Ft Pickens State Park, Pensacola, FL

We arrived in Pensacola to a light rain, which is always a drag when you’ve got to set up camp and even worse when there’s a a tricky back-in to the campsite.  A few mosquitoes add zest to the whole procedure, since someone (Eleanor) has to be out there to guide the trailer in while someone else (Rich) sits in air conditioned comfort to turn the power steering wheel.

My experience is that if you have to set up camp in the rain, the rain usually stops right after all the work is done.  This is exactly what happened last night.  But at least we were rewarded with the first great sunset of our visit to Florida and a rainbow over the Airstream.

We are near the tip of a long (25 miles or so) and narrow barrier island.  Our elevation is approximately three feet above sea level, and due to the narrowness of the island, the sea is only a few hundred feet away both in front of us and behind us.  Even when driving it is hard not to be aware that we are existing on a relatively delicate deposit of sand that is subject to the vagaries of weather, and which moves in every major storm. Signs along the roadway in the Gulf Islands National Seashore area warn that the road is subject to flooding and a phone number to call for current status is posted.  This weekend, the flood risk is considered “low” since no appreciable weather is expected.  It’s going to be upper 80s by day, about 70 degrees by night, with lots of sunshine.

The campground has been rebuilt since various major storms, but still the new asphalt sites are generally short and the turns are tight for longer rigs.  A tree across the road from our site limited my turning radius as the Mercedes slowly nudged the Airstream into the site, so it took a little longer than usual.  Also, the park is very strict about staying on the parking pads — no wheels on the grass, under penalty of fine — so I took the mandate seriously and got the Airstream into its assigned space without even briefly dropping a wheel off the asphalt. Eleanor suffered only one bite during this procedure, but as it turned out, many more were to come.

I was surprised to encounter the mosquitoes.  We’ve never had a bug problem at the beach before, but then I realized that normally we visit Florida in the winter.  Last year we went to Destin in November and the park was stunningly gorgeous, under-utilized, and bug-free.  We’re earlier this year, which means it’s a little hot, very humid, and the Floridians are still looking for ways to beat the heat so it’s crowded in the campground.  We had a few minutes to run out to the gulf seashore after sunset, and we all quickly got a few mosquito bites.  No wonder the people on the beach cleared out at sunset.

Being flat and low, the campground also doesn’t have much drainage, so the rain of yesterday flooded some sites.  It’s more of a novelty than a problem, as the parking pads are above the rest of the ground, and the water just sinks into the sand eventually.  I told Emma there were alligators in the puddles but she’s now too old to fall for my lame tricks, as you can tell by her pose.

By morning all was dry again — or at least, as dry as it ever gets here.  The last of the summer humidity is still evident and (let me remind you) we don’t have air conditioning at the moment.  We’re doing fairly well with fans, but we do need to get out of the trailer all afternoon.

So with that rule in mind, we took off about noon to check out the Pensacola Seafood Festival in the downtown historic district, which was great.  We split a platter of fish, shrimp, salad and paella, and then went back (because being full is no excuse to stop eating awesome seafood) for a soft shell blue crab sandwich.  The crab was a special mission.  Many years ago I convinced Eleanor to try a soft shell crab sandwich up on Tangier Island in Virginia, but we were not at the best restaurant for that, and the result was disappointing.  The Pensacola Seafood Festival was her chance to try again with a better example, and it worked.  Soft shell crab is not for everyone, as the crunching sound when you eat it sometimes reminds you of things you don’t want to know. But she loved it and so did I.

We got back to the Airstream early enough to change into beachwear and hit the pure white sands of Santa Rosa Island.  The white sand and bathtub-warm clear water are always the best here in the Florida panhandle.  I’m looking forward to more of that tomorrow …

The only bummer about being here is the abundance of campground smoke.  I’ve noticed that in some state parks everyone seems to act as if it were legally required that they have a campfire, and the smokier, the better.  In other campgrounds, campfires are a rarity.  This one seems to be in the former category, and it has made evenings almost unbearable.  Normally a great pleasure of camping near the ocean is the constant sea breezes that smell of salt and trigger thoughts of ocean vacations past.  Here, all we can smell is wood and charcoal smoke, as if we were camped in the midst of a forest wildfire.

We can’t close up the windows to avoid the plumes of drifting smoke, so we have to just breathe it until late at night when the last fire is out.  There’s been no breeze at night to take it away, either.  I am hoping that tomorrow, being Sunday, the campground will empty out and we’ll have a night of blessed fresh air to match the purity of the sunny days.

Oak Mountain State Park, Pelham AL

Birmingham is a city we’ve never visited before, which by all rights should be a good enough reason to come here.  Added to that, we had a mission — to visit the Mercedes Benz factory in nearby Vance.  I’ve been trying to get there for two years and it hasn’t worked out despite multiple attempts. With the SNAFUs on this trip (orthodontics, air conditioner) it would have been easy to skip the plant tour this time as well, but I really wanted to make it happen.

So we dropped in on Oak Mountain State Park, which is just south of Birmingham, and made camp for two nights.  This is a large park, with a 5.5 mile drive from the entrance to the campground along a scenic and pleasantly meandering road.  At the end of the road is a good campground by a lake with lots of fragrant evergreens and even full hookups in Loop A.

This morning we managed to get the whole crew into the car by 7:45 a.m., in time to make the 50 minute drive to Vance AL and make the first scheduled tour at Mercedes Benz US International ($5 per person, reservations required). The factory campus looks very clean by design, with stark white buildings set among a green, almost golf-course-like rural setting.  They boast that 100% of the factory’s waste is recycled, and I’m sure the exterior design is intended to help give the appropriate impression.

This is where our tow vehicle, the GL320, was made.  It’s the only plant that makes the GL, ML, and R-class vehicles, so here you’ll see cars with right-hand and left-hand drive on the same assembly line, destined for export all over the world.  Even Germans buy Mercedes Benz SUVs made right here in Alabama.  Yes, in America we still do make things that people in other parts of the world want to buy, and this one huge plant accounts for a billion dollars or so worth of exports all by itself.

As with the other car factory tours we’ve done (Corvette in KY, Nissan in MI), photos are not allowed so I’ve got nothing from the inside to show you, but I can say that the tour is really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.  Which obviously, I am.

This was also the first auto plant tour that Emma has been able to do, and she didn’t die of boredom during it, which counts as success given her pre-teen status.  The photo above (from the Visitor Center, where photos are allowed) shows one of the things she was mildly interested in, an ML-class Mercedes from one of the Jurassic Park movies.

I was so excited about the tour that I had made no plans for the rest of the day, so we just swung into downtown Birmingham to see whatever it had to offer.  Turns out that Birmingham has a pretty interesting downtown, with tons of Civil Rights-era history, great architecture, and much more that deserved a bigger investment of time than we gave it.

Besides, we were hungry, so the first stop was a Cajun restaurant on 20th Street.   I wanted to get some Cajun in Louisiana, but now with our abbreviated trip plan a good stop seems unlikely there.  This was a surprise find in Alabama, which is not Cajun country.  We went nuts and split a half-muffaletta, blackened red snapper, a few side dishes, and a double order of beignets.

The staff, all related by marriage and coincidentally all escapees from other careers, were over the lunch rush and had time to chat us up about our travels.  We were as interested in how they got from jobs like building contractor and CPA to restaurateurs, as they were in our nomadic life.  They definitely were doing an excellent job, as the taste of everything they made was equal to places in the heart of Cajun country.  They were a little disappointed, I think, that our 30-foot Airstream was not parked somewhere on the downtown streets of Birmingham for them to see.

Of course after that were weren’t in a great condition to do a ton of walking in the downtown (full stomachs), but we managed to browse a bit and run into some interpretive signs about Civil Rights era history.  This gave us a chance to talk to Emma about what it all meant, which was actually kind of fun.

Back at camp this evening we were running all three roof vents to combat the mild heat and humidity when a massive line of thunderstorms came upon us with no warning.  It was a real gully-washer storm, with several near lightning strikes, but we were high, dry, and safe in the Airstream, watching a movie as the storm played itself out.

This reminded me that we really do have to resolve our AC problem soon.  I’ve got a plan in development now that looks like it will work out, although once again our route is going to change, to I-20 through Texas instead of I-10.  Once I’ve got that nailed down I’ll post it here and try to figure out a few good stops along the way so it isn’t just a maintenance run.  Fortunately, we have friends along the way and even if nothing else fun pops up it will be nice to see them again.

Taillight warranty

I don’t blame Super Terry, really.

He tried his best.  He spent hours replacing the burned out motor in our air conditioner, and it seemed to work in heat pump mode when we tested it.  But as he joked, it had the “taillight warranty” — when he can’t see my taillights anymore, the warranty is over.

We’re 489 miles from his view now, near Birmingham AL, and I just turned on the air conditioner to remove some of the intense humidity we are feeling tonight.  It blew warm for a few minutes, cooled down a little, and then started blowing very warm humid air.  … sigh…

We did a quick telephone consultation but the consensus is:  “He’s dead, Jim.”

(note to non-geeks and those under age 45: That’s a Star Trek joke)

The full post-mortem hasn’t been done but it doesn’t matter, because I’m out of cheap options.  We aren’t going to repair this air conditioner at shop rates. At six years old, it has gone Tango Uniform. Farewell, Dometic Penguin — you are already missed, on this humid night in an Alabama state park.

I would like to wait until later this winter to replace it, but we also use the Airstream as a guest apartment and we have people slated to arrive in October, which is still air conditioning season in Tucson.  Somewhere in the next 1,900 miles I’ll find a good deal on a replacement unit (probably a 15k BTU air conditioner without heat pump) and we’ll do a swap.  That’s a topic I’ll start researching in the next few days.

Maintenance done & rolling again

I hope that this will be the last maintenance post for a while.  It’s good to have gotten things tweaked and fixed but I’d rather write about our travels.

Just to wrap up the repair saga, Super Terry came through with an amazing job on the Dometic AC/heat pump.  He salvaged the 1/4 hp electric motor from another unit and installed it in ours starting at about 6:30 Monday evening.  The job, conducted entirely atop the roof of the Airstream, took until about 9:30 pm, so mostly in the dark by flashlights.

I went up and down the ladder a dozen times to fetch tools as requested, and otherwise just stood at the top of the rungs admiring a mechanic with 30 years of experience solving what appeared to me to be an insoluble problem. That unit is not designed for easy serviceability, and the motor didn’t come out without a fight.  But at the end it was in, the whole thing went back together and upon testing it ran like new.  I’m amazed and grateful that this effort allowed us to avoid an expensive replacement, which is normally the only option.

For those who suffer this issue, believe your mechanic when he says the best fix is a whole new air conditioner.  Counting the time it took to salvage the motor from another unit, Super Terry put in a solid five hours on the job.  He did this as a friendly favor, but if I were paying shop rates it would have been probably $500 plus parts, and I’m left with a 6-year-old unit that probably will have some other fatal issue in a few years.  At the risk of sounding like an old RV codger, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Hopefully ours will hold on for a few more years but I’m not expecting decades of service.

With the late dinner and the usual post-dinner conversation it was a late night, and then this morning we had a slow-motion getaway.  It was 11 a.m. before we got on the road, westbound for Alabama.  We got as far as 30 miles past Atlanta (hit downtown right at rush hour, which was challenging), then stopped for dinner and overnight parking in a private lot. It’s pouring rain tonight, so I’m very glad we resolved the leak in the Fan-Tastic Vent.

Our goal tomorrow is Birmingham.  It’s a city we’ve never visited, and there are a few sights we want to see there, which I’ll write about in future posts.  From there, our travel plan is basically to head back to Tucson in two weeks or less.  We’re going to leave the exact stops loose, but this is familiar territory so if we want something different we’ll have to divert plenty from the beaten path.  There are a few days built into the schedule for that.

The big splurge of our two-week return budget is going to be this weekend.  I’ve actually made reservations — a rare thing indeed — for a park in the Florida panhandle for four nights.  We all want beach time, to fill that piece of our souls and sustain us through the dry interim in the southwest this winter.  Detouring to the panhandle will add 300 miles to our route but I’m sure it will be well worth it.

So that’s the sum total of our remaining travel “plan.”  Not much, really.   Rather than figure it all out, we’ll let circumstances and whimsy suggest the opportunities.  In the nearly 1,900 miles ahead, I have a feeling we’ll find more than a few interesting things.

Mysteries from the roof side

Believe it or not, a day spent on the roof of an Airstream can be kind of fun.  That is, as long as the news from roofside isn’t too bad.

We had left off yesterday with a few mysteries up above: a rain water leak and a non-functional air conditioner/heat pump.  With perfect fall weather and no rain, Sunday was the best opportunity for me to climb up onto the roof with Super Terry.

We had thought the AC problem was likely to be a control board, and in fact already had the spare part on hand.  But it wasn’t.  A few minutes after removing the shroud and firing up the unit, we noticed a burning smell and then the blower motor began to slow down.  It’s burned out.  That’s really bad news, since the motor is not designed to be replaced.  The typical “fix” is to replace the entire unit.  A quick check of prices for this combination AC/heat pump shows that it runs about $1200 plus shipping (nobody has it in stock locally).  An AC-only unit would cost about $850.  Not psyched.

