Old fashion socializing

January 9th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

The past few days in Anza-Borrego camping without my family has been an enlightening experience in some ways.  I have realized that when I am camping solo, I prefer to be away from campgrounds.  Campgrounds are filled with other people and their families and I find them strangely distracting. It’s the “alone in a crowd” feeling.

I don’t usually notice much about the other campers when we are traveling as a family, because we are engaged in our own lives and there’s usually something that needs to be done.  But when solo, there’s a stillness about the trailer that invites contemplation (navel-gazing, I suppose).  At those times, it’s great to be out in the desert with not much else around.

So I know that the next time I am looking for an opportunity to be alone and contemplative, taking the Airstream out for some boondocking will be just the ticket.  That may not be for some time, since we have a heavy travel schedule through February and March.

On this trip it was nice to see all my friends happily engaged in their lives.  Brian & Leigh were busy working on their respective jobs in their “office” at the dinette.  Likewise, Alex and Charon both seemed to be deep into creative projects of various types, although I did manage to break Alex away for one day of recreation.  Stevyn & Troy have been exploring the world of full-time travel, and while they are still getting their footing, I can see that it probably won’t be long before they have a regular routine with their two kids as well.

Anza-Borrego Slot canyon TroyI took their family out for a little exploration, since they’ve never been to Anza-Borrego and had no idea of the many curiosities and phenomenae to be found.  The Slot Canyon, always a favorite, was a big hit.  It was as much fun for me to show it to them as it was for them to explore it.  I was particularly gratified when Troy turned to me and said he was having that peculiar sensation you get when you actually see something in person that you had previously known only from photographs in National Geographic.  I know that feeling—it’s one of the reasons we travel.

In the evening all of our local Airstream circle gathered by the tailgate of Troy’s pickup truck, with my old gas camping lamp hissing, and we talked for a couple of hours.  I had picked up an apple pie in town (nearby Julian CA is famous for those), and Leigh warmed it in the oven and split it among us.  It all seems so mundane as I recount this, but at the time it was the perfect thing to do.  As simple as it was, it felt like a great moment in life.

Anza-Borrego social night

That’s perhaps the best thing about this sort of camping.  We have no shopping, no school, no jobs except what we bring with us, and few distractions.  The nights are cold and long in the desert winter, and you’ve got to make your own entertainment.  This encourages more of that introspection I was talking about, and it encourages old-fashioned socializing.  Bonding together over pie and conversation is what it’s all about.

Anza-Borrego Caravel Mercedes GLI could have happily stayed out for another week, traveling through California and Arizona, but my time was up.  Appointments, obligations, and demands of work  were calling me back to home, so that evening I pre-packed the trailer and started thinking about the long drive back.  There are very few good overnight stopping points along I-8, and I needed to get back ASAP, so in the morning the only thing to do was to hitch up and hit the road as early as possible.

Airstream Caravel highwayThe Caravel has passed the test.  It’s always going to be a tiny and somewhat inefficient little trailer, but at least it’s a trailer in which everything works!  I have a list of about a dozen improvements that could be made, which I’m going to file for next summer.  For now, it’s ready to go, which means Brett will have a place to stay during Alumafiesta and—if I can work out a second tow vehicle—someday I’ll have it for TBM season…

I’ve never seen that before

January 7th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

I’ve been coming to this park for years, partly in a park this big there’s always an opportunity to see something new—if you just make the effort to look.  The rangers and volunteers who staff the visitor center, and the people you can find camping in the less-traveled areas, are a great source of tips.

Yesterday I pulled Alex away from his computer to get out for “an adventure.”  We decided to do a little off-roading near 17 Palms, a palm oasis that’s a couple of miles off S-22, starting at the primitive Arroyo Salado campsite.  The roads are always sandy, potholed, and occasionally a bit “technical” requiring some driving skill to avoid getting stuck.  None of the roads I’m going to talk about are passable with a 2 wheel drive vehicle, or any vehicle that doesn’t have high ground clearance.  I mention this because we still remember the Tale of the Sinking Dutchman, who thought that a Subaru Outback constituted a suitable conveyance on the local trails.  It has become a favorite campfire story among the 4WD owners.

The Mercedes GL is a remarkably capable off-road vehicle.  I know that probably 99.9% of owners never take them off pavement, but they should give it a try.  We’ve off-roaded with ours in many places over the years, and it has always been surprisingly good it, despite its bulk and street tires.  I’m selective about where we go because I don’t want to strip the paint off by rubbing a piece of sandstone, and I sure don’t want to get stuck.

Anza Borrego17 Palms was very nice, but I’d seen it before and after a few minutes of marveling at this strange palm oasis (the result of an underground water supply) we decided to press onward to a place we’d never been: the “Pumpkin Patch.”

Pumpkin Patch

Pumpkin Patch

This is an area of “concretions”, which are basically like pearls made of natural cement.  Wet sand sticks to a “seed” object like a pebble, and becomes cemented to it.  Wind erosion shapes the concretions as they gradually become exposed to the surface, hence the pumpkin shape.

