleanor is getting the laundry done.  When we finally do get home, we’ll be caught up on a few things, rather than coming home to a pile of work.  Other than having to reschedule appointments at home, this may turn out to be not a bad diversion.

T-minus …. and counting

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

It’s Tuesday morning and we’re in the final stages before departure.  These days, leaving the house resembles a NASA countdown.  The longer we settle in to the house, the harder it gets to organize everything and launch the ship.  Right now one of the Mission Control officers is running down her final checklists, while I’m about to go clear the launch pad.  Our backseat astronaut is still in Rest Mode.  I’m hoping that departure will be on schedule at about 10 a.m.

Eleanor did a bunch of curtain work in the last few days, which I’ll document later as part of the Airstream renovation.  As planned, she washed the existing curtains, then sewed new fabric over them with extra width so that they’d close more easily. They look much better and give better privacy at night.  She also added some new elastic tabs to some, where the factory had scrimped a little too much.

I probably never mentioned this before, but our Mercedes GL320 gets about 1,500 miles per gallon.  Unfortunately, that’s not the diesel fuel economy, it’s the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) I’m speaking of.  The car was serviced and the DEF tank was topped off right before we left for Alumapalooza in May.  That was about 8,400 miles ago, so the car is due for another service in 1,600 miles.  We’ll actually get back with about 2,200 miles on the car this time, so I’ll run a bit over.

To avoid the risk of running low on the DEF, I added 4.5 gallons yesterday.  The dealer will fill the DEF tank when the car goes in for the 10,000 mile service, but they charge $9 per half-gallon for DEF (which they call AdBlue) plus a service fee, which means it costs about $200 to have them fill the tank.  I buy the DEF myself for a total of about $45 for the entire tank, and pour it in myself.  When I go in for service, I make a point of telling them I already took care it.

Our biggest problem today seems to be that we have far too much refrigerated and frozen food.  Eleanor pre-cooked a lot of stuff so we’d have quick and convenient meals while we are towing and during Alumafandango.  But now she is going to have to get creative in order to get everything packed.  We may resort to temporary refrigeration using a portable cooler and some ice packs, until we’ve managed to eat down our supplies.  So I expect to be well fed for the next couple of weeks.

I plan to blog at least every other day as we are on this trip, including daily blogs from Alumafandango.  But if you are want another perspective, you might want to check out a few other bloggers who are currently on their way to Alumafandango (or will be soon).  These include:

Kyle Bolstad:  WhereIsKyleNow

Dan & Marlene: Mali Mish

Kyle & Mary: Channel Surfing With Gas

Kevin & Laura: Riveted

Deke & Tiffany:  Weaselmouth

Anna:  Glamper



Something stupid under the hood

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

In the last blog our trip through Colorado was just beginning.  Colorado is always interesting for the many mountain passes that offer spectacular views, dramatic climate changes, and occasionally an exploded bag of chips in the closet.  Altitude changes everything, especially in a rolling house.  For example, we’ve learned over the years to be very careful when opening toothpaste after a tow up to higher altitude, as an air bubble in the container can result in you ending up with a lot more toothpaste than you needed at the moment.

This trip was uneventful except for a strange loss of power when climbing, and another Check Engine light on the car as we approached the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70.  We were at 11,000 feet, but since the car is a turbodiesel the altitude should not have affected the power quite as much as it did.  This called for an appointment at the Denver Mercedes dealer, but I also called Super Terry for a consultation once we were settled into our campground.

Super Terry suggested I look for “something stupid” under the hood, so I did and immediately discovered that one of the two cold-air intakes to the engine was disconnected.  Our home dealership had just serviced the engine last week, touching this very intake hose.  This seemed like a proverbial smoking gun, but S.T. advised having the Denver dealer check it out anyway, just to make sure the problem wasn’t something more serious.  The diagnosis turned out as I expected: the Check Engine light was caused by the disconnected air intake, which allowed hot engine air to get in where cold air was expected.  The bill for this diagnosis was $132, which I have passed on to the dealer that disconnected the line, for their careful consideration. Ahem.  [Update: they agreed to credit us the full amount against a future service.]

There was supposed to be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday evening, but clouds in Denver prevented us from seeing most of it.  A shame, as there won’t be another one in North America for many years.  We had even built a cereal-box viewer for the occasion.

But our evening was not entirely dull, as we had an unexpected visit from the Zimmer family, local owners of a 1963 Airstream Safari.  They were passing through the park and spotted our Airstream, and ended up coming in for a tour and visit.

The big point of coming to Denver was to conduct a site visit of Lakeside Amusement Park, where we will be holding Alumafandango in August.  I met up with Brett Hall of Timeless Travel Trailers and we walked every inch of the site to consider logistics such as power, parking, entry /exit points, seminar space, sewage, lighting, etc.  There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into prepping for a big event like this, and it’s doubly complicated when you are basically trying to build a campground too.  Still, it looks like we’ll be ready in time.   (By the way, there’s a new Wal-Mart going in next door but it won’t be open until November.)

One of the nice parts about walking Lakeside in the heat yesterday was the informal guided tour we got from Brett Hall.  He has been associated with the park for decades as the Consulting Engineer, and has done a lot of historical research. The place has quite a few interesting stories.  Brett will be leading guided tours of the park during Alumafandango so everyone who comes can hear the tales.

Now that the site visit is done and the car is set, we have one day to do work, household stuff, and school before we head east.  Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday will be roadtrip days either on I-80 through Nebraska or I-70 through Kansas.  That’s a drive of about 1,250 miles.  We don’t have any particular plans or stops worked out along that route, since it’s just going to be a slog if we are going to get to Ohio on schedule. I always feel badly about short-changing NE or KS when we go through in a rush, but long-time blog readers know that we did make many stops in those states back when we were full-timing.

Meanwhile, the phone is ringing like crazy lately, as people with last-minute Alumapalooza questions are popping up.  Like us, many of the attendees are already on the road, and others are packing to leave next weekend.  Everybody seems pumped, which helps us, because as close in on our big week of Alumapalooza, we can feel rising tension and excitement.  Alumapalooza is a great week but also a really tough one for those who work the event.  It feels to me like the days before the opening of a musical.  Despite all the rehearsals and planning, there’s always a fear that something might go wrong … until the moment you open the curtain and realize it’s all going to work out just fine.

Serious trip prep

Monday, May 7th, 2012

You can tell we’re serious about a trip when the checklists come out.  Long ago we began compiling checklists to make our packing easier, and each spring we pull those lists out and start checking off items and updating them for current circumstances.  I don’t know how else to do it, since there are way too many things to remember to do when we’re anticipating being away from home base for months.

Our checklists have been in play for a couple of weeks now. In addition to the normal things needed for daily life in an Airstream, Eleanor is going to be doing two cooking demonstrations at Alumapalooza this year, and that means she needs to carry a lot of food ingredients.  She also has to do two separate rehearsals before we depart.

Her first presentation will be about sauces.  She will make ten different and delicious multi-purpose sauces in about 40 minutes, right in front of everyone at Alumapalooza, using an actual Airstream stove & oven.  Afterward, everyone in the audience will get a chance to taste each sauce.  I’ll have the recipes posted on the Alumapalooza website on the days of her presentations.

So we did a run-through last night in our kitchen and worked out a few small issues with the sauces, and today she’ll do another run-through in the Airstream of her second demonstration.  That one will be a full meal featuring salmon and risotto.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to wrap up projects and loose ends so that I can be on the road without too much work pressure.  The Fall issue would normally have an editorial deadline of June 1, but since I’m always at Alumapalooza at that time I ask all the writers to get me their Fall articles by May 15 or sooner.  That helps me get the bulk of the issue in hand before I’m on the road. Most of the writers have been very cooperative with that, which I appreciate.

