Archive for the ‘Mercedes GL320’ Category

Storm chasing

Monday, August 29th, 2011

My triumphant return to the northeast somehow became a story about a hurricane.  In the last 48 hours leading up to my dawn flight from Tucson to Manchester NH, I was suddenly getting emails (and a blog comment) from friends & family who were concerned about my apparent interest in flying into the midst of a famous hurricane, namely Irene.

Not to worry.  My flight was via Chicago, which meant that I didn’t need to worry much about in-flight weather and also that there would be an astonishing rarity in these days: a plane with lots of empty seats.  86 people on the Tucson-Chicago leg bailed out presumably because they couldn’t get their connections to eastern seaboard cities like Washington DC, New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk.  Without all the crowding, it was like flying in the 20th century.  (The illusion would be complete if only I didn’t have to turn my head and cough at the security checkpoint.)

We landed in Manchester in the late afternoon on Saturday, when people in North Carolina and Virginia were firing up their generators and bailing water, with only scattered clouds and no rain.  But not for long — the long gray tendrils of Irene reached us that evening and the excitement began.  Being from the area and having seen many an expiring hurricane dawdling up the east coast, I knew what to expect.  By the time they get up around Boston, the weather event is basically a lot like every summer afternoon in central Florida: torrential rain, occasional high winds, predictable flooding, plus a local bonus lots of hyper-excited news coverage.  I met my long-lost wife and we went out for dinner, then spent the night at a hotel listening to the splatter of an overloaded rain gutter splash the window.

The next day at noon, we took to the road.  The trusty GL was as surefooted as always, making the 200 mile drive up I-93 and I-89 a non-event for the most part, despite constant heavy rain.  Swish-swish went the wipers, the tires sliced through the puddles (as long as I stayed at a reasonable speed, far below the posted limit), and inside we had plenty of time to talk and listen to podcasts.  The best part was that virtually nobody was out, so the highways were wide open and there were no yahoo drivers to avoid.  We paused in Hanover NH near Dartmouth College to take in a long lunch and were the only people in the Chinese restaurant.  On the other hand, it was a bit sad to see spots where the White River and others had apparently overflowed their banks and flooded some farms and homes.  Up on the high ground of the Interstate we had little to complain about, but down below the damage was quite obvious and I’m sure many people are having a really rough time at the moment.

All of this is a long way of saying that we drove through a tropical storm (“hurricane” status having been stripped from Irene about the time she arrived in Massachusetts) for four hours and the most exciting part was lunch.  Things got considerably more interesting once we pulled into Vermont, where the Airstream has been stored all summer.  I was concerned that a tree branch might have fallen on the roof, but no.  The lake was rolling with huge widely spaced waves like you’d expect on Lake Michigan, not on our relatively small “sixth Great Lake.”  The power went out at the house, because this is Vermont and that’s what happens in virtually every storm.  We hung out with the family by candlelight for a while, then fired up the noisy backup generator that services the house on these occasions.

The Airstream needed no external power, of course, but as we attempted to sleep we were located far too close to the generator’s Sturm und Drang cacophony and it was a bit like being at the worst rally of our lives.  No “generator hours” here; we were the guests and without the generator the basement sump pumps in the house would cease working and then we’d have our own little tale of flooding to tell.  So we endured some noise until about 3 or 4 a.m., when the generator finally ran out of gas.  At 5:30 the hard-working representatives of Green Mountain Power arrived with a powerful chainsaw and proceeded to spend about half an hour rescuing power lines.  It was not the best night for sleeping, but the power was back on when we finally awoke for the fourth or fifth time.

And today it is the classic “day after” a major storm: startlingly clear skies, a beautiful view of New York state across the open waters of Lake Champlain, and the ground littered with downed branches.  I got out the wheelbarrow, ladder and tree trimmers, and with a little help from Emma cleaned up the overhanging branches in the driveway so that the Airstream will be able to depart in a few days.  The trees needed trimming anyway.  Tonight, friends will come over for dinner on the deck.  A precious few warm days remain up here in northern Vermont, so we’ll make the most of them while plotting a convoluted route down the east coast and across the south, in the Airstream, during September.

Shifting gears

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

With the mental shifting of gears that accompanies our transition from Airstream to house, I am once again able to tackle the projects that I began this summer while I was alone in Tucson.  Working in the Airstream is very feasible and I did it successfully for three years straight, but in those times when we are paused in the house, I find I am able to tackle projects that otherwise would have lain in a heap on the side of my desk.

It’s the long-term projects that suffer when we travel, because there’s a certain workload involved just in the routine of hitching up and towing, researching the next place to go, meeting people, taking photos, and getting to know each new area.  That’s all part of the fun, of course, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it does tend to infringe on the paying work, and I need to keep an eye on that.  After all, I’ve got a kid who is getting braces on her teeth next month.

Besides, being at home means I no longer have to work out of a backpack. I’ve now got my own desk with room for printer, scanner, laptop, project stacks, and a cold beverage all at the same time. Instead of an occasionally dodgy cellular Internet connection, I have high-speed DSL. I can reliably expect my mail to arrive at my door, without having to notify my mail service of a new address every week.  For someone who has spent most of the past five years roaming, these things represent real luxury.