Pumpkin Patch is in the adjacent Ocotillo Wells Off-Highway Recreational Vehicle Area, which is a long way to say that it’s where the ATV’ers and motorcyclists are allowed to ride.  We met up with a few of them and they tipped us off to a hidden spot where supposedly there were “statues” made of rock.  They weren’t sure where exactly they saw it, and sent us on a wild-goose chase down the Pumpkin Patch Trail.

Mercedes Benz GL off-road

(Not my photo, but we did a lot of stuff like this)

I can now attest that this trail is passable by cars … but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really like off-roading in tricky conditions and have the right vehicle.  It’s really Jeep country.  Since Alex and I were, uh, “rather concerned” by the conditions as we slowly drove through, we didn’t stop to take photos, but we probably should have.  If you drove this trail in a Jeep you would not believe that we’d done it in a Mercedes GL.

Of course we never found the rock statues, but by the time we escaped Pumpkin Patch Trail and settled into the relatively flat washes, we didn’t really care.  It about another 90 minutes to work our way out of there and back to the pavement of S-22, plus time for a stop at another spot we’d never seen before: Vista Del Malpais.

Anza Borrego-4Alex called Vista Del Malpais “the best view in the park,” and I think he might be right.  It’s a lot like the view from Font’s Point but even more panoramic.  The Salton Sea is visible to the east, badlands spread out in front in Technicolor beauty, and mountains ringing three sides.  It really can’t be fully captured in a single photo.  Going to Vista Del Malpais is mandatory if you really want to appreciate it, like seeing Grand Canyon in person.

After all that, it seemed like a good idea to head over to the Palms At Indian Head Hotel for a burger by the swimming pool.

Just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, Alex & Charon put on a show for all the RV’ers in their encampment (about 1/4 mile from my site) and for anyone else who cared to show up.  This is the same show they’ll be doing at Alumafiesta next month in Tucson, full of sword swallowing, fire breathing, and other specialties of the sideshow arts.  I’ve seen it probably eight times and I still love it.  From the reaction of the crowd (from age 3 to 60+) it was clear they loved it too.

Today’s plan is much like yesterday’s plan: no plan.  We shall see what happens.  It’s another beautiful day in Borrego Springs CA (sorry to all of you trapped by the snow & cold right now), and probably it is my last day before heading homeward, so I’m going to try to make the most of it.

Out in the desert

January 6th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Yesterday I relocated the Caravel out to the open desert, just beyond the boundaries of town.  No more full hookup for me on this trip.  The Caravel’s systems all worked beautifully while I was in the state park campground for two nights, and so the next step is to test everything in boondock mode (without hookups).

I’m very pleased with the way the trailer is finally working out, after years of tweaking it.  There are still things I’d like to improve, and I suppose there always will be, but it is eminently usable right now.  I’d like to get the main door to open and close more easily, and it needs a 12v power outlet somewhere, and perhaps a couple of USB power outlets by the dinette.  Stabilizer jacks would be nice, as would a vintage-style awning.  Oh, and while I’m at it, a discrete rooftop antenna for cellular Internet, an easier way to convert the gaucho to a bed, a lighter dinette table, and I’m sure I can think of many other things too …

1968 Airstream Caravel dry camped in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

1968 Airstream Caravel dry camped in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Somehow I doubt I’m going to get to all of those projects, at least not until I start using this trailer on a more routine basis.  The Caravel is a fun trailer for one person, but not highly practical.  You can do only one thing at a time in it. You can cook, eat, sleep, shower, or work—pick any one, and put everything away before switching to the next.  There just isn’t room to leave anything out.

When Eleanor and spent our first night in this trailer, back in August 2003, we were traveling without Emma and found the Caravel to be delightful.  It rained that first night, and I remember feeling wonderfully encompassed in the tiny aluminum shell while the rain pattered on the roof.  Later when we traveled with Emma (age 3) it never seemed too small, probably because our point of comparison was a tent.  Today I think I would describe it as “romantic” for two if you like cozy surroundings.  (I mean “cozy” in the real estate sense:  small.)  The three of us no longer fit in it, at least not at the same time.

The real point of a vintage trailer like this, if we’re going to be brutally honest here, is that it attracts lots of admirers because it’s just so darned cute.  Everyone comes over and admires it. I give a lot of tours, so I feel obliged to try to clean it up every morning just to be ready for the possibility of someone wanting to peek inside.  Being so small, it doesn’t take long to see it all, in fact you can see it all just by leaning in the front door.

Being out here in the desert is much quieter than the state park campground.  By unspoken agreement, the RVs parked out here are scattered very widely unless they are deliberately camping together, so my nearest neighbors are Brian & Leigh about 100 feet away.  Stevyn & Troy are probably 200 feet away, and other than that I am mostly surrounded by open space and dry creosote bushes.  I prefer it, these days, to a campground, even though the Caravel isn’t optimized for boondocking.

It’s not bad even with only one battery, because the trailer doesn’t need much power.  I converted all the lights to LED and so the only significant long-term power draws are the circuit board in the refrigerator (even on gas it will use 6-10 amp-hours per day) and the laptop.  To make up for that, Brian has lent me his portable solar panel, which generates 120 watts peak, and that’s more than enough to recharge my daily needs, in about an hour.

