Peace and tranquillity, shattered

My plan to visit Bert, Janie, Eric, and Sue was thwarted last night when I realized that I still had 100 miles to go and it was nearing 9 p.m.  I had covered 660 miles and felt it was time to get some rest, so I parked at a Cracker Barrel in central Albuquerque and settled in.  However, after dinner and the blog I was still wide awake, so I began to fiddle with things in the Caravel, and unpack.

I packed very carefully for this trip, but forgot one critical tool every vintage trailer owner needs: a lighter.  The stove, water heater (and the refrigerator, before we replaced it) are not self-lighting.  So while I had a few gallons of water, I didn’t have any way to warm it up — and that water was near freezing from the long day of towing across the plains of Oklahoma and north Texas.  I gritted my teeth and made do with a sketchy sponge bath in icy water.

The next job was to fix a leak in the toilet’s water supply. That was easy: teflon tape and a wrench.  So I had made some progress in getting the Caravel from “aluminum tent” mode to full-blown camping mode.  I now had a functioning cold water bathroom, plus a space heater, lights, and refrigeration.  I  was feeling pretty good about it when I went to bed.   The trailer was warm, the night was quiet, and I was sleeping peacefully.

… until 4:24 a.m.

Bang! Crash!  The front window of the Caravel spontaneously shattered into a bazillion little shards of glass — and believe me, that’s one heck of a wakeup call.  My first thought was that someone had thrown a baseball at it, because that’s what it sounded like.   But upon inspection, it was clear that once again I had experienced the phenomenon of the amazing self-destructing Airstream windows.

This problem seems to happen primarily to Airstreams made in the late 1960s, when Airstream switched to a (then) high-tech window glass provided by Corning.  The glass was chemically tempered, meaning that it was treated to be stronger, and if it broke it would break into small pieces instead of large dangerous shards.   The 1966-1968 Airstream in particular have an exotic version of this glass that matches the curvature of the trailer for a beautifully streamlined look.  That’s all good.  Unfortunately, the glass does not hold up well after four decades.  In cold temperatures, or when excessively jostled, it can suddenly and violently shatter.

I lost another window on this trailer back in March 2004, also in sub-freezing conditions.  I was towing through West Virginia when a curved side window collapsed.  That gave me no end of trouble, because in 2004 there was no replacement available for the curved windows.  Nobody, anywhere, made them.  I ended up replacing two of the three side windows with Lexan, which was a poor substitute.

Since then the glass has become available again from several sources. During the restoration of the trailer I replaced the two plastic windows with glass.  Three windows remained original: the front, the rear, and one side window. Now the front was in a heap in front of the Airstream.

I closed the front shade to keep the heat in, turned the catalytic heater to High, and climbed back in my sleeping bag to think about the best course of action.  After a few minutes, I turned on my phone and woke up the laptop, and began looking for answers.  By 5:30, thanks to good friends who were awake on the East Coast, I had a plan of action.

It was lucky that this happened right in Albuquerque, rather than on the road like the first one.  A Home Depot was half a mile down the street, where I obtained a sheet of Lexan cut to 39″ x 21″ and some heavy-duty aluminum tape.  Fifteen minutes of taping in the parking lot, and I was ready to hit the road again.

Oh, the joys of vintage ownership. I had forgotten the regularity with which things fall off or fall apart on vintage trailers.  In my opinion, the key is to fix things better than they were originally, so that the problems don’t repeat.  That’s why I bought replacements for all three of the remaining 40-year-old Corning windows the last time I was in Jackson Center.  It is expensive to preemptively replace the glass, but the alternative is waiting for one of them to dump glass shards during a camping trip.

The temporary repair was good enough to last for a while, but I decided to skip visiting with Bert, et al, and head home instead.  The factor keeping me from moving onward to the town of Grants was a storm approaching from the west.  Grants was expecting snow, possibly a lot, and I didn’t want to get stuck there.  So I passed on my regrets to my friends and hustled down I-25 toward lower altitudes and blessed warmth.

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Despite 450 miles of intense headwinds after departing Albuquerque, here I am in Tucson.  Back at home base, safe and sound. The storm began raining on the house just minutes after I arrived.   The Caravel is parked in the carport temporarily, while I work on a few interior upgrades.  The GL has 4,200 more miles on it than it had 10 days ago.  All of us (Rich, car, trailer) will be happy to just sit still here for a while.  If I learned anything on this trip, it’s that there’s no place I’d rather be right now.

Geek on the road

Today was the longest driving day of this entire trip: 660 miles from Tulsa OK to Albuquerque NM.  Eleven hours. I’ve discovered that the way to make states seem boring is to try to zoom through them on the Interstate. I bet that Oklahoma would have been great fun if I’d only slowed down and spent a few days exploring. But on this trip, that was not to be.

My first night in the Caravel was very comfortable. The new foam in the cushions is perfect for both sitting and sleeping, so I’m glad we sprang for the good stuff.  The little Wave 6 catalytic heater is well matched to the size of the trailer and kept me toasty all night despite freezing temperatures.  I discovered a few more items for the bug/upgrade list, most notably a large draft coming from beneath the refrigerator.  When I get this trailer to Tucson there will many weeks of happy tweaking to get it set up just right.  But except for having no water, it seems to be “all systems Go.”

Along the highway today I sought out water, and finally found a very slow source at a Flying J somewhere in Oklahoma.  It was so slow that I put in only a few gallons, just enough to mix in some bleach to sterilize the water system.  Thus “de-winterized,” it became my task to keep an eye on the temperatures, in case they dipped below freezing while I was towing.  The temps were up and down all days, but mostly in the safe zone, and even in Albuquerque at 5000 feet it was above freezing when I arrived.

Technology has been my companion on this trip.  The GL has four 12 volt outlets, all of which have been utilized.  The two front outlets powered the GPS and the Doran tire pressure monitor.  The 2nd row outlet powered my inverter (which charged my phone and my laptop).  The trunk outlet powered the Cradlepoint cellular router with Verizon Internet card attached.  Thus, I had a rolling wifi “hotspot” and was able to pick up podcasts from the Internet (using an iPod Touch) as I drove, and listen to streaming audio content.  At rest stops I’d check email messages and weather on the iPod, too.

In addition to all these devices, I have the Prodigy brake controller mounted on the dash and the GL’s own Nav screen which shows direction, time, and altitude.  As a result, the driver’s area of the car looks pretty geeky.  But it’s fun to have the toys and the info when you are navigating the Interstate across mostly flat terrain for 11 hours.

Tom asked about my hitch.  I have an Equal-i-zer brand hitch for this trailer, but it is overkill. Somehow, in the naive early days of Airstream ownership, I ended up with a hitch rated for a 1,400 pound tongue weight.  The Caravel’s tongue weight is in the range of 250-300 pounds.  Certainly a weight-distributing hitch rated for 1,400 pounds is not necessary, and I actually don’t feel that any weight distribution is needed at all for this particular combination (Caravel + Mercedes GL320).  So for the moment I am using the Equal-i-zer’s hitch head but not the weight distributing (a.k.a “torsion”) bars.

Now, most hitches incorporate sway control into the weight distribution system.  Without the bars in place, I have no sway control.  This gave me reason to be very cautious in the first few hundred miles of towing.  Over that time, I observed the behavior of the trailer at different speeds, in headwinds and crosswinds, as trucks passed by, over potholes and ruts, and (on a lonely flat straight stretch of I-55) in simulated emergency lane changes.  I’ve been very impressed.  The Caravel tracks beautifully, and I haven’t seen any hint of wandering.

There are still possible situations which could induce a sway, however.  A worst-case scenario might include loss of brakes, a gusty crosswind, and an emergency maneuver.  I won’t say that it is impossible for the trailer to sway, but I am fairly confident after 1,500 miles of towing that the Caravel is highly stable.  My intent is to ditch the current hitch and find a simpler setup with a basic sway control for future trips.

Interestingly, this trip has demonstrated that I get about the same fuel economy towing the Caravel (2,500 lbs.) as I do when towing the Safari (7,500 lbs.)  As I’ve mentioned before, weight and length of an Airstream have little to do with overall fuel economy.  It’s mostly about aerodynamics, and in that respect the two trailers are similar, despite one being twice as long and three times as heavy.  The frontal area of both trailers is of similar size and shape, and the effort of pulling that shape through the air is what you’re really paying for at the pump.

I am in Albuquerque NM rather than Midland TX only because this morning I discovered that friends Bert & Janie Gildart, and Eric & Sue Hansen, just came out of Chaco Culture National Monument in northwest New Mexico.  I’ll let Bert tell the full story on his blog, but the short version is that they nearly froze to death up there.  I had warned Bert that it would be cold, but he’s from Montana and he thinks it’s only “cold” when it is below zero.  In any case, the gang is up in Grants NM, about 70 miles from my location, and I’ll go look them up on Monday.

Following Route 66

When I planned this trip, I hadn’t anticipated sub-freezing temperatures all the way down to St Louis.  It was a cold start in the morning from Lincoln, IL.  The car said it was 24 degrees but it seemed colder.  Everything was coated in heavy frost, and the air was so nippy it hurt to breathe in through my nose.  I’m glad I didn’t try to spend the night in the Caravel.  I really needed that hotel room and warm shower, and I slept 10 hours very solidly.

Heading south long I-55 all morning I saw frosted brown stalks of corn fields, and half-frozen cattle stomping around on white grass.  It didn’t warm up until late in the morning, and by then I was crossing into Missouri.  Worse, there was a strong wintry headwind slowing me down, and the GL was getting only 12.5 MPG fighting it.

It hadn’t occurred to me until this morning that I was approximately following the historical Route 66.  The “mother road” used to run from Chicago to Los Angeles, paralleling I-55, I-44, and I-40 — exactly my route.  But watching the scenery closely (and what else is there to do alone in the car for ten hours?) I began to notice the quirky roadside signs and attractions that are today’s hallmark of historic Route 66.

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The Pink Elephant Antique store was the first good sign of Route 66 I noticed.  I am a fan of architecture and giant-sized mid-century outdoor kitsch, so at first their classic soft-serve stand caught my eye; then the shell of a Futuro House (only the second one I’ve ever seen; and then a “Muffler Man“.  I’m fans of all these things, so to find them all in one spot was worth exiting the highway and doubling back for three miles along the frontage road.  The bonus was discovering that the frontage road was formerly Route 66, so I felt very good towing my little vintage Airstream to see the Pink Elephant.

The temperatures this time of year naturally discourage camping in the north.  I gave up looking for an open campground in Illinois, but was still hoping to fill the Caravel’s water tank along the way so that I could sanitize it while I drove.  (Eleanor and I mixed up a pre-measured batch of bleach and water to dump into the tank.  After four hours, all the bugs that might be living in the plumbing will be dead, so I can drain the system and refill with pure water.) But the Flying J I visited in Missouri had turned its water off for the season.  I took this as a sign that I was still too far north, and proceeded on.

Pulling into a rest area sometime later, I heard a strange clanging.  One of the Caravel’s wheel trim rings fell off just as I was slowing down, and it rolled along right behind me to finally stop 20 feet behind the trailer.  That’s something I was rather accustomed to back in the days when the Caravel was our primary trailer: things falling off in transit.  With the refurb, I expected those days would be mostly behind me, but I guess not. To be on the safe side, I removed the other trim ring and tossed them in the car for safekeeping.  I’ll have to figure out how to secure them better in the future.

Being cautious, I am towing at no more than 62 MPH (and usually 60 MPH), so it’s difficult to cover as many miles as I was a few days ago.  After nine hours of driving I managed 520 miles and then parked in Tulsa OK.  This will be my first night in the Caravel.  It’s still cold, but not nearly as cold as before (about 40 degrees as I type this), so with the catalytic heater pumping out warmth, and my sleeping bag, I should be completely comfortable.

This is “dry camping,” meaning that I have no water in the trailer and thus can’t wash, use the bathroom, or do dishes.  Cabin-fevered northerners often do this when their trailers are winterized, just to have a brief getaway.  The usual technique is to have a few gallons of water for drinking, and rely on the campground bathroom for everything else.  Since I’m stealth camping in the middle of Tulsa, I’m using the bathrooms of local stores and restaurants.  Can’t get a shower this way, but at least I can cover the basics, and meals are only a short walk away.

The weather is clear along my route, so it’s my choice whether to take the quickest way home or an alternate.  The quick way is still 900 miles, on I-40 to Albuquerque and then down I-25 to I-10.  Problem is, that brings me up to 6,000 feet elevation.  Albuquerque — my overnight stop — will be freezing at night again, and not too warm by day either. If I dip down into Texas via Wichita Falls and Abilene, I’ll have a much warmer climate at the cost of an additional 50 miles and about two hours of travel time.  Right now, I’m craving warmth so I am leaning toward the Texas tour.  I’ll figure it out before I get to Oklahoma City tomorrow.

Snowy and cold on the road

I knew that the logistics of this particular trip would be challenging.  Going up to Grand Rapids MI to get a trailer in December is just asking for trouble.  I wasn’t expecting sunshine and tropical breezes, but I was hoping for at least a lucky break where there would be no fierce headwinds and no snow.  No such luck.

The drive up from Louisville to Grand Rapids was uneventful.  I started at 8:30 a.m. under gray scudded skies and occasional light rain, but with temperatures in the upper 30s.  The roads that hadn’t yet frozen for the season so there was no risk of ice.  I covered the 400+ miles quickly and arrived at Ken’s shop by 4 p.m.

The Caravel was awaiting me in the shop. It looks pretty good.  I did an pre-departure inspection and discovered that the refrigerator wouldn’t come on, and the water pump wasn’t connected to 12v, and a few other minor bugs.  We fixed the fridge and the pump, found my hitch, loaded the miscellaneous parts & pieces, and I was ready to go.  My friend Charlie had come up from South Bend to see the trailer and check out Ken’s shop, and after hitching up the trailer, Ken & Petey invited both of us to dinner at their house.

By the time dinner was done, we had three inches of fluffy powder on the deck.  It made the trailer look very picturesque.  That’s about all I can say in favor of it.  I had planned to tow down to Charlie’s house, to get a jump on the first 100 miles of my trip southward.  I wasn’t excited about towing the new trailer in the dark and in a snowstorm.  After much consulting of The Weather Channel, we realized that the bulk of the snow was landing away from the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The route to South Bend is mostly along the shoreline, so we decided to make a run for his house.

At first this appeared to be a big mistake.  We drove right into one of those horrible blinding snowstorms of fat white flakes that rush at your headlights and obscure the view.  Traffic on the Interstate was moving at 30 MPH and the car was getting shoved around by ruts in the snow.  I considered heading back but after seven miles things began to clear up, and then as we reached the shoreline the snow ended, just as we’d thought it would.

Still, I wandered around South Bend for ten minutes, momentarily lost, and didn’t pull into the driveway of Charlie’s house until nearly 10:30. We sat up another hour talking and then I settled into their guest bedroom, since the Caravel was winterized and empty of propane.

I got a start on making the trailer habitable today.  I filled up the two 30# tanks with propane, and bought some small plastic storage bins to organize my stuff.  I also fired up the catalytic heater to see how well it worked (very well, as it turned out).  That’s as far as I could go without water.  My rule of thumb is that I can de-winterize a trailer (fill the tank, water heater, and plumbing lines with fresh water) if the daytime temperatures are above freezing. That way the trailer won’t freeze while towing.  But the temperatures in South Bend were unseasonably low — 26 degrees, with a biting west wind that made it seem much colder.

This was disappointing but not unexpected.  It’s cold nearly everywhere in the US today.   The only solution seemed to be to drive south and hope for better temperatures tomorrow.  So I hauled out at about 2:30, drove about 250 miles, and got a hotel.   With a hotel rather than dry-camping in the Airstream, I’ll have high-speed Internet to catch up on work, a hot shower, breakfast, Weather Channel on TV, and plenty of heat.  It’s going down to 16 degrees tonight!

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Since it’s low season for this particular hotel, I was able to park my rig right outside my window and keep an eye on it during the evening.

From here I have only the vaguest of plans.  I need to get back to Tucson fairly soon, to get a pile of work done on deadline.  Weather is the dominant factor in determining my route.  At this point it looks like the best route will be right through the heart of the country.  Once I get to I-40 I’ll have to make a decision whether to go high-altitude through Texas and New Mexico, or dip straight south into Texas for possible warmer weather.  I don’t expect really warm temps anywhere in the next few days, so lack of precipitation will be the best I can hope for.

The poor Caravel was looking gorgeous in the shop, but now the front is covered with frozen slush and the sides are streaked with road gunk.  The Mercedes isn’t looking too good either.  I am dreaming of a warm sunny day in southern Arizona, where I am stopping at a car wash to get all the northern winter grime cleaned off the polished aluminum.

Day Two of RVIA

 We must be getting the hang of it after five years of visiting RVIA, because we had a rather less complicated second day, with less rushing around.  Just by hanging out at the Airstream booth in the morning we were able to find several people we wanted to speak to.  I felt like a spider in a web, just waiting for people to blunder into my snare.  This knocked quite a lot of business off our “to-do” list and gave us the afternoon to browse some of the more startling RV’s on the show floor.

dsc_3834.jpgWith the downturn in the industry, the overall show is quite a bit smaller (in square footage) than previously.  Predictably, the giant Class A’s in the $500k and up range are fewer, but they are still popular offerings.  When the heavy business is done, I like to take a walk through some of the really over-the-top rigs just for entertainment value.  Winnebago was trying hard with scaled down A’s, but Tiffen and Fleetwood (among others) still are supplying the people who really need a Class A motorhome with granite countertops, five large TVs, two bathrooms, marble floors, power window shades, and four huge slideouts.   I can’t say I wouldn’t like to live in some of them, but it would feel weird to me to drive around a luxury condominium that costs more than any house I’ve ever owned.

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The big joy of the day was meeting Sean and Kristy Michael of The Long Long Honeymoon.  They were camped outside the convention center and had dropped in for a couple of days to see what RVIA was all about.  (If you are thinking about going, keep in mind that it is industry-only, so you must be qualified, and camping on the asphalt is $50 per night.)  We were happy to find that the Michaels are just as friendly and fun to talk to as their many online videos demonstrate.  I would not be surprised at all to find a video collaboration in our mutual futures.  We spent the afternoon talking about ideas and making plans to get together again.  They are also now planning to come to Alumapalooza next June, to give a talk and show some of their camping videos.

Airstream made some announcements at the show to the gaggle of financial analysts who always show up at these things.  The big news from Bob Wheeler is that production of trailers doubled recently, to 24 trailers per week.  That’s still below historic highs but a huge jump and an indicator of the revival of the industry.  The whole of Thor Inc. (Airstream’s parent company) is feeling rather bullish about the coming year, and so am I.  There are still a lot of companies trying to kill themselves by cutting their way to “survival”, which is like slicing off your arms and legs so you need less food to eat.   But more of the companies we saw are making investments and strategic plays for their future, and they came to us with strong requests for new media solutions to help them along.  It will be a VERY interesting 2010 for the Airstream Life worldwide media conglomerate…

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I know I’ve griped about convention center food and road food many times, so it is my distinct pleasure to tell you about a really good place to eat near the Kentucky Expo Center.  Just a couple of miles away is the Windy City Pizzeria, where you can get a Chicago-style pizza, several varieties of microbrews, and a cozy family atmosphere.  We found it by chance, in the pouring cold Louisville rain last night. Nobody recommended it, which made finding it kind of fun.  We had just hoped to find something local and not too expensive, and this place exceeded our expectations by adding friendly service and great pizza.

I can see it becoming an annual stop for us on RVIA trips in the future.  If we can just find one or two more good spots like this, we’ll have the whole trip covered.  Then we dsc_3864.jpgcan stop going to (a) ridiculously expensive business-class restaurants; (b) el-cheap-o and boring chain restaurants.

RVIA runs another day but  it is time for us to go.  Brett is flying home and I’ve got a 6 hour drive to Grand Rapids to do today, under the threat of lake-effect snow near Lake Michigan.  Phase III of my trip begins today, so the blogging will continue.