Hudsonville, MI

Whenever we go to Jackson Center it seems there is not enough time to do the fun things.   After half a dozen visits, I have yet to see Neil Armstrong’s museum, the Bicycle Museum, or go to The Spot To Eat.   We came to the Airstream factory for some service, but I ended up meeting up with a bunch of people from management, and the next thing we knew it was 3 pm and too late to start the drive to Grand Rapids.   So we spent another night in the Terra Port.   It has been rather hot the past few days, and a cool shower and relaxing evening in the trailer with the air conditioning on seemed like a better move than five hours in the car, especially since the driver (me) was tired.

The Terra Port was somewhat lonely this time.   We never saw more than four trailers parked there during our visit.   One of them was the folks who sold us our first Airstream, the Caravel.   We seem to run into them every year, since we all travel in similar patterns of rallies and seasons. Despite the quietude of the camping area, the service bays were mostly full with long-term projects, so it’s not quiet inside the shop.

The axle alignment and brake check came to about $350. The axles were indeed off in their camber.   Both left and right sides measured at the extreme ends of the permissible range.   Now they are adjusted right to the middle of the range.   The brakes got a clean bill of health.

This morning we pressed onward, to the area around Grand Rapids MI.   We had two stops, one for business, and the other to see the Caravel undergoing restoration.   The Caravel looks very good although far from complete.   The exterior has been polished and needs just one more buffing to look really great.   The interior is still mostly empty while the guys figure out some wiring problems, but already the replacement bathroom closets that I made last summer have been installed.   We consulted for about half an hour on some decisions, snapped some photos of the work in progress, and that was about it.

Tonight we are courtesy parking in Hudsonville, just outside Grand Rapids.   This town is known as “The Salad Bowl of Michigan,” for the rich black soil that encourages vegetable farming.   From where we are parked, it’s hard to envision fields of anything growing, because we are in an older mixed residential/urban area for the night, on asphalt.   We are parked behind a former car dealership with permission of the owner, who has become a new friend.

We invited him to join us at Steak’n’Shake tonight (I know, big spenders) to share our celebratory dinner. This is our 16th wedding anniversary.   You might think that sleeping in an Airstream behind a former car dealership in Michigan owned by a guy we never met in person before today, and eating dinner at Steak’n’Shake constitutes perhaps the weirdest anniversary celebration ever, but trust me, in our marriage they’re all weird.

Homecoming in Jackson Center

 A few years ago Airstream ran “Homecoming” events here in Jackson Center OH on the grounds of the Airstream factory.   Those Homecomings have ceased — victims of economics — but every time we come here I feel like we’ve come back to home in a way.   This is where our Airstream was born in 2005.   Since we first took ownership of it, the trailer has touched the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, climbed the Continental Divide in both the US and Canada, and roamed from the Florida Keys to Vancouver … and every year we bring it back here to the place where it all began.

The guys in the service center here at Airstream see trailers come in from every corner of the continent, each one displaying little hints of the thousands of miles of travel it has seen.   Ours is no exception.   They’ve fixed damage from the wheel that came off in Idaho, the trim that I scraped off near Quartzsite, and the TV antenna I mangled in Tucson.   I think the guys in the Service Center like seeing trailers with some bumps and bruises to show that the product really does get used in all sorts of circumstances, just the way that they are designed to be.

We came here for an axle alignment, but my list has grown a little longer since.   Last night we had a long steady rain and we noticed a little bit of a leak near the bathroom vent.   I’m also wondering if I should have the wheels pulled for a disk brake check.   Probably will.   That will mean I have to stop three times along the highway as we depart, to re-torque the lug nuts, but that’s far better than running the brake pads too thin.   We’ve had problems in the past with the calipers seizing, so at the very least I’d like to know that they are all operating as designed.

It also feels a little like home because of the greeting we get now.   Just after we arrived, I snuck into Dave Schumann’s office to catch up on things with him, and people kept dropping by.   Each one said the same thing, “I didn’t know you were here!” and I got a big genuine smile from all of them.   I don’t see most of these folks more than once a year, so it felt nice that they remembered me.   Several people also asked about Eleanor and Emma, who were at that moment off in downtown Jackson Center getting some laundry done.   Airstream is a small company with a family feel to it, and so it is easy to get to know and like all of the people who work here.

Dave commented on the axle problem cautiously. Until the trailer is examined, we don’t know for sure that the alignment is at fault, but it seems like the only possibility.   We talked about the typical causes of mis-alignment and some more radical theories, but came to no definite conclusions.

On the way over here, I inadvertently tested the limits of the GL320’s fuel capacity.   I was not paying careful attention to our fuel status until we hit 1/4 tank, and at that point we were in a part of Ohio where cornfields are plentiful and towns with fuel pumps are not.   The first place we found did not sell diesel, and we ended up in Kenton OH with the fuel gauge at the “E” mark.   The computer had ceased estimating our remaining driving range about ten miles earlier.   I know that running a diesel out of fuel can be extremely problematic, and it was a sweaty drive the last few miles.   We pumped 27.1 gallons into a tank that is specified to take 26.4 gallons plus a 3.4 gallon reserve.   That was way too close for towing purposes, but at least now I know what we can get away with.

Tomorrow morning at 7 a.m the John Deere tractor will arrive to tow our trailer into the service bays, so we’ve prepped most of the trailer tonight. It will be a typical service center start to the day, tumble out of bed, quickly pack the last few things and disconnect the utilities, and then stand by while the crew gets to work.   We’re planning to stay at Airstream through the lunch hour, and “if all goes well” we will head out in the afternoon for the Grand Rapids MI area.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH

Although we are seekers of adventure, it is nice to occasionally report that our drives are uneventful. Such was the case from Buffalo to Ohio, where we are now courtesy parked next to our friends’ home southwest of Cleveland.

However, I did notice some odd tire wear on the right side wheels, and I think it may be related to axle alignment.   We’re going to detour down to Jackson Center, home of Airstream, on Tuesday to have them check the axles and align if necessary.   I’ll have some questions for them about this, since these axles were newly installed in December and have only about 7,000 miles on them to date.   Seems too soon to be needing an alignment, and we haven’t hit any big potholes or curbs.   Once I know more I’ll report on the issue further.

We are parked in Ohio for the Labor   Day weekend, just chilling out with some local friends.   Yesterday’s primary activity was a visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one we’ve missed on all the other times we’ve passed this way.   It’s a beautiful area of small villages lined along the Cuyahoga River (the one that was famous for catching on fire forty years ago) and the historic Ohio & Erie Canal. There’s little trace of the Cuyahoga’s “grossly polluted” past now, except for limitations suggested on the eating of fish caught in the river.   Some species still have lead and mercury in them.   Otherwise, the valley is a beautifully scenic area with a tourist train, charming villages and historic sites, an excellent multi-use trail along the former canal towpath, hikes, waterfalls, and even a tiny ski area.

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dsc_2003.jpgThe Junior Ranger program at this park seems to require three separate visits, a week apart, so Emma could not participate.   That’s the first time we’ve ever seen such a requirement. There’s one badge that won’t make her collection.   She did, however, get to help operate a restored lock on the canal for a demonstration.

A bunch of Airstream buddies are expected to show up tonight for a group dinner.   Lou says we are celebrating the anniversary of the hot dog being unveiled at some World’s Fair, but I’m pretty sure that’s a ruse.   The theme of the weekend seems to be more about just hanging out.   Larry and I have tackled a few small tasks, like washing the Airstream and adjusting the grease fittings on the replacement hitch head, but otherwise we’ve avoided work like most Americans in anticipation of “Labor Day.”

Culinary note:   Lou introduced Emma and I to peanut butter & mayo sandwiches.   The whole idea was so horrible-sounding that we had to try it.   The strange thing is, it’s really not half bad.   I’m not wild about them but have to admit that the flavor combination actually works. Try it at your own risk.

Routing note:   Our plans have been completely re-arranged in the past week.   We are now heading to Jackson Center OH, then Grand Rapids MI, then the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then somewhere in northern Wisconsin, and then the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.   We’re looking for courtesy parking or camping suggestions in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.

I-90, Buffalo, NY

I know that a few of you are wondering if we made it off on schedule, given the little glitches that often pop up after a long stay parked in one location.   We did.   Our departure from Vermont was about an hour later than I would have liked, but considering all the last-minute packing and sad goodbyes, it wasn’t too bad.

The only mechanical glitch I found was that one of the Airstream tires was about 7 psi underinflated, which is suspicious since I checked and inflated all the tires only a month ago.   I’ll be watching that one, or at least my tire monitor will.   The replacement hitch has been flawless, so no complaints there.   We had fabulous weather all day across the Adirondack region of New York, and then zipping along I-90 west, and everyone was feeling comfortable in the car, so we pulled the Airstream about 350 miles and ended up parked near Buffalo.

The back of the Airstream, where it was backed in close to a stand of big cedar trees, is still covered in spider webs and tree debris.   The whole trailer badly needs a wash, but I’m not sure when we’ll get to that.   Our travel schedule is developing and it looks potentially hectic for a while.   I’m working on a new project which requires me to meet with a lot of new people.   As a result, we’ll be heading to Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, Denver, and Colorado Springs at the least.   Since we have to connect Grand Rapids to Minneapolis, we are thinking of taking the extra 200 miles to go north around Lake Michigan instead of south, and having a much more pleasant trip.   (I had thought we’d be in South Dakota in two weeks, but now that plan is looking iffy.)

The ability to travel like this for business is a huge benefit of owning the Airstream, at least for me.   I know most people have them strictly for recreation, but there is a significant percentage of owners who use them for business purposes.   Why not?   When you’ve got a lot of people to see, it’s a great way to travel.   To replicate all these visits via air, I’d end up flying a dozen flight segments back and forth from home base, packing and unpacking my bags every few days, eating road food constantly, and wrestling with airline schedules.

Plus, traveling the “normal” way by air, with hotels, restaurants, tips, taxis, rental cars, etc., it would cost a whole lot more.   We can afford to take an extra week to meander through the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin and still spend less than a typical three-day business trip.     And as plans change — which they are doing on a daily basis right now — we can adapt without getting into cancellations and reservations hassles.   I really would not be able to run this business if I could not travel cheaply.   That seems to be perfectly appropriate: traveling in the Airstream enables the business that celebrates Airstream travel.

But the real payoff is the quality of life.   As I type this in my rolling home, and the sun rises, I can see my daughter sleeping peacefully in her bed, and I can see Eleanor snuggled into the comforter at the other end of the Airstream.   Soon Eleanor will be making coffee and we’ll all have breakfast together.   I can’t put a price on how great it is to be able to spend every day with these two people, while I travel for business.   That’s a perk that no five-star hotel can replace.

Clearing out

Now that our “usual pre-trip delay” hurdle has been passed, we are entering the other pre-trip phase, where everything happens at once.

Today the replacement Hensley hitch arrived, 99 lbs. of steel in a big box.   The poor UPS guy is expected to be able to move around boxes up to 150 lbs, but I took pity on him and together we carried it over to the Airstream.   Removal of the old hitch and installation of the new one took me about 30 minutes, working solo.   It’s pretty easy when you know how — and after several years of ownership and on-the-road repairs, I’ve become rather well acquainted with the workings of the thing.   My trick for easy installation was to use a hydraulic floor jack to raise the hitch into place.   The job required just two wrenches (for adjusting and tightening the grease zerks), some paper towels, a few shots from the grease gun, and a couple of plastic bags to contain the greasy parts.

So now we are once again toting a classic “Hensley orange” blob on the front of the Airstream.   That won’t last.   The paint never does on these things.   It fades and gets dinged by road debris.   Once we get to Tucson I’ll sand it down bare and give it a really good paint job.   But at least at this point we should be completely functional again, towing-wise.

Eleanor has been out most of the day doing her final grocery shopping, which always starts a comedy routine between us.   She approaches a departure as if we were a submarine going out on patrol under the Atlantic, and fills every conceivable space with food.   “We’re going to be on the road for two months,” she says.   Then I comment that we can easily go for a few weeks on the food stored in this trailer, and there’s no need.   We’re in America.   There are grocery stores everywhere.   Eleanor’s rejoinder will be that in some places she can’t get the stuff she wants, or that it will be more expensive in many of the podunk locations we frequent, and I have to admit that this is true.   If we lived on Twinkies and soda, or if we ate out every meal like many travelers do, we’d be all set, but Eleanor cooks our meals and I can’t complain about that.   So inevitably she wins the debate and I spend a few days tip-toeing around bags of miscellaneous groceries that don’t quite fit into the storage spaces.   My “revenge,” if you can call it that, is asking for whatever I want to eat for dinner and having a very high expectation of getting it.

At the same time Eleanor is acquiring a trunk-load of food, she is also trying to get rid of certain things.   Right now we all have frosty cold virgin pina coladas to sip because she wanted to use up the last of the Coco Lopez.   One never knows exactly what will be on the dinner table the night before one of our departures, but if you guessed “leftovers” you’d probably be right 90% of the time.

My routine before departure is to check all my “to-do” lists, all the corners where tasks have piled up, and try to resolve as many things as possible.   This is a nuisance but easier than dealing with some things when we’re trying to move fast.   The next two days will be mostly driving, as we head to Ohio, and I will not be in the mood to break out my battery-powered printer, stamps, and envelopes in the evening.   It’s amazing what I can find in here when I start looking for half-finished projects.   Today for example, I paid an overdue parking ticket from Madison WI, renewed a car registration, shipped back license plates for the Honda Accord and 1952 Airstream Cruiser we sold (now property of a famous movie star), arranged UPS pickup of the old Hensley hitch, mailed off a check deposit, scanned a whole heap of paper, and dealt with a dozen other odds and ends.

Now the slate is pretty clean.   I still have work to do but at least I can drive down I-90 with a peaceful head, not worrying about 1,001 details.   We still have plenty of re-packing and cleaning to do, and that will get completed first thing tomorrow morning.   The finishing touch on the interior will be when I haul a powerful vacuum cleaner in here and follow up with a good hands-and-knees floor mopping.   We won’t get another chance to clean that well for at least a month.

Tonight we are having a small “farewell” dinner, although to be honest it won’t be much different from an ordinary evening.   Eleanor is making cannolis for dessert, and we’ve got a birthday card for my mother, whose actual birthday we will miss by a few days.   The real dynamic in this evening will be our guests, who are arriving after dinner with their three small children. The first and only time we ever met Chuck H and his family was at Jamaica State Park about five years ago.   At that point they were two adults and one baby in an Avion, but today they are a family of five in a popup.   They have made the trip all the way up from Long Island today specifically to catch us before we leave.   A family that size needs an Airstream Safari 30 bunkhouse, like we have, and they want to take a look at ours.

It’s too far to drive just to see an Airstream, so they’ll spend a few days in northern Vermont exploring what we have.   Eleanor and I will point them to a few good things to do with kids and hopefully they will have a wonderful time in the fine late-summer weather here by Lake Champlain.     It certainly is fabulous weather — the sort of dry, lightly breezy, sunny, and pleasant day that is normally the hallmark of late August and September here.   I’ve been waiting for this to come for two months, but we’ve been cursed with lots of rain and abominable amounts of humidity, until very recently.   With friends coming to town and this excellent climate, it is tempting to stay a few more days.

That, however, cannot happen.   We have made a promise to good friends in Ohio that will be there for the Labor Day weekend, and we intend to keep that promise.   Also, we’ve been here seven weeks, and we are reaching the end of our shelf-life.   A famous saying claims that houseguests are like fish, in that they begin to stink after three days.   When the houseguest comes in their own Airstream, the shelf-life is longer, but there’s still a point at which you should voluntarily go.   Seven or eight weeks is enough for us to have a really good visit, engage in all the annual rituals, and see everyone at least three times, and yet depart before people begin to wish we would.   That way they’ll look forward to us coming back next summer.

If all goes well — and you know how fatal that saying can be — we shall be moving down the road by about 10 a.m. Thursday.   Where we end up Thursday night is a matter to be resolved on the fly.   And that’s the way I like it.   Adventure lies ahead.   See you on the road.