New products

After seven years, I think we’ve finally got it.  This trade show has always been a minor thorn in my side.  I hate the weather up here this time of year, I hate the rush-rush schedule, and I hate the trade show food.  Business events like trade shows are often formulated to cause attendees to burn the candle at both ends, staying up late at the hospitality events, eating too much, standing too much, getting up early and doing it all over again.  Add in jet lag, heavy meals, cold rain and the ever-present possibility of a virus, and you can see why it can be too much.

But we’ve got it down now.  I mean, we have beaten the system. Every year it has been a slightly better trip, and now I think we’ve nearly perfected it.  Brett and I actually had a pretty decent time.  With some maturity to Airstream Life and our approach, we’ve had to chase fewer people.  With better planning, we’ve been able to accomplish all of our goals in a day and a half, rather than two days. A little knowledge of Louisville has yielded better places to eat and quieter hotels (not under the approach path to the airport).  We even had time to take in a movie on Monday night. For the first time, I’m leaving Louisville without feeling breathless.

Focusing our efforts more efficiently did come with a small price, however.  We didn’t roam the convention floor as much as we have in the past.  Rather than dropping in on dozens of manufacturer displays and browsing the products, we spent 100% of our time talking to prospects and partners.  That’s what we needed to do, but I’m afraid it also means no photos or reports of non-Airstream products.

rvia-eddie-bauer-intro.jpgBeyond the Eddie Bauer edition Airstream, the other news from Airstream is the Avenue, a B-van based on a Chevy gas engine platform.  It’s a bit cheaper than the popular Airstream Interstate (which is based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter diesel engine platform), at about $95k versus $125k.  I was told that it has 24 distinct advantages over the competitive B-vans from Roadtrek and Pleasureway, although I don’t know what they are.  It will eventually be sold by Chevrolet dealers in addition to Airstream dealers, just as the Interstate is sold by half a dozen Mercedes-Benz dealers.  I hope to get my hands on a demo unit this winter and take it out for a weekend.

Otherwise, Airstream was mostly showing some decor updates to existing floor plans.  We saw a 16-foot Airstream in the Sport lineup, and some interior variations on the International and Flying Cloud lines. The popularity of the B-van lineup was evident, as this is the first time I have ever seen equal numbers of vans and trailers in the Airstream display.  But the Eddie Bauer model was the big attraction, and I predict it will be a popular trailer.  People are already asking about getting the “sport hatch” feature in other trailer lengths.  In my opinion it doesn’t make sense in anything much shorter than a 25-footer, but ultimately the market will decide, and I’m sure Airstream will build trailers to suit the demand they can identify.

rvia-sfc-fuel-cell.jpgProbably the most intriguing product we spotted was the fuel cell being demonstrated by SFC Energy. This is an entirely new idea for the RV industry, but I think it has the potential to be revolutionary.  The little silver box in the picture is a kind of electrical generator which runs off ultra-pure methanol fuel from the jug at its right.  It’s called an EFOY (“Energy For You”).  It very quietly produces about 90 watts of power (at 12 volts) to recharge the RV batteries.

When I say “quiet” I mean nearly silent.  Running full-bore it comes in at about 23 decibels, or literally whisper quiet.  You could sleep with it running underneath your bed.  The reaction used to make electricity produces no harmful gases, just carbon dioxide and water vapor.  One 2.6 gallon “fuel cartridge” can run the gizmo constantly for five days, and it can be programmed to automatically run only when your batteries need charging.  You could literally camp for weeks with only this device to supply your power.

Now, you might be thinking, “My little gasoline generator produces 1,000 watts, so why would I want that thing that can only make 90 watts?”  Well, first you should read my blog entry “A Short History Of The Sun,” to understand why slow charging is much better than fast charging. In short, generators are massively inefficient at recharging batteries.

Second, most of the time, you are probably very happily camping with only 12 volt power.  (The major exception is running the air conditioning or the microwave oven.)  Your major power draw will be in the evenings, when lights, water pump, and furnace are running.   The EFOY can easily make up all of your day’s power needs by running for a few hours. Think of it as a solar panel that doesn’t require sun.  Day and night, it produces 90 watts of power as needed, leaving no fumes and no noise. In 24 hours the EFOY 1600 can produce 130 amp-hours, which is far more than we could possibly use.

So what’s the catch? Cost.  An EFOY 1600 will run about $4,500 right now, and the company has no distribution network in the US at present, for either the devices or the fuel.  The cost will certainly turn off most RV’ers right now, but look to the future.  Even today, a solar panel setup that can do half of what the EFOY can do will cost thousands of dollars. It may not be long before a fuel cell like the EFOY is the electrical power option of choice for RV’ers.

New ideas in Louisville

As promised, I’m reporting from the annual industry trade show in Louisville.

rvia-eddie-bauer-airstream-closed.jpgWe had a chance to check out the new Eddie Bauer edition Airstream.  The official press conference is tomorrow, where we will learn more details, but here’s what I can tell you now.  It’s basically a 25FB (Front Bedroom) floorplan with a “sport hatch” at the rear.  The dinette seats and side couch fold up to go flat against the walls, and the table is easily removed, to allow full access through the hatch. You can store a kayak inside, although it will get in the way of foot traffic.

The hatch is similar to the one used on the Pan American trailer, but smaller.  A sliding screen comes down from the top to “let the outside in”when the hatch is open. A patch no-skid material covers the standard bumper cover, since it acts as an entry step.

The trailer features Eddie Bauer branding, fabrics, and other details.  Notably, it rides on a set of Michelin LTX Rib 16″ tires.   There are lot of other small touches as well — all of which will be documented in an article in the Spring 2011 issue of Airstream Life.

Airstream is also showing a 16-foot Sport series trailer, which is basically identical to the other 16-footers in floorplan; a 30-foot Flying Cloud; the new Chevy-based “Avenue” Class B motorhome in three floorplans; and several new decors in various existing models.  All of them look good.  I’ll get a few more pics tomorrow.

We had a little break in the middle of the day, so we decided to skip the usual fare and head out to something local.  We ended up at Mark’s Feed Store in their “old town” location.  Despite the name that sounds like it oriented to feeding livestock, it’s actually a decent barbecue place.  An IBC Root Beer in a frosty mug was the highlight for me, though.  I’m often pleased by simple things.

The trade show really ramps up tomorrow, so I can’t say much about the product on display yet, except that I’m noticing a definite trend toward innovation. The manufacturers who are surviving the recession are also the ones thinking ahead and investing in new ideas.  I’ll be prowling more carefully tomorrow to see what great new ideas have popped up, both in Airstream and other brands.

The show is still smaller than it was a few years ago, but I see plenty of strength and lots of optimism, which bodes well for the RV industry overall. And that [insert big sigh of relief] bodes well for those of us who depend on the health of the RV industry for our little businesses.

Adjusting to stationary life

Adjusting from long-term travel to stationary home life is actually more jarring than you might think.  In the first few years of owning our house, we underestimated the impact of the switch.  The obvious changes are easy.  You can see them coming.  You’ll have to unpack the RV, clean up the dust in the house, turn on the utilities, etc.  It’s the little changes that will catch you by surprise.

On the road, we had necessarily established a working relationship between the three of us.  There were certain unwritten rules and expectations, governing things like making room for each other, daily duties, and trip-planning.  If you’ve ever seen a submarine movie, you’ve probably noticed how the crew steps aside to make way for the officers during an emergency.  A 30-foot travel trailer with three people is similar.  You’ve got to make way for the other crew when they need space, and there can’t be arguments among the crew when things go wrong.  If the deck is on fire, you want everyone to grab a fire extinguisher and get to work.

The compensation for adhering to this arrangement is a smooth running ship, and an adventure.  “The world is our living room,” we used to say.  As long as the Airstream moved regularly, we were happy. There was always something new to see, someone new to meet, something interesting to taste or photograph. So an expectation sets in: I’m giving up personal space and the ability to do certain things, in exchange for the fruits of travel.

Coming back to the house, there’s an immediate change.  No longer does the scenery change every few days.  Gone is the invigoration of the unexpected and novel.  Fixed schedules tend to return, responsibilities change, and the enjoyment living small & light is replaced by the burden of a larger home to clean and maintain.   And the “unwritten rules” are different. There’s a definite mental gear-shift that has to occur before you can fully settle in.

More subtly, you will usually find that the problems and worries you left behind are still there waiting for you.  If the house was too big or too expensive when you left, it still will be when you get back.  If your job was unfulfilling, or you didn’t get along with your neighbor, or you were struggling with debt, you’ll find those things waiting for you.  This can be a crushing end to a wonderful travel experience, and one which often throws people into a depression.

For this reason, I always counsel would-be full-timers to clean up their lives (finances, relationships, obligations, battles, and other choices) before they launch.  If they can’t do that, they should at least use the new perspectives offered by their travel experience as motivation to clean up the lingering issues as they travel, because while they are feeling independent and strong they can often make the tough decisions that need to be made.

I have seen friends use their RVs as escape vehicles to deal with divorce, terminal illness, social problems, death of a spouse, collapse of a business, and financial problems. It’s not fun, but for some people the freedom of travel is a mental boost that helps them deal with the tougher things.

We did not leave many problems on the table when we departed in May, but there’s always something unfinished no matter how together you may think your life is.   This time we knew to expect the little shocks of “oh yeah I forgot about that” when we returned, and that made it a little easier.  It’s also easier now that we are comfortable with the house.  Before, when we spent a tiny fraction of our time here, it was disconcerting to move in and that always put us on edge; a bit like living in an unfamiliar hotel.  Now it’s more like home, and it gets more homelike every day. But still, there’s an adjustment period.

One reason that we came back a few days earlier than originally planned was so that we could get through that adjustment period before I had to zoom out again.  Today I fly to Louisville KY for the annual RVIA show.  All of the RV manufacturers show their new product there, and it’s an important event for Airstream Life.  It’s our opportunity to shake hands with our advertisers (past, present, and hopefully future) and look for new business. I don’t like going to Louisville this time of year because the weather is invariably gloomy and chilly with frequent rain.  The timing of the show is always right after Thanksgiving too, which means I get to fly crowded planes with coughing people.  But it’s a quick sting like getting a vaccination.  Once a year, and then I’m free again.  You should see my smile as I get back home to the sunshine.

I’ll report from the show this week when I get a chance.  Airstream will be introducing their new Eddie Bauer trailer with rear “sport hatch” and probably some other things.  I’ve reported every year from RVIA, so if you are wondering what it looks like, check the blog archives for December 2009, 2008, and the Tour of America archives for prior years.


We’ve landed in Tucson, and thus the Airstream has returned to home base after seven months of travel.  It is now tucked away in its carport, getting a well deserved rest after a total voyage of nearly 9,000 towing miles. Likewise, the Mercedes is chillin’, with 14,800 new miles added to its odometer since we left in May.

emma-growth.jpgThere are a lot of ways I could measure this trip, but the photo at right shows my favorite. Emma has grown an inch and a quarter, as marked on the door jamb of our Airstream bedroom.  By any measure, it has been a good period of growth for all of us.

The last phase of our trip was unremarkable by design. We basically bolted 350 miles from Padre Island to central Texas, where we camped overnight at the Caverns of Sonora’s little campground (W/E, $15).  caverns-of-sonora-cg.jpgIf you are driving through central Texas on I-10, there are few options for overnight stays, and many of them are of the down-and-out variety.  So Caverns of Sonora provides a very welcome oasis just about five miles off the highway.  The big attraction is of course the exceptionally well-decorated caverns, but Emma thought the peacocks that roam the campground were pretty worthy too.

Our next day was  another 350 miles, this time through west Texas and over to Las Cruces.  It was a stunningly beautiful fall day in west Texas, with azure blue skies and temperatures of around 78-80 degrees, but with one unfortunate aspect for towing: a strong headwind. Many times I am asked, “Does that Mercedes really pull that big trailer OK?” and the followup question is often “Well, how about in the mountains?” or “Yeah, but wait until you cross the Rockies!”  When people say such things I know that they aren’t really experienced at towing, because if they were they’d know that the true challenge of a tow vehicle is not the occasional mountain pass, but the long day spent bucking a 25-knot headwind.  That’s when you find out who has the chops.

See, you can almost always get up a hill one way or another.  You might have to go slower, or stop to let the engine cool off, but it’s very rare to find a hill so steep that you can’t climb it with any decent tow vehicle.  (We have never had an overheating problem with the Mercedes, but we did with the Nissan Armada. The Mercedes does high-elevation climbs much better, mostly because of the torquey turbodiesel, which isn’t affected by the thinner air at altitude.)  And hills are generally short.  In Colorado you can find a few 6-8% grades that run for eight miles, and in Wyoming there’s the Teton Pass at 10%, but that’s about as bad as it gets.

badly-hitched.jpgIn contrast, imagine trying to pull a trailer through a strong headwind for 350 miles.   That’s a whole different ballgame.  If your tow vehicle struggles from lack of power, or your trailer is being tossed around by gusty winds, or if you’re not hitched up properly, you’ll feel that misery for six hours.  That makes a 20 minute hill climb in the Rockies look like a happy memory.

You’ll run into that a lot when heading west through the central states.  I-90 through South Dakota, I-80 through Nebraska, I-70 through Kansas, I-40 through Oklahoma and Texas, or I-10/20 through Texas.  We’ve hit it in all of those locations.  The car can do it, and our ride is safe & comfortable, but fuel economy suffers horribly.  Sometimes we just stop for the night and try again the next day.

Our headwind on I-10 was pretty stiff.  I know because our fuel economy plummeted, from 13.5 MPG the previous day to a dismal 10.3 MPG.  Keep in mind that your speed relative to the air (airspeed) is what matters to your fuel economy, not the weight or length of the trailer.  If you normally tow at 65 MPH in calm wind conditions, a 25-knot headwind results in drag equivalent to towing at 90 MPH.  Because air resistance (drag) increases in proportion to the square of your airspeed, a headwind like that has a massive impact.

dash-gauges.jpgIn our case, the wind-induced penalty was about 30% of our fuel economy.  At one point we were getting just 9.7 MPG, the absolute worst I have ever seen from this vehicle.  But in west Texas, the options for stopping overnight are somewhat limited, and it didn’t look like the wind was going to abate much in the coming day.  So we plowed on.  By the time we reached the brutish traffic of El Paso, the wind had died down and it was relatively smooth sailing up to Las Cruces.

[By the way, the center display in the photo above deserves some explanation.  The display shows the distance and travel time since our last fuel stop (87 miles, 1 hour, 25 minutes), our average speed (61 MPH), our fuel economy average since last fuel stop (9.7, ugh), the outside air temp and the cruise control setting (65 MPH).  I normally tow a little slower but the speed limit was 80 MPH and I didn’t want to leave a huge differential between us and the rest of the NASCAR traffic.  The car tows very nicely in 7th gear at about 2200 RPM at that speed.]

After this expensive day of driving, we decided to cheap out and try parking at the Cracker Barrel again.  Actually, we stayed there in the hopes that this one would not catch on fire, thus proving that our experience in Louisiana was a fluke.  It didn’t, so we’re in the clear, jinx-wise.

airstream-wash-at-ttt.jpgOur final stop before parking the Airstream was the truck wash in Tucson.  I was amazed at how much salt and gunk was still on the trailer after our rinse-down in Corpus Christi.  Add to that the accumulated bug guts of an 1,100 mile high-speed tow, and you can imagine how the Airstream looked.  It deserved a good bath before we put it away, and now it looks shiny and ready for another adventure.


We succumbed to a little bit of “get-there-itis” on Sunday and drove 350 miles west from Corpus Christi to Sonora, TX.  As I think about things I need to do at home base, the list gets longer and the vast spaces of west Texas and southern New Mexico start to appear further.  It is hard to do much in west Texas with only four days — the distances are so huge that you spend a lot of time just driving from point to point.  We have found ourselves in an odd position:  four days remaining on our timeline, but just not enough to really do what we’d like to do.

All of the interesting parts of west Texas (the national parks, state parks, historical sites, hiking, etc.) are about 500 miles from home base.  New Mexico, of course, is even closer.  This means all of those things are within a reasonable distance if we decide to come back during the winter or spring.  We’ll probably have less time pressure later, so our decision was to not try to rush through any of the possible western stops, in favor of spending more time on the eastern stops.  Austin and Corpus Christi were the limit of our definition of “eastern” for this purpose.

So now we are just heading west at high speed and waiting for inspiration to strike us along the road.  At least by covering a lot of miles on Sunday and Monday we will have a little extra time if we do see something that catches our interest on Tuesday or Wednesday: those interesting roadside stops that you see sometimes, the local cafe, the random desert art, or a photo opportunity. I’ll feel better about pausing once we are within 500 miles of Tucson.

Right around this time of year I always have the same revelation.  This time it hit me on Friday, as I was walking to Malaquite campground’s cold water showers, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  A camper nearby was playing music outside, some woman crooning “White Christmas.”  I had to do a double-take because it seemed so incongruous amidst the sandy dunes, blue skies, and breezy ocean air.  Then I realized: Ah, yes, this is late November and Thanksgiving is just a few days away.

lucy-the-doctor-is-in.jpgThe revelation is that I don’t feel depressed.  Like a lot of people, I have suffered from seasonal depression, and November has historically been a very tough month for me.  Living in the northeast most of my life, suffering the sudden darkness of the annual Daylight Savings Time change and the traditionally grim weather of November has been something that I formerly accepted as normal, along with the feelings of unease and gloom.   The recommended solution was anti-depressant pills, which I have never tried because I have found that a big silver twinkie works just fine for me.  In other words, before the weather gets cold and the sun disappears, I head south and stay there.  That has been my prescription since 2004: Take one Airstream, once daily.

I would not say this will work for everyone, in fact I’m quite sure it won’t.  But I enjoy the sensation of the annual revelation in November:  Hey, it’s almost Thanksgiving!  Why doesn’t it feel like Thanksgiving?  Oh yeah — I feel fine — how’d that happen?  If you hate winter and you’ve got the flexibility, try chasing 72 degrees down south.  I realized a long time ago that I’d rather live in a trailer park in Florida and subsist on a fraction of my salary than live in a mansion in the northeast and feel depressed.

I’m glad I’m feeling strong enough to roll with the punches, because not everything in life goes as you plan.  In my case, the new magazine venture I have been working on for over a year is now officially dead.  It won’t launch.  A combination of bad economic timing (advertisers won’t support it), illness of the appointed Editor (not me), and a distinct lack of manufacturer support sealed the coffin.  This little venture has cost me a considerable amount of money and time, so I have reasons to be depressed about it, but I’m really not.  I went through so much heartache and angst over the first three years of Airstream Life that I’ve learned not to let setbacks get to me.  There were many useful lessons learned, some great new contacts, and a few doors of opportunity remain open even if the primary concept has, as they say about Rolls-Royces, “failed to proceed.”

There are still some other interesting projects on the table — too many, in fact.  Alumapalooza 2011 is trucking right along.  We have 67 trailers signed up as of today and we expect it to be larger and more exciting than the first one.  Brett and I are working on another Alumapalooza-type event for 2011, but it’s too early to release details of that yet.   I’ve got a book project about half done that I’m very excited about — it should release in early 2011 if I buckle down in the next month.  And I’m busy re-inventing Airstream Life in response to reader comments.  We’re adding more photos, more Airstreams, and more brief articles to give a better picture of the Airstream world every issue.

Eleanor and I have been asked a few times recently if we are excited to get back home.  We both have mixed feelings about it, really.  Home base has its advantages (more space, opportunity to pursue projects, Tucson-area activities, settled lifestyle, Eleanor’s kitchen, etc.), while being in the Airstream of course offers a constantly changing environment, the excitement of exploring new places, and the freedom of a lightweight lifestyle.  Both are great.  There is a transition period between the two that is always a little awkward, but it gets to be less of a factor each time.

I think we are particularly comfortable with the end of our long voyage because we know we’ll get out again — soon.  We already have reservations for a New Year’s trip, and are talking about possible trips in the spring as the southwestern weather warms up.  There’s no feeling of being trapped in the house when we can see our escape pod in the carport every day.  So the drive we are doing now back to Tucson is not really an “ending” to be upset about, but simply another transition in our long voyage through The Maze.