Readying the ship, 2012

We’re very nearly the time to launch for the season, and that means it’s time to get busy. Under the best of circumstances prepping the Airstream for a multi-month voyage is a fair bit of work, but this year it’s even a little harder because it hasn’t gone anywhere since October.  Readers of this blog will recall that our mid-winter trip to Anza-Borrego was nixed by a faulty disc brake actuator, and then just last month the hitch receiver on the Mercedes had to be sliced apart, removed, and re-installed and welded.

So we’ve messed with arguably the two most important parts of our towing setup:  the thing that lets us pull the trailer, and the thing that makes the trailer stop.  Knowing this has made me keen to do a test run well in advance of our trip, to ensure we won’t have any rude surprises when time comes to pull out in May.

Alumapalooza now dictates our departure date, at least a little.  Every May we need to drive from Tucson AZ to Jackson Center OH.  It’s about 1,900 miles on the straightest possible route.  We vary the route each time, so this year we are going via Denver and the total will be over 2,000 miles.  It’s no fun barreling across the country without time to stop and see things, so our bare minimum travel time is nine days and even that’s really pushing it. I would rather take a couple of weeks to do the trip, but other obligations are preventing that.

That gives us about three weeks to get ready, which is plenty of time for packing.  But it’s hardly any time at all if we had to get into some sort of major repair.  So yesterday afternoon, when the springtime desert heat had declined a little, I hitched up the trailer and recruited my neighbor Mike to come along on a trial run.  I told him I wanted someone with me if the hitch receiver broke, the propane lines split, and the brakes failed.  He gamely hopped into the passenger seat and off we went on a 10 mile test run through Tucson.

The car and trailer felt like a comfortable old pair of shoes.  Everything seemed exactly as it should. I actually had to dial down the brake controller voltage a bit, since the new Dexter disc brake actuator seems a little more aggressive than the old Actibrake it replaced.  Otherwise, braking was perfect.

The hitch receiver was also behaving well.  The new bolted section (where it had been cut, see previous post) seems fine.  I was listening intently for any sort of unusual noise transmitted through the body of the car, and also by opening the driver’s window and listening as we accelerated, braked, turned, and hit bumps.   I’ve long been an advocate of getting to know the sounds your rig makes, as a slightly-off note can be the first indication you get of a serious problem.  On this test drive the hitch was silent, which is exactly what you want.

Now back in the carport, the Airstream faces a couple of weeks of prep.  I will go over every major system to verify that everything is working, and do any routine maintenance.  The Hensley hitch will get closely examined and re-greased, the propane system will be checked for leaks and tanks will be filled, and all of the systems we haven’t been using over the winter will be tested.  Since we leave the trailer in “guest house mode” all winter, we already know the refrigerator, air conditioner, water pump, dump valves, electrical system (including lights), furnace, and plumbing are all fine. Minimal cleaning will be needed as well.

The big job is to clear out stuff from last year that we don’t need in the trailer, and re-pack everything for this summer.  With the cooking Eleanor always does, that means a major task just to figure out the culinary items.  Emma’s constant growth means her clothes will be all-new, and since we are going to be doing some different things this year, I’ll be slightly altering my personal items as well.  Here’s one hint: I’m packing a helmet this year.

There will also be some office equipment changes, as the pace of new technology is relentless, and I like to make the most of it.  For example, we will be packing an iPad, which will serve as Emma’s personal computer, a registration/check-in device for Alumapalooza & Alumafandango, and our in-Airstream family game system.  Last week Leigh and Brian, good Airstream friends, parked their Airstream in the carport for 6 days and tipped me off about how well the iPad does at standard board games.  It’s perfect for the Airstream, as it can store dozens of different games for us to play together those quiet nights on the road, and frees up a lot of space we had previously used for storing “travel size” versions of games.

Leigh is particularly keen on this concept, since she has recently launched a free service that reviews the best board game apps.  I had no idea that the iPad was so good at games until Leigh brought hers into the house after dinner and we started playing.  For some games we could even network our iPhones so that each of us had our own little play station.  She’s currently writing an article about it, which I hope to publish in the Fall issue of Airstream Life.

Other technology has changed as well.  I’ll have a new (“4G”) cellular connection for our Internet service on the road, and a whole slew of handy apps on the iPhone to allow me to do many routine tasks even when away from my computer.  The trick is to make sure that every piece of technology allows you to do things more easily, rather than just complicating life.  I’ve been testing work-related apps all winter and quite a few of them haven’t made the cut.

I’ve noticed quite a bit of chatter about high fuel prices. This happens every year in the springtime, as fuel prices traditionally rise in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day.  Sign-ups for Alumapalooza were a little slower this year because fuel price fears, but I’ve been interested to note that as we get closer to the event (and fuel prices begin to decline a little) people are changing their mind and signing up to drive across the country anyway.  One guy even cancelled his registration in February because of fuel prices, then re-registered for Alumapalooza in April when he realized that he’d been snookered by media hype.  In reality, US average gas prices are lower this year than last year. The average retail price of unleaded on 4/28/2011 was $3.89, and today (4/28/2012) it’s $3.82.  You can check this yourself at

Even if fuel rose by a buck a gallon, it would only increase the cost of a 2,000 mile Airstream trip by $200 (assuming 10 MPG towing).  That’s not enough to make us stay at home.  If we were really concerned, we’d look for shorter trips rather than just giving up.  My Airstream is not yet ready to become a permanent guest house.

This week we are really going to dig into the preparation process.  It should be interesting, and even a little fun.  That little test tow I did yesterday has gotten me anxious to re-bond with the Airstream and get it out on the road for real.  Everyone knows that the anticipation of a trip can be half the excitement, and once we start our work I think we’ll get psyched for the adventures that lie ahead.

A bit of a hitch

This time of year our tow vehicle, the Mercedes GL320, generally rests in the carport. We log about 14,000 miles each summer between May and October, mostly towing, and that’s a lot of use. So in the off-season I try to give it a break, except for occasional cross-country trips. This allows the car’s years to catch up with the miles somewhat. It’s a 2009 and already it has 56,000 miles on it. By the time we get back from travel this summer, it will have about 70,000 miles.

A few weeks ago I had the car out for a little trip and the Check Engine light popped on. This is becoming a familiar sight, unfortunately. We’ve had about five incidents of Check Engine lights since the car was new, and all of them have been related to the Adblue (a.k.a. Diesel Exhaust Fluid, or DEF) system. This system is a big part of why the car’s emissions are legal in in all 50 states. It injects a spray of DEF into the exhaust stream, which combines with the exhaust gasses in a special type of catalytic converter and results in the nasty smog-causing oxides of nitrogen turning into harmless water vapor and carbon dioxide.

It’s a brilliant system when it all works, but our 2009 model was the first year for Mercedes to install this technology, and there have been a few bugs. Mercedes seems to have worked them out with a combination of software updates (yes, like everything else on modern cars, this process is entirely controlled by computers) and upgraded components.

This time the Check Engine light was indicating that a heater for the Adblue (DEF) was failing. The heater is needed so that the fluid doesn’t freeze at low temperatures. Replacing the heater is a labor-intensive job that requires complete removal of the Adblue tank. And this is where the nightmare began …

You see, back when we first bought the car, we had to do some extensive modification of the factory receiver hitch, in order to make it suitable for our Airstream Safari. The key modification was the addition of a “third leg” that spread out the tongue weight of the trailer. You can see this “leg”, made of 2-inch square tubing, in the photo at left. It was welded to the rear suspension crossmember and to the factory receiver.

When this solution was proposed, I had two misgivings. First, that this would take up too much ground clearance. This turned out not to be an issue, as the car still has 10″ of ground clearance at this point even with the tube installed. My second concern was that it was blocking access to the black tank you see above, which is the holding tank for the Adblue fluid.

After considering for a while, we decided that replacement of the Adblue tank was highly unlikely, so we went ahead and installed the third leg. It has functioned perfectly ever since, taking up stress from the receiver so that we can get good weight distribution without overstressing the rear end of the GL’s frame.

So when I got the call from the dealership’s Service Advisor telling me that the tank had to be removed, my heart sank. We had to cut the third leg of the hitch off (where indicated with the orange line in the photo above). I dragged the decision out a few days by asking the dealership to do an individual component test on the Adblue heater to double-check that it really had failed, and to try to rule out the possibility of another software problem. They did that, but the news was unchanged: we have to remove the entire tank in order to replace the heater.

I feel very protective of my receiver hitch. We went through a lot of trouble to get it modified just so, to suit our particular needs. We first had reinforcements (not visible in the photo) welded on here in Tucson, and then drove 2,000 miles to Can-Am RV in London ON (Canada) to have the final reinforcement added. I inspect the receiver at least monthly, and do an annual crawl-around-on the-ground-with-a-flashlight inspection at least annually, along with wire brushing and repainting. Any receiver can fail, and since a failure can result in your death, it’s a piece of equipment worth taking seriously. So I didn’t want anyone touching it, and I especially didn’t want anyone coming near it with the intention of cutting it off.

But in this case there was no choice. Andy Thomson at Can-Am was very helpful in marking up the photo above, which I gave to the dealership’s body shop to show them exactly what to do. The hitch was cut, the Adblue tank and some other components were replaced, and I got the car back a week later with the hitch re-installed—but sliced right through the third leg. I drove it 50 miles and the Check Engine light stayed off, so the next step was to get the hitch repaired.

Obviously we didn’t want to weld it back, since there’s always the possibility that we’ll need to remove the hitch again, so after discussions with Andy and other consultants we came up with a plan to add some heavy plates and bolt the two ends of the cut tube together. This was done locally at a qualified welding shop. You can see the result below. Sorry for the lousy iPhone photos.

The bottom line was $49 to the dealership body shop, and $200 to the welding shop that installed the bolt-up re-attachment. The Adblue tank was covered under warranty, which was good since the estimate for that job was a whopping $2,200. I do like the Mercedes as a tow vehicle, but the cost of parts and repairs can be astronomical. I’ve already started a maintenance fund for repairs after the 100,000 miles warranty has expired. As I tell people these days, it’s the best tow vehicle I’ve ever owned, and it’s also the least reliable tow vehicle I’ve ever owned.

But I’ll cut it some slack since we really use the heck out of it. There’s a chance that this replacement of much of the Adblue system will resolve the persistent issues we’ve had with it in the past. Discounting the Check Engine lights, it has done well for us. We bought the GL320 because we wanted a long-term tow vehicle with a durable diesel engine, and overall it has worked out well.

Realistically, there are no perfectly reliable vehicles, just different compromises. At this point the car still feels and drives like new, so my original goal to get 250,000 miles out of it has not wavered. In that long-term context, this little bit of receiver work seems well worth the expense. It is just part of a long-term investment in safe and happy traveling.

Faux Japan … In Phoenix

I wasn’t kidding in the last blog when I said we needed to go somewhere to make up for the loss of our trip to Hawaii and Japan. With Emma feeling a little better, we decided that we could take off for a 3-day weekend in Phoenix.

This became one of our non-Airstream trips. Eleanor booked us into a downtown hotel and we just decided to wing it from there, with no particular plan. As it turned out, the weekend has been a tiny taste of the trip we had planned, kind of like visiting Epcot Center is like traveling to foreign countries. Certainly not the same, but at least you get to eat the food.


The first stop was the Japanese Friendship Garden, called Ro Ho En. It’s a tiny oasis that sits almost above the sunken part of interstate 10 near downtown Phoenix. Inside the garden fence is a beautifully landscaped 5 acres with pond, waterfalls, koi, and desert-adapted plantings. It invites pausing and contemplation. I particularly like the way that the landscaping is designed so that every fresh angle of view provides yet another perfectly proportioned composition.


We were riding Phoenix’s smooth and modern streetcar system, which connects downtown Phoenix with Mesa and Tempe. I noticed that the streetcars themselves were Japanese, made apparently by Kinkisharyo. We might as well have been riding the trains of Tokyo, if we sort of squinted and pretended that our fellow riders were fashionable Shinjuku girls. At this point it seemed we had a theme going, so I pointed this out to e&E and we resolved to keep it going all day if we could.


From there we rode another 3 stops to downtown, and walked over to the Science Museum to take in an IMAX movie. The title was Coral Reef, and the underwater sequences reminded me that we would have been snorkeling on Oahu or Maui if we’d gone. I couldn’t decide if this was a sad thought or a happy one at first, but ultimately I realized I was happy to see colorful reef fish even if I wasn’t actually dipped in salt water myself.


At this point we weren’t going to let go of the Japan/Hawaii theme, so I pulled up the Yelp app on my iPhone and found a sushi restaurant nearby. Sorry that all the good stuff was eaten by the time I got around to shooting a picture with the phone. I warned Emma that our next steps might be to sleep on tatami mats on the hotel room floor, and order raw fish for breakfast. She drew the line at that.


Instead we decided to take the train back to our hotel, and the car across town to the Chinese Cultural Center. This was the closest thing we could find to a Japanese market. Eleanor spent a happy half hour browsing the aisles and then we hit the bakery for dessert. Actually, several desserts: red bean paste mochi, custard cream filled cream puff, flaky lotus yolk pastry, red bean sesame bun, cream horn, mango mochi, and something called a flaky wife pastry. (Yes, we made all of the obligatory jokes.) We took them all back to the hotel and shared them with hot green tea.

I would happily have sushi for breakfast tomorrow, but the hotel’s breakfast buffet comes with our room and the offerings are entirely American. But perhaps tonight we will dream of adventures on the other side of the Date Line, and at least have a few hours more of our faux Japanese vacation.