Once we start traveling, it’s much harder to carve out enough hours to get serious work done.  On driving days I’m lucky to get three useful hours of time in front of the computer, which is sometimes just enough to keep the fires stoked at work, but at that rate I’ll gradually fall behind.  When we were full-timing it was easier; I’d just declare a “destination” and spend a few days in the Airstream getting work done. But now we’re on a schedule to get to Denver and Jackson Center, and I can’t just pull over for a few days when things get busy.

Our route is partially set, at least as far as Denver.  This time, to make the drive more interesting we’ll go up through Arizona to Flagstaff, then cut through the Navajo Nation and possibly stop at Navajo National Monument.  Our next stop is undetermined but will be somewhere between Moab UT and Grand Junction CO, I’d guess.  Our destination for this leg of the trip is Denver CO, where we will inspect the site of this year’s Alumafandango and do a little advance work.  After that we’ll continue on to Jackson Center OH with probably 3-4 short stops along the way.  As is normal for us, we aren’t making any reservations.

I’ll have to return to Tucson fairly soon after Alumapalooza is over.  I’ve got some appointments here, and I’ll need to get back to work in a serious way.  My time in the Airstream will be almost exactly one month, then probably about another month from August to September when we go to Alumafandango. But the Airstream won’t be back to home base for close to four months.

The Airstream is nearly ready for its voyage.  Most of our clothes are packed, Eleanor has worked out the food arrangements, and I’ve verified that all of the systems are in good operating condition. I need to check for a possible propane leak around the flexible hose that connects the propane bottles to the regulator (called a pigtail), which I’ll do today with a spray bottle and some soapy water. Those hoses don’t last forever, but replacing one is a simple task if needed.  [Update:  I found the leak and will be replacing both of the pigtail lines today.]  I also need to check the tires.  I’m not expecting any problems from the Michelins just because they’ve been so bulletproof over the past couple of years, so at worst I expect I might need to add a little air.

Our tow vehicle has been getting more attention lately than the Airstream.  I’ve been driving it around town to confirm that the recent repair to the urea injection system has really done the job, and it seems to be fine.  It’ll be due for an oil change and tire rotation in 2,000 miles, which means I’ll have to do it somewhere around Indiana or Ohio. I don’t really want to make that stop because the timing will be inconvenient, so I may just take it in before we leave Tucson.  (The oil change interval is every 10,000 miles on this car.)

My neighbor Mike came over Sunday morning to finally force me to do an exterior detail on the GL320.  It really needed it.  Together we washed the car, then hand-dried it, then used clay bars to pull all the contaminants out of the paint, and finally used Mike’s buffer to wax the body.  The result was fantastic, better than new.  The paint is so glossy and slick that it feels like glass.  In the process I found two dings on the body that I hadn’t noticed before.  Oh well.

The Airstream, on the other hand, is filthy on the outside.  It’s covered with dust from a winter of storage—and we have a lot of dust here.  I’m sure the solar panels won’t be generating much power until I can wash them off, but cleaning will have to wait until I can get the trailer out of the carport and over to a truck wash.  I’ve tried cleaning the trailer by hand with brushes and ladders, and since it’s 30 feet long and 10 feet tall, it takes hours.  Long ago I decided that paying $38 at the Blue Beacon was definitely my choice.

One of the more pleasant tasks of our annual departure is putting things in “vacation mode.”  That’s because it’s a huge money-saving opportunity.  It turns out that a lot of things have some form of vacation mode.  The water heater has one, or we can just shut it off completely ($10/month saved).  The local water/sewer authority allows us to put our sewer bill on vacation mode, which amazes me ($20/month saved). USAA allows us to put our other cars in “storage” while we’re gone, which reduces the insurance coverages we won’t need (about $120 per month saved).  (They even provide a little warning sheet to print out and place on the driver’s seat so that we remember to “un-store” the car before driving it.)  CenturyLink allows us to put our household DSL service on hold too (about $50/month).  Between all of that and turning off the air conditioning (up to $250 per month in the summer), we can save $350-450 per month while we are gone, which of course can go directly to our travel expenses.   If only we could put our real estate taxes on hold too.

