Alumapalooza 2010!

sample-promotional-ad.jpgFinally I’m able to reveal a project I’ve been working on for several weeks: Alumapalooza!

For the past two years I’ve helped organize the Vintage Trailer Jam each summer.  I can honestly characterize those two years as a tremendous learning experience, and I mean that in a positive way. VTJ ’08 and ’09 taught me a lot about how to structure an event for the Airstream community.  That’s because we started off with a blank sheet of paper. Steve, Colin, Brett and I talked about what sort of event we’d like to go to, and what we needed to supply, and then we built up the Trailer Jam from there.

The first year we made a lot of mistakes, but the event came off well anyway. People begged us to do it again, so we did.  The second year we made fewer mistakes and it was much easier, but by then the four partners were getting distracted by their core businesses — all of which were feeling the pain of recession — and so we decided to disband the event.

After all the effort, six months of organizing, dealing with a dozen vendors, accountant, tax and incorporation forms, insurance, permits, and sweating in the heat while I helped haul trash — and a thousand other details that weren’t much fun — I thought, “I’ll never do this again.”

But either we’re getting smarter about it, or the passage of time has helped me forget the pain, because now I find myself partnered with Brett to organize an even bigger event next summer.  We call it Alumapalooza 2010.

Actually, the real reason I’m once again plunging into the event business is because I am a believer in the value of re-inventing ideas, starting with blank sheets of paper, and thinking outside the box. (Also, apparently, I’m a believer in business cliches.)  It bugged me that we hadn’t yet perfected the event formula.  On top of that, Brett kept calling me and suggesting we do something completely new.  I think he knew he was hitting a weak spot in my personality.  I couldn’t just leave it alone.

Whatever you call it, there’s value in starting without preconceptions.  That’s what made Alumapalooza possible.  We looked at recent history, and the needs of potential partners, and realized that there was a distinct need we could fill.  See, Airstream used to run “Homecoming” events at the factory in Jackson Center, but they died out, in part because they got too expensive for the company.  By keeping the spirit of Homecoming but re-inventing the structure, we figured out a way to hold a really fun Airstream event that would work for everyone (organizers, participants, Airstream, the village of Jackson Center, and vendors).  We even picked a different name, so that it would be clear we were going for something completely new.

You know when you’ve got a good idea when everyone else starts piling on, the minute you announce it.  That’s a validation clue that I always look for.  First we bounced ideas off each other, and when we had a concept that felt good, we took it to Airstream.  They loved it, so we told a few other people.  Next thing we knew, we were getting ideas and assistance from the village, the local businesses, the Airstream club, Airstream vendors, and even Airstream Europe!  While not everyone can get everything they want, we have explored every avenue that has opened, and I would guess that about one-third of the new ideas have become part of the event.

So, Alumapalooza is being organized by Brett and I, but that just means our main job is to bring everyone else together.  The real contribution is coming from many others.  At last count, four of the Airstream service and management staff are planning to attend and give talks.  Ultimately I expect we’ll have six or seven from the factory.  Eleven other people have agreed to deliver seminars and slide shows, too, coming from all parts of the US, including Airstream Life contributors Bert Gildart, J. Rick Cipot, Jody Brotherston, and Forrest McClure.

We have already lined up several vendors who will be giving demonstrations and selling products — and I expect many more to sign up in the coming months.  David Winick just signed up for a vendor space this morning, and Michael Depraida joined a few days ago.  David is contributing some of his fancy custom screen door guards as door prizes, and Michael is contributing his fun “Artstream” t-shirts.  The village of Jackson Center is making an incredible contribution with their concurrent event downtown, called “Jackson Center Community Days.” They’re giving us an advance purchase rate on ride wristbands.  A nearby hotel is offering us a special rate for those who are not staying in their Airstream.

And of course the biggest contribution comes from the people who are attending.  Hardly a day goes by now where I don’t hear from someone who plans to bring something cool (a restored vintage trailer, some art, a door prize, some special food, etc.) or who has a good idea.  Our community is filled with interesting people who all add something good to the whole.  Even people who can’t attend due to schedule conflicts are helping out, like our friends the “executive hobos” Alex and Charon.

One of the big “blank sheet of paper” ideas that we’ve implemented is to invite everyone, regardless of what brand of RV they own.  We figure if you want to show up at the Airstream factory, you’re probably interested in learning more about Airstreams.  You don’t have to own an Airstream to subscribe to Airstream Life, so why limit attendance at Alumapalooza to only people who own Airstreams?  It’s the common interest in the lifestyle that binds us together. We’ve already got a couple in a vintage fiberglass Trillium trailer planning to come.  Diversity makes life interesting.  And yeah, we’ll probably get some of those “other brand” owners to buy Airstreams in the future!

Another idea is self-parking.  Most rallies I’ve gone to have had dedicated volunteers who direct you to parking.  We’ve taking a big leap and set up a self-parking system.  That saves half a dozen people from having to spend all day, every day, in the hot sun waiting for trailers to arrive.  We all park ourselves at every campground we go to; why can’t we park ourselves at Alumapalooza?  Of course we can!

Yet another idea is flexible attendance dates.  Some people only can show up for the weekend, others are free to spend the entire week.  We’ve set up the registration form so you can choose whether you want 3, 4, or 5 days on site, and you only pay for the days you want.

More ideas?  How about online registration: The whole system is automated, saving paper, labor, and time.  Online registration means you can pay by credit card, get instant directions from Google Maps, join up with other attendees via Facebook or AirForums, and shop for Alumapalooza merchandise.  Plus, it allows us to hold down the event price since we don’t need someone to process registrations.  Pretty much everyone has access to a computer these days, but if someone doesn’t we can still take a registration via phone (802-877-2900 extension 4).

And another idea:  why not let kids come free?  They don’t take up much space, they add excitement, and it makes attendance a lot easier for younger Airstreamers with families. So we set that policy too.  It worked very well at the Vintage Trailer Jam.

It’s fun, building a new paradigm (whoops, there goes another business cliche!)  Tearing down the old way of doing things makes sense if you’re willing to build something up in its place. Dreaming up ways to make a better mousetrap (cliche #5) is like a game once you get rolling:  how many ways I can think up to improve my product? It makes the job more exciting.  Each new idea that works is like the thrill of finding an Easter Egg. This is a game that any small business owner can play.

Now that we’ve gone public and launched registration, I can talk a little about what goes on behind the scenes.  As things progress, I plan to write about the little lessons learned and how it’s going.  We still have six months before the event, so there’s a lot of work yet to do, and many interesting challenges undoubtedly lie ahead.  I hope we’ll see you at Alumapalooza next summer!

The story of the Caravel

It has been a long time since we last camped in our first Airstream, a 1968 Caravel.  I suppose that a first trailer holds the same romantic spot in one’s heart as the first love, the first car, or the first house.  It may not be the best one you’ll ever have, but it will always be the one that started you off on a road of adventure and travel.

Owning the Caravel was a life-changing moment for us.  Emma was only three, and I was in another career.  We had muddled our way through a few marginally-acceptable “family vacations” with the usual stresses and disappointments that go with shuttling a toddler around with aircraft and hotels.  I was looking for a better way, and after months of research, I settled on the Caravel as something worth trying.  We plunked down $5,500 and bought a car that could tow it, and struck out for a few trips together.

It was a hit — a huge hit.  Between August 1 and October 12, we were out in the Caravel 20 nights, which is a lot for a rookie couple with a toddler and a full-time job.  We camped at the biggest balloon festival in Canada, visited Acadia National Park in Maine, and explored numerous places in New England.  I was so entranced by the lifestyle that I started Airstream Life magazine. It was a sad day when we had to finally winterize the trailer in mid-October (Vermont has a short camping season).

Since that 1968 Caravel, we have owned a series of other trailers, each with its own particular character and advantages.  The 1977 Argosy 24, for example was a wonderful “upgrade” from the Caravel, with much more space and modern comforts.  It was my first involvement in a full-blown DIY trailer restoration, starting from a severely water-damaged and virtually abandoned mess found in a damp Florida backyard.  Together with Brett, we put half a year of restoration work, 600 hours of labor, and over $22,000 in parts into it.  We sold it only because we had begun to travel full-time and needed more space.

A lot of other trailers have passed through our hands, some which we used and some which we re-sold without restoring despite their obvious assets.  The 1953 Flying Cloud we found was a great trailer with a lot of potential, and so was the 1952 Cruiser … and the 1952 Boles Aero, and the 1963 Serro Scotty.  All of those have found good homes and are either restored or in process.  But we never adopted any of them in our hearts like the tiny 1968 Caravel.  At just 17 feet, it is really too small for us to co-exist in it for long, and it had a lot of body damage and vintage quirks.  Caravels are regarded as highly desirable, and we could have sold it easily at any time, probably for a profit.   Yet, we kept it for sentimental reasons.

For the last five years the Caravel has been disassembled for restoration, with its guts torn out.  We brought it in for a replacement axle in 2004 and discovered rampant floor rot, among many other problems.  The scope of the job kept growing until we found ourselves with $18,000 sunk into the trailer, and completion still far away.  The project came to a stop in 2005 and for the most part, the trailer has sat since, tightly sealed against the elements and wholly unusable.

In the summer of 2008 I finally decided to start the Caravel project again, but using my own labor (with Eleanor’s help) to complete the interior work.  You can read about that in our Tour of America blog.  We got about 80% of the woodwork done before we ran out of time.   This summer, I had an invitation from my good friend Ken Faber to let his private restoration shop complete the job for me.  (That same shop restored Ken’s one-of-a-kind Airstream named “Der Kleine Prinz” which was recently donated to the RV/Motorhome Hall of Fame.)

img_3307_2.jpgEven in the final stages, a restoration means lots of phone calls and debates about details.  We thought we had all the hard work behind us, but still there were the details of things like hooks, hinges, trim and handles.  These items seem small until you get them wrong, then you realize how important they really are.  For the past few months we’ve been figuring out faucets, fabric, foam cushions, and finishes, and passing along all the information by phone to the guys who are doing the work.

And now, the trailer is nearly complete.  Only the upholstery work remains.  From a scratched, dented, rotting, and rusted (but well-loved) trailer, it is emerging as a shiny, clean and ship-shape silver pod that I can’t wait to sleep in. Ken has been teasing us with a few scattered pictures of the work in progress, and we made one interim visit back in September, but for the most part we haven’t seen the finished product yet.

img_3306_2.jpgEverything will be done  in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be off to Michigan to pick up the trailer.  So right now I’m thinking about all the things I’ll need in the car to outfit the trailer for the return trip to Tucson.  It’s a more challenging pack job than you might think.  I need to bring all of my personal stuff, my office stuff (so I can work from the road), all the furnishings for daily life like dishes and blankets, tools & parts, RV supplies, and work clothes for two days I’ll be stopped in Louisville KY for business.  All of this will go into bins in the back of the Mercedes for the 2,200 mile drive north.

Of this list, perhaps the most important is the tool kit.  Completely restored trailers always have bugs to work out.  I may have to tighten a water fitting, replace some screws, or re-rivet a corner of the belly pan.  When the trailer was new to us (35 years old), I was rather accustomed to having to fix or patch something on every trip.  Paradoxically, at age 41 it should be more sturdy now. I wish that were true of people.

In the photos you can see a few details of the trailer that came about in this restoration.  Colin Hyde oversaw the heavy work, handling all the exterior sheet metal replacement, removing the dents on top, adding a spare tire carrier, rebuilding the entry door, and many other things.  Inside he installed a new plywood floor covered by Marmoleum, rebuilt the black tank, and refinished the entire bathroom.  The Marmoleum was a big expense but I’m glad we chose it.  It is incredibly durable and beautiful material.  You can also see the new refrigerator (no more frozen lettuce and miniature ice cube trays!), the new catalytic heater, and the Marmoleum countertop. All of the furniture you can see in the photo was built and finished by us in summer 2008, and finalized & installed by Ken’s guys, Garrett and Jim. They did a nice job fitting the Marmoleum to the countertop and building matching wood trim for it.

What you can’t see is all new plumbing, a giant gray tank, new insulation throughout, new axle, brakes, tires, dump valves, window seals, wiring, power converter, battery, 12v breaker panel, window glass, door locks, and a thousand other details that have gone into this trailer.  Like every good restoration I’ve ever seen, it has turned out better than hoped, and certainly much more expensive.

Now the question arises, what would anyone do with two Airstreams?   We had considered keeping one in the northeast for excursions up there in the summer, but for various reasons that idea failed.  We plan to keep the Caravel in locked storage in the Tucson area, somewhat pre-packed and readily accessible for spontaneous weekends.  The sky islands in southern Arizona are mostly national forest lands, and they are dotted with gorgeous little campgrounds connected by dirt roads. These roads and campgrounds can generally only accommodate trailers of the sub-20-foot variety.  That has kept us from exploring some great places in southern Arizona, like Chiricahua National Monument and the surrounding area.

We could have tented in those places, but when we are usually in Arizona the national forest campgrounds are cold because of their high elevation.  A little Airstream with snug insulation and a catalytic heater is the perfect vehicle.  It’s also the right choice for short trips where we want to get away from the “liveaboard” lifestyle that the big Safari allows, and get closer to a sense of “camping”.  In the big trailer, it’s too easy to hole up inside, since it is so comfortable.  The size of the Caravel forces us to live outside, and that’s a good thing when you want to engage your surroundings.

All of this anticipation has me actually looking forward to the marathon drive north after Thanksgiving.  I plan to go alone; that way I can move quickly. If all goes well I’ll be back in a 10 or 11 days, but since I hate being on a tight schedule I will pack for two weeks and take my time on the way back if necessary.  Want to come along?   OK, cross your fingers and join me here for daily updates, starting November 28.

All Souls Procession

dsc_3613.jpgIn the southwest, the dead are very much with us, as they reputedly are in southeastern cities like Savannah and New Orleans.  Influence from south of the border brings the dead close to us, particularly at this time of year, when the Mexicans observe El Día de los Muertos, or The Day Of The Dead.

The dead are not scary here.  They are remembered as loved ones who have moved on, and even in their skeletal form they are looked upon fondly.  It can be a little startling to a northerner to see altars in shops and homes featuring little skeletons dressed in their best clothes, alongside incense and gifts and remembrances.  But to many people here, the dead are still family and their graves are places to visit.

Between October 31 and November 2, Mexican families in southern Arizona will go to their relatives’ gravesites and honor them.  They’ll sweep the site and decorate it with gifts and flowers.  They’ll repaint the name of the deceased on the cross, and perhaps spend the entire day visiting.  The dead are remembered well, and their final resting places are not neglected.

So it is not surprising that Tucson (along with some other western cities) has several cultural events around this time. The biggest is the All Souls Procession, a 20-year tradition that looks like a mashup of Mardi Gras and Halloween, with a touch of Burning Man thrown in.  At first impression it is a parade, with a route starting in Tucson’s funky Fourth Avenue district and winding through downtown Tucson past the historic Congress Hotel and Rialto Theater, for a mile and half.

dsc_3582.jpgBut the All Souls Procession is more than a parade for many people.  Those who walk in the route run the gamut.  There are artistic displays, actors on stilts and unicycles, fantastic costumes, and even a “dead” array of marching bagpipers.  There are also individuals waving photos of dear friends now gone and shouting out a description of their good character, and people waving posters of their dearly-departed cats.  There are families pushing strollers, with even the children wearing skeletal face paint, and slackers slouching along with clove cigarettes in their street clothes.

Good wishes to the dead can be written on a form provided by the organizers, and burned in an altar at the end of the procession, but there is no formality at all to the proceedings.  Whatever sort of remembrance or mourning you wish to do is generally accepted, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the other people.

dsc_3693.jpgWhen we arrived at the parade route along Congress Street we were reminded of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but then the differences began to appear.  The streets are not littered with drunk celebrants. There’s no screams of “throw me something, Mister!” or people flashing their body parts for trinkets.  All Souls is a subdued celebration, and a family event.  Anyone can participate.  Dozens of people walked the parade route pushing baby strollers. There are signs of respect for the dead, and respectful protest (“Iraqi war dead,” “Death of the Pima County Library,” “Men, Women, and Children Killed By AIDS”).  And just when it starts to feel like a carnival, somebody walks by with a somber look carrying a photo of a friend mounted on posterboard, with a list of that person’s wonderful attributes.

In this culture, people die three deaths. The first death is when bodies cease to function, the second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground and disappears from sight, and the third death is when there is no one left alive to remember.

I think there’s something in that.  It is habitual for some to forget the dead and never speak of them again.  But when you forget someone, all the lessons and experiences that person brought to your life are just as easily forgotten.  El Día de los Muertos reminds everyone, especially the children, that the dead are more than markers in a graveyard; they are the people who made us who we are.  I can see why the Latin American culture respects them every year.

More photos here.

My week in tweets

From time to time in the course of a friendly conversation I’ll be asked why I don’t have a Facebook page, or why I don’t “tweet” on Twitter.  A lot of my friends do, and I certainly am happy that they are having a good time doing it.  Generally I give the quick and easy explanation that I have this blog, the Airstream Life web store, a photo/video site, and considerable email correspondence to keep me glued to the computer.  I don’t really want any more.  Besides, if there’s something you wanted to know about me that isn’t already revealed somewhere in the past five years of blogging (Vintage Thunder, Tour of America, Man In The Maze) then you are probably getting a little too close and personal.

Now that I think of it, that does seem to be exactly what people want.  I mean, how many Twitter feeds are out there where people are talking about what they are eating right at that very moment?  Twitter celebrates the mundane moments of our lives and encourages narcissism for even the most boring people. If you can convince friends and family to “follow me on Twitter!” you’ve created an audience for any sort of blather you might generate.  You can tweet away in 160-character bursts, secure in the knowledge that all of those subscribers are forced to receive the latest news about your manicure or even your bowel movements.

Well, that’s true at least until people wise up.  It’s as easy to tune out the noise as it is to sign up in the first place. For that reason, and because of a little business intuition, I will predict that the popular tweet-fest will subside rather rapidly soon, and the media will move on shortly, as they did with MySpace (remember them?) and dozens of others.

The gist of Twitter is that you can bore people, er, I mean “communicate with people,” in succinct 160-character notes.  Because you can Twitter right from your mobile phone, you can do this all day long as you go through the motions of any day in the developed world.  But I figure we can do one better than Twitter.  With blog technology, I can give you all the tweets you’ve been dying for, all at once.  In other words, why sit by your computer awaiting the next tidbit of my fascinating life, when you can sign in right now and get the week’s worth of news in one easy session?

So without delaying you even one more second (because we’re operating on “Internet time” and even ten seconds is too long to expect anyone to wait), here’s my week in tweets:

Back from Copperstate Fly-In.  3 tries to get Airstream in carport. Embarrassing.

Found more mouse droppings in kitchen.  Can you say “hantavirus?”  LOL

Looking for yellow tape at Lowe’s to mark carport.  Maybe now E can back me in straight.

Eleanor back from grocery store.  $200, and she used coupons!  But got apple cider so I’m happy.

@bnsf  Yes, she bought mouse traps too.

Can’t sleep waiting for SNAP sound all night. Why don’t they just leave voluntarily?

Why did the diesel pump at Fry’s shut off when my tank was just 5/8s full?

Remembered cider gives me gas. ROTFL.  Actually, not exactly laughing.

Cold snap in Tucson:

8 presenters signed up so far for next year’s trailer event.  Woo-hoo!

Emma’s bat costume is nearly ready.  I’m squirreling away Butterfingers & Snickers for myself.

Planning solo trip to Louisville starting Nov 28.  Anyone need a trailer hauled from the southwest?

Cleaning Weber grill with heavy tools.  Last night’s salmon stuck to it.  Not LOL.

@lrko  No sauce, just Deep South Tangerine Pepper dry rub.  Sprayed the grill but it stuck anyway.

Winter 2009 issue of Airstream Life printed today. Should be in mail in a week or so.  YMMV

Car show in Tucson:  Cops and Rodders. Shot 100+ pics.

Eleanor’s new MacBook arrived.  Logic board and hard drive dead on old iBook G4.  (4sale)

About 40 kids for Halloween.  Nice warm night.  Then I watched The Big Lebowski.

And there you have it.  Fascinating, eh?  An utter failure to inform in a meaningful way, and a nearly-complete failure to entertain, in easily-digested bursts of 160 characters or less.

There’s a lot of credence given to the theory that “today’s generation” doesn’t read, doesn’t have an attention span, respects only what they read online, etc.  People point to the failure of daily newspapers all over the country as evidence that someday, everything will be online.  Maybe it will be.  But that day will be a long time coming.  There’s still value in old media.

Perhaps I’m biased as a publisher of a print magazine, but I don’t think so.  After all, I’ve introduced an online version of Airstream Life.  I believe in the value of online as a new medium.  My suspicion starts when people assume that semi-literate yakking about trivia will replace deliberate thought.  No, Twitter won’t replace the beauty of good composition, exchange of intellect, a well-researched report, or meaningful debate.  (Daily newspapers could have remained relevant in an online-oriented world, if they had less arrogance about their exalted position in society, and more willingness to re-invent themselves to suit the modern competitive environment.)

For many people, tweeting is a way to have their own little reality show.  Like “reality TV,” the only compelling stories are faked, exaggerated, staged, or incited.  Some people are happy to fight with their spouses (or someone else’s spouse, a la Wife Swap) on TV for money.  Most of us would prefer to keep that sort of thing private.  It’s the same with Twitter: those who have something to promote or gain will contribute, and many of them will lie or tell only the truth that suits them; the rest will be boring.  Very few people have the ability to say anything interesting and true in 160 characters.

But now everyone, regardless of talent or motivation, can have their own communications channel to the world.  It’s like blogging, except that the signal-to-noise ratio is much worse. There’s not much chance of meaningful value being conveyed with a tweet.

So now you know the real reason I don’t use Twitter.  I could break down my day into 160-character blips, but the nuance and richness of life, the exploration of ideas, the ability to invoke emotion and sway opinion, and much more would be lost.  As a writer, I can’t find satisfaction in writing only shallow phrases, while foregoing sentences and paragraphs.  As an editor, it’s hard for me to respect the content that comes through the Twitter stream. The pen is still mightier than the sword, but only for those who know how to use it.

PS: If you comment on this blog entry, please restrict your thoughts to 160 characters or less!