Fixing a teenage Airstream

October 16th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

A friend called the other day and lamented the age of his Airstream, just ten years old.  At that point you’re well out of the honeymoon phase, and maintenance becomes essential.  It can seem like you’re constantly fixing up things, in between trips.

That’s happening to us as well.  It’s unavoidable, whether you’ve got a house, boat, car, RV, or marriage.  Maintenance is part of the deal.  My daughter is just 13 years old and she’s already had braces, eyeglasses, and a broken foot. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my Airstream needs a little TLC after eight years (Oct 2005-Oct 2013).

I think this is a good problem to have.  You don’t hear a lot about owners of other RV brands fixing up their ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even fifty year old trailers because they are usually long gone by then.  I like the fact that at eight years, our Airstream is still just a teenager.

That’s in “Airstream years”, which are like dog years.  I figure every year of an Airstream’s life is like two years of human life, making our Airstream the equivalent of 16 human years old.  Most of the elderly Airstreams date from the 1950s, making them 53-63 years old, or 106-126 in “Airstream years,” but almost all of them have been refurbished back to new status by now, which kind of resets the clock.

The oldest un-refurbished Airstream I know is Fred Coldwell’s “Ruby,” a 1948 Wee Wind, and she’s a grand old lady at 65 (or 130 in Airstream years).  You don’t find them like that very often.  Ruby lives in covered storage and only comes out on special occasions.

This week I towed the Safari over to my friend Rob’s house to do some work on it.  My carport is great but I can only access three sides of the Airstream when it is parked, whereas Rob’s driveway has tons of space. I recruited Mike (who previously helped on the flooring replacement and A-frame re-paint last spring) to help with this morning’s two projects.

The first job was the silver rub rail that goes around the lower edge of the exterior.  This is a flexible stick-on trim that fits into an aluminum channel.  After a while the silver goes chalky and then the adhesive lets go.  A piece on the front right stoneguard came loose in Tucson before we launched this spring, and the same piece on the opposite side peeled off on the highway in Ohio last June.  So when we stopped at Airstream in September I bought enough replacement silver trim to do the entire trailer.

While I was there, I had a chat with Kevin, one of the techs in the Airstream Service Center, and he tipped me off on the correct procedure to replace this trim.  First, we swung out the stainless stoneguards at the front of the trailer.  There are three 7/16″ nuts to remove on each stoneguard, and then they swing out on hinges.  (Video of how this works.) This gives you access to the rub rail that goes behind the stoneguards.

Next we peeled off the old trim.  It was old enough that it peeled off easily, and didn’t leave much residue.  Then we cleaned up all the dirt in the aluminum channel with soap and water and a sponge, followed by a little scraping of leftover adhesive.  The final cleaning is done with rubbing alcohol on a rag.

Airstream sells a little bottle of special adhesive primer for about $14 (JPC Primer 94 in a “dauber applicator.”) This stuff preps the aluminum surface for the 3M VHB adhesive that’s on the back of the new trim.  We applied the primer to the cleaned channel, let it dry for five minutes, and then stuck in the shiny new silver trim. The ends were cut with kitchen scissors.  Overall:  pretty easy job, and the results are great.  The new silver trim really reveals how badly the rest of the trailer needs a wash!

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The other job of the day was a bit nastier, replacing yet another Hehr window operator. I’ve written about this job before, so I won’t detail it, except to say that the emergency escape window is even more annoying than the others.  It takes a different gearbox (a “center” operator, part #119-331) and replacing it is just a giant pain.  I needed a special horizontal bit driver and an extra long Phillips bit to get several of the screws out.  You might be able to do it with a regular Phillips screwdriver but I wouldn’t want to try.

Finally, I fixed the MaxxFan that spontaneously de-constructed itself a few weeks ago.  The fix was much easier than I expected, and it could all be done from the inside (avoiding a trip to the roof).  Two nuts hold down the motor and fan assembly. I just removed the screen, unbolted the fan blade, and re-attached the motor.  The fan is fine now but it has always wobbled a bit (the blade is somewhat out of balance) and after inspecting it I decided to order a new one. So that should be coming in the mail next week and will take only five minutes and a 1/2″ socket to replace.

All of this consumed about four hours of the day.  I figure a good Airstream tech would have taken about two hours to do this work, at a cost of about $200.  Doing it myself added to my store of confidence and taught me a few things, and gave me a chance to hang with Mike and Rob, so I figure the $200 savings was just a bonus.

And that’s what I told my friend who called earlier this week about his Airstream maintenance woes.  “Find some people who can guide you, and learn to do it yourself,” I told him. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish with just a little motivation and a few tools. I don’t like having to go fix things, and I still grumble about it, but once I’ve done it I’m usually glad to have made the effort.  So I don’t fret about the higher maintenance needs of my teenage Airstream.  I hope I’ll still be fixing things myself on Airstreams for many years to come.

Cat scratch fever

October 14th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

OK, we’ve been off the road for a few weeks.  But is that any reason to be going to the cats?

I would say “going to the dogs” but we are admittedly cat people, and you know that Eleanor and Emma foster kittens from the local Humane Society in between trips.  It was not long after we landed in Tucson that the first batch arrived: six cute kittens needing two medications each in the morning, and three medications in the evening, plus a little of our patented kitty socialization school.

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Having a batch of kittens will turn anyone’s life upside down.  Kittens want to jump, claw, fight, eat, and sleep—all the time, and if they can figure it out, all at the same time.  Kittens have no respect for litter boxes, so twice-daily cleanups are just part of the routine.  They don’t know how to share, and if it suits them to tip over a bowl full of water in the middle of the night, well, you just have to get up and deal with it.

In short, kittens are born with the knowledge that humans exist to serve them.  But in this house they are also patients, so we don’t take much flack when it comes to medicine time.  Their claws get trimmed (by me usually), and then with their defenses lowered we deal with them assembly-line fashion: first a squirt of medicine in the mouth, then a dab of ointment in each eye, and finally the despised nose drops.

It’s not all grief for the little beasts, though.  We do our best to give them back to the shelter with a better opinion of human beings.  Lots of snuggling, playing, attention, belly-rubs, snacks, and general carting around seems to work well in convincing them that we are worth keeping in servitude forever. Some lucky person will get one of these kittens and find that it has been pre-programmed to encourage human bondage.  (We don’t feel guilty about it–these guys need homes.)

In anticipation of some of my Airstream projects, I moved the trailer over to Rob’s place to borrow his somewhat taller carport.  Working there gives me a little more room for jobs that require access to all sides of the trailer and the roof.  Not five minutes after I parked the trailer, his cat “Chester” jumped from the roof of the house to the roof of the Airstream.  “Mmmmm… ” I could hear him saying, “a new roof to sit on.  How nice of you to bring it over for me.”

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After a few minutes of exploration, Chester decided to depart the roof.  But jumping back to the house wasn’t appealing to him, so he decided to see if sliding down the front dome of the Airstream would be appropriate.  During the testing phase he stepped just a bit too far out,  and began to slide down the dome.  I watched, completely helpless to do anything, as Chester put out his claws and ever-so-slowly, excruciatingly, slid down the aluminum dome leaving a foot-long claw scratch in the clearcoat.

Anyone who owns an Airstream can feel my pain.

Fortunately for Chester, he’s a very friendly and fluffy cat.  I couldn’t bear to gut him on the spot, as was my initial instinct.  Also, Rob was there watching.  So I picked Chester up, rubbed his tummy, and told him if he ever did that again he’d become a small yellow bath mat.  Chester later redeemed himself by catching a pack rat beneath the trailer, and the scratch in the clearcoat was shallow enough to buff out. So Chester and I are friends again.

(But I’m going to get on those projects soon.  I don’t know how much I can trust Chester.)

Time to fix

September 29th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Mogollon to McDowell Mountain

September 24th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which way to go?

September 23rd, 2013 by Rich Luhr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Very Large Array, New Mexico

September 22nd, 2013 by Rich Luhr

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

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

Very Large Array New Mexico-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valley of Fires State Rec Area, NM

September 21st, 2013 by Rich Luhr

As we continue our march toward home from Lake Meade State Park in Kansas (spot “A” on the map), you might notice that we haven’t exactly plunged headlong toward Tucson. KS-NM route map New Mexico is really drawing us in, in a way it has never done before.  The last time we were so enchanted by this state was in early 2000, when Eleanor and I flew in (pre-Airstream) with Emma due to exit the womb in a month or so.  Eleanor was so visibly pregnant that the ranger didn’t want her to climb ladders at Gila Cliff Dwellings, but Eleanor did it anyway (and all other challenges that came her way). Every time we come to New Mexico I think of that trip.

It’s a great place to tour, made even greater by the truly amazing great late-summer weather we’ve had.  Yesterday’s drive took us a mere 80 miles to Carrizozo and an island in the middle of a 40,000 year-old lava flow, upon which a campground has been built.  This is the Valley of Fires State Recreation Area.  (Not to be confused with Valley of Fire State Park near Lake Mead in Nevada.)

Valley of Fires SRA NM-4This campground is unique, in that your campsite sits atop a literal island, surrounded in all directions by tortured black lava rock and a few hardy plants and animals that have managed to colonize it.

 

Valley of Fires SRA NM-2

The centerpiece of the rec area is a fantastic walking path that winds through the lava field and offers interpretive signs along the way.  You can walk on the lava if you want, but it’s sharp and deeply convoluted, so it’s really more of an effort than you might expect.