The Spring 2011 issue of Airstream Life is at the top of my list, of course.  I am particularly excited about this one, because we are in a transition to becoming a much more photo-rich publication.  I’ve always been proud of Airstream Life but it has also always irritated me that I have consistently struggled to get decent photography.  Finally I’ve been able to establish relationships with photographers and writers that are bringing in more & better images.  We’re going to showcase them starting with Spring 2011, by running more full-page photos, and even double-page spreads (kind of like the current “From The Archives” feature).

About 90% of the editorial for the Spring issue is complete, so as it moves into the layout phase, my personal workload will lighten, and that means other projects can get some attention.  The hiatus from traveling also is giving me time to think about the personal projects, and various “nesting” activities that we’ve never done before. Being stationary means a new perspective on everything.

In particular, the house is still a half-wreck after three years of ownership because we’ve never been motivated to finish the renovations, while the Airstream has had every possible attention lavished on it.  Houses are much too expensive for what you get.  When you add in the real cost of maintenance, repairs, utilities, taxes, furnishings, interest, etc., the total gets rather depressing, and that’s when I start thinking about our next trip in the Airstream.  But it’s time for the Airstream to sit a little (even though we still have a few things on the “upgrade/fix” list) while the house gets its fair share. Whether the house actually will get any money or effort thrown at it remains to be seen, but at least we have some good intentions …

The Mercedes GL320 will sit, too.  It’s a great car for our style of travel, but I find the maintenance costs too expensive to justify using it when we are parked at home. With 38,000 miles on it after only 19 months of ownership, it deserves a rest too.  At this rate it will be at 200,000 miles less than seven years from now.  So I am making a small investment in the old 1984 Mercedes 300D to make it into a completely reliable backup car.  It is in the shop today for front end work and hopefully a tweak to the vacuum system to make it shift a little smoother. There are a few other small things I’d like to fix on it later, as well.

As elderly as the 300D is, with 166,000 miles on the odometer (and many more undocumented miles since the odometer only turns on cold days), it is now my favorite car to drive.   I love the way it has that diesel rattle at idle, the serene ride at cruise, and the relative simplicity of a 1980s car.  This is one of the last computer-free cars.  Everything in it can be seen and felt, like mechanical objects should be, instead of being controlled by mysterious computers that randomly go bad for no fathomable reason.  In a world where my printer, television and the other car have to boot up before they are fully functional, it’s nice to have a car in which the pedals are attached to linkages instead of sensors, where the “nav” feature is a coil-bound map book that always works, and there is no “Check Engine” light.

This shift of gears (and gear) will persist for quite a while, but we do have travel planned here and there. In the meantime, rather than mooning on about my home projects, I’ll try to take the next few weeks to muse and comment on Airstreaming from a stationary perspective.

Landed

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

We’ve landed in Tucson, and thus the Airstream has returned to home base after seven months of travel.  It is now tucked away in its carport, getting a well deserved rest after a total voyage of nearly 9,000 towing miles. Likewise, the Mercedes is chillin’, with 14,800 new miles added to its odometer since we left in May.

emma-growth.jpgThere are a lot of ways I could measure this trip, but the photo at right shows my favorite. Emma has grown an inch and a quarter, as marked on the door jamb of our Airstream bedroom.  By any measure, it has been a good period of growth for all of us.

The last phase of our trip was unremarkable by design. We basically bolted 350 miles from Padre Island to central Texas, where we camped overnight at the Caverns of Sonora’s little campground (W/E, $15).  caverns-of-sonora-cg.jpgIf you are driving through central Texas on I-10, there are few options for overnight stays, and many of them are of the down-and-out variety.  So Caverns of Sonora provides a very welcome oasis just about five miles off the highway.  The big attraction is of course the exceptionally well-decorated caverns, but Emma thought the peacocks that roam the campground were pretty worthy too.

Our next day was  another 350 miles, this time through west Texas and over to Las Cruces.  It was a stunningly beautiful fall day in west Texas, with azure blue skies and temperatures of around 78-80 degrees, but with one unfortunate aspect for towing: a strong headwind. Many times I am asked, “Does that Mercedes really pull that big trailer OK?” and the followup question is often “Well, how about in the mountains?” or “Yeah, but wait until you cross the Rockies!“  When people say such things I know that they aren’t really experienced at towing, because if they were they’d know that the true challenge of a tow vehicle is not the occasional mountain pass, but the long day spent bucking a 25-knot headwind.  That’s when you find out who has the chops.

