Why I cracked

I finally cracked. The Airstream has not moved since January 5, and other than the roadtrip to Palm Springs in February, I’ve been entirely housebound.  I thought I could make it until late May … I really did … but either the call of the road is too strong, or my ability to live a stationary life is just too weak.

I admitted that I’ve been home for over three months to an Airstream friend, and she summed it up neatly:  “That’s criminal.”  You can always count on a fellow traveler to pull no punches when it comes to such topics.

It was the final straw.  Eleanor and Emma have done very well in house mode, knowing that this summer travel adventure awaited them, but I finally had to admit to myself that all house and no Airstream makes Jack a dull boy.  Or to put it another way, a few more weeks of home routine and we might be re-creating scenes from “The Shining.”  [Jack Nicholson voice]: Heeee’res Daddy!  So I began looking about for an excuse to go somewhere.

Unfortunately, pickings were slim.  That’s tragic in itself, since this is the beautiful season in the southwest, with desert flowers blooming, fine temperatures, and a noticeable absence of snowbirds crowding up the campgrounds.  It’s hiking season (if you don’t have pollen allergies), and a great time to look for desert wildlife.  I cannot figure out why there aren’t dozens of great rallies going on.

It was too late to plan my own rally (as I did last year at Picacho Peak), so I selected the best nearest event I could find, a vintage Airstream “campout” being held by the Lone Star Vintage Airstream Club.  Being a vintage event meant I had an excuse to take the 1968 Airstream Caravel out, a rare opportunity.   I’d never heard of the Lone Star Vintage Airstream Club, but it turned out to be a group of folks we’ve camped with many times in the past, or at whose homes we’ve enjoyed courtesy parking.  Many of them are good friends who we haven’t seen in a few years.

The problem was that this rally is 900 miles distant, and I don’t tow 900 miles for anything unless there’s also a second reason to justify the trip.  Call it “Rich’s Rule of Multiple Agendas.” You’ve got to be able to rationalize the fuel cost, especially with diesel running $4/gallon in our area.  Fortunately, I was able to work out a few other good reasons to go, including the opportunity to have a buddy in Texas hold the Caravel for me and do a little upgrade work on it.  I’ll leave it in Texas and come back to it in June, when I’ll be passing by again.

Eleanor and Emma will stay home this time, another rarity.  They’ve got things to do and they aren’t climbing the walls like I am.  I can count the number of times I have traveled in an Airstream without them on one hand.  It’s an entirely different experience, not better or worse, but certainly different.  Of course, the challenge is to bring back the trailer undamaged (something I have not been entirely successful doing), and then tell a story of my trip that sounds like I had a good time but not too good.

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Taking this trip is actually good in many ways.  The Caravel has been about 95% complete but we’d left a few small issues undone, and the deadline of my departure provided the impetus to get serious about fixing the most crucial issues.   The water fill leaked when we put water in the trailer, and I found that was a simple matter of a clamp that was out of place.  The shower curtain was never quite a good fit, which caused minor flooding when in use, and Eleanor put a couple of days into sewing to fix that.  I had long wanted a second battery in the trailer, and since this is a boondocking rally (no hookups), I finally got around to installing that too.

I’m just about ready to go.  The Mercedes is clean, serviced, and fueled, with the magnetic Airstream Service Center logo affixed to the passenger door just for extra Airstream geekiness. The trailer is packed with everything I’ll need for a week on the road.  I’ve only got to drop the trailer on the hitch ball and pull away, which I’ll do first thing Tuesday morning.  There are 900 miles of pavement lying ahead, but more importantly there are seven days of great memories to make, and I can’t wait to get started.

Newbies

One of the things I enjoy is helping new owners learn about all the cool things you can do with an Airstream.  It’s like being there when a kid first gets the hang of riding a bicycle and suddenly realizes how much bigger her world has become.  It’s like watching someone taste gelato for the first time, when that wonderful explosion of flavor hits their brain and they see that there’s more to life than ice cream.  You might think you know freedom, but when you hitch up that trailer and hit the road with destination unknown, you find an exhilaration that is unexplainable to those who haven’t tried it.

That’s a big part of the reason I wrote the Newbies Guide (copies of which were received at my office this week, and have been shipped to all the folks who pre-ordered them). Even though I can’t get the gratifying personal feedback of a face-to-face educational session, I’m still hoping the book will make it easier for people to get started.

Another joy of sharing knowledge about Airstreaming with newbies is the amusement factor of hearing their stories.  Yes, I’m admitting it: I do laugh sometimes at the mistakes and stories people tell me.  I’m just being honest here. Hey, I was a newbie once too, and I’ve had some pretty awful/humorous things happen to me, too.  I can laugh about them … now ….

Once when camping in Oregon I ran into a couple who told me their water heater was broken.  “The red light comes on, but the water isn’t hot,” they said.  I explained that the red light was not an “ON” light, it was a “trouble” indicator, and the problem was that the heater wasn’t getting propane.  “But we have propane!” they insisted.  “We checked it last night.”  So I explained to them how propane has a habit of getting used up during the night when the furnace is running.  I also showed them how to switch over to the second propane tank, and then we reset the water heater by flipping the switch.  Poof– the water heater lit.

The wife immediately ran the water. “See, it still isn’t hot — so the heater doesn’t work!”   Very patiently (I think) I explained to them that the heater takes a bit of time to turn cold water into hot water.

Then I left them, with skeptical looks on their faces.  I can’t blame them.  After all, they had “proven” that everything I said was nonsense, and the final proof was that there was still no hot water.  I’m sure they thought I was just a know-it-all until 30 minutes later when hot water finally began to flow.

Last week I helped get a newbie friend set up for his first-ever Airstreaming experience.   He had several mishaps and points of confusion in his first few days, all of which were understandable, but my favorite was the gray tank problem.  “Rich, I went to take a shower, and the water didn’t go down the drain,” he said with a distinct tone of confusion and suspicion.  I could tell he was wondering just how small the RV gray tanks were, since his military-style shower probably required less than 2 gallons of water.

We went through the usual debugging questions (“Is the trailer level enough so that the water can reach the drain?” and “Did you dump the gray tank the day before?”) and there were no immediately obvious problems.  I thought about it for a second, and then asked if he had left the gray dump valve open long enough to fully drain the tank.

“Uh … leave it open?” he replied.  Hearing just that phrase, I knew we had found the problem. My dear friend, who I will leave safely anonymous out of my complete respect for him, had somehow gotten the impression that you dump the holding tanks by “pumping” the valve. I tried to stifle my snicker and then explained to him that the valve must be left open for a minute or two, until all of the waste water has rushed out.

[By the way, I’m going to do a seminar at Alumapalooza about being a newbie.  It should be a lot of fun.   I’m going to tell self-deprecating stories and try to encourage people ask the dumbest questions they can think of, just so we can all laugh and learn at the same time.]

As long as there are Airstreams there will be newbies, just as it is true that as long as there are colleges there will be freshmen.  When you’re a “senior” you might easily begin to think that they are placed there for your amusement or condescension (and perhaps that’s partly true) but keep in mind that they are also a wonderful opportunity.  Newbies are the people who allows us to pay back for the lessons our predecessors taught us.  They remind us that nobody was born knowing everything, and they add value to the community by freshening it and broadening our perspective.  I love ’em.

The dream job

In the early years of Airstream Life magazine I was often asked by people how I was “so lucky” to get the job I have.  To tell the truth, there wasn’t much luck involved.  It was a matter of necessity meeting inspiration.  I quit a perfectly good job in another industry because I was burned out, and stared out the window of my home office for a month trying to figure out what to do next.

vermont-shoveling-deck.jpgNo brilliant ideas came to mind, so I began working up a list of criteria for the next thing I wanted to do.  It was December, and our 1968 Airstream Caravel was sitting out in driveway, waiting out the gray winter gloom until it could be de-winterized and used again.  (See photo at right of three-year-old Emma and I shoveling the snow off our deck on a typical December afternoon.  We were doing this so that I could fire up the outdoor grill.  Such are the lengths that we would go, in order to break the monotony of winter.)

I thought back to the brilliant few weeks we had enjoyed with the Caravel in the summer, traveling all over the northeast states and Quebec, and I decided that the first requirement of my next job would be that I’d have the ability to keep using the Airstream frequently with my wife and toddler.

This seemed utterly unrealistic but brainstorming isn’t the time to be realistic.  So I plowed on to the next criteria:  I wanted a job where I would be my own boss again, where I could have the opportunity to write creatively, and which I could do from anywhere. Publishing felt like a good path to achieve all of this, but my publishing experience up to that point was strictly business-to-business newsletters of the deadly boring variety. If I were to re-enter that industry I wanted to publish something that I wanted to read.  All of this led to the eventual concept of Airstream Life — a dream job where I could travel (nay, would be required to travel) via Airstream and have the freedom that comes with being my own boss.

But anyone who runs their own business knows it’s not as easy as that.  Making a living, managing employees, and balancing work & life are just a few of the huge obstacles that confront any small business owner.  It was a long time before Airstream Life was a financially viable business, and even today the unforeseen challenges and hassles continue to pop up on a regular basis.  The dream was achieved in some ways, not in others, but overall I feel like we did OK.

One of the decisions I made early on was to have no employees. Everyone who works for Airstream Life is part-time contract, and they all have other jobs or clients (or are otherwise retired).  I like this model because I can work with people who are truly self-motivated and need little management, and I can pick the very best people from nearly anywhere in the world and connect with them via the Internet.

The flip side is that it is sometimes difficult to replace those excellent people when they inevitably move on. This past week my assistant notified me that she was going to be leaving effective June 1, for personal reasons, and so my search for a replacement began.  She was highly overqualified for the job, but that only meant that the job was done superbly, and so I’ve been talking to some more highly overqualified friends in hopes of finding a similar replacement.

One of them was interested in talking to me about the job, and we set up an appointment for last Sunday afternoon.  Jokingly, she said, “I’m not dressing up for the interview,” to which I (also jokingly) replied, “No?  At least wear some fishnet stockings — sexual harassment is part of the job, you know.”

“Good thing I have my law degree,” she shot back.

And that’s one of the many reasons I like hiring very experienced people.  They aren’t afraid.

I’m also looking for some new contributing writers.  One of the magazine’s most popular columns, “eBay Watch” has finally come to an end as the long-time author has decided to stop writing it.  I’ve got a new concept for a buy/sell commentary column in mind, but haven’t yet found just the right person to write it.  Anyone who is obsessive about scouring eBay, Craigslist, and other online sites for all types of Airstreams and Airstream-related items is invited to send me an introduction letter.

The last person I am seeking to replace is myself.  Airstream Life has been the dream job that I wanted, but after seven years of running all aspects of the magazine, it feels like time for a change.  I would like to gradually ease out of the Editor’s position and just act as Publisher from now on.  Tom Bentley, a long-time contributor to the magazine, is stepping up to take over part of my job, as Associate Editor, and I certainly hope that he (and perhaps another Editor or two) will take on more responsibility in the future.

Replacing one’s self is probably the hardest hiring job ever, but also one of the most necessary for an entrepreneur.  Once you’ve got things going well, you can stay in the captain’s chair forever or seek new challenges.  But if you stay in place forever, you run the risk that the business will never transcend you.  I want Airstream Life to continue after I’m gone (whether working on another project, retired, overseas, or dead, whichever comes first!) so I need to get serious about obsoleting myself.

Beside, I’m not one to sit still.  With Alumapalooza and other projects taking up more of my time, I am happy to let someone else enjoy the Editor’s position under my guidance, and eventually with very little oversight. Don’t expect to see me disappear this year or even in 2012, but when I do eventually fade out, send me a note of congratulations because I’ll be happy I succeeded at my most challenging task.

Alternative lifestyles

Airstreams are superb travel vehicles, optimally designed to make exploring geography with exceptional comfort.  But they are good for something more than that.  I often meet fellow travelers who use their Airstreams for exploring a region that only they can reach: inside their own mind.

So many of us are just a little bit weird by conventional assessment.  We eschew the normal travel pattern by avoiding airlines and hotels, we haul our children and pets to quirky places, and we often are accused (sometimes with frank admiration) of having an “alternative lifestyle” by virtue of being free-booting and happy to take a chance once in a while.   That last characterization is a bit of a broad brush, but I’ll accept it because I’ve come to realize that “alternative lifestyle,” although a loaded term, is another way of saying we live where the wildflowers grow.

That’s where the interesting stuff happens.  You get a little more room to roam around when you bend the rules and conventions of straightlaced society. We meet people all the time who admire the traveling lifestyle, and they generally fall into two groups, those who have done it too and get the concept, and those who are firmly in the center of the fairway and happy to admire the wildflowers from afar.  It takes all kinds to make a world, so I’m not implying that any one group has it right or wrong, but it is interesting to me to see what choices and options have opened up to us simply by virtue of releasing ourselves from the conventional bonds of society and taking a chance that something good might happen.

It really doesn’t take much to broaden your life. Last night we were talking with one of our overnight guests, a writer who is going to take his Airstream across the country to find raw material for his next book. Along the way, he’ll discover new friends and interests.  Heck, he has already and he hasn’t even left yet.  I am looking forward to reading what he has gleaned from his travels.  He’s launching on a massive cross-country expedition but there’s just as much value in taking the Airstream off to a quiet spot in the woods for a couple of days to re-connect with yourself.

I also think its interesting to see how generally-accepted social boundaries change when you take people away from their routine and put them into a campground for a few days. Suddenly people are feeling freer, and you can see it in their dress, their speech, their relaxation of personal rules, what they eat, how they decorate, and from a thousand other little cues.  Nearly everyone comes away refreshed, and a few (like us) come away with a determination to stay out in the wildflowers as long as possible.

“I’m fixing a hole, where the rain gets in,

and stops my mind from wandering …”

My plan for the summer includes a few trips like that too.  I want to do more writing and come up with new ideas for the coming years.  The first step is to “fix the holes” and stop the rain from getting in, and travel is great for that.  Deep in most people’s minds are the thoughts that we haven’t had time to process, and the ideas we never gave a chance.  There are also often old hurts and energy-sapping memories that can be better vanquished with a change of scene.  There are inspirations waiting to be born, and viewpoints yet to be conceived.  Once you clear out the detritus of daily life, who knows where you will go next?  Perhaps an “alternative lifestyle” is waiting out there for you–even if it’s only a change of perspective.