Almost ready for guests

We are in Denver and things are hectic, as the final preparations for Alumafandango are completed.  I knew that we were walking into a minefield of last-minute problems and there was going to be little I could do to affect things, but even with that foreknowledge it was still a shock to see what lay ahead.

My last inspection of the site was in May, and at that point not much had been done to improve the site where we were scheduled to camp for five days.  There were grandiose plans to bring in big loaders, dumpsters, and heaps of fill, along with water lines, electric lines, and a dump station.  In June, not much happened, and that actually turned out to be a good thing, because in mid-July the big thunderstorm came through and wiped out the area.  If a lot of earth-moving had been done it probably would have washed out to the lake.

And so, in late July when you’d think we would be all set, the real task of building a campground at Lakeside began.  It has been ongoing ever since, starting with clearing of old vehicles and dead trees, and hauling of debris and saturated soil.  At least 32 twenty-cubic-yard dumpsters were filled with junk. Screening was set up to hide what couldn’t be moved.  Four abandoned mobile homes were hauled off, the living trees were pruned, fresh concrete was poured for new lamp posts, and electrical wires were buried.

But that was only the beginning.  When I showed up yesterday to see the progress, there were two huge Caterpillar scrapers running around, moving fill from the nearby Wal-Mart construction site to our site.  Each load of those machines moved up to 31 cubic yards of dirt, and they were in constant motion.  Over the weekend they will have moved enough dirt to raise the level of the campground and surrounding area by eighteen inches.   A road grader chased them around, leveling and compacting the soil.  It was amazing to watch the place transform from junkyard to the beginnings of a rally field.

Unfortunately, things are behind schedule, and many problems have cropped up.  Yesterday the weight of the machines (about 55 tons when loaded) revealed a soft spot in the ground.  A few hours later the cause became clear when a fresh water spring popped up in the ground.  There’s a broken water line somewhere, and tomorrow a backhoe will be on the site to dig it up.  Being so late, we won’t have time to put a final covering on the campsites, so the plan is to bring in chopped hay instead.

The Wal-Mart construction next door has been a boon because we got hundreds of yards of free fill (and their excavation company to spread it), but the downside is that the construction gate we were going to use for access is not going to be available, so we had to come up with a new access plan and make up some signs to redirect traffic.  The Merry-Go-Round suffered structural damage as a result of the big July thunderstorm, and that means we’ve had to cancel our QR Code Hunt because all week a contractor will be in the park to build it a new support structure.  And I can list off half a dozen more things like that …

So this has been a test of our ability to be flexible.  As late as Sunday afternoon I was revising the official program once again to accommodate last-minute changes.  The amazing thing (to me) is that despite everything that has happened, we are still going to have a great week.  Except for noticing the packed-dirt campground, the attendees won’t be aware of everything we’ve gone through to hold this event. I am making a little movie of the weekend’s construction so that they can see what the place looked like just three days before they arrived.

Although the site looks rough now (better today than when the photo above was taken), Brett and I have learned that you can make almost any place look good once you decorate it up with a bunch of cool trailers.  Our site for Modernism Week 2012 was an ugly dirt parking lot surrounded by the concrete blocks of a dead mall.  The sidewalks were broken and there were the remains of shattered bottles in the dirt.  We brought in 22 trailers and about ten vendors and suddenly the place was festive with color and decorations. Over 1,200 people paid admission to walk around there.  That’s the power of aluminum.

Speaking of which, our official event trailer is ready to go.  We checked it out yesterday at Timeless Travel Trailers.  It’s a 1962 Globe Trotter converted to a coffee shop, and subsequently converted to be our registration booth.  It’s just one of about eight trailers that the guys at Timeless will be bringing over to show and use during the event.

I was on the site today and I’ll be there again tonight with Brett to check on things and see what we can do to help. We’ll be loading in the show trailers this evening, and tomorrow the electrical boxes should be in place, and the final cleanup and grading can be completed.  The Airstream Life trailer will go in early Tuesday morning.  We are still far from being able to relax but at this point I think we’ll be ready—just barely—for our guests to arrive on Tuesday.

New Mexico-Colorado

We’ve had a nice time voyaging through northern New Mexico on our way to Denver.  From our overnight campsite at El Malpais National Monument, we’ve continued pursuing scenic routes as much as possible, and it has been a very nice change from the Interstate.

Although our initial impression of Joe Skeen campground was not great because we arrived in the dark to a seriously un-level site, we woke up to an entirely different place.  This time of year it’s beautiful in every direction, with little hills and green foliage arranged almost as if someone planned the place to look that way, and very peaceful.

I found I had left the rear compartment open all night, with the light on.  This explained how we managed to use up 38 amp-hours of power in one night (the compartment light is not yet LED).  The light attracted a party of moths, who were all sleeping in the compartment the next morning.  I chased several dozen of them out and even a couple of days later a moth or two flutters out of the compartment every time I open it.

Driving to Albuquerque, we made a stop at Petroglyph National Monument.  There’s RV parking, a nice visitor center, and just two miles further there are some short walks in the area called Boca Niegra where you can see dozens of interesting petroglyphs chipped into the black volcanic basalt.  We spent an hour there and then continued north to Las Alamos and our destination, Bandelier National Monument.  This meant we managed to visit three National Park sites in one day.

The specter of the “Atomic City,” Las Alamos, is obvious when you come to Bandelier. Along the twisting entry road we passed a few Los Alamos National Laboratory sites, tucked into canyons and atop mesas, each one fenced off and featuring a bunch of scientific-looking objects and warning signs.  But the real feature is the dramatic canyons of pink volcanic tuff, riddled with Swiss cheese holes from wind erosion.  These holes are sometimes large enough to form small dwellings, which were used by the Ancient Puebloans as the basis for their cliff houses.

Bandelier’s visitor center sits in the bottom of Frijoles canyon, which also holds the remains of a large pueblo and numerous cliff houses.  Unfortunately, the same river that attracted native residents for centuries has also threatened the visitor center, and currently you can’t drive down there.  All visitors (except, apparently motorcyclists) must come by shuttle bus.  If you are staying in the Juniper campground at the park, you catch the shuttle about 1/4 mile from the campground.  A short trail leads from the visitor center to the pueblo ruins, kivas, and cliff houses, along with some petroglyphs and one very nice pictograph.

Connectivity in northern New Mexico has been hit or miss for me.  I was able to send and receive text messages and email on my phone, but Internet access via the Cradlepoint/Verizon card was hopeless.  Voice phone calls worked only at the dump station.  That was fine with me, since I wasn’t there to do a lot of work.

We considered hiking from the campground the next morning via the Frey Trail down to the visitor center (2.0 miles) and then catching the shuttle back up, but with all the other things we wanted to see along our driving route it seemed best just to make an early start of the day.  Bandelier will go on our list of places that deserve a second, lengthier, visit.

The drive north toward Taos brought us up the Rio Grande River Gorge, along Route 68.  This is a great drive through part of the 82-mile long river gorge, and there is a small visitor center along the route.  With all the pauses we made, it was lunchtime when we finally reached Taos, and we’d gone only 73 miles.  We took 90 minute to wander the downtown (loaded with art galleries and curio shops, very touristy), and then got serious about covering some miles.

Fortunately, from Taos to Rt 160 in southern Colorado there aren’t many temptations.  The land becomes wide open with great vistas to scattered mountains, but there’s little to stop for.  A few hours later we were at Rt 160 and decided to keep going east through the La Veta Pass (9,500 feet) to make Colorado Springs by dinnertime.

I think normally we would have stopped sooner, but we knew that Emma’s friend from Alumapalooza (Kathryn) was camped at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.  Also, we realized that a night at this great state park would give us our only full-hookup night in about three weeks of traveling.  That’s an opportunity to do a few things that consume lots of water, so we went for it and managed to pull in by about 6 p.m.

Our night here has been great.  The girls had a sleepover in our trailer, which was our way of pre-paying Kathryns parents for what will undoubtedly be five days of kid-wrangling while Eleanor and I are busy with Alumafandango.  The girls are easy to have around and entirely self-entertaining, so while they are doing their thing we’re taking the opportunity to catch up on laundry and email and such things. This afternoon we will relocate to Wheat Ridge (the town next to Lakeside, about 90 miles away) to prep for Alumafandango over the weekend.

Joe Skeen BLM campground, El Malpais

You’d think that after weeks of delays we would be ready to go, but it’s never easy.  Eleanor had too many things on her “to do” list the past few days (including finishing the curtains) and despite heroic efforts we ended up with a late start of 11:30 a.m.  This was a big problem because I had planned a 380 mile drive and now we’d be arriving at night, which is never ideal.

I considered going an alternate route (the Interstate), but that would have completely trashed our planned scenic drive and the choice of campsites along the mid-New Mexico section of I-25 is pretty poor.  So we got in the car and headed toward I-10 (the mandatory part of any eastbound trip from Tucson) and I figured I’d think about it for a while.

Except that we started having other problems right away, which were distracting.  First I got a warning from the car: “TRAILER TAIL LIGHTS OUT”.  I’ve seen that one before, and it has never been a tail light outage. It’s always the result of corrosion on the 7-way trailer plug.  After sitting in Vermont in the high humidity, the copper connectors get very tarnished.  We’ve had quite a few good thunderstorms this summer in Tucson too, which haven’t helped.  I unplugged the connection, gave it a perfunctory cleaning, and plugged it back in.  Problem solved.

But it wasn’t.  The Prodigy brake controller began acting funky.  It is very sensitive to mis-wiring or poor connections, usually flashing “n.c.” when the connection is loose.  This time it reported “c.” which means “Connected—all is well” but when I pressed the brake pedal it refused to activate the trailer brakes.  Nothing happened.  Normally it would report the number of volts being sent to the brake, but the thing just kept saying “c.” at me like it as being willfully stubborn about not wanting to work.  Then it would flash a brief moment of voltage, and go back to doing nothing.

It also began reporting that it was off-kilter intermittently (which shows up in the display as “–“).  The accelerometers in the Prodigy require that it be mounted within a certain range of angles.  It has been mounted in the same position for three years, so I knew it was correct, but today it decided that maybe it wasn’t.  All of these odd behaviors baffled me, and I began to think that our trip was going to be delayed while we went 20 miles out of our way to go buy a new Prodigy.

Then the car reported “LEFT TRAILER TURN SIGNAL OUT,” and I decided the whole thing was the result of crappy corroded connections.  So we stopped and I broke out some emery cloth and very meticulously scraped all the connectors on the 7-way plug until they were at least a little shiny.  Ten minutes later, we were on the road and all the weird symptoms stopped.  I need to do a more thorough job later with something better than emery cloth, and perhaps a little liquid electrical contact cleaner.  Otherwise I’m sure the problem will re-occur after another few rains.

With all going well at last, I decided to stick with the scenic route plan.  The real trick with scenic routes is to remember to fill up the tank before you get into the remote country.  We made a stop in Safford AZ (about 170 miles into our drive) to get 14 gallons of diesel and a few hours later in the boondocks of New Mexico I was very glad I did.

One highlight of the trip was Mule Creek a.k.a AZ-NM Rt 78.  The road winds a bit and there is a 40-foot restriction on trucks and the speed limit drops to 30 for much of it, but it was beautiful and worthwhile.  Then we picked up Rt 180 northward (a little bumpy and uneven in spots but generally OK), and then Rt 12 to Rt 32 to Rt 36, which are good roads.  All the while we were climbing, eventually peaking out at 8,200 feet, and as the sun dipped lower and summer thunderstorms drifted along the horizon we enjoyed fantastic skies and rainbows all the way.

I was racing against time but you can’t really go terribly fast along this route.  60 MPH was about the max, and most of the time it was 50 or 55.   When we got to our final leg on Rt 117, the sunset was upon us and the light began to get dim.  Still, we were treated to some really great scenery along the edge of El Malpais National Monument and the Acoma Reservation.  Rt 117 demarcates the border between these two properties. Along the southeast are impressive bluffs of sandstone, and to the northwest are plains studded by volcanic mountains.

Our stop for the night is a little BLM campground along Rt 117, called Joe Skeen.  It is free and provides no services at all except for pit toilets.  It’s barely marked at the roadside, and the entry road is rough.  I figured that being mid week it would be empty, but we were surprised to find most of the spots taken by tent campers.  Only two sites were left, both of which were drastically unlevel.  It was almost completely dark at this point, and I couldn’t see Eleanor at all when she tried to help me back up, so we finally left the Airstream cocked in a campsite with all of our leveling blocks under the curbside wheels, and called it “good enough”.  It was a messy parking job but there seemed to be no other place we could go in the campground that would be any better.  Even with a small mountain of leveling blocks under the wheels, inside the trailer we still had a little curbside tilt.

Eleanor’s pre-cooked meals are already coming in handy.  She brought out a smorgasbord of leftovers and new goodies (cold chicken, Indian rice, grilled zucchini & mushrooms, etc.) so we were able to eat quickly and keep the dishes to a minimum.   Good thing, since with the time zone change it was now nearly 9 p.m.   I went to bed early, with confidence that we would have a very quiet night in this remote and rustic campground.  The long day of towing for this trip is over, and from here on in our travel should be much more relaxed.

T-minus …. and counting

It’s Tuesday morning and we’re in the final stages before departure.  These days, leaving the house resembles a NASA countdown.  The longer we settle in to the house, the harder it gets to organize everything and launch the ship.  Right now one of the Mission Control officers is running down her final checklists, while I’m about to go clear the launch pad.  Our backseat astronaut is still in Rest Mode.  I’m hoping that departure will be on schedule at about 10 a.m.

Eleanor did a bunch of curtain work in the last few days, which I’ll document later as part of the Airstream renovation.  As planned, she washed the existing curtains, then sewed new fabric over them with extra width so that they’d close more easily. They look much better and give better privacy at night.  She also added some new elastic tabs to some, where the factory had scrimped a little too much.

I probably never mentioned this before, but our Mercedes GL320 gets about 1,500 miles per gallon.  Unfortunately, that’s not the diesel fuel economy, it’s the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) I’m speaking of.  The car was serviced and the DEF tank was topped off right before we left for Alumapalooza in May.  That was about 8,400 miles ago, so the car is due for another service in 1,600 miles.  We’ll actually get back with about 2,200 miles on the car this time, so I’ll run a bit over.

To avoid the risk of running low on the DEF, I added 4.5 gallons yesterday.  The dealer will fill the DEF tank when the car goes in for the 10,000 mile service, but they charge $9 per half-gallon for DEF (which they call AdBlue) plus a service fee, which means it costs about $200 to have them fill the tank.  I buy the DEF myself for a total of about $45 for the entire tank, and pour it in myself.  When I go in for service, I make a point of telling them I already took care it.

Our biggest problem today seems to be that we have far too much refrigerated and frozen food.  Eleanor pre-cooked a lot of stuff so we’d have quick and convenient meals while we are towing and during Alumafandango.  But now she is going to have to get creative in order to get everything packed.  We may resort to temporary refrigeration using a portable cooler and some ice packs, until we’ve managed to eat down our supplies.  So I expect to be well fed for the next couple of weeks.

I plan to blog at least every other day as we are on this trip, including daily blogs from Alumafandango.  But if you are want another perspective, you might want to check out a few other bloggers who are currently on their way to Alumafandango (or will be soon).  These include:

Kyle Bolstad:  WhereIsKyleNow

Dan & Marlene: Mali Mish

Kyle & Mary: Channel Surfing With Gas

Kevin & Laura: Riveted

Deke & Tiffany:  Weaselmouth

Anna:  Glamper



Complications and revisions

I think this may be a record for us: three postponements of the same trip.  First we were going to leave Tucson on August 2, and enjoy a glorious couple of weeks exploring Utah and Colorado before Alumafandango began on August 21.  Then, when it became obvious work wasn’t going to allow me to go that early, we postponed to August 8, which quickly became August 9.  And then we realized we were far too deep into too many projects, and the trip slipped again to August 14.

As you might guess, this has meant re-writing the trip plan several times.  Now, instead of going up to Utah and visiting Navajo National Monument, Canyonlands, and Dinosaur National Monument, we are going up through New Mexico on a quicker route.  But here’s the ironic bit:  the trip has actually gotten better in some ways.

Maybe I’m just looking at the glass as 30% full, but I see a very relaxing (although short) trip through some interesting parts of New Mexico that we haven’t seen before. Instead of a lot of boring Interstate, we’ll get a chance to roam up AZ Rt 191 (part of it, not the “Devil’s Highway” portion), AZ-NM Rt 78, and NM Rt 180.  All of these are great scenic roads.

When we go out on a new trip, I like spending the first night somewhere boondocky, with no hookups and few people.  It’s usually the easiest night to be self-reliant, since our batteries are fully charged and we have lots of water and fuel.  Plus, I just hate paying campgrounds the first night of a trip.  The fee for a campground is always more palatable when you need their amenities to replenish your systems.  So, if we make it that far, our first night will be at a remote free boondock site near El Malpais National Monument in northern New Mexico (point “B” on the map).

We’ve been to El Malpais before, so we’ll move on directly the next day to Bandelier National Monument (point “C” on the map).  I planned the trip so that our drive on day 2 will be a half day, giving us time to do a little exploring at Bandelier when we arrive. If there’s a lot to do, we can spend two nights there.

From there we have to cover another 350 miles or so to get into Denver by Friday night.  And that’s when the work begins.  Brett & Lisa will be there already and we will meet them to do some prep for Alumafandango, and check the campground to ensure everything is ready to go.

Alumafandango will keep us occupied until Sunday August 26.  Probably that night, or the next morning, we’ll hit the road again and work our way over to Utah to start checking out more national park sites.  Utah is the motherlode of great western national parks, so we’ve got a lot of choices.

Our plan at this point is somewhat open but we have a few pretty good ideas of what we would like to see and do.  I’ve got all my projects under control (they’re never really “done” but at least they are managed), and we’ve cleared our schedules so that we don’t have to get back to Tucson until September 4. So even though the early August trip didn’t work out, the late August one looks like it will.  And that’s good enough.