A bit of a hitch

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

This time of year our tow vehicle, the Mercedes GL320, generally rests in the carport. We log about 14,000 miles each summer between May and October, mostly towing, and that’s a lot of use. So in the off-season I try to give it a break, except for occasional cross-country trips. This allows the car’s years to catch up with the miles somewhat. It’s a 2009 and already it has 56,000 miles on it. By the time we get back from travel this summer, it will have about 70,000 miles.

A few weeks ago I had the car out for a little trip and the Check Engine light popped on. This is becoming a familiar sight, unfortunately. We’ve had about five incidents of Check Engine lights since the car was new, and all of them have been related to the Adblue (a.k.a. Diesel Exhaust Fluid, or DEF) system. This system is a big part of why the car’s emissions are legal in in all 50 states. It injects a spray of DEF into the exhaust stream, which combines with the exhaust gasses in a special type of catalytic converter and results in the nasty smog-causing oxides of nitrogen turning into harmless water vapor and carbon dioxide.

It’s a brilliant system when it all works, but our 2009 model was the first year for Mercedes to install this technology, and there have been a few bugs. Mercedes seems to have worked them out with a combination of software updates (yes, like everything else on modern cars, this process is entirely controlled by computers) and upgraded components.

This time the Check Engine light was indicating that a heater for the Adblue (DEF) was failing. The heater is needed so that the fluid doesn’t freeze at low temperatures. Replacing the heater is a labor-intensive job that requires complete removal of the Adblue tank. And this is where the nightmare began …

You see, back when we first bought the car, we had to do some extensive modification of the factory receiver hitch, in order to make it suitable for our Airstream Safari. The key modification was the addition of a “third leg” that spread out the tongue weight of the trailer. You can see this “leg”, made of 2-inch square tubing, in the photo at left. It was welded to the rear suspension crossmember and to the factory receiver.

When this solution was proposed, I had two misgivings. First, that this would take up too much ground clearance. This turned out not to be an issue, as the car still has 10″ of ground clearance at this point even with the tube installed. My second concern was that it was blocking access to the black tank you see above, which is the holding tank for the Adblue fluid.

After considering for a while, we decided that replacement of the Adblue tank was highly unlikely, so we went ahead and installed the third leg. It has functioned perfectly ever since, taking up stress from the receiver so that we can get good weight distribution without overstressing the rear end of the GL’s frame.

So when I got the call from the dealership’s Service Advisor telling me that the tank had to be removed, my heart sank. We had to cut the third leg of the hitch off (where indicated with the orange line in the photo above). I dragged the decision out a few days by asking the dealership to do an individual component test on the Adblue heater to double-check that it really had failed, and to try to rule out the possibility of another software problem. They did that, but the news was unchanged: we have to remove the entire tank in order to replace the heater.

I feel very protective of my receiver hitch. We went through a lot of trouble to get it modified just so, to suit our particular needs. We first had reinforcements (not visible in the photo) welded on here in Tucson, and then drove 2,000 miles to Can-Am RV in London ON (Canada) to have the final reinforcement added. I inspect the receiver at least monthly, and do an annual crawl-around-on the-ground-with-a-flashlight inspection at least annually, along with wire brushing and repainting. Any receiver can fail, and since a failure can result in your death, it’s a piece of equipment worth taking seriously. So I didn’t want anyone touching it, and I especially didn’t want anyone coming near it with the intention of cutting it off.

But in this case there was no choice. Andy Thomson at Can-Am was very helpful in marking up the photo above, which I gave to the dealership’s body shop to show them exactly what to do. The hitch was cut, the Adblue tank and some other components were replaced, and I got the car back a week later with the hitch re-installed—but sliced right through the third leg. I drove it 50 miles and the Check Engine light stayed off, so the next step was to get the hitch repaired.

Obviously we didn’t want to weld it back, since there’s always the possibility that we’ll need to remove the hitch again, so after discussions with Andy and other consultants we came up with a plan to add some heavy plates and bolt the two ends of the cut tube together. This was done locally at a qualified welding shop. You can see the result below. Sorry for the lousy iPhone photos.

The bottom line was $49 to the dealership body shop, and $200 to the welding shop that installed the bolt-up re-attachment. The Adblue tank was covered under warranty, which was good since the estimate for that job was a whopping $2,200. I do like the Mercedes as a tow vehicle, but the cost of parts and repairs can be astronomical. I’ve already started a maintenance fund for repairs after the 100,000 miles warranty has expired. As I tell people these days, it’s the best tow vehicle I’ve ever owned, and it’s also the least reliable tow vehicle I’ve ever owned.

But I’ll cut it some slack since we really use the heck out of it. There’s a chance that this replacement of much of the Adblue system will resolve the persistent issues we’ve had with it in the past. Discounting the Check Engine lights, it has done well for us. We bought the GL320 because we wanted a long-term tow vehicle with a durable diesel engine, and overall it has worked out well.

Realistically, there are no perfectly reliable vehicles, just different compromises. At this point the car still feels and drives like new, so my original goal to get 250,000 miles out of it has not wavered. In that long-term context, this little bit of receiver work seems well worth the expense. It is just part of a long-term investment in safe and happy traveling.

Rich’s Moving Castle

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Thanks to Eleanor and Bill for putting an appropriate literary theme on my few days in the Caravel.  Like Howl’s Moving Castle, the Caravel never paused for long in this recent chapter of its four-decade adventures.

The saga left off on Friday, when I was making a coffee last for three hours so I could recharge my stuff and get some work done.  It was a beautiful sunny day and things were going well.  After the work was done, an electronic trail of crumbs (a waypoint stored in the GPS) led me back to the campground, otherwise I might never have found it again.  I spent all of 10 minutes installing the new braided-stainless hoses in the Caravel’s bathroom and — ta-da! — no more leaks.   Or so I thought.

That afternoon the bulk of the rally participants showed up and things got lively.  Among many other people, I ran into Tiffani and Deke of “Weaselmouth,” who I’d last seen at Alumapalooza in May, and we got into an evening-long conversation during the potluck dinner.  I went back to the Caravel that night pleased that the rally was turning out well, but a little sorry as well because it would be time to get going homeward soon.  The rest of the people were just getting started with their Halloween decorations and friendly yakking.  For me, the Moving Castle (aka Caravel) was destined to depart in the morning.

I lingered on Saturday until about 10 a.m. while the gang was cooking up a huge breakfast outside at the pavilion.  People kept asking me how far I had to drive to get home, and when I said, “Oh, about 1,000 miles” the second or third time it really hit me: I’ve got to get going. There were about 16-17 hours of driving ahead of me, plus stops, and very little of it would be interesting driving.

Like the little Bubble I pulled from Santa Fe, the Caravel is a joy to tow.  There’s no fuss, no bad behavior, no complicated hitching equipment.  I try to keep the fresh water tank at least half full to give the trailer better stability, but otherwise I just drop it on the ball and away we go.  I don’t trust it as much as I do the big Safari with the Hensley hitch, because I know the Safari absolutely cannot sway with that setup, but the Caravel is marvelously stable at any speed I care to drive.  Of course, it is equipped pretty close to the original factory configuration.  Often I’ll see small vintage trailers that tow horribly, and inevitably it’s the result of owner modifications (air conditioners, rear-mounted spare tires, altered floorplans or heavy household-style cabinetry) that corrupt the delicate center of gravity.  The original designs took care to ensure that when the trailers were loaded with water, food, personal items, etc., the trailer would remain stable.

