A simple trip

It’s a bit unusual that, in preparation for our next Airstream trip, we are mostly unloading the trailer.  That’s because we haven’t fully finished reconfiguring our Airstream from its former role as full-time home, to its new role as escape pod. The compartments are somewhat unloaded, but many things still remain tucked away in the corners that really should come out.

I want to travel a lot lighter than we have in the past.  Not because this will improve our fuel economy, and not because we were overweight, but simply because life is easier in the trailer when there’s less stuff to dig past in order to get to what you need.  It will be nice to have storage areas that have free space, instead of being packed to the absolute limit.  We’re not going to be needing that snorkel gear in the southern California desert anyway.

defrosting-the-refrigerator.jpgI’ll appreciate being able to get to the bed without stepping over my ukulele.  Finding the beef jerky for a hike will be nicer when there’s no heap of summer clothing stored on top of it.  And on and on it goes … every space in the trailer is getting overhauled, and all of the “we might need this” stuff is coming out in favor of the “I plan to use this next week” stuff.

This is fun.  Instead of packing food for every contingency and having to cut package down in size to fit, Eleanor is just tossing in the full size packages of the things we plan to eat in the week-long trip that is planned.  We’re bringing only the games we want to play, the clothes we want to wear this week, the books we are currently reading, and we’re putting the rest into storage bins in the house.

For example, this time of year it’s hard to find reliably warm weather anywhere, and the southwestern desert is certainly not immune to cold. No snowstorms are expected in the low desert that we travel, but nights will be near freezing.  A rapid 35 degree drop in temperature after sunset is not unusual, so our clothes for this trip have been chosen with layering in mind.

The upside of the winnowing process is not the hundreds of pounds of stuff we have removed, but more rather that we’ve simplified life yet again.  Simple is good when you are going on vacation, and that’s the mental mode I want to capture with this trip.  Usually it’s work and play combined.  This time the work will be kept to a minimum while the play stuff takes over.  Eliminating the unnecessary has made room for a few bulky luxuries that we haven’t traveled with in years: the Weber grill, the folding bicycles, folding chairs, and the waffle iron.

I know for most people who have Airstreams, this perspective on packing is not very new.  Most folks pack the trailer for each trip, and they are usually packing for less than a week.  But we haven’t had that experience since 2005. I am enjoying the novelty of being “weekenders.”

Part of the fun is the anticipation of the trip, and the anticipation can be strengthened by the process of picking out the things you’ll need for the things you’ll do.  I can already see us hiking up a canyon in search of a palm oasis and bighorn sheep (note to self: remember hiking boots, backpacks, trail snacks, water reservoirs).  I’ll have fun snapping pictures (remember to pack all the camera gear) as we discover interesting bits of geology, history, and botany along the trails.  In the evening we’ll grill out by the awning (pick up portobello mushrooms and peppers at the grocery), and watch the bright stars as the coyotes howl (binoculars, tripod, headlamps, folding chairs, warm sweaters).  In the morning we’re going to experiment with a new waffle mix and serve ’em with real Vermont maple syrup.

We are fortunate to have a full hookup in our carport.  This makes pre-trip prep a lot easier.  The trailer has been sitting since we got back, and there’s some cleaning to be done.  Eleanor defrosted the refrigerator quickly before we started repacking it, and I did a little mopping up of the desert dust that always accumulates even in closed spaces.  (In the photo above, she’s chucking a piece of ice from the refrigerator into the sink.) A quick check around the Airstream shows that everything is still operational except for a single bulb that burned out, so the prep is minimal this time.

The last simplicity accruing from this change in perspective is the ease with which this trip has come together.  Focusing solely on a closed-ended and brief trip, we have had to put less brainpower into the planning and packing.  Preparing for our last seven month voyage took weeks of prep, shopping, packing, and planning. It’s so much easier for this trip.  We need only pack for one season, one place, one week, and one intent:  have fun and relax.  Although I can’t wait to get going, these days leading up to departure are fine too.

Airstreams in the movies

Up in the northeast, where I am from, it’s a modern tradition to pass much of the long cold nights surrounding Christmas by watching movies.  Heart-warming tale after tale eventually anesthetizes you sufficiently that you don’t notice that it’s dark 16 hours out of 24, and thus you survive a period where there is otherwise not much to do.

But my Christmas week is somewhat different, because I am working on an article for a future issue of Airstream Life, about “Airstreams in the movies.”  Instead of cheer, I am watching horror, and bad horror at that.  Instead of hearing saccharine songs of happy reindeer and Christmas miracles, I am listening to gruesomely bad musical themes (generally written by the writer/producer/director’s cousin).  No upbeat characters and plots here; instead, Airstreams seem to be most often featured in gory slasher flicks, spoofs, and satires of human oddities.

I’m talking about movies like “Mars Attacks,” and “Eight Legged Freaks” — and those were two of the better movies.  Most of the rest are just plain bad. Spend an afternoon watching “Evil Alien Conquerors” and “Idle Hands” and you’ll know what it means to have your brain cells nullified, one scoop at a time.

Perhaps the worst part of the process was today, when I discovered that (despite tips to the contrary), the Wes Craven horror pic “The Hills Have Eyes,” does in fact NOT feature an Airstream.  The hapless family eaten by mutant rednecks are staying in an ugly corrugated Shasta trailer.  I had to skim through the entire movie to discover that an Airstream was not going to appear.

motorhome-massacre5.pngWhy is it that Airstreams most commonly show up in horror movies?  Perhaps because they are cheap props.  “Motor Home Massacre,” for example, features a customized Argosy motorhome that was virtually the only set in the entire flick. Just add a few bimbos with huge implants, some stereotypical rednecks, and a few knives, and voila!  instant movie success thanks to an eager audience of teen boys.

Rather unfairly, Airstreams also show up in movies regularly whenever a connotation of “yokel” or “trailer trash” needs to be made.  This is the role in which “Mars Attacks” used them, and they were used to equal effect in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Legally Blonde,” and “Raising Arizona.”  Is it a compliment that movie directors so often choose Airstreams to depict the wide world of travel trailers, or an insult?

Fortunately, there are times that the Airstreams get star treatment, as the preferred choice of movie actors.  In both “Simone” and the animated movie “Bolt,” Airstreams are used as star’s trailers in the backlot — which happens to be a slice of realty.  Movie stars really do like Airstreams, and many many famous names you’ve heard have owned them.  So the scene is not all bad, but there’s no denying there’s a distinctly unfavorable tinge about the way Hollywood has treated the world’s most famous and long-lasting travel trailer.

I have a rough list of about 55 movies that theoretically feature Airstreams.  There is no way I’m going to watch them all.  Most of them are bad, and I need to retain at least some of my brain for future employment. But I will watch or skim at least a dozen of them for purposes of research.  Tonight, for example, the movie will be “Space Cowboys,” a ridiculous premise involving a group of over-the-hill test pilots who get NASA to put them on one last crucial Earth-saving mission.

Coming up:  “Quicksilver Highway,” “Beyond The Sea,” “Baghdad Cafe,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Air Bud: 7th Inning Stretch,” and “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.”  So you can see that the life of an Editor is not all glamorous (not that you thought that anyway).  If you’d like to spare me further pain, do me a favor:  put in a comment here, naming movies that I should see, or those that I should be careful to avoid.  The brain cells you may save thank you in advance.

Dear Santa

wi10-cover-medium.jpgI know it’s just one day after Christmas and you’re on vacation, but I’ve got a new Christmas list for 2011.  See, we’re getting ready for a trip into the California desert later this week, and as we re-pack the Airstream a few ideas have occurred to me.  Some of the things I want are pretty tough to find, so I figured you and the elves would appreciate a little extra time.

The first thing I’d like is a GPS that doesn’t get lost.  GPS is a technological miracle 99% of the time, but watch out for that one percent when it isn’t.  How many times has Garminita tried to send us down roads that don’t exist, or blind alleyways in the interest of chopping 15 feet off our route?  Why does it take three years to get a new road into the database?  It’s no fun having a navigator you can’t always trust.  I can see why you use Rudolph.

I’d also like a factory-approved bicycle rack for my Airstream.  That way I don’t have to carry folding bikes inside the car.  If I could pop a pair of full-size bikes on a bumper rack (with protective covers), it would be incredible.  I’d probably ride a lot more.  Some people say it isn’t possible, but I’m pretty sure Santa Claus can do anything.

A quiet fuel cell power generator would be great for long boondocking trips in cloudy places.  I love the solar panels we use, but a fuel cell would be a great auxiliary power source — silent, non-polluting, and long-running, under any conditions.  This is technology that exists today, so all you need to do is figure out how to get the cost down.

I don’t think this exists in the RV world yet, but how about a combination oven/microwave that runs on propane?  Right now the limited space inside a travel trailer is wasted by requiring separate convention and microwave ovens. Or better yet, how about a removable RV grill: indoors it’s a regular stove, but you can remove it for grilling outdoors!  That way we won’t have to carry our Weber grill in the back of the car.

Thanks for bringing me the Blu-ray player for the house. Now, can I get one for the Airstream?  This time of year, with long and cold nights, we tend to watch a lot of movies after dinner.  That old JVC DVD player that came with the trailer is past its prime.  We’d like to be able to see every one of Shrek’s nose hairs on the new HD screen I installed.  A new set of Bose speakers would be great, too.

Can you try to do something about the state parks in Arizona?  We have so few that offer camping, and nearly all of them are in danger of closure thanks to budget problems at the state level.  It would be nice if a few of them didn’t have to depend on community bake sales in order to stay open.

That’s probably too political for you, so if you can’t do that, how about arranging for biodiesel everywhere?  Every drop of biodiesel is effectively carbon neutral, reduces dependence on dino oil, and the exhaust smells like french fries.  Even B5 (5% bio, 95% dino) helps, and any diesel can burn that.  If I could find it more often, I’d use it more often.

I’ve got a bunch of other things I’d like, if you have room in the bag.  An instantly self-drying awning would be great for mornings where the fabric is covered in dew and we’ve got to get going.  That way it won’t get moldy when we roll it up wet.  I’d appreciate a stoneguard that can be left up on a windy night without rattling, compartment locks with unique keys, wheel bearings that don’t require annual re-packing and a truly unbreakable sewer hose.

I’d also like to thank you for some of the stuff I got last year.  I asked for trailer tires that actually worked, and I got them. I asked for 100 trailers at Alumapalooza, and I got 127.  You even delivered me that gift I waited for five years to get: an Airstream entry door that closes properly, with a light touch.  So I know you can work miracles.  After managing those gifts, I’ll bet my list for 2011 will be a cinch.

Thanks, and have a great vacation on The Keys.

Living cheap on the road

Here’s another question I often am asked:  What does it cost to live on the road?

I think a lot of people ask this question because they assume that a life of travel has to be an expensive luxury.  This isn’t surprising, since (at least in the USA) most people’s view of free time is tied directly to the concept of “vacation” — and it isn’t a vacation unless you go somewhere and spend a lot of money.

It takes a little re-arranging of the brain space to grasp that full-time travel via an Airstream can be a really economical experience.  Some people try, and fail miserably, having spent many times more on fuel, admission tickets, and “supplies” (read: souvenirs), just like their vacations.  But I’m here to tell you that not only can it be cheaper than living in a stationary house, it can be a life-saver.

See, when I started Airstream Life magazine, I was severely under-capitalized: the curse of many small business entrepreneurs.  After a year of running the small and unprofitable business, it was clear that we needed to reduce our living expenses if our savings were to last long enough to reach profitability.  And our largest expense by far was the upkeep of our house.

The house was eating us alive, with mortgage, substantial taxes, maintenance, utilities, snowplowing, garbage collection … while we were traveling about 5 months per year on business. So after some consideration, we decided to sell it and live on the road for a while before building a smaller house.  A summer of living in our Argosy 24 turned into 36 months of life in our Airstream Safari 30.  Along the way we discovered that life in the Airstream was not only a lot of fun, but much more affordable than life in the house had been.

And that made all the difference.  I could not have succeeded with Airstream Life if we hadn’t lived on the road for three years.  Without the crushing burden of a house, we were able to stretch our savings to permit years of travel — combining a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a smart financial move.

Of course, we took care to ensure to cut our travel expenses whenever possible.  We saw people run through $50,000 in a year traveling by RV, and we saw people doing it on as little as $20,000 per year (and having the same amount of fun).  So we tried to emulate the folks who were having a frugal but wonderful time.

The “tricks of the trade” aren’t really tricks at all.  They’re just common-sense choices that you can make along the way, like limiting your driving.  There’s usually no need to zing back and forth across the country, but as I’ve said before, this is one of the top mistakes made by new full-timers.  One of our very best months was spent in the Four Corners region (CO, UT, AZ, NM) where we visited fourteen national park sites on a budget of $971.  You don’t have to spend a lot to experience a lot.

Why was it so cheap? First off, we rarely splurged on full-hookup campgrounds. Instead, we prefer to stay in the national park campgrounds whenever possible.  They’re more natural, better located, and cheaper, in exchange for the trade-off of generally lacking the amenities of commercial campgrounds.

Second, we limited our travel.  We stayed several days in most locations, and never towed more than 100 miles.  When we found a good place, we stayed a while.  Staying put is always cheaper than towing somewhere else. Although we rarely stayed as long as a month, you can really save a lot of bucks with campground monthly rates.

Third, we didn’t buy anything except necessities.  Our souvenirs are strictly limited (because of space limitations too!), so early on we decided what we’d collect.  Eleanor buys a national park pin in almost every park we visit.  Emma sometimes gets one too, or a book, in addition to the Junior Ranger badge she usually earns.  We don’t buy logo apparel because we really don’t need it and the trailer would quickly fill up with the stuff.  (After all, we’ve visited well over 150 national park sites.)  We avoid the cute gift shops in town, and when we do buy something local, it’s most often edible.  I know a lot of people like to shop as they go, and I’m not saying you can’t do that, but you can’t expect a habit like that to be cheap.

Related to this, we were also careful to limit eating out.  It gets expensive quickly, not to mention the rapid impact on your waistline.  This is tougher than it might seem, because everywhere you go, there’s someone who wants to celebrate your arrival (or your new friendship) with dinner out.

Fourth, we took full advantage of the great deal that our nation’s parks offer.  For $85 per year we have free admission to every US national park in the world, including the ones in Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands.  It’s a deal like no other.  If you are over age 62, the deal is even better: $10 for a lifetime pass.  Don’t miss it.

Fifth is the Big One: We sold our house.  You can’t leave cheaper on the road if you still have a house somewhere.  The house stills costs even if you don’t live in it, doesn’t it?  The only ways to make the economic formula work are to sell the house or rent it out while you are gone. We calculated the cost of owning our house at about $65 per day.  Once we had that burden lifted, it was easy to cost-justify the Airstream and the tow vehicle.  You’re even better off if you don’t have a loan on those vehicles.

“The cost of travel” is a red herring.  The cost of staying at home is the unspoken and dangerous story.  Unspoken, that is, until the recent mortgage crisis revealed how many people were living far beyond their means in the name of “home ownership.”  Dangerous, in the sense that if too many people realized how much better off they might be without the trappings of suburbia, the housing market could collapse further. Not everyone can break away from their current responsibilities and travel, but if you are lucky enough to be able to travel — even for a week or two — yes, you can live on the road and save money.

Modernism Week 2011

Last February you might recall that I took the 1968 Airstream Caravel out to Palm Springs for a few days.  It was one of eight vintage trailers on display at the ACE Hotel, which was a small part of the big Modernism Week even that takes over Palm Springs every year.

The event was surprisingly popular, considering the small number of trailers that were on display.  Over 600 people came through to tour the trailers, inside and out.  So I proposed to the organizers of Modernism Week that R&B Events (our little company that organizes Alumapalooza) get involved and try to make the event larger.

They accepted, and so during February 25-27, 2011, we’ll have 18 really exceptional vintage trailers on display at the Riviera Resort & Spa in downtown Palm Springs. Most of them will be 1960s Airstreams, including a Bambi, two Caravels, two Globe Trotters, a Trade Wind, a Safari, and a Caravanner.  All of them will be completely restored, whether customized or original.

holiday-house.jpgIn addition, we are expecting several interesting non-Airstreams.  Already signed up are a 1935 Bowlus Road Chief, a 1960 Holiday House (pictured at left), and a 1950 Airfloat Landyacht. If you went to Alumapalooza in 2010, you might have seen John Long’s Bowlus already — it’s absolutely stunning.  Pictures of it were also featured in a recent issue of Airstream Life.

Kristiana Spaulding will be there with her “silver trailer” jewelry and her Caravel.  She’s a fun person to chat with, since her interests encompass many aspects of design including jewelry and vintage trailers. She and her husband Greg own a small fleet of trailers, some of which they rent for vacations.

John Byfield and Kate Heber will be there too, with their customized “Eco-Discovery Tour” Airstream (a 1962 Flying Cloud). This trailer was featured in Airstream Life. It’s sort of a rolling showcase of alternative ideas and materials that can make everyone’s life greener. You can see some pictures of it on their website.

If you’d like to come see the show, you should check out the Modernism Week website.  There’s a free “exterior” (closed-door) showing on Friday, February 25.  You can just show up at the Riviera Hotel and wander around from 5 pm to 8 pm.

Open-door tours, where you can see the interiors and talk to the owners, will be Saturday and Sunday, Feb 26-27.  There’s an admission fee for the interior viewings on the weekend, which I believe will be $15.  Hours are 10 am – 3 pm Saturday, and 9 am – 1 pm Sunday.  There will also be several vendors on site, with all kinds of modernism / vintage trailer inspired goodies.  I believe that David Winick, creator of the Airstream 75th Anniversary Bambi, will be there with his new book, too.

At this point we’ve got 12 trailers signed up to participate.  We haven’t made a public call for participants up till now, because it’s an invitation-only event.  The trailers have to be approved before they can be in the show.  This is to ensure high quality for the people who are buying tickets to tour the trailers.  Plus, we only have space for 18 trailers.

dsc_8421-web.jpgBut it’s a heck of a deal.  For an $85 entry fee you get two free nights in the Riviera hotel, two receptions, lots of fun, and the chance to win the new “Airstream Life Award,” hand-made by Stevo Cambronne.  (The award is something new we’ve developed.  Two will be given to great trailers at Modernism Week, and we are also planning to give a couple away at next year’s Alumapalooza in Jackson Center OH.)  Just hanging with the other owners should be worth the entry fee, since they are all interesting and motivated people with great restoration talents.

So if you’ve got a nicely restored vintage trailer of any make, and would like to attend, send me a few photos (use the Airstream Life “Contact Us” form to send an email and I’ll reply with an address). But hurry!  We’ve only got 6 spaces left, and they are going fast. Whether you’ve got a trailer to show, or just want to come through and see them all, I hope to see you in Palm Springs next February!