Coastal California

Coastal California in January is not half bad.   It’s not exactly beach weather every day, but it has been the past few days, and so that’s where we headed.   Up in Oceanside, 30 miles or so north of San Diego, there’s a county park called Guajome, and it is conveniently just a few miles east of the Oceanside beach and pier.  We pulled the Airstream up there and settled in for a couple of days.

On the way we dropped in on the newest Airstream dealer, Holland Motorhomes.   They are replacing the previous dealer, which went out of business recently.   They’ve got a few Airstreams on the lot, but they aren’t ready to provide service yet.   I think they were surprised to hear from us.

There was another Airstream owner parked just across from us in Guajome, but we were barely at the park long enough to socialize.   We chatted a bit and then headed out to do some shopping at a couple of local ethnic markets (Mexican and Phillipino).   Eleanor and Brett have been cooking up all kinds of different dinners lately. I’m just sitting back and eating whatever they make, so far with excellent results.   The only questionable item was a brutally hot but delicious guacamole they found in one of the markets.   It was painful to eat but we couldn’t stop because it was so good on fresh-from-the-bakery tortillas.

In downtown Oceanside there is a long beach and a long pier, ideal for photo practice.   Brett has a new Nikon D90 (the camera I want but haven’t yet bought) and so we decided to spend the day shooting pictures of the beach area and the surfers.   I’ll set up a photo album on Flickr with the best shots later.   Emma spent her time on the beach looking for shells, and rounded rocks to paint.   With wandering around town and hiking the beach, we ended up being out until sunset, and getting back to the Airstream just in time for another massive ethnic food-fest.

Lately I haven’t been talking about maintenance, but it has been on my mind.   A strange squeal started in the trailer brakes a few days ago, only when they are hot.   On the tow north from Oceanside on Sunday, we got a high-pressure alarm from the tire monitor, and pulled over in Temecula. (The tire monitor is set to alarm at 10 psi above the cold pressure.)   We felt the wheel and it was definitely hotter than the others, which usually means either a dragging brake or bad wheel bearings.   Given that our wheel bearings were re-packed only 1,000 miles earlier, and that this wheel’s entire brake assembly was recently replaced by an Airstream dealer —who shall not be named —at great expense, I suspected a brake problem.

So we walked the Old Town of  Temecula, to see what has changed in the 15 years since we were last here, and waited for the wheel to cool down. I can’t say much for the improvement of the Old Town.   I remember a quiet historic district mostly occupied by antique stores, but we found a typical tourist district filled with stuff and restaurants, motorcycles rumbling down the main street, all about retail.

I’ll spare the details, but the high-temperature tire did indeed turn out to be caused by a brake problem.   Somebody re-assembled the brake and failed to lubricate the caliper guide pin.   It was completely dry.  That meant the brake caliper wouldn’t release properly, which meant the disc brake pads would drag and generate heat.  Which it was doing for the past thousand miles or so … Fortunately, we caught it before the pad burned up and took the rotor with it.

Since were doing maintenance, we also took the opportunity to install a new vent fan in the forward location.   I’ve had a vent up there that has not been working out well for various reasons, and recently obtained a new Maxxair “Maxxfan 6200“.   So Brett climbed up on the roof, removed the old fan, and popped in the replacement.   It’s pretty cool.   Not only can we run it in the rain, but it has a very slick remote control, stainless steel hardware, a much faster open/close speed, and a better designed roof flange that seems less likely to develop leaks over time.   This is the first Maxxair I’ve owned but I’m fast becoming a, uh, fan of them.   We put a strip of adhesive velcro on the back of the remote and now it’s conveniently hanging on the bedroom wall.

Our next stop is Death Valley.   Before we head into a remote spot like that we try to get everything in order, so we’ve parked in Riverside County for a couple of days   We searched for and (hopefully) have fixed a small rain leak around the kitchen vent fan.   We also lubricated the stabilizers to eliminate an annoying squeak in them.   I took the Nissan into the local dealer for replacement of some worn-out bushings on the air bag compressor (part of the Nissan’s auto-leveling system).   Eleanor topped up our groceries, and I filled both propane tanks.

Our friends Terry and Marie have been visiting with us, so last night we piled everyone in the Airstream for dinner and movie night.   I took the opportunity to experiment further with the new ultra-wide-angle lens I bought in San Diego last week.   There are definitely a few tricks to getting good photos with it, and I am having fun learning how.   The photo below shows the incredible views it can reveal — just what I needed for shooting Airstream interiors.   It will come in handy in the next two weeks, when I will be shooting both Death Valley landscapes and new Airstreams in Las Vegas.


San Diego, CA

San Diego is one of our favorite cities, for the great year-round climate, the abundance of things to do, the Asian food & groceries, and the lovely scenery.   So although we planned just four nights here, it’s not much surprise that we decided to extend the stay to six nights.

We’ve been busy.  Each day I work a few hours, starting around 7 or 8 a.m., and then we head out in the afternoon to do the fun stuff.  On Monday we picked up Brett at the airport and immediately headed to a cluster of Asian restaurants and grocery stores on Convoy Street (north of Balboa) for lunch. Eleanor found two major Asian grocery stores and happily began hunting for specialties such as Vietnamese coffee, brown seaweed, and noodles.   We haven’t yet found an equivalent store in Tucson, so it was time to stock up.

In the afternoon we went to the Old Town district to roam around, and visit Bill at the historic Whaley House.   He was in one of his many alternate personalities, welcoming visitors to the house and telling the tale of its ghosts (among other things).   Having seen Bill as a plague doctor, a train conductor, a lighthouse keeper, and now a 19th century resident of San Diego, I begin to wonder …do I really know who he is?

On Tuesday our outing was to Balboa Park, which in my opinion is one of San Diego’s very best attractions.   The park includes several wonderful museums, fantastic architecture, beautiful landscaping, and lots of places for kids to play.   Being the first Tuesday of the month, the Reuben Fleet Science Museum was free, so we dropped in there. We also took in a relaxing late afternoon cup of   tea and mochi (a type of ice cream) at the Japanese tea garden.

Just before sunset we hopped over the bridge to Coronado Island to walk the beach near the famous Hotel Del Coronado.   This enormous wooden structure is one of the most gorgeous landmarks in America, and a great photographic subject. Parking at the hotel is outrageously expensive, but metered spaces are available just across the street. After dark, I got a few shots to add to my growing neon collection.


Wednesday I got buried by work and so we didn’t get out until mid-afternoon.  But we still found time to go to the North Park area and drop in on George’s Camera.   It’s one of those great full-service camera shops with lots of inventory that are nearly impossible to find today.  I finally bought a super wide-angle lens for photographing trailer interiors.   I got the newly-introduced Tamron 10-24mm f3.5, which I am now testing.   I’m not entirely convinced it was the right buy, but it may work out fine with some practice.

North Park is a lively shopping district with lots of cafes and neon, so after a coffee and dessert break (creme brulee for E&E&me, carrot cake for Brett) I added to my neon collection again.

If we could have stayed later, the picture would have been much more interesting.   But we had an appointment at 6 p.m. up in Encinitas, to join the Moonlight Beach Strummers for a uke jam at a local pizza place.

Our friend Tommy G was the guy who really got me started on the ukulele, almost exactly one year ago in Borrego Springs.   He pushed me hard for three days in the desert, and was a great encouragement.   So I’d been looking forward to seeing him again in Encinitas to show him how I’ve progressed. Playing with the group — mistakes and all — made me feel like I was on my way to becoming a real ukulele player.

The uke jam was, for me at least, a blast. I think Emma liked it too (she brought her uke also, but wasn’t up to speed to play along with most songs).  Eleanor and Brett tolerated it kindly from a table in the corner.  The turnout was light but still there were dozens of players attending.  A group of women danced the hula while a six-piece band led us all in playing Hawaiian tunes until 8:30.  We all wore our Hawaiian shirts and ate pizza, and played and listened. I wish I had a group like this in Tucson.  Maybe I’ll start one.

Thursday was our day for the famous San Diego Zoo, also located at Balboa Park.   This is a world-class place, worth a full day (and with a price tag to match).   This time of year the weather can turn from sunny and warm to foggy and cold in a very short time, which is precisely what happened to us.   Still, we stayed to nearly closing time and had a fabulous day.   Emma’s high point was being kissed by a sea lion.

On Friday we’ll be relocating to a county park further north.  We have no particular plan.  For the next few days we are going to wing it, with no itinerary until Monday.  This is one of the great aspects of traveling this way: we are free to roam without worries about hotels, rental cars, or airline schedules.  Our activities of the past week are perhaps not what people typically associate with “RV’ing” but that’s exactly the point of this blog.  RV travel is not just about “camping” but also about freedom.  We haven’t sung campfire songs or toasted marshmallows this week, but we’ve had a heck of a good time.

Pacific Southwest Railway Museum

For those of you perched on the edge of your seat wondering how the brake situation worked out, rest easy.   Super Terry arrived and sprang into action, swiftly replaced the questionable actuator with a factory-fresh replacement, then bled the brakes and verified proper operation.   We celebrated with dinner in the trailer, and the second half of “Prince Caspian” on DVD.   It wasn’t a wild night boondocking in the desert but it was a fine one nonetheless.

In the morning we stopped off at the Borrego Springs hardware stores to buy some tie wraps for cleaning up some of the wiring, and while we were parked by the side of the road, Dirk spotted us and stopped by to meet Terry in person. Then Super Terry bade us farewell and zipped off to his headquarters, no doubt awaiting his next opportunity to do a good deed.

We had been forced to cancel our overnight plans in Campo CA, but since we had everything resolved by about 10 a.m., there was still time to drive about 70 miles down to see our friends Daisy and Don.   We last saw them on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in September, where they were working at the lodge.   Now they are volunteering at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, which is sort of a playground for railfans in a tiny unincorporated village by the border with Mexico.

Daisy and Don arranged to roll out the red carpet for us, which meant a personal guided tour of the historic railcars, lunch, and a ride on the train about 11 miles down to the very border.   The border happens to be midway through a rural tunnel, and is delineated by a white line.   There’s no gate at this tunnel (but there is one in the next tunnel), and nothing to suggest that this is an international border except for Border Patrol personnel lurking at road crossings nearby.

The museum is a strictly volunteer operation, and rather small, with one building containing a few gems of the collection, and many   other engines and cars lined up outside.   There’s a restoration shop and several interesting historic cars but not everything is open to the public.   Being rather off the beaten path, things were quiet when we came by, but that meant we had plenty of time to drift through the cars and talk before the train departed at 2:30.

From Campo to Bonita, the shortest route is Rt 94.   It is a constantly twisting and rolling adventure that would be much more fun in a little sportscar than in a giant SUV with an 8000-lb trailer strapped to it.   Still, the scenery is beautiful and even surprising at times, with views from 3000 feet altitude through valleys into Mexico.

This time of year the major limitation of climate is not temperature, but sunlight.   It’s hard to get to the destination by 5 p.m., when things start getting dark and backing into a strange campsite becomes a serious challenge.  But here we are, undented and with brakes that work, in the Mediterranean air of the San Diego area.  We will spend the next few days here, exploring and taking care of business.  As it turns out, we will have much to do.

Super Terry vs. the devious brakes

We were all set to hit the road this morning.   Eleanor even commented on the fact that we had everyone ready, and the trailer all packed up, an hour before we had expected to leave.   The plan was to tow the trailer up to Julian (elev. 4000) and then down to the town of Campo, right on the border with Mexico.   Our friends Daisy and Don are there, volunteering at the San Diego Railroad Museum.   They promised us a train ride and dinner tonight.   Eleanor was bringing a Julian apple pie for dessert.

All of those plans are in the past tense now, because we’ve had an equipment failure.   I hitched up the trailer, including connecting the 7-way trailer plug, and   about five minutes later, the disc brake actuator spontaneously went on.

Normally, the only way the actuator could go on without the truck brakes being activated first would be if the emergency breakaway switch was activated or shorted.   I cycled the breakaway several times (pulling the pin in and out), but it had no effect.   I pulled the 7-way plug out to ensure that the truck’s brake controller wasn’t sending a false signal — no result.   I quickly tossed everything out of my bedroom closet to check the wiring in the region of the brake actuator, and it all looked good.   I wiggled wires.   Nothing.

With the actuator running full on, we had three problems.   (1) The trailer would not go anywhere.   The disc brakes are locked full on, which means we’d have about as much chance of towing it as we would trying to tow a beached whale.   (2) The actuator pump would probably eventually overheat or burn out.   (3)   The power draw of the unit (about 20 amps DC) would quickly drain our batteries.   We solved the third problem by plugging the Airstream into the campsite power again.

Finally, with no other choices, I got out the wire cutters and began snipping wires.   It was like trying to defuse a bomb.   Cut the right wire, and the problem ends.   Cut the wrong wire and you’re just wasting time.     Eleanor stood by to assist.   “Headlamp!”   “Check!”   “Hand me the cutters!”   First I cut the breakaway controller wire to verify it wasn’t shorted out.   That had no result, so I went into the closet again and cut the blue wire running to the actuator. The blue wire carries the signal from the truck’s brake controller.   I figured we might have a bad 7-way plug, but snipping the blue wire also had no result.   Then I cut the 12-gauge black wire (12vDC +) and finally the actuator shut off.

So the immediate problem is solved, but of course we have no brakes.   Towing up the Banner Grade to Julian is clearly out of the question.   We are in Borrego Springs, CA, a town with no RV services and very little else.   The nearest real service is 50 miles away in Brawley, or 70 miles away in Coachella (Palm Springs area).

If we were really in a pinch I’d probably tow up to Coachella since the road is mostly flat and not particularly crowded.   But we have an ace in the hole, or rather, an ace mechanic.   We have “Super Terry,” who is working up in Corona, CA at Inland RV.   Super Terry (formerly just known as Terry, but I needed to differentiate him from Tucson Terry)   has — miracle of miracles — a brand new Kodiak disc brake actuator sitting on the shelf.

He is now and forever known as Super Terry because upon hearing of our plight, he immediately volunteered to drive   the 109 miles from Corona down to us with a truck loaded with tools and equipment, and replace the brake controller right here.   Now that’s a friend.

We are due to leave the state park today at noon.   We could ask for an extension, but part of the work will be to bleed the brakes, and I doubt the park rangers would find that an acceptable practice.   So we are going to tow the Airstream about five miles over to a boondocking site known as “Pegleg” and do the work there.

As with all of our on-the-road disasters, we will make the best of it.   So let’s count our blessings:   We’ll get another night in the lovely desert.   We’ll get to have our friend Terry over for lunch, and dinner, and breakfast (he’ll be staying the night for sure).   We are going to get a very convenient repair to what could have been a thorny problem.   And, out of sheer pity perhaps, Bill has given me a gift of Jake Shimabukuro’s album “Gently Weeps.”   So we’ve got new music to enjoy tonight while we boondock under the stars.

I’ll post an update after we get the work done.

A rolling party

Our little getaway in Anza-Borrego has turned into something more than we knew. There are eight Airstreams here, including ourselves.   We knew that Terry & Greg, Bill & Larry, David & Ari, and Bill & Beth would be here, but I was surprised to see (and finally meet in person) Dirk & Sue from Oregon, plus owners of two other Airstreams who I’d never met before.

People in the campground have noticed the confluence of aluminum and have asked if this is a rally.   We always reply emphatically that this is NOT a rally.   It’s a happy coincidence.   Mostly we are eager to disclaim a rally because all of us are trying to avoid the expectations that come with that style of gathering:   daily Happy Hour, group breakfasts, “kitty fees,” organized activities, etc.   We’re here to relax in the desert and do just whatever we feel like, and for many of the folks here that means holing up with a book or significant other all day.

If this were a rally, such behavior might be interpreted as being actively anti-social, but here it’s considered admirable.   Going to spend the entire day contemplating your toenails?   Go for it.   Not interested in getting out of bed until 10:30 (and then only to microwave some leftover dim sum for breakfast)?   Sounds nice.   Don’t want to talk to another human for at least five hours?   No problem, we won’t be knocking on your door.   This is a gathering for people who just want to be left to their own devices, while still having the option to see a friendly face if they feel like it.


Still, some of us have been getting together in the evenings for dinner, at the picnic tables at Bill & Larry’s place (because it is so extravagantly decorated with lights, patio mats, umbrellas, signs, etc.).   The participants vary from night to night.   Anyone who feels like it brings over a dish and we all work through whatever there is.   With Larry doing his marvelous Chinese specialties, and contributions by everyone else, dinner has been a gastronomic success.

The sun sets early even here, this time of year, and so by 5:30 it is pitch black except for the colorful lights that adorn many of the trailers.   There is no wind, but the temperature plummets into the 50s almost instantly. We’ve been eating dim sum and peanut noodles and pumpkin pie with warm hats and fleeces on.   Even if a little chilly, everyone seems very happy.

Yesterday we took David, Ari, and William out for a little backroad exploration.   You can’t really see most of Anza-Borrego without at least a high-clearance vehicle, and 4WD is preferable.   We’re the only ones of the Airstream group who have 4WD, so we popped up the 3rd row in the Armada and took off for a few favorite spots.   The narrow and winding Slot Canyon, about 30-40 feet deep in places, was a hit with everyone, especially the kids.   We also took them to Split Mountain and hiked the short trail to Wind Caves, another kid-friendly destination.

One of the benefits of being out on the road is that I often meet people who end up contributing to the magazine.   They might offer an idea, a contact, a photo, a destination, or just inspiration.  Today’s big score was that I met a couple who were the official photographers on the 1960 Airstream European Caravan.  It just so happens that in 2005 we documented Pete Turner’s experience as the official photographer of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Caravan.   In our upcoming Spring 2009 issue, we have an article about Fran Hall, the photographer for the 1962 Around The World Caravan.  Now we’ll be able to add yet another piece to the puzzle of historic caravans, and I expect it will become an article for the Summer or Fall 2009 issue.

We’ve been doing all the little things that we like to do while we are here.   Today we hunted for pineapple soda, a treat that Emma associates with Borrego Springs.   Emma made up elaborate games with William amongst the tumbleweed and creosote bush.   I played ukulele songs with Bill under the awning. We went to the visitor center to check out the schedule of ranger talks.   Tomorrow we’ll hike Palm Canyon to look for bighorn sheep.  There is nothing we need to do, and lots of things we can do anytime, so no rush at any time.

Our group is changing daily.  David, Ari, and Willie left today for San Diego, but they were quickly replaced by Bill & Beth. Since we all planned our travel dates separately, there’s no beginning and no end to our gathering.   It may go on all winter, with people coming and going randomly.   In fact, I hope it does.   I’d hate to think that this good mood might fade away when we leave on Saturday.   It’s nice to think that we’re just part of a big rolling party that will continue indefinitely.