See, you can almost always get up a hill one way or another.  You might have to go slower, or stop to let the engine cool off, but it’s very rare to find a hill so steep that you can’t climb it with any decent tow vehicle.  (We have never had an overheating problem with the Mercedes, but we did with the Nissan Armada. The Mercedes does high-elevation climbs much better, mostly because of the torquey turbodiesel, which isn’t affected by the thinner air at altitude.)  And hills are generally short.  In Colorado you can find a few 6-8% grades that run for eight miles, and in Wyoming there’s the Teton Pass at 10%, but that’s about as bad as it gets.

badly-hitched.jpgIn contrast, imagine trying to pull a trailer through a strong headwind for 350 miles.   That’s a whole different ballgame.  If your tow vehicle struggles from lack of power, or your trailer is being tossed around by gusty winds, or if you’re not hitched up properly, you’ll feel that misery for six hours.  That makes a 20 minute hill climb in the Rockies look like a happy memory.

You’ll run into that a lot when heading west through the central states.  I-90 through South Dakota, I-80 through Nebraska, I-70 through Kansas, I-40 through Oklahoma and Texas, or I-10/20 through Texas.  We’ve hit it in all of those locations.  The car can do it, and our ride is safe & comfortable, but fuel economy suffers horribly.  Sometimes we just stop for the night and try again the next day.

Our headwind on I-10 was pretty stiff.  I know because our fuel economy plummeted, from 13.5 MPG the previous day to a dismal 10.3 MPG.  Keep in mind that your speed relative to the air (airspeed) is what matters to your fuel economy, not the weight or length of the trailer.  If you normally tow at 65 MPH in calm wind conditions, a 25-knot headwind results in drag equivalent to towing at 90 MPH.  Because air resistance (drag) increases in proportion to the square of your airspeed, a headwind like that has a massive impact.

dash-gauges.jpgIn our case, the wind-induced penalty was about 30% of our fuel economy.  At one point we were getting just 9.7 MPG, the absolute worst I have ever seen from this vehicle.  But in west Texas, the options for stopping overnight are somewhat limited, and it didn’t look like the wind was going to abate much in the coming day.  So we plowed on.  By the time we reached the brutish traffic of El Paso, the wind had died down and it was relatively smooth sailing up to Las Cruces.

[By the way, the center display in the photo above deserves some explanation.  The display shows the distance and travel time since our last fuel stop (87 miles, 1 hour, 25 minutes), our average speed (61 MPH), our fuel economy average since last fuel stop (9.7, ugh), the outside air temp and the cruise control setting (65 MPH).  I normally tow a little slower but the speed limit was 80 MPH and I didn't want to leave a huge differential between us and the rest of the NASCAR traffic.  The car tows very nicely in 7th gear at about 2200 RPM at that speed.]

After this expensive day of driving, we decided to cheap out and try parking at the Cracker Barrel again.  Actually, we stayed there in the hopes that this one would not catch on fire, thus proving that our experience in Louisiana was a fluke.  It didn’t, so we’re in the clear, jinx-wise.

airstream-wash-at-ttt.jpgOur final stop before parking the Airstream was the truck wash in Tucson.  I was amazed at how much salt and gunk was still on the trailer after our rinse-down in Corpus Christi.  Add to that the accumulated bug guts of an 1,100 mile high-speed tow, and you can imagine how the Airstream looked.  It deserved a good bath before we put it away, and now it looks shiny and ready for another adventure.

Green Cove Springs, FL

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Technically we are in St Augustine, but right on the western edge at the banks of the St Johns River.  Just across the river is Green Cove Springs, a quiet small city that happens to be the official mailing address of Airstream Life magazine.  I am often asked by people who call on the phone, “How do you like it in Green Cove Springs?” but we’ve only been here once before, and that was for just a few hours. We receive our mail here, and we’re incorporated here, but until this visit it has been just another stop along the road.

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It has been a good stop.  Eleanor has been making maximum use of our relatively rare full hookup campsite, by making special meals.  This means we eat well but also periodically Eleanor has to go out to find unusual ingredients, like apple brandy, which apparently must go into a dish she is preparing. Apple brandy was not available at any of the local stores (on the west side of I-95) so she made a compromise version with a reduction of apple cider and cognac.  The sauces required for this dish are now done, but we won’t get to eat the actual meal until Friday, when we will be courtesy parked in Haines City.

I was able to get our tow vehicle serviced, and I’m very glad I did.  The dealer in Jacksonville had the car in for its “day of beauty” all of  Wednesday, and replaced all four tires, aligned the wheels, flushed the transmission, replaced a blown fuse, and washed it.  Although the price of the tires still has me reeling, I have to admit that the car once again drives like new.  The worn tires were making a lot of noise and the roadhandling was definitely not as good as it was, plus it was pulling right a little.  It may have been my imagination, but I also thought the transmission was not shifting quite as smoothly as it should, with occasional subtle balks and flares.  I did a 19 mile test drive on the way back from the dealership and everything feels perfect again.

st-augustine-eleanor-on-dock.jpgWe had a surprise visit yesterday from a group of manatees, at the Trout Creek that borders the campground.  Manatees need warm water, and so in the fall and winter they swim upstream from the salty ocean to fresh rivers where the water never drops below 72 degrees.  A group of about eight manatees showed up with a calf, and slowly swam back and forth in Trout Creek past the docks where they made a nice spectacle for the people sitting on the back deck of the main campground building.

