Where’s there’s smoke … we aren’t

I do hate to go off on rants in the blog, but hey, if you don’t rant once in a while it’s not really a blog is it? I usually confine my moments of exuberance or frustration to relatively benign things like yogurt and recycling, but today’s events gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about something just slightly more controversial: camp fires.

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that we were being bugged by the smoke from fires in the state park campground. Each of the two evenings we were there—as I was shutting the windows and turning on the air conditioner to escape smoke blowing in—I was thinking that it would be great to get back to the open desert where our nearest neighbor would be hundreds of feet away and we could leave the windows open all night to let in the fresh air of the desert.

Back at Clark Dry Lake, I set up the trailer almost gleefully on a flat spot near Brian and Leigh’s Airstream, and we had a very nice afternoon followed by a great little happy hour with B&L, Kyle and Mary, and some Canadians who were parked off in the distance in a fifth wheel. Bert Gildart dropped in for an hour or so, and it was fantastic to see him again. He and I talked about bicycle trips we would like to do next winter, and also the possibility of someday caravanning up to Alaska.


Eleanor made dinner, or perhaps more properly re-made it from the numerous leftovers we had, and we ended up with a great smogasbord. We said goodbye to Bert (he left with a plate of food from Eleanor), and then … the folks about 200 feet to the east lit up a fire.

It was just bad luck that the wind was perfect to carry the fumes from their fire directly to our Airstream, where we were sitting with every window open and the fans running. I don’t blame the people who lit the fire; they were perfectly within their rights to do so, and it wasn’t their fault that the wind was aimed at us. But the smoke was unbearable, and here we had no option to close the windows and run the A/C.

After a few minutes of commiseration with Brian and Leigh (who apparently share our dislike of camp fires), we faced the only real choice we had. It was nearly dark. I had to move the trailer or spend the night sucking up the fumes. Already the inside of the Airstream was smelling like a Russian disco.

So we quickly threw everything into semi-towable mode, hitched back up, and gently towed the Airstream across the bumpy desert dirt roads a few hundred feet south to another open patch, safely out of the smoke path. It was almost embarrassing, skulking away in the dusk, even though we had not met the people with the fire. I didn’t want to explain that we were leaving because of them, but I could not escape the irony of our situation, and it made me think.

I have to admit that in the past few years we have stayed at State Parks less than we used to, specifically because of camp fires. Eleanor had a massive migraine triggered by camp fire smoke years ago, and we don’t want to repeat that again. I am not physically affected by it, but I hate smelling it too. It pervades the interior, leaves a scent on everything, and masks the more delicate smells of the desert that gently waft through the air in the night. Sleeping with smoke in the trailer is nearly impossible for me because I keep thinking of fire and feeling that I’m suffocating.

Many times we have come to a state park only to find neighbors who are obsessed with having fire 24 hours a day. They are always the worst at making fires, too. Day and night they dump green or wet wood in a hopeless pile, resulting in a constant stream of black smoke, no heat, and little flame. Sometimes they add to the fun by burning their garbage (thinking they are being ecologically responsible?), which of course releases many interesting toxins from plastics, foils, and metals into the atmosphere.

There is never any hope of negotiating, since for them the constant “fire” is paramount to their enjoyment, almost of religious significance, as if it was essential to life like it was for prehistoric man in that old movie “Quest For Fire.” Take away the fire, and you’ve ruined the experience for them. What’s the point of going “camping” if you can’t roast things on an open flame and come home reeking of wood smoke?

But as I talk to people along the way, I’m finding that our feelings are far from unique. I have never met a full-timer who made camp fires, and many RV’ers never want them. They are a symbol of camping for the weekend set, and I know particularly for tenters that fires provide useful light at night, a little warmth, and a means to cook. The conflict comes between those rugged traditionalists who love them and people like us who don’t need them and avoid them.

No, let me be honest: we hate them. I know it’s Scrooge-like to admit publicly that we dislike something as cheery as the open camp fire, but would a tenter be shy about admitting that they hate big RVs? (I know I certainly wasn’t when we were avid tenters—and then everything changed when we had a child and found that tenting with an infant wasn’t much fun. Opinions change with circumstances, and everyone’s entitled to an opinion.)

