2013 travel plans

2013 is right around the corner, and as with every year I’m considering our options for travel.  It’s looking like it will be a very interesting year.

Our first big trip will likely be in late March or April.  Normally we take a week around New Year’s to go camping in southern California, but this year we are going to hang around Tucson over the holidays, and take a longer trip to California in the spring after we’re done with Alumafiesta in Tucson.  The general idea is to meander up the California coast for a few weeks, stringing together a lot of visits along the way.

We haven’t made that trip since 2005, when we started at Florence OR in mid November and worked our way down the coast all the way for Christmas at the San Diego Zoo.  It was a very memorable trip, and I can’t believe that it was seven years ago—until I look at the pictures of Emma, age 5.

This time we’ll do the trip heading north, starting in Anza-Borrego and then working up the coast.  I don’t know how far north we’ll get, but at the very least we will see some redwood trees.

These days none of our travel is arbitrary.  Time seems to be more scarce for us, so the multi-week trip that we would just throw together on a whim in the past now requires major planning sessions.  I have to justify the time in the Airstream more carefully than ever before, because every departure from home base disrupts projects and goals for all three of us.

A good travel route comes together like a string of pearls, and right now I’m collecting those pearls along the 1,200 mile string between San Diego and Oregon.  We’ll stop in to see friends in the major cities, visit Airstream Life clients and prospects, camp in a few beauty spots, and replenish our resources of Airstream stock photography and future contributors that we meet along the way.  So far I’ve got about eight or nine stops in mind, and by the time the trip dates come we’ll probably have a dozen or more things that we need/want to do. The real trick will be getting it all done in three to five weeks, before we’re required to come back to Tucson for something.

This summer looks even more challenging, in the sense that we have to figure out some complicated travel.  As with the previous three years, everything starts with Alumapalooza in Jackson Center OH.  I love doing Alumapalooza but it forces us into more or less the same travel pattern every year, which is boring.  Once again we will hit the road some time in May and work northeast toward Ohio, then continue east to Vermont.  Fortunately, after that the program will likely change, and I can’t say how much until we get further along our planning cycle.  Most likely the Airstream will stay in Vermont most of the summer, but Eleanor and I may fly off a couple of times to attend events far away.

I’d really like to make this the year of our long-awaited Airstream trip to Newfoundland.  It’s a tough trip to make, because the miles are long, the costs are high, and connectivity (for a working person) is difficult.  Even from Vermont it’s a long trip, over 1,500 miles to St. John’s NFL, which is like driving from New York City to Dallas TX.  Diesel in Newfoundland today is the equivalent of $5.19 per gallon (US), and the ferry for all three of us plus the Airstream would run about $830 round-trip.  Still cheaper than Alaska, which is sort of the “white whale” of RV’ing in North America, but Newfoundland is definitely not easy.

Eleanor and I went there in 1995 via car, tent camping and staying in local inns across Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island, traveling 2,000 miles, and all in nine days.  It was beautiful, memorable, and exciting.  This time we’d like to go more slowly and explore more.  Each year I look at it and wonder if this will be the optimal year to go.  The only thing that has improved over the past few years has been Internet connectivity, and it’s still pretty spotty compared to US standards.  So I’d have to disconnect for much of the trip, which is simultaneously a wonderful and horrifying thought.

Another “wish list” trip is Europe.  For the past couple of years I’ve been investigating the realities of European travel by American Airstreamers, and unfortunately it’s pretty hard to do.  You have two basic options:  (1) ship your suitably small Airstream over and do a quickie conversion to make it legal and compatible with EU standards, then ship it back; or (2) buy an Airstream in Europe.  Both options are expensive and would only worthwhile for an extended trip of several months, which is not possible for us right now.  We’re looking at a third option for this summer, which is basically hanging out with European Airstreamers while we travel conventionally by car & hotel.  Not ideal but at least feasible, and if the stars align it might yet happen.

Meanwhile back at in the states we have things to do too.  The big one is Alumafandango, which is our August event.  Last summer we held it in Denver.  After much consideration, we have decided to hold it in central Oregon, so I’ve got to get there for that at a time when the Airstream is going to be almost as far away as it can be.  The answer will be a plane ticket and a hotel room, unless I can borrow an Airstream in Oregon for a week.  Still working on that.