Fortunately, he isn’t called Super Terry for nothing.  Just because the blower motor isn’t designed for easy replacement doesn’t mean it can’t be.  The job requires ripping up glued insulation and other bits, so it won’t be a pretty process but I expect the result will work out fine.  The real problem was that we didn’t have a spare blower motor and it was Sunday.  So, we set aside the problem until Monday and planned to extend our visit here so Super Terry can find one with his x-ray vision.

The other mystery was The Case of the Dripping Speaker.  The ceiling mounted speaker above the kitchen area was dripping rain water on Saturday.  I suspected the center Fan-Tastic Vent.  This vent has a bit of a history.  It’s original to the trailer, and I had re-caulked it 11 months ago in Florida.  At the time I couldn’t find the right caulk and eventually used some common “self-leveling RV caulk” that was sold by Camping World.  I was not happy with the stuff but it appeared to still be OK when I inspected yesterday (photo below).

Super Terry pointed me to a tube of Sikaflex 221, which is a very good polyurethane sealant, basically white Vulkem.  You know it’s great when a tiny smudge is absolutely impossible to remove from your clothing even after multiple washes. I have a pair of pants with a gray Vulkem smudge that is still pliable and sticky after several years.  For this reason I never start a caulk job without sacrificial clothing.

I took a few minutes to strip and re-seal some of the older caulk points on the roof (the FM antenna, the cellular antenna) but couldn’t find a smoking gun.  I was looking for an obvious caulk failure, which is indicated by the caulk peeling up, gapping, or starting to break down in the U.V.  Eventually S.T. found a small crack on the corner of the plastic flange that surrounds the Fan-Tastic Vent that wasn’t covered with caulk, and we had the culprit red-handed.  It doesn’t take much of a crack to let in a lot of rainwater.  The crack was in exactly the right spot to be allowing water to run to the ceiling speaker, given the tilt of the trailer.

Once we pulled off the caulk to inspect, we discovered that the entire flange surrounding the fan body was badly cracked.  The caulk was holding, but the multiple cracks were creating water entry points.  About half the screw heads were rusted underneath the caulk.  At this point there was not much hope for caulking our way out of the problem — the best solution was a replacement fan body.

We’ve got some time pressure, so although the warranty on the fan would allow us to request a replacement body from the company, I chose the more expedient option of going to the store and buying a basic model of the same fan to replace this one.  Super Terry transferred the advanced features of our old fan to the new one (rain sensor, power open/close, smoked cover), and so the $100 basic fan we bought became the equivalent of a $300 model, and we installed that with the Sikaflex.

It won’t be leaking again for quite a while.  From my personal observations, the OEM caulk will last 5-6 years under average conditions, but as little as 3-4 years if left full-time in a sunny environment like the desert southwest.  A good quality polyurethane caulk like Sikaflex or Vulkem stays good and pliable for a much longer time.  I’ve seen Vulkem on vintage trailers that is decades old and still holding tight.  It pays to use the good stuff, but you do have to hunt for it a bit.

Now that we knew we’d be spending at least another night here, waiting for the replacement blower motor, it was time to discuss our future plans.  Since we left Vermont we had expected this stop in North Carolina to be a literal fork in the road, and we’d have to make a choice:  go for an extended trip with several weeks in Florida, or hang a right and start west toward home.  The difference was basically $1,000 in camping and fuel, and 1,000 miles, which would get us three or four weeks of Florida fun.

But our decision has been made for us.  Late last night Emma’s orthodontic appliance failed again — for the third time — and after consulting with her home dentist we have come to the conclusion that the best choice is to head home.  The appliance will be disconnected by a local orthodontist in Winston-Salem today.  To avoid a major setback in her treatment, we will aim to get back to Tucson in less than two weeks, which means no long visit to Florida.

We knew this might happen, and even discussed the possibility months ago.  An orthodontic problem (or really any sort of medical problem) can easily derail a long trip.  Sometimes there’s no choice but to go back to home base.  The important thing is that everyone rolls with the punches and there be no recriminations.  Today it was Emma’s issue, but tomorrow it might be mine.  At least traveling by Airstream gives us the flexibility to re-arrange our plans without paying penalties for cancellation fees or last-minute airfares.

So, starting Tuesday we will be heading westward.  There are still several interesting stops to be made along the 2,000 mile journey back, so it won’t be a waste.  I’ve started mapping out possibilities and will work up a fairly definite plan as soon as we button up the air conditioner.