BMW day 5: Matane to Madeleine-Centre, QC

June 12th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

When I woke at 7:00 I found that the laundry I had hung out the night before was not dry, so I strapped it on the bike atop one of the drybags that hold my other stuff.  Between 60 MPH wind and sunshine, this usually works well.  I should have expected the clothes wouldn’t dry overnight.  I had forgotten that we were now in a humid coastal climate.  (I’m used to Arizona, where you can leave anything wet out and it will desiccate promptly. Nothing rots in Arizona, it mummifies.)

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Quick pack, checkout, then off to the nearby Tim Horton’s again for trip planning.  In Canada there’s a Tim Horton’s in every town with more than one stoplight, and going there is a good excuse to add a donut to breakfast.  The phone said the weather forecast was slightly improved, and we would probably escape the rain today (Thursday) but definitely have a rain day on Friday.  So it was our last chance for great weather. We intended to make the most of it.

We stopped at smoked fish store near hotel to pick up some smoked peppered mackerel and a jar of pickled mussels, then started off along the northern shore of the Gaspé peninsula.  At last we were truly riding the Gaspé!  (First of course, we had to pass the other Tim Hortons in Matane, just about a mile from the first one.)

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The coastal ride is very pleasant.  It’s basically a string of small towns, with the Gulf to the north and hills or mountains to the south.  The towns are all quaint in their own ways, and the road never goes far from the shore so you’ve always got a view of the water.  Red lighthouses can be seen at a few points.

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The only problem with this ride was the cold wind blowing off the Gulf of St Lawrence.  I was a little hunched over at first, unconsciously responding to the chill.  We added layers and I was still thinking about digging out the neck warmer Eleanor had made.

This area has endorsed wind power in a big way. Shortly after leaving Matane we began to spot wind turbines atop the ridges just inland of the coastal road.  We also saw huge single blades of wind turbines being trucked by. Quebec north of the St. Lawrence has massive hydroelectric power, and Gaspé has apparently decided to join the game by tapping their own natural resource, the wind.  I know some people think they ruin the view of mountain ridges, but when I see those huge white blades slowly sweeping through the air, I think they look majestic and I think of the air pollution they are offsetting.  Too many times I’ve been in national parks where the visibility has been reduced by smog blowing in hundreds of miles from cities that rely on coal for their energy.  At least with wind turbines we can still see the mountains.

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Along the north shore of Gaspé development is sparse, and so are the opportunities for lunch stops.  We finally stopped at a typical little roadside shack (actually a permanently fixed trailer with an enclosed patio and picnic tables out back), which like many of these places was advertising “Frites Maison,” which means home-made French fries.)  We got three thick hamburgers and ate them out at the picnic table.  On this trip we often ate outside even on cool days when other people stayed in.  Being so heavily layered for cycling we’d get hot sitting indoors, and taking off all the gear was just a chore.

In this case we had a bit of a surprise coming.  Right after lunch we took a right turn toward the interior to find a dirt loop, and found that just a quarter mile from the shore it was easily 10-15 degrees warmer.  After a mile Steve led us left onto a dirt trail that went steeply up into the forest and we began to climb into the Chic Choc Mountains for the first time.  Now I was no longer cold but actually starting to think about dropping a layer.

I didn’t have a chance right away, because this trail quickly grabbed our attention.  It narrowed to about 5 feet wide, and continued to climb steeply up over loose rocks and dirt.  There was no time to think about it, we just kept riding up, and I was amazed at how easily the Dakar with its knobby tires climbed like a mule.  When it started to slew in the rocks or get caught in a rut, a slight twist of the throttle would drive it into line again.  This is what these bikes were made to do, and it gave me a great feeling of confidence to actually drive it up a mountainside trail.

This was when we discovered the massive network of ATV/snowmobile trails all over the interior of Gaspé.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  The major dirt roads are numbered like highways, and minor trails have numbers and/or names.  They go everywhere, and you can pick up a map of the full system at many places (gas stations, some stores, tourist bureaus, etc.)  Looking at the map it seems that there are more “off-road” trails than there are actual roads.  The routes have signposts at intersections, and just a single route can meander for fifty miles or more.  We could have spent weeks exploring them all.The only tricky part we discovered was that some of the smaller trails get pretty technical and narrow.  We tried a couple that eventually were just too difficult for motorcycles, with huge exposed tree roots and loose FBRs (Big Rocks).  Still, even a few dead-ends that forced us to make tricky U-turns in a forest were a small price to pay for the other great trails.

Following one of the more open sections, we came up a large mudhole.  Steve and Eric skirted it widely, but I tried to follow existing ruts (a mistake) and inevitably I crashed … in the mud.  The water was about four inches deep, and my Nikon and iPad were once again in the pannier that disappeared into the mud.

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So we did the usual routine, all three of us tugging on the bike (while standing in mud ourselves) to pull it up and assess the damage.  Fortunately, being soft mud there was no damage except for a lot of mud souvenirs.  Remember the clean laundry I strapped to the top of my dry bags?  Yeah. But the Nikon and the iPad were fine, again.

After this episode I moved the iPad to one of the top drybags. I left the Nikon where it was (wrapped in plastic) because I used it a lot and I couldn’t quickly access it if it was in a drybag.

This trail turned out to be worth the effort.  It ended up at a spectacular overlook and paraglider launch site.

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Looks like Hawaii in the photo, doesn’t it?  Near the center is the tiny snack bar where we had lunch.  Hard to believe that it was so much colder down below.  Up in the mountains it was a balmy 75 degrees or so.  Eric took a break while we were up there.  Meanwhile I assessed my personal mud situation (not pretty) and dropped a layer of clothing.  There was nothing to do about the mud on my exterior layer.
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We crossed that mud pond again on the way out, but this time we all drove right through the middle of it and it was much easier.  The bikes were well mucked up by now, but at least nobody took a swim.

A few minutes later while making a U-turn on a hill, Steve caught a wheel in a rut and dropped his bike.  That made the score 2-2.  (Yeah, you better believe I’m keeping score. We’re brothers.)

After picking up his bike, we threw the bikes into 1st gear and engine-braked all the way back down to the Gulf.  About halfway down we spotted a black bear cub by the side of the road.  That was our first major wildlife sighting.

For the rest of the afternoon we continued up the coastal road, just taking in the scenery.  We tried a few other side trips up into the mountains but nothing worked out as well as the first route.  That’s OK, the road was good, there was no significant traffic, and we occasionally found something odd like a pair of partially sunken ships anchored and awaiting salvage just a few feet from the roadway.

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We wrapped up the day early, in Madeleine-Centre at Hotel/Motel du Rocher et Chalets.  Again, being off-season there appeared to be no other guests, but the restaurant was open and they were glad to put us in a “chalet” (which I would call a cabin in the US) for about $70.  These chalets were right on the Gulf of St Lawrence, and we were able to ride the bikes on the grass right up to the back porch to unload our stuff.  There turned out to be no hot water in the first chalet (it was still winterized) so we got moved to a pair of chalets further down the row, and that way I scored my own place for the night.

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With a last sunny afternoon, I took the opportunity to wash my laundry (again) and lay it out in the sun to dry.  Steve and Eric got some snacks in town. The bugs were (mostly) not biting, so we hung out on the porch for a couple of hours, talking, eating the smoked seafood we’d bought that morning in Matane, and watching the tide go out.  It was a gorgeous evening.

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We chose a motel for this evening instead of camping because the weather report said the rain would arrive overnight, and we didn’t want to be stuck with wet tents in the morning.  At this point we figured we’d probably continue to stay in motels through the weekend, and avoid dirt roads.  On Friday we’d have to break out all the warm stuff and the rain suits, for the ride to Gaspé.

Once again I found that this tiny town on the north coast of a barely populated peninsula has awesome cellular service.  I was getting four bars while sitting on the porch, and sending Eleanor iPhone pictures like the one above.  But this ready availability of cellular means we were using more data than I had hoped. We’ve been doing map searches, restaurant searches, hotel reservations, weather checks, and running a tracking app so that my family can see where we are. I bought 100 mb of data for $25 from Verizon and got a message during dinner that I had burned it up, so they dinged me for another $25.   I’m going to start connecting to free motel/restaurant wifi from now on, like Steve and Eric have been doing, to save bandwidth on the remainder of the trip.

Today’s route (not including dirt side trips):

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BMW day 4: Baie Comeau – Matane by ferry

June 11th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

I woke up feeling much better about life than the night before, but still wasn’t sure about the seven hour trip up to Manic 5.  Technically I was off the hook because Steve had already conceded it, but I knew if I changed my mind in the morning Eric would probably agree and we could still do it.  It was a stunningly beautiful day with almost perfect riding weather, so I had some guilt about leading the campaign to drop Manic 5.

We broke camp and rode to the local Tim Horton’s (a Canadian institution much like Dunkin Donuts but as prevalent as Starbucks) to discuss our options again, over breakfast.  While eating, I tried to read the local papers in French and gradually gleaned that there had been a major prison escape near Quebec City, where three dangerous felons were picked up by a helicopter right from the prison yard.  Steve suggested that escaped felons like to hide in the woods, and that we’d better be on the lookout …

I mentioned to Steve that because I had declined to go to Manic 5 I wouldn’t object to any future rides he suggested.  This was my way of throwing him a bone for the disappointment, but even as I said it I realized what a terrifying commitment I had just made.  Who knew what he had in mind?  My total dirt bike experience amounted to a single ride of about 30 miles two years prior.  But the words came out of my mouth and I couldn’t take it back.  I could only hope for him to take it easy on us, which was—if you know my brother—a foolish thing to wish for.

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We finally decided to stay around Baie Comeau and try some local rides that looked interesting, and then (as a compromise) take a short trip up Rt 389, which leads to Manic 5, but stop at a point 23 km up at Manic 2.  Manic 2 is smaller but still impressive, and again the tour wouldn’t start until June 24 so we’d just be looking at the outside.

We had thought we’d change our ferry reservation to take the 2 pm boat from Gadbout but it was already booked solid and couldn’t squeeze in three motorcycles.  So we opted to stick with the evening ferry from Baie Comeau, which meant we had a full day to kill.  While we were in wifi range at Tim Horton’s I booked a hotel in Matane for the night, since the ferry wouldn’t get us in until 10:30 and rain was a possibility in the morning.

While exploring points south of town in Baie Comeau, we found an intriguing unnamed road through a bog that seemed to go nowhere.  No signs, no houses or businesses, just a strip of dirt heading off towards a forest.  This was the kind of thing we were looking for, so off we went.

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Rich rides sandy road

Gradually the road declined to a rutted single-lane of sand, and we had a few tough moments.  Eric and I got through one nasty spot with great effort and some luck, but Steve crashed there.  It was about 150 miles from “where Rich dropped the bike,” so we’re even.

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After picking up Steve’s bike, the road eventually declined into a track through a forest, which got tougher and tougher to ride.  I stopped and pulled up a satellite image on my phone and it looked like the trail was going to peter out somewhere, but we plowed on ahead anyway, amidst a growing crowd of interested mosquitoes.

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Eventually, however, the trail did end and then we had another challenge to get the bikes turned around on a loose slope the width of a hiking path. Perhaps the best thing I can saw about this part was that we encountered several off-road challenges that increased our confidence in the bikes and taught us a little about handling them. Nobody dropped anything in the forest, so it was a success.

Our second exploration never went off pavement, but we found a beautiful point by a nature preserve where the road ended.  There was a little wooden pavilion there, so we stopped for lunch, explored the beach (found some strange gray/blue clay that never seemed to dry out) and talked about great trips we’d had in the past.  It was just perfect weather for hanging out.  No bugs here, and for the entire hour or so we saw only one car.

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Well, after lunch it was time to loop back up to Baie Comeau and ride Rt 389 up to Manic 2.  And once again Quebec surprised me.  The road was amazing on this sunny day: smooth pavement, lots of sweeping curves, no traffic, and great scenery of lakes and rivers all along.  No flattish boringness here—this was the sort of ride that motorcyclists live for.  So now I really felt bad about skipping the big trip to Manic 5, but it was too late by this time to make the full trip.

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At Manic 2 we found a great view from a bridge downstream.  As with Manic 5, there were no tours before June 24, so we turned around there and tried some side dirt roads just to see where they went.  They went forever, dotted with vacation homes alongside each one of the many lakes in this area. After nearly an hour of wandering we realized we could ride dirt all day and never find the end, but it was time to start heading back to Baie Comeau for dinner and the ferry.

Back in town, we chilled out for the afternoon at local pub.  Pizza, beers for the other two guys (I’m not a beer drinker nor do I drink much soda, so I had a lot of iced tea on this trip), and more talk.  Eric mentioned how it takes a few days to get into the trip and we all agreed, but sitting here in the sun on the patio at a far away pub, with little time pressure, we were really feeling the relaxation.

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After dinner we still had a lot of time to kill, so —what else?— we got ice cream, and then headed to the ferry dock early.  Our ship, the MV Camille-Marcoux,  came in at 7:20, we boarded at 7:45, and by 8:00 pm we were slowly gliding through dead calm waters out of the harbor and across 62 km of open water at the entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence.  I say “Gulf” because now we were well beyond the river and seaway, and deep into salt water leading to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Inside the ferry we were given yellow nylon ropes to “tie down” the bikes.  These were a bit of insurance against tipping over, but wouldn’t do much in heavy seas.  Fortunately we saw no waves taller than our own wake as we cruised the water for two hours and twenty minutes.  The ship was roomy enough that it was like being on a budget cruise.  Most of the passengers snagged reclining chairs in the front of the ship and fell asleep watching some movie in French, but it was nice enough on deck that we spent most of our time up top, watching the sun set.

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At 10:30 we rode off the ship in the dark, our first ride in the dark.  I hadn’t ridden an motorcycle in the dark since 1986, so it was a bit weird at first.  The hotel I’d booked at dinner the night before was only a quarter mile from the dock, so it wasn’t long before we were settled at hotel, sucking up the free wifi, and doing the usual pre-bedtime motel routine.

Part of my packing plan was to bring shirts and underwear that would be easy to wash in the bathroom sink with a little liquid soap (polyester and silk fabrics are great for this; no need to get special “travel underwear”).  But I couldn’t pack a lot of clothes so it was already time to do a quick laundry and hang things up to dry in the shower.  That process took all of five minutes, perfect by bachelor travel standards.

At this point there was no question that a storm was going to hit us tomorrow.  We looked at the radar but really there was nothing to be done about it.  Our wet-weather gear would be tested, but the trip had to continue.  Meanwhile, back to bed.  It was my turn to sleep on the floor, and I finally got in my sleeping bag around 11:30 pm, wondering (as I did every night) what the next day would bring.

BMW day 3: Saguenay to Baie Comeau, QC

June 10th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Despite the loudness of the birds in the forest, it was a good first night in the tent.  I realized that even though the tent was less comfortable than a hotel room, I liked it better overall.  I like being camped in my own little space, with my lamp and sleeping bag and a good book on the Kindle.  The birds finally got quiet at some point late in the night, and it was very peaceful when we all emerged from the tents around 6 a.m.

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Being that it was still fairly buggy, the trick after my Clif bar breakfast was to take a shower at the bathhouse and get back in motorcycle gear before the black flies descended.  I didn’t want to oil up with DEET again right after washing all that stinky stuff off.   I managed this feat and we had everything packed up and ready to hit the road by 8 a.m.  As we passed out the campground gate (which was still locked) we found the office hadn’t yet opened, so we made a note to call later to pay for our night’s stay.  It really was off-season here.

Our location was alongside the river and near the highway, but not near any restaurants at all.  Unless we backtracked to Saguenay, the nearest meal would be in Tadoussac, 72 miles along the “Route Fjord” (Rt 172).  It was a chilly but clear morning and I didn’t mind the winding ride past the big rocky outcrops at all, covering miles until we could stop for a real breakfast.
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This turned out to be at a cute Victorian house converted into “Cafe Boheme,” as seen above.  The breakfast was massive and good.  I sent a photo of it to Eleanor and she wrote back, “I won’t worry about your meals anymore.”  (But little did we know that the quality of meals was destined to go generally downward after this.)  We met some visitors from Montreal who told us about an upcoming music festival in Tadoussac, which explained why trucks were unloading pallets of beer at the church across the street.

In his constant quest to find dirt to ride on, Steve led us through a few side trips around the town, including some sand dunes overlooking the St Lawrence.  I had never ridden in sand before, and found it was pretty much like you’d expect: tricky. I was pleased that I managed to keep the bike upright through this little adventure, but also humbled because I knew it was probably just the beginning of the tough riding we’d do—and last night’s bike drop was still fresh in my mind.  We were, as Steve would point out, only “72 miles from where Rich dropped the bike.”

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The weather wasn’t warming up after Tadoussac, so we stopped off to add some layers by a waterfall that we discovered while paralleling the north shore of the St. Lawrence.  Clothing layering is the key to comfortable riding, so we all packed a very flexible arrangement of clothes to meet all the weather we might encounter.  For the coldest possible situation I had many layers: a full set of polypropylene long underwear, heavy socks, long sleeve shirt, a lightweight Primaloft jacket, wind/dust/rain liner, armored motorcycle jacket and pants, neck warmer, gloves, and a full BMW rain suit in bright yellow.   Today I was fine without the long underwear but I definitely needed the Primaloft jacket and wind liner under my motorcycle jacket, as a cool breeze blew down from the north.

Weather was on our minds this day.  There wasn’t much to distract us between Tadoussac and Baie Comeau, and the reports I was getting on the phone told us that the nice weather would disappear by Friday, just when we planned to be touring Gaspé.

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Since there were few detours, we covered the distance to Baie Comeau by 3:00 pm.  The rest of the afternoon was blown wandering around town trying to find the ferry dock (which we missed initially because of a road construction detour), and the campground.  Steve thought he had all the key points pegged in his GPS but the coordinates stored there brought us to a Hyundai dealership.  We tried Google Maps and it sent us on another wild goose chase.  A paper map also had the campground in the wrong place. Finally we just followed a road sign and got there with no problem, which just shows that low tech is sometimes best.

Before heading to the campground, we dropped in on the ferry dock to reserve a ride across the Seaway to Matane, QC for the next day.  The choice was either the 2:00 pm ferry from Godbout, a tiny outpost 60 km further northeast, or an 8:00 pm ferry from Baie Comeau.  We had to weigh this carefully, since Steve’s plan for the next day was a huge ride up to Manic 5 and back. We booked the 8:00 ferry for the next day, and headed to the campground to set up for the night.

Manic 5 is an enormous hydroelectric dam on the Manicouagan River, which is a sought-after destination by many adventure riders.  The trip is 221 km each way (136 miles from our campground), and the average speed is about 40 MPH. At the dam’s location we would find a little motel, a restaurant, a gas station, and not much else—and then we’d have to run around and come all the way back to Baie Comeau. That’s a total of seven hours of riding time round-trip.

We had already over 700 miles in three days, and I was tired and not particularly psyched to face seven hours of riding in one day to see a dam.  Once again I was envisioning a fairly flat and uninteresting ride through Quebec wilderness—based on the dull ride up to Baie Comeau.  I had been willing to do the long ride in order to take a tour of the interior of the dam, but it turned out that dam tours didn’t start until June 24 (that “off season” thing had bit us again), and this took a lot of the incentive out for me.

Steve didn’t care about the tour, and in fact didn’t even know there was one.  He just wanted the ride.  It seemed early in the trip for a rebellion, but I was really tired at that point and said I would rather just wait in Baie Comeau for them to come back.  We debated it for a while, and finally that evening over dinner at some forgettable restaurant in town Steve “took one for the team” and said we could skip it.  But he was bummed out about it.

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Back at the camp we were not entirely happy either.  The campground wouldn’t let us pitch three tents on one site, and charged us CDN$66 for two sites, which was nearly what we would have paid for a hotel room in town.  It was one of those places kind of like a KOA: a bit self-important, pricey, a curious mixture of “camping” and Motel 6, staffed gate with electronic keycards, and lock-down at 9 p.m.  The tent sites were strange too, comprised of little clearings in a forest with recent grass sod. The black flies were fairly friendly, so it was another DEET night for all of us.

The electricity in the tent camping loop was turned off so I couldn’t recharge my stuff, but I got a quick charge during dinner (I learned to look for booths with obvious power outlets nearby), and later discovered that the campground bathroom had power too.  So I plugged the iPhone and helmet intercom in while I showered, and hoped that after a good night’s sleep I’d have a better perspective on the day ahead.

BMW day 2: Beaupre to Saguenay, QC

June 9th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

When we started planning this trip a year ago, one of the tips we got was to ride along the north shore of the St Lawrence River, heading east from Quebec City, so that’s how our first day went.  The tip was good: this quickly became much more scenic riding than we had seen before, starting through the villages in the Beaupre area, and then up and down mountains along the St Lawrence.  These mountains are not very tall, peaking out around 780 meters, but I was surprised that they were there at all.  I had expected a flat river valley, and instead we were getting views and many 8-9% grades, with a few reach 12-15%.

We’d roll up the mountains and back down to river level, then up again.  At the higher points we got clear views of the St Lawrence and already it was obvious how the river had widened into the St Lawrence Seaway.  It was as wide as Lake Champlain in no time, so I began to understand why there are no bridges crossing the water north of Quebec City.

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This choice to follow the north side of the river had other repercussions.  Mainly, we’d have to find another way to cross the river again eventually to get to Gaspé.  But also, it opened up the possibility of some side trips further into northern Quebec, which added to the temptation to make the trip very long. Those choices would come later; for now, we had open road along the river and all the scenery we could handle.

We had left the condo without breakfast, so after an hour or two of riding we stopped in Baie St Paul to find something. I should explain at this point that my brother’s views on food and my own don’t align very well.  He is perfectly happy skipping breakfast, eating a egg-muffin-sausage things at McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s when he can, subsisting entirely on chicken wings for weeks at a time, etc.  Having been ruined by Eleanor’s cooking and culinary tastes, I like variety and my mood is somewhat affected by what I eat.  Plus, I’m allergic to certain food additives, so when eating out I tend to lean toward vegetarian cuisine, which can be hard to find in remote areas.

This is not the first time we’ve traveled together, so I knew what to expect and figured that the best way to get along would be to supplement my bag with a few snacks.  I packed 14 Clif bars to fill in the gaps between meals, because I like them and they are incredibly durable even after being stuffed in a pack for days.  I also brought a dozen or so flavored drink mix packets and a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, so I’d always have something to drink even if the local water tasted like moldy frogs.  I hate getting out on the road without breakfast, so this bit of gear saved my day quite a few times, including this day, because we ended up at McDonald’s in Baie St Paul.

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In the parking lot Steve adjusted the drive chain on his bike again, to remove some tightness. He had thought it was too loose that morning before we started, but it turned out he was fooled somewhat by the fact that the bike had no weight on it.  He also was a little worried about the chain lube, which didn’t seem to be holding up.  This would turn out to be an issue for most of the trip.

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Turning northwest at the small town of St Simeon we picked up Rt 170 toward Saguenay.  This side trip was the first of several that I didn’t expect much from, but again I was surprised at the beauty of the terrain.  The Saguenay River sits not in a valley but rather in a mountainous area with lakes, lofty crags of rock and gorgeous forested hills.

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It even has a fjord, “The Fjord of Saguenay” at Petit-Saguenay, which we motored to (a small 3 km detour off the main route). I was becoming more impressed by this area of Quebec by the hour.

I was also surprised by the fact that there was cell service everywhere, when I had expected to be completely out of touch.  This was a bit disappointing, since it made the areas seem less “remote” than I would have liked to pretend, and also because my phone was filling up with emails that I didn’t want to see.  So I ignored the emails and took advantage of the cell coverage to send Eleanor a few pictures from the area.  You really can’t capture the Fjord of Saguenay in a single photo, even a panorama, so it’s one of those experiences best had in person, but I tried to convey it to Eleanor anyway.

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At this point we were all starting to feel like we were on vacation, at last.  No worries, no hurries, let’s just find a nice lunch spot in  L’Anse-Saint-Jean by the harbor and try a lox sandwich with gigantic bowls of coffee.  Then rode over to check out a covered bridge, and then down a dirt road to get a better view of some waterfalls (“chutes”) near the border of the Parc national du Saguenay.

Further down the road we tried the main entrance to the national park and discovered that camping wasn’t scheduled to open until next week!  Things start late up here in northern Quebec, and the camping/tourist season kicks off in late June.  We were definitely in the “off season,” a fact we were destined to re-discover numerous times.  Fortunately, the very kind agent at the gate helped us by calling ahead and verifying we could go to a commercial campground (Parc Aventures Cap Jeseux), even after hours.  This took a lengthy phone call in French, so we were grateful for her help.  This was also a scene to be repeated several times: clueless Americans with pathetic command of French, saved by patient local bi-linguals.

At this point it was getting late in the day.  We had to stop and throw on another layer as dinnertime approached.  In Saguenay we finally reached the first bridge crossing the river, so we grabbed a little dinner to go, and headed southeast on Rt 172 toward St Fulgence to the campground our friendly gate agent had located for us.

This turned out to be the biggest adventure of the day. The entrance road was dirt, long and wavy like a Möbius strip. At the end of a long day, with dusk approaching it was a small challenge for me to navigate through the loose rocks and steep grades (easily 20% in some places), but it was also great fun.  The gate at the campground was locked, which we expected since we’d been told the campground office would be closed when we arrived, but we just rode around it and headed to the rustic (“camping sauvage”) area to settle in.

Not so easy, as it turned out.  First we couldn’t find the “sauvage” area in the maze of narrow roads and trails in this immense forested area.  Then, we discovered that the black flies in this area were absolutely nightmarish.  The campsites were just small clearings in the forest for tents, and to reach them we would have to run the gauntlet of black flies to get to them and set up our tents.  The clouds of bugs were so bad that we had to keep our helmets on for protection, while stopped to have a conference about what to do.

We tried wandering around a little to find a less buggy area, and in the process of making a U-turn on a slight grade, I lost my footing and dropped the bike.

Rich's first drop

Let me explain “dropping the bike” for those of you who haven’t ridden motorcycles.  First of all, you don’t want to do this, but it happens, especially to dirt riders.  The Dakar is a little tall for me, so when stopped I can only touch the ground with the balls of my feet, and consequently I have to be careful about maneuvering from a stop.  When the ground is uneven, or when turning around using my feet on a slope, it’s easy to lose grip and then 600 pounds of top-heavy motorcycle start to lean.  When that happens, you’re done.  It’s going down.

A minor drop on dirt like this doesn’t hurt the bike, but my Nikon and iPad were in the pannier on the bottom side.  The iPad sustained a nice dent on the keyboard case but otherwise everything survived fine.  The Nikon is tough as nails … as you’ll see in later blog entries.  I also was uninjured because it’s easy and instinctive to get out of the way as the bike is headed down.

With the luggage on the rack, we can’t lift the bikes solo, so every time we had a drop, it took at least two people to get the bike back up. Being solo we’d have to unload all the luggage and then lift it using a special technique that you can see me demonstrating here.

This began a small tradition where Steve referred to all places as “XX feet from where Rich dropped the bike.”  We eventually found the RV camping area (dirt sites with occasional water spigots and 15 amp power outlets) and it was much less buggy, so we picked a spot (all the sites were empty), slapped on a coating of DEET, and set up camp.

Dinner with the bugs was uneventful.  The DEET worked pretty well, so our only real problem was an aggressive squirrel that I had to shoo away a few times.  My dinner got smashed when the bike fell, but even smashed pasta tastes fine. Steve had his first poutine of the trip.  (Poutine: French fries and cheese curds, covered with gravy, beloved by Quebecers)  The usual nightly routine began (checking maps, charging devices, etc.) and we briefly discussed the possibility of a campfire, but instead we took a walk to find some strange alternate accommodations available in the campground, the “Dome” and the “Spheres” and the “Tree Houses.”

The Spheres

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That evening I brought up the point that we’d already traveled 500 miles and we were only two days out.  Turns out that Steve planned for two weeks but never really concerned himself with the total mileage.  At this point I estimated we might exceed 2,000 miles on the trip, which was sort of off-putting because I’d just spent 40 hours driving 2,000 miles from Tucson to Jackson Center, OH, and another 600 or so miles after that to Vermont.  And that’s a lot of miles to sit on the slightly uncomfortable seats of a BMW F650GS.

But hey, we were committed, so there wasn’t any point in griping about it.  We were all ready to accept whatever was coming. It was the spirit of the trip.

That night the forest came alive with birds calling, so many and so loudly that it felt like we were sleeping in a bird aviary for the first few hours.  I actually had to put in my earplugs to get past their chatter and screech … and then got a few hours of sleep before dawn hit the tent fabric at 4:00 a.m.

BMW day 1: Vermont to Beaupre, QC

June 8th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

It takes a while to “get into” a trip like this.  First you’ve got to adjust to the sensations of riding on the motorcycle for long distances.  On a motorcycle you aren’t just passing through the countryside—you feel and smell everything in a way that is impossible in a car.  If it’s cold, you stop to put on a layer.  When there are bugs, they smack on the visor right in your field of view.  If there’s a skunk, you can’t hit “recirc” on the climate control to avoid it.  If the road is potholed, you count on the agility of the bike to swerve around the holes, or take your lumps.

Fortunately, we smelled more lilacs blooming than skunks or manure, and the roads were fine, and the weather was sunny.

Last trip before departure

The other adjustment is more mental.  We had two weeks blocked out, and no fixed agenda.  We had to shift our own minds to the mode of exploration without deadlines or major expectations.  Undoubtedly in the coming days we would have mechanical problems, bad weather, changes of heart, uncomfortable situations, language barriers, etc.  But also we’d find adventures of unexpected kinds, and there would be no rush at any time, so the important thing was to just mentally slow down and (literally) smell the lilacs.

Entering Canada

Our first day was one of our longest, at nearly 300 miles from Shelburne, VT to Beaupre, QC (Canada).  Steve led us on long and winding detours through backroads of Vermont that I’ve never seen before (and I grew up here).  That is part of the point of motorcycling the countryside, of course, so we didn’t mind but we did decide that future days should be shorter.  It took us three hours just to reach the tiny border crossing at Richford, VT, which I suppose we could have done in half the time if we had tried a more direct route.  The border crossing was uneventful, and there wasn’t much going on in the countryside south of Quebec City (an area referred to as the Eastern Townships) so we planned to move through with few stops. We just wanted to get past Quebec City in the first day, because until then it wasn’t going to feel like a trip to us.

One key piece of technology we used was a headset intercom on each helmet. These used Bluetooth wireless to connect to each other, and to our cell phones, and (in Steve’s case) a motorcycle GPS.  Just by tapping on a button on the side of my helmet I could call up either Steve or Eric and have a conversation while riding. This proved to be very useful, although the headsets weren’t entirely reliable.

The really neat bit about this was that the headset connected to my iPhone, so I could listen to music as we rode, take phone calls, or even send and receive text messages.  I was able to hear the announcement chime when I had a text message, and say “Siri, read my messages”.  Listening to the phone reading my text messages to me while riding through the northern Vermont countryside, it felt like the future that I had always expected as a kid had finally arrived. All that was missing was some way to make the motorcycle fly.

When we planned the trip, staying in touch with the outside world was not a high priority for us.  I went to considerable lengths to get everyone I work with to understand that I would NOT be reachable, and fully expected that somewhere in northern Quebec I would enter massive dead zones of phone coverage.  This turned out not to be true, as Bell Mobility has excellent coverage all the way around the Gaspé peninsula, better in fact than I got in Maine and New Hampshire.

For this possibility I had purchased a Canadian calling plan from Verizon Wireless  ($15 for 1,000 minutes & unlimited texting, plus $25 per 100 megabytes of data), and it turned out to be extraordinarily useful.  We used my phone daily to check weather, share pictures with family, and book hotels. Steve and Eric didn’t buy a Canadian phone plan, so they only used their phones on free wifi at hotels and restaurants, which also worked well because wifi was available just about everywhere.

Quebec City cafe

Toward the end of the first day we made a brief stop in Quebec City’s old town.  Our trip plan called for cruising along the north side of the St Lawrence River, and Quebec City was the obvious place to cross.  After that (going northeast), there are no bridges crossing the river. We parked on the street in town and grabbed a couple of cold smoothies at a sidewalk cafe.  I got stuck with paying for them and was shocked to find they were $7 apiece with tax.  OK, never again. This was to be our only stop in a large city for the entire trip, and we were fine with that.  We took a quick cruise through the historic Chateau Frontenac for Eric’s benefit, and headed out of town to Beaupre.

Steve’s wife, Carolyn, is from Quebec City, so she did some quick scouting online and booked our first night’s hotel: a ski condo that “sleeps 4″ for only $85.  Seemed like a bargain until we found out that the only way it could sleep four would be if two people would share a double bed and the other two would share a small pull-out couch, AND that Carolyn booked it for the wrong weekend. Fortunately nobody was renting ski condos in June, so we had no problem re-booking for the same unit on the correct night.

Bedtime at hotel

That night we worked out a routine. We’d take turns breaking out a sleeping pad and bag, and sleep on the floor for the night.  Steve was the first “floor man.”  We also brought earplugs because snoring was definitely going to be a problem.  (The photo above is from the nicest motel we booked on the entire trip, the Baie Bleu in Carleton-sur-Mer.  Most places weren’t so pleasant.  That’s me on the floor, reading a book on Kindle using my iPhone.)

Chain adjustment #1

Everything came off the bikes and got carted into the condo, then we started re-charging stuff (helmet intercoms, phones, iPad).  Since we had to unpack almost everything every night, the room quickly filled up with our stuff, and we just got used to it.  Each one of us would stake out a little sector and spread the stuff out.  Then we’d think about where to get dinner, do any bike maintenance (Steve adjusted and lubed his chain almost daily), wash the bugs off the helmet visors, shower, do a little laundry in the sink if we had a motel room, plan the next day, and I’d type up notes on the iPad.

Quebec condo rental

There wasn’t really a lot of spare time with all this going on, so our evenings were generally quiet and we didn’t have time for campfires or nighttime explorations. This evening, for example, we just walked to a nearby restaurant and ordered whatever they had, using our anemic French.  After that, it was time to collapse into bed and try to get rested for whatever lay ahead.  The trip was finally happening.

 

Hey dude, where’s my Airstream?

June 7th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

As long-time readers of this blog know, I do occasionally travel without the Airstream in tow.  It’s never as comfortable or as easy, but there are places you can’t go with an Airstream and things you can’t do.  (It’s hard for me to admit that, but it’s true.)

For the past year or so, my older brother Steve has been talking about a big tour on his BMW motorcycles.  We took an initial 500-mile trip on these bikes back in June 2012, with Colin Hyde and our friend Eric, through the Adirondacks. That was a big success, so the next year Steve & I took off to Quebec for a couple of days, and ever since we’ve been talking about a truly awesome adventure around Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula that would take a couple of weeks.

A ride like that isn’t as simple to plan as an Airstream trip.  Packing for two weeks on a motorcycle is nearly impossible if you try to anticipate everything. The major trick is to be ready for a wide range of weather conditions.  Even in summer, Gaspé’s weather can run anywhere from 50 to 80 degrees, with plenty of rain and wind.  We also planned to camp every other night or so, to up the “adventure” quotient and hold down the cost, which means a tent, sleeping bag, foam pad, etc.

