Running gear maintenance day

I have been paranoid about our disc brakes since about 5,000 miles after we got them, and our tires almost since we first started traveling with this particular Airstream — for good reason.  The brakes have had a long history of wearing unevenly and the tires … well, let’s just say we’ve had our share of problems with them.  (If you haven’t been a long-time reader of this blog and the prior Tour of America blog, just try searching the word “tires” in either of them.)

But after about five years of traveling and trying various solutions, we seem to have finally gotten it all worked out.  We installed Michelin LTX M/S LT235/75R15 tires (Load Range C) on the trailer in January of 2010 and replaced the ceramic brake pads with semi-metallics at the same time.

About a year ago, in October 2010, we met up with Super Terry to do a maintenance check and everything checked out perfectly.  Since then, we’ve put about 8,000 additional miles on the trailer, for a total of approximately 18,000 miles of towing on this set of brakes and tires, so I decided it was time to do another check.  And so here we are with Super Terry again, about one year later.

I figured that we’d probably need something at this point, so my other goal was to learn the full disc brake replacement procedure, along with best techniques for re-packing wheel bearings.  But when we pulled the wheels, everything was perfect.  Absolutely no service needed.  So I didn’t get a chance to observe much of anything.

The tires currently have 12/32″ of tread depth remaining (they started with 13/32″, so barely any wear so far).  If we eventually replace the tires when they reach 4/32″ of tread, we’d have over 160,000 miles on them.  That’s incredible.  Realistically, with uneven wear that usually occurs or just aging, we’ll replace them with about 75,000 miles on them — still incredible compared to the 30,000 mile life I would get if I could wear out an ST tire before it had a belt failure.

The disc brakes were similar.  I could not see any wear since last year.  (We didn’t measure the pads but they are still in excellent condition.)  I’ll continue to do annual brake and tire checks but that’s just good practice.  We finally have a really reliable running gear setup.

Given the excellent condition of everything we observed, we decided to skip wheel bearing service at this time.  We did notice slightly more wear on the rear tires, which is normal, so we rotated the tires front-to-back.  We also took the opportunity to replace the remaining original lug nuts, which were cheap-o type with fake chrome caps on them.  The chrome caps tend to come loose at inopportune moments, which makes them very hard to remove.  They also stretch so that fitting them into a socket can be difficult.

We found solid nuts at Autozone.  The replacements take a 13/16″ socket instead of 3/4″, which is slightly less convenient.  The Hensley hitch strut jacks take a 3/4″ socket and so do all the stabilizer jacks, so now I have to carry one more socket, but that’s no big deal.  In the photo, the solid nuts are pictured at right, and one of the original capped nuts is on the left.

I am still finding reminders of the summer of storage in Vermont.  It was sprinkling lightly this morning, so I opened up the awning to cover us while we were working on the curbside.  Rolled up inside the awning was a colony of very large ants.  They appeared to be dormant, and began to wander randomly around the awning.  I knocked them off easily enough, but it was not a pleasant surprise.  We’re still carrying quite a few spiders too.  They are slowly being captured and removed.   I am just hoping we haven’t picked up a load of stink bugs on the east coast like last year.

With the rain coming and going we didn’t feel like getting on the roof for the final scheduled repair, the air conditioner.  It started getting wonky a few weeks ago, spontaneously shutting off or blowing hot air.  We suspect a bad circuit board, which has to be replaced from the top.  That’s part of today’s plan.

So instead of doing anything significant in the rain, we added a few LED lights in strategic places for future boondocking episodes, including this one in the porch light.  The standard incandescent bulb that comes with the light (an 1156) generates too much heat and eventually melts the plastic lens.  I don’t know why the OEM puts that bulb in there.  Ours had started to melt but was still usable, so to prevent further damage we swapped it with this plug-in replacement 24-LED array from a fine Airstream Life advertiser, LED4RV.  It works great.

There’s one other job for today while we’re on the roof.  The rain revealed a roof leak somewhere.  Water was dripping through one of the ceiling-mounted JVC speakers.  Now, we’ve had rain several times before on this trip and not noticed a leak, which provides a lesson.  Sometimes leaks aren’t noticeable until the trailer is parked a particular way.  This is another example of how using your Airstream regularly is the best way to keep it in good shape. A leak like this one could have gone unnoticed for months while in storage, until an expensive floor repair became necessary.

In this case, we are very slightly nose high and very slightly lower on the street side.  This suggests that the leak is coming through the Fan-Tastic Vent in the center of the trailer.  I re-caulked that vent last year and was not happy with the caulk I ended up having to use, so I’m going to remove all of the caulk and do it over with something better.  While I’m up there, I’ll probably do a few other spots as a preventative measure.  I’ll have more to say about that issue in the next blog.

Those who are wondering about E&E: they spent the day in the trailer just puttering.  Both of them have a cold and will be running at low speed for a few days, but in the gloomy fall sprinkles it wasn’t a bad way to spend Saturday.


Getting it all done on the road

Our stopover in Falls Church turned out to be a working stop.  We had entertained thoughts of taking a day to go into Washington DC to tour some monuments and museums (Eleanor particularly wanted to see the new Martin Luther King Jr monument), but obligations took over.

Normally when I plan our travels I try to keep enough days open to get my work done, but this week I botched it and ended up with an obligation to drive all day Monday, Tuesday, and Friday.  That left just two full days for work, plus the little “fringe” times I find at the beginning and end of each driving day.  Things were complicated by our visit to Penn Wood on Monday, because I wanted to have a quick client meeting (the park advertises in Airstream Life) and I had forgotten that the park is a “no-Verizone”.

The end result was that we arrived in Falls Church at Bobby/Danine/Elise’s house with piles of work and household tasks which had to take priority. I set myself up on their dining room table while Emma did homeschooling and Eleanor shuttled back and forth to the laundry room and grocery.  We also visited Elise’s orthodontist to get a better fix to Emma’s braces.

The braces seem to be stable enough that we can continue our planned travel and won’t have to fly E&E back to Tucson early.  We did have to make a minor adjustment later, which involved a nail file to remove some sharp bits of glue that were cutting into Emma’s tongue.  This was done at a rest area somewhere along I-85 — redneck dentistry at its finest.

Having the braces issue resolved would be more exciting news if we actually had a firm plan. But we don’t.  Our only plan, after bidding a fond farewell to our friends in Falls Church, was to drive 300+ miles to Winston-Salem NC for a visit with Super Terry & Marie. After that, we have ideas and wishes, but no firm plans.

We are now parked in their back yard, beneath a canopy of mature maple trees (a few of which we had to trim in order to fit in here).  It was a long and tricky back-in, down a driveway, around a 90 degree bend, descending a slight grade and past a brick wall.  It took a few passes and lot of patience but we made it.

This weekend is dedicated to learning to do the brakes and bearings myself.  In the past I have relied on Super Terry, chasing him across the country from Florida to California to North Carolina in order to get a decent and trustworthy repair.  This time, I’m asking him to teach me all the tips & tricks so that I can be completely capable & equipped of doing a 4-wheel disc brake job and bearing service in my own driveway annually.  Self-reliance is really a key to survival when you travel a lot, and I’m overdue to get competent at these simple jobs. I’ll be taking notes and photos as we go.

In the meantime, E&E will be convalescing and perhaps going to an apple festival with Marie.  The weather has changed and it’s now a damp gray fall day (where it was a scorching humid summer a few days ago).  It’s the kind of weather that makes you want to bundle up and watch old movies with a cup of soup.  They might just do that, but hopefully the colds won’t keep them from also getting out a little to breathe the fall air.


Challenges along the way

For those who idolize the traveler,  I feel compelled to occasionally offer tidbits of reality.  It’s not all fun and freedom out here on the road.  Our past couple of days have been pleasant enough but certainly not free of worry.

We left the Buffalo area with a bit of a problem.  Emma’s ultra-fancy orthodontic appliance had come loose from her left molar.  On Friday we found a local orthodontist who gamely re-cemented the thing but warned that another tooth was causing interference, and the temporary repair might  not hold.  It didn’t.  Saturday it popped loose again while we were in Toronto.  It doesn’t cause any discomfort or trouble eating, but it needs to be fixed soon.

On Monday we were due to head south through the rolling hills of southwestern New York and western Pennsylvania to Penn Wood Airstream Park, which is one of the parks that advertises in Airstream Life magazine.  Our home-base orthodontist was out on Monday, so we set the problem of Emma’s appliance aside and started towing.

Arriving at Penn Wood, I remembered that the park and the surrounding area is a total no-Verizon zone.  Our Verizon Internet didn’t work either, even with the rooftop antenna, but fortunately the park has wifi.  Sometimes it’s nice to be isolated by a lack of communication, and sometimes it isn’t.  On this occasion it didn’t matter much since we were only there for an overnight.  We met up with Alex K and whipped up a big dinner in the Airstream.

There was one task I needed to complete in the morning: deposit a check.  Our checking account was nearly depleted and we were going to need cash soon.  This is where modern technology really helped me out.  I have an app (from USAA) on my iPhone that allows me to deposit checks simply by taking a picture of them with the phone.  I walked over the park office, where the wifi signal was strongest, and in less than a minute I had turned the paper check into money in the bank. Gotta love it.

Earlier I mentioned doing maintenance on the road.  We’re still finding things that need a little help after the summer of storage.  The bathroom was a bit funky so Eleanor did a thorough cleanup while we had the luxury of full hook up at Penn Wood.  In the process, she noticed that the sink drain was leaking.  It needed plumber’s putty, and I didn’t have any.  We asked Alex, who has every repair tool & supply known to man stored in his shed, and he came over immediately with a golf cart and a tool kit.  A few minutes later we were good to go.

Leaving the park on Tuesday morning, the first order of business was to get diesel.  I hadn’t noticed that we were at a quarter-tank when we arrived at Penn Wood.  We began hunting the moment we left, but unfortunately our route took us further into the boondocks of Pennsylvania, where gas stations are few, diesel stations are fewer, and ones that have both diesel and room to fit our 48-foot rig are rare indeed.  In retrospect I should have ignored the GPS and gone directly back to the Interstate where fuel would have been much easier to find.  It wasn’t long before I regretted heading into the rural country with insufficient fuel.

The problem was made much worse by the incredible rolling hills in that area.  We were crossing perpendicular to the ancient flow of glaciers, which meant that we were climbing and descending steep grades repeatedly.  Where we would have gotten 13 or 14 MPG, we were getting 10 on average, and the fuel gauge was dropping rapidly.  At one point the car’s computer was estimating about 30 miles to empty and the nearest major highway (where we would be likely to find fuel) was 18 miles away, but soon the computer gave up and simply defaulted to saying “RANGE” with an alarming picture of a fuel pump.  That’s its way of telling us that we’ve pushed the limit too far and we are now officially into the “reserve fuel” allowance.

This has happened once or twice before when we’ve failed to plan ahead, and it’s always unnerving.  (Read: on the way to Banff, in the Adirondacks)  We got to the point of looking for a place to ditch the Airstream but there were no available flat spaces.  Finally, with 8 miles left to go before the highway, we stumbled upon a miraculous fuel station in the middle of nowhere that had diesel and room for us to pull in.  Saved again!  The tank took 27.7 gallons, and the manufacturer’s stated capacity is 26.4 gallons, so we had consumed all of that and were well into the 3.4 gallon reserve.  I can’t really complain since we got 430 miles out of that tank (which included some non-towing time up to Toronto and back).  I had just gotten too comfortable with the enormous range of the GL320, and suffered the dread that results from complacency.  Like the license plate we saw (PB4UGO) you need to fill up before you tow.

We are now courtesy parked at Bobby & Danine’s house in Virginia.  Once again, Verizon doesn’t work at the house but I’ve got their wifi, their house phone if I need it and Skype.  The bigger challenge here is the sloping driveway.  Bobby lent us a bunch of wood and extra plastic blocks, and we’ve managed to get the trailer close to level.  (Still, it’s a big first step up to the entry door.)

So you can see that there are always challenges along the way.  Plans get changed for you, glitches happen, things break, and sometimes the trailer ain’t level.  The point is, it’s all small stuff, and you know what they say about that.  Don’t sweat it.  We’re still having a good time even if things don’t always turn out the way we expected.

Congrats to Airstreamers David & Ariadne on the birth of their new baby!


Our decision to head immediately west toward Buffalo NY turned out to be a good call.  I was tempted to do the coastal route (as we did last year), and hit a few beaches along Massachusetts and Connecticut, but the massive rains from Irene and Lee would have made it an unpleasant week.  Even central New York and Pennsylvania suffered from flooding, whereas we were just west enough to avoid most of the problems.

Our friends in Virginia, where we have planned to courtesy park later this  week, emailed us this picture of our courtesy parking spot.  It is not looking good in this photo, but the rain abated last Thursday and this weekend gave us all a chance to dry out.  I think it will be fine when we get there.

We left the Airstream in a secure location near Buffalo on Friday morning and took a weekend jaunt up to Toronto, where a sort of magical Canadian weather pattern had set up, bringing us sunshine and 75 degrees every day.  It was the sort of perfect late-summer weather that Canadians and northern Vermonters live for.

Our trip was ostensibly to visit John and Helena, good friends with endless hospitality and a home conveniently located walking distance from downtown.  Eleanor feeds them as a way of saying “thanks” for the stay, but really she appreciates having an audience to cook for.  It gives her a good reason to browse the ethnic sections of town for interesting food items.

Tim Horton’s is not my idea of ethnic food, but it has been a serious stop for Eleanor ever since she discovered “Timmy’s” coffee (she and Tim are on a cozy basis these days) and the fact that her beloved “Dutchie” donut is apparently not sold in the USA.  Thus, every trip to Canada involves a stop for two pounds of coffee and a few Dutchies.  It’s a good starting point.

Our big goal for Saturday was to walk the city.  Emma was intrigued by the tall CN Tower (1,100 feet at the observation level, with a glass floor) and it was the weekend of the Chinese Moon Festival so we figured we connect the two with a little street hiking.  John started us off with a short toodle around town in his Citroen Deux-Chevaux (2CV), a tiny French car with a 29-horsepower two-cylinder engine – great fun with the canvas roof open — and dropped us off near Kensington, where the good food shopping is found.

We had skipped breakfast that morning in anticipation of a big pig-out at one of the many restaurants along Spadina that advertise “DIM SUM ALL DAY.”  Usually dim sum involves a series of carts filled with strange & wonderful things. You point at what you want from the cart when it rolls by, and the waiter hands it over, then marks a tally sheet with everything you ordered, for a (usually) shocking total at the end.

This restaurant took a more expedient approach, since it was too small for the carts. We got a single-sheet menu of items, picked three each, and gradually they appeared on our table as we noshed our way from pork & shrimp shumai to red bean “cake”.  If you want to know what else we ordered, simply read the bill pictured below (click to enlarge).

At the end of the meal, the waiter rolls up the entire contents of the table, dishes and all, in the plastic tablecloth and hauls it away.  I’ve never seen that maneuver before, but I have to admit it makes for a quick turnover on the table.  We were also encouraged not to linger after the bill was paid by a waiter who posted herself directly adjacent to the table and wouldn’t leave until we did.  Ah, well, the food was very good.

Eleanor didn’t want to buy all of her food items early in the day and then have to haul them around Toronto, so we gave the Kensington area a quick look (in Eleanor-culinary terms, which means about two hours) and made notes of places we’d want to return later in the day.

The rest of our day was spent walking all over downtown Toronto.  We dropped by the CN Tower but did not go up — Eleanor and I had done it before and these days it would be about $65 for the three of us to ride the elevator to the top — and we dragged Emma past various places that were probably not nearly as memorable to her 11-year-old brain as they were to us.

We found the very grand Fairmont Royal York hotel and reminisced about our first visit to Toronto in 1995. It was an unusual week.  Eleanor and I had tent-camped in the Adirondack Park (NY) on a 14-degree January night, then we drove up to Montreal for a night at the Hilton Bonaventure where we swam in the heated rooftop pool during a snowfall, then took VIA Rail’s “Blue and Gold” service to Toronto and spent two nights in the Royal York living large.  Things were quite different back then — no Airstream, no kid — but I think we travel better now.

One thing that stays the same:  we walk a lot.  This weekend it felt like two more miles of hiking before we got back to Chinatown, with a break at a Second Cup cafe in the entertainment district.

We hit Kensington again and bought a selection of dessert pastries, three cheeses including a very challenging Spanish blue cheese called Valdeon, vegetables for a big salad, and two kinds of fresh bread.  This was later made into dinner for the five of us back at the house.

By the time we got back to Kensington we were starting to drag: we’d been out walking for over six hours.  Fortunately Toronto’s efficient public transit (streetcars and subways) got us within half a mile of John & Helena’s home.  A note was on the door:  “R&E&E:  Back door is unlocked.  Call us when you get in.”  That’s a Toronto thing.  People leave their homes unlocked all the time and don’t worry about it, even in the city.  Crime is remarkably low, the city is very clean, and every time we come here we walk everywhere and never encounter a place that we feel unsafe.  It’s like New York city if it were run under contract by Disney.

We slept in a bit on Sunday, and John made waffles for a late brunch with strawberries & cream & maple syrup, and Canadian bacon.  I don’t eat that way very often anymore, but how wonderfully Canadian it felt, with a copy of the Globe & Mail lying nearby and the front door unlocked.  But that was the end of our Toronto jaunt.  We were soon off, down the Queens Expressway back to the USA, with — of course — one last stop at Tim Horton’s north of the border for a few more Dutchies.

Launched in New York

We are now officially back on the road.  For how long, I can’t say.  We have a trip of about 3,500 miles planned, and that’s if we don’t dip into Florida (then it becomes closer to 4,500 miles).  At our pace, that’s a good long time in the Airstream — at least a month.  I’ll get back to my usual posting schedule as long as we are on the road, which means several times each week.

Our last days in Vermont ended with a weather whimper.  There was a final respite of passable weather on Sunday for the belated birthday celebration (maple themed edible gifts abounded), and then the beautiful late-summer days faded into steady cool showers that lasted all of Labor Day, while we took care of the final Airstream packing chores.  Then the remnants of Hurricane Lee slid up to New England and the result has been three days of fairly continuous rain, which is something nobody up here needed.  Flooding became a threat again in many areas.

Despite that, we had set a schedule and so we left on a chilly Tuesday morning, with wet decaying leaves stuck to our feet and tracked all through the inside of the Airstream.  I normally like to leave with the trailer interior cleaned up, but it was not possible under the rain forest-type conditions, so we’ll do a better job on the interior floors if this endless rain ever lets up.  Once I had pulled the trailer off the leveling blocks in the driveway, I could see the rear dome for the first time in months (it had been obscured by trees) and it looks miserable, stained with tannin and leaf mold.  Another roof washing session is due, but I think since we are on the road it may become a job for the Blue Beacon boys.

I am very pleased that all systems seem to be “go” with the Airstream.  After three months of sitting in fairly inhospitable conditions you might expect a few problems to crop up, but we’ve been lucky and found no major issues.  Even the Michelin tires held their pressure at exactly 50 psi each.  Sitting is really one of the worst things for an Airstream (or indeed, any brand of RV).  That’s when the rodents get in and start nesting.  That’s when spiders and mud dauber wasps begin to clog the furnace vent and water heater venturi.  That’s when water from a small leak gets a chance to cause rot, unnoticed.  Left without exercise, tires fail more quickly, axles stiffen, batteries go flat, wires get chewed … I always recommend that anyone who has to store their trailer for long periods of time make a point of getting inside regularly to check things out, sniff for strange smells, inspect for signs of insects or critters, etc.

Using the trailer is a good way to find issues, if you don’t mind fixing them as they crop up.  So far we’ve found the need to lube the entry door hinges and entry step with silicone spray, replace a cabinet latch, and replace a couple of light bulbs.  Nothing really of consequence.  I expect to replace a lot more of the bulbs soon, since they are mostly original and reaching the end of their expected lifespan.  I’ll buy a 6-pack of the 1141 bulbs and a few of the 10-watt halogens at the hardware store next time we go by.  The darned cabinet latches are another story: they wear out with distressing regularity and so far the only source I’ve found for replacements is Airstream and Airstream dealers, at $7-10 per latch

Our route has been conservative, at least initially. With flooding closing many lesser roads, I opted to take the safest possible route via the Charlotte-Essex ferry, I-87 (the Adirondack Northway) and I-90 (the New York State Thruway), connected by Rt 8 through the Adirondack Park.  This kept us away from detours but it wasn’t particularly exciting since we’ve covered that route many times in the past.

At least we ended up at a different place, Verona Beach State Park on the shores of Oneida Lake.  On prior trips passing through New York we’ve tried many state parks, including Cayuga Lake, Delta Lake, Letchworth, Darien Lakes, Fish Creek Pond, Mills-Norrie, Thompsons Lake, and Watkins Glen.  They’ve all been good. New York has a great & huge state park system, so there are still dozens more to visit, even if we are trying to stay within a reasonable distance of the Thruway.

I had no idea when we randomly picked Verona Beach that it was next to the famous old Sylvan Beach, with the small but active downtown (at least during summer) and the old-time Sylvan Beach Amusement Park.  It had stopped raining for a while, and I didn’t feel like unhitching the trailer for just one night, and we needed some exercise after being in the car for five or six hours, so we hoofed it about a mile and a half from the state park to downtown Sylvan Beach and found Eddie’s beckoning to us with a giant neon sign.  There wasn’t much else open in town, being a gray cool day after Labor Day, but even if there were I think we would have had to try Eddie’s for dinner just because it’s a historic piece of Sylvan Beach.

Camping and traveling in the off-season like we are right now, is a bit of a crapshoot. On the plus side, reservations are generally unnecessary, crowds are absent, and we can be as spontaneous as we want.  On the negative side, the weather can be iffy and lots of attractions are closed or have severely reduced hours.  Arriving at Verona Beach we found the entry building unmanned, so we just picked out a nice site and settled in.  No camp host or ranger was evident, and the park was about 90% empty.  In the morning a nice lady came by in the pouring rain (“and I’m driving an electric golf cart!”) and accepted our check for $22.75 for a night of camping near the shore of the lake.  Even with the steady rain it was a nicer experience than many a peak-season summer stay I’ve had in other places, just because it was quiet and uncluttered.

Tech note: I’ve been trying out some apps on the iPhone to see how they help us on the road.  GasBuddy (free) has been pretty good for us, usually allowing us to find diesel at $0.20-0.40 less than the going rate without detouring more than five miles.  This morning it directed us to the station closest to the state park and we saved about 20 cents per gallon on the fillup compared to the stations along the Thruway.  It hasn’t been 100% accurate, since the fuel price reports come from ordinary folks who sometimes get it wrong, but I’ll trust it enough to go a few miles out of my way.

The other app I’m evaluating is the Allstays Camp & RV app, which costs a few bucks.  So far I am finding it interesting but I need more time to be sure if I can recommend it.  Like GasBuddy, some of the data comes from volunteers and so may not be entirely accurate.  It’s useful for finding campgrounds, Wal-Marts, and various other popular stops for RV’ers.

We’re going to hunker down near Buffalo for a couple of days to get some work done, and then continue onward on Friday.  It won’t be an exciting period, but hopefully we’ll wait out the rain and have nicer weather for the next few stops that are planned.