They’re blowing up the bridge

champlain-bridge-map.jpgSince 1929, when New York Governor Franklin D Roosevelt inaugurated it, the Champlain Bridge has been the preferred way to get across the southern portion of Lake Champlain — and tomorrow (Monday, December 27, 2009), they’re going to blow it up.

Lake Champlain runs about 140 miles north-south, dividing New York and Vermont.  It’s the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the US (right after the five Great Lakes), and quite deep at up to 400 feet, but most people have never heard of it.  I grew up on the shoreline of this lake and it’s not too much to say that it has been a defining element of my life. In addition to being recreation, scenery, and weather-maker for lakeside residents, Lake Champlain is a barrier between the Adirondack region of upstate New York and most of Vermont.

I remember as a child looking at the broad lake, which was three miles wide where we lived. To me it was an ocean, crossable only by a grand voyage in a ship.  Beyond lay the uncharted land of New York, which I had rarely seen on foot.  One day I heard there was a “bridge over Lake Champlain,” and for months I had dreams of a mythical bridge that somehow crossed miles of open water.

There are a few ways to cross the lake.  There’s a boring causeway bridge over the shallower part of the lake up by Rouses Point NY, near the Canadian border.  Several ferries cross the lake at various points, and a very short bridge crosses the extreme southern end where the lake peters out to a mere canal.  But in the middle, where the the lake is wider, the Champlain Bridge has been the well-worn path for decades, joining the rural town of Chimney Point, VT with Crown Point, NY.

It was an amusing surprise when I first found it during a random exploration at age 18 with my VW.  After all those years of knowing that there was a bridge over Lake Champlain, but not knowing where it was, I felt like I’d found a secret passage.  The bridge was nothing like I expected.  Rather than being long and flat, it was dramatically arched and crossed the lake at a narrow spot (1/2 mile).  But that made it even more fun.  I was happy to pay the $0.50 toll and for the first time, drive my little 1967 VW Bug over the lake to New York state.  (The one-way toll was discontinued in 1987.)

champlain-bridge-view-from-top.jpgEvery time I’ve crossed the Champlain Bridge since, I’ve been struck by its uniqueness and beauty.  It rises steeply up, hundreds of feet above the water, far higher than necessary since no tall ships can navigate this shallow part of the lake.  For some, the sharp rise brings a touch of vertigo, which is exacerbated by the narrowness of the bridge. Just two 1930’s-era lanes cross the bridge, so that as you are carefully studying the painted lines, you are also intimately acquainted with fellow bridge travelers heading the other way.

From the top, the view is always spectacular, like riding to the top of a Ferris wheel.  The lake tends to be calmer at this shallow channel, with gently rippling and brilliant blue water lined by pine trees and backdropped by the Adirondacks.  When you land (heading west), you find yourself in the midst of the ruins of a historic Revolutionary-era fort at Crown Point and a pleasant little campground.

I have never crossed the bridge without wanting to stop and take in the view.  Alas, that is impossible. The bridge has no pedestrian lane, no place to stop, and during the summer it is always busy.  I once rode my bicycle over it on a summer day, and hoped to be able to pull off to the side, but there were too many cars.   I had to pedal furiously to keep up with the traffic (speed limit 25 MPH) while throwing glances to each side in an attempt to memorize the view.

steel_condition.JPGPerhaps that was actually a good thing.  For the past several years, it has been obvious that the bridge was deteriorating.  Maintenance was never able to keep up with the rusted steel and crumbling concrete.  Towing the Airstream across the bridge (as we did at least twice a year), I couldn’t help but think of our 14,000 pounds flexing the elderly span, and filling every inch of the narrow lane between steel abutment and oncoming traffic.  With a closer look at the bridge, I might have lost my interest in driving over it.

The bridge is a mess.  Road salt, freezing/thawing lake ice, and generally tough weather conditions have destroyed the bridge’s structural elements to the point that it is practically unfixable.  The state sent divers down in to the murky lake water to look at the piers and they came back with some disturbing video.  After a bunch of public hearings and Vermont-style debate, the conclusion was to blow it up and start over.  We’ll all be able to watch the kaboom live on the Internet tomorrow here, which beats the heck out of standing around in the cold to see it in person.

Eighty years since the bridge was completed, designs have changed.  New York State has floated a few design concepts, none of which look quite as exciting as the old arched steel span, but I expect that at least they will feel and be safer as we tow the Airstream over them again in years to come.  In summer 2010, when we return to Vermont, the new bridge will likely still be under construction, so we’ll use one of the ferries or the southern route instead. I will definitely look forward to the new bridge, even though the bridge that I remember so well as the one that first opened up my traveling ways will gone.

 Bridge photos courtesy of NYSDOT

Vintage Airstreams and Modernism

Hey, west coast vintage Airstream owners:  there’s a Modernism show happening in February 2010 in Palm Springs, and they want YOU to show up!

Modernism Week is an annual event in Palm Springs, CA, filled with exhibits, presentations, and house tours.  The Ace Hotel is planning to show vintage Airstreams along a promenade that winds through the hotel property, and sell tickets to tour the trailers at $10 per person.  If you’ve got a restored vintage Airstream up to 26 feet in length, they want to hear from you.

Other than open houses at rallies, it’s not that often that vintage Airstream owners get to show off their trailers.  Classic car shows are a dime a dozen, but classic trailer shows are a lot more scarce.

Of course, coming to events like this can be expensive for the owner.  Fuel alone for me to tow our 1968 Caravel to Palm Springs would run about $200 round-trip.  The hotel is offering to share 1/3 of the receipts from tours with the trailer owners to help defray the cost.  No telling how many participants there will be on the tours, but they do plan to offer four tours on Saturday, February 20, at 10:00, 11:00, 1:00, and 2:00.  I wouldn’t count on this to cover my fuel, but it’s better than nothing — which is what you usually get for displaying your Airstream.

The hotel has reserved a room for each vintage trailer, so participants won’t be actually camping.  You can stay in the hotel instead, at no cost.  From the website, the Ace Hotel looks like an interesting and fun sort of place.

Participating owners are asked to bring a “fact sheet” to hand out to people on the tour, and are encouraged to make a poster board display with information about the trailer and its restoration.  Also, if you’ve got a vintage trailer to sell, you can make it known during the event, which would probably yield some offers.

If you are interested in participating, email Christy Eugenis for an application. You’ll need to give some info about your trailer and include interior and exterior pictures.  Deadline is January 15, 2010.

The Caravel goes to Q

Quartzsite has historically been a major RV’er mecca in the winter.  It still is, but not so much this year.  The slowdown of the economy seems to have dinged this portion of the RV community more than others.  Quartzsite is traditionally visited for months by vast numbers of budget-conscious desert boondockers, who pay as little as $180 for six month in the BLM’s Long Term Visitor Area.  They pass the days browsing the flea markets and “shows” (essentially flea markets with themes), and contemplating the desert, I suppose.  Whatever they do, this year they’re coming here in considerably smaller numbers to do it.


Super Terry met me here to camp together for the weekend, and replace my broken front window.  That’s his 1974 Sovereign parked with my 1968 Caravel.  We’re in a private boondocking lot for $7 per night.  There are a lot of these types of places in Quartzsite.

Super Terry’s first night was a little rough, since he got caught in a serious traffic jam on I-10 near the AZ/CA border.  After two hours parked on the Interstate, and then some back-road wandering, he finally arrived far too late for anything but dinner. We tried Trader Joe’s “Thai for Two” and it was pretty decent for bachelor chow.

In bright morning sunshine of Quartzsite, we got to the task at hand.  Super Terry removed the broken glass and ruined frame of the front window, and went through the particular procedure required to rebuild a 1968 Airstream window.  He also very carefully removed one of the two curved side windows and replaced the original glass with a new piece that I bought from Airstream.  The new glass is considerably tougher than the original Corning stuff.  I decided to pre-emptively replace that glass just because I’ve experienced a side window failure in the past, and it’s a real pain to deal with on the road.

Each window needed to sit for two hours while the caulk set up in the hinge, so we took a break for lunch and were pleasantly surprised by a visit from Mike B.  Mike is one of several Airstreamers we know who are camped in one of the LTVAs for a few months.  We would have camped with them, but the LVTA isn’t set up for short visits (hence the name: LONG TERM Visitor Area).  The minimum permit is for two weeks, which costs $40. Later in the day we dropped in on the Airstream encampment and saw a few other folks we know from rallies and the Internet.

Sadly, the tape I used to hold the temporary Lexan window in place did not come off entirely.  I was warned about this by Colin Hyde.  After a few days in the sun, the adhesive won’t come off the aluminum.  I’ll have to get busy with some Goo-Gone stuff when I get back to Tucson.

dsc_3916.jpgLife in the Caravel as a single person has been very comfortable.  I could live in it for a while if I had to.  The tricks to living in a small space like this are to be extraordinarily organized (a place for everything and everything in its place)  and regularly cleaning up the detritus of each activity as it is completed.  You can’t leave the breakfast dishes out while you try to work on the computer.  The bed has to be made back into a sofa before you can gain access to some of the storage compartments.

With three of us, there’s an added trick: stay outside.  There’s really no room for the three of us to function in this tiny space all at once.  That’s actually not a disadvantage, since it encourages outdoor living.  When we want to travel with a rolling apartment, we’ll take the 30-foot Safari.  When we want to go “camping”, we’ll take the Caravel.  I would like to add an awning rail and a vintage-style awning later, to expand our outdoor space.  (I’m making a list of improvements and accessories for our first family trip.)

Although I know a few things to do around the Q, there isn’t enough here to hold me for long.  On previous trips I’ve hiked the popular hikes, visited all the shows, climbed “Q Mountain,” saw the historic and geographic landmarks, etc.  The really social action doesn’t kick in until January.  Right now it’s a bit quiet.  So on Sunday I’ll head back to Tucson with my list of improvements. With Christmas this week, I expect work to be very quiet, and combined with Tucson’s traditionally pleasant December weather it should be a good opportunity to get started on the Caravel projects.

17 Feet o’ Fun

Wednesday was National Chocolate Covered Anything Day, which is a major holiday among women who recently discovered it, like the two who inhabit my house.  This led to chocolate fondue Thursday, a day late but when you’re dealing with a serious topic like chocolate, some leeway is apparently allowed.  And hey, if you’re doing fondue, might as well have cheese fondue for dinner,too!  That balances things, nutritionally.

fairy_godmother.jpgWe don’t normally eat like this.  Yesterday’s dinner was the sort of dietary faux pas that will turn us into manatees if we keep it up.  So now we are waddling around the house in a post-cheese & chocolate trance and wondering exactly what sort of conspiracy comes up with ideas like “National Chocolate Covered Anything Day.”  I suspect Fairy Godmother involvement:  “Get me something deep fried and smothered in chocolate.”

I have been spending the past three days rushing around, trying to simultaneously prep the Caravel for travel while completing major work on the Spring 2010 issue of Airstream Life.  The magazine is now 90% in the hands of the Art Department, which means that unlike the past two weeks, if I drop out of sight for 24 hours the world will not come to an end. Lately I have felt like one of those guys spinning plates on tall poles — it all looks great as long as you’re there to keep the plates spinning, but step away for a second …

I would not be rushing to prep the Caravel except that I have an opportunity to go to Quartzsite this weekend and visit some friends who are boondocking out in one of the BLM’s desert Long Term Visitor Areas. It’s the last such chance I’ll have for at least six weeks, and I really want to do it. So I ran down the list of the most urgent things to make the trailer fully functional: plug it in for charging, fill the water tank, lubricate the stubborn locks, test all the systems, vacuum out the sawdust inside and the broken glass outside, etc.  Of course that also included loading up with food, utensils, dishes, clothes, tools, and all the other accessories of fine trailer living.

In the process I discovered a few more things for the “bug list.”  The fresh tank water drain leaked at the shutoff valve. Over the years somebody replaced the water drain line but kept the original 40-year-old shutoff valve.  I don’t quite get the logic of that.  40-year-old valves leak, and a complete replacement costs just a few dollars. Eleanor and I rebuilt that little bit of plumbing this morning, with new water line, brass fittings, hose clamps, and a little Rescue Tape for extra insurance.  (Silicone tape is a new thing to me, but it’s turning out to be extremely useful, so now it’s a permanent item in my traveling toolbox.)

dsc_0620.jpgWhile testing the water heater I discovered an old paper wasp nest attached to the exhaust vent.  This was easily removed, and provided a nice bonus:  a little homeschool lesson for Emma about insect homes and honeycomb construction. But I also found that the bathroom faucet seems to be clogged or defective (no water comes out), and a switch to the Fantastic Vent seems intermittent. Plus I need a new 12v reading light, clips for the Magic Chef stove grates, some replacement clips for the 1968-style windows, etc.  I’ve already placed a hefty order at Vintage Trailer Supply this week and I can see another order needed in January for the vintage stoneguard and a few other pricey goodies. Having an Airstream and a “Sparestream” means double your pleasure, double your cost.

I got a new Reese drawbar for the Caravel, eliminating the need for the heavy equalizing hitch head I was using.  It also raises the ball two inches, so now the Caravel rides level.

68caravelbrochure.jpgI’m afraid to test the air conditioner — it is too expensive to have to deal with if (after five years of sitting) it no longer works.  Frankly, if it needs expensive repair I might be inclined to remove it altogether and put in a skylight instead.  Our Caravel was a “base” model when it was ordered, having none of the factory options then available, and certainly not air conditioning.  Over the years it has gained modern accessories like a TV antenna, air conditioner, patio light, and spare tire, but given the way we intend to use it, we would never miss the TV antenna or AC, and they ruin the vintage lines of the roof.

Now with some of our stuff back in it, the trailer is starting to feel like “ours” again.  During its five year absence it was like an old memory.  But our house was filled with children yesterday afternoon, so I took the laptop into the Caravel and made it my office, and bonded with the trailer.  I like the feel of the new dinette table.  The edges have soft radiuses, easy on the forearms when I type.  The Marmoleum top is neither cold nor warm, and yields slightly, making it nicer to the touch than hard Formica.  The trailer has good light and the foam of the new cushions is just perfect.

I love old magazine ads, and the brochure (pictured above) for the 1968 Caravel is a treasured addition to my collection.  I particularly like the fact that Airstream claimed the Caravel had “luxurious accommodations for six.”  Six what?  Elves? Trust me, with three people inside and both beds set up, it’s plenty tight in there, with no room to stand.  Sleeping six would require two people in each “double” bed, plus one in each of two optional bunks.  We’d be like snakes in a woodpile. Heaven help you if someone needed to go to the bathroom.  That probably explains why I’ve never seen a Caravel with the optional bunk beds.

Today I will head over to “Q” and field-test everything for two days and nights.  I have yet to use the shower, or dump the holding tanks, or just be in the trailer in an actual camping situation. You don’t really know how things work in a camper until you really go camping.  That’s when you discover where things need to be stored, where a hook is needed, where your hat goes, how long the battery lasts, etc.  As always, I’ll blog daily while I’m traveling, with thoughts about the roadtrip, Quartzsite, and life in 17 feet.

Caravan dreams

Even in Tucson we have a sort of winter, where the sky clouds up for a few hours a day, the daytime temperatures linger in the 50s and 60s, and little sprinkles are eagerly anticipated by all residents.  Along with this “winter” comes a sort of winter doldrum for me, a person who is happiest around 90 degrees (in the dry desert).  With the early sunset, cold overnight temperatures, and holiday distractions, we don’t do as much camping this time of year.  And so I start dreaming of places to go, where “travel adventure awaits,” as Wally Byam put it in his marketing materials sixty years ago.

I’ve been trying to figure out what direction we will head in 2010.  I don’t mean compass direction, but more of a philosophical direction.  What’s the goal, where’s the trend, what makes sense for us at this point in our lives?  It’s a process that involves taking into account a lot of complex factors, such as our careers, our ages, Emma’s needs, finances, and strategic business goals.  Every year I’ve stared into the mirror, trying to figure out how we might spend our time, not because I had to change anything, but because I like a dynamic life where things grow and change constantly.  (Warning: It’s not for everyone, and it certainly wreaks havoc on relationships of all types.  I have a compatible spouse, an absolute prerequisite.) Once I’ve got a few ideas, Eleanor and I make the final decision.  Some years it’s easy, but in other years it’s a lot harder to read the crystal ball.

That annual thought process has determined our route across North America over the past three years, but in a broader sense it has also led to the life we live today.  Since I’m not a fatalist, I figure it will also lead to the life we live tomorrow.  Making thoughtful choices for one’s own life is a responsibility that seems worth taking on.  We only get so much time.

We’re not limiting our choices to Airstreaming in North America this year.  We’ve been nursing some ideas for international travel, and 2010 may be the year to stretch out and do that.  Or in the words of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “now for something completely different.”  No conclusions yet, just a lot of interesting possibilities in this very interesting world.

For years people have been asking me if I would someday start leading caravans based on our  travel experience. I’ve always said that there are others (commercial operators, clubs, individuals) who are better suited to that job than I.  But this year I find myself considering even that possibility.  I could see a changed-up sort of caravan that busted all the rules and took some worthwhile risks, for a very small group.  It would be for people who are willing to get their hands dirty and feet sore, people who want to touch life rather than watch it through the window.  You can really only get a sense of a place after you’ve spent a few days living like a resident, doing something harder than browsing the visitor center.  That takes an extra effort, and I wonder how many people would be willing and able to try a caravan like that.

A few ideas have popped up.  I like the idea of a Four Corners archeological tour of remote Ancient Puebloan sites.  We’d hike a lot every day, and probably spend a couple of nights in tents when we were too far from the Airstreams.   I am also extremely intrigued by a rugged route from Newfoundland up the coast of Labrador, to see icebergs, moose, fishing villages, 16th century historic sites, and track down the elusive bakeapple.  We could even try to arrange a swap with a European Airstream owner while we’re at Alumapalooza (about 50 of them will be attending).  There are other ideas as well, all riddled with logistical challenges and gumption blocks.  That’s part of what makes them interesting.

In the end, I doubt we’ll lead even a tiny caravan anywhere.  I like showing people around and sharing, but I don’t really want responsibility for anyone else’s good time.  (Hey, it’s hard enough just figuring out our own route to happiness.)

But thinking along these lines leads to fresh ideas.  At this point everything is on the table. We might even spend part of the summer here, absorbing the heat and watching the lightning shows of the monsoon.   We could finally get to those great high-altitude parks in the west that are only fully visitable for short windows of the summer, like Lassen, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia.  Anything is possible.  That’s the cool part.