Even now, on those occasions about once a year when I break out the tent for a little “real camping” I never make a fire. I never did, having learned low-impact camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Camp fires are strongly discouraged, even illegal, out there in the wilderness, because they leave long-lasting scars on the landscape, encourage scrounging of deadwood that serves a useful purpose in the local ecosystem, risk forest fires— and yes, create smoke that is annoying or unhealthy for animals and people alike. Even when tenting, we have always used a portable stove that is much safer, more useful, and simpler than a camp fire. I wish more people would.

The terrible part of this is that our avoidance of camp fires inevitably means we must stay in commercial campgrounds more often, since they typically ban camp fires or don’t provide fire rings at the sites. I regret that. We’d rather be in the open as we are tonight, or in a beautiful and natural state park, if we can. I am not one to call for new rules to fit every circumstance so I stop at wishing for outright bans on camp fires, but it would be nice if there was at least an established etiquette about when and how to have them. In the meantime, we’ve got wheels and we’ll continue to use them.

Borrego Springs, CA

Coming over to the state park campground was a sort of mixed blessing.  On one hand, it was nice to be out of the wind somewhat, with unlimited power and water.  On the other hand, after the wide open spaces of the boondocking area I found the campground to feel uncomfortably crowded.  What were all these RVs doing blocking our view?

Last night it was a little warm in the trailer at bedtime and I was grateful for the gift of air conditioning, but then again I wouldn’t have needed it if somebody hadn’t had a smoky fire nearby which forced us to close the windows to the cool night air.  That’s often a problem for us in state parks: people who must have campfires but don’t know how to make one that produces flames instead of smoke.  I swear there’s somebody out there selling green wood to tourists outside every state park.

One of the nice things about coming to the state park campground is that we often run into people we know.  Sure enough, half an hour after arriving we had a visit from (Airstreamers) Frank & Carol, who we have met in this park a few times before.  (They were also at Alumafiesta and like to read this blog, so here’s a shout-out to them.)  There are at least four Airstreams here but we’re not going to go knocking on doors.  Our visit is too short and I just want to chill out as much as I can.  If we had more time I’m sure we’d meet them all.

The reason is that we waited too long to book this stay.  Tomorrow is Good Friday and this is Easter weekend, which is a peak  time for families to go camping in southern CA apparently.  The best we could get was a Wednesday-Thursday stay, so we are going to have to leave tomorrow morning for some place that is either remote or unreserved.  That’s not really a problem given all the good free camping available in the state park.

Our two nights gave us time to get all the housekeeping done and have some fun too.  Eleanor ran some laundry today while I put in another half-day at work (more than I had planned for, but that’s how it goes sometimes), we charged everything up, and last night we had a nice dinner at the Palms Hotel on the patio by the pool.  I got a nap on Wednesday afternoon, which feels like a forbidden pleasure  especially in the Airstream on a sunny day with a dry breeze.

The big outing was this afternoon.  We loaded up the Mercedes with six of us (our friends came along) and hit a few favorite spots: the giant metal sculptures that dot Borrego Springs in the open spaces, a hike up to the Wind Caves, the winding canyon of The Slots, etc.  Nothing new on this voyage for us, but for Kyle-Mary-Kathryn it was all a great new experience and we enjoyed showing it all to them.

Tomorrow the females of our party plan to tackle the Palm Canyon trail, in hopes of perhaps spotting a Bighorn Sheep, early in the morning.  Sadly, Kyle and I will stay back and tap away at our computers, but by noon we will break away and hitch up the Airstreams to move again.

Anza-Borrego boondocking

Apologies for not updating the blog sooner.  It has been a case of classic conundrums:  finally escaping for a bit of time off and so not wanting to get back at the computer right away; and finding a great boondocking spot where cellular Internet service is marginal.  After two nights out in the windy wild desert of Anza-Borrego I’m starting to rejuvenate.

But that’s later in the story.  We left Tucson on Monday morning for the 370-mile trip across the west on I-8.  Normally this is a trip that we’d take two days to complete, just because it’s more fun to stop along the way and camp for a night somewhere, but in this case we wanted to catch up with Kyle & Mary as soon as possible so that they could be reunited with the daughter we’d taken hostage.  I have done the I-8 drive many times but so far I’m not tired of it.  The desert scenery is interesting to me, although to other people it’s just a lot of nothing, and knowing something about the history, politics, and geology that have shaped this region makes me reflective, which makes the drive go quickly.  The neat thing is that there’s still a lot to learn, about the ancient native communities, the volcanic eruptions, Patton’s tanks practicing during WWII, the stories of dusty little towns and abandoned airfields, the real estate plats that never happened, and the endless human drama of the border.

A-B Airstream morningOur goal was reached by about 5:45, safely before sunset, which was ideal because we were planning to find Kyle & Mary and Brian & Leigh at one of Anza-Borrego’s desert boondocking spots, near Clark Dry Lake.  Being telecommuters, they all have a nose for spots that offer usable cell phone signal, and Brian & Leigh in particular are adept at finding those spots that offer the ideal balance of remoteness & technology.  In this case they’d plotted exactly which empty patches of desert near the dry lake would have signal, and as we arrived they stood by the road to wave us in (there’s no sign to find this spot) and help us park in one of the few locations where we could get online and be near them.

So here we are, three Airstreams parked on the valley floor between Coyote Peak and the Santa Rosa Mountains with the dry lake less than a mile down the shallow slope.  A few other RVs of various make are scattered around too; this isn’t an unknown spot.  Nearby is Pegleg, a popular boondocking spot a little closer to the town, and all along the 22 miles of the Borrego Salton Seaway road there are others scattered in the canyons and flats as well.

There’s no place where it feels even slightly crowded.  This is a desert park of vast dimensions, so we are enjoying a panoramic view where most other RVs (other than our friends) are mere dots on the horizon.  It’s going to be hard to move to traditional campground after this.

Clark Dry Lake campsiteAfter the long drive we were inclined just to settle in rather than rushing out to go exploring.  Our packing was somewhat rushed, so there were things to finalize inside the trailer, and we needed dinner, and of course we’d been in the car for seven hours so there was no desire to get in it again. I broke out the little Weber propane grill for sausages and Eleanor made some pasta and vegetables, and then as we were finishing dinner everyone came over to visit because we were all excited to be here.

A-B friends in ASNone of us are retired and we all have jobs (whether office-type or parenting/teaching), so Tuesday morning was really all about work.  I had made some effort last week to clear my desk as much as possible, so I worked only about three hours in the morning, but when I was done everyone else was still at work, including the mothers and daughters doing homeschooling.  Eleanor and I finally got a chance to head into Borrego Springs (while the girls were preoccupied between themselves) in the afternoon, to check out what’s changed in the two years since we’ve been here.  Not much, it turned out, which is fine with me.  I like the small town nature of the place, the lack of retail chains and cutesy gift shops, the farm stands and the complete absence of crowds.

While Eleanor hung back to work on dinner and the girls talked books in the 34-footer, the rest of us loaded up in the Mercedes to do a little 4WD road nearby, called Rockhouse Canyon Road.  It passes through Clark Dry Lake and onward through soft sand and gravel, eventually ending up at a place called Hidden Spring several miles up.  This turned out to be a moderately interesting drive, but the road turned a little too technical toward the last mile and upon a vote of the car passengers we turned back.  There aren’t a lot of desert blooms this year, owing to a dry winter, but we found a few.

The lake does occasionally get wet, and when it does there is a tiny species of brine shrimp that flourish in the shallow muddy water.  Bert Gildart photographed these on his blog last winter, using some advanced photographic techniques.  When the lake is wet the road is impassable, but for our trip it was dry, cracked, and very solid.

Since we arrived it has been lightly breezy, but last night the wind picked up and began to howl in the windows we’d cracked open for a little air.  Everyone took in their awnings and I found that the Weber would not stay lit at anything less than full heat, which meant our chicken had to be finished in the oven and dinner was late.  All night the wind raced past the Airstream, which wasn’t discomforting but a little noisy.  This morning it is still howling at a solid 20-30 MPH (my estimate) although the official prognostication is for much less.  The weather service guys clearly aren’t boondocked out here with us in a vast open stretch of desert.

Today we have a reservation at the state park campground, so we’ll be hitching up and moving a few miles.  This gives us two nights of full hookups before we head out again on Friday.  After that our destination is unknown but I think since it will be Good Friday and Easter weekend we will likely be boondocking somewhere for another couple of nights.  We’ll coordinate with our friends and may stick with them, or may head off on our own.

Last-minute cabinet

It’s Sunday night and our prep time has run out …

We’ve had a great week with our courtesy parkers Kyle & Mary & Kathryn.  Now we are entering the second planned phase of our time together.  Kyle & Mary hitched up the 34-footer and left early this morning for Anza-Borrego, and we are due to follow them on Monday.

They left behind a souvenir: daughter Kathryn.  She and Emma are virtually inseparable so we opted to keep Kathryn here for an overnight and let the two girls travel together in our car tomorrow.  Having two of them hasn’t been much harder than having one, probably because they are keeping each other entertained, and so Eleanor and I have had time today to get serious about prepping the Airstream for travel.

My projects aren’t done but the trailer is good enough.  Kyle pitched in this week to help with building the new furniture, which was the last major project. By Wednesday I could see I wasn’t going to have time to complete it, but with Kyle’s help we at least had the first unit of three installed by Saturday.  This first piece includes the laundry bin and shoe cubby.

It took a while because we were working with salvaged pieces of lightweight plywood from the previous cabinet.  This stuff is great, much lighter than ordinary plywood, and already laminated with the correct wood grain pattern that matches the rest of the trailer, so it was too good to just toss out.  The black melamine plywood I had purchased earlier was too prone to chipping at the edges when cut, and even the black melamine edge banding was chipping when trimmed.  It was never going to look good, so I abandoned the melamine plywood and came up with a scheme to use the lightweight Airstream plywood with solid aluminum strips as edge banding.  A two-part epoxy turned out to be the best adhesive.

Aluminum trimmed edges

Each piece had to be inspected, oriented so that prior holes and damage would be hidden, cut to size and length, then glued up with aluminum strips.  Then we sanded the aluminum clean of blotches and sprayed clearcoat on it.  The results were great but it took too long for a project that I had intended to complete before we hit the road.

I kept the fold-out credenza as the centerpiece of the new furniture, and built around it.  The salvaged strips became facia, trim, and legs.  I used the black melamine plywood for interior shelves, since the chipped edges don’t show once everything is trimmed out.

Temporary installWhat you see in the picture is only about 1/3 of the final piece.  To the right (rearward trailer-wise) of the laundry cabinet/credenza we’ll have a microwave cabinet, and further right we’ll have a recycling bin, plus some misc other storage.  I’ll have to finish it later in April when we get back.

The picture shows a temporary top made out of a scrap of MDF and quickly sprayed with polyurethane.  The actual permanent countertop will be continuous all the way down the length of the trailer to the bulkhead you see in the background.  This will be about six feet by 18 inches.  We haven’t decided what we’re going to make it from, but I’ve got a few ideas.

The balance of the weekend has been spent re-packing the Airstream.  It’s 7 p.m. and we’re still not quite done packing but it will be done tonight with a few last-minute things to be done in the morning.  The next two weeks or so will be on the road, so I’ll try to blog at least every other day as we go.

Rumors and evolution

Alumaflamingo 2014For the past few weeks I’ve been working with Brett (and now Alice, the latest member of our team) to work out details for our new event, Alumaflamingo.  It’s the fourth major event in our program, to be held next February.

I talked about this a little before.  We were asked by the Director of the former Florida State Rally (FSR) to come up with something new, because the FSR was finally disbanding after four decades. We stepped into the breach, and now we’re committed.  It’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s a lot of work and we have no assurance at this point that we won’t lose our shirts financially. But if we hadn’t stepped up, there would be no major Airstream-oriented rally to replace FSR in 2014.  So it seems to be worth some extra effort and risk.

When you step in to replace something that’s been going on for decades and has lots of loyal customers, it’s inevitable that the rumor mill will start up, and there’s a tendency that many of the rumors will be unflattering.  We expected a certain amount of this, and it’s OK. We understand that people might feel threatened by change.

For example, people who had gotten comfortable with the super-cheap rally fee of FSR ($220 per couple) may be upset that Alumaflamingo will cost $335.  But if we ran the same event as FSR, we’d be facing the same slide in attendance that it suffered over the past several years. As they say, doing the same thing but expecting a different result is an exercise in futility.

So we are trying to upgrade the event to meet modern expectations, which means adding in more activities, better food, better informational seminars, more vendors, better entertainment, etc.  People who went to FSR primarily because it was cheap will probably be unhappy with any price increase, and choose to go elsewhere.  But on the other hand, people who stayed away because they didn’t think it offered enough fun & education will hopefully give Alumaflamingo a try.  Our past three years of experience at Alumapalooza seems to support this.

In the past few weeks I’ve heard some pretty wild rumors.  One guy was saying he wouldn’t go because we wouldn’t have liability insurance.  When asked why he believed this, he said he’d been told by “people.”  For the record, the Fairgrounds requires us to have a significant liability insurance policy, so that rumor was nonsense.

Another common rumor has been that our event will not be “an Airstream event” or somehow will be polluted because our policy is to allow non-Airstreams to attend. That one really kills me.  We allow non-owners to attend because we figure anyone wants to come to an Airstream-centric event must be considering buying an Airstream. These people are future members of our community, so we think it’s a good idea to let them know they are very welcome.

At Alumapalooza, we usually get about 4-5 “white boxes” attending, out of about 200 trailers. In Sarasota we expect about the same.  So 98% of the rigs on the field are Airstreams, there’s an Airstream dealer selling trailers, Airstream Inc. is present and providing service, we’ve got at least a dozen Airstream-specific seminars, and the event is sponsored by Airstream Life magazine.   Yeah, I’d say that qualifies as an Airstream event.

Another common rumor is that casual visitors to the event will have to pay to get in.  I don’t know why people think that.  I guess I’ll have to update our FAQ pages to specifically address this issue.  Of course friends can visit at no charge. There’s no gate at any of our events.  We only charge admission to people who want to camp, join the activities, eat the meals, or attend the programs & entertainment. Dropping in and taking a look, or visiting with friends, or shopping for an Airstream with the sponsoring dealer is always free.

(By the way, we always have a dealer sponsor showing trailers.  George M Sutton RV will be displaying trailers indoors at Alumafandango, Lazydays RV will be displaying at Alumafiesta, and Bates RV is expected at Alumaflamingo. )

Perhaps the most painful rumor we hear is that the demise of FSR (and decline in attendance for certain other club rallies) means that the WBCCI is doomed.  We don’t believe this.  We think the WBCCI will continue as a viable club even if some major events are organized by third parties. The club represents the history of Airstream, many of the most enthusiastic and supportive owners, and it remains an important means for Airstreamers to meet in person, travel together, and share experiences.

Sure, Alumaflamingo is not an official WBCCI event.  But why does that matter?  The club is more than welcome.  In fact, at Alumaflamingo we are giving the Region 3 officers meeting space so that they can conduct some of their official activities on site. They can even publish their own event schedule for members or officers, if they like.  They get all the benefits of the FSR, without all the work.  Makes sense to me.

This means that we regard WBCCI as a partner and are looking forward to working with our friends in the club for many years to come. By launching Alumaflamingo, we’re hoping to be part of the road forward.  It may not be a comfortable road for us until the dust settles, but it’s exciting to contribute to positive change.