Afternoon at the apple orchard

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Our week-long visit in Portland CT now concluded, we are moving slowly down the eastern seaboard again.  Today’s tow was one of our shortest ever, at just about 50 miles to an apple orchard in Bethel CT.

We really didn’t have any compelling reason to move on.  Portland and Middletown were very pleasant to visit, and our spot by the river was peaceful.  But our pre-paid week was up and so we decided to keep moving.  It feels like Fall every day now, with cool nights into the upper 40s, lots of poofy clouds breezing by, and the first hints of leaves changing color.  If we wait much longer, we’ll be running the furnace quite a lot at night.  Already we’ve packed away the summer shorts and pulled out the long pants and sweatshirts.

There was one necessary stop before we departed Portland.  The marina campground lacks an RV dump station, and so they direct customers to the nearby municipal water treatment plant.  These are always interesting spots to dump tanks, because (a) they generally aren’t set up for easy RV access; and (b) because they usually just point you to an open grate that feeds into the treatment plant, and say, “Just dump it there.”  This makes for an extremely graphic experience.  I would rate it “R” for those who are squeamish.

We picked Bethel CT as our stopping point today because we didn’t get enough time to chat with our friends Rick and Sandi during dinner last Friday, and we wanted to get our apple-picking in before we left New England.  I found an orchard by searching online, and verified from Google Maps satellite images that there was plenty of room for the Airstream.  The idea was to spend a few hours at the orchard and then relocate to the local Wal-Mart for overnight parking, but Rick happened to know the owners of the orchard, and the next thing we knew we were welcome to spend the night. I’d much rather spend the night surrounded by apple trees than surrounded by asphalt.

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A tradition of fall in the northeast is apple-picking season.  We have done this for decades, and since Emma was added to our apple-picking clan, we’ve tried to take her as often as possible. The picture at left is from 2001, up in Vermont, where orchards are abundant.  The photo at right is an updated version from today, nine years later, at our current location.

They’re picking Galas and Cortlands right now, but the varieties of apples changes rapidly through the season.  Cortlands are good for eating and for baking, and that’s what Eleanor wanted.  Galas are sweeter and very nice for eating.  Inside the store we also found some really wonderful cider donuts and fresh cider, so we are loaded with apple stuff now and feeling very good about the season.

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So here we are, parked on high ground and having a very pleasant apple-filled afternoon.  Tonight we’ll see Rick & Sandi again, and then head out early for a drive past the NY/NJ metro area, down to Philadelphia. Our positioning here in Bethel is not just convenient, but strategic.  We are comfortably esconced outside the madness of the metro traffic, yet poised at the very edge, so we’ll be ready to tackle the traffic first thing tomorrow.

Public library drama

photo-on-2010-09-15-at-1258.jpgFor the past couple of days I’ve been working a few hours at a local public library.  My cellular Internet connection is rather slow in this town, despite good signal.  When that happens I usually spend a few hours working in the Airstream and then go to some wi-fi hotspot for broadband.   Public libraries are often good for that, and sometimes even have handy desks with power outlets.  You can’t get a hot chai and a muffin like you can at Panera Bread, but on the other hand the library is usually quieter.

The local library here has a ring of wooden desks, five of which have computers, and one empty desk for people like me who bring their own computer.  From my spot I have a view of all five other library patrons, and they have a view of me.  It’s something like the old fashioned “wagon wheel” parking that they used to do at the Airstream rallies in the 1950s.

This means I have  front-row seat for all of the little dramas that play out at the library’s computers.  Many of the people who borrow the computers don’t have their own, which means they have painfully little experience and are often flustered.  Some ask the library staff for help, which is competently and helpfully given. Other patrons are more demonstrative.  A boy who was working at a computer with his father kept running into some sort of problem, and each time his (computer illiterate) father said, “What’s wrong?” the boy responded with statements such as:  “This computer sucks,” and “This is crap.”  Lovely boy. Although, I do have to admit some sympathy: he was working with Windows.

Shortly after, an amazingly curvaceous woman plopped herself down at a computer and began to act out the definition of “drama queen,” through a series of loud sighs and explosive monosyllables.  From the very moment she touched the keyboard she was emoting her deep dissatisfaction with whatever the Internet was delivering, with “HUH??”  “UHHHHH”  “WOOOOF”  “WHA??”  and “SHEESH”.  Each outburst was accompanied by a quick look around to see if she’d gotten anyone’s attention, and who amongst the other five diligent computer users would dare to look in her direction.  At her first Emmy-worthy moment of self-expression, I made the mistake of looking and was rewarded with a look that said, “Come over and solve my life’s problems for me.”  It’s the sort of look that guys fall for in bars, and come to regret soon after.  I ducked back down to my laptop screen and wished that I was wearing a large wedding ring.

But she was nothing compared to the tweens.  By mid-afternoon, the middle school let out, and suddenly every desk was occupied by a 12-year-old girl who desperately needed to view Justin Bieber videos.  The one to my left was particularly enamored of Justin, literally grabbing the sleeve of anyone who walked by and exhorting them to watch.  “Justin Bieber!  He’s so cute.  Look!”  and then “Justin Bieber — he’s such a good actor.”  A minute later, a new victim:  “Justin Bieber — he’s going to be on CSI!  He’s so cute.”  And again to another innocent, “Justin Bieber, he’s such a good actor.”  Over and over again she watched Justin’s video clips and repeated her mantra, “He’s so cute.  He’s such a good actor,” her eyes misty with the sort of adolescent crush that is driven by hormones and exceptionally bad judgment.

With all these distractions it is very difficult to work.  Once one’s concentration is broken, it’s easy to notice the other minor distractions:  the “sniffer” who will never blow his nose but just keep snorking up a giant wad of snot over and over;  the child who keeps whispering, “Mommy, when are we leaving?” while Mom desperately tries to finish her tasks at the computer; and of course, the cacophony of cell phones.

You see, even though we’re in the library, nobody wants to miss a call.  So they leave their phones on.  Then, when they get a call they can see the caller ID and … ignore it.  So every fifteen minutes or so, another cell phone rings.  Of course, this is the era of custom ringtones, so they don’t really ring.  What we get is a random sampling of Americana as interpreted by Verizon.  It’s interesting to see what people choose as their custom ringtones.  I would never have guessed THAT woman as someone who would pick “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones as her ringtone. There are birds chirping, steel drum bands, and a wide assortment of 1980’s pop rock right here in the library, and you never know what tune is coming next.

So there we are, all sitting and diligently typing or clicking, when the latest random sound appears.  Somebody in the wagon wheel desperately begins ransacking pockets and purses in an attempt to find the phone, locates the Mute button, and then glances at the Caller ID.  “Ah, so it’s him trying to reach me,” they seem to think, and then put the phone away secure in the knowledge that they have screened the call.  Their task was more important, so they’ve “won.”

But alas, victory is fleeting, because about half the time the caller knows they’ve been screened, and so … they call again.  Not 30 seconds after the first blast of “YMCA” by The Village People, and the resulting guilty look*, it is back.  Will the offender turn off the phone this time?  Not a chance.  Now it gets opened and the stage-whisper conversation begins:

“Hello?  … Oh, it’s probably on the back porch …  Uh, try the closet …. No, the one by the kitchen … Well, ask Bobby if he moved it … Don’t forget you need to be ready to go to the dentist at 4 … When will you be back?  … OK …”

And then, the classic comment, once the conversation begins to wane:  “I can’t talk.  I’m at the library.”

* TIP: If you secretly love disco and don’t want anyone to know, don’t choose Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” as your ringtone.

Days at the marina

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We have virtually our own private campground now.  A fifth-wheel trailer was parked nearby in the campground when we arrived, but the owners came by over the weekend and took it away.  Before they went, they spent one last night in it, and it was obvious that they really didn’t want the camping season to end.  All their camping amenities were out for the final night: propane fire, electric ice maker, portable refrigerator, a large entrance mat, and chairs.  The wife sat out in her fashionable white jacket and summer sandals, next to the little flickering flame, and just stared at the boats on the water thoughtfully, perhaps a bit forlorn, for hours.

There are at least two couples living aboard their boats at the dock, but we rarely see them.  We only know their presence by the barking of little dogs and the blue glow of their TV sets as we walk by.  Other than that, the marina seems almost abandoned.  Once in a while we’ll see someone in one of the open-air shops, working on their restoration. We’ve spotted a man with a three-legged cat, and a couple of dogs that seem to belong to somebody.  Everyone keeps to themselves, although they aren’t unfriendly, and I’m sure they regard us with some curiosity, too: a family in a shiny Airstream covered with odd stickers, parked alone for days in the empty campground. One family in a minivan stopped by the chat briefly, but otherwise we’ve been undisturbed.

portland-ct-emma-rope-swing.jpgSo we have the run of the place. I showed Emma where there’s a rope swing by the water’s edge, and after some time to build up her courage, she has decided it’s a fun thing.  It’s a classic rope swing:  a decaying and partially unthreaded rope tied to a dead tree, swinging out over the water.  At the peak of your swing, you are a good ten feet above the water, although it looks much higher and scarier.  At any moment the rope appears as if it might break and leave you in a pile of gray river sand, or splashing in the silty water.  I don’t think it would be half as fun if it looked safe.

Emma has also discovered what she believes to be river otters.  One of them swam right past her last night, and occasionally they make a terrific splash in the water.  The splash makes me wonder if she’s really seeing beavers (who will warn you off with a whack of their tail on the surface), but so far I haven’t spotted them myself.

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This morning we woke up to find a fantastic fog over the water.  I went out to capture a few shots in my pajamas but the fog was burning off too fast.  In just a few minutes it was gone, leaving behind what promises to be a spectacularly sunny day.

Salt, paper, brownstone and hot dogs

There is one major problem with camping at the seashore: salt.  I have fought quite a battle with airborne sodium chloride pollution (i.e., salt spray) over the past week, and I have not yet won.  Our five days at Horseneck Beach resulted in the car and the Airstream being coated with sticky spray, and the entire time I could practically hear the Airstream corroding.

To its credit, the Airstream is made of aluminum, with stainless steel rock guards, and the fasteners are all made of non-corrosive materials as well.  So the trailer resists the elements well.  But nothing is perfect.  Every exposed bit of steel on the hitch (where rocks have chipped the paint, and bare metal parts) quickly went to a bright rust orange.  The trailer has bits of damaged clearcoat on the aluminum edges, where curly white “filiform” corrosion had previously begun, and the mixture of salt and humidity is ideal for speeding up that process too.

It’s a problem to wash trailers on the road.  A 53-foot combination does not fit into standard car washes.  Most campgrounds don’t permit washing the trailer while on-site, for various reasons including water conservation.  We occasionally stop into Blue Beacon truck washes to get the entire rig (Airstream + Mercedes) washed, but I couldn’t find any truck washes on our route from Horseneck Beach to Portland CT.  Finally I found an opportunity to thoroughly rinse off the trailer (details deliberately obscured to protect the guilty) and seized it.  Now the trailer is relatively clean, with just a few streaks of diluted salt here and there.

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However, I was shocked to find greenish deposits atop the chrome of the clearance lights and taillights after I washed the trailer.  Some sort of chemical reaction has occurred.  These deposits look like corroded copper, and they rub off cleanly with a rag and a little pressure.  A yellowish deposit has adhered to the sea-facing side of the backup camera as well.  So the job of recovering from the salt will not be done until I can get a proper wash with some scrubbing.  Such a price to pay for a few days at the beach.  It’s not normally like that.  We’ve camped on beaches many times and usually there’s not that much airborne salt, but this was a particularly windy trip and we were right on the shore.  When I get a chance I’ll spend a day sanding down and repainting all the rust spots on the trailer’s tongue and hitch as well.

The car, of course, is easy.  I ran it through a local car wash as soon as I had the trailer disconnected.  The car wash was was on the way to a mid-day visit about 25 miles away with relatives that I have not seen in many years.  That visit turned out to be a big success, and we followed it up with dinner in Waterbury with our good friends (Airstreamers) Rick & Sandi. While Friday was unproductive from a work viewpoint, it was at least a day filled with pleasant visits and good chow.

On Saturday we decided to roam around the local Portland-Middletown area while getting some errands done.  I had a massive amount of mail overdue to me, and it all arrived at the Portland Post Office via General Delivery. Even with all the efforts I’ve made over the past several years to eliminate paper mail, I still get too much of it. I don’t want paper statements from any business, but some just can’t seem to get the concept of electronic delivery and payment yet.  My current Tree-Killers Hall of Shame:

#1:  Golden Rule (our health plan administrator):  Every doctor visit results in a shower of paper, including Explanation of Benefits statements that are generally incomprehensible anyway.

#2: Bank of America credit card:  Despite signing up for electronic billing multiple times (and being successfully enrolled for two years), they still send paper statements every month.  Because of mail forwarding delays, I get these a week or two after I’ve paid the bill electronically.

#3: EBSCO (a magazine order service that handles all the Airstream Life subscriptions from Amazon.com): 3-4 pieces of paper in an envelope whenever they process orders for Airstream Life.  They try to consolidate orders so that I get 3-4 in a package, but we still get about two dozen of these envelopes every month.

If I could get these three on the electronic program, my forwarded mail package wouldn’t have been three inches thick and my working day would be 30 minutes shorter on Monday.

But rather than go back to the Airstream on a perfect September day, we continued around Portland.  The town is known for its quarries by the river, which for centuries have been mined to supply stone for nearly every brownstone building in New York City. I’ve never really studied brownstone before, but upon seeing a fine example you can tell why it was prized for construction of elegant homes and offices.  It has a beautiful grain and color, and can be worked readily.  The current working quarry is quite small and can be seen just a short distance from the center of town.

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The historic quarries are quite a bit bigger. In fact, they have since been flooded and turned into a unique urban fun park called Brownstone Exploration and Discovery Park.  This place is a must-see.  You can swim, scuba dive, snorkel, ride zip lines, and there are all sorts of water toys to play on.  I wish we had planned our Saturday around it, because it was the perfect day to spend at a water park, and the weather won’t be nearly as nice the rest of the week.

Since it was already mid-day and a bit late for us to prep for a day in the water, we continued across the Connecticut River to the college town of Middletown.  This is the home of Wesleyan University, which I’m sure contributes to the liveliness and diversity of the downtown.  Portland’s downtown is not much to get excited about, but Middletown is pretty vibrant and worth a prowl.  The restaurants in particular look good.  We’ll be checking out a few of them for lunch later this week.

portland-ct-hot-dog.jpgComing back to the Airstream later, we ran into an old acquaintance: the famous Top Dog trailer.  It is normally parked right on the highway just about a mile from the marina where we are camped. If you have a copy of Airstream’s book, “Wanderlust,” you might remember seeing a picture of this trailer.  Look closely and you’ll see a little kid squinting into the sun.  That’s Emma, age 4, at the Region One Rally in Woodstock CT.

Well, she’s ten now, so I thought it appropriate to get an updated picture of her with this 1960s Airstream-turned-catering-trailer.  See the results, at right.  (One of the things I like about having a daughter is that I get to travel with two good-looking babes all the time.)  Emma did, of course, get a hot dog.

We spent the rest of the afternoon just chilling at the marina. Eleanor and I went on a walk to look at the boats and see which ones we’d like to own (in our dreams).

In the evening, Eleanor decided it was time to shoot another cooking video.  She’s been getting asked by some Airstream friends, so we recorded some of her preparation of Saturday night’s dinner. You can see it on YouTube.

Maintenance note:  I replaced one of the Hensley hitch’s spring bar jacks in June because the internal gear started binding and it eventually stripped.  The other one began to exhibit the same  symptoms when we left Vermont last week.  Hensley shipped me a replacement for that one this week, which I installed on Friday.  (Installation is an easy job that requires only one tool, an Allen wrench.)  Both of the jacks were replaced under Hensley’s lifetime warranty.  They were about four years old and had been in heavy use.

Marina camping in Portland, CT

We’re in central Connecticut now.  On the recommendation of some fellow Airstreamers, we’ve settled in Portland on the banks of the Connecticut River at a marina.

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We’ve camped at marinas before, most memorably in Florida’s panhandle, at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado, and on Lake Powell.  Marina camping is a fun change when you can find it.  There’s always a guaranteed water view, and usually a background of boats coming and going that makes the camping feel more lively. There’s often an industrious feel about the place, with people working on boat repairs or getting their fishing gear together.

portland-ct-boats-on-river.jpgBeing post-Labor Day in New England, the weather has turned cooler and there is a distinct hint of fall in the air. Boaters aren’t as active.  The campground is empty except for us and an uninhabited fifth-wheel trailer, so we basically have the place to ourselves.

The campsite is at a marina on the Connecticut river in the town of Portland.  We’re the only ones in the little 22-site campground.  The season is mostly wrapped up after Labor Day.  The days are still nice, with low 70s expected all week (50s at night), but the kids are back to school and this is a pretty unknown campground.  I bought a week of camping for $150.  We see boats going by once in a while, little dinner cruises, students from some local school doing crew, etc.  But mostly it’s just quiet.

The downside of this particular campground is that it lacks sewer connections and has no dump station.  Campers get a referral to a city-owned dump station in town, which is only open Monday-Friday.  To use it, we would have to hitch up and tow into town, which is more effort than its worth.  We’ll be here for five or six days, and our gray water holding tank simply won’t last that long, so the solution is simply to use the marina’s public shower. That’s not a huge sacrifice, and the compensation is a fairly moderate fee: $150 for the week, or about $21 per day.

The plan for the next several days is to do a bunch of work (for some reason I’m amazingly busy with projects), get some schooling done, explore the town of Portland, and visit some relatives about 40 minutes drive away. It’s a pretty low-concept plan, but every full-timer knows that’s part of the lifestyle.