Classification: kittens for sale

A friend called Eleanor the other day and noted that the blog was quiet.  When that happens, she said, either Rich is working on projects he can’t talk about (yet) or there’s not much happening.  Turns out that it’s a little bit of both lately.

Home life has been quiet … so quiet in fact that our major form of entertainment has been the foster kittens. They have kept us entertained day and night, even at times when we’d prefer they were sleeping.  They arrived here underweight and left today, three weeks later, each nearly a pound heavier and in peak form to be adopted.

It’s a shame to let them go back to the Humane Society when they are so darned adorable, but they need homes.  We’ve done what we can to bring out their natural irresistible cuteness, and make them completely comfortable with people and typical household life.  As I told them at today’s graduation ceremony, “Boys, the rest is up to you.”  They seemed prepared for the task.  We’ll get a new kitten or two shortly, and begin the process anew.

Meanwhile I have fulfilled my pledge to do something about the spare tire issue.  This turned out to be fairly easy.  I ordered a fifth tire from Discount Tire to match the four new Bridgestones that are on the car, and they mounted it up last week.  The only catch was that the tires for the Mercedes are a lot bigger than the ones for the Airstream, so it wouldn’t fit in the spare carrier on the Airstream without some modification.  The Merc tire is about two inches wider and 2-3 inches larger in diameter.

So the first step was to do some careful measuring to confirm that the larger tire would fit in the Airstream’s belly recess.  It seemed like there was plenty of room in there, almost as if Airstream had foreseen this situation.

The spare carrier comes off easily, with just two bolts toward the rear holding it in place.  A 3/4″ socket and a short extension on a ratchet wrench are all you need.  Well, that plus a little elbow grease.  Once it was off, I loaded it up along with both the Airstream and Mercedes wheels, and took the whole pile to my favorite welding shop.

The modification was fairly simple.  The two bolt attachments needed to be extended by about two inches so that the entire carrier would hang lower.  This would allow the bigger spare to fit and yet still be pressed tightly up against the belly of the Airstream so it wouldn’t move.

I also asked the welding shop to figure a way that I could go back to carrying the smaller Airstream spare if I wanted to.  You can see their solution above.  They simply bolted on a pair of height extensions, welded on new outboard “arms” to accommodate the larger diameter, and fabricated a new latch with two holes.

If I wanted to go back to the Airstream spare, it would be just a matter of unbolting the two extensions, and using the lower hole on the latch for the locking pin.  The tension of the tire pressed up against the belly of the trailer will keep the tire from shifting much.

The new spare was a tighter fit than I had expected. While there was plenty of room in the recess, I had failed to consider the process of getting the tire under the Airstream.  The struts of the Hensley partially block the path, and there’s not quite enough clearance to slide the tire atop the carrier and beneath the battery box.  To get it in, I have to wind the Hensley strut jacks up into towing position (not a problem since that’s where they’d be anyway), and I have to use the trailer’s power hitch to lift the nose about 2-3 inches.  It’s also a much heavier wheel to deal with, so pulling this thing out on a rainy day by the side of a muddy highway will not be much fun.

Once it’s in place, there’s plenty of ground clearance.  The tire still hangs above the height of the hitch weight transfer bars.

This amounts to a very expensive spare tire.  I bought the Mercedes 20″ rim from a guy in California for $300 (new ones cost about $900!), the tire was about $250, and the fabrication work ended up at $125, for a grand total of $675.  But it will get used, because we need to do a five-wheel tire rotation every 10,000 miles (to keep all five tires evenly worn), so I’ll get my value out of the tire at least.

And it’s nice to know we have it.  Now if we have a tire failure on the tow vehicle, we can still drive. If we have a tire failure on the Airstream, we can tow on three wheels or unhitch to go get a replacement Airstream tire.  We have better options.  If we ever decide to go to Alaska or Newfoundland, we can still throw the (smaller) Airstream spare into the back of the car for added insurance.

OK, enough about that.  I hope to not need to write about tires again for quite a long time.  I want to talk about another project, the new Airstream Life Classifieds section.

Places to list your Airstream for sale are everywhere on the Internet.  I used to maintain a list of them that ran to about thirty different sites, all free.  But once in a while I get a call from someone who has a special, rare, or high-value trailer, and they want to see that ad in print, in Airstream Life.  We’ve never been able to accommodate this, but I’ve finally set up a site where you can post your ad online and have it appear in the next issue of the magazine.

So it’s in a trial mode right now.  (I’m sorry, that’s not cool enough for the Internet.  I’d better say it’s “in beta” instead.)  You can try it out right now at  Online-only ads are free, and print ads cost $75.  But here’s the sweetener: since this is the first run, you can actually get a print ad for free.  When you fill out the ad form, at the bottom of the page will be an option box that says “Ad Package”. Choose the “Print ad in Airstream Life magazine” option and just below that, enter the coupon code FREE_ASL_AD and your ad will appear in the Winter 2012 issue for free!


Now, I do have to put in a few limitations.  Only one free ad per customer, and all ads must be submitted no later than October 5 to receive this deal.  If I don’t get enough ads to launch the section, this offer will be void (but your ad will still run online for free).

I’m interested in your feedback.  If you’ve tried it out and have some comments that might help improve it, let me know with a comment on this blog post.  If it works and people find it valuable, I’ll make it a formal part of the magazine going forward.  It’s up to the community.  Personally, I think that even in an era of Internet everywhere, there’s a certain credibility that you can only get from print, so I’m hoping that we get some interesting Airstreams in this section.

Shore excursions

It’s fun to be in “project mode” as long as there aren’t too many projects.  Last week I got much of the Winter 2012 magazine in viable condition, enough to at least ship big chunks of it off to my Art Director.  I thought it was going to be harder than it was, but surprised myself by having completed a lot of the initial work back in July and early August before we hit the road for Colorado.  So things went smoothly. After eight years of being Editor I might actually be getting competent at it.

Having wrestled that job into partial submission, it was time to look at the next round of events.  I’m really focused on Alumafiesta, which will be next February, here in Tucson.  That event is looking like serious fun.  We are doing almost everything differently at this one: full hookup RV resort with all the luxe amenities, numerous off-site excursions and tours, and lots of planned meals (some included, some optional).  It will be sort of like being on a cruise ship, except you don’t have to tip anybody.

My job this week has been to research all the events and attractions we want to visit, and make group reservations, plus get all our leaders lined up.  So far we are confirmed for two bike rides, one hike and one historical walk, two photo safaris, three visits to Gem Show venues, two breakfasts, one dinner, one concert by Antsy McClain, four exercise sessions, four evening presentations, a swap meet, a guided scenic drive through Saguaro National Park, the Aluminum Chef competition, and three guided tours (Franklin Auto Museum, Tucson Museum of Art, San Xavier Mission).  All of that is included in the base price. Of course our usual Happy Hours with lots of door prizes will happen daily too.

We’ve also got optional “shore excursions” (at extra cost) to the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tohono Chul Park, Sonoran Desert Museum, Tin Town, three optional lunches around town, and a chance to blow your own glass at the Sonoran Glass School.  My job is to get it all nailed down in the next couple of weeks so participants can make their reservations for those activities that can take only a limited number of people.  It’s not easy, but it’s a heck of lot more fun than fighting with electrical infrastructure …

One of my tasks this week is to go over to Lazydays (the venue for Alumafiesta) and verify a few things, like the temperature of the heated pools.  (We’re planning an Aqua Fitness program on one of the days.)  I’ve got to check out the doggie area, verify that we can get a trailer indoors if we need to (for demos), talk to the front desk staff, etc.  I can handle this sort of assignment.

Things went so well the past two weeks that I even found a little time to work on a book project.  That’s a long term one for sure, but it’s a great feeling to put even a few hours into a book, and see it advance by increments toward completion.  Plus, it’s good to have some variety at work, to keep from getting stale.

At home, we’re still raising orphan kittens for the Humane Society, and that is going well despite numerous feline output-related messes and some initial worry about whether they were gaining weight appropriately.  The beasties have gained a few ounces and have warmed to our attention, to the point that they will cuddle in the evening rather than hissing at us.  Our house is slowly being kitten-proofed, which is a lot like the change we went through when Emma was a toddler.  Except that kittens can get under the couch.

Another project: I have come to face the fact that I really miss my old Mercedes 300D and would like to someday get a similar car.  Financially I’ll have to sacrifice something in order to be able to fund another project car, but it seems worth it if I can find the right starting point, meaning a vehicle of proper vintage, condition, and style.  You will undoubtedly read more from me on this later.  For now, know that The Hunt is back on.  I’m simultaneously chasing W123, W124, and W201 chassis diesels all over the USA. Of course, it would be best to find something right here in southern Arizona or southern California, where old cars are plentiful and rust is unknown, so that’s the focus area.

We are still contemplating the Airstream Safari makeover.  To spread out the cost, we are considering just re-upholstering the dinette for now (easily removed and replaced) and replacing the floor covering later, or replacing only the bedroom carpet.  My elaborate plans to add fancy new electronics, countertops, etc. are likely to be scratched until next year.  Upholstery and flooring are terrifyingly expensive, either in terms of cash or labor hours.  Slow and steady may be a better approach for us than a full-blown gut & refurb project.

Travel-wise, this is our season to recoup and plan ahead.  The GL320 now has been serviced and is sporting a fresh set of Bridgestone tires, for which I have high hopes.  The spare is on order.  The Airstream could use a few tweaks here and there but is basically ready to go.  The fuel bill from the last trip (2,400 miles) has been paid.  We could zip out right now, but better to stay put for a while and enjoy home life, take care of business, take a few local “shore excursions”, practice with the Dutch Oven, raise cats, and perhaps even gain some perspective on our travels.  There will be new travel coming soon enough.

Switching to project mode

We are back at home base.  And this time, it’s going to stick, because there’s much to do over the next few months.

The first job is resolving our tire situation.  We got back on the road after two days of waiting, and while it was pleasant in Camp Verde and swim in the RV parks’ pool, this isn’t a situation I want to find myself in again.  We might have been on a schedule to get somewhere, or in some lonely place where tires aren’t easily located.  We need a better solution.

The Discount Tire store in Prescott AZ worked with the Discount Tire store in Tucson to work out our immediate problem.  The Prescott store gave us four new Nitto tires (not run-flats) to get us home, and that worked out fine.  I’m not wild about them, as the handling is poor and they are noisy, but it was what they had in stock.  The Tucson store will take them off tomorrow and exchange them for four new Bridgestone run-flats that I ordered a few days ago.

The really nice part is that they’ll give me 100% credit for the returned Nitto tires, even though I’ve used them for 200 miles.  Kudos to Discount for going out of their way to take care of a customer.  This is the kind of service that has caused me to buy tires from them exclusively for the past few years.

Since we got the Merc we’ve always had two plugging kits and a tire inflator in the car at all times to handle typical punctures.  That’s not good enough for our needs.  This episode demonstrates that other things can happen to a tire that you can’t fix by the roadside.  We’re hard on our tires, towing many miles in southwestern heat with a heavy trailer, and so I’ve concluded that we need to get back to a full-size spare when we are towing.

The solution I outlined in the previous blog is still the plan. We’ll remove the Airstream’s spare and put a Mercedes spare in the carrier instead.  The Michelin tires we put on the Airstream have proved their durability, and the Airstream can be towed on three wheels in a pinch, so I feel pretty confident about going without a spare on the trailer.  The car, on the other hand, would be “interesting” to drive with only three wheels.

The challenge is that the car tires are much larger than the Airstream tires.  The Airstream tires (with Michelin 235/75 R15) are 28.9″ diameter and 9.3″ wide.  The Mercedes tires are about 33″ diameter and 11″ wide, so the spare carrier will have to be modified to allow one to fit.  That means I’ve got to find a welder who can either come to the house to work on the Airstream, or has a large lot where I can park the Airstream.  I’ll post pics once that job is done.

We’ll also have to do a five-tire rotation pattern from here on, because it’s important to keep all the tires worn evenly (this is an AWD car).  It’s a small price to pay for the convenience of a full-size spare.  When the car is being driven without the Airstream (and hence no spare tire nearby), it will still have the backup capability provided by the run-flat tires, just like millions of other cars.

We finally pulled into Tucson late Wednesday night.  We’re still in that phase where we are living off the remainders of our Airstream supplies, until Eleanor gets a chance to replenish the house food.  But we have landed lightly, without too much fuss or inconvenience, and are settling into our home-based life for the next few months.  I did a calculation and found that so far this year we have towed the Airstream Safari 7,582 miles, which is about average.  The image above shows our approximate route in 2012 (but not every stop).

Since we are going to be at home base for at least a couple of months, this is a good time to take on projects.   We still need to get on the Airstream interior renovation, although budget is a challenge.  I plan to kick that project into gear fairly soon.  I’m also working on Alumafiesta in Tucson.  We’ve confirmed that Stevyn Guinnip will be joining us at Alumafiesta to lead morning exercise sessions, and Bert Gildart is likely to lead some photo safaris in the great southwestern outdoors.  I’m working on lots of other good things for that event, which will be announced as they get solidified.

E&E have taken on a new project too.  To abate Emma’s lust for a pet, they have taken training at the nearby Humane Society and are now official foster parents to a pair of kitten brothers, one orange tabby and one solid black.  For the next three or four weeks, their job is to convert these malnourished, underweight, frightened and slightly feral kittens into adoptable, people-loving cuties.  The kittens are living in Emma’s bathtub with all sorts of comforting things to assuage their mental anguish, and several times a day they are held and fed.  Although already this project has meant lots of cleanup and midnight attention, Emma and Eleanor are having a great time of it and I’m sure that when the time comes it will be hard to say goodbye to these little beasts.

Our next planned Airstream travel is not until after Christmas, although you never really know for sure.  A trip opportunity may present itself in the near future, and the spare Airstream (the ’68 Caravel) could yet be outfitted for some adventure in southern Arizona this fall…

Tired again

Yesterday, (Sunday of Labor Day weekend) we were 550 miles from home and needed to get a jump on our southward trek in order to make appointments set for Tuesday in Tucson.  But before we headed out this morning we took another crack at the Slickrock Foot trail because we’d been shut out the day before by thunderstorms.

We managed to cover the entire 2.4 mile trail in about 90 minutes, and it was well worth the effort.  We got some of the best views yet of the Needles rock formations that give this district of Canyonlands its name, and several dramatic overlooks into canyons near the Green River. Still, when we got back to the campsite we discovered we were late to depart, since checkout time for Squaw Flat is quite early at 10 a.m. Usually checkout is at noon.  Hustling everything together, we managed to clear out and be on the road about 15 minutes after getting back to the site.

On the way in or out of the Needles you will pass the Newspaper Rock State Historic Site.  There are actually several “newspaper rocks” in the southwest, including one at Canyon de Chelly that we’ve visited before.  They are simply large flat areas of sandstone covered with centuries of desert varnish and riddled with dozens of petroglyphs.  We’ve seen a lot of petroglyphs but these were still remarkable for their clarity and descriptiveness.  In some cases it’s anyone’s guess what a petroglyph means, while others are perfectly understandable as drawings of commonplace animals, events, and humans.  Take a closer look at the photo and decide for yourself what centuries of rock artists were trying to convey.

Other than that, our drive for the rest of the day was uneventful, the way you want things to be when you are hauling a trailer long distances.  We made a quick stop in Blanding to dump the tanks and refill the fresh water, and encountered some thunderstorms as we drove through the vast Navajo Nation in northwestern Arizona.  It was still raining when we pulled into the Bonito (Coconino National Forest) campground next to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument just north of Flagstaff AZ that evening.

This was to be our last night on the road, so we had let some supplies dwindle away, including milk and most fresh vegetables. Eleanor made a salad of what was left, and spaghetti with meatballs, and we settled in for the evening while the temperatures outside dropped into the low 50s.  I was thinking how novel it would be to need blankets on the bed at night for this one night, before returning to the desert heat on Monday.  And it was indeed a pleasantly chilly night.

But our plan to make Tucson on Monday was foiled.  We left early and were descending down the 6% grade about 50 miles south of Flagstaff when suddenly we began to hear a “thwap-thwap-thwap” noise.  That’s never a good sound.  Neither the trailer’s nor the Mercedes tire monitor reported any loss of air pressure, so I was fairly sure it wasn’t a blowout. Still, it had to be investigated immediately.  Traffic was heavy, but I managed to get the Airstream off to the breakdown lane within a half mile and from there Eleanor and I searched for causes.

We didn’t find anything. The Airstream was secure, the car looked perfect, and yet … upon driving away, the sound returned.  I took the next exit and found a dirt lot where we could search further.  Eventually we found the cause: a 1″ wide strip on the inner edge of the right rear tire of the Mercedes had neatly peeled off. In other words, we had a tread separation.

This is a sadly familiar situation.  We had numerous tread separations when we were running various brands of ST (Special Trailer) tires on the Airstream, but that problem was resolved when we switched to Michelin LTX Light Truck tires.  (They still look like new, by the way, with hardly any visible wear after 21,000 miles!)  But I hadn’t expected to suffer this type of failure on the Mercedes.

We’re running the factory-specified tires on the Merc, which are Goodyear Eagle 275/50 R20 RunOnFlats.  Our first set was replaced at 34,000 miles, which I was told is “pretty good wear” thanks to the highway miles we tend to cover.  The current set has 32,000 miles and I had already made some inquiries about replacements since I figured they had only about 2,000 miles left in them.  All of the tires have tread above the wear bar indicators, have been rotated regularly and kept at proper inflation, and are evenly worn, but the one that failed definitely has a little less tread than the others.  That doesn’t excuse the failure—it simply should not happen with usable tread still on the tires, even with the added load of towing. I’ll be looking for a different brand this time.

So let’s look at our situation:  (1)  Tread separation while towing and we have no spare tire (this car comes with Run Flats and no spare carrier).  (2) It’s Labor Day, so there are no open tire stores.  (3) We’re in a part of northern Arizona where there are few services and no alternate roads to the busy 75-MPH Interstate.  (4) Our car takes an odd size tire so a call to Roadside Assistance probably wouldn’t be helpful.  The tire will have to be ordered.  In short, we found ourselves in the “nightmare scenario” that made me hesitate when I first bought this car.

Although the tire was holding air, there was no way it was going to be safe for another 200 miles at Interstate speeds and in desert heat.  Our conclusion was to find a place to park for a night or two, and wait until a set of proper tires could be ordered in.  So we pulled up the Allstays app on the iPhone and found a nice RV park in nearby Camp Verde AZ, and gingerly towed the Airstream at reduced speeds another 16 miles down the Interstate to our safe haven.

My plan is to call the tire stores first thing tomorrow and order in what we need, with the hope of getting back on the road by Wednesday afternoon.  Prescott AZ is nearby, with plenty of choices, so I’ll be over there tomorrow once someone tells me they can get us five appropriate tires.  I say “five” because I have a spare Mercedes rim back at home, and one tire will be mounted on it.  The spare will go in the Airstream’s tire carrier, replacing the Airstream spare.  Since we switched to Michelin LTX tires on the Airstream two years ago (in other words, real tires instead of that ST-class junk the industry favors), we haven’t had a single puncture or failure, so I don’t mind not carrying a spare for the Airstream.  Besides, the Airstream can be towed on three wheels, and the car can’t.

And so our trip has been involuntarily extended.  Things could be worse.  We’ve got a friend to visit in Prescott.  I’m working on the Winter magazine from here, using the campground wi-fi, and we had a nice swim in the pool, and Eleanor is getting the laundry done.  When we finally do get home, we’ll be caught up on a few things, rather than coming home to a pile of work.  Other than having to reschedule appointments at home, this may turn out to be not a bad diversion.

Rain in the Canyonlands

Camping at the Canyonlands Squaw Flat campground has been idyllic.  The air smells of Juniper and desert sage, and from our shady site amongst the red sandstone formations I can see little lizards scuttling around each morning, hunting silently for tiny insects. The campground has been dead quiet, and the weather has been just about perfect.

The ranger we met at the visitor center said that later in the day there would be a chance of thunderstorms, possibly featuring hail, but as late as 11 a.m. there was hardly a cloud in the sky.  Still, we planned a light day of hiking the shortest trails in the park, so we could take it easy and get back to shelter if a storm popped up.

The women’s bathroom at the visitor center had a unique color chart on the wall, entitled “How dehydrated are you?”  Eleanor and Emma were a little mystified by it at first, since it only featured shades of yellow.  Then they got it.  The men’s room has no such chart.

These days Emma has finally graduated from a tattered purple backpack that suited her when she was five, to a adult-sized pack that has such niceties as a hip belt, lots of adjustment points, pockets, and a place for a water bladder.  Zoe the stuffed cat, however, still comes along on every hike with her head poking out of a zippered compartment.  We are happy to maintain that tradition for as long as Emma likes.

Like a lot of the big western parks, Canyonlands Needles district is mostly backcountry, but you needn’t go far to see lots of interesting things.  Just a short walk from the roadside are “Roadside Ruin” featuring a granary from about 1200 A.D., and Cave Spring, which features a century-old cowboy camp and ancient pictographs.

The fatigue I’ve felt recently was still with me as we did these simple hikes, and the heat approaching upper 90s didn’t help.  I finally gave in to the temptation that had been dogging me all week, and took a siesta after lunch, during the peak of the afternoon heat.  Then we attempted a longer hike, Slickrock Foot, which features four viewpoints along a 2.4 loop trail.  But as we began the hike a thunderstorm began to form to the southwest and menace us with flashes of lightning in the distance.  If it came our way, I didn’t relish the idea of being caught out on slickrock, entirely exposed and a mile or more from the car.  After going less than 1/4 mile, we decided to abandon this hike for another time.

That storm ultimately missed us, but it was a good idea to get back to the Airstream to secure the vent fans and awning in case another storm developed.  To stay close to home, we took the Squaw Flat hike that left right from the “B” side of the campground (about 500 feet from our campsite).

This hike crosses plenty of the famous Utah slickrock and also takes you through a variety of other terrain:  narrow crevices, under rock overhangs, through shallow washes lined with trees, and culminating with a steel rope handrail up a steep massif of red sandstone.  It packs a lot into a mere two miles.  I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to keep an eye on the quickly-moving rainstorms that were passing by.

That evening during dinner one of the storms finally targeted us.  It was one of those moments when you are reminded of why you have an Airstream.  Our neighbors, nice folks with a couple of small boys, were forced to quickly clear their picnic table and huddle in their tent as the heaviest rain began.  We just kept on eating dinner, watching the tumultuous rain out the window and listening to the rolling thunder echo through the canyons.

As the rain cleared I could hear a newly-formed stream rushing by the back of our campsite.  A miniature flash flood had occurred in one of the little washes, and a couple of small waterfalls were pouring off the slickrock.  This brought out all the children, who reveled and splashed in the water for a few minutes until the waterfalls dwindled to drips and the stream reverted to a sandy wash.

In a place where only eight or nine inches of water fall annually, this little storm was a significant event. The soil was penetrated to only about 1/2” and the water vanished like a puff of smoke, but it was a life-giving event for every plant and animal in the area.  For us larger mammals, it brought lovely cool evening temperatures for our last night in Canyonlands.