Alumapalooza, Day 2

The Alumapalooza routine has set in again:  up at 6 a.m. with the sun rising into a beautiful blue sky, quick blog entry, breakfast, on the walkie-talkie by 6:30 (in case I’m needed) and out doing whatever needs to be done by about 7 a.m.  The hardest part of each morning is getting Emma out of bed so that she will go to bed at night at a reasonable time.  Being 12 years old, she really doesn’t like waking up early

The orange-shirted staff are running things so well that Brett and I sometimes find ourselves filling the time by counting attendees to seminars (to see which ones are most popular), selling books, refilling the ice chests, and troubleshooting little problems that come up.  It’s so much nicer than last year for us.  Of course, now certain members are referring to us as management—or even more inaccurately, “Central Intelligence.”  We’re really more like tropisms than intelligence.

Eleanor, Emma and I were scheduled to do a talk about “life aboard an Airstream” from a family perspective, and I was pleasantly surprised to find 84 people in attendance.  We did a 60 minute Q&A session with the folks there, answering questions about full-timing, where to go, maintenance, campsites, traveling with a kid, selling the house, and many other things.  A 42 minute slide show ran in the background while we talked, with photos of us starting in 2005 when we first began full-timing, and going through early 2008.

All day long I kept getting buttonholed by people with interesting questions and great personal stories. This event is generating quite a few leads for future articles in the magazine.  I think that honestly I spent more time talking to people than doing any sort of physical work, which is quite a bit different from prior years.  Again, that’s because the team is really hustling.  The parkers (Lou, Larry and their team) fit in another 25-30 trailers yesterday, working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Matt was everywhere from the sound board (for the stage) to the grills (for Dutch Oven class and Open Grill).  Alice & Tim were making the water/electric job look easy, and Beth and Lori had Registration completely handled.  Lisa and Eleanor are still on the Injured Reserve list but both are functional now and doing light duty.

The only problem seems to be the cursed Garbage Pickup job.  Lisa was supposed to drive the Gator around every morning at 7 a.m., but that was before she was injured.  We recruited Al & Shinim to take over, and they did a great job yesterday.  But late in the afternoon, Al showed up with a large hemotoma on his leg from bashing it against something.  Elly (a veteran of the Vintage Trailer Jam and an LPN) diagnosed it and sent him off with ice and orders to stay off it, so that wiped out our second team.  A third team has been recruited and they did the job this morning, but we have given them fair warning about the history …

OK, quick summary because I’ve got to get out of the trailer and onto some jobs this morning.  We had 13 ovens going at once during the first Dutch Oven cooking seminar, and huge leftovers (fruit cobblers) for everyone to sample.  Open Grill was a big hit.  People cooked for hours in a steady stream over the three big grills we set up. The ice cream leftovers from the Kids Social got wiped out last night by the grillers, so that’s good. Roving Happy Hour was a big hit too, and we’ll do that again tonight. (Photos today are all courtesy of Lisa Forsyth, Injured Reserve.)

This morning HGTV will be here to tour the factory and interview the staff for a show they are going to produce this fall.  I’m on the interviewee list, but probably won’t appear in the final show.  But that adds a complexity to this morning that I really didn’t need, so it’s rush-rush-rush to get everything done.  Off to work—I’ll update tomorrow.

Alumapalooza Day 1

It was a longer day than I expected.  After I finished the blog in the early morning yesterday, my attention turned to a line of slow-moving thunderstorms that were creeping northeast and bearing down on us.  The plan was to move all the staff over to the rally field at 8 a.m., but by 7 a.m. it was clear we were going to be in the midst of a potentially large storm at our scheduled move time.  At 7:30 Brett & I had a quick conference and decided to move everyone who was ready immediately.  It was already raining and the wind was blowing hard.

Most of us were lined up and ready in less than five minutes.  We parked the Airstreams in the field and set up, wearing raincoats, while Eleanor and Lisa took the Gator back to the Terra Port to escort the stragglers past the security gate.  The storm dropped half an inch of rain according to weatherman Alex, and made the field muddy enough that we felt obligated to delay the start of parking for a couple of hours.

Meanwhile, eager attendees were lined up at the north gate on Jerry Drive, and by 10 a.m. they were around the corner, which means we had a line about half a mile long waiting to get in. We passed on the bad news (“be prepared to wait until at least 11″) but the wind dried up the worst of the mud pretty quickly and by 10:30 or so the gates were opened.

This made for a lot of really dull video on the GoPro camera we had mounted high above the field, as you can see from the still posted here.  But our weatherman assured us that there would be a dramatic change once the front passed, and he was right.  By noon it was time to shed the jackets and break out the sun hats.

We parked about 75-80 trailers today, which is about right.  102 Airstreams were scheduled but not everyone shows up on the day they are reserved.  We left one area unparked because it was still a little damp and we didn’t want to dig ruts, but it will fill in today.  The field is already looking great with aluminum everywhere.

Our new online iPad-based registration system completely let us down, riddled with technical glitches that we could not overcome, so the parkers resorted to paper check-in instead and it worked out fine.  We will be having a serious talk with the company that provides our reservation software later.

The only real bad spot of the day was a couple of staff injuries.  Eleanor strained her back due to lifting things improperly and managing to fall into a cooler (this takes particular talent), and was restricted to quarters for the rest of the day with some pain medication.  A few hours later, the sliding door of the U-Haul trailer landed on Lisa’s neck, giving her a nasty bruise to the trapezius muscle and sending her to the E.R. for a scan.  They are both going to be fine, but with restricted movements and pain pills neither will be on duty today.  Al & Shinim, friends from Ohio, were recruited by Larry to take over the morning garbage pickup from Lisa, and Charon will help Eleanor do the staff laundry today.  So once again, people have jumped into the breach to help out.

Emma made a friend at the Kid’s Ice Cream Social today, who seems to be a sort of clone of her. They are about the same age, read the same books, love the same things (snow and dogs in particular), and became instantly inseparable all day.  Parents on both sides are thrilled.  We had to break them apart at 9:30 after Mike Depraida’s short documentary on The Slabs ended, and the ice cream for Lou’s birthday was consumed, and the paper lanterns flew away.  We had to get Emma to bed, because her parents were exhausted and today is going to be another big day.

Pre-dawn, Alumapalooza load-in

It’s 4:53 a.m.  I have not awoken this early for any particular reason that I can think of.  It is the big morning of our load-in to Alumapalooza, but although that’s an exciting time, I don’t think I’m up because of the anticipation.  I just woke up, having slept well and having had lots of interesting dreams. Although our alarm was set for 6:30 a.m., I guess I’m up for the day.

There are various “industrial” sounds of machines and whirring fans that always accompany a work day at the Terra Port, murmuring beneath the usual morning bird songs.  Everyone who has camped here is familiar with them.  Soon the Airstream staff will begin to arrive and get to work building Airstreams and opening the Service bays.  They are going to have a busy week, just like us.  At 7 a.m., the tractor will come out to the Terra Port to pick up the first Service customers.

I know from prior years that in the next hour a lot of guys will start stumbling around outside their trailers in the dawn light, puttering with various pieces of equipment and generally killing time until it’s socially acceptable to fire up the old diesel pickup and start hitching for real.  This year I may be one of them.   I’ve got to dump the holding tanks and pack up a few things, and I might as well get started soon.  Besides, it’s hard to sit inside the Airstream this morning.  It’s exciting to line up the first group of Airstreams (all the Alumapalooza staff, about eight trailers) to parade into the field and take our designated spots at 8 a.m.

Everyone will be up and watching, including our little “eye in the sky,” a GoPro Hero2 sports camera mounted to a 30-foot pole.  It will be shooting a time-lapse video of the parking process today.  We tested it yesterday while the tent was being set up, and it’s pretty cool.  I’ll try to get the video of the Airstreams parking today uploaded to YouTube later this week.  We are expecting 102 trailers today.

Yesterday was another hot one, but the weather service (our own Alex K) says that today will be a little cooler with a few showers in the morning, than comfortably cool all week.  The day started with setting up the eye in the sky, while our parking crew flagged the fields and set out the big yellow “ALUMAPALOOZA” road signs.  The big old & ugly box trailer that we use for winter storage was towed over and we unloaded all the gear, including a complete Airstream kitchen and stage sound and video equipment.

This year we’re trying a much more streamlined online check-in process, so I held a brief training seminar with most of the staff after the main tent was set up.  We all stumbled through the process with a clutch of iPads until we’d finally worked out all the issues.  Despite a few challenges, I think it’s going to work fine and save everyone considerable time.  Two staffers will have laptops and the ability to fix any problems that the iPad users in the field might encounter.

A few people have arrived early and are parked in the Service Center lot.  They have no hookups of course, but seem to be fine with that.  I should note that arriving early is discouraged and there’s a risk of being turned away unless you are staff or have a service appointment on Tuesday.  Also, arriving early doesn’t get you in to  Alumapalooza early.  These folks will be parked at the same time as everyone else, after 9 a.m. today.

But those who were here seemed to make the best of the situation, heat and all.  I got a chance to take a break around 6 p.m. and wandered into a group of merry-makers who were playing and singing some of Kirk McKellar’s songs.

Kirk is the middle guy in the photo with the blue hat.  Every year he writes a theme song for Alumapalooza.  The first year it was the Alumapalooza Anthem.  The next year it was “Wally Byam Would Be Smilin’ “, and this year he has something new that we haven’t rehearsed yet.  Regardless, we will be singing it from the stage today.

Thanks to Nick Martines for this photo.  He’s one of our official photographers, and you will see his panoramic photo work from last year’s event hanging in the Airstream Service Center.

The “snake killers” are on the job

One of the important aspects of planning the Alumapalooza prep schedule is to leave in lots of time for “contingencies.”  You never know what will crop up, but it’s virtually guaranteed that several things will.  The other key is to be surrounded by people who are really capable, so when a problem does pop up, they just jump on it without even having to be asked to do it.

I’m reminded of a quote from Ross Perot, the billionaire founder of EDS, after he got involved with General Motors:  “At EDS, the first person who sees a snake kills it.  At GM, they form a committee on snakes.”  Our core team members are all snake-killers, figuratively speaking.

So when I awoke in the morning to one of the worst sounds you can hear in an Airstream—drip drip drip—I was dismayed but knew I was surrounded by people who could help.  The air conditioner had run most of the night to beat the incessant heat and intense humidity, and apparently the condensate drain tube was clogged. This caused an overflow of water in the drain pan, and when that happens you get a light rain shower in your trailer.

One of the many handy folks parked in the Terra Port with us is Super Terry.  I threw a couple of salad bowls beneath the air conditioner and went to get him out of bed.  This took over  an hour since he had slept poorly and had his own water problem to deal with as well.  A water line had sprung a leak right underneath his bed, which needed to be fixed immediately.  S.T. put a temporary patch on his leak and then came over to help me, a gauge of his Super-helpful character.

The problem was readily remedied by blowing out the drain tube, but as we were in there S.T. spotted daylight coming through.  The air conditioner, when replaced last fall, didn’t get a layer of double-sided tape between it and the drain pan. This is not a serious issue, as rainwater won’t normally get through the gap, but in wind-driven rain or while towing we could have a minor leak.

By this time it was 9 a.m. and time for me to join all the volunteers are our little appreciation breakfast at the Verandah.  Normally we just treat the volunteers like rented mules, with nary a thank-you card for their efforts sweating in the field all week.  This year our hearts softened enough to buy them breakfast at the best restaurant in town, which happens to be a short walk from Airstream.  Eleanor and Emma even dressed up a little for the occasion.

Once back, we had to do some prep for the new Backup Derby event.  We ran the course several times (with plenty of onlookers) and worked out a nice little routine that took “the Stig” 59.6 seconds.  We expect most people will take about 90 seconds to complete it.  You can get full details about it by going to the Alumapalooza website.  This is going to be a seriously fun event.

Meanwhile, our crack team of volunteers was inside the Service Center stuffing 200 goody bags.  We have a rented Gator to shuttle all the stuff around this year, from our U-Haul trailer to the Service Center, back to the trailer, and then eventually to the field.  In previous years we used our car, but the Gator is a lot more convenient.

This year we have a nice black zipper bag that even had a little iPod pocket in it.  It’s a great souvenir of the event, and it will (as always) be filled with treats and coupons and the all-important Survival Guide.

As predicted, the heat and humidity were brutal on Sunday, but we were ready for it. Brett kept a large ice chest filled with water for all the volunteers, and everyone had their sun hats and sunscreen on.  It was only really bad for us because in the middle of the day Super Terry returned (with some of the special double-sided tape) and removed our air conditioner in order to apply the tape.  I got up on the roof with him and we managed to get it done in about half an hour.

Of course now the heat was nearing peak and the trailer had become completely heat-soaked, so it would take two hours to cool off again.  I say “would” because then Eleanor began cooking an elaborate dinner of beef tenderloin, orcchiette pasta with a smoky mushroom tomato cream sauce, white bean & roasted garlic puree for the bread, and sfogliatelle (an Italian stuffed flaky pastry, courtesy of Elsa) for dessert.   All of this meant all three burners of the stove and the oven running for two hours, which completely overwhelmed any good the air conditioner could do.  We ended up turning it off and running fans despite the 91 degree temperatures outside.  It was actually cooler that way.

Well, dinner was worth it.  I mean, really, it was.  And since we suffered in a trailer that was hotter than the outside (where the “heat index” was 100 degrees), you know it had to be good chow.  But we won’t be eating like that again this week.  Too much time involved, too much work.  This week we’ll be mostly cooking on the Open Grill with the rest of the people who are coming this week.

The trip to the Terra Port

We are at Airstream, in the village of Jackson Center, Ohio.  I took a day off blogging yesterday, so here’s a rundown of the past two days.

Our drive from Johnson Saulk Trail State Park to our next stop of South Bend IN was uneventful.  This would not be news except for our history: every other year we’ve driven past the Chicago/Gary area, traffic on I-80 has been horrible with congestion and construction.  This year the work seems to be mostly done, and it was a smooth ride on new concrete all the way to the Indiana Toll Road.  We landed at Charlie & Lynn’s house in South Bend right on schedule.

It has become a sort of tradition for us to stop with Lynn and Charlie nearly every year.  They were our first stop in October 2005 when we began full-timing with the Airstream Safari, and they’ve made us so at home that we just keep showing up. The last three years we have made their driveway our home as a final stop right before Alumapalooza. It’s a last chance for us to recover from the long drive before we jump into the tempest that is Alumapalooza.

This year was no different.  We set up the Airstream, visited the horses, and took Charlie’s vintage Mercedes (300SEL, I believe from 1959) down the country roads to get some pizza.  It was exactly what we needed: a chance to unwind and hang out in a peaceful, low pressure setting.

And the weather was just spectacular.  Perhaps that’s what inspired us to clean the trailer’s windows and the mini-blinds in the kitchen, the next morning.  They had suffered from a year of dust and uck while parked in Vermont last summer and all winter in Arizona, and were long overdue for a good cleanup.

Or perhaps we were just delaying the inevitable.  The forecast was quite different for Jackson Center, 200 miles away by road:  90+ degrees and “oppressive” humidity, and none of us were eager to get into that for the weekend.  But we did arrive in J.C. by 2:45 p.m. and it was indeed oppressive.  In fact, Alex K was already on site (he’s acting as our resident weather reporter this week) and he declared that the heat index was officially 100 degrees by late afternoon.  It’s supposed to stay that way through Monday, but then cool down nicely for Alumapalooza.  In the meantime, air conditioning is our friend.

We seemed to be nearly the last members of the advance team to arrive.  Brett & Lisa got here Thursday, Alex & Charon also, Tim & Alice got here Friday, Matt & Beth were probably here a couple of days ago, and Lou & Larry beat us to the site today by about 15 minutes. In our defense, let me note that our drive was further than anyone’s at 2,450 miles total.

We did a little chatting about details of the event setup, but the real work won’t begin until tomorrow.  Tonight Matt organized a small potluck dinner at the picnic tables under the hickory trees that border Airstream’s Terra Port, and despite the heat we all had a nice evening.  Tomorrow we are holding a small appreciation breakfast for the volunteers who work the event, and then the work begins with flagging the sites and stuffing the goody bags.

For those of you who are coming to Alumapalooza, the field looks nice and dry and evenly mowed—just perfect for the event.  The chance of rain is very low for the next few days (except for a 30% chance on Tuesday) and the temperatures should be ideal.  If you planned to come this year, you’re in for a very fun week!