There’s no furnace in this trailer either, just a catalytic heater which uses no electricity. The past two nights have been balmy, which is pretty rare right now since the eastern half of the country is in the deep-freeze. I hadn’t even needed to turn on the heater until last night when the overnight temperature dropped to 35 degrees F.  Around 5 a.m. I finally couldn’t stand it and fired up the catalytic heater, and then of course I couldn’t get back to sleep so I ended up at dawn taking pictures.  That wasn’t really so bad, especially later when I found a photo in my email from my friend Charlie showing his home in Indiana covered by 10 inches of snow and temperatures dipping to -14 degrees F.

Today’s plan is to roam around the park with Alex, rather aimlessly.  We plan to buy a Julian apple pie, otherwise it’s a solid plan of do-nothingness.  Last night a few of us went to Font’s Point to see the badlands at sunset, when they are just stunning, and I think that set the tone for the next few days. We’re just going to take in the beauty of this place and not worry about agendas.  Or anything else.

The bandwidth war

January 4th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Traveling solo in the Airstream Caravel, and now parked in a lovely desert state park, you would think that my thoughts would go to poetic descriptions of the desert flora, or reflections on solitude. But in fact I’ve been thinking about wireless Internet.

Here’s why:  the phenomenon of mobile working-class people living in motorhomes and travel trailers has really begun to gain momentum.  When we started traveling full time in 2005 and I was working on the magazine, I rarely ran into anyone who was doing the same thing.  Part of the reason was that cellular Internet was not so great, with “2G” networks in this country and connectivity so slow that I would find a Panera Bread if I needed to do serious downloading.  Campground wi-fi was spotty and indifferently supported by the campgrounds, meaning that usually it didn’t work.  Some traveling friends used satellite connections on tripods, and if you’ve ever seen the rigamarole involved in setting one of those up, and then suffered the tedious upload speeds, you can understand that they were really desperate.

A few years later it was an entirely different situation, and now in 2014 we have fairly high-speed cellular all over the country, and with usable signal in places we could only fantasize about a few years ago. A small industry has sprung up to provide us with high-gain antennas, cellular-compatible routers, wi-fi extenders, and signal boosters.  Even campground wi-fi has gotten a little better (although still terribly unreliable on the whole).  The bottom line is that anybody can get online almost anywhere.

And so we are.  Lots of us.  The numbers of “knowledge workers” living in RVs and traveling nomadically seems to have skyrocketed.  I don’t think anyone really knows how many of us there are, since we are hard to track, but I see them in greater numbers every year.  They are easy to spot by their relative youthfulness, the fact that they stay inside most of the working day, and because of the cluster of antennas on the roof. Even people who aren’t reliant on a job have begun to regard Internet connectivity as essential as oxygen, and I see them too, watching Netflix on their laptop at night and using Skype to talk to the grandchildren.

The result is that in many nomad hotspots, the network still sucks.  It’s just like 2005 right now in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, in terms of Internet quality, not because of any fault of Verizon or AT&T, or the state park management, but simply because too many people are inundating the network.  A few years ago on the 3G network I was flying along, getting work done efficiently because I was the only person in the park who was goofy enough to sit in my trailer on a nice day and work on the laptop.  Everyone else was sensibly out on a hike, or touring the park, or starting their campfire.  Now a bunch of them are sitting inside their trailers and watching YouTube.  The result is that it took three minutes for me to load a simple web page this morning.

I drove over an area just east of Borrego Springs, where the border of the state park and some fortuitous geology have combined to create an ideal free camping spot for mobile workers.  Two years ago at this time of year the area had a scattered of RVs, and perhaps a quarter of them were working folk. The rest were just out for vacation, or retired and living cheap off the grid.  Today, I found over a dozen RVs out there sporting big rooftop antennas for collecting wi-fi, satellite, cellular signals—and inside, people with laptops, smart cell phones, iPads, etc.  Many of those people will report to work on Monday, and they need Internet to do that.

But the network … alas.  It just doesn’t have the oomph to reach out there and give everyone high-speed Internet.  This has spurred a sort of arms race, because he who has the biggest antenna and booster setup will get a stronger signal and hence more bandwidth.  It has also spurred a land grab, because only a few spots exist in that part of the desert that can really get a good line-of-sight view to the cellular tower in Borrego Springs.  He who has the highest spot on the ridge gets more signal, too.

When I talked to a few of the people who have been there a while, they were considering relocating to better spots.  Keep in mind that all the spots offer the same desert dust, creosote bushes, jackrabbits, and solitude.  The only reason to move is to get signal, and moving is a giant pain because they’re already very settled into their spots.  They won’t move the rig for something like water (they’d rather pay a day-use fee to use the showers in the state park), but they will move the rig for Internet. So you can see how important it is to them.

Campground managers I have talked to recently tell me that they can’t keep up.  Everyone shows up with a computer these days, and often they also have smart phones and tablets, each of which wants to connect to the campground wi-fi. One manager said he had spent $20k in the last month upgrading the campground system and upgraded the data plan to the maximum available, and it still wasn’t enough.  So the next step is for campgrounds to start blocking certain services, like streaming video (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc), streaming audio (Skype, iChat, etc).  That won’t make customers happy; they see wi-fi as a right.  They view blocking as an unfair restriction, like telling you that you can use the campground water for drinking but not for showers.

Meanwhile, I’m back in my 2005 “work-around-the-slow Internet” mode. I’m only doing the bare minimum that I need to do online, because otherwise I’ll be staring at my computer forever.  Anything that takes serious bandwidth will get done at dawn, before all the kids start watching cartoons, and before the workers who are operating on east coast time start teleconferencing.  The blog doesn’t have pictures (but I’ll get some later).   I’m saving a list of things that require high-speed Internet (like big file uploads) and I’ll do those at some public wi-fi spot in town.

Another good trick is to use the smart phone instead of the laptop.  Mobile apps are designed for narrow bandwidth, and you can do quite a lot with a tablet or phone.  For things like banking, short emails, and social network updates, today’s smart phone apps are definitely a great way to go.

This bandwidth situation reminds me of the constant battle between hardware engineers and software engineers.  Ever since computers were invented, software engineers have always wanted to design programming that outstripped the capabilities of the hardware.  This spawned a famous saying (at least in computer geek circles): “No matter how clever the hardware boys are, the software boys piss it away.”  This is why your new 2013 computer doesn’t boot up faster than your 1998 computer, even though the hardware is nearly 1,000 times faster.

It’s the same with the network.  The 4G LTE network I’m using can be up to 30 times faster than the 3G network it replaced, but we’re all using a lot more data than before, too.  In 2008 we had a couple of laptops, one of which was rarely used.  Now we have six mobile devices and when we are traveling all of them are heavily used.  We’re hardly unique in that respect, especially among travelers.

The problem is worsened by the software boys’ relentless attempts to get us to do everything “in the cloud.” This means all of our commonly used applications automatically connect to the Internet to check for updates, download advertisements, and synchronize files.  This is frustrating when you are paying for every gigabyte of data, and it slows things down.  I make it a mission to find and kill programs that insist on sending large amounts of data without explicit permission.  You’d probably be surprised how many there are on your laptop and cell phone.

I don’t expect this problem to get much better.  Cellular networks have come a long way, but as they gain, there’s always some new application that will suck up every bit of excess bandwidth plus some.  The “arms race” for serious mobile workers will continue.

This trip I’m not going to be a contender in the battle, because I’m in the Caravel and it doesn’t have a rooftop antenna nor a signal booster.  It also doesn’t have a solar panel, so I’m limited to what I can do with one little Group 24 battery.  When I move to the boondocking spot among all those hard-core mobile workers, my best move will be to go for a hike somewhere in the vast desert where cell signals don’t penetrate anyway.  So that’s what I’m going to do … tomorrow.

Readying for a solo mission

January 1st, 2014 by Rich Luhr

After a few weeks of concentrating on non-travel stuff, I’m ready to get out on the road again–and back to a favorite destination.

For the several years we had a tradition of spending time in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park around New Year’s Eve. It has always been a relaxing experience, slightly tinged with magic on those cold dark desert nights, where coyote howls are more common than fireworks or music.  We always ran into friends and fellow Airstreamers on that trip, and during the days we hiked and explored the back roads, badlands, washes, and mountains of the park.

Two years ago the tradition was broken when our disc brake actuator failed, preventing us from leaving the driveway.  Last year, we elected to stay home and see Paula Poundstone at Tucson’s downtown Rialto theater.  It seems like the spell that drew us annually had finally been broken.

Part of that is the result of changing circumstances.  We’re all older now, and we’ve got more going on in our lives than ever before.  Priorities change.  Hard decisions have to be made about how to spend time and money.  Eleanor and Emma have obligations near home for the next couple of weeks that they can’t shirk.  But for me, there’s still a faint siren song I can hear from Anza-Borrego, and as winter deepens the song gets a little louder.

So this year Eleanor has encouraged me to take the trip solo, in the tiny 1968 Airstream Caravel.  I rarely travel via Airstream without my family, so at first I resisted. This is something we’ve always done together.  Unless I have a defined goal for the trip, I always feel like I’m just wasting time and fuel driving hundreds of miles solo.  It feels lonely and strange to be camping out in the desert by myself, although know people who love doing that, for the privacy and peacefulness.

I’m trying to capture that spirit as I gear up for this trip.  Perhaps while I am out there I will find inspiration in the expanse, and write something fantastic and new.  Perhaps I will meet new friends and have an adventure out in the wilderness.  Maybe I’ll finally get a good photo of a scorpion or tarantula (probably not—wrong time of year).

At least I know that a few friends will be there as well.  I’m planning to meet up with Brian & Leigh from Aluminarium, which is always fun.  They have become hard-core boondockers and it’s fascinating to see them working their high-tech jobs in the open desert half a mile from the nearest road.

I’ll also spend a few days in the desert with Stevyn & Troy, who are new to Airstream full-timing and boondocking.  I feel slightly responsible for them because last September when we stayed at their home in Missouri, we encouraged them to try full-timing and now they are.  With Brian & Leigh’s help, we are going to give them a practical taste of “Boondocking 101″ for a few days.  It will be a steep learning curve for them, but fun for us to pass on the knowledge.  If you are a Airstreamer who will be in the Borrego area this weekend or next week, let me know and I’ll send you the coordinates.

1968 Airstream Caravel interior 2014-01

While prepping the Caravel the past few days, I’ve been feeling like a total noob.  The Caravel hasn’t been used by me since October 2011, and it has undergone quite a bit of renovation work since, so it isn’t pre-packed for travel like the Safari.  As a result, I have to think carefully about everything that will be needed for the trip:  tools, clothes, food, hoses, kitchen supplies, office equipment—everything, right down to the tow ball. (The Caravel tows on a ball, whereas the Safari uses a square “stinger” for the Hensley hitch.)  It’s amazing how much stuff I take for granted because the Safari is so well set up for full-timing, and always kept prepped to go.  Half the time I can’t even remember where things are supposed to go in the Caravel.

Eleanor has been helping in her usual way, by providing me with abundant food and remembering to check for the practical items that I would typically forget.  (“Dish soap and a sponge?  Oh yeah, that.”)  Together we will get it done and I’ll be well-equipped in the end, but it is taking much longer than I would have thought to pack a 17-foot trailer for five or six days of bachelor travel.  (Yes, I’m bringing the TBM gear, too!)

You might recall that a few weeks ago I finished a project to completely re-plumb the Caravel’s fresh water system.  I also had a new power hitch jack installed, and new safety chains.  And earlier in the year I replaced the propane regulator and associated hoses & hardware.  Part of the reason for taking the Caravel to Anza-Borrego is to road-test all that work.  It would be much easier to take the Safari, and the fuel economy isn’t much different for the big trailer, but Brett will be borrowing the Caravel next month during Alumafiesta so I’d like to have it fully debugged before he gets here.  A few hundred miles of towing plus five or six days of camping should shake out the bugs, if there are any. So part of my packing list is a bag of tools and a box of leftover plumbing supplies.  If the plumbing springs a leak, or a gas line needs to be tightened, I should be able to fix it even in the middle of nowhere.

Really, the only part that worries me is the fresh water system.  Leaks are so frustrating and can be subtle, yet devastating.  I tested the plumbing again this week and everything seems fine: no leaks, no problems.  The final step for that system is to sanitize, which is easy.  (The procedure is described on p. 59-60 of The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.) I took care of that yesterday, and today I’m going to finish most of the packing and do a little dusting inside the cabinets too.  Every time I get in there to pack things I come out with dusty hands; the poor Caravel has sat unused for far too long.

And of course there’s all the stuff that I will have to check on the trailer itself, like the tire pressure.  It all amounts to a lot of prep work for a short trip.  I’ve concluded that it’s really much easier if you use your Airstream frequently, like we do with the Safari.  Leave it ready to go as much as you can, keep the batteries charged and the cabinets stocked with non-perishables, have a dedicated set of tools and utensils that never leave the trailer, and you’ll be on the road that much quicker.  We are starting to work toward that with the Caravel.

The trip will begin on Friday with a long-ish drive to Borrego Springs, CA (380 miles).  I’ll have Internet even in the boondock sites, and probably lots of time to write, so a few blog posts from the road are likely.

News from the industry, late 2013

December 7th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

I just got back from the annual RV Industry Association trade show, which is held in sunny Louisville, KY the first week of December each year.  This is a trip I normally dread, because it’s right after the Thanksgiving travel season and the airplanes and convention center are inevitably filled with people who have viruses to share. Being a human virus magnet, I almost always get sick.  And it always rains in Louisville this time of year.

So it is with great trepidation that I force myself to leave sunny southern Arizona to spend a few days under the big tungsten lights.  But this year, I’m glad I did.

Sometimes the big draw for me is the chance to see the latest things from Airstream.  This year the big draw was the knowledge that the RV industry has fully escaped the doldrums of the recession and for the past year the manufacturers have been cranking out product at full speed.  The RV industry is a “leading economic indicator,” which means that when the RV industry speeds up, the rest of the economy is not far behind.  (Of course, this goes both ways—about eight months before the Bush administration admitted we were heading into a recession, we knew the bad news because RV sales had already plummeted.)

I was looking forward to smiling faces and busy people at RVIA, and I was not disappointed.  For example, Brett & I were approached by our friend, the president of Zip-Dee, who suggested that perhaps we should suspend his full page ad in Airstream Life for an issue because, “everytime it comes out our phones go nuts for two weeks, and we can’t keep up!”  Only in boom times will you hear such a complaint.  (Instead of suspending his ad for the super-cool Zip-Dee motorized awning, we are going to run a different Zip-Dee product ad in the Spring issue.)

Airstream, you may have already heard, is having the biggest year they’ve seen in decades.  In terms of dollars of sales, it’s their biggest year ever.  The Airstream Interstate motorhome continues to be the best-selling Class B moho in the industry, despite also being the most expensive.  Trailers are flying off dealer lots, and the production backlog is several months long.