Officially we haven’t announced Alumafandango 2013, so you’re the first to hear about it, but the registration form is open now if you want to check it out.  Dates will be August 6-11, 2013, at the wonderful Seven Feathers RV Resort in Canyonville, OR.  That’s right on I-5, about 200 miles south of Portland.  Like Alumafiesta in Tucson, it will be a first-class event with all full hookups in a really nice campground, indoor displays of Airstreams, lots of activities, etc. Pricing is the same as Alumafiesta.  There’s more updated info on the website, even though the graphics still show last year’s event.

After Alumafandango I’ll have to fly back to Vermont, retrieve the Airstream and family, and then begin the long trek back west to home base.  All told, the Airstream will probably log about 9,000 miles this summer (plus 3,000 if we manage to get to Newfoundland), the Mercedes will probably cover more like 12,000 miles, and by September I’ll be really glad to just park myself back at the desk again … and think about 2014.

Not too serious

I am in receipt of a hand-written note from an Airstream Life subscriber, which is reproduced below:

No Tin Hut, No Renewal

People take Airstream Life quite seriously.

Tin Hut, in case you don’t know, has been a long-running humor series in the magazine.  Tin Hut and his wife Mrs. Hut engage in various quasi-redneck trailer adventures involving hick relatives, crazy RV parks, deranged squirrels, and Mr. Ed The Horse look-alike contests.  Every issue for the past several years I’ve been the fortunate recipient of a letter or two from the Huts detailing their latest misadventure, which I’ve been pleased to print in the magazine.

The only problem I’ve had with Tin Hut is that it is beloved by some and hated by just as many.  At Alumapalooza the past two years I’ve asked for a show of hands from people who love the series, and I always get a sheepish wave from about half the people in attendance.  Then I ask who despises the series, and the rest of the crowd hisses and boos.

Well, like the Vice President, I get to cast the deciding vote when the House is deadlocked, and so I’ve run the Tin Hut series steadily.  (Besides, my mother likes it and she gets two votes.)  I even collected 23 episodes into a book which you can buy in print or in Kindle ebook format.

But lately the man behind the series, Jim Snead, has confessed that the Huts are nearing the end.  Poor Mr. Hut has fallen out of trees, been electrocuted, set on fire, lost his hair, and has been locked in a Port-O-Let and shipped to a women’s prison.  He’s getting too old for that sort of thing.  Last issue (Winter 2012), for the first time since the series began, I did not get a letter from the Huts, and it looks like I won’t have one for the Spring 2013 either.  I am working with Jim to see if at least the Huts can have a final send-off.  It will be a shame to say goodbye to them, but I’ve learned that in the magazine world, nothing lasts forever. Tin Hut will join other beloved sections of the magazine, like “eBay Watch” that eventually reached their logical conclusion and sputtered to a halt.

I am always sad to see a good series go, but that’s life.  Something will come up to replace it.  We only have 64 pages in each issue (at least until the economy picks up a bit more) and so the departure of Tin Hut means that some other good idea will now have the opportunity to take a few pages in Airstream Life in the future. I’ll be looking.

Meanwhile, I’m having some fun with an article in the upcoming Spring 2013 issue.  Fred Coldwell, who has written “Old Aluminum” for about eight years, is still going strong with his series about vintage Airstreams.  He left off at 1960 in the last issue, and his article inspired a letter from avid reader Don Williams.  Don has a mystery California-built Airstream trailer dating from 1960, and offered us some clues and photos as to its true identity.  Is it a rare Comet, or an “18 Footer” or Traveler?

Fred wrote up a hilarious investigation in the persona of “Sherlock M Homes” (the “M” stands for mobile), and his trusty sidekick Dr. Walban (for the popular Airstream polish called Walbernize).  Methodically sorting through the clues remaining in the gutted old trailer, he eventually reveals a surprise conclusion as to the identity of “the body.”  It’s a unique way to make an entertaining story out of what might otherwise have been a dull forensic study, and we’ve been having fun tweaking it this week.

Fred’s timing is ideal, as coincidentally I bought the entire collected Sherlock Holmes works by Arthur Conan Doyle on Kindle last month and have been reading through all three huge volumes in my spare time.  So I’m currently deeply immersed in the stylings of A.C. Doyle and was able to give Fred some advice on Holmes’ (er, Homes) characteristic turns of phrase.  He and I have been shooting back and forth emails all day to suggest more bad Holmes jokes.  I doubt half of them will get printed, but who cares? This is the stuff that makes editing a magazine really fun.

I am glad I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder, or an editorial review committee to take the goofiness out of these things.  Sure, it’s all hokey and silly, but it’s good for the heart too.  I’m sorry to the subscriber who sent me the note, and I’ll regret losing him as a subscriber, but let’s remember you shouldn’t take life too seriously.  Or Airstream Life.

Give your Airstream some winter love

I know that most Airstream owners have put their trailers away for the winter, and perhaps are sighing as they see their beloved trailers slowly being covered in snow. A few are flipping the pages of Airstream Life and noticing the cozy Airstream on the cover parked in a Florida state park, or being tempted by the ad for Alumafiesta in Tucson.

But if you just can’t get away right now, at least you can do something for your Airstream to make it a better place to camp in next season. Even when our trailer is put to bed, I get into it as often as I can just to tweak little things, clean, or think about what improvements it needs.

In our first three years of owning the Safari, we had our share of mechanical problems, ranging from the little things like screws backing out, up to major problems like a wheel separating from the trailer. I gradually developed a toolkit and spare parts for fixing most of the problems that crop up on the road, and I recommend that you do the same. This is a good time of year to think about that, since you can share the list of tools and parts with people who want to get you Christmas presents —or take advantage of post-Christmas sales!

The tools you need depend on the jobs you are willing to take on. At a minimum, I suggest you carry parts and tools to:

  • change a tire
  • replace a fuse or light bulb
  • disconnect / re-connect the battery
  • clean up corrosion on metal
  • detect a gas leak and tighten a gas connection
  • replace a rivet
  • fix a 12 volt electrical connection
  • tighten a loose screw
  • test a power outlet
  • fix a water leak

You don’t need a ton of fancy tools to do those jobs. A cordless drill is very helpful and you probably already own that. The only other expensive tool you need is a good torque wrench (and a 6″ extension & socket), so you can be sure you’ve got the lug nuts tightened properly when you change a tire. The rest of the tools are pretty simple and not terribly expensive, even the rivet tool used to replace pop rivets. Screwdrivers (a single driver with a set of different bits is ideal for storage), an adjustable wrench or two, a little spray bottle for soapy water, some sandpaper, butt splices, an outlet tester or voltmeter, a wire cutter/stripper, a tire pressure gauge, assorted fuses, rivets, and bulbs. Some tapes (electrical and plumber’s), glue, a razor blade, a hammer, and zip-ties wouldn’t hurt.

If you travel for long periods then you’ll want more stuff. The trick is knowing when to stop packing tools. I’ve seen guys traveling with pickup trucks that were basically big rolling tool boxes. I used to ask, “Are you planning on rebuilding the trailer on the road?” but then a friend of mine actually did rebuild his trailer while courtesy-parking at a friend’s house. So it all depends on the state of your Airstream and how much you care to do yourself. I bring things like a tube of silicone caulk for periodic replacement in the shower and kitchen, and that’s only because we take the Airstream out for about five months each year. I’ll bring a relatively rarely-used tool or part if it’s light or small, but there’s a point at which I’m going to find a service center.

My personal goal is to be prepared for anything small that might seriously disrupt a trip, which is why I put emphasis on tires, fuses, gas leaks, electrical problems, and water leaks. It’s really annoying to be somewhere remote, like Big Bend National Park or the north rim of Grand Canyon, and find you have power problems because of a simple bad ground. Do you really want to hitch up and tow 70 miles to the local garage mechanic just to have him clean a contact with sandpaper that you could have done yourself in one minute? That’s the stuff I try to be prepared for.

After eight years or so, my tool kit has matured. It’s pretty solid, but it occurred to me that I still don’t have everything I should. Several times I’ve had to pull off onto the highway breakdown lane, with traffic whizzing by at 70 MPH, to check on a tire or investigate a strange noise. It can be a pretty frightening experience. I don’t have flares or orange cones, and during the day I don’t think flares really show anyway. You’re probably more likely to get whacked by a car while you’re setting them up.

So I’m going to pack a high visibility colored shirt, in green or orange, that I can throw over whatever I’m wearing when I have to get out and tend to something by the side of the road. You can get these at Home Depot, cheap, along with a lot of other safety equipment. I’ve heard that in Europe high-vis safety vests are being mandated in passenger cars and you can get a ticket for not having one (which I think is a bit of European safety ov erkill). But they’re still a good idea.

The other thing you can do this winter is check over your Airstream periodically. Two things kill Airstreams: accidents, and water. Water damage is insidious and usually slow, so it’s easy to catch if you just make a small effort. This time of year people put away their trailer for the winter not realizing there’s a slight leak, and in the spring they find a smelly, moldy, and water damaged mess. Believe me, a slowly-melting blanket of snow atop the roof will severely challenge the waterproofness of the seams and rivets, even those that didn’t leak in the last gentle rain. So it’s a good idea to get inside to check everywhere (especially inside closets and around the floor edge) for moisture. A flashlight and paper towel will help you find any wet spots.

We’re running a short article in the Spring 2013 issue of Airstream Life about all the things that have expiration dates in your trailer or motorhome. There’s quite a list: fire extinguisher, smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, propane detector, tires, water filter, First Aid kit, batteries, and propane tanks. If your trailer is over two years old at least some of these items are either expired or need new batteries, and if your trailer is over a decade old then it could need everything on this list replaced. This is why RV owners think 9V batteries are a good stocking stuffer. So go around your trailer and make notes of all the things that may have expired, or at least pack spare batteries and water filters for your upcoming trips.

Finally, I want to talk about the First Aid Kit. You probably don’t have one, because it didn’t come with your trailer. It is surprising to me that the RV safety code calls for installation of a fire extinguisher but not a First Aid Kit. This suggests that they are more worried about saving the RV than they are the people inside it. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Let me tell you from personal experience, when you are traveling most urgent medical issues happen when you are miles away from health care, or on the Friday night of a long weekend in a small village like Jackson Center. I don’t know why. The point is, you need a First Aid Kit. You can buy these pre-made, or just build your own like we did. We went to Wal-Mart the day after Eleanor sliced her finger open with a kitchen knife, bought a zippered case, and filled it with goodies like bandages, tape, gauze, anti-bacterial, scissors, gloves, hydrogen peroxide, Benadryl, etc. We also got some advice from friends who were formerly nurses, EMTs or MDs about treatment methods and tricks. The next time we have a domestic injury while camped somewhere remote, we’ll be much more able to take care of it ourselves.

So, I’m sorry if you are stuck in the snow, or facing a long gray winter with no fun travel plans, but at least if that’s the case you can do a few things to make next year’s Airstreaming more fun and more safe. I sometimes recommend to people that they periodically go spend an afternoon in the trailer even if it is parked in storage or in your driveway. Plug it in, fire up the furnace, turn on the lights, put on some music and snacks. Make the place feel alive again. You can watch a football game on the TV, read a book, or just hang out for a while. With nowhere to go, you’ll have time to think about what you’d like to do next, and what you can do to improve the Airstream. Trust me, spending a little time with your Airstream will make you feel better, like a mini-vacation, and may well extend its life too.

The hardest part of the job …

Several people were very complimentary about my achievements last weekend with the Mercedes 300D, but I have to be clear:  most of the achievement was Pierre’s.  I worked, but mostly I was there to learn while Pierre busted his knuckles doing the hard stuff, so I can’t take credit for most of it.

Today’s minor adventure in old car repair will demonstrate the true nature of my mechanical abilities.  As you may recall, we discovered a few minor needs toward the end of the weekend, for which we either lacked the proper tool or a Mercedes-only part.  I ordered a few things on Monday and they arrived today.  There were really only three tasks:

  1. replace a bad relay, one which controls the electric auxiliary engine fan.
  2. install a rebuilt kit in the mono valve. This is a fancy name for a simple valve that opens up to allow hot engine coolant to circulate in the heater core, thus providing heat to the cabin.  It has a rubber diaphragm that breaks eventually.
  3. replace one bad glow plug.  The glow plug warms the engine cylinders on a diesel, so that you can start it.

The relay was simple.  No tools involved.  You open a plastic cover, pull up the old relay, plug in the new one. Anyone who can change a light bulb can do this, so not surprisingly I managed to achieve it.

Then, buoyed by my success so far, I unbolted the mono valve and opened it up to reveal the internal plunger.  But I forgot that the engine was still warm from driving it 30 minutes earlier, so when I pulled the plunger out, coolant spewed all over.  Whoops! I quickly thrust the plunger back in.  Emma was standing by and got splattered, but fortunately it was not hot enough to burn.  That made me feel really stupid.

So I set that task aside and switched over to replacing the #3 glow plug.  I had a hell of a time getting to it.  You know how things that look simple often aren’t.  This happens to me a lot.  All you have to do here is unscrew an 8mm nut to remove the electrical connection, then unscrew the glow plug.  But I couldn’t do it.  The tools I had just wouldn’t fit in the space due to obstacles like the injector lines and injection fuel pump.

It was looking like I’d have to start removing injection lines, which would have brought the repair up to a new level of messiness and difficulty.  Instead, I finally managed to get the electrical wire and the glow plug by using a U-joint and a long extension on the ratchet wrench, and wrestling with it for a while.  It was frustrating because it seemed like it should be easy.  I dropped a nut three times trying to re-thread it, and once it fell into a spot beneath the injection pump where I thought I might have lost it.  Eventually the job got done, taking about three times longer than I had expected.

But in the process I made myself a new job.  I didn’t realize it, but I was leaning on the brake booster (vacuum) hose when I was fighting to get the glow plug electrical connection back on, and SNAP! a plastic vacuum fitting on the hose broke off.  This fitting goes to various transmission and engine accessories.  The brake booster is still getting vacuum, and I can plug the open fitting, but the transmission won’t shift right without vacuum, and the fitting can’t be glued back.  The hose was probably fairly old and brittle.

I could try to seal it up temporarily with some silicone tape, but why bother? The part has to be replaced anyway.  I sent the picture to Pierre and he confirmed that I need to buy an entirely new assembly, which includes the plastic fittings, vinyl hose, and metal ends.  The part comes only from Mercedes and it has to be ordered, so I’m lucky to wait only until Monday to get it.   Of course, installing it appears to be just a matter of two easily accessed nuts and two other vacuum hose connections.  I think I can do that without breaking anything else.

When the glow plug was done I went back to the mono valve.  Things were cooled down now, so it was fairly straightforward.  As expected the diaphragm was gone.  But unexpectedly, I found several 6-legged bug corpses inside the cylinder.  I’m not sure how they got in there, or why.  I cleaned them out and the rest was straightforward. Total elapsed time: about an hour.

So that’s the real glory of this type of project:  cleaning bug corpses, cursing at difficult nuts, and wearing Eau de Coolant.  With each step I feel like I’m learning, and simultaneously that I’m incredibly incompetent.  This kind of stuff isn’t easy for me, but in the end I do enjoy the sense of accomplishment and the gratification that comes from achieving something you’re not naturally good at.  So if you have any congratulations for me, let them be for having tried.  Turns out, that’s the hard part.

The Sort-Out, day 3

We started on Sunday morning at 7:15 a.m. with a sense of optimism, or at least I did.  Despite being the coldest day of the three we had spent working on the old Mercedes 300D, I was feeling good about the project because our list was down to a manageable few remaining tasks.

Pierre, on the other hand, was still feeling some slight trepidation about the O-ring problem from the night before.  Although he had checked carefully to ensure that the substitute O-rings would fit, he wasn’t going to feel right about it until the part was installed.  They were a little tighter than the correct part, which made Pierre’s job hard, but it worked out fine and by 8 a.m. or so the turbocharger drain was back together.  I’ve heard of guys taking an entire weekend to do this one job because it’s not easy under the best of circumstances, so as far as I was concerned Pierre did well under fire.

We kept putting out metal bits on the curb, and inevitably someone with a pickup truck would swing by and grab them.  I put out an old radiator, four shock absorbers, and dead engine mounts, and they disappeared so quickly that I had to be careful about the metal parts we intended to retain.  When I put items I had cleaned on the driveway in a sunny spot to dry, I kept an eye on them.

The hardest jobs had been tackled on Friday and Saturday, so all we had left was fairly minor stuff.  Still, it got messy with dripping fluids, and I was busy keeping up with it all.  I did want the carport to be somewhat better than a toxic waste dump after everything was done.  All the used fluids got collected in big seal-able containers and returned to the auto parts store for proper disposal, and after recycling all of the cardboard, paper, and plastic I was pleased to see that we generated less than a barrel of waste.

By noon it was clear that we were in the home stretch.  The messy transmission service was done, we’d replaced the oil and filter (even though I did it just 200 miles ago; Pierre wanted to give the engine a chance to clean up after some neglect by the prior owner), front shock absorbers, and transmission shift bushings.  So we were able to relax and do some tweaks to the vacuum system, adjust the hood so it closed better, and little stuff like that, before putting the wheels back on and lowering the car down to the ground.

At 1:00 p.m. we were done, and out on a test drive.  Amazingly after all this service, we found only two problems.  There was a loud deep rattle from the right side, which turned out to be a loose caliper.  No big deal although it sounded horrible—just tighten two bolts.  And strangely, the steering wheel was now upside down when the car was going straight.

This second problem confused us a little because Pierre had been scrupulous to follow the factory technique and use the correct factory specialty tools to install the new steering gearbox, but we decided to have a celebratory lunch anyway.  Part of Pierre’s goal this week was to eat well, so every day I took him to a different ethnic restaurant for lunch (Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese) and in the evenings Eleanor cooked up fabulous and enormous dinners.  We worked long days in cold weather but I think we both may have gained weight.

In the end, we worked for only 24.25 hours.  That’s under the budget of 30 hours I had set, which helps with the overall cost. I’m pretty sure the billable time for all this work at a shop would have been at least double.  And it’s nice to wrap up such an intense project with time to spare.  We had time to take the 300D out for a scenic drive around Saguaro National Park, and time afterward to tweak a few things just a little bit more.

Pierre wanted my car to run perfectly, and I can say that he hit the mark.  It still bears the patina of an old car on the outside, but mechanically it’s just about perfect.  I’ve got just a few things to take care of myself, all simple stuff, like a glow plug, a relay, monovalve rebuild, and the rear differential fluid change—things we skipped only because we didn’t have everything we needed for those jobs.

This morning I had to drag myself out of bed at 6:15 for one last task.  We wanted to get the car to the local dealer for an alignment by 7 a.m., so that the odd steering wheel issues could be resolved before Pierre had to head home.   The issue turned out to be simple (the Pitman arm was off by 3 splines, for those of you that know what a Pitman arm is), and the car did need an alignment, and at last we were done.  We collected Pierre’s tools, made one last tiny adjustment to the vacuum modulator, and then he was gone.

This project is still not over, but it’s about 95% done.  When the weather warms back up this week I’ll finish the last seat and when I get the parts I need I’ll do those last few jobs.  Tires are next, and after that we’re ready for a road-trip.  Soon I’ll be looking at the open road through the three-pointed star, while the old-school diesel propels me with the sound of a well-oiled sewing machine.

But that’s not all the satisfaction of this project.  I’ve learned so much.  I can keep it running by myself.  Having taking much of it apart, or at least observed it being taken apart, I have an appreciation for the great engineering that went into the car.  It has fewer mysteries about it now.  Unlike other cars I’ve owned, I feel like I am in control of the man-machine relationship, rather than being a hapless of victim of whatever error message a computerized car might throw up.  I’m not really worried about having a car that will run on scavenged vegetable oil after EMPs destroy all modern cars during a worldwide apocalypse.  I just like having a machine that I understand, and I’m glad I made the effort to get into this project.