New Ulm, MN

Why New Ulm?   After many hectic days of long drives and one-night stands (camping), it’s time to stop for a few days and regroup.   We could go to any small town within a reasonable day’s drive of Bloomington, as long as it had the basic amenities.   The Mercedes enthusiasts convinced us to head to New Ulm because this weekend is a festival honoring Hermann, the Cheruscan chief who spearheaded the struggle to defend Germanic tribes against the Roman imperial army in 9 A.D.

You see, if Hermann hadn’t successfully repelled the Roman onslaught, instead of driving Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Volkwagen, car enthusiasts would all be driving FIATs.   At least, that’s the logic behind bringing 100+ German cars here as part of the weekend festival.   And so we picked New Ulm over Austin, MN — the triumph of bratwurst over SPAM.

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On the way here we paused at Jim’s Apple Farm, a highly visible roadside stand along Rt 169 that features apple bakery items, candies, dozens of different root beers and licorice, and many other things.   It’s a good stop before you disappear into the seemingly endless corn and soybean fields on the way to New Ulm.

img_5215.jpgNew Ulm is a quiet little town of about 13,000 people.   It is regarded, we are told, as “the most German of all Minnesota communities.”   Up on the hill the townspeople have erected a huge monument to Hermann, and he stands atop the monument in statue, larger than life, with his cloak waving in the breeze and his sword triumphantly raised.   For $1.50 you can climb the stairs to the top of the monument and get the best view of New Ulm there is.   Or, for free, you can walk on the grass around the monument and get the second best view of New Ulm.

We’ve set up camp at Flandrau State Park, directly bordering town, on the assumption that cell phones would work there. They do, sort of, but the campground sits in a bowl which inhibits the signal and so calls have to be made standing outside the Airstream.   Our cellular Internet works only intermittently.   This often happens when we camp in state parks, and so I always have a Plan B for getting online.

In this case, Plan B was the Mega Wash laundry about three miles away, near the Super Wal-Mart.   “Free Wireless Internet” said the sign, and so while Eleanor did the wash I parked myself at a table and got a bunch of real work done at broadband speed.   I’m used to seeing signs that say “Broadband Wireless Internet” and then discovering that it doesn’t work or is tediously slow, but the Mega Wash didn’t let me down.

img_5237.jpgNew Ulm has a lot of minor tourist attractions, which we briefly checked out in the late afternoon when work was done.   In addition to Hermann’s monument, there’s “the first free-standing carillon tower in North America” downtown, lots of German restaurants, and Schell’s Brewery (“the 2nd oldest family owned brewery in the US”).

img_5210.jpgThe carillon plays several times daily according to a posted schedule.   It reminds me of the carillon in Frankenmuth MI, but New Ulm is otherwise nothing like Frankenmuth.

Schell’s is worth a stop even if you don’t do the tour.   The tiny brewery features a nice garden with peacocks wandering around, a little visitor center and gift shop, and a beautiful brick mansion (not open to the public, alas).   We arrived too late for a tour but might check it out again today, after we pay homage to Hermann at the festival.

Bloomington, MN

We spent last night parked near a Mercedes dealer, Feldmann Imports, in Bloomington.   One parking lot is pretty much like another, but we were in this particular one because we were the guests of honor at an informal gathering of Mercedes owners from the Twin Cities area.   There is a Mercedes Club of America (MBCA) with local units all over the country, and the leadership of this particular unit got wind that we would be in the area.   So they invited us to join their members to talk about towing with a Mercedes — a rarely discussed subject indeed.

At this point we have 10,000 miles on the GL320 and it was time for the first scheduled maintenance interval, during which the dealer basically does an oil change with a lot of inspections, and refills the AdBlue (urea) tank which for the Bluetec emission system.   This made it convenient to stop at Feldmann’s in the morning, unhitch the trailer in the overflow parking lot, and get serviced while working comfortably in the Airstream.

For those interested, the AdBlue tank required 4.5 gallons of fluid, which is about half the capacity of the tank.   This is despite about 7,000 miles of towing and 3,000 miles of general purpose travel.   So we have proven that even with a high percentage of towing, I don’t need to be carrying spare bottles of urea around between service intervals.   We’ll have another service at 20,000 miles and the AdBlue tank will be flushed and refilled at that time.

In the afternoon we had a couple of hours to zip over to the famous Mall of America (just a few miles down the road), just to say we’d done it.   If you like malls, this is heaven, and if you hate malls, well … it’s hell on earth.   Like most things, it is what you make of it.   One nice perk is that you can buy a Caribou Coffee and then walk around the mall getting free refills at any of the other Caribou Coffee outlets, which are everywhere.   That, of course, was all Eleanor needed to know for her bliss.

We didn’t have time for shopping and we didn’t really need anything, even from the “Barbie Store”, but we walked all three circular levels of the mall just for the exercise.   Then we ruined any possible benefit of that exercise by pigging out at Dave’s Famous Barbecue.   Overall, I think that’s a net win.

The MBCA meeting was held in the parking lot beside the Airstream. Imagine about a dozen people milling around in a parking lot with a few distance sodium lamps providing dim light, all excitedly talking about Airstreams, travel, and Mercedes cars. Beside us the representative from Feldmann’s set up a table with desserts and drinks, and of course each of the members showed up in their Mercedes.   This group is a lot like the Airstream’s WBCCI group in age and obsessiveness, and like Airstreamers they own everything from vintage to new (and often several of both). Airstreamers aren’t all millionaires, despite what people think, and the same is true of Mercedes owners.   The ones we have met have turned out to be very nice and very dedicated to their cars, even the old clunkers.

Speaking of clunkers, the other noticeable element in the parking lot was several rows of older SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans.   These are the remnants of the “cash for clunkers” program, and all are destined to be scrapped under the Federal guidelines of the program.   They were a pretty rough-looking bunch, especially when contrasted with the new Mercedes and Nissan cars being unloaded nearby.

We’re on the way out of town now, heading for a quieter spot for a few days, so we can catch up on work, laundry, groceries, and homeschooling. It looks like the SPAM Museum will not be on our route after all, due to limited camping opportunities in the area. We’re moving west again ….

A tip about tires

I’ve written about tires so many times in the past four years that I am wary of bringing up the subject again.   I have to wonder how many blog readers’ eyes have glazed over permanently.   But I keep learning new things, and I feel obligated to share them here in the hopes that these lessons will help someone else.

A few weeks ago I had mentioned on the blog that we had unusual tire wear along the outer edge of some of the Airstream’s tires, and this was the thing that caused us to go to Jackson Center for an axle alignment.   As it turned out, the axles were out of alignment. After the service, I resolved to keep an extra sharp eye on the tires, to see if the wear returned to a more even pattern.

This morning, after yesterday’s 350+ mile tow, I noticed the left rear tire was looking very funky.   Wear was occurring rapidly in isolated spots, and there was a distinct bulging in the tread.   Those are the signs of a belt breakage inside the tire, and I’ve seen them before.   We got some local advice and towed the Airstream a few miles over to Mill’s Fleet Farm in Wausau for a replacement.

These days, when I have a tire problem, it is my habit to remove and reinstall the tire myself.   This saves a lot of hassling and potential screw-ups by technicians who (a) don’t know the proper way to jack up an Airstream; (b) will use an air wrench to over-tighten the lug nuts; (c) want to argue with me about using tire pressure sensors (“Just throw those things away, they’re the cause of every stem failure I’ve ever seen.”)

So in the parking lot we removed the left rear tire (a Carlisle) and sure enough, it was a disaster.   The tire rolled like a jelly bean, and had bare patches on it.   It looked fine the day before, which shows how fast they can deteriorate once a belt starts to separate, break, or shift.   We rolled it over the shop, where it was quickly replaced with a fresh tire.

Then I took a careful look at the other tires and discovered that the left front tire (a PowerKing TowMax) also looked a little suspicious.   I asked Jason, the Service Manager, to take a look and he agreed it was probably also suffering belt breakage.   We removed it out of caution and confirmed that it was indeed out of round.   While it wasn’t as bad as the rear tire, it was heading that way and needed replacement.

So now the question was, why were these tires failing?   At first I was theorizing that the tires were stressed.   They had been wearing in a particular way before the axle alignment, and now they were being forced to wear differently.   Could the change in alignment be the cause?

Then Jason pointed out something interesting to me.   Both tires had been patched (we have rolled over a lot of road debris like nails and screws in the past year).   Both tires had belt separation centered in the exact spot where the patches were installed.   At last, we had a smoking gun.

The problem was that these were “flat patches”, meaning that they covered up holes from the inside of the tire like patches on your blue jeans.   Flat patches do a good job of holding air, but the original hole in the tread can still allow water to get inside the tread.   Over time, that water will rust the internal steel belts of the tire, and suddenly they break.   This is what I believe happened to my two tires.   Left unattended, the next step is a blowout.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association says not to use flat patches.   The recommended and best way to patch a tire is with a patch plug, which is a patch that also fills the hole permanently and keeps it dry. Too bad that the last few shops to work on my tires never mentioned this option.

Well.   I am glad that tire inspection vigilance prevented us from having a more serious problem, but on the other hand I wish I’d known about patch plugs before.   A pair of them might have saved us from buying $200 worth of new tires today.   I may begin carrying a patch plug in my spare parts kit, just so I can hand it to a tire shop guy if he doesn’t have one.

The two tires on the right side of the trailer are fine so far.   I don’t recall if either of them has been patched in the past, but they are wearing appropriately at the moment so I’ll just keep an eye on them.   Both of them, by the way, are Goodyear Marathons, and the rear one is actually nearly worn out, which suggests that it is approaching 30,000 miles.   My experience with numerous trailer tires over the years has been that no particular brand holds up any better than the rest, so I buy whatever is available.   At this point we have three different brands rolling on the trailer.

Interestingly, I had been noticing since Grand Rapids that our fuel economy was mysteriously declining.   We normally get 14-15 MPG towing with the diesel, and suddenly we were getting 12.5 – 13.3 MPG.   It seems that the tires were the problem.   Now that we’ve replaced the bad tires, we are back to normal fuel economy.   The broken belts “squirm” as the tire rolls, and in addition to causing rapid tread wear, this apparently increases the rolling resistance as well.

We are in Minneapolis tonight, parked on the street in a quiet neighborhood (with permission of the homeowners and their neighbor).   Local law says we can stay one night if we don’t unhitch, and that is our intent.   We had dinner on the deck with our hosts this evening on this balmy 82-degree September evening, and will be heading to Bloomington for routine car maintenance tomorrow.   Now that we are here, we are done with big-mileage days for a while.

Rib Mountain State Park, WI

I write to you from the strangest places, and that’s the way you like it.   When we are parked in Tucson for months at a time, blog readership plummets and I get emails from people asking “When are you going to back on the road?”   When I am blogging daily, with a different location every night, everyone seems happy.

Tonight the blog comes to you from the top of Rib Mountain, in Wausau WI.   There is a nice little state park campground on the top of the mountain, with sites alongside the edge of the mountain that have clear views to the north.   We’re in one of those sites tonight, just a short walk from the two ski lifts that serve this mountain in winter.

Should you decide to check out Wisconsin’s Rib Mountain State Park with your trailer, keep in mind that the park is designed primarily for tent camping.   Many sites can accommodate trailers, but there are no hookups, no trash collection, and no dump station.   Still, it’s worth the visit just for the view.   (We’re going to check out the Rib Mountain Travel Center nearby tomorrow for a dump station.   When we are courtesy parking a lot, as we have been lately, I use RVdumps.com to find dump stations along the way.)

A little further up the road from our campsite is a large TV transmitting tower and a large wooden tower with three viewing platforms. The top platform puts you above the trees and basically on par with the TV antennas.   Cell phones are obliterated by the interference and don’t work at the top of the platform, as Emma found out when talking to her grandmother, but when you are at the very top of Rib Mountain and looking down at a glorious 360 degree panorama, it doesn’t matter much.   The view is spectacular and I imagine it is particularly good during fall foliage.

The mountain is basically a big hunk of quartzsite, a very hard stone that didn’t erode as fast as the land around it, which is why this is the third-highest point in all of Wisconsin.   The Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Wisconsin are not known for their mountains, and that made our day’s drive somewhat less interesting.   The most interesting part of it was that for several hours we rounded the top of Lake Michigan and yet the water kept appearing off to the left as if it had no end.   You really get a sense of how “great” a Great Lake is when you try to circumscribe even a small part of one.

The other item of interest was of course pasties.   We discovered on a prior visit that the UP is pasty country, those sturdy concoctions of pastry dough and meat, potatoes, and spices.   Pasties actually come in many flavors, but the classic formula seems to be beef with potato.   They are by no means diet food, but everyone can splurge once in a while, right?   We stopped at a local restaurant in one of the small towns along the route and bought one for lunch.   The thing turned out to be so huge that all three of us could have made lunch out of it, but since we actually ordered two other lunches, the pasty became part of tonight’s dinner.

Dinner was necessarily light tonight. Eleanor and Lynn spent Sunday afternoon building an enormous multi-course feast which took the entire evening to consume.   The proposal is that we do this every week when we are all in Arizona this winter, but that’s completely out of the question.   We’d simply explode like Mr. Creosote.   As it is, we’ve been eating a lot of heavy meals and not getting much exercise.   But this morning we left De Tour Village with regret, since our visit was too short.

In addition to eating too much, we are driving too much lately. Today’s drive was a solid 360 miles, a tedious ordeal made somewhat more pleasant by podcasts (including some stories of Canada’s greatest superhero, The Red Panda). We have one more oversized drive ahead of us tomorrow, to Minneapolis, and then we can relax a little.   I will be glad for a few days well away from the car and on a trail, or at least walking around a city.

On the other hand, I have noticed that we will be near the famous SPAM museum in Austin MN later this week.   I may not be able to resist one more splurge. Maybe I can get a SPAM pasty?

De Tour Village & Stalwart, MI

De Tour Village, as its   name implies, is not a town you are likely to pass through on your way to somewhere else.   Situated on the furthest eastern point of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it is the seasonal home of perhaps 420 people, and certainly many fewer in the winter.   The only place further east in Michigan is across the passage by ferry to Drummond Island.

We are here to visit with our friends Charlie and Lynn, fellow Airstream owners, at their home on the north shore of Lake Huron.   Our Airstream is tucked neatly next to their house within about 100 feet of the lake, so that we can hear the waves at night.   De Tour is a place for that sort of recreation.   The “things to do,” by traditional tourist brochure definition, are scarce.   You have to be happy with playing by the lake, relaxing on the deck, socializing … that sort of thing.

Our big activity of the day was to drive 20 minutes through scattered Timothy hay fields to the Presbyterian church in Stalwart, where an all-day “Thanksgiving” supper was being held.   I was amused to see how much it was like the church suppers I remember from growing up in Vermont: lots of white-haired people sitting at round tables with paper plates loaded with country staples, a buffet line staffed by cheery volunteers, racks of different homemade pies for dessert, no music, and plenty of “Good to see you!” type conversation.   We each loaded up a plate with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and vegetables, and proceeded to stuff ourselves.   Then we went back for dessert.   Our choices were chocolate cake, mixed berry pie, chocolate pie, and raisin cream pie, but there were many other flavors.

Just a few steps from the church was the Stalwart County Fair, a 100+ year tradition, and probably the smallest county fair you’ll ever find anywhere.   No rides, no midway, no vendor area, just the classic agricultural elements of county fairs many years ago.   We walked through the cow barn, the horse barn, the crafts & food exhibit, saw the rabbits and chickens, and then (all of 10 minutes later), emerged at the oval track just in time to catch some of the horsepulls.

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Now that’s an impressive sight.   These massive horses pull heavier and heavier loads across a dusty track.   We saw teams of two pulling over 6,000 pounds of concrete, and they hadn’t hit the limit yet.   Judging from the crowd in the grandstand, this was the popular event of the County Fair.

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Now, for tax purposes, I should probably mention that we are not wandering through Michigan just for fun.   If we were, we would have stopped at many places along Lake Michigan’s shoreline on the way up, and we’d be making more stops in the Upper Peninsula on the way west this week.   But we are actually following a fairly rigid schedule of meetings with various people for magazine purposes.   This schedule will draw us to Minneapolis in a few days, 500+ miles away.   Normally we’d take several days to cover that kind of mileage, but circumstances deem that we rush to meet the schedule.   This doesn’t make any of us happy — too much time in the car, not enough sight-seeing — so my compensation is to remind any future tax auditors that this is all a business trip.   We’ll still try to have some fun this weekend, because having fun is not a violation of IRS rules yet.

By the way, we spotted yet another egg-shaped fiberglass trailer on the way through Grandville on Friday, appropriately called “Egg Camper.” It joins the Casita, Scamp, Burro, and Oliver trailer crowd, as well as the now-defunct Boler, Trillium, and Bigfoot, and many other brands of fiberglass RVs.   These things are a cute and aerodynamic option for folks who want something a bit different from the white boxes.   I’ve always liked the rounded fiberglass trailers and almost bought one before we got our first Airstream.   Even today I like to see them.   Their neat and tidy shipboard look is appealing, plus the durability of the streamlined fiberglass exterior.   Perhaps I’m just pining for our Caravel to be back on the road.