Despite knowing all this before I went, I was absolutely astonished at the level of bullishness we found at the trade show.  We signed more new advertisers for Airstream Life on the spot than we have done in the last three or four years combined.  We found eager new sponsors for our R&B Events, including Alumapalooza and Alumaflamingo (we’ll announce those when the deals are finalized).  Every aftermarket manufacturer we talked to was interested in sending someone to represent their company.  The Grinch of prior years was thoroughly banished.

What’s behind this?  Well, recessions don’t last forever.  Also, the baby boomers, who have been retiring in droves for several years, are eagerly buying Airstreams so that they can finally indulge life-long fantasies of freedom and travel.  Airstream says about half of their new buyers are new to RV’ing entirely, meaning that they went from nothing to an Airstream.

This has changed everything, no exaggeration.  The content of Airstream Life, the content of our events, the future projects I’m working on, the design of Airstreams, dealerships—nothing is untouched by this massive change.  It used to be that Airstreams were the trailers you ended up with after years of climbing your way up the ladder through lesser brands, but now we have all these newbies showing up who very suddenly want to live the dream.  So everyone who makes, sells, or supports Airstream has to look what they do and figure out how to do it differently.  I think this is great fun.

In terms of new products, we saw only a few things of note.  The re-boot of Trillium fiberglass trailers seems to have faltered a bit, but they are now being sold by Great West Vans as the “Sidekick Trillium“.  Certainly well worth consideration by anyone looking for cute weekender on a budget.  Jayco was showing a European spec caravan to attempt to show American dealers how EU models can make a lot of sense.  Primus Windpower Airstream RVIA 2013The guys at Primus Windpower picked up the pieces from another RV wind power company that failed last year, and will be having a product re-launch in 2014, which I’ll be watching.  The Airstream Interstate has been updated for the new Mercedes Sprinter chassis, but it’s essentially the same as before, meaning quite long and very plush.  Likewise, the $146k “Land Yacht” trailer has been updated a bit.

Airstream Land Yacht RVIA 2013We met with Dicky Riegel of Airstream2Go to talk about his new Airstream trailer rental business.  He showed us the incredibly cool app that they give, pre-loaded on an iPad Mini, to each rental customer.  It has maps, explanatory videos, helpful guides, checklists, equipment lists, even song playlists.  It’s first class, and I was very impressed.  Sometime next year it will also have a full set of Airstream Life back issues pre-loaded, too.

I have to admit I was a skeptic about the concept of Airstream2Go, but Dicky seems to have found and tapped into a base of well-off customers who really want to rent new Airstream trailers for a “vacation of a lifetime” but don’t want to buy one.  If that’s you, there’s no better option than Airstream2Go.

martinesphoto.4946I also had a rare chance to sit down with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes a series on towing that we publish in Airstream Life.  His last article, about load capacity, really tweaked a few people because Andy showed how some cars which aren’t rated to tow much at all can actually perform better than the traditional pickup truck.

A few people asked my why I’d publish such an article (which gored a sacred cow in the towing world), and I tried to explain that the discussion of the vehicle and hitch dynamics helps us all understand what we are doing.  You don’t have to like Andy’s choice of vehicle to benefit from his knowledge, no matter what you drive.

The same people typically suggested that I shouldn’t publish such articles because (a) I’d get sued; (b) “somebody will get killed”; (c) Andy doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.  I don’t buy any of those excuses.  My response is usually that you may not agree what you read, but don’t ask me not to publish it.  Cancel your subscription or flip to the next page.  I believe in the free exchange of knowledge and I’m not in favor of quashing new thinking.  If you pay attention with an open mind, you might just learn something.

I tell ya what, I certainly learned a few things this week.  In addition to all of the above, I learned not to eat the egg & guacamole biscuit thing at the hotel breakfast buffet.  By 4 pm on the final afternoon of my trip I was feeling a bit “off,” and by 11:30 pm I was doubled over in agony.  Didn’t sleep much that night.  My personal “Louisville curse” got me again.  On the plus side, I also learned that Louisville airport has very clean bathrooms, after visiting several of them in the pre-dawn hours the next morning while waiting for my flight.

Well, as my associate David told me, “a stomach bug is a small price to pay” for a successful week.  (Of course, that’s easy for him to say.)  My take on it is that I learned, I lived, and overall I’m glad I went.   Of course, there is one other bit of sobering news to consider:  this means I have to go again next year.

Pineapple season

November 18th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a sigmoidoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Lessons from the Caravel

November 8th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

This past week I’ve been digging back into the Caravel, in an attempt to get it back in fully-functioning condition by mid-November.  You might remember that last February I was working on that project, and abandoned it because I had to switch over to working on the Safari.  Those Safari projects (re-flooring, building new cabinetry, etc.) took all spring, and then we went on the road in May.  Now that it’s fall and we are back at home base, I’ve finally got a chance to finish the plumbing.

Actually there were three general areas of work to be done on the Caravel, of which the plumbing was only one.  I also started building a new dinette table to replace the heavy one we have been using, and there was the super-annoying propane regulator job that morphed into complete replacement of the regulator, hoses, mounting bracket, and hitch jack.

The hitch jack was still needing to be done when we got back.  It turned out that the original manual jack on the Caravel was welded into place, so I couldn’t remove it myself.  (Someday I plan to learn welding.  I’ll be checking the local community college for courses.)

I hate calling tradesmen, because (a) it’s hard to find a good one; (b) few of them return calls; (c) even fewer will actually show up.  My historical success rate has been to get one good worker for every five or six calls.  So I was geared up for the worst when I started seeking a mobile welder to come over, but got lucky this time and got a guy with only four calls.  One other said he would come over “next week,” but that was in July.

Caravel welding hitch jackJohn showed up and right off the bat I could see he was very experienced. Over the phone it took 30 seconds to describe the job, and since he owns a travel trailer himself he knew exactly what was necessary.  He   got the jack out in 20 minutes, and the new one went in pretty quickly too.  It is bolted in place, not welded, so I can get it out myself next time.

Caravel safety chainsWhile we were at it, John torched off the old—completely inadequate— safety chains and welded up a new set.  The whole job took about an hour, plus a few minutes the next day for me to wire up the power leads.

So that ended the saga that began with a new propane regulator.  One down, two to go …

I left the plumbing in what I earlier described as an “80%” state.  This turned out to be pretty close to the truth, as long as you remember that the last 20% takes 80% of the time.  I was hoping to complete the job in about 10 hours.  After a week of tinkering with it, I think I’ve already using up my allotment of time.

The problem is rookie mistakes.  I learned a lot of things doing this job, but chief among them are:

  1. Don’t ever re-use anything from the original plumbing.  I had set out to avoid that mistake (see photo below of some of the old plumbing I threw out), but then I went and re-used just one piece, a brass winterization valve that was screwed into the water heater, because it was so firmly stuck in the threads that I couldn’t get it out.  And guess what piece leaked when time came to pressure-test the system?Caravel old brass
    Well, necessity is the mother of invention, so I did eventually get that brass valve out, and if you enlarge the photo you can see quite clearly that the shutoff has been leaking for some time.  All that green corrosion is the tell-tale, and that brings me to the next lesson:
  2. Buy good quality parts.  I can’t see any way that it pays to buy cheap plumbing fittings.  All the stuff I removed was low-grade and it was all failing after a decade.
  3. PEX is great stuff, but it only works if you remember to actually crimp the fittings.  Last February I left a few of the first crimp rings un-done “just in case” I needed to disassemble later because I’d made a mistake.  By November, I didn’t remember that.  You can imagine the spray of water that occurred later.  (Doug R gave me the advice to pressure-test with compressed air instead of water.  I didn’t take that advice, and I should have. It’s not fun chasing leaks with a towel.)
  4. You need a LOT more of everything than you think.  I bought 100 feet each of blue and red PEX tubing, 100 crimp rings, eight swivel fittings, a box of brass elbows, six shutoff valves, and many other bits.  I ran out of swivel fittings, crimp rings, and shutoffs, and nearly ran out of elbows.  Why?  Because I didn’t realize exactly what was going to be required (and I wasted a lot of crimp rings making mistakes).  It’s astonishing to me that I used most of the 200 feet of PEX tubing that I bought.  It’s only a 17-foot trailer, for cryin’ out loud!
  5. It’s a lot easier to re-plumb if the cabinetry is out.  I would have had this job done in a fraction of the time if the trailer were bare, instead of fighting to crimp copper rings inside a closet!

Caravel old plumbing The job still isn’t done, but it’s getting close.  Eleanor has been squeezing herself into the closets and under-sink area to do some of the tricky crimps.  We spent most of last Saturday together in there, and we may yet spend a chunk of this coming Saturday in there too.  The plumbing is fully assembled, so the next job is to do more leak-testing, re-assemble the interior furniture that we removed, clean up, and then in a few weeks we’ll take the Caravel out for a road test and shakedown weekend.  The third project, the dinette table, can wait until later.

 

This is a test … of Alumafiesta

October 29th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

Although this month is one of the really great ones for Airstreaming in the southwest, we’re mostly staying at home.  Since the Airstream is usually out from May through September, the mild weather of a southwest Fall season is the ideal opportunity to catch up on the rest of life.  Maintenance on both of the Airstreams is part of it, thanks to cooling temperatures and a near-total lack of rain, but far more interesting is the process of planning for the next round of events.

I have spent much of the past week trying to wrap up the event schedule for Alumafiesta.  After many hours of research and coordination, I am extremely glad to say that a Preliminary Event Program is ready for public release!  We posted it on the Alumafiesta website today.

The program is looking very ambitious and I think it’s going to be another hit.  We’ve got seven seminars, four evening presentations, musical entertainment, sword swallowing, five Happy Hours, four yoga sessions, a bike ride, a big hike and two walks, glass-making, six meals, five off-site tours, a cooking demo, cooking contest, three Open Grills … AND we’re working on a few surprises that aren’t on the Preliminary program yet.

One of the requests we got last year after Alumafiesta was to make sure it didn’t repeat exactly in 2014.  I get that.  If I were attending from another state, I’d be disinclined to drive back to Tucson and do the exact same things all over again.  So we tossed out most of the excursions we did last year and substituted five new ones, plus we brought in two new entertainers, and added more seminars. We will do the same again in 2015, because there’s a lot of stuff to do in this area!

There are still a dozen details to nail down, but we are close enough to done that I can relax a bit and do the fun research.  You see, somebody has to actually go to all of the places that we will visit during Alumafiesta and check out the details. This includes the tedious details like verifying that the driving maps are good, and that each parking lot has enough space, as well as the fun stuff like testing the menu at the various restaurants.  I always leave this part for last because I regard it as my reward for weeks of desk work.  I get to abandon my desk, get out for a few hours, and make sure that everything we’ve planned for the event meets a high standard.

For example, yesterday Emma and I loaded our bikes up on the roof of the trusty old Mercedes 300D to test a bike ride I’ll be leading during Alumafiesta.  The ride is only 16 level miles round-trip, entirely on paved trail, so it wasn’t terribly challenging and it was very fun to do with my teenager.  (It seems like this will be one of the last rides Emma does on her current bike—she’s managed to outgrow it yet again—so soon I’ll be shopping for a replacement.  Ah well, it’s worth it to be able to have days like that with her.)

Restaurant testing will be next.  I suspect I will have volunteers to help with that task, too.

I hope to see you in Tucson next February!

Reconnect with a weekend Airstream trip

October 21st, 2013 by Rich Luhr

It used to be said that there are two types of Airstreamers: campers, and travelers. (These days there’s a third type: non-campers who own Airstreams as pool houses, guest houses, or showpieces, but that’s another story.)

Campers tend to go shorter distances, focus on the weekend or vacation getaway, have campfires, hold social events at their Airstream, and decorate their site. They load up with the awning lights, elaborate ingredients for cookouts, lots of chairs for friends to use, musical instruments, fire wood, etc. and mostly just plan for a few days out.

That is always fun, but it has rarely fit our lifestyle, so we tend to the traveling mode. That means we use the Airstream as a rolling hotel, and we’re out for long periods of time. We carry tools for on the road repairs, rather than pink flamingos. We pack for weeks or months. When we arrive, we’re not likely to break out the s’mores and lawn chairs, because we’ve got things we need to do at our destination. It’s still fun to go to a great place and explore, so our basic enjoyment of the freedom afforded by the Airstream is the same, it’s just some of the practicalities are different.

So it’s a big deal when we do finally switch gears and use the Airstream as a weekend getaway. I think it happens about twice a year on average. This weekend was one of those times. On the last few days of our trip back west this September, we thought about the prospect of being in the house all winter and (as always) started talking about places we could go instead of staying home. Before we even pulled in to our driveway we had a weekend trip sketched out, and then Eleanor discovered that Alton Brown’s show was coming to Mesa AZ and so we planned a second weekend trip around that, too.

Coming up to the Phoenix area is a ridiculously short trip by our “traveler” standard (just 120 miles) but that’s part of what makes it interesting to me. We packed hardly anything (again, by our standards) and—horror of horrors—we made reservations. It felt strangely inflexible to me, but I knew that for the weekend to be successful I had to embrace the practicalities of “camping.”

I would like to say we went all the way and had a campfire and sat out under the stars here at Lost Dutchman State Park (Apache Jct, AZ), cooked on the outdoor grill and made s’mores, but the plan was to take advantage of the urban distractions of the Phoenix metroplex. So instead we spent our evenings at the Japanese Friendship Garden taking in the fabulous Otsukimi Moonviewing Festival, and in the Mesa Arts Center watching Alton Brown’s hilarious food show.

Superstition Mtns AirstreamWhile it’s boring to have a weekend with nothing to do at home, it’s very nice to have the same in the Airstream in a beautiful scenic desert park. In the mornings around 8 a.m. the sun crests the Superstition Mountains to our east and illuminates the Airstream, reminding anyone who is still in bed that another beautiful day awaits. In the afternoons it’s a little warm and the drone of the fans inspires napping, so I’ve taken full advantage.

I brought a couple of 1960s era paperback science fiction novels and picked up a copy of Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” at the Mesa Swap Meet, so I’ve got plenty to read whether I want escapism or reality. Nice hiking trails surround us, and on other trips we might feel obliged to go hike them all, but on this trip we are content to look around and make notes for some future visit. There should be no obligations when you are weekending.

I’m glad we took this weekend to explore the “other mode” of Airstreaming. We’ll do it again this winter, on our annual visit to Anza-Borrego. On that one I plan to bring the Weber grill and the Dutch Oven, and a chair or two so we can really get into the camping mode. It gets cold at night in the desert in January, but having to don a warm hat and cook in the darkness at 5 p.m. by headlamp enhances the camping sensation. Going to camping mode reminds us of why we got into this lifestyle in the first place, and it keeps us balanced, so that the Airstream is not just an expedient for travel but a way to reconnect with the outdoors, our family, and ourselves.

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