 

Valley of Fires SRA NM-3The only negative we found about this park is the gnats.  Strong winds yesterday kept them at bay but in the morning they were back, and a few snuck into the Airstream as we were getting ready to go.  The park volunteer camp host showed me a bottle of 100% deet and a headnet that we wears when running the weedwacker.

I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from a visit.  You can always come in the winter months if you really can’t stand the thought of bugs. Keep in mind that this spot is at 5,200 feet elevation so it probably gets pretty cold.

Tech report:  Verizon signal was fairly good thanks to the ground elevation of the campground/island above the surrounding lava flow.  Most of the sites have water and electric, too.  Overall, a very nice place and we were glad to have stopped there.  If we were planning to do some serious hiking out on the lava we would have stayed a second night, but alas, our trip is winding down so it was just a one night stand.

Valley of Fires SRA NM-1The trip plan from here is even more vague than before.  We have two more stops in mind, and after that we’re just going to see how we feel about things.  Tonight’s stop is designed to keep us away from populated areas since it’s Saturday night (and popular campgrounds might be full), and that’s perfectly fine with all of us.  Se we have headed to yet another remote part of northern New Mexico.  I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.

 

Salinas Pueblos National Monument

September 20th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

A few days ago when Eleanor and I were talking about our options for travel west of Kansas, we got a bit stuck.  So we did what we often do: we opened up the map and just looked around for things that were unfamiliar and interesting. I regard that exercise as a real privilege, because it means we’ve got time to explore whatever we like, and that doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

After a few minutes of map searching I noticed a tiny green speck in northern New Mexico indicating a national monument we’d never heard of: Salinas Pueblos. We immediately got on the NPS.GOV website and discovered that it comprises three separate units: Abo, Quarai and Gran Quivira, each containing the ruins of pueblos that had been occupied for hundreds of years, but not much since 1667.  We were already sold on going there, but it was even more interesting to see that the pueblos were in an area of New Mexico that we’ve never seen (or even heard of).  So Salinas Pueblos became the centerpiece of our route home, and we made our other routing choices (like Capulin Volcano) around it.

We wanted to stay at Manzano Mountains State Park, but found (upon arrival) that it was closed. The official reasoning is severe fire danger, but locals told us it hasn’t been open for three seasons because of budgetary issues.  So we ended up at the only other spot within 50 miles: an RV park in Mountainair, NM.  And it was across the street from a very busy freight rail line.  Oh well.  At least we had a full hookup.

I hadn’t expected cell phone service in this part of the country so I wasn’t disappointed.  Cellular voice service was hopeless, but Skype on the iPhone running over the campground wifi allowed me to make a few calls anyway.  Interestingly, the new rooftop antenna and amplifier I installed last spring for Internet service worked amazingly well.  (I was able to get online with the router reporting a virtually non-existent signal strength of -101 dBm, but used the RV park wifi most of the time.)

Salinas Pueblo-1

The fine weather continued for the most part, which made touring the ruins a picturesque experience.  They are all around 6,700 feet elevation, surrounded by grassy plains and ringed by mountains in the distance. Puffy cumulus popped up each afternoon to dot the sky.  Eleanor likes taking pictures of clouds, sunsets, and wildlife more than photos of ruined stone foundations, so she was practically wearing out her camera while I judiciously composed shots of the landscape.  When we compared notes later it seemed she shot about three for every one of mine. But we both got great pictures. It’s hard not to, in such a majestic and historic place.

Salinas Pueblo-3

Salinas Pueblo-6

There is a very sad tale that surrounds these pueblos, which is well documented at all three sites.  Since our recorded history basically begins when the Spanish attempted to colonize New Mexico, there’s not much known about the pueblo Indians life in the 800 years or so prior to the Spanish arrival.  But we know all too well what happened when the first Spanish friars showed up, and it’s a classic story of outside influence destroying a culture.

Salinas Pueblo-2The natives were forced to adopt Christianity and abandon their traditional beliefs, work as virtual slaves for the Spanish crown, change farming methods, and abandon trading with other tribes.  It wasn’t long before these settlements that had survived for centuries were suffering from starvation, unrest, violent raids, and ultimately complete failure.

Salinas Pueblo-5

By 1677, the pueblos were abandoned: the natives migrated elsewhere, the Spanish decided New Mexico would never be profitable, and everyone lost.  Other than a brief occupation by Hispanics in the 19th century, nobody has ever lived at these sites since. What we know of them today comes from records by the Spanish and archaeological study. There’s a lot more to the story, but you’ll need to visit Salinas Pueblos yourself to learn it.

