Storm chasing

My triumphant return to the northeast somehow became a story about a hurricane.  In the last 48 hours leading up to my dawn flight from Tucson to Manchester NH, I was suddenly getting emails (and a blog comment) from friends & family who were concerned about my apparent interest in flying into the midst of a famous hurricane, namely Irene.

Not to worry.  My flight was via Chicago, which meant that I didn’t need to worry much about in-flight weather and also that there would be an astonishing rarity in these days: a plane with lots of empty seats.  86 people on the Tucson-Chicago leg bailed out presumably because they couldn’t get their connections to eastern seaboard cities like Washington DC, New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk.  Without all the crowding, it was like flying in the 20th century.  (The illusion would be complete if only I didn’t have to turn my head and cough at the security checkpoint.)

We landed in Manchester in the late afternoon on Saturday, when people in North Carolina and Virginia were firing up their generators and bailing water, with only scattered clouds and no rain.  But not for long — the long gray tendrils of Irene reached us that evening and the excitement began.  Being from the area and having seen many an expiring hurricane dawdling up the east coast, I knew what to expect.  By the time they get up around Boston, the weather event is basically a lot like every summer afternoon in central Florida: torrential rain, occasional high winds, predictable flooding, plus a local bonus lots of hyper-excited news coverage.  I met my long-lost wife and we went out for dinner, then spent the night at a hotel listening to the splatter of an overloaded rain gutter splash the window.

The next day at noon, we took to the road.  The trusty GL was as surefooted as always, making the 200 mile drive up I-93 and I-89 a non-event for the most part, despite constant heavy rain.  Swish-swish went the wipers, the tires sliced through the puddles (as long as I stayed at a reasonable speed, far below the posted limit), and inside we had plenty of time to talk and listen to podcasts.  The best part was that virtually nobody was out, so the highways were wide open and there were no yahoo drivers to avoid.  We paused in Hanover NH near Dartmouth College to take in a long lunch and were the only people in the Chinese restaurant.  On the other hand, it was a bit sad to see spots where the White River and others had apparently overflowed their banks and flooded some farms and homes.  Up on the high ground of the Interstate we had little to complain about, but down below the damage was quite obvious and I’m sure many people are having a really rough time at the moment.

All of this is a long way of saying that we drove through a tropical storm (“hurricane” status having been stripped from Irene about the time she arrived in Massachusetts) for four hours and the most exciting part was lunch.  Things got considerably more interesting once we pulled into Vermont, where the Airstream has been stored all summer.  I was concerned that a tree branch might have fallen on the roof, but no.  The lake was rolling with huge widely spaced waves like you’d expect on Lake Michigan, not on our relatively small “sixth Great Lake.”  The power went out at the house, because this is Vermont and that’s what happens in virtually every storm.  We hung out with the family by candlelight for a while, then fired up the noisy backup generator that services the house on these occasions.

The Airstream needed no external power, of course, but as we attempted to sleep we were located far too close to the generator’s Sturm und Drang cacophony and it was a bit like being at the worst rally of our lives.  No “generator hours” here; we were the guests and without the generator the basement sump pumps in the house would cease working and then we’d have our own little tale of flooding to tell.  So we endured some noise until about 3 or 4 a.m., when the generator finally ran out of gas.  At 5:30 the hard-working representatives of Green Mountain Power arrived with a powerful chainsaw and proceeded to spend about half an hour rescuing power lines.  It was not the best night for sleeping, but the power was back on when we finally awoke for the fourth or fifth time.

And today it is the classic “day after” a major storm: startlingly clear skies, a beautiful view of New York state across the open waters of Lake Champlain, and the ground littered with downed branches.  I got out the wheelbarrow, ladder and tree trimmers, and with a little help from Emma cleaned up the overhanging branches in the driveway so that the Airstream will be able to depart in a few days.  The trees needed trimming anyway.  Tonight, friends will come over for dinner on the deck.  A precious few warm days remain up here in northern Vermont, so we’ll make the most of them while plotting a convoluted route down the east coast and across the south, in the Airstream, during September.

TBM wraps up

Plot summary:  After the last burst of wonderful road-trip glory, Temporary Bachelor Man (TBM to his friends) finds himself in the sad anti-climax of his adventures.

I knew it would be hard to top the big three-city tour that I did last week, and upon returning to home base I had to face a mixture of painful realities:  (1)  the end of the 2011 TBM season was fast approaching; (2) I would have liked a drop-in visit by my wife/girlfriend (it’s a dual role this time of year) before returning to family life; (3) we had absolutely no plan for where we were going in the Airstream once we resumed travel; (4) I was bored with Tucson.

For me, the charm of a place is often inversely proportional to the amount of time I have to spend in it.  I have enjoyed weekends in absolute hell-holes and dull-as-a-butter-knife cities simply because they were novel to me, and I have completely lost my mind after eight days on the action-packed Las Vegas Strip.  It’s the experience of learning, exploring, and being stimulated by new things that makes a place fun for me, which is the same personality characteristic (some would say “flaw”) that causes me to shy away from the routine.  And lately, home base has become a little too predictable: not much happening, always hot, nearly always sunny, and everyone hiding indoors to avoid the weather, like northerners hide in the winter.

With only a few days remaining, I scrambled to find things to do, but at every turn was stymied by forces beyond my control.  There’s always work, of course, but with excess time the Winter 2011 magazine is not only well in hand, but actually — for the first time in years — somewhat ahead of schedule.  The Vintage Trailer Show for Modernism Week 2012 is almost ready to begin accepting trailer-owner applications, and we’ve got the new Alumapalooza 2012 website up, too.   That’s all good, but there’s got to be more to life than work.

More sensible people than I have all fled the desert southwest, of course, so few of my local friends can be found.  (Note for next year: plan more trips up into the cool country; this means FIND A TOW VEHICLE FOR THE CARAVEL, YOU DOPE!)  Over the weeks that I have been in TBM guise, I have satisfied myself with a little checklist of absolutely inane & mostly unnecessary goals, all of which I can accomplish solo:

(1) Eat ice cream at every local place within 2 miles (Baskin Robbins, Culver’s, Dairy Queen, and Frost).

(2) Buy a bunch of used books at Bookman’s for the long trip back in the Airstream and in the process reclaim my “Mayor” status on Foursquare.

(3) See every R-rated movie of interest that I can, either in a theater or via Netflix.  This summer I’ve managed about a dozen, including X-Men, The Trip, Potiche, Rango (OK, it wasn’t R but I’m a sucker for animation), The French Connection, Sucker Punch, The Adjustment Bureau, The Illusionist (another non-R animation but charming), Night and Day, and Inception.  I’m not recommending all these movies, by the way …

(4) Go for at least one hike above 8,000 ft. (accomplished 8/13)

(5) Cook my own dinner at least a dozen times.  This has been accomplished mostly through the miracle of pasta and a very robust sauce Eleanor left in the freezer.  I may not be able to face pasta again for months, however.  The Weber grill is also a TBM friend.

(6) Sell the Miata.  This has been done, although at painful cost.  We never intended to keep the car for longer than this summer, but our impetus to sell it became more urgent when the car began to puke up intermittent “Check Engine” lights.  The suggested repairs (from three different sources) ranged from simply cleaning carbon out of the EGR passage, to a basketful of repairs that would have cost $2,500.  Nobody really knew what the root cause was, and we didn’t have the time or inclination to get into it.  Finally we found a buyer who was willing to take on the car as-is, and so we sold it well below the price I would have liked.  It was a gamble, and ultimately a failed experiment, but in all failures there are lessons to be learned.

So with those momentous accomplishments behind me, I can turn to the final tasks of the week.  Mostly that means buttoning up the house and thinking about where we are going to head once we leave Vermont.  Planning travel would seem to be the really fun part, but I have to justify my miles with business along the way, so the planning gets complicated quickly.  When we were doing the Tour of America I didn’t write about all the business stuff I did along the way because it was not all interesting and some of it had to be kept confidential.  But regardless, nearly every mile had a purpose that related to growing Airstream Life magazine.  Marty says that I need to keep that justification in mind and document it better — daily —  in case I get audited.  In addition to that consideration, I’ve got more projects going on these days, so any time out of reach of cell phone towers is a problem.  It puts a high burden on the planning process.

At this point I can only say that we are planning to head down the eastern seaboard again.  Beyond that, we may be winging it.  If prior experience is any guide, many opportunities will pop up as we go, and the trip will turn out to be much more than we could have foreseen.  Traveling in the Airstream tends to go that way.  So I’m not worried about making the trip work, but rather anticipating interesting opportunities.  If you have any suggestions along the general direction of Vermont-Georgia-Arizona, let me know.

Roadtrip, weather or not.

If you would like the short version of this blog entry, here it is:  500 miles later, I’m back at home base.

But there’s so much more to it than that.  The day started beautifully in the best fashion of southern California, with a light summer fog in the air that was quickly giving way to sunny skies and views of green desert hills.  I opened up the car windows and sped over to meet Uwe for breakfast in Orange at 8 a.m. We talked for over an hour, sitting at one of the outside tables at the Watson Drug & Soda Fountain, watching as very fit-looking men in blue Fire Dept. t-shirts ran around the block a few times.  The second time they came by I felt like getting up and joining them (and I don’t run, that’s how inspiring the morning was), but then I came to my senses and tucked into the waffle I’d ordered.  Extra maple syrup, please, I’m going to have a long day.

After dropping Uwe off at his shop, I automatically headed east on CA-91 toward Riverside, but a few minutes into the trip I realized that I didn’t really want to rush back into the desert heat.  It was still gorgeous where I was, near the coast, and it seemed a shame to have to close up the windows and turn on the air conditioner.  I’ve been doing that all summer.  So I took a right onto the Rt 241 toll road instead, with the vague plan of enjoying a scenic route along the California coast all the way to San Diego.

This turned out to be a bonus.  Being a toll road, Rt 241 is lightly traveled, and it rises up dramatically into the hills on smooth new pavement.  The toll charge of $5.25 was well worth it for this driving experience — at least once — and after about half an hour I was dropped off at I-5 in the traffic south of Irvine.

Nearer the coast, the way became foggy and even cooler, to the point that I eventually rolled up the windows just to stay warm.  Listening to the radio and distracted by scenery (I took a quick stop at San Onofre State Beach), it wasn’t until I was well into the Camp Pendleton area that I realized I hadn’t gotten gas, and now the car was running drastically low.  I exited I-5 at the first opportunity south of Pendleton to fill up and consider exactly what I was doing heading toward San Diego.  This plan wasn’t making a ton of sense.  Here I was, eighty miles from my starting point and still only a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

Well, I had all day, so what the heck.  I don’t get to just wander around aimlessly very often (or at least, not often enough).  Despite appearances, my travel usually has a definite purpose.  Besides, it had warmed up a bit, and that meant I could I roll down the windows again for a few minutes before the upcoming plunge into the desert heat.

Only a few minutes later, I picked up I-805, and then finally I-8 to head eastward for the next 300 miles or so. The road climbs out of the San Diego area, through La Mesa and El Cajon, past the inevitable & lonely Indian casino, and up to 4,000 feet over the portion of I-8 known as the Kumeyaay Freeway. This is a beautiful stony scenic area through the Cleveland National Forest, followed by a long descent right back down to sea level through a series of fantastic twists to the flat desert floor near Ocotillo.  At that point there’s little remaining to see, and the speed limit opens up to 70 MPH.  As I traversed this part I had to fight the urge to hang a left onto Rt 79 and drive the road up toward Julian — there just wasn’t time for that detour.

As I left the San Diego area I was watching the temperatures climb and the landscape grow steadily more arid.  By Ocotillo, it was a rousing 113 degrees and only Mexican stations could be picked up on FM.  I tried to remember that only a couple of hours earlier I was freezing in the cool fog of coastal California, but it seemed to be only an impossible dream.

I-8 runs tightly to the border from here all the way to Yuma, tediously straight most of the way, and there aren’t many places to stop for a cold one.  Fortunately, I had a cooler full of drinks and lots of calls to make.  For a long portion of this road you are south of the Salton Sea and below sea level.  The highway gets pinched between canals (like the one that formed the Salton Sea) and the fences along the US-Mexico border.  Then there’s the Imperial Sand Dunes, and then you’re seeing another Indian casino and the AZ border at Yuma, followed shortly by the welcome increase in speed limit to 75 MPH.

Somehow I managed to completely overlook Dateland (AZ), which is a great place to try a date shake and pick up fuel.  Not much else.  Having missed that opportunity, I paused in Gila Bend instead, where it was still 106 degrees under a cloudy sky.  Thunderstorms were threatening in the distance, and I knew at that point I was going to have an exciting end to my trip whether I wanted it or not.

Five miles later, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and for the rest of I-8 was buffeted by winds and sprinkled by the remnants of thunderstorms.  Lightning was everywhere to the east and south.  By the time I reached the end of I-8 where it merges with I-10 near Eloy, the rain was occasionally torrential, the desert was puddled with water, and kamikaze tumbleweeds were blowing across the road.  I clipped one with the right wheels and saw the tumbleweed explode into a thousand dry match sticks in my rear view mirror.

The weather was getting seriously threatening. I stopped to check weather radar on the iPhone at a gas station, and the gas station turned out to be closed for lack of electricity.  I saw one serious accident with police & rescue on the scene (two cars in the median, heavy damage), then another a few miles later.  Brief sections of the road were flooded a few inches, and the radio was filled with warnings about dust storms and lightning.  I had that feeling again — was it really only an hour or two ago that I was blinking in the burning sun at a rest area and marveling at 113 dessicating degrees?

Finally, Tucson: 72 degrees in light rain, wind blowing, flashes of lightning over the Rincons, carport half flooded.  Whatever.  It didn’t matter if it was snowing, I was home.  Time for laundry, dinner, and a few days of catchup.  It’s nice to be back, but the trip was so great that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t zip out for a roadtrip somewhere again this week.  I have only seven days before my TBM license expires.  Hmm… what next?

L.A. story

OK, I dropped Brett off at the airport tonight so we now we can all talk about him.  He’s catching a redeye back to Florida and I’m spending one more night at some anonymous hotel in the Los Angeles area.

Actually, I’ve got no lurid tales to tell of life with Brett.  We’ve done the business trip thing so many times that it’s just second nature now, and we know how to get along like an old married couple.  (No wonder that when we go to Palm Springs we sometimes get offered a single King bed.)  And this was a particularly successful week, starting with our two nights in Denver, then two nights in Tucson, two nights in Palm Springs, and one night in Anaheim.  The summary: we got it all done and we had fun doing it.

Driving back from LAX after dropping Brett off I was starting to feel the L.A. vibe and start to regret that tomorrow I’ll be heading back home.  The car was bouncing along the uneven concrete of “the 105” (as locals say it) with a 72-MPH/ 72-degree breeze blowing in the open windows and KLOS taking classic rock requests on FM.  I was zipping and merging according to the whims of Garminita, listening to Jimi Hendrix and getting whiffs of the Pacific salt when I was near LAX.  It all felt like an experience I could only have in mythical southern California.

You know that California has a huge car culture, which is why I always feel most at home here when driving.  Yesterday we took the twistiest possible route from Palm Springs to Los Angeles.  The highlights were the climb out of Palm Desert along Rt 74 (the “Palms To Pines Highway” pictured above), the climb up from Lake Elsinore (below), and the Ortega Highway.  With stops at scenic overlooks, the drive took us most of the day and I didn’t regret it for a second.  I’m tempted to take the same route back.

Towing the Airstream I tend to pick straighter routes, but now that I think back to it we have towed on curvy and narrow roads without hesitation.  I remember a few roads that we probably shouldn’t have been on (89A heading south to Sedona, for example) and a few that people recommended we avoid with a trailer (coastal Rt 1 in California comes to mind).  In every case the effort required to navigate the road with a 30-foot Airstream was well repaid in scenery and memories. So I’m not surprised that the road less traveled in California was a great choice yesterday.

Well, that was yesterday when we had all day to kill.  Today was a different story.  Our goal was to visit a few clients and friends in the area and get tours of their facilities.  I like to have a good handle on the resources available for Airstream owners, and it’s always useful to snoop around in hopes of finding an interesting restoration project or contact person for a future Airstream Life article.

Our first stop was M.E.L. Trailer in Orange.  Named for the three partners in the business (Mike, Erasmo, Lucas), this little shop is turning out some very nice work and seems poised for even better things in the future.  By the way, Mike Keenan is the organizer of the very popular annual Pismo Beach vintage trailer event.  This year he offered 300 spaces and got 600 applications.

Right down the street is Area 63 Productions, run by Uwe Salwender.  I’ve known Uwe casually for years, since he wrote a short article for Airstream Life, but we had not met in person until last February at Modernism Week.  Like M.E.L., Area 63 is doing great restoration and customization work and so I’d be proud to capture Uwe as an advertiser in Airstream Life sometime in the near future.  Bill K., another Airstreamer and blog reader, happened by while we were visiting, and he joined us for lunch in town at The Filling Station.

Since we were in the area, and because Dr. C suggested it, we zipped down to the Mercedes Benz Classic Center for a quick look at their Museum Of Unattainable Classic Cars.  That’s not actually what they call it, but it certainly struck me that way, especially the ones on the upper rack that could be glimpsed from below but not fully viewed.  Still, the cars are cool, and I am appreciative to Mercedes Benz USA for opening their doors in Irvine to let us drool for a few minutes.

Our final stop was C&G Trailer up in Bellflower, run by Rod and Darlene Beltran.  These folks have been in the Airstream repair business for 48 years, and Rod is the second generation since his father worked at the Airstream plant when it was located in the L.A. area.  Amazingly, they’re far from burned out; they seem to thrive on it.  Their shop has the unique appeal that comes from being a long-time specialist. In every corner are stacks of vintage parts, so much that we spent half our time there just marveling at all the goodies that we could use.  C&G Trailer has been an advertiser in Airstream Life for seven years and I love ’em for it.  Just recently I sent soap opera actor Ingo Rademacher to them for an interior makeover of his Airstream Safari 30 bunkhouse.  The trailer came out great and we’re going to have a photo spread on it in either the Winter 2011 or Spring 2012 issue.

We had a few minutes to kill before dinner, so we got the car washed (all hand wash & dry, $7.99, only in L.A.!) and cruised around town a bit since the temperatures were perfect in the evening.  Having accomplished all of our work goals and feeling the summer air, I’m pretty sure we were both thinking that it would be much nicer if the other suddenly disappeared and was replaced by a friendly female.  Not that we don’t enjoy each other’s company, but that’s what happens after a week on the road without our ladies.

Brett will be back to his girlfriend tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, face a long and quiet drive back to Tucson tomorrow and no prospect of romance for a while.  I’ll use the time to digest the events of the week and prepare for whatever lies around the corner.  Temporary Bachelor Man still has a little time left on his clock.

Southwest road warriors

The transition from home life to road life can be jarring.  Things were moving in slow motion when I was in the house in Tucson, giving me the feeling that I was living in a world where Jello had replaced the air and I had to fight my way from one place to another.  Then suddenly the roadtrips began, and now things have sped up to the point that I have trouble keeping track of where I am and where I am supposed to be next.

My Friday return was classic Air Travel 101: the TSA confiscated my 3 ounces of toothpaste because it was in a container capable of holding 4.6 ounces, and I lost my watch in the confusion of undressing and dressing by the side of the conveyor belt.  By the time I realized that the watch was gone, I was in Terminal C, a solid 10-minute trip away from the security checkpoint by train and moving walkway.  I went back for the watch, which required me to go through the long security line again in order to retrieve it, and so 26 minutes later Southwest closed the door to the jetway and left me behind.  Brett got to Tucson at 9:30 in the morning with my bags, while I got re-routed through Las Vegas and arrived five hours later.

Saturday was quite a bit better. We blew off all accumulated work and spent the day up in the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson.  Not only was it much cooler than in Tucson but we had spectacular skies and great hiking weather.  The photo above is from Windy Point, an overlook along the Mt Lemmon Highway.

Near the town of Summerhaven we took a hike in the national forest that led us about 3.2 miles (roundtrip) past tiny waterfalls in deep canyons, then dropped in on the southernmost ski area in the continental United States for lunch at the Iron Door Restaurant.  The ski area is pretty minor when compared to those of Utah and Colorado, but for being located about 100 miles from the Mexican border it’s a minor miracle.

Sunday was another travel day, this time a long-anticipated road trip from Tucson to Palm Springs.  We’re in town to scout sites for next year’s Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Show (February 2012).  The entire valley is a tough place to park trailers, especially vintage trailers.  Some of the towns have rules against overnight parking even on private property, others have been intimidated by campground owners, some campgrounds won’t allow anything over 10 years old, some are “55+”, and many non-campground venues we approached won’t allow trailers on principle just out of pure snobbery.

Fortunately, the organizers of Modernism Week have good connections in town and had found a few prime spots near the center for us to evaluate on Monday.  We think we have a venue that will work very well, but won’t know for sure until we’ve had further discussions with the land owner.  I expect that by the end of September we’ll have the plan nailed down and can begin to accept applications for the show in October.  We’ll have only about 25 spots available, seven more than last year.

Let’s see, if today is Tuesday then we must be traveling again.  I would be tempted to spend the day in the valley here at the Indian Wells Resort Hotel (a golf course resort that is cheap in the off-season) but it’s scorchingly hot and the cool San Jacinto mountains are beckoning us.  Since we accomplished all of our site evaluations yesterday we are free to take our time heading to Los Angeles today.  I have a 143-mile driving route planned that is designed for pure pleasure (lots of twisties) and absolutely zero practicality; a real antidote to the sort of rush-rush straightline travel we’ve been doing.  We’ll start with the Palms To Pines Highway (Rt 74) from Palm Desert, and then pick up interesting roads to Temecula’s wine country and then Lake Elsinore, and San Juan Capistrano. We can take all day to do it, since we have no meetings planned for today.

So, time to get started.  It’s 7:28 a.m. and the heat is already building past 90 degrees here in Indian Wells, CA.  We’ll hit the hotel’s courtesy breakfast buffet, throw our road warrior gizmos into our bags, check that the cooler is loaded with drinks, and move on.  Another adventure awaits us along the road.