Why we picked this home base

After we sold our home in Vermont and started traveling full-time, we had the entire country to consider as a future residence.  We browsed and briefly lived in something like 46 states before we made our choice. So it’s understandable that one of questions we get asked most frequently is “Why did you pick Tucson?”

Really, the criteria was rather mundane:  we liked the desert climate (good for SAD and good for allergies), the cost of living is reasonable, we could buy a “lock and leave” house that wouldn’t need winterizing or constant air conditioning while we were gone, there’s year-round outdoor activity for adults and children, and Tucson has everything we need.  Having spent most of my life in rural country, I appreciate the convenience of living in a city even though it’s not as quiet as what I’m used to.

We don’t pretend that our criteria makes sense for anyone else, so after answering this question I am always quick to point out that it’s really up to everyone to figure out what’s important to them.  I probably don’t need to do that, since most of the folks asking the question are themselves frequent travelers and they tend to be very independent.  Of all the people who have asked the question, none of them have settled here. They’ve all found their own favorite places.

But we like southern Arizona a lot, especially for the diversity of things to do in the area.  Take Saturday, for example.  We decided that our mission would be to browse the Asian food markets in town.  Tucson doesn’t have nearly the Asian population of the California cities, but enough that we can easily find the exotic ingredients that Eleanor likes to use occasionally in her cooking.  We googled up a few likely spots and read the online reviews (mostly useless, as usual), and eventually came up with a list of three targets.  Right there, that’s a win — because in many other cities we’d just be plain out of luck.  I like the fact that I can find almost anything here.

tucson-leelee-market.jpgHaving just put some money into the Mercedes 300D for front end work last week, I wanted to give it a run. So we loaded up into the “Stuttgart Taxi” and cruised to our first stop, the Lee Lee Supermart in northwest Tucson.  This place tries to cover most of the major countries of far east Asia, so you’ll find Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc., all through the store.

I’m always intrigued with the strange and interesting new foods and ingredients in Asian markets.  It’s a temptation to start buying a little of everything, just to try it out.  But since we had three markets on our program for the day (two Asian and one “other”), we tried to be moderate in our choices.  I could easily see us filling the roomy trunk of the Stuttgart Taxi with a pile of groceries worth more than the car itself.

tucson-vermont-curry.jpgAnother fun part of this type of shopping is finding truly odd or confusing packaging.  There are things both lost and gained in translation from Asian languages, and sometimes the results can be laughable.  This keeps both adults and kids entertained.  Our first find was “Vermont Curry,” as seen here. Now, I’m from Vermont, and I can tell you that “Vermont” and “curry” go together about as well as “Kansas Lobster.” These days Vermont actually has a few ethnic restaurants, thanks to an increasingly diverse population, but as a child I remember that pizza was about as exotic as it got. If there were such a thing as Vermont Curry, it would probably have maple syrup in it.

tucson-steamed-potato.jpgAnother minor oddity was the House Of Steamed Potato brand kimchi crackers. Apparently this is a major brand in China, with several flavors.  I’m sure the name makes sense in Chinese, and I’m sympathetic to the problem of translation.  I wouldn’t want to try to translate “Ritz crackers” or “Count Chocula” to Chinese.

tucson-mang-gong-cake.jpgBut our favorite was found at our second stop, the Grantstone Supermarket: Mang Gong cakes. Nothing odd here, until you look closely at the bottom of the package. It reads, “The False Packing.”  It’s hard for an American to make any sense out of that.  Given the volume of illegal Asian product knock-offs, is this simply a pre-emptive attempt to admit that these are not real Mang Gong cakes? Perhaps in truth the package contains Nike sneakers.

Sometimes you can figure these things out by playing with synonyms of the words.  For example, could “false” be an attempt to say “low-cal”?  Or perhaps “imitation,”  “see-through,” “empty,” or “absent”?  Likewise, “packing” could mean “packaging,” or “wrapper”?  Maybe this is an attempt to advertise the see-through outer wrap, or to suggest that this has a decorative wrapper for gift-giving.  We need a good Chinese translator to help figure this one out.

tucson-biodiesel-fueling.jpgIt’s amazing that we managed to kill most of a day browsing Asian markets, but we did.  We are, as I’ve said before, easily amused.  I suppose the prospect of eating whatever Eleanor whipped up with the ingredients was helpful in keeping our patience in check too. By 3 p.m. we were wrapping up and heading home with the trunk only 1/4 full of groceries (fortunately for the budget).

There was just one more stop to make, at the Arizona Petroleum depot off 22nd Street, for biodiesel. I have been wanting to run some biodiesel in the Taxi, since it has an “old tech” engine and can eat almost any type of oil.  A little biodiesel helps clean out the fuel lines since it has higher solvency properties than dino diesel.  This pump dispenses B5, B20 and B99 (5%, 20%, and 99% biodiesel respectively) for $3.25 per gallon, which is about in line with local diesel prices at conventional fuel stations in Tucson right now.

I bought five gallons of B99 to mix with the 15 gallons of dino diesel in the tank.  It made the exhaust smell like a restaurant with a fryolator, which is actually quite pleasant.  Most cars I have smelt running B99 exclusively have exhaust reminiscent of french fries, and instead of annoying people, it usually makes them hungry.  I’d like to run this in the GL320 as well, but its super-high-tech engine and exhaust system are restricted to B5 at the most.

That’s not an atypical day for us, on a winter weekend in Tucson.  That’s why we like it here.  If we want to go to a festival, a farmer’s market, go for a hike or bike ride, attend a gallery opening, take sunset pictures, do some gardening, work on the car, roam the gardens, take a class, whatever — there’s always something.  You really can’t go wrong in Tucson this time of year, with lots of things happening and fantastic weather almost every day.

That’s our criteria for a place to live, perhaps because it closely mirrors the kind of life we had when we were traveling.  For me at least, once I had tasted the diversity and excitement of constant travel, I couldn’t fathom settling back into a town that didn’t have something going on all the time. No wonder it took years for us to find a place to buy a house.  Future full-timers beware: life on the road may be your dream, but keep in mind that you will face a tough job finding the ideal place to live afterward.

Myths and misconceptions

It’s a quiet time for us, relaxing at home base in the holiday season.  We have no plans to take the Airstream anywhere until after Christmas, which means we will have spent a full five weeks here in the house.  In the hiatus, since we have no Airstream adventures to relate, I want to use a few blog entries to talk about questions that I am often asked when we are traveling.

The reason for doing this is simply that I am constantly reminded of how much misinformation exists on the Internet about RV’ing. Online forums filled with urban myths, badly-researched or biased magazine articles published by people who should know better, and poorly-edited books from “RV experts” are the primary sources of misinformation that new RV’ers come to believe.  It’s a travesty. Most people don’t understand the most basic concepts of trailer hitching, for example, even though incorrect hitching can result in their death.  Many RV dealers are complicit in this as well, by the common practice of just shoving a new trailer owner out the door with minimal instruction.

When I was learning to fly airplanes, I was impressed at how safety-oriented the industry was.  Everything in aviation is ultimately about safety, which is why it has an incredibly impressive statistical record. As a member of the Airline Owners and Pilot’s Association (AOPA), I received a glossy monthly magazine (AOPA Pilot) which was extremely well produced and loaded with useful information. My parents (also private pilots) subscribed to a newsletter by Belvoir Publications which analyzed the causes of aircraft accidents, which they passed on to my oldest brother (another pilot) and me.  We read it like our lives depended on it — because they did.

In aviation, pilots in training are often expected to read a book from the 1940’s, called “Stick and Rudder.”  In that book, author Wolfgang Langewiesche precisely described what happens when a pilot controls an airplane, in a way that defuses misconceptions that would otherwise occur among pilots.  It was a seminal work, so important that it remains in print today.  There is no comparable book on towing in the RV industry, which is why I asked Andy Thomson to begin writing articles for Airstream Life on that subject.  We hope that someday Andy’s articles will be recompiled into a book much like “Stick and Rudder,” which I will publish.

No question, part of the reason that there is so much good information for aviators compared to the dearth of good information for RV’ers, is the fact that aviation is a very high-profile and wealthy industry. Despite the fact that there a new Airstream runs $35,000-100,000 dollars (about the same price range as a new Mercedes) and that there are hundreds of million-dollar Prevost buses on the road, RV’ing is still too often viewed as the domain of country bumpkins and “trailer trash.”  The industry sells itself short.  When we were learning new concepts in aviation, like Instrument Flight, we considered it a good investment to buy a series of King videos for $80. We watched so many videos of John and Martha King in the living room that it felt like they were members of the family. But even if you are willing to spend in order to learn RV’ing concepts, where do you look for trustworthy information? Too much of what’s out there is either unreliable, or produced by “interested parties” with significant bias.

That’s probably why I’ve been increasing the educational aspect of everything I can touch.  Last year’s Alumapalooza included seminars on towing, axles/brakes, and maintenance.  We’ll do the same again in 2011.   I’m also working on a book of my own for new Airstream owners, which I expect to publish in the first half of 2011.

Andy’s book probably will take a couple of years to complete, but when it comes out I expect it to be an important and long-lasting work.  If you haven’t seen his towing series in Airstream Life, it’s worth the price of subscription all by itself.  (We have some of the back issues in the online store.)

Now, you may be thinking, “Come on — towing is just driving. It’s not nearly as complicated as flying.”  To a certain extent that’s true, but if you can die because you didn’t understand a basic principle, isn’t it worth learning more? I really hate it when I run into long-time RV’ers who say, “We’ve been doing this for XX years, there’s nothing anyone can tell us that we don’t already know.”  Baloney.  I find those are the folks who are most often full of misconceptions and half-truths, and are anxious to spread them around like a virus.

Here’s a really simple example.  How many times have you heard that reducing weight in your trailer will improve your towing fuel economy?  Like a lot of things, there’s some truth to that, but not nearly what people think.  Sure, lowering the trailer weight will result in less energy needed to get the trailer moving from a stop, or pull it up a hill.  But RV’ers spend most of their fuel budget pushing air out of the way, not pulling away from STOP signs.  Aerodynamics play a much larger role in fuel economy than weight.

The misconception about the impact of weight has led to the popular myth that you can save fuel by not carrying water in your fresh water tank.  It’s nonsense, but it is continually spread even by experienced trailerites.  I recently read a book by an Airstreamer who had bought into the myth that reducing his trailer’s weight by dumping his water supply would improve his fuel economy.  So, one windy day on the Interstate he dumped his water, and lo-and-behold his fuel economy did increase that day.

What really happened?  Most likely, the wind decreased slightly, or he reduced his speed a little.  The reduction of weight caused by the loss of 20 or 30 gallons of water, when traveling on the Interstate, is not going to result in significant fuel economy improvement.  If you don’t believe it, then consider this:  Does your fuel economy change materially if you add one passenger to your vehicle?  Probably not unless you strap him to the roof, where he can block some of the windstream.

I had a radical example of the importance of aerodynamics vs. weight last December, when I was towing my 17-foot Airstream Caravel from Michigan to Arizona with a diesel tow vehicle.  Along that 2,000 mile route, I averaged 13 MPG, which is about the same that I get towing the big 30-foot Airstream Safari. But the Caravel weighs just 2,500 pounds, while the Safari weighs about 7,500 pounds.  Triple the weight, almost double the length — and yet, about the same fuel economy.  If a 5,000 pound difference didn’t affect my fuel economy, why would a 160 pound difference (the weight of 20 gallons of water)?

The reason for the similar fuel economy lies in the fact that both Airstream trailers have approximately the same frontal area to pull through the air.  The Caravel is a foot narrower, but that doesn’t make much difference.  In either case, you’re still pulling a rounded block face measuring about 60-70 square feet through the air at highway speed, and that takes a heck of a lot of energy.

winnebago-1966.jpgLook at the boxy Winnebago pictured at left.  The fuel economy of those things at highway speeds is horrible, about 6 MPG on a good day.  Would you make an airplane that looked like that?  It looks like an origami project.  All the folds, flat faces, and square corners add up to incredible amounts of aerodynamic drag. Adding a couple of hundred pounds to that aerodynamic disaster wouldn’t be noticed in terms of fuel consumption.

Airstreams are inherently much more “slippery” than most other travel trailer designs, so we get better fuel economy overall.  Airstream claims about 20% better, which I can believe based on many conversations I’ve had with owners of other brands.  But it could be better.  Even an Airstream has lots of drag-inducing objects hanging off which reduce fuel economy, such as awning, air conditioner, door handle, etc.  When the economic justification is there (higher fuel prices), you’ll see more radical designs of travel trailers and motorhomes that eliminate the bulges and junk on the outside.

The industry is of course interested in reducing weight too, but that’s mostly a response to small tow vehicles with lower overall towing capacity.  The real fuel economy savings will come when travel trailers slip through the air with less drag.

This example of the “weight myth” is just one of dozens that permeate the RV space.  You’re not going to die if you don’t understand it, but there are other myths and misconceptions that are more dangerous, or which cause people to waste their money.  When I’ve spotted them in the past, I’ve talked about them, but perhaps not enough.  I think my tolerance for the “industry standard” level of ignorance and banality has begun to fade, so in the future I’ll call ’em as I see them.

“How do you decide where to go?”

When we were full-timing, one of the questions we were often asked was, “How do you decide where to go?”  This question always mystified me, because it was never clear to me exactly what was meant by the question.  There were many possible interpretations.

Some people meant, “Of all the great places in the country, how do you choose which ones to visit?” This is the easiest variation to answer, because that’s how I see the travel opportunity.  North America is loaded with interesting people, geography, history, foods, adventures, etc.  There are so many possible places to investigate that an interested person can travel full-time by RV for over a decade and still find new and exciting things to discover.  We have friends who have, in fact, done this and are still on the road.

We chose places to visit based on a combination of factors that were unique to us:  business needs, personal interests, weather, family, invitations, etc.  I wouldn’t pretend that our criteria precisely matches anyone else’s criteria.  The beauty of RV travel is that you can customize your experience to your exact interests, with hardly anything to interfere.  You don’t have to worry about transportation timetables, baggage limits, availability of hotels, etc.  You can stay longer and pay less.  You bring all the comforts of home along with you.  So of course you always do whatever the heck you want, whenever you get the chance.

Other people who asked the question assumed that we traveled on a rigid schedule and therefore meant, “How do you decide how long to make your scheduled stops?” Even working, most of the time we had a fairly flexible schedule.  The first year we were out, we obligated ourselves to be at various Airstream dealers when they were having special sales events.  This meant we had to zig-zag all over the country at inconvenient times, ending up in Indiana in March (not an ideal time to visit).  After a year of that, we stopped promising to be at events and started drawing out a more rational schedule.

“Schedule” is much too strong a word for what we really had.  We kept a list of ideas, long-term obligations, and general goals in mind.  Our actual travel plan was worked out between 1 day and 2 months at a time, no longer. Anything more than two months away was simply a “goal” (such as spending summer in Vermont).  While we always hit the goals, we never let the plan become too organized because that would eliminate happenstance, lucky finds, changes of heart, serendipity, new friends, and unforeseen opportunity from playing their vital part.

Some people who asked the question were concerned with having only perfect stops, so they meant, “How do you know what places are good and which are not?”  Folks like this are usually oriented to the “vacation mode” of travel, where you have a very limited amount of time (a week or two) and want to make the absolute most of it with some sort of fantastic adventure.  To be reasonably sure this is going to happen, you usually need reservations and strict plans.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the mode of a full-timer, so the question really didn’t apply to us.  Full-timers don’t have the restriction of a vacation, and come to find that life on the road shares some realities with life in a house.  In other words, you can’t expect every moment of full-timing to be perfect and wonderful, any more than you can in stationary life.  There are fantastic days of adventure that you could never have anticipated or planned, and there are many more of the mundane days where you had to catch up on laundry or spend the day waiting at the service center.

But I always tried to answer this question anyway. I’d treat it literally, and tell people that we used various sources of information to guide us, including the Internet (RVparkreviews, various travel forums, National Park Service, etc.), tips and invitations from friends, and knowledge of events or rallies that we wanted to attend. Regardless of our pre-planning, we accepted that there would always be surprises of the pleasant and unpleasant kind.  If you fear the uncertainty of that, you probably should stay close to previously-traveled routes.

A few people who asked the question had no concept of what our travel was like at all, and meant, “What do you do if you’re not following the normal air/rental car/hotel/destination resort program?”  That represents a certain cluelessness about RV travel, but I liked that because it meant I could open someone’s eyes to an opportunity that they probably had never considered before.

However, these people broke into two subgroups:  (a) Those who were genuinely curious about what it was like to travel in an RV because they might like the concept for themselves someday; and (b) Those who were curious because they regarded us as nutcases and perhaps thought they would be amused by the tale of our oddball behavior.  The latter group would never seriously consider doing what we were doing, so I never invested a lot of time in trying to convince them to change their ways.  After all, RV’ing isn’t for everyone.

The former group (a) was more interesting.  People’s eyes tend to widen as you describe the idea of pitching the package trips and instead going on a wonderful free-flowing roadtrip where everything has the potential to be an adventure.  The trick here is to appreciate the small things along the road.  Those who were hung up on having a High Concept trip would eventually realize they would be happier flying to the resort in Maui and going to the nightly luau, than finding historic architectural beauty camped behind a deserted Rt 66 gas station in Oklahoma.

The literal answer to this version of the question is elusive in its simplicity:  You do whatever interests you.  If you aren’t interested or passionate about something, life can be pretty boring.  I think little healthy obsessions are part of what makes people stand out from the crowd.  Our obsession over the past several years has been Airstreaming, and it will continue to be for some time, because the lifestyle (full time or not) has yielded so many incredible benefits for all of us.  The Airstream is a vehicle to indulge our interests and discover new ones at the same time. Where it takes you depends on who you are.

Shifting gears

With the mental shifting of gears that accompanies our transition from Airstream to house, I am once again able to tackle the projects that I began this summer while I was alone in Tucson.  Working in the Airstream is very feasible and I did it successfully for three years straight, but in those times when we are paused in the house, I find I am able to tackle projects that otherwise would have lain in a heap on the side of my desk.

It’s the long-term projects that suffer when we travel, because there’s a certain workload involved just in the routine of hitching up and towing, researching the next place to go, meeting people, taking photos, and getting to know each new area.  That’s all part of the fun, of course, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it does tend to infringe on the paying work, and I need to keep an eye on that.  After all, I’ve got a kid who is getting braces on her teeth next month.

Besides, being at home means I no longer have to work out of a backpack. I’ve now got my own desk with room for printer, scanner, laptop, project stacks, and a cold beverage all at the same time. Instead of an occasionally dodgy cellular Internet connection, I have high-speed DSL. I can reliably expect my mail to arrive at my door, without having to notify my mail service of a new address every week.  For someone who has spent most of the past five years roaming, these things represent real luxury.

The Spring 2011 issue of Airstream Life is at the top of my list, of course.  I am particularly excited about this one, because we are in a transition to becoming a much more photo-rich publication.  I’ve always been proud of Airstream Life but it has also always irritated me that I have consistently struggled to get decent photography.  Finally I’ve been able to establish relationships with photographers and writers that are bringing in more & better images.  We’re going to showcase them starting with Spring 2011, by running more full-page photos, and even double-page spreads (kind of like the current “From The Archives” feature).

About 90% of the editorial for the Spring issue is complete, so as it moves into the layout phase, my personal workload will lighten, and that means other projects can get some attention.  The hiatus from traveling also is giving me time to think about the personal projects, and various “nesting” activities that we’ve never done before. Being stationary means a new perspective on everything.

In particular, the house is still a half-wreck after three years of ownership because we’ve never been motivated to finish the renovations, while the Airstream has had every possible attention lavished on it.  Houses are much too expensive for what you get.  When you add in the real cost of maintenance, repairs, utilities, taxes, furnishings, interest, etc., the total gets rather depressing, and that’s when I start thinking about our next trip in the Airstream.  But it’s time for the Airstream to sit a little (even though we still have a few things on the “upgrade/fix” list) while the house gets its fair share. Whether the house actually will get any money or effort thrown at it remains to be seen, but at least we have some good intentions …

The Mercedes GL320 will sit, too.  It’s a great car for our style of travel, but I find the maintenance costs too expensive to justify using it when we are parked at home. With 38,000 miles on it after only 19 months of ownership, it deserves a rest too.  At this rate it will be at 200,000 miles less than seven years from now.  So I am making a small investment in the old 1984 Mercedes 300D to make it into a completely reliable backup car.  It is in the shop today for front end work and hopefully a tweak to the vacuum system to make it shift a little smoother. There are a few other small things I’d like to fix on it later, as well.

As elderly as the 300D is, with 166,000 miles on the odometer (and many more undocumented miles since the odometer only turns on cold days), it is now my favorite car to drive.   I love the way it has that diesel rattle at idle, the serene ride at cruise, and the relative simplicity of a 1980s car.  This is one of the last computer-free cars.  Everything in it can be seen and felt, like mechanical objects should be, instead of being controlled by mysterious computers that randomly go bad for no fathomable reason.  In a world where my printer, television and the other car have to boot up before they are fully functional, it’s nice to have a car in which the pedals are attached to linkages instead of sensors, where the “nav” feature is a coil-bound map book that always works, and there is no “Check Engine” light.

This shift of gears (and gear) will persist for quite a while, but we do have travel planned here and there. In the meantime, rather than mooning on about my home projects, I’ll try to take the next few weeks to muse and comment on Airstreaming from a stationary perspective.

Kindle experiments

A lot of people believe e-books are the future.  To be more accurate, I would say they are in fact part of our present.  The famous Kindle seems to be getting adopted by a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in new technology; this is probably because it’s doesn’t feel “technological” to use one. My 10-year-old daughter uses one, and my xx-year-old mother uses one.  (Age deleted to protect senior modesty.)

It’s a great device for the Airstream.  I like the light weight, slim design and low power requirements.  It’s as if they designed it specifically for trailer owners.  One thin pad carries hundreds of books for me — or it would, if I had that many loaded into it.  In reality it only carries a couple dozen, but that’s still very useful.

So on the theory that if I like it for my Airstream, others will too, I’m playing around with publishing content for the Kindle. My first few attempts were horrible. Airstream Life magazine does not render on Kindle very well at all.  I checked a few other major magazines and they are equally bad.  It’s just not a good platform for color magazines.  I am sure the iPad would be better, but there’s a whole ‘nother set of technological obstacles there and (sorry to iPad owners) I’m not willing to jump through those hoops just yet.

On the other hand, the Kindle works very well for books, so I’ve adapted the Wally Byam books (Fifth Avenue on Wheels, and Trailer Travel Here & Abroad) to Kindle.  You can now buy them both in a single combined volume from Amazon.  I downloaded the sample last night and it looks good.  You can get a free sample at the link above, if you have a Kindle.

This blog is actually available on Kindle too, at the price of $0.99 per month.  I put it up there on a whim several months ago and was surprised to find that I got a few subscribers.  I just got my first author payment from Amazon last week, for a whopping $10.20.  It’s obviously not a living, but getting the payment was like finding a ten dollar bill in the couch cushions.  Thanks to those of you who subscribed.  Knowing you’re out there inspires me to keep writing even on those days that I really don’t feel like it.

I’m working on some new projects for 2011 (of course, because I can’t stand to leave well enough alone), and all of them will have an electronic publishing component.  In fact, from now on I expect just about all new content produced by myself or my company will be published on Kindle.  These e-book adaptations probably won’t do much for my bottom line, but if they are useful to people then I think I should make an effort to supply them.