I’ve been down in the trenches lately, working hard to try to pull off a few long-term projects.  The Spring 2012 issue of Airstream Life finally got off to the printer too, but neither of these things are responsible for the lack of blog posts lately.  The real cause has been that I hate to say anything about the stuff I’m working on until I know it’s real.

But Friday night, after some intense negotiations and late-night conference calls, Brett and I finally resolved the last remaining issues for a major project.  And that makes it possible to announce “Alumafandango,” our new event to be held in Denver CO this coming August, 2012.

We’ve been working on this for about a year.  For a long time we’ve been hearing from people out west that they’d like something like Alumapalooza.  We looked at potential sites in Palm Springs, northern Arizona, Texas, and Colorado, but we kept running into barriers that made it impossible to hold the kind of event we wanted.  Finally, we found Lakeside Amusement Park in Denver, and started actively working on a deal with the park ownership so that we could camp right in the park next to the lake and the old-school rides.

This wasn’t easy at all.  The area we wanted to camp in was overrun with bushes, littered with decades of debris, and overshadowed by an abandoned race stadium and a half dozen decrepit mobile homes.  The park owners agreed to clean up the area, install water and power stands, and level & seed the ground so that it would be transformed into a nice place to camp for a few days.  This work started last fall and has been ongoing through the winter.  It probably won’t be done for a few months, but when it is, it will be a unique opportunity to camp where no one has camped before—and that’s one of the keys we were seeking.

Timeless Travel Trailers (Wheat Ridge, CO) has been instrumental in helping us put this deal together.  They will be the key sponsor, and as part of the event they are planning to provide on-site service and tours of their workshop.  They’re also supplying the fencing, water, and electrical infrastructure.  Our plan is to make this an annual event if it turns out to be popular, so we are all looking to the long term.  Obviously all of this investment in the site wouldn’t make sense for just one year.

Brad Cornelius designed the new logo, which you can see above.  A version of this will appear on the t-shirts, too.

Our goal is to have something just as fun as Alumapalooza, but not the same.  So we are looking for all new seminars and presenters, new entertainment, and different games.  That way you can go to both “APZ” and “AFD” and have a great time at both without feeling deja vu.

We selected the headline entertainment with the intent of carrying over the “carnival” theme, and we’re very excited to have the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow featuring Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill for two nights of performances. They’re Airstreamers, of course.

We’ve also secured a night of free unlimited rides for all participants.  The classic rides at Lakeside are really fun.  You’ll remember most of them, and want to ride them all.  My favorite is the old-school wooden roller coaster.  It’s just fantastic excitement packed in a 1-minute ride.

Registration for Alumafandango opened on Sunday and already the first three trailers are signed up, which is encouraging.  We think we can accommodate 150 trailers on site, maybe more, but it won’t be clear until the site work is complete.

Of course, now that we’ve pulled the trigger I’m wondering nervously if we’ll be able to get 100+ trailers signed up in six months.  Right now the website doesn’t have much detail about what we are planning, but hopefully the reputation of Alumapalooza will carry over, and people will know that we guarantee a great time.  (We’ll get more detail up on the Alumafandango website as the plans begin to firm up.)  We’re working on a “vintage showcase,” some interesting tours, lots of seminars, and a pretty radical trailer makeover demonstration that happens in five days while you watch, among many other things.

Dexter brake actuator install

At last!  The new brake actuator arrived yesterday and with the help of friends it was installed today.  We’re back in action!

Those of you who followed the saga of our aborted trip to California know that our third Actibrake disc brake actuator quit without notice recently.  I’ve had a long and painful history with that product, which you can read about in the Tour of America archives and the Man In The Maze archives.  Suffice to say that this time we chose to switch brands, and after some research into the various products I chose to go with Dexter’s brake actuator, model K71-651-00.  It’s a 1600 psi unit designed specifically for disc brakes.

When the new actuator arrived I was immediately impressed with its design.  It’s a bit smaller than the one it replaced, and has a less-complicated 4-wire installation process (12v+, ground, brake controller, breakaway switch).  The previous one required five wires and I’ve seen some competitors that need six or more.

The mounting feet are integrated into the cast aluminum case, so I was able to toss the funky hold-down straps that we’d used before.  The whole thing seems tougher and neater, and from what I’ve read this Dexter unit has a good reputation for reliability, which is of course the highest priority in your braking system.

Removing the old dead unit was simple. The first step is to disconnect the trailer’s power, which means unplugging the trailer from shore power and removing the negative terminal on the battery.  Then I unscrewed the straps that held the brake actuator down, snipped the wires, and unscrewed the flexible hydraulic line.  It was out in five minutes, and it would have been quicker if I wasn’t working the confines of a closet.  I haven’t decided what to do with the old one yet.  My friend Rob suggested I send it to the Smithsonian.  I suppose it could be refurbished with a new circuit board but I don’t feel very good about passing on a proven unreliable product to someone else, given that I’ve had three of them fail.

Most of the job would have been fairly easy if it weren’t for that closet.  Having the actuator inside the trailer eliminates possible future problems from weather exposure, but it also means it ends up in some really awkward spot.  To get into the closet I had to lie on my side and wedge myself in, which was uncomfortable to say the least.  Fortunately, Rob came by and shared the joy by taking turns with me crimping wires in that tiny space (and he’s bigger than me).

The only other attachments needed were the hydraulic line, which just screws on with low torque (22 ft-lbs), and four wood screws to attach the Dexter to the floor. I pre-drilled the floor holes with a 1/16″ bit, screwed the actuator down, and we were basically done inside.

The next step is to fill the reservoir up with brake fluid, which required about a quart.  We reconnected the power, pulled the breakaway switch, and heard the reassuring hum of the actuator’s pump in full operation.

Once we knew it was working, we needed to bleed the air out of the brake lines.  This is the part I hate, because I have never managed to find a way to get a hose tightly on the bleeder valves so that it doesn’t leak.  I always end up with an armful of brake fluid, and this time was no exception.  But the bleeding went fairly quickly (there wasn’t a lot of air to be removed).  It definitely is crucial to have a buddy standing by at the breakaway switch to activate and deactivate the unit while you’re underneath getting doused with brake fluid.  We kept an eye on the fluid level but didn’t need to top it up until the bleeding job was done.  All told, we used about 1.5 quarts of DOT3 brake fluid to fill the reservoir and bleed the lines.

After that, the next task was to clean up the wires, which are a bit haphazard with different colors and multiple butt splices left from prior re-installations. The photo shows it before I wrapped things up.  I may also install a shelf so I have a flat surface above to store things, later.

At this point I lost my assistant, but the hard work was done.  All I need to do now is hitch up and go for a test tow.  When I do that, I’ll be checking that my previous brake controller settings still feel right for this controller (they probably will) and that I’ve gotten all the air out of the lines.  I’ll know if there’s air because it will take longer for the actuator to build up pressure and hence cause a delay in braking action.  Hopefully I got that part right.

If you are contemplating this job yourself, you’ll need these tools:

  • 2-3 qts of brake fluid
  • open-end wrenches to remove and re-attach the hydraulic line
  • brake bleeder wrench (5/16″ or 1/4″ —check your brake calipers for correct size)
  • yellow and blue butt splices
  • wire cutter/stripper/crimper
  • drill & small bits (to put new mounting holes in the floor)
  • clear tubing & bottle for draining brake fluid
  • rags or paper towels
  • headlamp (very useful in small spaces)
  • an assistant for the bleeding process
  • mounting screws
  • screwdrivers
  • a test light or multi-meter
  • wire loom and/or electrical tape

What a great feeling it is to have this done.  Not only are we ready to get back on the road, but I no longer have to worry about a random failure of the brakes. Dexter is a major company with a lot of experience, and they have a good product, so my confidence level in my disc brakes is high—for the first time in years.



How I learned to stop worrying and love the spam

There was a time when I really hated Spam, the canned meat product made by Hormel.  I still am not a big fan of the stuff, but with time I have gained a perspective on it that makes it more palatable. It’s iconic of America, it’s still a staple of contemporary Hawaiian cooking, the yellow and blue can brings back childhood memories whenever I see it on the shelf, and really, it can be good if you make it right.

Oh, I know, some of you are saying, “Yuck—he can’t be serious.”  But I am.  For example, when Emma was born my brother visited us in the hospital and handed me a can of Spam and a spray can of Cheez-Whiz.  He said, “Get used to it—this is all you’ll be eating for a while.”  Eleanor decided to make him eat his words, literally, and kept those two cans on the shelf for a year.  One day she mixed them up with some polenta and made a well-disguised appetizer that she called, “Polenta and cheese with ‘domestic pancetta‘.”  My brother and my father ate ’em up (the little wedges she’d made were actually darned good on crackers), and only after the entire plate was gone did she tell them what they had actually eaten.

So Spam can be a tasty treat once in a while, and I don’t hate it.  I still don’t eat it much, but I do have more of an appreciation for the stuff, and for its role in our society.  Likewise, I’m gaining a small appreciation for the other type of (lower case “s”) spam, namely spam email.

In the early part of the First Decade, spam was pervasive, annoying, and even intimidating.  There was fear that the unchecked volume of spam email would eventually overwhelm us all, clogging the Internet and billions of email Inboxes like an invasive species.  New takes on confidence tricks like “phishing” for passwords and “advanced fee fraud” (AKA Nigerian 419 scam) were sucking in many people, who lost hundreds of millions of dollars.  Like any red-blooded Internet user, I hated spam just on principle. It had to be stamped out.

Eventually, the geeks came to our rescue.  Math geniuses hired by companies like Google and Microsoft worked up clever algorithms to quickly identify and divert spam to places where it can do no harm, in effect, toxic waste dumps for email.  Like everyone else’s, my Google email has a Spam box where about 99% of all the spam email I receive is automatically filed.  I never have to see it or sort through it.  Like the prospect of global nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, spam email has faded from being a source of constant anxiety to just another one of life’s realities.

Even though I don’t have to pay attention to it anymore, I do go look once in a while.  It’s a good practice, just in case a legitimate email accidentally gets mis-filed, which happens once in a long while.  But mostly I look at the Spam box because it’s a great source of entertainment.  When things are dull around the office, I look for interesting new variations on the advanced-fee scam, or funny announcements of various European lotteries that I have won.  (I win a lot of lotteries these days.)  I like the constant barrage of people who “just happened to be looking over your website and noticed you aren’t listed at the top of Google”.  (So many wonderful people are looking out for me.) I’m flattered by the beautiful women in the Ukraine who are looking for husbands just like me.  Just about the only thing I don’t appreciate are the many offers to “increase your manhood.”  Hey, I’ll take a winning lotto ticket but just what are you implying about my love life?

In fact, it has gotten to the point that I’m now disappointed when my Spam box contains a bunch of garden-variety re-runs.  Note to scammers: I’m looking for creativity.  When you send me a plaintive cry from the cancerous wife of a deposed Africa dictator, I want an engaging and heartbreaking story or I’m not going to bother reading all of it it.  Next time I win the “Pan-European” lottery, give me a good spiel to explain how the heck I got entered in the first place.  If you want me to visit your porn site, have “Rudmilla” write me a better come-on than “I’m hot for a man like you!”  And if you’re going to buy my car off Craigslist, at least have the decency to know the car’s year and model before you send me a bogus check for $2,000 more than the purchase price.

This is the next frontier for the scammer and spammers, as I see it.  Like any marketer, they’ve got to try harder to get my attention, and I don’t mean by being more obnoxious.  They’ve had a free ride all these years with dumb email blasts that favored quantity over quality.  Now technology has given us the upper hand, and that means it is time to demand better things from our spam.  Otherwise, I’m not eating it.

Spreading out

We’re still not in the Airstream but life at home has been just fine.  There’s snow up in the Santa Catalina mountains, which has afforded Emma the chance to use her Hammerhead sled with friends at 7,000 feet elevation, and down here in the valley we’re been having days warm enough to have the windows open every afternoon.  I like the dichotomy of snow up above and palm trees swaying in the breeze down below this time of year.

The Airstream is slowly getting unpacked, as we pull out things that we would have used during our 10-day trip.  Every day we go “shopping” in the Airstream for whatever we need:  clothes, frozen food, a movie, some tools, etc.  Mostly we’ve been taking out food since Eleanor had a program of meals planned for the entire trip.

The Dutch Oven has been fun for both of us, even though our second attempt at cooking was disastrous.  We tried apple crisp, a favorite of mine (traditional up in Vermont, where I grew up), but naively followed the recipe in the “Dutch Oven Cooking 101” booklet.  We should have followed our instincts instead.  The recipe called for way too much nutmeg and not enough brown sugar.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking out in the back yard, and we were drooling with anticipation, but when we sampled it after dinner the taste was repulsive.  Nobody could even finish their serving.

It was a complete loss, and things got worse the next morning.  Disappointed with the outcome, I left that terrible apple crisp in the Dutch oven overnight rather than transferring it immediately to the compost bin.  When I scooped it out in the morning the bottom of the crisp had an absolutely incredible skunk smell that nearly drove us out of the kitchen.  Some sort of chemical reaction occurred, a final insult in the apple debacle.  Fortunately, after cleaning the oven didn’t retain the smell.

Cooking-wise, the oven has done a good job.  I stacked up some leftover flagstone to make a temporary windscreen, with an aluminum turkey pan for the coals, and it worked so well at retaining the heat from the oven that it may become a semi-permanent feature of our back yard.  (Someday I’d like to build a permanent brick & stone oven that we can also use for pizzas, but that’s way down the home improvement plan.)

Even though the potato recipe we tried earlier did work fairly well, it was a bit on the greasy side and there was more bacon in it than we would have preferred.  So based on that and the apple crisp we’ve learned that the booklet recipes are really just starting points.  From now on, we are going to modify the recipes as we go, using Eleanor’s culinary experience and training as our guide.  Tomorrow the plan is to make “Chisolm Trail Blueberry French Toast Cobbler” from a different recipe book as a special Saturday morning breakfast.

We’re also going to break out one of Eleanor’s Christmas gifts, a deep fryer.  Now, some of you are probably thinking, “You got your wife a deep fryer as a gift?  What’s next, a vacuum cleaner and a scrub mop?”  But don’t worry, Eleanor loves cooking tools.  I once bought her a second refrigerator as a Christmas gift and it was probably the best received thing I’ve ever given her.  She’d rather have a new oven than a diamond ring (and the oven she wants costs about the same as a 1-carat diamond).

All of this cooking is a way of maximizing the value of our staycation.  We would have used the Dutch oven once, maybe twice, and the deep fryer not at all if we were in the Airstream.  The fryer is just too big for our style of travel, especially with the gallons of oil it requires.  Dear old Vince Saltaformaggio would have brought it all—and more—but we don’t have a separate trailer just for the cooking gear, as he did.  So we’re taking full advantage of being at home by spreading out and getting into messy projects.

Until Tuesday, things were nice and quiet.  With the New Year everyone has come out of the woodwork.  Suddenly I’m getting calls about Modernism Week and Alumapalooza again, I’m getting article pitches from PR agencies and freelance writers, advertisers with shiny new budgets are looking to spend money (yahoo!) and people I call are actually answering their phones again.  This has impacted the vacation aspect of this week but I can’t complain because stuff is getting done.

Even Carlos called, wanting to shoot some neon this week.  In the past two years we’ve documented just about every historic sign in Tucson, and certainly all of the “live” ones (those that are still operable).  These days we are just picking up the remaining “dead” signs, like this one.  The upholstery shop is moving and the long-dead neon sign will likely be torn down, so this photo shoot was slightly urgent.  This particular sign doesn’t look like much because the neon is broken and the background was repainted.  In its original form it looked like a ribbon and was undoubtedly considerably more attractive. We’re trying to locate a historic shot that shows the original design, for inclusion in the book.

The brake actuator problem is on its way to resolution.  I have decided to get a Dexter replacement, which is currently on order and should arrive fairly soon.  The replacement unit has a good reputation, takes up about the same space, and requires only four wires.  I’m hoping to install it later this month with Eleanor’s assistance.  As Jim & Debbie pointed out in a comment earlier, installing it ourselves means we’ll know that much more about our Airstream, which is very useful when you are on the road and something goes wrong.

@Alicia Miller:  We hope to be more skilled with our Dutch Oven by Alumapalooza time, but in any case both Eleanor and I hope to attend the DO cooking class this year.  I’m pleased to say that Lodge is going to be a sponsor and so we’ll have a few pieces of their cookware as door prizes too!

An unexpected “staycation”

Alas, it didn’t work out.  We are staying put for now.

It’s hard to explain fully why the option of taking the Caravel to California didn’t work for us.  Mostly it was because our trip was very ambitious.  We were going to meet friends in three locations, sharing some fairly elaborate meals each time, and traverse from desert to ocean climate.  This meant a huge amount of carefully packed food (some prepared in advance, others in the form of ingredients), clothing and gear.  We planned to hike, picnic, grill, cook in the Dutch oven, photograph, swim, courtesy park, write/blog, and entertain.  It just didn’t all fit into the Caravel, and culling down the gear meant culling down the plan, to the point that big chunks of our itinerary didn’t make sense.

Plus, Emma’s cold seemed to be draining the spark out of her, and Eleanor was showing symptoms of having caught it too.  They weren’t going to be ready to do the hikes I had in mind in Borrego Springs.  And then there was the curse of reservations—we were fairly locked into an itinerary by the reservations, and changing it to fit our new circumstances meant a slew of fees and lost deposits.  We couldn’t extend the trip to make up for the lost day because of appointments back at home, so we’d have to rush something, and that wasn’t going to be fun given the number of miles we had planned (1,200 roundtrip).

We finally recognized the situation.  By losing 36 hours and having to downsize, the trip we had planned no longer made sense.  We needed to invent something entirely new rather than try to save an unsalvageable plan.  It was a tough call to give up a vacation I’d been anticipating for weeks, but I think it was the right one.

A key to happiness is to be satisfied with what you’ve got.  So, what did we have?  Well, beautiful weather in Tucson (upper 70s by day, sunny), plenty of time, and lots of good food to be eaten.  I broke out the Dutch oven and made my first-ever dish over charcoal in the back yard: “cowboy” potatoes with onions and bacon.  I also grilled up some of Eleanor’s spiced chicken on the Weber, and some huge portobello mushrooms with olive oil and Kosher salt.

Eleanor started cooking up the perishable food that she was planning to serve during the trip, including a really fantastic Indian chicken with rogan josh and cream (which we will eat tomorrow—it’s always better after sitting a day to let the flavors meld).  We opened up the windows and the sliding glass door and let the unusually balmy air flow through the house, tantalizing the neighbors with the smell of good things cooking.  And we talked about future plans.  I think we will go to Anza-Borrego in April to make up for this lost trip.

The rest of the time we spent unwinding all of the things we’d set in motion.  The Caravel was unpacked and sent back to storage.  “I think it’s disappointed,” Eleanor said. “It was all psyched to go out.”  We left as much packed in the Safari as we could, hoping that we’ll be able to use it in a week or two for a shorter trip, but all of the stuff we’ll need this week has been removed.  In the process we found some things in both trailers that needed attention, like flashlights with dead batteries, compartments carrying stuff we wouldn’t need, expired food, outdated paperwork, etc., so it was good to get all of that stuff addressed.

I cancelled the reservations, losing a total of about $180 in reservation fees and non-refundable charges.  We still have one valid & non-refundable reservation in California for next weekend, but I doubt we’ll use it.  We’ve offered it to a few friends.

The biggest hassle is that I had previously directed some mail to California, where I was going to pick it up during the week.  That mail includes some checks.  Now I’ve got to get it re-directed again, back to my usual address, and I can’t do that until the Post Offices open on Tuesday.

Today our “staycation” continues.  I’m going to bake apple crisp in the Dutch oven, and Eleanor is going to cook up more of the goodies from the Airstream.  I expect to get a quote from a local dealer on a replacement brake actuator, but until I hear what he wants to charge, it’s not decided whether I’ll buy locally or mail-order it.  So it may be a while before I get on the job of replacing it.  I’ll document that process when it happens.