Being an adventure-loving nut, my brother plotted numerous side trips up into the mountains where we would be out of reach of cellular service, roadside assistance, restaurants, and virtually all other services. So being reasonably self-sufficient was important, too.  We had to carry some food, lots of tools, spare parts, and first aid kit.  I also was responsible for trip documentation, so I brought my Nikon D90 with 18-200mm zoom lens, an iPad, and an iPad keyboard.

All of this meant a large load for the BMWs and careful strapping of the gear into waterproof bags.  It felt a little like carrying a passenger.  I wondered if by the end of the trip we might jettison some gear just to lighten the load, but there was really not one thing in any of our bags that we didn’t absolutely need.

Steve's bike loaded

This trip was a sort of tribute to my father, who died this year.  In his final years he didn’t have a lot of things he could enjoy, but he did like to live vicariously through us, watching Steve and Eric work on the BMWs, tracking our progress on trips via his computer, and hearing about our plans.  He said he really wanted Steve to do this trip, and to be sure to bring Eric (who was like a son to him) and me along.  So while none of us needed much pushing to join the adventure, it was nice to know that we could fulfill one of Dad’s last wishes by doing it.

A  note on the motorcycles:  We are riding two kinds of bikes, the BMW F650GS and the F650 “Dakar”.  These bikes are virtually the same except that the Dakar (which I’m riding) has a little more ground clearance, a larger front wheel, and some suspension changes. It’s set up more for off-road than the other two bikes, but all three of them are capable of traveling on dirt and rough roads, as you’ll see in later blog entries.  The point of these bikes is not to have a comfortable ride like a big highway cruiser, nor are they true dirt bikes.  They are designed to go anywhere.  As Steve says, “They aren’t the best at anything, but they are the best at everything.”

If you aren’t familiar with motorcycles, you might be surprised to learn that they have one-cylinder engines.  These are called “thumpers” for the vibration they produce.  The advantage is that they are simple (which helps with roadside repairs) and fuel efficient.  We get 69 MPG with these, which helps quite a bit in Quebec, where gasoline cost about US $5.50 per gallon (CAN$1.42 per liter) this summer.

The next few blog entries will document this trip as it happened.  I’m going to pre-date all the entries to the days they actually occurred, all 13 days of the trip, and release them one per day.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as we did!

Maybe the best Palooza yet

June 3rd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

This might have been the best Alumapalooza ever.

Going into it, I was thinking maybe it would be a little quiet because we had a smaller crowd this year (about 120 trailers on the field).  But we’d done a ton of work putting together a bigger and better event program than ever before, and that paid off.  We added off-site tours, more vendors, more new Airstreams on display, a kettle corn stand, and new seminars to the old favorites, and Mother Nature cooperated by bringing us nearly flawless weather all week.  I realized we had a winner when people started coming to me on the second day and saying, “We’re having a great time!  Thanks for putting this on.”  Usually it takes a couple of days before the compliments flow.

APZ5 crew

It was also less stressful than other events we’ve done, because we had an awesome crew of people. There has been some change every year, but most of them have been working Alumapalooza for years and they really know their jobs.  This year we added two new volunteers (Loren & Mike, on parking) and our jazz diva Laura was summarily promoted to “Trash Wench”.  (Her job was to collect the trash in the mornings. Before anyone objects, let me say that she picked her own title.)

Airstream Life flags

There was a nice breeze every day, so we flew the Airstream Life flag for the first time in several years.  It was nice to see lots of other flags flapping in the wind all week as well.  Felt festive.

The events of the week were so complex that I can’t really do justice to them here.  You can download the schedule from the Alumapalooza 5 website if you are interested. Basically we stayed busy from about 8:00 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. every day. Big hits included Open Mic night, the Aluminum Gong Show, Happy Hour, Josh Rogan, Eric Henning’s magic, and most of the seminars.

Killdeer chicks

Early in the week, someone spotted a killdeer nest just about ten feet from the vendor tent.  This was staked off immediately and dubbed the “Jackson Center Temporary Killdeer Preserve.”  Momma Killdeer sat on four eggs all week, and on Saturday they hatched—which got a big round of applause when we announced it at Happy Hour.  That was the first birth we’ve ever had at an event.

APZ5 Alumapalooza overview

The photo above shows only about 1/3 of the field.  Since the field was dry, we could spread out and give everyone as much privacy as they wanted.  Most clustered close to the main tent.

Airstream always offers some cheap deals on parts during Alumapalooza, but this year they went nuts and filled a service bay with scratched and used items that were mostly taken off other trailers or returned under warranty.  The bargains were incredible. We scored a convection microwave, barely used, for $100 (retail about $500), which Eleanor will use to develop a convection microwave cooking seminar for future events, and an 18-foot curbside awning for $150 (retail about $900). Why so cheap?  The awning has one tiny hole in it, made by someone with a 5/16″ drill bit.  We’ll patch that easily.

I also got a water heater cover for the Caravel for $5, and a bunch of other $5 items.  Brett landed a nice pure-sine inverter, unbelievably cheap.  (Wish I’d seen that first!)   Super Terry filled his trailer with parts and still couldn’t fit everything he bought. The bargains alone would be worth the price of a trip to Jackson Center.

Jim Webb Zip Dee

Since I now had an 18-foot tube in my possession that I couldn’t fit in the car, I needed to get it installed right away.  Fortunately, Jim Webb, the president of Zip-Dee Awnings, and Greg Blue (a Z-D rep) were on site.  They were busy all week with service calls, so they didn’t get to my installation until about 8 p.m. on Friday.  The sun set while they were working, so they ended up finishing the job by flashlight with a crowd of onlookers. A few people couldn’t believe that the president of the company would be doing this … but that’s the kind of company Zip-Dee is, and the kind of guys Jim & Greg are.  They finally wrapped up at about 10:30 pm, just in time for Jim to drive five hours back to Chicago.

(By the way, guys — I love the new curbside awning.)

It was a long week, but also the time flew by.  It ended the way they always do, with lots of people smiling and wishing they didn’t have to go home, a big dinner, a concert, and a slightly sleep-deprived staff.  On Sunday morning we watched all the trailers depart, cleaned up the field, and put away our stuff.

Elder Theater Airstream Life seatThat afternoon E&E and I wandered down to the local one-screen cinema, The Elder Theater, to see Maleficent.  Airstream Life had made a donation to help the theater switch to digital projection, and this was my first chance to see the plaque the theater had mounted on a seat in thanks.  If you go, look for the Airstream Life seat in the center section, about 2/3 down, one seat in from the left aisle.  I was pleased to sit there and enjoy the digital picture, knowing that this old gem of a theater was still able to operate thanks to the financial donations of dozens of people.

Alone at Airstream

That night the Terra Port filled up with people who were waiting for service appointments in the following week, so we just stayed parked in the field alone that night.  Why move?  It was peaceful, and we still had power and water. So while Eleanor and Emma had one last visit with people in the Terra Port, I was able to chill out with a “guy movie” and a Klondike bar all by myself in the green grass, while the sun set beautifully in the west one more time.

And now we are in our usual decompression spot, the driveway of our friends Lou & Larry, near Cleveland.  We’ve got one day here, and then we’ll be trundling east on the final legs to Vermont, to start the next adventures. Coming up: motorcycling through Quebec and New Brunswick.

Pre-Palooza activities

May 26th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

The Airstream is happy.  It traveled about 2,000 miles from Tucson to Jackson Center OH without incident.  Being a bit rushed, the trip didn’t encompass a lot of great overnight spots, but we did manage to take in two state parks (Twin Bridges in OK, and Onondaga Cave in MO) … and two Cracker Barrels and a Wal-Mart.  So overall, it was successful.

We landed in Jackson Center a day earlier than planned, Friday, and most of the key staff also were in early, so pre-event work has been reasonably light.  Just the usual stuff: marking & flagging the field, pre-inspection of the water and electric, organizing, etc.  In between actual work, the Terra Port has been busy with maintenance and socializing.  Most people are socializing and enjoying the spectacularly nice weather.  People are trying out Jackson Center’s new restaurant (replacing the Verandah, which closed a while back), or buying baked goods from the Amish couple across the street.  E&E and I walked downtown for ice cream one night, and I see Matt & Beth scooting around on their folding bikes, Emma and Kathryn are zooming around doing young teenager things, there’s a lot of chit-chat under the awnings, etc.  But Brett and I have also been spending time ticking off items on our accumulated “bug lists,” with the assistance of Super Terry.

Our Airstream’s list included replacing the leaking toilet bowl seal, fixing a couple of latches, cleaning and adjusting the water heater, and inspecting the disc brakes.  Nothing too major, but the toilet bowl seal isn’t really an appetizing job and of course we had to work around loss of the bathroom and hot water while those things were being serviced.  As always, I learned a few things watching, er, “assisting” Super Terry on those jobs.  Doing the water heater in particular was useful because I afterward I was able to finally finalize that section of my Maintenance Guide with first-hand knowledge.

Upon inspection we found the disc brakes to be in perfect condition, and the Michelin LTX tires are also looking good.  The tires don’t show much wear compared to last year’s inspection about 10,500 miles ago, but they should probably be replaced later this year just on the basis of age.

Brett’s motorhome needed some new radiator hoses (and because they run all the way to the water heater in the back, there’s a LOT of hose), and a few other tweaks, so he was underneath it for the better part of a day, and then with Super Terry he replaced the main awning fabric too.

There are two things you can be sure of when Airstream maintenance is happening at a rally:  (1) There will be a lot of tool-swapping, as people borrow what they need from neighbors; (2) A crowd will gather for any interesting mechanical procedure.  At this point we are all used to it, so it’s completely expected and fine when people show up and make themselves at home on a chair to watch you work. At least six people got a good look at my toilet once it was out on the bench for the seal replacement.  (It’s amazing what we find interesting.) It’s actually very nice because at any point if you need a tool or supply, someone in the group will get it from their truck for you.  Saves trips to the hardware store.  But I did think that we are some sort of weird people who want to spend Memorial Day weekend working on our trailers in a parking lot.

Now it’s Monday, Memorial Day, and the pre-Alumapalooza vibe is gelling.  As this writing the Terra Port is full with event staff and Airstream service customers, and there are another seven Airstreams with attendees boondocking in the Service Center parking lot. Another 15-20 will show up later today, and we’re going to have a cookout (courtesy of Airstream) on the grass this evening. Tomorrow at 9 a.m., we’ll open the main field for parking, weather permitting.

Right now conditions are excellent.  We’ve had temperatures in the low 80s daily, nice light breezes, cool evenings, and hardly even a cloud much less rain.  This means the field is dry and ready to hold 100+ Airstreams on Tuesday, even if we do a get some rain during the day tomorrow.  This is a far cry from a couple of years ago when it rained for weeks prior to the event and the ground was so wet we had to park trailers on asphalt while we were waiting for the mud to settle, and for days afterward some spots were still flooded.

So our luck is holding.  All the signs are in place for a very successful Alumapalooza 5.  Check Twitter for @alumaevents or #APZ5 for updates and photos, and also the Alumapalooza Facebook page.  We should have regular postings all week there.

All the same, but different

May 22nd, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Every voyage is different. Even though we are once again in the Airstream that has been our second home for six years (and our first home for three years before that), and we are once again traveling to the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, there is a mental aspect of each trip that is unique.

I used to think that this was by design, a result of my effort to find new things to see and do along routes we had previously traveled, but during preparation for this trip my adventure-planning stalled out and we were left with nothing but the same old route that we had done before. Neither Eleanor nor I were particularly excited about the 2,000 mile drive that faced us, and we delayed our departure a couple of days. We spent the extra time finalizing things at home and enjoying the last few gorgeous dry warm days in Tucson before the summer heat attacked.

Delaying, of course, put more time pressure on us to get to Ohio, and it seemed we were faced with nothing but a tedious slog along the Interstates, lacking time even for a few small detours on the “blue highways” where America keeps its most interesting diversions.

And that has turned out to be true for the most part, but yet something odd has occurred: the trip is unique. There’s a mental aspect I hadn’t anticipated. We are all a year older than the last time we drove this route (and in Emma’s teenage world a year is a huge difference), we have new ideas and views of our travel, different concerns, changing attitudes. The Airstream is the same, the road is the same, but we are just a little bit different—and that changes the flavor of the trip. The Airstream once again shows us that it is a vehicle in more ways that one.

All this is part of the inner view we each carry; often unspoken, but which colors our attitude toward what we experience and how we interact. Practically speaking, we drove from Tucson to a point just west of Albuquerque on Sunday, a total of 480 miles, and on Monday covered about 525 miles Oklahoma City, and then Tuesday a shorter drive of about 200 miles to a quiet state park in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.

This puts us 1,200 miles closer to Jackson Center, so with 60% of the traveling done, we can slow down and explore a little. Last night in Twin Bridges State Park was an antidote to endless concrete roadways and truck traffic: peaceful, green, shady, and it smells like summer here. We opened all the windows on the Airstream and let the fans blow the warm summer air around. I took a nap and tried to recover a little. Eleanor and Emma took an exploratory walk, and then Eleanor made dinner (with extra for a future night when we might not have a full hookup), and we ate ice cream and generally got comfortable. No high-concept entertainment here, just a little of the relaxation that you can’t often find at home.

I say “you can’t find at home” because we are conveniently cut off from modern distractions. Our location in the state park is shadowed somewhat from radio waves, so we can’t place calls and Internet access is nearly impossible. My phone will send and receive text messages (very slowly, sometimes taking a few hours to send a single message) but that’s enough to keep in touch with the rest of the Alumapalooza team as they work on final details before the event. Otherwise I’ve got no communications with the outside world, and that’s fine after three days of juggling steering wheel and cell phone while dodging trucks. We will be back in the connected world all too soon anyway.

I know someone will ask, so here’s a report: The Airstream is behaving very well. A couple of things are on our bug list, but nothing substantial. The toilet bowl seal has been slowly leaking for the past few months (causing the water in the bowl to drip into the tank), and so we are going to replace it at Airstream. It’s an unpleasant job and the seals are moderately expensive, so I had put it off until a convenient moment. With Super Terry on site, it should be much quicker and easier than if I had attempted it myself at home.

I also have a replacement bath vent fan to install. The handle broke on that part last year, and I’ve been carrying around the replacement since October but in the carport at home there’s no room to get on the roof for a job like that, so it’s actually easier to do while on the road.

Other than that, we just have a single cabinet latch that broke. I’m going to replace it with a magnetic latch because this particular location has always been a problem. That’s easily done with just a shopping trip to a good hardware store—and the tool kit that we always carry.

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What’s remarkable is how many things haven’t gone wrong. I did a rough calculation yesterday during my copious hours of freeway driving and it seems that the Airstream has traveled over 120,000 miles at this point. It’s a well-traveled 9-year-old. Of course, we’ve replaced or upgraded almost everything except the body itself at this point.

Likewise, the Mercedes GL320 is purring along. It is about to pass 90,000 miles on the odometer. When I bought it my plan was to accumulate at least 250,000 miles before getting a replacement tow vehicle and now I’m thinking I might bump that up to 300,000.

Today’s trip plan calls for another short drive, into Missouri. After that, well, we’ll see how the experience unfolds and decide as we go.

Socrates wasn’t infallible

May 5th, 2014 by Rich Luhr

Introspection is good, in moderation.  “The greatest good for a man is to discuss virtue every day,” said Socrates, adding the famous statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  These days blogging is the common man’s method of self-examination, revealing quite a bit about the bloggers to the world even if the bloggers themselves aren’t aware of it.

But there’s only so far you should follow the advice of a guy who has been dead for 2,400 years.  (Socrates himself made a point of the fact that he didn’t know everything, which he viewed as a slight advantage over people who think they know everything.)  So after about ten years of nearly constant blogging (first in the Vintage Thunder blog, then Tour of America, and now Man In The Maze), I finally got to a point where it felt better to be quiet for a while, and just enjoy life.  And that is the short explanation for the long absence of this blog.

Now it’s time to get back to it, because the Airstream is about to move and our plans have been laid for the next six months.  We have much to do, and many places to go.

First, we need to get up to Ohio for Alumapalooza.  This is the fifth year we’ve made this exact trip, and while Alumapalooza is always fun, we’re all getting a bit bored with the drive.  We have tried just about every route between Tucson AZ and Jackson Center OH, running anywhere from 1,900 miles to 2,400 miles one way.  Last year we were so desperate to have a change of scene that we went all the way east to the Great Smokies before heading north.  It was a good trip, but now our options for seeing new landscape will have to bring us up to North Dakota, and that’s just too far out of the way.

So I’ll find some things to see and do along the way that we have missed before.  Not sure what yet.  We may end up going off on weird little side trips, like our quest for “Forbidden Amish Donuts” a couple of years ago.  I’m open to suggestions.  (No giant balls of twine, please.)

After that, we will set up the Airstream in Vermont, and then I’ve got a two-week “adventure motorcycling” trip scheduled in June.  Three guys on BMW F650 bikes (3 of the 4 members of the former Black Flies gang) will wander up into Quebec, around the Gaspé Peninsula, through New Brunswick and northern Maine, basically seeing what there is to see.  I hope to spot a few puffins and get some nice photos of the scenery, but those are optional. My only real desires are to stay dry (it’s rainy up there) and avoid incidents.  With luck, my cell phone won’t work most of the time.

Late June gets really interesting.  Airstream is lending me a new Interstate motorhome for a couple of weeks.  This is a real privilege, because (a) the thing costs $140,000; (b) it’s super-cool.  My plan is to take it from Los Angeles up the coast to the SF Bay area, then back south through the desert, then via Palm Springs to I-8 and back to Tucson.  During the trip I want to meet as many Airstream Interstate owners as possible, so if you have one please let me know if you can cross paths between June 28 and July 7.

In July I’ll pay the price for all this fun by parking my butt in Tucson and working like a dog at the computer, and in August we’ll haul the Airstream back west—and right now I have no clue what route we’ll take for that.

In early September, Brett & I will be running Alumafandango in Canyonville OR.  That was great fun last year and I expect it will be even better this year.  We’ll have all-new seminars, more off-site tours, bicycling, all-new entertainment, and of course an Airstream display indoors.  Since we moved this event to September instead of August, the weather should be even better, too!  I’m told that early September is a spectacular time to be in southern Oregon.

And finally, in October we’ve got another trip on the drawing board, which (if it comes off) I’ll talk about later.

All of this moving around comes at a price, and I don’t mean dollars.  There’s a lot of prep.  We’ve been getting ready for months, arranging dates and flights, twiddling with the Airstream, scheduling appointments months in advance, collecting destination information, cleaning, re-stocking, upgrading, etc.  The motorcycle trip, for example, kept me engaged for a couple of weeks just figuring out what gear I would need and how to pack it all.  But really, this is good.  During the off season, travel planning is a great way to build anticipation and pass the time on dark winter nights.  When I think of it that way, it doesn’t seem like a “price” at all.

In the Airstream, Eleanor has made a special effort this year to pull out a lot of stuff that had been accumulating, and culling down to the things she really needs.  So I’ve done the same, and it’s amazing how many things I don’t need anymore.  I would say that the Airstream is going to be a few hundred pounds lighter, but it looks like all the ballast we’ve ditched is going to be made up with new stuff.  Partially this is because our interests and situations have changed.  The Airstream is no longer young, and so I’m carrying a few more tools and spare parts than I used to.  We’re eating differently than we did just a few years ago.  Emma is a teenager, and I probably don’t have to tell you what a massive change that has been.  We’re no longer carrying snorkel gear—instead Eleanor packs equipment for cooking demos in some of that space.  It’s all good because it’s a reminder that the Airstream reflects who we are, rather than defining us.  That’s why they’re shiny.

I had lots of plans for upgrades to the Airstream but in keeping with the decision to pause blogging, I decided not to take on any huge projects in March or April (when the weather here is usually ideal for outdoor work).  Instead, I took care of a few small things and otherwise left the Airstream alone.  No worries, it’s ready to go, thanks to all the updates and repairs I made last year (backup camera, new storage unit, 4G mobile Internet update, flooring and plumbing, window gears).  The only significant task this year was to finally get rid of the factory-installed Parallax Magnatek 7355 power converter, which I’ve never liked because of its lame charging capabilities, and install a Progressive Dynamics Intellipower 9260 in its place.

This was a a little out of my comfort zone but worked out well.  High voltage isn’t my thing, so I Googled a bunch of reports from other people who had made similar conversions, and eventually realized that there’s no single “best” way to do it, and that the job isn’t really that hard either.  Over-simplified, it came down to disconnecting four wires (two AC wires and two DC wires) and connecting five (I added a ground wire on the AC side). One trip to the hardware store for an outlet box and some wire, and the job was done in about two hours.

The only way you can visually detect the change is by the little “Charge Wizard” stuck to the wall (this gizmo allows you to overrride the automatic function of the charger), but the Intellipower documentation (and my voltmeter) tell me that we should now have far superior charging.  That means the batteries should recharge faster, be automatically “equalized” (essential for their long-term health) and I no longer have to worry as much about overcharging while in long term storage.

The real joy of this, if I’m totally honest, is that I did it and nothing blew up.

Well, perhaps that’s the joy of everything we try outside of our comfort zones.  I think I would be OK with an epitaph that read something like, “He did many things … and nothing blew up.”

In fact, that’s pretty much the goal for the next six months.  I’ll keep you posted.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine