Flamingo done, what next?

Let’s start with the biggest and best news: Alumaflamingo was a big success.  I know a lot of long-time Florida State Rally attendees were wondering if it would be worthwhile, and from the anecdotal reports we received on-site, they drove away with smiles on their faces.  We had over 250 Airstreams parked on the field, and next year I would be surprised if the number wasn’t much higher.

Pulling off an event of this site was a monumental task, and of course a few things didn’t come off as planned, but overall I was pleased with the results.  The SNAFUs were minor: two presenters failed to show up (in one case, an attendee jumped in to take over), we ran out of Airstream t-shirts, we had to cancel the third campfire night because of wind, etc.  These small glitches were outweighed by the successes, in my opinion.  Several presentations and tours got high praise, the meals were a hit, the entertainment and vendors were great, and as I mentioned before, the parking crew managed to park over 200 trailers in a single day.  We kept the attendees busy day and night with things to do, and I think a lot of them were surprised by that.

About 30 Airstreams have been signed up for next year already, and we haven’t officially opened registration yet!  It’s great that the event has been so well accepted, but of course that means we need to start planning for next year … and right now I need a vacation.  We’ve just completed a marathon of sorts: five days of Alumafiesta, a week-long drive 2,000 miles across the south, and then five days of Alumaflamingo.  Time for a break.

Our first post-event stress reliever was to visit Lido Beach in Sarasota before hitching up the Airstream.  The beach is a great reviver, with the sound of waves and the squinch of white sand beneath one’s toes, and the seagulls & pelicans flying around.  In just a couple of hours, most of which I spent lying on a beach blanket, I started to see what we’d managed to accomplish—and it feels good.

Now parked in Tampa, we are spending three days at an RV park to catch up on things, and then we will go offline for a four-day weekend.  The trip back west will begin on Tuesday, March 3.  I don’t have an itinerary for the return trip, but I can say with some confidence that we will go a lot more slowly.  I can’t face another 2,000 mile race along I-10.  People keep asking when we will get home (including people in Tucson who I need to see), and I keep saying “sometime in mid-March.”  At this point that’s a good answer. The return trip is an opportunity, and if we do it right, it might be the best part of our entire voyage.

Alumaflamingo day one

When I left off last we were on the final leg to Sarasota to run Alumaflamingo.  Now we are in Sarasota, and have been running around for two days trying to make everything come off as best it can for this very ambitious event.

On Sunday at about 5:30 p.m. we finally pulled into the fairgrounds where Alumaflamingo will be held.  The fairgrounds are pretty roomy, and I remember seeing 700 Airstreams parked here back in 2004, when we first attended the Florida State Rally.  That rally ran for decades, and last year it took 67 committees to run it.  It was humbling to think that all the responsibility for a new generation of Airstream events in Sarasota was falling entirely on us.

The magnitude of the task was even more obvious in our Sunday night staff meeting.  The entire staff numbers about twenty people.  We assembled them in a room and talked about what it would take to make everything go well, and I was gratified to see them nodding and smiling, ready for the challenge.  Nobody seemed scared that they would have to be doing the work of six people.

On Monday we set up the facilities, which means working with the fairground staff to establish water and electric hookups for everyone, and laying out the parking grid, stuffing goody bags, organizing registration and the greeting station, receiving deliveries, setting up the stage, etc.  The details are monumental, and since we are here for the first time, there’s a learning curve too.

Now it’s Tuesday.  I write this at the end of a very long day, but ultimately a successful one.  Our parking and registration teams managed to get 243 rigs settled in one day, which is absolutely amazing.  It’s a record for the most trailers and motorhomes we’ve parked in a single day —in fact, this is more than double what we’ve ever done before.

Of course there were many problems, and I spent part of the day rolling around in a golf cart to resolve them.  Most were minor issues, easily resolved.  Three were a little challenging,  but everything worked out in the end.  Between bouts of trouble-shooting, I  managed to get the ukulele group together (8 ukes plus Curtis Remington on guitar) and we practiced enough to be comfortable serenading the Happy Hour attendees with three songs:  Tonight You Belong To Me, Little Grass Shack, and I’m a Believer.  Dr C, please note that we got real and enthusiastic applause, and requests for an encore.

The weather has cooperated, too.  While lots of people had to fight their way down here from snowy spots all over the east coast, it’s absolutely beautiful here: clear skies, warm afternoons, light breeze, and we are expecting more of the same most of the week.  Can’t ask for much better than this!  It’s beach weather.  Maybe if I get lucky with timing I’ll actually get a chance to see the beach before this week is over!

So the event is rolling ahead.  Tomorrow will bring its own challenges, but at least 90% of the Airstreams expected are already here.  Everyone on the staff has done an incredible job, and I have to say I don’t feel like I deserve such wonderful people.  I’m glad they are here.  I’m glad we are here.  And I’m glad that after a year of planning and organizing, Alumaflamingo is now real.

Aluma-zooma day seven

We all knew that driving from Tucson to Sarasota in a week would be a long slog, but it’s not until we really got into it that we recognized the full impact. Now we are in Archer, FL, courtesy-parked in a quiet place in the woods, trying to recover from this immense odyssey.

It would have been much easier if we didn’t all have colds, and if the weather wasn’t a challenge, and if the water fill hadn’t started leaking … and, and, and … But there are few long voyages without adversity of some sort. Those that are completely without adversity are probably cruises (and even those feature norovirus and seasickness sometimes).

Our “Aluma-zooma” road trip has required our best rapid-travel skills, because there hasn’t been time to waste. We have been sleeping in noisy parking lots near the Interstate because campgrounds take too much time. Every other day we have dumped tanks and picked up water wherever it was convenient (sometimes a rest area, sometimes a truck stop). Meals have mostly been quick and simple, except for one night when Eleanor cooked for everyone.

Everyone has been doing their best to “keep the shiny side up” despite the tedium of the long drive, and I have to say that I really appreciate the endless patience and good humor of our friends Alex & Charon as they traveled with us.

The last couple of days have been the most challenging for me, at least. My cold really started to hit hard, and we were trying to cover 380 miles on Thursday, and then 360 miles on Friday. In the middle of the night I’d wake up because of the cold and be at my computer for an hour or two trying to catch up on work, which didn’t help things.

I reached my limit on Friday, which was obvious to all when I nearly fell asleep during dinner. I was considering declaring myself medically unable to drive for a day. We would have gotten into Sarasota a day late, which wouldn’t have been a catastrophe really.

And then last night I managed to sleep for almost ten hours, which made everything seem much better. So we mounted up again and drove 300 miles to our current spot, and even with some leisurely breaks during the day we got here around 4:30 pm.

We are parked in the woods at the home of a friend who has a small collection of vintage trailers in various states of repair. It is quiet and peaceful here—a real antidote to seven days of Interstate highway. The two Airstreams in our caravan are resting on the sandy circle driveway next to the house and shop, surrounded by pine trees dripping with Spanish Moss.

I wish I could say it’s smooth sailing from here but we have much to do before and after we drive the final 180-mile leg to Sarasota tomorrow. Eleanor spent this evening cooking some things that would otherwise spoil in the refrigerator, thus giving us dinners for the coming event week when time will be short. More groceries are needed, our laundry has piled up, and the Airstream appears to need another on-the-road repair.

The repair will probably be replacement of the power converter. Our batteries weren’t charging when the trailer was plugged into shore power. (They are charging on solar.) I noticed the problem this evening, thanks to the Tri-Metric battery monitor. It’s a fairly easy problem to diagnose if you carry a voltmeter. Our main power converter failed the voltage check prescribed by Parallax Power, but then it started to work again after we’d “reset” the unit by disconnecting shore power and re-connecting.

The fix is not particularly difficult, but I’m a little frustrated because I already have a replacement power converter in Tucson. I carried it around in the Airstream for a couple of years (just because I bought it during a long trip and forgot to take it out). Then a few weeks ago I put it in the storage shed, and now of course I need it. The same thing happened with the city water fill that failed: I had two of them in the storage shed.

I’m not sure what is worse: having to buy parts on the road that I already have in storage, or rolling around the country with a rolling parts bin of things I may not need. I think I’m going to stop buying parts until I need them, even if they are “great deals”. So far the great deals I have gotten on spare parts haven’t saved me anything.

Well, all of this will have to fall away in the coming days, because we’ve got work to do. On Tuesday and Wednesday we are expecting about 250 Airstreams to show up in Sarasota, and Job #1 is to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible. Aluma-zooma is just about over. Time to switch gears. In the next two days we’ll get ourselves set, so we can spend the rest of the week taking care of our guests.

A day on the road

Driving the Interstate hundreds of miles can be dull, but it gives me plenty of time to think, and I like that. With the weather cleared and mechanical problems gone, it was a fairly peaceful experience (except for Houston) driving I-10. We covered the concrete from Seguin TX to Lafayette LA, 370 miles, so I got to air out a lot of cobwebs in the brain pan.

The plan was to get up early and hit the road around 8 or 9 a.m., but that hasn’t worked out even once on this trip. Each day we have something that needs doing in the morning (like shopping for a new power cord for the GPS today, or waiting for the frost to melt yesterday), and we also seem to kill a fair bit of time bantering with Alex & Charon in their trailer.

That’s because Alex is recording about 10 minutes of ad hoc discussion each morning, when we talk about the day before. His plan is to edit it down into a short podcast series, so you might be able to hear that on the Internet later. We have a lot of fun doing the recording each day.

We finally got on the road at about 10 a.m., which was not great but still early enough to make it to Lafayette before dark. When you’re traveling as we are, covering lots of miles and boondocking occasionally, you also have to allow time for stops to replenish supplies (mostly diesel, propane and water), and dump the tanks. Even with a big pause at a Love’s truck stop, we made fairly good time.

Propane has been a big thing for us on this trip. The cold weather means lots of furnace use, and we have already stopped twice to fill 30# tanks. Electrically we are doing pretty well. The furnace has chewed up a lot of battery power each night but we are getting enough sun on the solar panels to keep us afloat since we left Sonora TX on Wednesday morning. In the summer we wouldn’t even think about it because we never run out of power when the sun is high and no furnace is needed, but this time of year it’s something that I watch closely.

In addition to the re-supply stops, this trip has reminded me of the necessity of on-the-road maintenance. This is a habit from our full-timing days, but just as relevant now. For example, every 500 miles I have to grease the Hensley hitch. Two days before we left, while camped at Lazydays, I had to replace a worn-out grease fitting on the hitch, too. When you are moving fast there’s always something that needs attention: cleaning, lubing, tightening, adjusting, inspecting, or airing.

Things don’t break in the driveway (usually)—they break on the road, as our city water fill did just two days ago. So you have to be ready with a tool kit and some knowledge, or face the prospect of stopping at a repair shop for every little thing. I don’t like on-the-road breakdowns any more than you do, so I do what I can to maintain everything at home, but I’m realistic: stuff happens.

The other big maintenance item is personal mental health. Driving like this isn’t really fun, and without much exercise day after day, the entire body starts to rebel—at least mine does. A walk at the end of the day is helpful if we have time (even if it’s just a stroll inside the Wal-Mart), and taking time to tell jokes to our caravan-mates (Alex & Charon) on the radio is nice, and decompressing at the end of the day over a movie or dinner is very comforting. We are trying to find the little things in each day that make it less boring to be in the car. There are a lot of such things if you look for them.

We still have 800 miles or so ahead of us, so our pace isn’t going to slow yet, and we won’t be doing a lot of sightseeing. Eleanor and I are noting things to check out on the way back, instead. It’s a sort of small consolation for the tedious nature of our travel eastbound. For now, Florida beckons, and we want to make it to Sarasota by Sunday if we can, in time to help with Alumaflamingo setup.

One day at a time

The skies this morning were foreboding when we awoke in Sonora, TX. The icy fog that motivated us to leave the Interstate had only deepened overnight, and the temperature had plummeted to 21 degrees. While we were warm inside the Airstream, I could see small deer foraging just a few feet away on frosty ground under a deep gray sky. It felt like winter in Vermont.

The Airstream was showing signs of the harsh weather. Splatters of road grime (and dare I say it? road salt from the bridges), and icicles hanging from the belly plan where the leaking water had escaped gave it a “rode hard and put away wet” look.

But the forecast from the weather service—and my own personal forecast for the day—were both positive. We had a list of challenges ahead, all of which I felt we could accomplish with just a little luck.

First, we needed the sun to break through and bring us temperatures above freezing so that the roads would be clear of ice. This happened by 10 a.m., right as predicted by the weather service. We waited a little longer to be sure the ice was melted, so our actual departure was about 11 a.m.

Next, we needed to drive 160 miles uneventfully to the nearest RV dealer with a parts shop, in Boerne TX, to find a new Shurflo city water fill (in chrome) to replace the leaking one on the Airstream. There was no guarantee that any of the white-box RV dealerships would have the part, so the night before I found three places that we could check.

Third, we needed to install the part in the Airstream without any “surprises” in the process. If my diagnosis were wrong, replacing the part would do no good. I was pretty sure the leak was from the water fill, but not 100% sure.

Fourth, we needed to find a place to spend the night, and we couldn’t know that until we finished the repair. I estimated the repair time at 30 minutes but who really knew what it would take until we got into it?

Fifth, we needed more propane. The cold air has really challenged our furnace and water heater. We filled one bottle of propane in Lordsburg NM on Monday, and now we had killed the other one.

Finally, atop all the other things was the cold virus I picked up last weekend. This morning I felt it more than any other day so far, and I was starting to wonder if I was going to lose steam early in the day.

All of these things were weighing on my mind as we prepared to go this morning, and I was trying not to be apprehensive. This trip is supposed to be fun (and it HAS been fun) so I didn’t want the little worries to overshadow the bigger picture: caravanning with friends across the country to a five-day party in Florida.

It all worked out. We drove in pure sunshine and dry roads all the way to Boerne. The first two dealers we checked didn’t stock the part (but one of them did have propane) and when it looked like nobody in town would carry a Shurflo water fill we pushed onward 40 miles to New Braunfels to Camping World. They had located what we needed and put it on hold at the parts desk for me. When we arrived they also said it would be no problem for us to do the replacement in their parking lot.

Replacing the water fill was dead easy. Four screws on the outside, one threaded swivel fitting on the inside, and a bit of prying to break the thing free of the caulk bedding. We had the new one in place in less than ten minutes, and it solved the leaking problem entirely. (Of course, it was easier because I already had some plumber’s tape and Par-Bond sealant in my tool bag. If I hadn’t, we would have had to do some more shopping.)

With a careful look at the old part, we could see that the threads had been bollixed by someone. There was a distinct flat spot, suggestive of cross-threading, which was prevented from leaking by some plumber’s tape. I think a bit of freezing was the catalyst to allow this marginal installation to finally let loose. It doesn’t leak a drop now that we’ve installed a new fill.

It was about 4 p.m. when we finished, so we decided to do some grocery shopping and overnight park at the Super Wal-Mart in Seguin. After dinner in our separate Airstreams, we met up for a movie here in our trailer. Alex brought some Betty Boop cartoons from 1932 for the pre-show. It’s our form of civilization.

We’ll hit the road again early in the morning. Our plan is to get well into Louisiana tomorrow, and —assuming no misadventures—arrive in Sarasota by Sunday night. But we’ll have to take it one day at a time, just as we have done so far.