Salinas Pueblo-4

Salinas Pueblo-8

Emma helped us out by doing the Junior Ranger program at all three sites.  You get a pin plus a ribbon for each site, and she collected all of them over the course of a day and a half.

Salinas Pueblo-9

If you come here I recommend two nights minimum to be able to explore all three sites, if you can stand the train noise at the RV park. (My solution was to get very poor sleep one night, and sleep like a log the second.  Huge thunderstorms on the first night helped with this.)

I know Montana owns the slogan, but this is really “big sky country.”  On a clear night the stars and moon are worth a look, and it seems like the land goes on forever without a city in any direction.  (Albuquerque is on the other side of a mountain range, effectively invisible from here.)  There’s not much here beyond the salt lakes and the ancient pueblos, so it’s no surprise that tourism is minimal (cattle ranching seems to be the big business), but it’s a beautiful spot nonetheless.

Salinas Pueblo-7

Our trip “plan” at this point called for us to head to Silver City and then up to Gila Cliff Dwellings, but the recent rains in New Mexico caused the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to close.

It’s open again as of today, but with the warning that the trails may close in the afternoons as thunderstorms build up.  Given that, we’ve decided to head over to Valley of Fires State Recreation Area in Carrizozo NM for a night and then figure out the rest of the trip from there.  We’ve still got five days to play with before we have to be at home base, and we want to make the most of every day we have.

Capulin Volcano National Monument, NM

September 17th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

We lucked out.  Not only did we manage to miss the rain that has plagued the western states, but we hit this part of northern New Mexico in time for some flawless late summer weather.  That made our visit to Capulin Volcano a huge success.

We have moved up in the world, literally, climbing to a base elevation of about 6,800 feet here at the RV park, and that means a big change in climate.  Days are sunny and in the 70s, but come sunset the temperatures plummet and anyone outside is quickly reaching for a warm layer to wear.  Those humid days in Jackson Center only a few days ago seem far off now.  We’ve gone from air conditioning to furnace in no time at all.

The town of Capulin is quiet and tiny, just a few houses and one small store, an RV park, and not much else.  There is no grocery store, no night life, no downtown.  Our host at the RV park is also the rural mail carrier.  Up the road is the equally tiny Folsom, made famous for the “Folsom man” discovery which proved that humans lived in north America at least 10,000 years ago.  Otherwise, this area is all wide open landscapes and grassy cattle ranches punctuated by volcanic remains like cinder cones and lava fields.  It’s stunningly beautiful on a clear day.

Capulin NM E E rim trailFrom the summit of Capulin volcano it’s a million-dollar view in all directions, and the best way to get it is to drive to the top and hike the one mile Crater Rim Trail, which of course we did.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot easier if you go counter-clockwise.

We also hiked into the shallow crater on the Crater Vent Trail, and along the Boca Trail (2.0 miles), for a total of about 3.5 miles of hiking.  Not having done much hiking lately, and also acclimating to high altitude again (about 7,800 feet at the rim), we all felt like total couch potatoes, but we plowed ahead anyway.  We all need the exercise. Being winded is just part of the experience.

Capulin NM ladybugs

One feature of the volcano that we did not expect was ladybugs.  Apparently they are quite prolific, for reasons we did not learn today.  If you look closely at the bush in the picture, you may be able to see that the red dots are ladybugs, not berries. Eleanor purchased a souvenir pin for the park, which features a ladybug, and now we understand why it’s there.

I mentioned that this is cattle country.  The RV park sells “premium beef” from one of the local cattlemen, which is all organic, grass-fed, beef with a long list of perceived benefits.  The brochure even mentions that they “use animals of a gentle disposition, and always handle gently and quietly.”  It’s expensive stuff but we couldn’t resist three steaks from their freezer, so now they are in our freezer. Our best souvenirs are always the edible ones.

Since we slowed down, life in the Airstream feels exactly like it did when we were full-timing—except that our daughter, who was once so portable, now requires a chunk of the dinette table for her ever-present laptop computer.  But otherwise it’s very familiar, comforting, and just feels right to be out here. I would be happy to extend this trip for a few weeks if we didn’t have obligations back at home base.

Capulin NM E E hikeEmma has of course done the Junior Ranger program, so we’ll turn in the completed booklet and get her badge tomorrow.  I could easily see spending a few more days here, touring the backcountry outside the National Monument, but that would have us in the car even more and that’s not terribly appealing after 30+ hours of driving in the past week. We have decided to move tomorrow to see some native American ruins further south in New Mexico, and camp in the Cibola National Forest for a couple of days.  We’ll probably lose Internet connectivity for that period so I’ll update the blog when we emerge.

 

A slow roam through Kansas

September 16th, 2013 by Rich Luhr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hooker KS Airstream

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

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

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine