Holiday traditions

“And so it is Christmas … and what have you done?”   — John Lennon

One sure sign of the holiday season is that office workers move into slow motion.   We’re seeing lots of sales of magazine subscriptions and stuff from the online store, but behind the scenes it’s almost impossible to get anyone in the office world to move on everything.   December is the mañana season, where all new projects, budgets, and decisions are traditionally put off “until the New Year.”   There’s usually no good reason for this, it’s just tradition. Nobody wants to start anything new when there are holiday office parties and secret Santa gifts to occupy one’s attention.

I’d probably be tempted to fall into this mode too, except that it’s still a constant battle to keep up with the legions of falling advertisers.   Year end is a particularly crucial time, because sales of RVs and RV accessories are traditionally slow, and there are always those year-end expenses to think about.   We lost another advertiser this week, and would have lost two if it weren’t for heroic intervention.   I can’t take my eye off the ball for a minute these days.

chocolate-fondue-night.jpgBut that doesn’t mean we aren’t enjoying the holiday.   Eleanor has bought the first eggnog of the season (actually two, which we taste-tested side-by-side in the kitchen.   Verdict: both were lame; we need to keep searching).   We had “chocolate fondue night” a week ago when my mother was visiting.   We have bought a little evergreen tree to maintain the tradition of pine needles all over the living room, and it has been decorated to nearly an unsafe level, which is also tradition.   If Eleanor can put a hook on it, she’ll hang it from the tree.   Her little tradition is to decorate the tree while eating chocolate-covered cherries.   It’s the only time of year she will eat them.   At the end of the process, the chocolates are gone and the tree is groaning under the weight of massive yet cheerful keepsakes.

According to Emma, our tree even included a live partridge at one time.   I wasn’t aware of that, but today I noticed a smattering of feathers in the branches.   When asked, Emma explained that her stuffed cats ate the bird. The things those stuffed animals do …

One holiday tradition I could do without is the parking-lot demolition derby at every strip mall in town (which basically means all of Tucson).   A few weeks ago we were cruising the local supermarket lot looking for a space, when another driver backed out of her parking space and into our car.   The damage to our car was limited to a dent of about eight inches in diameter, but the repair was over $900.   I got all the insurance information and later discovered something interesting:   I could file a claim but the other driver could prevent her insurance from paying out simply by refusing to cooperate with her own insurance company.   Despite the fact that she was undeniably at fault, her insurance company could not move forward without a voluntary statement by her.

This stretched the process out for two weeks, during which time both my insurer and hers sent multiple vehement letters, reminding the other driver of her contractual obligation to cooperate with claims investigations.   It looked as if I would have to file a claim with my insurance company, pay the deductible, and wait a month or so while lawyers from my insurance company subrogated the claim (in other words, hassled the money out of the other insurance company).   Then I’d get my deductible back.   Fortunately, the other driver was eventually dynamited out of her recalcitrance and we now have a car with a distinct odor of fresh paint.

This evening Emma got a taste of a holiday tradition too.   Eleanor has been shopping for clothes for her, and tonight Emma was allowed to try them on with her eyes closed.   Once satisfied that the clothes would fit, Eleanor would whisk them away to go under the tree.   For some reason this seems very familiar to me.   I can’t point to any particular gift in my past but I’m pretty sure that many times after trying on things as a child, I would hear the fateful words, “Good. That’s going under the tree.”

With my mother, this would reach obsessive levels.   In the home stretch toward Christmas virtually any necessary supply would be wrapped for presentation.   Toothbrushes, soap, a box of tissues, pens, Scotch tape, you name it, and we found it in our stockings.   While it made for lots of presents to unwrap (and still does to this day), it also makes for strange moments on Christmas morning.   Many times I would open a little package to find, say, dental floss, and my mother would say, “Oh, is that where that went?”   I fear that Eleanor may be headed the same way.   I’m pretty sure there’s a package of coffee filters or something like that under our tree.

Having a fire is a big Christmas tradition, as evidenced by many Christmas specials on TV, and songs (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” etc.).   We are fortunate to have a fireplace that provides a lovely view of flames without the added nuisance of actually heating the house (remember we are in southern Arizona and still getting most days in the 60s).   So I decided to go out and buy some cordwood to burn over the next few weeks.

Being in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, we aren’t exactly surrounded by hardwood forests.   Most cordwood is imported from up north somewhere, but my neighbor Mike had a line on a local place that sold pecan wood.   About 20 miles south of Tucson there are vast pecan groves, and each year the excess pecan branches are cut into firewood lengths and stacked up to dry.   On a few weekends in December, you can pick through the pile and take as much as you want for $1.80 per cubic foot.   Checks only, no cash, no credit cards.

These special restrictions make it seem like a special deal, although the price came to $230 per cord.   And it was pecan wood, something I never saw before.   It seemed mysterious and intriguing to someone who has traditionally burned only northern species like oak, ash, maple, cherry, birch, pine, and hemlock.   The more we thought about it, the more we had to get some.   So Mike and I drove down, climbed the giant pile of pecan and picked a peck (actually about 1/3 of a cord).   I can’t speak for all pecan wood, but this stuff is pretty hard, very dry, and burns nice and slow.     It may have been worth the effort.   Even if it wasn’t, I bet we’ll do it again next year.

I don’t think any of our odd little traditions are going to become fodder for   TV Christmas specials, but these are undoubtedly some of the elements that will form our memories of the season. In years past I might have hesitated to admit some of the things we do at holiday time, but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter what your traditions are, it only matters that you have a few.

So I’ve got my ukulele out again, and I’m practicing Christmas songs that Eleanor can sing with me.   (Those of you coming to meet us at Anza-Borrego for New Year’s … get ready for a serenade.) We’ll be transplanting cactus in the front yard next week.   It may not make sense but it feels fine.   Happy holidays.

Christmas gifts for travelin’ folk

Over the past few years, I’ve asked friends and family not to get us much of anything as Christmas gifts.   We had the excuse of living in a 30-foot Airstream, where space was at a premium, so for the most part everyone understood.   We asked for edible gifts, if people felt a gift was necessary, and small lightweight things that would be useful in our traveling life.   This tended to stymie people, so the volume of things we received dropped to a bare minimum (except to Emma).

In reality, our intention was to keep our lives simple and our overhead low.   While we enjoy giving and receiving as much as anyone, it just wasn’t part of our lifestyle.  Now that we are in a house, the excuse of limited space has gone away, and so we find ourselves back on the slippery slope toward a commodity-filled holiday.

But we still don’t want much.  I asked Santa for a 120-volt air compressor because the 12-volt one I carry around is pretty anemic at filling our trailer tires to 65 psi.  I also asked for a Garmin GPS to replace the absolutely awful “Navigon” GPS that we got free (with a set of four Continental tires).  We tried the Navigon for a few weeks but decided we’d rather be lost than keep fighting with it.  Fortunately, I’ve been good this year, so I think I’ll get what I asked for.

Eleanor wants a couple of kitchen tools and some clothes.   She’s keeping her favorite clothing in the Airstream for travel, and so all she has in the house are the clothes she really doesn’t like.   (You can see where her priorities are.) Santa has sent her off to go shopping for clothes today, with the only stipulation being that she has to spend 99.9% less than Sarah Palin.

Emma has written a charming letter to Santa asking for various art supplies, which she will get. A few other surprises are coming her way, too.

Even though we have a house, we still try to act as if we might go back to full-timing at any moment, at least when it comes to acquiring things.   For example, DVDs are always stripped from their cases and put into multi-disc sleeves so they take up less space and are easily portable.   Before we bought a Christmas tree this week, we figured out how we would dispose of it on the 27th so we could hit the road on the 28th.   It’s all about retaining our mobility, but the added benefit is that this practice also keeps our “house overhead” low.

Because we still plan to travel, and many of you do too, I’m going to bring back a feature that I wrote last year on the Tour of America blog:   Gifts for full-timers and frequent travelers.   If you’re wondering what to get for that crazy nomad in your life, check this list.

The basic premise is that people who travel a lot via RV live in small spaces, and they need to travel light.   So the ideal gift is very useful, lightweight, small, and requires no maintenance. Even better are consumable gifts. Here are a few things your traveling friends might love:

  • Gift cards to places that RV’ers frequent: Camping World, Cracker Barrel, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. Or, if you prefer, get a gift card for services RV’ers commonly use: fuel or other travels needs, or cell phone.   Just be sure that you check the fine print on gift cards, to make sure they don’t expire and don’t have “maintenance fees”.   You could also get a KOA Value Kard Rewards (good for a 10% discount at over 450 campgrounds)
  • Entertainment: CDs, DVDs, Netflix gift subscriptions, or for that digitally-savvy traveler an iTunes gift card.   (Yes, you can receive Netflix on the road if you use mail forwarding.)
  • A National Parks Pass, or for someone with children, an ASTC museum Passport. Both are great money-savers and valid nationwide.
  • If you have an in-person visit, consider a nice rosemary bush as a miniature Christmas tree.
  • Food. You just can’t go wrong there unless you ship them a giant crate of pineapples. Food is great because it doesn’t take up space for long. Homemade goodies like popcorn treats are especially appreciated, at least by us. Or if you want something themed, you could get Silver Joe’s coffee, or Happy Camper wine.
  • Photos. Most RVs I see have photos mounted on the walls somewhere to remind them of the people they plan to visit.   A gift certificate for photo printing and mounting might be just the thing.
  • A cool Airstream shirt, sweatshirt, hat, poster, slippers, or a set of aluminum tumblers from the Airstream Life store (shameless plug #1)
  • A subscription to Airstream Life. (Shameless plug #2) If you don’t like them that much, get them a subscription to Trailer Life instead.
  • A useful book that might inspire some new travel, like this book about camping in America’s Southwest.

Any other gift ideas?   Post ’em as a comment.   Thanks!

Holiday season in Tucson

We are experiencing Christmas season as defined by Tucsonians.   The usual signs of an urban Christmas are here, such as crowded parking lots, and Santa Claus appearing every retail outlet for miles.   Those are all background to my eye.   It’s the little things that are different about how it’s done here which strike me.

A couple of nights ago we wandered over to the La Encantada Mall to see “snow.”   This upscale mall features little patches of fake grass in the courtyard.   Since grass is scarce around here — even the plastic variety — that’s a minor novelty in itself, but it gets better.   Every Friday and Saturday evening at 6:00 and 6:45 p.m. they turn on a machine that blows fake snow out into the courtyard.   The stuff is actually some sort of soap bubbles, and children quickly learn not to try to catch it on their tongues.   The event reaps dozens of children and adults romping around in the bubblebath, shrieking with pleasure and gathering up tiny bits of the stuff to toss at each other.

Only in Tucson have I ever seen people playing in fake snow while standing on fake grass.   It impressed Emma, although she is certainly no stranger to snow, but I quickly lost interest.   I had just seen the real thing up in Louisville earlier this week, and that was plenty for me.   Fortunately, this event happens directly in front of an Apple store (computers) and that meant I had more intriguing gadgets to examine than a “snow”-making machine.   Maybe Santa will bring me a new MacBook Pro this Christmas…

People ask if we have Christmas trees here.   Yes, we do.   Sure, cactus are commonly decorated with lights outside, but inside the house people seem to prefer the traditional evergreen tree.   Since evergreens are scarce here, they are imported from wetter places like Oregon, and driven down by the truckload.   Vendors are selling them all over town. After Christmas, the city collects them and “treecycles” them.   Or, you can get a fake tree.

All this fakery — or perhaps I should say, “symbolism” — made me wonder whether there were any “real” components of the Christmas season available.   I can’t expect snow, but at least I can expect holiday cookies, a fire in the fireplace, and some traditional singing.   Fortunately, those elements are alive and well.   Downtown at St Augustine Cathedral, we heard five choirs singing “A Holiday Card To Tucson” this afternoon.

Sure, there were palm trees outside the cathedral, and the temperature was a balmy mid-60s, but at least the music was well-done and entirely authentic.     So yes Virginia, the spirit of Christmas really does exist in Tucson. It’s just a little different, like the Southwest Nutcracker that is performed with ballet dancers dressed as coyotes and Native American squaws.

I’ll have to keep searching Tucson for the extremes of Christmas over the next few weeks, whether real or symbolic.   It’s part of the process of getting comfortable with spending this time of year in the desert.   We won’t always be here, but when we are we need to feel like we are home.   I expect a strange but compelling mix of butterflies and sleigh bells, dust storms instead of snow storms, grapefruit instead of sugarplums.   It’s something new, and that alone seems reason enough to explore and embrace it.

News from RVIA 2008

First off, let me assure you that I am still alive.   I managed to survive the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA)   trade show experience the same way that I survive all such events, meaning that I got along on six hours of jet-lagged sleep each night and trade show meals, ran around like a madman with Brett hunting down potential clients, and haphazardly responded to emails at 10 p.m. before collapsing into bed.   (If you got a terse one-line email response from me this week, that’s why.)

An event like this can really damage your system if you aren’t careful.   The meals alone that businesspeople usually consume while attending an event like this are cause for health concern.   It’s “continental breakfast” in the hotel each morning, trade show food at lunch (expensive convenience-store sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs), snacks of candy and junk food at the booths, and huge dinners every night with clients.   And then on top of that people often overindulge in alcohol after dinner.   You can spot those folks pretty easily the next day on the trade show floor.

Brett and I are old hands at this routine and we both know you’ve got to pace yourself.   Sure, it’s a “free” breakfast and maybe someone else is paying for dinner on his expense account, but if you eat it all you’ll be a constipated and slow-moving target in a few days.   We tried to eat light, avoid fatty foods, avoid alcohol, avoid excessive caffeine, stay hydrated, and then run like hell for two days around the trade show floor.   We wanted to show everyone we met that we were energetic, upbeat, and ready to do business, and it worked.

I think the reason that people so often crash and complain at big events like this is that they set themselves up for it, simply as a result of underestimating the stress they’ll face.   You’ve got potential jet-lag, bad food, irregular meals, uncomfortable shoes, long hours at the booth, sleep deprivation, tedious meetings, and sometimes an emotional rollercoaster with every potential new client.   It’s a formula for physical collapse after a few days in the best of times if you don’t know how to manage it.

maytag_repairman.jpgThis year was particularly hard on some folks because they have been under financial stress as well.   Anyone who sells into the manufacturing market (OEMs), or is a manufacturer, is feeling the pressure.   For a lot of them, filling up their order book at RVIA was mandatory for survival, and I think there will be more than a few who fail in the months to come as a result of not hitting their goals.   We certainly noticed a few who looked like the Maytag repairman during what should have been busy times on the trade show floor.

Fortunately, we received an excellent reception.   We targeted the makers and sellers of interesting premium products that Airstreamers would like, and found that universally those folks were doing fine in the current economy.   We’d pitch them by pointing out that our audience likes innovation, good design, and high quality, and they’d usually respond by saying they needed to target such people.   Then we’d show them how we could save them money by redirecting their big ad spend from XXXX publication to Airstream Life, and — voila–   we’d have a solid new prospect.

Everyone has been asking me for “news from the show.”   Honestly, I didn’t spend much time gathering gossip or reading the press releases, and we didn’t go to any seminars or talks.   What I saw was much the same as prior years, except that a few manufacturers were showing “eco-friendly” designs (meaning some changes in materials), and there were some super-lightweight experiments as well.   Damon has a new Class A motorhome that they claim gets “up to” 14.5 MPG, and Dutchman introduced a 30-foot bunkhouse that weighs about 3,000 lbs.   In both cases, my sense was that they’re going to have to figure ways to engineer out the generally flimsy feeling of the interior appointments, but I’m glad to see them at least starting in the right direction.

Airstream had one lightweight prototype to show, a “skunk works” experiment called the “Scout.”   It’s a retro canned-ham style trailer that incorporates a lot of new materials for a base weight of about 2,000 lbs.   It’s pretty neat but there’s no decision yet whether it will ever be produced — and if it is produced, it may not be badged as an Airstream.   Still, the lightweight materials in this experiment may show up in new Airstream production soon.

Airstream has also announced the shipment of a batch of trailers to KOA Kampgrounds across the country.   These Airstreams will be available for rent in Las Vegas, Sugarloaf Key FL, Bar Harbor ME, and a few other locations.   They’re calling this an “iconic Kamping experience.”   Whatever you call it, I think it will be very popular.   I get queries all the time from people wanting to know where they can rent an Airstream, but up till now it was impossible.   Although you can’t tow these Airstreams away from the KOA, you can spend a night in one and discover how cool they are.   It’s a great way to try before you buy!

We also got tours of some of the newer Airstream models.   John Huttle walked us through the Airstream Interstate 3500 again (we saw it previously in Jackson Center last summer).   Now they’ve got a $3,000 upgrade package that gives you a beautiful floor, Mercedes-Benz seating throughout, slick cabinetry, more LED lights, and other tweaks.   One passer-by jokingly called it the “Pimpstream.”   With this package, the interior looks like a business jet.   I could not believe how comfortable the seats were.   If I had $120k to spend, I would buy this rig, hit the road at 22 MPG, and never come back.   It’s a good thing for my family that I can’t quite afford it.

Later, Bruce Bannister took us into the latest iteration of the Sport series, which is Airstream’s lowest cost and lightest trailer line.   The new Sport 22-footer is really smart, with a new wrap-around dinette and front bedroom, plus the same roomy rear bath that previous Sports had.   For the money (probably low $30s) and the lower weight, it will make sense for a lot of new Airstream buyers.

All the Airstream guys were wearing round buttons that said, “got credit?”   Parent company Thor has reopened its consumer credit division, so lending to potential buyers is not a problem if you buy Airstream (or another Thor brand). This was not news at RVIA, but it certainly did cause a buzz in the crowd.   Anytime someone complained that sales were slow because of credit problems, someone else would mention the Thor move, and the discussion would come to an abrupt halt.

My feeling overall is very bullish.   Not only are we still seeing plenty of advertising prospects, but everyone in the service or aftermarket parts sectors claims to be doing just fine.   People are still using their RVs, upgrading them, and lately enjoying low fuel prices.   Marginal manufacturers with bad products, heavy debt, or inflexible business models are suffering the most, and some of them will go away soon.   I think we need to work out some redundancy in the market, clean up some overextended businesses, and continue to work on the credit problem, and then we’ll see a general rise in 2009.

So now I’m back in Tucson, a bit tired but ready to tackle the tasks of the coming weeks.   There are many follow-up calls to be made, plus the Spring 2009 issue is in production, and a lot of activity in our store, too.   Time to get in gear, and work toward a great 2009!

Blog meets blog, again

The phenomenon of people starting travel blogs has really gained steam since we first started ours back in October 2005.   Just counting the current Airstream travel blogs, I can easily find dozens.   To keep my blogroll under control, I only list the blogs of full-time Airstream travelers (you can see the links at right), but there are many more.

Usually we meet the fellow bloggers after they have been traveling for a while, but in this case we found the opportunity to meet some future Airstream travelers/bloggers before they actually got on the road full-time. The blog is called Malimish.com, and it is the product of a nice family of three from California. At this point they’ve only had their Airstream for two months (traded up from a T@b trailer), but they seem to already be in love with it and are planning to hit the road full-time in the spring.

Our luck stems from the fact they they like to go to Tucson for vacations, and so through a series of fortunate coincidences we discovered they would be at Catalina State Park this weekend.   So they popped over for dinner last night and we got to meet the entire crew (except for the cat) plus Carrie the guest traveler.

malimish-family.jpg

It’s amazing how much we always have in common with other young full-timers.   (Hey, no cracks about us being not-so-young-anymore!)   I like to share the knowledge and experiences we’ve accrued with other people, in the hope that they’ll go out and have even more fun than we did (by avoiding our worst mistakes).   Honestly, I think a year on the road is something everyone should experience in their lifetime.   Whether you do it all at once or a month at a stretch, full-timing will change you for the better.

I am especially impressed with the fact that these cool folks are doing it with a cat and a toddler.   That might seem scary, but most kids seem to thrive on travel, and it’s not really much harder than raising a toddler at home in my opinion.   We started traveling with Emma up to five months per year when she was just three years old.

The cat, I’m not so sure about.   I’ve never had a cat or dog that didn’t get sick in the car, or howl incessantly.   But hey, if your cat travels well (and I’ve seen many that do), who am I to say anything against it?   Our friend Sharon (see The Silver Snail blog, linked at right) travels with both a cat and a dog. So it can be done successfully.

We may encounter the Malimish crowd again in January, when we are roaming California, but there are no specific plans yet.   I am very interested to see how their blog shapes up once they start full-time travel next year.

This week my focus is the annual RV Industry Association trade show, which is always held in Louisville KY around this time of year.     This blog entry comes to you from Las Vegas airport, where I am awaiting a connecting flight.   I’ll be at the show Tuesday and Wednesday, then fly home on Thursday assuming nobody has managed to give me a cold.   The RVIA show is where the manufacturers show their new products and try to get orders from dealers.   It’s also a major opportunity to conduct all kinds of RV-related business, which is why I’ll be there with Brett.   We are going to try hard to get some new advertisers.

Believe me, little else could get me out of Tucson and into the snowy/rainy gloom of Louisville this time of year.   Tucson is a paragon of sunshine and pleasantness this time of year, while Louisville is facing that grim “mixed precipitation and high winds” sort of forecast that makes my skin crawl.   Just call it “40 to 60 percent chance of blecccch,” and you’ve got the concept.   But I’ll be indoors all day, roaming around under the giant tungsten lights and washing my hands after every handshake, so for the most part I won’t notice.   Wish me luck.