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Manatees are wonderful mammals that live very placid lives, munching on green undersea vegetation and floating through the water with no apparent goals in life.  Little wonder they are often called “sea cows” — they’re about the same weight and definitely have bovine characteristics to their personalities.  Their skin is like an elephant’s, and they can grow to be very large and heavy, so although they are quite benign they are also a bit startling when you encounter them while snorkeling.

st-augustine-manatee-propeller.jpgTheir very nature of calmness and lack of fear works against manatees. The big killer of manatees is boat propellers, and it is easy to spot a manatee with a set of slashing white scars along its body from a close encounter with a turning propeller.  There are lots of regulations in place designed to prevent manatee-boat collisions but they can be difficult to avoid, especially since they are often interested in checking out what the humans are up to.

We are leaving this site today but will be returning in a couple of weeks.  One piece of bureaucratic business remains unfinished, and until a certain official piece of paper arrives I can’t complete it.  Coming back here will be a detour from our planned route, but I don’t mind terribly since the campground has been pleasant and Green Cove Springs now feels like a symbolic kind of home.

On the road to St. Augustine, FL

Monday, October 11th, 2010

rutherford-bad-lug-nut2.jpgMaintenance complete (or so we thought), we pushed onward through South Carolina. Since the wheels had all been removed, it was incumbent on me to stop and check the lug nut torque a few times as we went.  I typically do this around 15 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles, although it doesn’t hurt to check a little more frequently.

That’s when another maintenance issue cropped up. We’ve had these crummy “capped” lug nuts on the trailer forever (pictured at right).  They are the cheap-o version.  Instead of being solid metal, they have a thin chrome cap over a steel nut, sort of a “falsie.” The problem with this type is that eventually the chrome cap can loosen and even come off.  Super Terry had pointed this out as a potential problem, and honestly I have been meaning to replace all of them for years but just never got around to it.

So of course, about 15 miles out in a lonely piece of rural North Carolina, one of the caps started spinning loose, meaning that I couldn’t properly torque the nut.  Now, being a prepared sort of Airstreamer, I carry 4 spare lug nuts, the solid kind.  I took them out and discovered that they require a 13/16″ socket, but the largest socket I had is 3/4″.  So I couldn’t install them.

After pondering the situation and trying a few tricks (like the car’s lug nut wrench) the ultimate solution was simply to tow to the nearest auto parts store, where I bought the appropriate socket and 20  more of the solid chromed metal 13/16″ lug nuts. I didn’t want to take all the wheels off right there to replace all the nuts, so I installed just the one I needed and tossed the rest in the storage compartment for future use.  My idea was to replace them one wheel at a time whenever a wheel needed removing, but of course about 150 miles later when I checked the nuts at the end of the day I found another loose one. So now I have 22 nuts that require a 3/4″ socket, and two that require a 13/16″ socket, which makes it much more amusing to watch me checking the nuts.

The other maintenance item is the tires on the Mercedes.  I’ve been watching them carefully for a long time, and was hoping that they’d last until we got back to Tucson.  At 29,000 miles, when we had the last dealer service, they looked OK, but now at 33,500 miles it is clear that they need to go.  The front end of the car is somewhat out of alignment, a fact that was revealed only in the past week when the right front and left front tires started showing excess wear at the outer edge. I could rotate the tires one more time (front to back) and probably gain another 1,000 or 2,000 miles, but I don’t care to push them quite that far.  Towing, as you know, puts high stresses on tires.  The last time I tried to stretch a tire (on the Nissan Armada) we had a blowout at low speed.  So a set of tires and an alignment are part of this week’s plan.

Our base of operations for the next few days will be St. Augustine, FL.  Normally we stay over on the coast, but this time I’ve got obligations in Green Cove Springs, which is west of  St. Augustine, so I’ve selected a rustic old campground near the St John’s River.

st-augustine-campground.jpg

We have all the little cues that tell us we are Florida.  It’s balmy and humid.  Everything is green with life, and there’s a particular scent in the breeze that speaks of ocean salt, inland swamps, and natural decay.  Spanish Moss hangs from every tree, and grayish sandy soil is underfoot. Eleanor even managed to get bitten by a red ant within 10 minutes of arrival.  Ah, yes, Florida.  I love it here but you’ve got to watch out — there are more biting and stinging things here than Arizona, by far.

The campground is many decades old.  It is a classic piece of “old Florida”: well shaded, unpretentious to a fault, and straddling the line between marginally maintained and moldering neglect.  There are ducks and chickens and feral cats all over the place.  The river is alive with water birds and fish (and probably alligators).  We like it.

The campground is under threat of development, but not any time soon.  The owners, who have run various businesses on the property for 80 years, announced in 2005 that they were going to sell the whole thing for condominiums, but so far nothing has happened, so we should be fine for the rest of this week, while we take care of business.

StarFest 2010

Monday, September 27th, 2010

It has been cars, cars, cars all weekend.  We’ve been attending StarFest 2010 in Winchester VA, which is the annual national event of the Mercedes Benz Club of America.

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It’s quite different from the Airstream events we normally attend.   Obviously the attendees stay in a hotel rather than in their vehicles.  But beyond that, the emphasis is different.  Airstreamers tend to focus more on the community of people than the trailers.  This crowd is interested in the cars more than anything else: driving them, maintaining them, showing them, and talking about them — especially the exotic, rare, or old models, like the award-winning red 300SL pictured at right.

There was some passing interest in the Airstream, but mostly it was regarded as an amusing curiosity, and again the attention was mostly paid to the GL320 that towed it.   At the Concours Award Banquet on Saturday night, I was interrogated by my fellow table-mates about its performance.  They appeared to be suitably impressed.

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As with the Airstreamers, the crowd was mostly older, but there was a small contingent of young guys who all operated independent shops specializing in 1960-1993 (approx). Mercedes cars — the “affordable classics.”  You can still easily find a lot of great old Mercedes cars in good operating condition (cosmetically imperfect) for very reasonable prices, and guys like these will help you keep them on the road forever.  I went to a talk given by representatives of the MB Classic Center, and they emphasized that Mercedes intends to keep producing parts to keep old cars on the road, safe and reliable, for decades to come.

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There were other interesting talks that I attended (and I got a few ideas for next year’s Alumapalooza, too!)  But the big event of Saturday was the Concours show, where we had excellent examples of Mercedes vehicles from seven decades.  On Sunday, we dropped in on the Autocross for the morning and watched some of the hotter cars zip around a complex and tight little course.  We did the Defensive Driving course again, just for practice.

Wondering why there’s a Smart car in the picture at right?  It’s a Daimler product and some Mercedes enthusiasts own them.  It’s not for me, but they are awfully cute and I bet this one would have done well on the Autocross if the owner was willing to give it try.

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I was pleasantly surprised by Winchester.  The “historic downtown” (a phrase horribly abused by some local chambers of commerce) is truly historic.  There’s a ton of great Colonial architecture remaining in town, centered on a handsome and vibrant brick pedestrian mall.  The city reportedly changed hands 71 times during the Civil War, and the Court House held both northern and southern prisoners.  You can still see their graffitti on the interior walls of the building, upstairs.

While a few buildings are in obvious distress, the majority of the downtown is well restored and housing robust businesses.  Eleanor and Emma were intrigued by the bead shop, while I was astonished to find an independent old-fashioned third-generation clothing store, the kind you never see in downtowns anymore.  The architecture is spectacular, with historic brick buildings, stone buildings, and even a log building. Winchester’s center has a lot going for it.

We have now relocated the Airstream to Falls Church VA, where E&E are courtesy parking with Bobby, Danine, and Elise. We first stayed with them in 2007, then they stayed with us in Tucson in February 2008, and now it’s our turn again in 2010. But I am up in northern New Jersey for an overnight, doing some business, so I’m once again in a hotel.  I’ll rejoin the group on Tuesday night and we’ll get back to the serious business of Airstreaming.

Ingo Vision backup camera

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

If you’re not already sweating with anticipation, just from the title of this blog post, you may wish to tune out.  This is a geek session.

I got my IngoVision backup camera installed yesterday, along with the Mid-City Engineering interface module for the Mercedes COMAND unit (that’s the factory-supplied “all in one” box for the radio/CD/DVD/nav/Bluetooth/iPod etc.).  The result has been exactly what I was hoping for — a good, clear, full-color rear view while towing.

mercedes-backup-cam.jpgHere’s how it attaches to the car.  The Ingo “PremiumCam” kit includes a very tough external connector which we mounted on a gusset attached to the receiver hitch. It looks just like a miniature version of the 7-way connector for the Airstream.

The rest of the kit (left, click for larger view) includes a coiled cable that runs between the Airstream and the Mercedes, a second plug to mount on the tongue of the Airstream, and a long run of cable that will go to the back of the Airstream.  The camera will mount on the bumper compartment lid at the back of the Airstream.

Inside the car, the Mid-City VIM164p interface box was attached to the back of the COMAND unit, and the camera cable was connected to the COMAND’s backup camera input.  That part of the installation is completely invisible, since it is all hidden inside the dashboard.

In the picture above at left, you can see all the cables and camera plugged into the Mercedes for a test, since I haven’t yet put it on the Airstream.  Ingo mounted the Airstream plug on his propane tank cover, which is very slick and looks like a factory design.  I’m mounting mine on the flagpole holder, which is bolted to the electric jack.  The cable will run in a protected loom under the bellypan, so it should be a quick installation with some ties and rivets.

mercedes-cam-screen-1.jpgUp front, the interface module allows the camera to be tied into the COMAND system as if it were OEM equipment.  I just press one button on the steering wheel and there’s the picture from behind the Airstream.  It’s a little stretched, probably due to the difference in aspect ratio between the Ingo-supplied screen and the Mercedes screen, but it looks good.

The camera also automatically activates when in reverse.  The nagging text you see at the top of the screen is superimposed by the Mercedes COMAND unit, not the Ingo system.

If you have a truck or SUV with more interior space, and don’t go for the fancy integrated nav screen deal that I did, you can get the same camera system for a pretty reasonable price.  The IngoVision PremiumCam (two-camera) system runs $599.  The BaseCam (one camera) system is $399. That gets you everything you need including the screen.  Installation can be DIY, or you can bring it to a local automotive electronics store and have them do it in a couple of hours.

I think this will qualify as a legitimate safety improvement.  I’ve seen a lot of Airstreams with backup cameras (usually older models and Classic motorhomes), which suggests to me that at one time it was probably a factory option.  Well, those cameras have come a long way since then — they’re smaller, cheaper, and have color, “night vision,” and better resolution.  I think it’s time Airstream consider bringing back this option as a way to improve safety for owners.

I can’t wait to get try this out on the road.  My first chance will probably be in May when we shove off for the big summer/fall trip. I’ll report on our experiences with it once we get moving.

Readying for summer 2010

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

As always, we are looking six to eight months into the future to plan our travels this season.  This year the plan is fairly ambitious for a family that is supposedly not full-timing anymore.  We will leave Tucson in early May and likely not return until mid-November.

I’m not entirely sure about this amount of time on the road this year.  Life in Arizona has been pleasant and easy, and I like to be here for at least a little of the hot weather.  Last year we stayed until mid-June and got a solid month of 100-degree days, which I actually like except for the air conditioning bill.  And usually we get back in October, just in time to catch the last week or two of hot days and warm nights.  So I find myself reviewing the tentative travel plan and wondering, “Do we really need to be out that long?”

2011tour.jpgBut when I flip over my Magic 8-Ball, the answer keeps coming up “Yes.” We have a lot to do this year.  I am launching a new magazine (first issue due out in October 2010, topic to be announced later) and that means double-duty on the road.  We’ll be doing both Airstream stuff, like Alumapalooza, and prep work for the new magazine all over the country.  Plus, we are expecting to attend a wedding on the east coast, and visit family.  So Eleanor and I have been playing “connect the dots” with the US map, and we’ve strung together a route that basically goes like this: AZ-CO-OH-NY-VT-MA-CT-VA-NC-GA-FL-LA-TX-NM-AZ.  I figure we’ll log about 14,000 miles all inclusive, over six months.

(Flags on the map are only the stops we know of at this time.  We’ll make others …)

This may be the last year we can pull off this sort of mega-trip.  Our daughter is reaching an age where she has responsibilities and long-term projects that can only be completed at home base.  I am gradually accumulating projects that may require a little more air travel, too. We’re going to have to face some tough decisions in 2011.  So as always, we need to look at this trip as if it might be our last, and try to make the most of it.

Part of our pre-expedition prep is to get the tow vehicle and Airstream in shape.  The Airstream is already set to go, in fine running condition thanks to work done on our California trip in January.  (I can’t wait to log some real miles on those new Michelin LTX tires and see if they live up to the promise!  Finally, a trip without multiple tire failures?  Wouldn’t that be nice?)

The Mercedes is also set to go, but I’m going to make a few improvements.  One item to be installed will be a clear paint protector on the hood, mirrors, and forward part of the fenders.  Here in Arizona you can tell the mileage of a car just by counting the chips in the hood and grill paint, thanks to our sandy/gravelly environment.  The Mercedes is less than a year old, but already has two chips in the paint on the hood and a few more on the mirrors.  Since I plan to keep it for a long time, I guess I’ll spend the money on the paint shield.  Bah.  We didn’t have to do this on the Armada, because its hood was much higher off the ground. I’ve noticed that the lower the hood on a car, the more quickly it gets dinged.

Another upgrade will be to install Ingo’s camera.  Last January when we were camping in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, a fellow named Ingo Werk happened to be camping nearby.  Ingo and I “knew” each other only via the Internet (a couple of years ago he contributed a small article to Airstream Life magazine), so it was nice to finally meet in person.  He’s an Airstream owner of course, but it turns out that he also has a company that makes automotive upgrades — and his latest product is “INGO VISION,” a very cool backup camera system with “night vision” and two cameras.  One camera goes on your tow vehicle, and the other goes on your Airstream.

I saw this in operation on Ingo’s rig and was very impressed.  There’s a 7-inch LCD screen that mounts in your truck and operates the cameras.  At the push of a button you can see the view from either camera.  The system is wired rather than wireless (so you can get a reliable and extremely clear view in color).  With his “premium cam” Ingo supplies wiring and connectors so you can hook up the Airstream camera from the truck using a quick-disconnect plug.  When you are towing, you can constantly monitor the traffic behind your Airstream on the LCD screen.  When you’re not towing, the backup cam on the truck still works, which is handy for hitching up.

There was only one problem for us.  The interior space of the GL320 is pretty limited, and I could not find a place to mount the 7″ screen where it would not crowd us.  In a typical truck or larger SUV there would be no problem, but we are already struggling with a GPS and tire pressure monitor in a fairly tight cockpit.  Fortunately, I discovered the wizards at Mid-City Engineering, who make OEM-quality upgrade modules for various cars.  They have a little magic interface box that will make the Ingo Vision camera image appear right on the built-in nav screen in the car.  Very cool.

So I’ve gotten that box and arranged for the local car electronics place to install it tomorrow, along with the plug on the back of the Merc for the Airstream’s camera.  I’ll still need to mount the Ingo Vision camera on the back of the Airstream, and string the camera wire from front to back of the Airstream, but that should be a reasonable DIY job.  Once it is all running, I’ll be able to watch the view behind the Airstream while towing, which should be a huge help to my overall situation awareness.  (Normally I’m all about looking forward and not backward, but in this case I’ll make an exception.)  I’ll post pictures of the setup in a separate blog post, later.

Finishing up house projects is the other major task before we go.  We have begun to take our house a little more seriously, so we are very slowly fixing the things that we have ignored over the past three years.  None of the projects are huge, but it’s important to tie up all the loose ends before we take off. Mostly that means planting a few trees and getting them established, fixing some drainage issues, finalizing some painting projects, zapping the weeds, and other such homebody tasks.

Doing these things helps motivate me to leave.  I don’t like doing house maintenance.  Once we are on the road, we can forget we have a house and just live in the moment. It’s always briefly disorienting, then freeing, and finally comforting to know that don’t need to a house and all the stuff that goes with it.  When we are in the house, that perspective is hard to maintain.

We’ve got one more camping trip planned locally before we take off.  Sometime in the next two weeks we’ll go to southeastern Arizona to explore the wonderful Chiricahua National Monument and some great national forest campsites nearby. This will be a Caravel trip, since the big Safari won’t fit in those campsites.  The mountains run about 5,000-7,000 feet, which is why we’ve waited as late as possible in the season to visit them.  Even in mid-April we’ll probably have freezing nights.  But this area has been on our “to do” list for three years and if we don’t go in April we won’t be able to go again until sometime in 2011.   There won’t be nightly blog reports since I don’t expect any cellular service, but I’ll post a full report upon our return.

Tow vehicle on the track

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Towing a big trailer intimidates a lot of people when they try it for the first time.  It should, because you can very quickly get into trouble when towing. It requires drivers to learn a new set of skills, and apply good driving practices at all times.  I think it is particularly intimidating when you’ve just signed a loan agreement obligating you to 10 years of monthly payments, and you realize that a considerable portion of your net worth is now rolling along with you, presenting a large and shiny target for every nutcase driver on the road.  A new truck/Airstream combination can easily come in at $80-100k.  Atop that, there’s the knowledge that you, your family, and your dog are all going to be involved in any accident you get into.

rolloversign.jpgSo suddenly those “defensive driving” tips you have taken not-so-seriously rise to an unprecedented level of importance.  Suddenly you’re the one cursing that guy who cut in between you and the car in front of you, using up all the distance and reducing your time to react.  Now you’re paying attention to the rollover warning sign on the Interstate exit ramp, and the 25-MPH speed limit on the big cloverleaf intersection.  You realize, “Hey, they mean me” when you are towing two or three tons of expensive housing behind you.

In late 2000, Eleanor had a rollover accident with baby Emma in the car, and ever since I’ve been interested in getting both of us some advanced driver training.  We know how to drive, but do we really have the instincts to react properly when it all suddenly goes very wrong at 60 MPH?  I’d like us both to have some more confidence about our abilities in adverse situations, and the trained reactions to avoid a crash.

Now, after years of Airstream ownership and years of full-time travel, I am pretty sure I know how to handle my Airstream. The number one rule is simple: SLOW DOWN.  There are many other practical rules as well, involving getting in and out of tight spots, evaluating situations before getting trapped in them, backing up, passing, rough roads, etc.  I’ve got all those pretty well figured out by now, mostly as a result of painful experience.

The thing that concerns me about towing is not the trailer, but the tow vehicle.  Most tow vehicles have a high center of gravity and are more prone to rollover than the average car.  Adding an Airstream actually tends to help with this, by putting weight down low and stabilizing the vehicle — if properly hitched.  But adding people, fuel, and cargo usually raises the center of gravity in an SUV, and most drivers aren’t aware of this until they notice adverse handling.

Moreover, pickup trucks and SUVs are generally lousy at high-speed maneuvers.  They aren’t designed for that.  You’ve got a narrow maneuverability envelope to work in at highway speeds.  Exceed the envelope, and the tow vehicle will go out of control, often without much advance warning. That’s further reason to understand the limits of your vehicle, and to train yourself how to react properly.

Last weekend a local car club was holding a “Defensive Driving” course up in Phoenix, and we signed up.  The instructors recommended showing up in the vehicle you drive the most, so we brought our Airstream’s tow vehicle, the Mercedes GL320.  At 6,000+  pounds, it was by far the largest and heaviest car on the track. Most people were in small sedans or sportscars.

dsc_4783.jpgThe course included about half an hour of “chalk talk” followed by individual instruction on a course set out in the parking lot of a former Wal-Mart.  We took turns driving through the course with an instructor in the right seat.  The tasks included an emergency lane-change maneuver, a slalom, an emergency brake followed by immediate lane change, and a panic stop strong enough to engage the anti-lock brakes.

dsc_4579.jpgI thought all of this would be routine, but I was surprised.  Each task had an unexpected element to it.  In the emergency lane change, I discovered how easy it is to go the wrong way when you’ve got to make a snap decision.  In the slalom, I was frankly amazed at the handling of the GL320 — it went through much faster than I had expected.

The panic stop was a particular challenge for me.  I thought I was pressing pretty hard on the brakes, but I had to try three times before getting the ABS to kick in.  Once I did, the GL320 came a stop really fast.  Turns out that I’ve been holding back on the brakes, probably as a result of learning to drive up in Vermont without ABS, in the snow, where you’ve got to keep a light foot on the brake to avoid skidding.  Old habits die hard, but that one needs to go.  The ABS computer can do a better job of modulating the brake pressure than I can.

After lunch, the course was re-set as an autocross.   Racing your “daily driver” through the course is the icing on the cake at these events.  We walked the course twice, then Eleanor and I each took a couple of tries at it.  On our second try, we were timed.  You can see me driving the autocross course at our Airstream Life photo/video community.  My time was 49 seconds, Eleanor’s was 51.  Not bad actually, considering the vehicle we were in.  (Our past tow vehicle, a much larger and taller Nissan Armada, probably would have skidded excessively or tipped over if I’d driven it that hard.)  The best time of the day was set by a past national autocross winner, at 38 seconds (in a Mercedes E300), and I think the highest time was 55 seconds.

Sure enough, leaving the event I had a sense of much greater confidence in the vehicle, knowing much more accurately how far I could push it in a turning or braking maneuver.  We’re far from professional drivers at this point, but the day was well spent and I hope we’ll advance our skills later in another similar event.

I-10 from Tucson AZ to Midland TX

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

I woke up at 4 a.m.  Without looking at a clock I knew it was far too early to be getting up for the big drive today.  The Great Horned Owl was still shrieking in the back yard, warning off his potential rivals in between soft hoots.  His warning call is like the screech of a frightened small child, and it always wakes us up.  But he never does it in the morning, so I knew I had to get back to sleep if I was to be ready for ten hours of driving.  I rolled over and tried not to think about what lay ahead.

The strange thing is that we go on roadtrips all the time, and I don’t have this sort of nervous anticipation normally.  Something felt different about this one, but why should I be surprised?  Traveling without E&E, hotels instead of Airstream, and a rigid 600-mile per day schedule.  Everything was different.

Well, I did get a few hours more sleep, and was finally rolling away at 7:50 a.m.  The trip started off with a bad omen: the GPS would not power on.  It worked fine just two days ago.  Why should it suddenly die?  I took it along anyway, thinking that by wiggling some cords or perhaps applying some other form of persuasion I would get it working again along the way. The day’s route was as simple as could be.  Get on I-10, and stay there for 600 miles.  I didn’t think I’d need it for a while.

I did stop at The Thing in Arizona, but the sky was gloomy and my photographer alter ego said to try again on the way back, when I have the Airstream in tow.  I took a few half-hearted snapshots of the exterior and continued on.

Along the road I counted five Airstreams, all headed west.  One of them was a Caravel, just like the one I’m going to pick up, which gave me a pang of wistfulness.  I wished I had it in tow already, and I was heading for Big Bend National Park instead of Louisville.

But for today there was the compensation of just driving the heck out of the car without anything in tow. Mercedes enthusiasts says it is “autobahn ready,” which means theoretically I should be able to go 150 MPH with no trouble.  In reality the car is electronically limited to 130 MPH, and even in Texas that’s a big ticket.  The speed limit was 75 through Arizona and New Mexico, and once I was about 30 miles past El Paso things opened up to a neat 80 MPH, which meant I could at least flirt with what the car could do in those big empty spaces between El Paso and Van Horn.

midland-motel.jpgBy the numbers:  622 miles total driving, average speed 73, fuel economy a startling 26.7 miles per gallon!  I hadn’t expected such good fuel economy at 80 MPH, but speed doesn’t seem to affect the fuel economy on this car very much.  After 622 miles the computer said I could go another 59 miles, but when the orange “low fuel” indicator went on I decided to call it quits.  I was in Midland, where I had planned to stop anyway.  It was just a matter of finding the hotel I had reserved.  And then I remembered: no GPS.

The dead Garmin is still a week inside it’s one-year warranty period, so tomorrow I’ll call for a return authorization, and when it comes back we’ll have a GPS for each car.  In the meantime, I need a functioning one to navigate my way around half a dozen cities on this trip.  Fortunately, all along America’s highways one can find handy superstores, so I stopped at the first one I saw and bought a replacement GPS.

And with that, I found my hotel, grabbed some takeout dinner, unloaded my valuables into the room, and settled in to update you with the millionth re-run of “Caddyshack” playing on the TV in the background.  I think the presence of a cheap room, cheap takeout, and a brainless old movie at the end of the day completes the requirements for this to be an official roadtrip. It has been a long day, and tomorrow another long day lies ahead.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine