Falls Church VA

I am contemplating the rain.  Parked in a driveway in Falls Church VA, we are having the sort of endless heavy rain that rarely happens in southern Arizona.  I hadn’t forgotten what it was like, but the experience seems much more novel to me now.  It has been raining, in light showers on and off, for three days.  It was raining when I hitched up the trailer in Winchester on Monday, and dropped it off in Falls Church later that morning.  It was raining as I drove 260 miles up to northern New Jersey that afternoon for my meeting, and it was raining as I drove 260 miles  back down the Jersey Turnpike and I-95 on Tuesday.

Falls Church courtesy parkingThere was light rain much of Wednesday while I worked at the kitchen table in Bobby and Danine’s house, with small sunny breaks in the clouds at a few points, but that was nothing more than a tease because the weather forecasters said we should expect a real gulley-washer today and so far they have been right.  The strip of lawn where we have the car parked is becoming mushy with mud.  The brown leaves on the ground, normally a crunchy sign of Fall, have decayed into mush.  All night we heard the intermittent pounding of rain on the aluminum roof of the Airstream, and it seems as the day goes on, the rain gets heavier and heavier.

The humidity is 100%.  It is not warm, so we don’t have that oppressive heaviness that comes with high heat and humidity, but being so close to the dew point means that even inside the trailer we have condensation forming on every surface.  We can’t run the air conditioner on the power we’ve got, so the only solution is to run the vent fans.  Unfortunately, two of our vents are Fantastic Vents which, when open, will allow the rain to come into trailer.  The third fan is a Maxxair that has an integrated cover so that it can be run in the rain, and we are relying on that for our primary ventilation.  This sort of extended wet and humidity is not good for the Airstream over the long haul, but for a few days it is not a big deal.

The other impact of the rain and fog is that it will make towing more difficult today.  This afternoon we are expected in Shenandoah National Park, about 90 miles away, by our friends Bert & Janie, Adam and Susan.  They’ve all been up there for weeks, enjoying fine fall weather (until recently) and hiking the mountains, and we promised we’d join them at Big Meadows Campground today, rain or shine.   So later this morning we will head out.  I am hoping that when the time comes to hitch up the Airstream and put away the wet power cords, the rain will be light.  Hitching up in a downpour is a really awful experience.

It has been a good visit.  Bobby, Danine, and Elise are very much our counterparts in this Airstreaming world, or at least they were at one time and will be again.  They traveled for a year in the same model trailer as ours, using a nearly identical truck, the same hitch, homeschooling the same age of daughter, and emphasizing the National Parks as we have.  The major difference is that they had the discipline to plan exactly one year of travel and then go back to a more settled life in Virginia, whereas we kept going for three years and still haven’t really managed to settle down.

So coming to see them is a very comfortable experience.  They know where we’ve been.  They understand what we are thinking and doing as we back the Airstream into the driveway.  They know we don’t need to be offered their guest bedroom, and they don’t have to ask questions like, “Don’t you ever get tired of being in that little trailer?”  We haven’t seen each other in over two years but with Airstreamers that doesn’t seem to matter.  The moment we meet, we just pick up where we left off — as if the two years didn’t happen.

The past three nights have been highlighted by amazing dinners each night.  Eleanor is trying to earn our keep, I think, which means that we’ve all been stuffed like the Christmas goose.  I have completely given up eating lunch just because of these big and delicious dinners.  Last night she made an apple pie, the leftovers of which, according to courtesy parking tradition, will remain with our hosts.  I hope to get Eleanor to make another one this weekend.

Up in Shenandoah we will not have the luxury of an electric line from the house (in fact, no hookups at all), and so we will be back to our minimalist existence.  It will be chilly (highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s).  We will be back to carefully watching our power and water usage for four nights.  Plus there’s no cell phone or Internet up there, so I’ll be out of touch and won’t blog for a few days.  The tradeoff will be a chance to decompress and reflect in a wilderness setting, while hiking the Shenandoahs with other good Airstream friends.   Can’t complain about that.  I plan to take photos and make notes, and will post a blog or two about our experiences when we settle in somewhere else next week.

StarFest 2010

It has been cars, cars, cars all weekend.  We’ve been attending StarFest 2010 in Winchester VA, which is the annual national event of the Mercedes Benz Club of America.


It’s quite different from the Airstream events we normally attend.   Obviously the attendees stay in a hotel rather than in their vehicles.  But beyond that, the emphasis is different.  Airstreamers tend to focus more on the community of people than the trailers.  This crowd is interested in the cars more than anything else: driving them, maintaining them, showing them, and talking about them — especially the exotic, rare, or old models, like the award-winning red 300SL pictured at right.

There was some passing interest in the Airstream, but mostly it was regarded as an amusing curiosity, and again the attention was mostly paid to the GL320 that towed it.   At the Concours Award Banquet on Saturday night, I was interrogated by my fellow table-mates about its performance.  They appeared to be suitably impressed.


As with the Airstreamers, the crowd was mostly older, but there was a small contingent of young guys who all operated independent shops specializing in 1960-1993 (approx). Mercedes cars — the “affordable classics.”  You can still easily find a lot of great old Mercedes cars in good operating condition (cosmetically imperfect) for very reasonable prices, and guys like these will help you keep them on the road forever.  I went to a talk given by representatives of the MB Classic Center, and they emphasized that Mercedes intends to keep producing parts to keep old cars on the road, safe and reliable, for decades to come.



There were other interesting talks that I attended (and I got a few ideas for next year’s Alumapalooza, too!)  But the big event of Saturday was the Concours show, where we had excellent examples of Mercedes vehicles from seven decades.  On Sunday, we dropped in on the Autocross for the morning and watched some of the hotter cars zip around a complex and tight little course.  We did the Defensive Driving course again, just for practice.

Wondering why there’s a Smart car in the picture at right?  It’s a Daimler product and some Mercedes enthusiasts own them.  It’s not for me, but they are awfully cute and I bet this one would have done well on the Autocross if the owner was willing to give it try.


I was pleasantly surprised by Winchester.  The “historic downtown” (a phrase horribly abused by some local chambers of commerce) is truly historic.  There’s a ton of great Colonial architecture remaining in town, centered on a handsome and vibrant brick pedestrian mall.  The city reportedly changed hands 71 times during the Civil War, and the Court House held both northern and southern prisoners.  You can still see their graffitti on the interior walls of the building, upstairs.

While a few buildings are in obvious distress, the majority of the downtown is well restored and housing robust businesses.  Eleanor and Emma were intrigued by the bead shop, while I was astonished to find an independent old-fashioned third-generation clothing store, the kind you never see in downtowns anymore.  The architecture is spectacular, with historic brick buildings, stone buildings, and even a log building. Winchester’s center has a lot going for it.

We have now relocated the Airstream to Falls Church VA, where E&E are courtesy parking with Bobby, Danine, and Elise. We first stayed with them in 2007, then they stayed with us in Tucson in February 2008, and now it’s our turn again in 2010. But I am up in northern New Jersey for an overnight, doing some business, so I’m once again in a hotel.  I’ll rejoin the group on Tuesday night and we’ll get back to the serious business of Airstreaming.

From the Moon to Winchester

We had intended our courtesy parking stop in Columbia MD to be a very relaxing time.  An old friend and co-worker let us block most of her driveway with the Airstream, so we had a nice spot in a suburban neighborhood with an electric cord running into the garage for three nights.

But it wasn’t very relaxing after the first night, when Eleanor made dinner for everyone.  The next day things got away from me (work-wise) and I ended up running back and forth to the local Fedex Kinko’s and worrying about mail that was supposed to have arrived but didn’t.  The next day we had a series of frustrations, culminating in a really terrible haircut for me (I now look as if I’ve recently had chemotherapy), my glasses spontaneously breaking, and Emma losing her beloved Kindle.  So most of our visit was not particularly relaxing, but at least we were in a place where we could deal with it.  Time will fix the bad hair, and large quantities of money will eventually fix the glasses and Kindle.  We’ll live.  Our hosts had their own hassles too, so there was plenty of commiserating going on.


On our last night Eleanor and Emma did their usual Moon Festival stuff, which includes making “moon water” and putting a tray of round things out under the full moon.  Note the very bright planet of Jupiter shining just below the Harvest Moon, visible even near major urban lights.

On the short 95-mile trip from Columbia to Winchester, we paused at Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park just to check out the situation.  We knew we didn’t have time for a proper visit, and once we got to the Visitor Center we realized that even a cursory visit would take hours.  The park is gigantic, spread across nearby lands and towns.  You take a shuttle bus from the Visitor Center to various locales, each of which takes anywhere from one to six hours to explore.  This looks like a really great park for a fall visit some year, and I am sure we will eventually be back, but this just wasn’t our chance.  Not only was the heat and humidity reaching oppressive levels (this late in September!) but we have — alas — a schedule to keep.  At least our visit gave us the chance to replace our expired “America The Beautiful” Inter-agency Pass (good for national parks, forests, and other public lands).

There’s not a lot of camping in the area, except for the super-deluxe KOA that is conveniently next door. It’s not cheap but it does look very good.  We dropped in to use the dump station ($5) and refill our water, then pressed on to Winchester VA, where we will spend the next three days attending the Mercedes-Benz Club of America’s “StarFest 2010”.  It’s sort of like the WBCCI International Rally, but for Mercedes enthusiasts.

winchester-va-airstream-parked.jpgOf course, not having rolling homes with them, the Mercedes crowd books into a hotel.  After pondering our options for a while, we have decided to join them for a change.  So the Airstream is parked in the back of the hotel where we can see it from our room, taking up six parking spaces.  We have converted the hotel room into a sort of quasi-Airstream by requesting a microwave and hauling in food, clothes, computers, etc. — in other words, we’re trying to make a hotel room as comfortable as our Airstream.  It’s a tall order. There’s really nothing as convenient as having your home behind you, your own food in the fridge, complete cooking & bathing facilities, no need to pack and unpack, etc., but you knew that already.

Hopewell Furnace NHS, PA

The smoke and the hubbub of the full campground died down on Sunday as all the weekenders headed back home, and by late afternoon we found ourselves virtually alone at French Creek State Park.  We didn’t mind the loss of the campfires, since we were now finally able to open the windows and air out the trailer a little, but it was a shame for the other campers to miss out on such a fine fall day.

We took the opportunity to head over to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, which is directly adjacent to the state park.  It’s one of those smaller national parks that we often miss because it’s not a “destination” park for most people.  But you get a lot of value out of these small parks, and I’m always glad when we can get a chance to drop in on one of them.


Hopewell is a small community that supported an iron foundry.  They diverted water for miles, to power a waterwheel, cut down acres of trees to make charcoal, and hauled in iron ore and limestone to make iron.  This was a major business in the 18th and 19th centuries, strategically important in the war of independence against England and in the general independence of the new American nation.  A small settlement surrounded the main building (blast furnace and casting building, where parts for cast-iron stoves were made), with housing for workers, a school, blacksmith shop, barn, store, smokehouse and spring house. You can explore most of the buildings by reading the interpretive signs or by audio tour.  And yes, there is a Junior Ranger program.

Monday was one of those days that gets lost in travel.  We had only a 2.5 hour tow planned, from Elverson PA to Columbia MD, but all of the minor tasks surrounding the tow ate up the rest of the day.  I spent about two hours working early in the morning, then shifted over to getting the trailer ready to tow.  Then we pulled over to the water outlet (further down the campground loop) and refilled the trailer’s fresh water tank.  Then we hit the dump station.  As a result, the Airstream actually rolled out of the park about 11:30 a.m.

Half an hour into the trip, we stopped for diesel fuel and Eleanor spotted a convenient grocery store.  Since she was planning to make dinner for our next hosts, she went in, while Emma and I stayed back in the trailer (another opportunity for me to catch up on Monday work, while Emma dug into one of her books).  By the time Eleanor was back, the groceries were packed away, and everyone had had their bathroom stop, it was 2 p.m.  We pulled into Columbia at 4 p.m., and then it was time to quickly set up the trailer in our friends’ driveway, and start making dinner.  Poof!  Another day gone.

Well, not entirely gone.  We at least got to see some friends that we have not visited in four years.  Eleanor fed everyone a huge dinner of bowtie pasta with a cream sauce and chicken, grilled vegetables (eggplant, onion, baby peppers), tossed green salad with one of her homemade dressings, etc.  It was a good ending to a long day and since we will be in the driveway at least one more night, we’ll get a chance to relax and maybe even explore a little before pressing on to StarFest later this week.


Now, some disturbing news.  Kirk, a friend of Alumapalooza (author of the Alumapalooza anthem), spontaneously had 2,000 “Alumapalooza” decals made up.  He was doing a job for another client and tacked these little stickers onto it.  He notified us afterward and shipped all the stickers to my office in Tucson.

What was I going to do with 2,000 little stickers (about 5 inches long) that say “Alumapalooza”?  Well, if you order anything from the Airstream Life store including hats, shirts, books, or back issues, you will receive absolutely free of charge, a bonus of several of these silly little stickers.  Such a deal, eh?

If you want a few, but don’t want to order anything from the store, just send a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope to: Airstream Life, Alumapalooza stickers, PO Box 42288, Tucson AZ 85733-2288.  We’ll be happy to ship you a few at no charge.  They’ll look great on your Airstream’s bumper.  Really.

If you order something from the store but don’t want any stickers, I’m sorry but you’re getting some anyway.  I hope you can find a use for them. Maybe they’d be good for minor repairs, in place of duct tape?

apz-sticker2.jpgBut in the interest of full disclosure, here’s the disturbing part:  Eleanor noticed that if the sticker is turned upside-down, it says “ezooledewme.”  We have no idea what that means.  It could be an ancient and powerful magical incantation.  It could be a gross insult in some foreign language.  It might be a secret code word that will get you into the back door of the Nigerian embassy.  All I can say is that if you dare put this sticker on your trailer upside-down, I can’t be responsible for the consequences.

Philadelphia, PA

Our itinerary has brought us past the NY/NJ metro area and down to eastern Pennsylvania for the weekend.  Eleanor and I felt that Emma was at an age where she could stand to learn a bit more about how and where this country came to be, so we booked the weekend at French Creek State Park, in Elvorson PA.  It’s about 45 miles from central Philadelphia, an easy one-hour drive down Rt 422 and I-76.  Our intent was to drag Emma through a lot of historical sites and try to interpret early American history in a way that would keep her 10-year-old mind attentive.  That’s quite a challenge when the competition is dragon tales and talking owls.  She’d much rather be reading her Kindle.

The weather is beautiful here, and that has caused the state park staff to open up a previously-closed loop of the campground.  The park is full, which is nice but not surprising.  As I’ve noted before, state parks have been very busy since the recession began a couple of years ago, and it’s good to see that some states have the sense to continue running their parks for the benefit of the people.

But although we’d rather stay in a state park that almost any other place, it does get a little tiresome with the campfire smoke.  I like a campfire as much as the next guy, but maybe lessons should be given to people who don’t know how to make them.  We’re always surrounded by people who can only make smoke, and no flame.  As a result, the entire campground — all four loops — and much of the surrounding area is completely engulfed in smoke. It’s like camping in the middle of a major wildfire.

Last night when we came back from a day in Philadelphia,  we were still a mile from the campground turnoff when we drove into the wall of smoke.  It was thick enough to look like fog in the car’s headlights.  One or two of the fires in the camping loop was actually a fire, but our neighbors were busily tending what appeared to be an attempt at smoke signals.  They’ve been feverishly carting wood from their van (apparently half a cord, from the looks of it) and adding it to the heap like squirrels collecting nuts before winter.  Twenty-four hours a day they tend the smoldering pile, as it their lives depended on it.  And so, smoke fills the campground day and night, morning and evening.  There is no escape, except to leave the park entirely.


Fortunately, we spent Saturday in Philadelphia.  I can report that the birthplace of American independence is alive and well.   The picture at left is a little complicated, but it shows three levels of activity all happening outside the national park building that houses the Liberty Bell.  Crossing from right to left you can see a line of tourists fresh off the bus, each wearing a badge to identify them as people who paid to ride a bus to Philadelphia.

They are going to get in the very long line you see at left (background), which winds along the side of the building and around the corner.  If you stand in this line for about 40 minutes, you can see the Liberty Bell up close.  There is no charge, except for the loss of your time. Or, you can walk another 50 feet to a window and see the Liberty Bell from a distance of about 20 feet with no wait at all.  Your choice.

In the middle of the photo, the Falun Gong are very peacefully exhibiting graphic photos of the abuses they’ve suffered at the hands of the Chinese government.  Three of them (not visible) are sitting on the grass, in a meditative position with a hand held vertically below their face, as if praying with one hand.  I’m sure they appreciate the symbology of demonstrating for their religious freedom in the birthplace of American liberty.

philadelpha-st-marys-cemetary.jpgHaving been to all of the major historical sites in Philadelphia before, we decided to skip the most crowded ones and instead give Emma a light-weight version of the birth of American independence from the street.  Our version is rather like a novel, with the oppressive King George and his army, the brave George Washington, the clever Ben Franklin, epic battles and setbacks, the risk of failure (“We must hang together or we shall certainly hang separately”), and finally (when things looked grimmest) the unexpected rout by the underdogs to achieve a lasting freedom. For good measure we threw in some gory anecdotes like “how to use a bayonet,” and a short lecture on the importance of symbolism (such as the Liberty Bell).

Philadelphia is of course loaded with interesting historic cemeteries.   Despite our efforts, we had already lost Emma’s interest back in the Independence National Historic Park visitor center, so we figured we might as well try to kill her with boring history by browsing past mausoleums and grave stones.  If she died of boredom, at least we would not have to tote her far.  Amazingly, she survived this because she actually likes gravestone art.

As far as Emma was concerned, there was one reason to come to Philadelphia, and that was the famous Philadelphia cheesesteak.  Legend tells that Jim’s on Summer Street is the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia, but of course on a gorgeous Saturday in September the line was out the door and around the corner.  We decided to try an alternate restaurant, and settled on Steve’s, just a few blocks down.

philadelpha-steves-cheesesteaks-emma.jpgJim’s has been making cheesesteaks since 1929, and Steve’s sign proudly proclaims “Since 2003” but he seems to have figured it out because the end result was just fine.

A cheesesteak isn’t remotely health food; it needs to be glistening with melted cheese and a fair bit of grease in order to taste right.  There ain’t no whole wheat bread or “lo-cal” options, either.  Toss in a Barq’s root beer and you’ve got a combo that will simultaneously satisfy and fill you with guilty pleasure.  It’s simple and direct:  fat and sugar makes the brain happy.  There were no leftovers.

But after that we did feel the need to do some more walking.  If we’d sat too long, I think we might have become semi-conscious.  Emma, having had her pinnacle moment, resumed grumbling about the boredom of street hiking and looking at architecture.  (She’s practicing to become a teenager, you see.)  Eleanor and I, practicing to become hardened parents of a teenager, resumed our process of humorizing and/or ignoring her attempts at pathos.  We all felt good about our efforts.

philadelphia-jewelers-row.jpgJeweler’s Row was next.  This was an error on my part, for obvious reasons.  If I’d known, I would have picked another route.  Fortunately, many of the shops appeared to be run by Orthodox Jews who were closed on Saturday.  I was ultimately only obliged to enter one store (run by Chinese) and while Eleanor loved the ring it was predictably not in our budget.  Still, I was a bit spooked by Emma’s interest in looking at jewelry through the windows, and her comment, “I’m glad I’m going to be a wife and not a husband, so I get jewelry and don’t have to buy it.” Where did that come from?

For Eleanor, if there was one place we had to visit while in Philadelphia, it was Reading Terminal Market.  We always visit the big city food markets when we can (such as Cleveland’s West Side Market, three years ago), because that’s where Eleanor gets ideas and rare ingredients.  Reading Terminal Market is housed in a former train station next to the convention center.  Its present incarnation began about 30 years ago, when Amish farmers were invited to vend in what was then a seedy neighborhood known primarily for X-rated theaters and dive bars.  Amazingly, they came and gradually turned Reading Terminal Market into a major phenomenon.


The Amish are still the backbone of Reading Terminal Market today.  It’s not just fruits and vegetables, though.  The famous local L.D. Bassett ice cream has been here for many years, along with vendors of beeswax candles, meats & cheeses, coffee, fish, baked goods, and much more.  You can really spend a lot of time (and money) here if you care to browse, and there’s a little room to eat on-site.

We were there for about two hours, until closing. Eleanor came away a relatively light load because she didn’t want to get a lot of perishables: five different cheeses, and some Chinese eggplant for Monday’s dinner.  While walking around, she tried green tea infused with pineapple (not bad) and Emma and I split a dark chocolate milkshake at Bassett’s.

philadelpha-chinatown-dragon.jpgThe final stop of our city tour was Chinatown, where along Race Street a celebration of the Autumn Moon was going on.    We had thought it was later this week, so this was a nice bonus.  Eleanor and Emma usually like to make Moon Cakes but since were there, Eleanor decided to buy some instead.

And of course since she was in the Chinese pastry shop, she picked up a few other things:  a cream-filled coconut bun, a raisin bun, red bean cake, lotus bean cake, and a coconut tart.  We ate the coconut bun right on the street—fantastic—while watching celebratory dragons on the street (video).  The raisin bun was gone a few minutes after we got back to the Airstream.

I think it’s fitting, that as the birthplace of this country, Philadelphia is so ethnically diverse.  It’s a good reminder that while we started as a breakaway British colony, this country was founded on the principle that All Men Are Created Equal … and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” regardless of religion or where you might have come from originally.  Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness were rights well-exercised this Saturday in Philadelphia.