Announcing Alumafiesta!

A few weeks ago I grumbled that the workload of all the events was reaching my personal saturation point, and soon Brett and I would need to either find some help or start reining in our ambitions.  That was probably because we’ve been simultaneously working on four events, and now I’m finally able to unveil them.

First off, we have Alumafandango in Denver, which is coming up in just a few weeks.  This one has been a real bear to organize, because the logistics of our unusual camping location have been tricky, but it’s coming together at last and I do expect it will be a big success.  We just released an email to all the people on our “Alumapalooza/Alumafandango Updates” list, letting them know some of the cool stuff we’ll be doing in Denver (which you can see here).  Meanwhile, I’m working on the Survival Guide (program) and Pre-Event Info, which will all be released to the registered participants in a few days.

Then there’s Alumapalooza in Jackson Center.  You’d think that going into our fourth year we’d have this thing all wrapped up, but long ago Brett and I decided we weren’t going to do it that way.  If it’s always the same, then why come back?  So we mix it up a little every year to keep things interesting.  That means a new logo design, t-shirts, new seminars, new contests, etc.  We just finished the Alumapalooza 4 logo design and opened registration last week—phew!

But that’s far from all we’ve been doing.  In the background I spent some time over the last winter scouting out a venue here in Tucson for a new event to be held next February (2013).  We finally nailed it down and signed the contracts last week, so I’m here to tell you that we now have a third event each year! This one will be called “Alumafiesta.”

Alumafiesta will be completely different from the other two.  We’ll be staying at a premium RV campground in central Tucson.  Every attendee gets full hookups plus cable TV on a 40-foot site, and most of them have a citrus tree.  There are two swimming pools, great facilities, an on-site restaurant, and all of our events will be held in a 10,000 square foot indoor event center.

The dates (Feb 5-10) are in the midst of the peak season, right in the middle of the world-famous Tucson gem show season.  Over 70 separate events happen in the first two weeks of February, covering gems, minerals, fossils, Native American crafts, and what-have-you—virtually taking over the city.  It’s very difficult to get accommodations in Tucson this time of year, but we’ll have a reserved block of premium campsites right in the center of the action.

Plus, it’s the middle of the winter, and I can’t think of many places I’d rather be than Tucson in February.  No snow here (we never even winterize our trailer).  Typically days are mostly sunny with daytime highs in the 60s and 70s, although a cool break happens occasionally.

Alumafiesta is designed to show you the best of Tucson.  Every day we’ll lead a couple of excursions, and you can choose one major excursion to join each day. We’ll take scenic drives to the top of Mt Lemmon and Kitt Peak, walk the historical and cultural sites of downtown, roam the Tucson Botanical Gardens and Tohono Chul Park, and there will be numerous self-guided opportunities such as Pima Air & Space Museum and the Sonoran Desert Museum.  We’re working on organizing special lunches at some of the more eclectic restaurants in town, too.  In the evenings we’ll have our traditional Happy Hour with door prizes and fun, followed by local speakers.  One talk will be about the ancient native petroglyphs and pictographs that can be found in this area.  Another talk will be about gems & minerals and things you’ll see at the gem show venues.  More talks are in the planning stages now.

The event will also include two full breakfasts, one dinner, discounts at the on-site restaurant, and on Saturday, a special performance by Antsy McClain (of the Trailer Park Troubadours).

We just launched online registration for Alumafiesta last night.  Right now we don’t have a lot of information up about the event, but we will be updating the website all week.  Since the event will be during February when all campgrounds are full, we expect a sell-out.  So if your plans include coming to the warm desert southwest next winter, I suggest you register early.

If you are in the local area and want to come just for the Antsy concert, we have extra seats and tickets are available for $20 per person online. (The ticket sales site accepts PayPal, and credit cards via PayPal.)  There will be a cash bar set up during the concert, and plenty of parking.  It should be a great show!

Thinking about the renovation

We have roughly two weeks between the end of one trip (coming back from Vermont) and the beginning of another (going to Colorado).  It’s unusual for us to stop off at home base for a short time like this, but it has been an unusual travel year for us in general.

The two weeks were earmarked for various practicalities, like appointments, the final work on the Fall 2012 issue of Airstream Life, and Alumafandango.  Beyond that, I had hoped to have some free time to get started on our Airstream renovation, but very little has been done—I’ve just been too busy.  We have samples of Marmoleum in hand, and some definite ideas about upholstery and curtains, but so far haven’t managed to actually get out to the various suppliers and finalize the choices.

Eleanor did remove some of the curtains to see if we could get them clean.  Her plan is to re-cover the existing curtains rather than creating new ones from scratch. She did this on Emma’s back window a few years ago and the result was great: a completely “new” looking curtain without all the labor.  With the additional fabric overlaying the old, she was able to make the overall curtain a little wider so that it wouldn’t need to be pulled quite as tightly to close, and add all new hook & loop fastener for better closing.  Plus, the light-blocking ability of the curtain was greatly improved, which is a nice feature in the bedroom.

Our dinette curtain looks horrible right now. It bears the indelible stains and other marks that testify to the presence of a small child eating spaghetti a few inches away.  Emma began living in that trailer when she was a mere five years old, and now she’s 12 and I think at this point she deserves a clean start rather than forever eating next to the minor errors of her youth.  And we wouldn’t mind nicer curtains either.

Washing was ineffective.  The stains are permanent.  It doesn’t matter since they are going to be re-covered anyway.  We’ve chosen darker fabrics than the dingy off-white original material, which will cover the underlying history and match the other fabrics and materials that will be installed later.  For the upcoming trip to Colorado she is going to install a temporary solution of ribbon strips and new hook&loop so that we can close them better, and in September they’ll come off again for the permanent fix.

Tomorrow we will drop in on an upholstery place, or two, and try to get some samples of fabrics for the dinette.  We need to find a good shop to fabricate the new countertops as well.  That would be easy if I were willing to install typical household-style counters, but I want these to be the same thinness as the factory ones to keep the weight down and avoid hassles when re-fitting them.  Also, we’re going to install a larger, deeper sink, and cut a hole for a NuTone Food Center, enlarge the splashguard, and add in a good quality cutting board, so I’ll be looking for a company that we can work with on the details.

Much of the shopping has been online.  In particular, I’ve been researching inverters because a major goal of the renovation is to improve our power situation. Right now we have a great solar power system, but it can’t power appliances like the TV, microwave, NuTone, laptop computers, toaster, and coffee maker.  These are all things we would like to be able to use when off the grid.  A 2000-watt pure-sine inverter will take care of that problem handily.  The LCD TV consumes only about 110 watts, and the laptops are only about 85 watts each, so the electronic devices are easy to run.  The NuTone is rated for 625 watts, the toaster and coffee maker are both less than 1000 watts, and the microwave is an unknown (since we are getting a new one) but I expect it to come in at about 1100 watts. We’ll have to be careful not to make toast and coffee at the same time but otherwise it should work fine.

A big decision was to wire the inverter to the whole trailer with an automatic transfer switch so that every outlet will be powered when we are running on batteries.  This does require us to remember to set the air conditioner off, but that’s no problem.  (With a starting load over well over 2,500 watts, it would trip the inverter.)  Wiring the whole trailer simplifies the connection of the inverter.  It will sit in a front compartment near the battery so that the DC wire runs are short, and a long AC wire will run to the main breaker box and transfer switch, through the belly pan.

To keep the budget down, I’ve been collecting some items as we travel.  I found the NuTone Food Center at Alumapalooza, being sold by David Winick. We already had a big box of NuTone accessories from our days in the Argosy 24 “Vintage Thunder”.  We were parked next to a service customer of Paul Mayeux’s last October and bought their used Intellipower 65 amp converter/charger cheap (they were upgrading to a big solar charger).   I’m still scouting for someone with some Safari interior cabinetry so I can scavenge that, too.

You can see that nothing is going to happen quickly here.  The first real disassembly won’t start until sometime in September.  That’s OK.  The project is going to be expensive. I want to think everything through carefully.  We won’t be doing this again for several years at least, perhaps a decade.  So it’s not just a matter of picking out curtain fabric, it requires envisioning what we’ll be doing with this trailer in the next decade, and the challenges it will face in our future expeditions.

I also want to see if we can find ways to actually reduce the weight.  Usually in renovations trailers tend to get heavier, as owners add more equipment and household-grade furniture.  I can tell a difference of 500 pounds when towing up an 8% grade, by the way the Mercedes’ engine bogs down.  When we are lightly loaded it’s a much easier tow.  So it would be nice to trim even as little 100 pounds in the cabinetry, and as we take it all apart I expect we’ll find a few places where weight can be cut out.

After tomorrow I doubt we’ll have time to work on the renovation much.  But I will be making notes as we take this next trip, to try to discover the little things that could be done to make our Airstream more usable and efficient.

The renovation project

For the past couple of years I’ve been thinking that the interior of our 2005 Safari is looking pretty tired.  The vinyl floor is scarred and dull, the curtains are stained, the dinette foam is going flat, and the countertops are scratched.  Like a house, an Airstream does require a periodic interior makeover, and it’s looking like time has come for ours.

Two years ago I wrote a blog entry in which I advanced the theory that an Airstream can last a lifetime, with proper maintenance.  Now I have to live with those words, as we are beginning to reach the point at which shabby appearance must be dealt with.  Spending money on cosmetic upgrades is pretty low on my list.  I’d much rather improve the comfort, safety, or functionality of the trailer.  But if it doesn’t look good, it’s easy to fall into the trap of neglecting functional items because some little voice in the back of your mind says, “This trailer really isn’t worth it any more.”

Eleanor and I started talking about this a few months ago, and the first question we had to answer was whether we were going to keep the trailer long enough to justify further investment.  We decided we were.  As long as Emma is living at home (at least 6-7 more years), we’ll want a trailer that can allow us to travel as a family, and this is the only floorplan Airstream ever made with two full-time bedrooms.  They may come out with another two-bedroom floor plan in the future, but we like this one and we’ve customized the heck out of it already.  So we didn’t foresee making a switch anytime in the near future.  Perhaps once we are empty nesters we’ll downsize to a 25 footer, but that’s a long way off.  In the meantime, I know we’ll take many more long trips together.

Even though some investment is justifiable to keep the Airstream looking good, we’re going to try to keep the cost of this makeover down by focusing on the areas that need attention the most.  We won’t be gutting the entire trailer.  The front bed, dinette, and kitchen galley will come out, and the refrigerator compartment, rear bedroom, closets, and bathroom will stay in place.  We will not significantly alter the floorplan or plumbing.  The cosmetic goal is primarily to replace the floor, countertops, upholstery, and curtains.  Of course, while we are touching those parts we’ll also take the opportunity to improve a few things.

We can’t begin to tear the trailer apart right now, because in two weeks we are leaving for Colorado and Alumafandango.  So I’ll use the latter part of July to line up outside contractors, select colors for those items, and order various parts.  We’ll start the actual work as soon as we get back, approximately September 1, and I think the Airstream will be out of commission through at least November.  Other than the specialized jobs of upholstery, floor, and countertops, all of the labor will be done at home in our carport by Eleanor and myself (and any local friends who happen to volunteer).

There’s a good chance we’ll find some hidden issues once we start to disassemble the interior.  After all, this trailer has seen over 100,000 miles of towing and the equivalent of about five years of full-time use.   I know that we will find missing screws and loose brackets inside the cabinetry, because we have noticed some furniture starting to separate from the interior walls.  We plan to reinforce those connections so that the trailer will be ready for rough-road travel, in case we decide to do the Dempster Highway in Alaska or the road to Chaco National Monument.  I figure that it’s best to find the little problems proactively rather than when we’re on a long trip somewhere or after the little problems have become big ones.

I’ve got a long list of parts to order in the next few weeks.  I’m trying to find someone with a late-model Airstream with the same blonde faux-wood cabinetry who is gutting or renovating, so I can buy some used cabinet materials (drawers, doors, hinges, slides, and sheets of wood) to re-make into a custom cabinet in our trailer.  I’m planning to build a combination bench, laundry drawer, magazine rack, shoe cubby, recycling bin, and storage bin along the curbside wall to replace the kludge we’ve got currently.

We’re going to do a full replacement Marmoleum floor to replace the current vinyl floor and bedroom carpet, and ultraleather on the dinette.  Eleanor is going to cover the existing curtains with new material and Velcro so that they are more light-blocking and more easily closed.  We will also add a big pure-sine inverter to power the TV, microwave, or some kitchen appliances while boondocking.  To improve charging while plugged into shore power, we’ll replace the current charger with an Intellipower with 3-stage charging.  In the kitchen, Eleanor will get a new (bigger, deeper) sink, a NuTone food center, and inverter outlets for the toaster or coffee maker.  We are also considering a water filtration system if we can recover some wasted space under the counter, so I’ll be doing some plumbing improvements there and installing some dividers for better storage.

Little things include completing the conversion to LED lights throughout, a new microwave to replace the one that just died, replacing the hopeless ceiling speakers with surround-sound speakers (so we can actually hear a movie when the A/C is running), adding a good folding cutting board, removing the CD changer we’ve never used, adding an aux input jack, and adding lots of inverter-powered USB power outlets for portable devices.

My intention is to fully document this renovation this fall as it happens.  I’ll even be honest about costs, since most people don’t talk about them in their renovation blogs.  Right now I have a guesstimation budget of $6,000 for this project, using our own labor.  Once we’ve talked to the contractors I’ll be able to come up with a more accurate estimate.  In any case, it will cost more than I want to spend, but probably end up as good value for all the use & pleasure we get out of it.

Birds, bats, bugs, bulbs

Waking up each day with the birds chirping and the cool morning air streaming in the windows has been a great part of the Guadalupe Mountains experience, for me.  It has been such an antidote to the heat that we’ve found everywhere else.  I had been pining for a tenting trip up our local mountains in Arizona just so I could sleep in the fresh forest air without an air conditioner running, and had even pitched the idea to Eleanor.  After four days in Guadalupe, the need has mostly faded.  Being here has been terrific.

Our Sunday plan was really more of a wind-down.  Our ambitions have weakened each day as we’ve settled into an increasingly lazy pattern.  After puttering around in the morning we headed over to the Visitor Center so Emma could complete her research to achieve both Junior and Senior Ranger patches, plus a Guadalupe Mountains National Park badge to add to her collection.  Eleanor says this is #65.

We also walked the Pinery Trail, but it was just a 1/3 mile nature trail which ended at the ruins of a Butterfield Stage stop.  This is what I meant by not much ambition.  We really should have gotten an earlier start and hiked McKittrick Canyon, which is about eight miles east of the campground.  Although it runs about four or five miles, it’s not a terribly hard hike since it follows a stream through a canyon (thus not much elevation gain).  It has a good reputation for scenic beauty.  We’ve left it for a future visit.

Back at the campground we did finally meet up with the other Airstreamers who parked right next to us despite the largely empty RV parking area.  At first I thought it was because birds of a feather flock together, but I think now that it was really just so that they’d be in the shade.  The trailer turned out to be a 1974 Trade Wind.

We spent the afternoon in the Airstream, me reading,  Eleanor making a big lunch and mixing up cold soft drinks, and Emma doing various kid-like things such as hunting interesting insects.  I took a few shots of the more curious or colorful bugs and butterflies she found.  It was rather warm in the afternoon but not intolerable even without air conditioning.

By 5:30 we had accomplished our primary goal of not doing much and took the car north to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  We had always wanted to do the  9.5-mile scenic loop drive (a rough gravel road) but never had because on all of our prior visits we’ve had the Airstream in tow.  This was our chance, and it fit right into our program as a low-stress “activity” that required us only to look out the window.  Of course, we did step out of the car long enough to check the Rattlesnake Trail from an overlook and ponder whether we’d want to hike that one on our next visit too.  It looks interesting.

The real point of driving 45 miles up to Carlsbad was to see the evening bat flight.  This is another thing we’d missed on our prior visits.  If you’re interested in bats, it’s well worth the time, as a park ranger spends about 30 minutes answering questions and then everyone goes quiet as thousands of bats begin to stream out of the cavern.  It takes two hours for all the bats to leave, but after about 30 minutes it’s too dark to see them anymore.  No photos or even cell phones are allowed, as they disturb the bats, so if you want to see this you need to show up in person.

It was the right call to stay boondocking in Guadalupe and dismiss the Siren’s song of full hookups at White’s City (nearer Carlsbad).  Our elevation was the key to comfort; at White’s City it was running 10 degrees warmer.  And when we got back at night, the stars were absolutely amazing.  I can’t recall such a vivid view of the Milky Way galaxy in years, even in other famous “dark sky” parks.  Speaking of which, Bert Gildart has written and photographed a great article about Dark Sky Parks which will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of Airstream Life.

I’m really happy with the LED lights we recently installed.  They’re working perfectly, and so efficiently that lights are no longer a factor in our power budget.  We can leave as many of them on as we need, and it’s rare that they even consume a single amp.  Since we’ve also put in an alternative to the power-hungry furnace (a catalytic heater), this leaves only the laptops, vent fans and water pump as major power consumers.  There’s not much we can do about those items, and they don’t really matter much when the sun is shining.  After four nights of boondocking, we are leaving with 79% of our battery charge still available, and in a few hours it will be back up above 90%.  Based on this success I’m planning to order more LEDs to outfit the rest of this trailer and the 1968 Caravel, when we get home, which will be Tuesday.

Another day at Guadalupe

Saturday morning yielded a decision to stay another day here in the Pine Springs campground at Guadalupe National Park. We’ve just enjoyed being here so much that now going anywhere else seems foolish. There’s almost nowhere we can go that won’t be over 100 degrees anyway, and after so many contiguous days of driving last week it feels very good to just stay here and soak up the scenery.

It doesn’t hurt that the campground is still dead quiet and virtually unoccupied. It wasn’t like this on our last visit, in October. I am guessing visitation is low now because people think it will be hot here—since it is scorching hot everywhere else in Texas. From a glimpse at the NPS weather data, it seems that the average daytime high at Guadalupe is only about 88 degrees all summer, and it cools into the upper 60s at night, so it’s reasonably comfortable by our standards. The awning and a couple of fans running during the day is all we’ve needed. There’s an Airstream Life tip for you: take advantage of this great park in the summer before everyone else figures it out.

We have been joined by one other camper, a 1970s Airstream (probably an Overlander but I haven’t peeked closely yet), making a total of three RVs in the lot. The only other people around are the day hikers, who began to arrive around 6:30 a.m. in their cars to start up the trailheads that begin at the edge of the lot. Being Saturday, there was a small wave of day hikers, eventually reaching about a dozen cars. I was glad we did our big hike in solitude on Friday.

Since we had nothing in particular planned for the day, it became one of those great relaxing camping days where everything happened at a leisurely pace and we just did what felt right. Eleanor started the day by making pancakes—a rare treat, especially when camping without hookups. Normally on a long boondock we’ll be super cautious about water use, which means we avoid choosing meals that will require a lot of dish cleaning afterward. But since there’s a dishwashing sink nearby, I have been encouraging Eleanor to cook, and she has. I take all the dishes over to the outdoor sink in a box and it’s quick work to clean them all up in the giant sinks provided by the NPS.

The extra day also gave us a chance to spend some quality time in the Visitor Center, where one of the park rangers gave us a quick personal tour, describing the birds of prey we might see on a hike to Smith Spring. They also had a good collection of pinned insects that allowed us to identify some of the dramatically colored bugs we photographed while on the Bear Canyon hike. Emma picked up four workbooks: Junior Ranger, Senior Ranger, Junior Paleontologists, and Wilderness Explorer. The ranger programs will be completed here for a badge, and the others will be mailed in later for special patches.

By chance I discovered that the Visitor Center offers free wifi, a fact which does not seem to be advertised anywhere. This is always welcome because it means I can post my blogs and do some research about where we are heading next. This is always unwelcome because it means the evil email temptation will be there, and I could end up spending more time in front of the computer than I should while in the beauty and diversity of a great national park. I am going to pretend that the wifi only works for blog posts.

Since the ranger enticed us to visit the springs, we headed over to the historic Frijole Ranch, where early American settlers lived here from about 1906 through 1942, and then followed the Smith Spring trail to Manzanita Pond (where white-chested swifts were aerobatically dipping into the water) and then to the spring itself, in the shadows of tall trees at the edge of the escarpment that was once a massive reef on the edge of an ancient sea. This hike is 2.3 miles and maybe 300-400 feet of elevation gain, which isn’t much, but it was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived which means a fair bit of sweating. At least this time we were well stocked with water.

Other than birds, we have seen no wildlife. Not a single rabbit, badger, deer, elk, mountain lion, coyote, snake, or even a rodent. They’re all here, somewhere, but not hanging out where we have been. We have seen a lot of curious insects, scat, interesting holes, even a few snails that manage to eke out a desert life, and are getting to know the plants fairly well too. Now we talk about the red-green Texas Madrone and the odd Gray Oak, the Jewel Beetle, and the Jimson Weed as if we were locals. That’s a sign of a good visit, in our book.

Eleanor cooked up a fantastic dinner of spicy tilapia and we finished off some chicken with rice and molé sauce, which meant lots more dishes for me but that’s a fair trade-off for a great meal in a peaceful national park. In the evening we went to a ranger talk about ethnobotany (native uses of plants for food, medicine & clothing) and we were three of the five people in the audience. Back at the trailer we played games on the iPad and ate frozen “tacos” with peanut butter ice cream & chocolate sauce.

Guadalupe has turned out to be a better “find” than we expected, so you can understand why we want to stay yet another day. We aren’t due in Tucson until Tuesday and the evening bat flight program at Carlsbad sounds interesting. It’s a 45 mile drive from here to there. We could move the Airstream up to Whites City (the nearest campground to Carlsbad) but even the promise of a full hookup isn’t motivating me to take the Airstream out of this location. Our water supply will stretch for one more night, and we have plenty of electricity from the sun. So I’ll get some change from the rangers this morning (campground fees are cash only, $8 exactly per night) and happily fill out one more self-registration slip.