I made a few stops along the way for errands.  The day before the GL320 gave me a warning that it wanted a top-up of “AdBlue” fluid, which is also commonly known as Diesel Exhaust Fluid.  These days you can find the stuff in any auto parts store, truck stop, and even some Wal-Marts, and it’s cheap at about $12.99 for 2.5 gallons.  I put five gallons in the special tank that holds the AdBlue, which should be good for another 7,000 miles or so.  I’ll top it off this week for a full 15,000 mile range.  I mention this only because a lot of people are still scared about the stuff, thinking it’s expensive, or complicated, or frequent, and it’s really no much more hassle than filling the window washer fluid.  Three-tenths of a cent per mile is a small price to pay for clean diesel emissions, in my opinion.

I’ve wanted to spend a night at Monahans Sandhills State Park (just off I-20 a little west of Odessa TX), but the timing has never worked out before. This time I hit Monahans about a half hour before sunset, which made it a great stopover point.  The park has only 26 spaces, which made me think I might get skunked on a spot since it was Saturday night, but it turned out to be only about half full.  About half of the spaces are short back-ins that were perfect for the Caravel but wouldn’t have worked for the 30-foot Safari.

I have to take this opportunity to gripe about a small thing.  Many state parks use an honor system for late arrivals.  You fill out a little envelope and put your nightly camping fee in it.  This envelope gets deposited into an “iron ranger” (a metal box) and picked up by the staff daily.  You have to indicate your campsite on the envelope, but you haven’t gotten a campsite yet, which means you have to go to the campground, find a site, then come back to the iron ranger.

At Monahans the iron ranger is at the entrance gate, but the campground is about 1.3 miles away.  By the time I was parked in the site, it was nearly dark.  Being an overnight stop I would have preferred not to unhitch but I also wasn’t psyched to walk 2.6 miles roundtrip in the dark along a narrow, winding, shoulder-less road in the cold.  I wanted to make dinner and fire up Calcifer, and I also needed to refill the water tank.  To get it all done quickly, the easiest thing was to unhitch and drive back to the entrance gate to deposit my envelope.  Other state parks set up two iron rangers, one at the gate and one at the campground for the convenience of their visitors, so there’s my suggestion to the powers-that-be.

This minor quibble aside, I liked the park, which is billed as the “Sahara of the Southwest.”  It’s not perfect by any means, but it is very scenic for a place that’s just off a major Interstate.  The downsides stem from the fact that this is oil country.  I caught an occasional whiff of petroleum in the air, and through the night I could hear the sound of an oil well being drilled somewhere off to the northwest:  WHUMP-WHUMP-WHUMP-whumpwhumpwhump…

The morning found me with 555 miles to go.  I debated whether to plow ahead or to stop along the way.  There were places I would have liked to stop, and friends to visit, but there was also a place I wanted to be more, namely home with E&E. Back in Tucson they were decorating the house for Halloween, and Eleanor was cooking things.  On the other hand, in the Caravel I’d discovered yet another leak, this time under the kitchen faucet.  I took this as a sign that I needed to get back to home base and have a long chat with the Caravel (wrench in hand) about its incontinence problem.

To be fair, the trailer is doing spectacularly well, especially considering its age.  (The leaks are all from the same type of flexible plastic faucet hose, at the compression fittings.  I don’t know if they are failing from age, heat, bad design, or over-tightening, but they are all getting replaced this week.)  Other than that, the Caravel has performed admirably.  We covered 1,000 miles at highway speeds, and encountered some pretty awful back roads too.  Not a rivet was disturbed on its tight little structure.

More important, I was entirely comfortable through the entire trip, with my little aluminum soap bubble to house me at night and Calcifer to keep me warm.  No matter how much I had to drive, at the end of every day I knew I would be back in my home, with my familiar things and favorite foods waiting.  An Airstream really is a moving castle, where you have everything you need with you no matter where in the world you go.  This is the magic of trailer travel.  Even though I just finished unpacking from this trip, I’m looking forward to the next one already.  Most likely it will be in mid-December.

Oak Mountain State Park, Pelham AL

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Birmingham is a city we’ve never visited before, which by all rights should be a good enough reason to come here.  Added to that, we had a mission — to visit the Mercedes Benz factory in nearby Vance.  I’ve been trying to get there for two years and it hasn’t worked out despite multiple attempts. With the SNAFUs on this trip (orthodontics, air conditioner) it would have been easy to skip the plant tour this time as well, but I really wanted to make it happen.

So we dropped in on Oak Mountain State Park, which is just south of Birmingham, and made camp for two nights.  This is a large park, with a 5.5 mile drive from the entrance to the campground along a scenic and pleasantly meandering road.  At the end of the road is a good campground by a lake with lots of fragrant evergreens and even full hookups in Loop A.

This morning we managed to get the whole crew into the car by 7:45 a.m., in time to make the 50 minute drive to Vance AL and make the first scheduled tour at Mercedes Benz US International ($5 per person, reservations required). The factory campus looks very clean by design, with stark white buildings set among a green, almost golf-course-like rural setting.  They boast that 100% of the factory’s waste is recycled, and I’m sure the exterior design is intended to help give the appropriate impression.

This is where our tow vehicle, the GL320, was made.  It’s the only plant that makes the GL, ML, and R-class vehicles, so here you’ll see cars with right-hand and left-hand drive on the same assembly line, destined for export all over the world.  Even Germans buy Mercedes Benz SUVs made right here in Alabama.  Yes, in America we still do make things that people in other parts of the world want to buy, and this one huge plant accounts for a billion dollars or so worth of exports all by itself.

As with the other car factory tours we’ve done (Corvette in KY, Nissan in MI), photos are not allowed so I’ve got nothing from the inside to show you, but I can say that the tour is really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.  Which obviously, I am.

This was also the first auto plant tour that Emma has been able to do, and she didn’t die of boredom during it, which counts as success given her pre-teen status.  The photo above (from the Visitor Center, where photos are allowed) shows one of the things she was mildly interested in, an ML-class Mercedes from one of the Jurassic Park movies.

I was so excited about the tour that I had made no plans for the rest of the day, so we just swung into downtown Birmingham to see whatever it had to offer.  Turns out that Birmingham has a pretty interesting downtown, with tons of Civil Rights-era history, great architecture, and much more that deserved a bigger investment of time than we gave it.

Besides, we were hungry, so the first stop was a Cajun restaurant on 20th Street.   I wanted to get some Cajun in Louisiana, but now with our abbreviated trip plan a good stop seems unlikely there.  This was a surprise find in Alabama, which is not Cajun country.  We went nuts and split a half-muffaletta, blackened red snapper, a few side dishes, and a double order of beignets.

The staff, all related by marriage and coincidentally all escapees from other careers, were over the lunch rush and had time to chat us up about our travels.  We were as interested in how they got from jobs like building contractor and CPA to restaurateurs, as they were in our nomadic life.  They definitely were doing an excellent job, as the taste of everything they made was equal to places in the heart of Cajun country.  They were a little disappointed, I think, that our 30-foot Airstream was not parked somewhere on the downtown streets of Birmingham for them to see.

Of course after that were weren’t in a great condition to do a ton of walking in the downtown (full stomachs), but we managed to browse a bit and run into some interpretive signs about Civil Rights era history.  This gave us a chance to talk to Emma about what it all meant, which was actually kind of fun.

Back at camp this evening we were running all three roof vents to combat the mild heat and humidity when a massive line of thunderstorms came upon us with no warning.  It was a real gully-washer storm, with several near lightning strikes, but we were high, dry, and safe in the Airstream, watching a movie as the storm played itself out.

This reminded me that we really do have to resolve our AC problem soon.  I’ve got a plan in development now that looks like it will work out, although once again our route is going to change, to I-20 through Texas instead of I-10.  Once I’ve got that nailed down I’ll post it here and try to figure out a few good stops along the way so it isn’t just a maintenance run.  Fortunately, we have friends along the way and even if nothing else fun pops up it will be nice to see them again.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine