Car and trailer shows

Although much of the rest of the country is frozen solid right now, it’s car show season in southern Arizona.   Every couple of weeks there’s a small car show somewhere around Tucson, and about once a month there will be a fairly major one nearby.  California has the reputation as being the state most crazy for collector cars, but here in southern Arizona we’re not far behind.  We’ve got a lot of old retired guys with classic rides, and they love to show them off.

This weekend the big show was the Santa Cruz Valley Car Nuts’ annual show at Tubac Golf Resort, which is about 50 miles south of Tucson.  I decided to enter the old Mercedes 300D because it was a way for me to get into the middle of the show with a picnic lunch and watch all the action. I didn’t think many people would give a hoot about a slow and squarish 1984 Mercedes, since at these shows most of the attention seems to go to hot rods, American muscle cars, and exotics.

tubac-car-nuts-300d-reflection.jpgAnd I was right.  The car was mostly ignored, which gave me the opportunity to sit in my folding chair and read a book while occasionally glancing at the parade of people going by.  Once in a while someone would point and smile at the car and I could hear them relating a tale of the “one we used to have just like that.”  A lot of people used to have Mercedes cars like mine, which is not surprising since 2.7 million of them were made worldwide.

A few people took note of the car, but I wonder if any of them noticed that mine was the only Mercedes on the line bearing a “250,000 km” badge on the grill.  That’s an honorary badge awarded by Mercedes Benz USA for very high-mileage cars.  My next badge comes at 500,000 km (310,000 miles) and I hope to get that one someday too.

I was flattered when a guy came by and asked if I wanted to sell the car, because he wanted a nice example of an old Mercedes to drive around in Mazatlan, Mexico, where he had a house.  I declined. I wasn’t looking to sell, just to have fun.

tubac-car-nuts-show1.jpg It is fun, just to be a small part of the spectacle.  There were over 500 cars on display, ranging from a Nash Metropolitan to an Aston Martin Vanquish.  You name it, it was there.  Most of the cars were in excellent condition, but I was pleased to see that even people with interesting cars in poor condition came out to show the world what they had.  It wasn’t just a show of garage queens.  Some were obviously daily drivers.

Eleanor had made me a huge picnic basket with lunch, suitable for about five people. I had grilled chicken skewers, Israeli couscous, a sort of marinated tomato/zucchini/onion salad in a homemade dressing that I can’t even begin to describe adequately, a delicious homemade chutney, and Emma’s “rainy day” brownies with chopped nuts on top.

Since I had the opportunity for elegance, she also packed me a big blue tablecloth and cloth napkins.   When lunchtime came around, I spread my tablecloth and hauled out the wicker basket, and invited my friend Charlie and his friend Flash to join me on the grass.  More than a few people spotted our little picnic on the golf course next to the Mercedes cars and said, “Now, that’s the way to do it!”


Ken and Petey showed up with their 1955 GMC pickup and a 1947 teardrop called a “Tourette.”  Most teardrop trailers were made of wood, but this one was made of aluminum.  It’s remarkably intact and in good condition.  I believe it was the only travel trailer at the show, and it got a lot of attention.  Teardrop trailers were mostly made from kits, and there have been dozens (if not hundreds) of teardrop kit manufacturers over the past decades, so if you’ve never heard of a Tourette, join the club.

With spectacular weather (about 70 degrees and all sun), a fine golf course setting, hundreds of interesting cars, many more interesting people, and a fine picnic lunch, the day passed very quickly.  I was surprised to realize it was 3 p.m. — I had been there for five hours.  It was rather a shame to pack up and head out, but at least I had the compensation of a leisurely drive of 50 miles to get back home in a fine old German sedan on a beautiful day in beautiful southern Arizona.

I am really getting into this show thing.   That’s part of the reason why I’ve been working for the past few months to curate another show, the Modernism Week “Vintage Trailer Show” sponsored by Airstream Life magazine.  We are expecting 19 very interesting vintage trailers at that event:

1935 Bowlus Road Chief

1960 Airstream Caravel

1959 Airstream Globetrotter

1962 Airstream Flying Cloud

1962 Airstream Globe Trotter

1961 Airstream Bambi

1960 Holiday House

1950 Airfloat Landyacht

1973 Airstream Safari

1969 Airstream Tradewind

1957 Catolac DeVille

1948 Spartan Manor

1958 Airstream Caravanner

1936 Airstream Clipper

1948 Westcraft

1960 International Harvester Housecar

1965 Airstream Caravel

1955 Spartan Manor

1948 La Cosse Vacationer

If you are coming out to Palm Springs for Modernism Week this February, tickets for the Vintage Trailer Show can be purchased on-site at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa, Saturday and Sunday Feb 26-27. It should be quite a spectacle, with some very rare trailers open for tours, an Airstream “bar,” presentation of the new Airstream Life “Wally” award, vendors selling cool stuff, and a lot of fun.  Maybe I’ll see you poolside at the Riviera?

The bug list

With the Airstream parked and no trips in sight for a while, I’ve turned my attention to the 1984 Mercedes 300D for a while. I bought this car last summer and wrote about it then.  It was not perfect when I bought it but I resolved that if it turned out to be a fun car and behaved itself (not immediately chewing up a bunch of parts, like a new puppy) I would be willing to invest a little into it in order to keep it roadworthy for a long time.

The car has so far passed that threshold.  It’s a solid, safe, reliable set of wheels and I like driving it.  But even though it is completely drivable, it still has a lot of small issues to resolve. So I made a “bug list” of things that needed addressing and started prioritizing the work, with an eye toward vehicle improvement without personal bankruptcy.

Earlier this week, the list looked like this:

— transmission shifts abruptly when cold

— leak in vacuum door lock system (leaks when doors are locked, not when unlocked)

— center dash vents don’t actuate (no air flow)

— windshield rainwater leaks (needs new windshield gasket)

— instrument cluster lights are very dim

— odometer only turns on cold days

— slightly squeaking AC belt

— rear windows shudder going up and down

— sagging drivers seat spring

— intermittent low fuel light

— electric passenger vanity mirror doesn’t adjust

— chipped wood around climate control

— cruise control does not work

— wiper motor sometimes activates on startup

— tear in driver’s seat

Some of these things are pretty clearly unimportant, while others are a major nuisance. The lack of air from the center vents, for example, means that the car doesn’t have enough air conditioning to be usable in the Tucson summers.  But the trick is to prioritize the jobs in a way that makes the most sense, and that means fixing the problems that might compromise safety first.  Not only that, but before I start tweaking the little things it would be nice to know that the transmission shift issue doesn’t mean fatally-expensive repair is looming in the near future.

I’ve had the car over to a couple of different shops in the Tucson area for minor repairs, but I wanted to get an opinion from another highly respected Mercedes specialist up in Phoenix before launching into the project.  This made the perfect excuse for a long-awaited roadtrip in the 300D, about a hundred miles each way between Tucson and Phoenix.  Alex came along for the ride, since he had an old Mercedes years ago and wanted to relive the experience.


The guys at the shop were extremely complimentary about the car. They don’t see a lot of the old W123’s (which is the chassis type of the 300D) in good condition anymore.  The prior owners of this car really took good care of it and made sure that it was serviced only by people who knew Mercedes.  As a result, there was almost nothing botched by prior shops to undo and repair.  They poked around every subsystem of the car and explained things as they went.  I’m always impressed with the quality of engineering that went into these old cars.  Every part is beautifully designed for function and serviceability in a way that helps justify its original (new) purchase price of over $30,000 in 1984.

The point of the visit was mostly to evaluate the car and come up with costs and priorities.  Alex and I left the car for a few hours while we did other things, and when we came back the odometer had been removed, disassembled, repaired and re-installed.  They also fixed a few other small items, but unfortunately the list grew more than it shrank.  Now added to the bug list:

— broken air filter lower bracket  (part was not available immediately, or we would have replaced it on the spot)

— shock absorbers all around for better ride (mine are apparently original to the car)

— right front ball joint is a little loose

— upper control arm bushings are worn

The transmission shift issue was checked and confirmed to be “just the way these cars are.”  It shifts pretty smoothly once warmed up. Since this is the third Mercedes specialist to give me this opinion, I’m going to accept it and drop the transmission from the bug list.


The guys also ragged on the Goodyear “Weatherhandler” whitewall tires that the prior owner installed.  A more typical choice for this car would be Michelin or Pirelli. I have had little respect for the tires myself, having already experienced a few moments of adverse handling in light rain, but they will probably last for many more miles so I’m stuck with them for a while.

No other problems were noted, so the good news is that the car is perfectly safe to enjoy and gradually improve. We got a list of tips and parts sources to guide the ongoing process, along with estimated costs for each repair.

With that, we jumped on I-10 to escape Phoenix before rush hour traffic turned the highway into a slow-motion lava flow.   We had 100 miles ahead of us, which goes pretty quickly when you get to the open road with a speed limit of 75 MPH.  The car seemed happy to stretch out a bit after all the city driving I’ve been doing, and for the next 90 minutes Alex and I listened to the purr of the old diesel, and I reflected on the simple joy of once again having an odometer that actually turns.

Every little repair like the odometer puts the car closer to completeness.  When I bought it, it was a fine machine that had been kept in good operating condition but the “little things” left unattended were starting to pile up.   It seemed to be teetering between well-loved and slightly neglected.    Gradually I’m pushing it toward the right end of that spectrum.  It will never be perfect or qualify as a “show car,” but it is earning my respect enough to put some money and effort into keeping it on the road.

A freezer full of memories

Some people collect postcards when they travel, others collect rocks.  Some collect t-shirts, pins, or admission tickets.  We collect food.

Food is a great souvenir.  It’s usually fairly portable, completely practical, doesn’t collect dust and endlessly renewable.  You don’t have to worry about finding a shelf to display it forever — just a little space in the freezer or pantry. Some of our best gifts while on the road were food items given by thoughtful friends and courtesy parking hosts who knew we had limited space in the Airstream to store things, but unlimited space in our stomachs.

Food is one of the few things you can buy that is truly made locally.  How many times have you discovered a souvenir plastic trinket really came from some overseas sweatshop?  A nice fresh salmon caught in the river next to your campsite in Washington state, or a bottle of ale from the local microbrewery won’t have “FABRIQUE EN CHINE” stamped on the underside.

Every food item we’ve bought has said something to us about where we were.   In central Florida I used to like buying little round jars of Honeybell Marmalade.  The Honeybell orange has a very short season and (I think) makes a unique marmalade.  I still have a few jars here in Tucson for special occasions.  Spread it on a warm English muffin with a touch of butter and it brings me right back to happy winter days among the Florida orange groves.

For a trailerite, the fact of a tiny RV freezer is an asset.  If we could take everything delicious that we’ve found along the way, we’d need a Sub-Zero in the Airstream, but realistically we can only collect about 2 cubic feet of souvenirs before we have to start eating them.  This meant that we typically can keep frozen items for about a month, just long enough for the place where we bought them to become a fond memory.  Breaking out the chow usually means an easy meal or two and a chance to re-live the tastiest highlights of our visit.  Then of course, the opportunity to collect new souvenirs begins anew.

Food is also a cheap and guilt-free souvenir.  Even paying a little more for the local version still works out as a great economy when compared to useless “stuff” that will only clutter up your house later.  I’d rather pay $7 for a $3 jar of marmalade that I’ll savor slowly, than $5 for a t-shirt that says “I SURVIVED XXXX CAVERNS.”  A t-shirt will never nourish me, nor is emblematic of the local culture that we were able to touch while traveling by road. But even an overpriced edible memory yields value in every mouthful, and there’s a small joy in knowing you supported local farms and producers.

I like food souvenirs for their remarkable ability to evoke long-lost memories.  Every time I eat something we bought on the road, I can think back to the time when we found it, and what life was like then, and what age Emma was, and the things that were on my mind.  An old t-shirt can’t do that.  This week we took a bit of beef brisket out of the freezer, that we had put away during our recent trip to the Texas Barbecue Trail.  Eleanor warmed it for dinner and the aroma of it instantly triggered a scene where we were meeting our friend Gunny at Rudy’s in Austin.  It was a chilly night but we stood around Gunny’s truck after dinner and gave leftovers to his dog, and talked until I couldn’t stand the cold any more.  All of that came rolling back the moment I opened my mouth and smelled the unmistakable smoked essence of the brisket.

Tonight we took out some bratwurst that we bought in the late summer of 2009 as we were passing through Minnesota.  It was one of those impulsive roadside purchases that I had long ago forgotten, but in the recesses of our deep-freeze it has maintained perfect flavor.  Tonight it finally found its destiny on my Weber grill, and over dinner we talked a little about our trip to Minnesota.  Alas, not everything keeps as well as the sausage.  We carry Vermont maple syrup at all times, and it lasts forever, but the fresh and wonderfully complex local root beer that is only sold at the Burlington, Vermont Farmer’s Market has to be enjoyed immediately.

Also in the freezer I can see a more recent acquisition, a frozen ready-to-bake apple pie from Julian, California.  That one will not sit for a year waiting for the oven.  Sure, they make apple pie everywhere, but it is the signature dish of Julian and that was a good enough reason for us to buy one.  Just knowing it came from there will make it taste better, because (in a small way) eating it will be a chance to travel back there.

Not far behind the apple pie is a very well-wrapped turkey sausage that we bought at Vencil’s in Taylor, Texas. I have no idea how Eleanor plans to serve it, but I can be assured that the moment it hits the table I will see in my mind’s eye that shabby (but hallowed, by Texans) building down by the railroad tracks where we bought it, and the friendly guy who chatted us up and gave us a copy of the newspaper reprint about Vencil himself.

Once it’s gone, I’ll want to go back and get more, and so from the little crumbs of our consumable souvenirs a new trip plan will gradually grow.  And that’s probably the best part of collecting food while we travel.  Local flavors still exist in this country, despite the homogenization of towns by food chains, and those flavors inspire us to keep seeking out more of the little, local, and often-overlooked parts of America.

A food souvenir is a treat, both in the finding and the consuming.  By embedding themselves in the darkest recesses of your caveman memory, they capture a piece of your visit in a way a photograph can’t.  Try it sometime and see.

Last days in Anza-Borrego

Tonight we are camped for one night at Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, which is a BLM campground near Gila Bend, AZ.   This is, as they say, not the middle of nowhere but you can see it from here.  It’s a gravelly spot about 11 miles north of I-8, where a large mound is covered with incredible ancient petroglyphs. I talked about this site in another blog from about two years ago, the last time we were here.

We are here simply as a stopover on our way home.  Our trip to Anza-Borrego is at an end, and it’s time to head back to various obligations.  We seriously considered extending our visit, as was the norm when we were traveling full-time, but this time it seemed to make more sense to get back to the appointments and commitments we’ve made in Tucson.

Brett commented today that we were getting the stereotypical experience of “normal” weekend campers: you plan for a trip and the weather is, shall we say, “sub-optimal.”  But the moment you leave the campground and get back to work, the weather turns gorgeous.  We were certainly not suffering in Anza-Borrego but I would have appreciated a bit more heat at times.  Still, a sub-optimal trip in Anza-Borrego is still better than most days at work.


Our last day was actually quite nice.  We drove 50 miles to the extreme southern end of the park to visit friends who were camped at Agua Caliente County Park.  The weather remained a bit cool but perfectly sunny and calm — excellent hiking weather.  Eleanor stayed at their campsite to gab with Larry, while Emma, Bill, and I tried a new hike that began at the nearby Mountain Palm Springs primitive camping area.  This hike, a mere 2 mile roundtrip, brought us up a wide arroyo that led to a “palm bowl” of perhaps a few dozen palm trees.  It is called “100 palms” but since fires and floods periodically modify the oasis, it’s no surprise that at present the number of palm trees is a bit fewer.


dutch-oven-cooking-1The night before, Alex broke out his cast iron gear and cooked a huge roast for everyone over the campfire.  He also demonstrated dutch oven cooking to me, with a new Lodge cast iron oven that he picked up at the factory a couple of weeks ago.  He made a fantastic “dump cake” of canned cherry pie filling and chocolate cake mix.  Simple, and delicious.

The sun rose full again this morning and it was with some regret that we slowly packed up to go.  Charon and Alex will be staying while longer and then traveling to the Los Angeles area, Quartzsite and perhaps other stops.  We’ll see them again in Tucson in a few weeks.  Laura will be flying back east tomorrow, and we hope to see her again someday too.

Of course today the weather was absolutely perfect in every respect.  I don’t mind — it’s nicer towing in perfect weather.  We can have the windows open for some of the drive, and the rest stops are always more pleasant.  The scenery was spectacular, with the bluest possible blues in the skies and canals, deep greens (thanks to the recent rains) in the Imperial Valley, and reddish-purple mountains encircling the desert hues in every direction.


We arrived here at Painted Rock Petroglyph Site around sunset, which was ideal from my perspective.  There was just enough time to pick out a campsite before the sky light faded. I pulled out the Weber grill to cook some sausages for dinner and watched the stars slowly appear, while Eleanor whipped up some vegetables and pasta. This is a good way to conclude our trip, camped in a very quiet spot beneath a clear western sky.

Is that sleet really necessary?

I don’t like to talk about the weather too often, but sometimes that’s the story, as it has been in Borrego Springs these past few days.  For crying out loud, last night we had sleet.  We’re in the southernmost desert in the United States, just barely above sea level.  We’re as low as we can go, and yet …  is there nowhere we can go in the continental US for decent weather this week?

borrego-springs-mercedes-sculpture.jpgWe’re grinning and bearing it, and until last night’s little sleet attack the weather hadn’t been enough to interfere with our activities.   The campground cleared out on Sunday, so things are nice and quiet, which I like.  We spent the day roaming around the park and off-roading here and there, and ran into very few people in the backcountry. borrego-springs-dinosaur-sculpture.jpgWe checked out the iron statues of prehistoric animals in Galleta Meadows, toured The Slot (one of the more famous slot canyons in the park), hiked to the Wind Caves again, ate lunch at Split Rock Mountain, and took in the sunset at Font’s Point.  All very satisfying and not terribly cold while the sun was up.

ab-slot-canyon-emma-laura.jpgIt even seemed like the weather was about to turn warmer, since we got back in the evening to temperatures in the upper 40s, so I broke out the grill again and roasted a bunch of vegetables and chicken sausage.  But that was just a tease.  Rain spit down intermittently all night and all the next day under mostly cloudy skies.  It has been damp, bone-chilling, and very un-desert-like.

With the threat of rain all day today, I wasn’t inclined to get into any off-roading (since the roads can quickly become impassable) and certainly wasn’t going to lead a group of people into a slot canyon.  That meant it turned into a true “Monday” for all of us.  Charon and Laura went off to do laundry,  Alex worked on administrative year-end stuff in his trailer, and I let out a heavy sigh as I opened up the laptop.

This afternoon we broke out for a drive up to Julian, which is high above Borrego Springs in the mountains at about 4,000 feet elevation.  We don’t normally make time for Julian, as it is just a three-block tourist town and over 25 miles away, but a rainy and otherwise disappointing day seemed to be the best opportunity for it.

julian-ca-sticker-car.jpgJulian is a little town of about 700 people that swells to “20,000” according to a local I spoke with.  He says whenever there is snow, the San Diegans swarm up to see it, many wearing shorts and flip-flops.  That’s when he cashes in selling sweatshirts and warm hats.  When the power goes out in a snowstorm, as it often does, and the roads get clogged with snow, things get interesting. During our visit it was just more light rain and temperatures hovering in the upper 30s.

Emma and I checked out the local historic soda fountain, but cold drinks and ice cream weren’t very appealing on a cold day, and we settled for a hot spiced cider instead.  I was surprised at the number of obvious tourists exploring the downtown on a cold and rainy Monday.  The cafes were close to full even at 2 p.m., and no store seemed to be lacking for customers. But we lasted for only about an hour, ducking in and out of shops in an attempt to stay mostly warm and dry.

The drive up to and from Julian is as worthy as the destination.  Twisty and scenic roads are the rule, and without a trailer in tow it can be a lot of fun.  But the miles add up quickly when traveling around this region, as distances are longer than they appear at first.  A “short trip” across the park can be nearly 50 miles.  Since we have arrived, I think we’ve put about 150 miles on the car and tomorrow our planned route will add another 100 or so.

Tomorrow, the weather will be better. Already the nights are ten degrees warmer than earlier, so we’re no longer facing freezing temperatures in the morning.  This evening was actually sort of pleasant, without the precipitous slide at sunset.  If we could stay another week I think we’d see plenty of the kind of weather we expect but our trip ends on Wednesday — we’re now “weekenders” after all, and obligations at home are calling.