100,000 miles on the GL320

We’re at home between trips, and it’s time to take care of our trusty steed, the silver Mercedes GL320 that has hauled us across the country and back at least seven times (plus many other trips).

I learned many things when we were full-time travelers, and one of them was that you don’t skimp on vehicle maintenance.  When you’re on the road, that car or truck is literally your lifeline.  When the tow vehicle ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So I tend to scrupulously maintain it and almost obsessively observe it (look, listen, sniff) for any hint of a problem brewing.

The GL is coming up on a milestone: 100,000 miles, to be specific.  This year in May the extended warranty expired too. This all means that the car is  transitioning from being a highly reliable creampuff, to being subject to the quirks and complaints of middle age. Without the warranty I’m now less insulated from the financial hits of future repairs.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the 97,600 miles on the odometer today are mostly the result of towing work—meaning that we’ve asked the car to do a lot more than the average commuter.  So when I brought it to the dealer this week for a routine service interval, I asked them to check out a few specific things.

There was “no cause found” for the strange power loss we experienced last week, but a software update was indicated which may alleviate the issue.  I’m not really terribly optimistic about that, because the car has had many such updates and not one of them has ever solved a problem. This is usually the first step in a series of “let’s try this and see if it helps” solutions.

But in the careful inspection the dealership did turn up a few things which are typical for a car of this mileage and use. One of the rear shock absorbers is leaking. They should be replaced in pairs, so that’s really two rather expensive shocks. One of the bushings in the right lower control arm (a front suspension part) is cracked and nearly worn out. The engine mounts, which on a Mercedes are filled with hydraulic fluid, have begun to leak and so they must be replaced too. And the battery is coming due for replacement.

The dealer of course uses Mercedes OEM parts and charges full retail for them, plus fixed labor rates, so the estimate for all of the above (except the battery) was a whopping $3,800.

I will not be paying that amount.  I will use Mercedes parts despite their rather high cost, because my experience has been consistently that they function better, fit better, and last longer than most of the aftermarket options. As a car reviewer once wrote, this is because “Mercedes parts have been dipped in gold and polished by trained unicorns.” But I will buy them through online parts stores at a discount and have my friendly neighborhood independent mechanic install them.  This will make the bill about $1,700—still far from cheap, but within the budget I’ve set for annual maintenance.

So far this year the car has consumed about $1800 in other repairs. The air conditioner compressor, which has been intermittently failing to cool for the past five years, finally failed sufficiently that we could diagnose the fault. We replaced that in July. The blower motor shorted out the month before, which caused it to keep running even when the car was off, and so that got swapped out too.

Annoying, yes, but not unexpected.  When I bought the car I had a plan to get it paid off before the warranty expired, because that’s when it could be expected to start getting expensive in repairs.  When the loan was paid, I immediately re-allocated the money that had been going to the car payment, to a savings account for future repairs. So at this point despite the expensive repairs, we’re still ahead financially (compared to a new car payment) and I expect that to continue to be the case for several years. When the equation shifts the other way, or when Tesla makes an electric car that can pull my Airstream at least 250 miles on a charge, it will be time to leave the old steed behind.

That’s not anytime soon, I think.  I like the GL better than the Nissan Armada we had before, even though it’s less roomy and costs more.  It took me five years and 97,000 miles to come to this conclusion, but at last I can say, “Yes, I recommend the GL as an Airstream tow vehicle” —as long as you actually maintain it.  It has proven to be a very capable tow vehicle. And it’s really fun to have people asking us “Does that little car tow that big trailer alright?” every few days. So we’ll keep it as long as it makes sense.

The things you take home

We are home after a little over two weeks of traveling from Vermont to Arizona, and for the past week we have been slowly unpacking the Airstream and catching up on the obligations of daily life. It has been four months since the Airstream was at home base, so there’s a lot of cleaning and tweaking to be done.

The first week at home can be tough. I think that for a lot of people it is easy to sink into a sort of semi-depression after a great trip, as they are forced to re-enter the “real world” of work.  This is really unfortunate.  Obviously it’s kind of counter-productive if you go out on a trip and get refreshed, then come back to home base only to promptly lose all that fresh energy.

Since we are out traveling often (and so have to make the re-adjustment back to home life just as often) I’ve developed some personal strategies to ensure that that depression doesn’t strike me. It never consciously occurred to me that this was something I needed to do, but gradually over the years it just felt better to do certain things to soften the transition from footloose travel to homebound routine.

One of the things I try to do is to anticipate the return with joy rather than dread, while we are still traveling. If you truly dread your home life you probably should make some changes, but I think for most people it’s just a few obligations or the fear of losing the pleasant mellow of vacation, that has them down. They try not to think about “the real world” because they are afraid it will overshadow what they’re experiencing at that moment, even if the real world isn’t really that bad.

I look at it another way. I think about the things that I like about being home, and the things I want to do once I get there, in the days leading up to the end of a trip. This way the arrival back at home is just another fun stop along the way. For example, while were in Colorado and New Mexico I was also mentally preparing a list of things to do in Tucson: a old favorite restaurant to re-visit, showing Eleanor the new Tucson streetcar, checking out some venues for next year’s Alumafiesta, going to Scottsdale for a car show, finishing a Mercedes project with my buddy across town, Dad’s night with the guys, sunrise in our bedroom, and seeing our stray cat “Priscilla” again.

Writing up that list, it looks mundane and even silly to me now, but long ago I realized that it’s important to appreciate the little things that fill your life with bits of joy. I could have thought of the crummy stuff that is coming, like a series of dental appointments and expensive car maintenance, because that’s part of life too—but why go there?  Those things will get worked out eventually whether I worry about them or not.

Another thing that we all like to do is collect things along our travels that we can enjoy after the travel is over. I don’t mean antique furniture or souvenir snow globes, because those just add to our clutter and we don’t really need them.  I’m talking about intangibles and consumables, like new ideas and food.  Ideas in particular are the real riches of life (at least to me). They add to our store of knowledge and our internal diversity of thought, constantly expanding us into more interesting people.  (Food is also constantly expanding us, especially now that we are over 50, but that’s an argument for moderation rather than avoidance.)

While we were at the Lincoln Cabin historic site in Illinois, I watched the historical interpreters making a wonderful Irish Soda Bread in their Dutch Oven. It looked so nice and smelled so good that we all stood around and admired it while I asked questions about how they made it. This idea lodged in my head, and so it became once of the things that I looked forward to doing once we got back to home base.

Yesterday Eleanor picked up some ingredients and verified we had the rest: buttermilk, flour, Baking Powder, salt, raisins, brown sugar. She researched various recipes and we discussed them together.  I wanted one that was simple, so I could easily make it when camping, and yet reasonably tasty. And today, with the help of both Eleanor and Emma, I made my very first Irish Soda Bread in the new aluminum Dutch Oven that I’ve been hauling around in the Airstream for the past year.

It’s not perfect bread, but that’s not even close to the point. What really matters to me is that I was looking forward to doing this, and the anticipation of this simple act was enough to soften the landing. It even got me happy about the chore of clearing out the front compartment of the Airstream, because that’s where my Dutch Oven was.

And of course, the idea of making a Soda Bread became the other kind of souvenir that we like to bring back from a trip: food. So in a way, it was perfect.

There’s one more strategy that I use when a trip is winding down, or just ended.  That’s the one we all do. I think about future trips, and talk to my family about them, and pretty soon we have something else to anticipate while we are getting on with whatever has to be done. As they say, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  Enjoy life.


A cure for road malaise

This was a pretty good trip west, considering that we were covering a familiar route and thus were susceptible to the malaise of “the road too often traveled.”* Our experiments with alternate routes ended up much like you’d expect: some successes, some failures.  On the positive side, we found some very nice roads through Kansas (and more through Missouri and Arkansas that we’ll try next year), lots of historic sites, several new state parks, and amazing scenery through New Mexico.

* apologies to Robert Frost

To the negative side, our cadence through the trip was off.  Normally on a rush-rush trip (and two weeks to go from Vermont to Arizona is definitely a rush in our book), we’ll travel 350-400 miles for a day or two, then take a couple of days off to browse an area and recuperate from sitting in the car.  This time we tried a different routine of exploring in the morning, then driving 200-300 miles to another interesting spot for the night so that we can explore it again the next morning.  It was efficient but too grueling, and after a week of this I was burning out. So we’ve decided to go back to the previous method, at least when we don’t have time to do it a more relaxed way.

Still, we managed to do a lot of the things we like.  I keep a trip tally of places visited and anticipated, on our white board in the Airstream.  This trip we hit seven state parks: Darien Lake (NY), Maumee Bay (OH), Fox Ridge (IL), Sangchris Lake (IL), Pershing (MO), John Martin Reservoir (CO), Fool Hollow Lake (AZ),  plus one Canadian Provincial park (Pinery in Ontario).  That’s a win right there, because the camping experience in every one of those parks was nicer than almost any of the commercial parks we’ve ever visited. The state parks may have gotten more expensive since the Great Recession, but they are still a bargain if you like being out in the country.

We had no trouble at all getting into state parks in Illinois, Missouri, and even eastern Colorado with no reservations.  Most of them were nearly deserted, at least during the week.  I had expected we might have to spend a night at a Wal-Mart or similar because it should have been peak season in those states.  Strangely, once we got west of I-25 into Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, everything was full. Admittedly the weather was fantastic, but it was a surprise to pull into a tiny place like Eagle Nest, NM and find no availability at either of the two state parks and most of the commercial sites—on a Thursday. But it always worked out, as it always does. (I often remind people that you always know where you’ll be sleeping when you have a travel trailer, so why get anxious about it?)

During the trip we managed to add to our list of national park sites, which is getting harder these days since we’ve visited nearly a third of the entire NP system. Kansas may not have a leading reputation as a tourist state but we certainly enjoyed Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site and Ft Larned NHS, and Bent’s Old Fort NHS in Colorado, and Apache Ruins Nat’l Monument in New Mexico. Anyone who is going to the WBCCI International Rally next June in Farmington NM should plan a half day at Apache Ruins, as well as a full day at Mesa Verde National Park.

Emma picked up a Junior Ranger badge at Apache Ruins. She didn’t have time to complete the programs at the other sites, which was another symptom that the cadence of the trip wasn’t right for us. By the time we got to New Mexico I had recognized the mistake and we started to slow down a little, taking three days to get through New Mexico along Rt 64 (spectacular) and Arizona.  That means stopping and checking out things by the roadside like the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a picnic stop at 10,500 feet on Rt 64, views in the Salt River Canyon in Arizona (Rt 60/77), etc.  Can you see our Airstream parked along the roadside in the photo below (way at the back)?

Our last stop was Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low, AZ.  It’s very popular and for good reasons; the sites are beautiful. We only go on weekdays because there’s no chance of getting a walk-up site on a weekend.  This time we ended up in the midst of what appeared to be an Airstream gathering.  To our left were two Airstreams parked together (a few tandem sites exist at Fool Hollow), to our right was a 1970s-era Argosy, and further down the loop we spotted two more late model Airstreams. It’s unusual to see this many clustered together, but it was just happenstance.  Our neighbors to the left were playing classic 78-RPM records on a portable Victor record player, and told us they were planning to come to Alumafiesta in Tucson next January.

I mentioned in the previous blog that the GL was due for maintenance.  It did a strange thing to us while climbing out of the Salt River Canyon area in Arizona.  The computer decided to limit engine power for no apparent reason. It will do this if the transmission or engine temperature get high, but that wasn’t happening, and in any case it should restore full engine power when things cool off.  This time it stayed at low power, which meant even on a flat road I couldn’t get past 48 MPH and it took forever to get there.

Even stranger, we didn’t get any sort of malfunction indicator.  This car has something like 48 separate computers and dozens of sensors that measure absolutely everything, so even something small will set off dire warnings on the instrument cluster. This time, all seemed normal except for having no power.

We were not going to be able to get home like that, at least not while towing a trailer up hills, so I called the dealership for advice. They suggested just turning the car off and then on again–essentially, rebooting it.  This worked and the problem hasn’t recurred since. Perhaps the GL was feeling a touch of “road malaise” too?

Still, I’m glad it is going in this week for a major maintenance interval so they can review any stored malfunction codes. At 97,000 miles the car is at an age where a few problems can be expected, but my standard is 100% reliability while on the road, so if anything seems amiss it will get fixed now.

Now that we are home, it’s time to unload the Airstream and get it ready for the next trip. We were drastically over-packed this year and the only solution is to get everything out and review what we are carrying. It’s really inefficient when you’ve got to move six items to get to the one you need. Any trips we do this winter will be more local, so we should be able to travel much lighter—without motorcycle gear, tenting gear, sewing machine, Wii, food for weeks, clothes for three seasons, homeschooling supplies, Aluma-event gear and costumes, etc.

This Saturday I am taking off (by airplane) to Oregon to attend Alumafandango.  It would be nice to have the Airstream but I would be risking another case of road malaise if I tried to tow it 1,200 miles up and back in September.  It doesn’t matter; I’ll be surrounded by aluminum all week anyway, thanks to the new trailer display by George M Sutton RV and the 85 or so Airstreams registered to attend. I’m looking forward to that!

Notes from the mid-west

After writing the previous blog extolling the virtues of slower travel through the Plains states, I felt obliged to get off I-70 as soon as feasible and explore other routes through Kansas.  We dropped south to parallel routes and spent our evening in Great Bend, KS, a small town that we chose only because it was about the time of day that we wanted to stop traveling.

When you are moving around the way we are, it’s hard to be fussy about where you stay.  We are always prepared to boondock a night or two in a parking lot or driveway, and it’s actually a good way to cut down the cost of travel. Long-time blog readers know we rarely make reservations, and this is part of the reason why: we often don’t know exactly where we are going to be tomorrow. In this case the decision to stop in Great Bend was made about an hour before actually getting there.

I use an app called “Allstays Camp & RV” to look ahead for possible campsites each day. (Apps like this are basically the modern equivalent of the old Woodall’s and Trailer Life paper directories—but far more useful.) In this case we could see that Great Bend had a few small campgrounds that were all exceptionally cheap, running about $10-15 for a full hookup.  At that price you have to expect that the campground will be basically a parking lot with no amenities at all, and that’s fine with us.  For an overnight stop, we don’t need a shower house (we have our own) and certainly not a trout pond.

Thus, we have gone from Grand Bend, ON to Great Bend, KS, in a little over a week.  This reminded me of June, when I went from Perce Rock on the north Atlantic coast off Gaspé, to Morro Rock on the Pacific coast off California. This has been a summer of almost too much travel. I’ve really enjoyed it.


Yesterday I tweeted a photo of our unimpressive campsite on a mud & gravel parking lot. I forgot that these days there’s always someone monitoring … and so I heard back from fellow tweeter @GreatBendKS with a comment that next time we should get in touch and they’ll direct us to a nice place at a similar price.  This sort of thing has happened before, both on positive and negative comments I’ve made about campgrounds. In one case an armed ranger came to our campsite to say “Thanks for the nice review,” and in another case a campground owner threatened to sue me.  Luckily, people in Kansas are friendly.

I thought our visit at Ft Larned National Historic Site would be quick but it turned into a multi-hour saga. Emma got another Junior Ranger badge (I think she’s earned over 70 of them at this point) and we had lunch. It was tortuously hot, running 103-105 degrees, which made a mockery of my earlier decision to skip I-44 down to Oklahoma in favor of “cooler weather” heading toward Colorado. But Ft Larned was interesting and well worth the stop.

With the last few days running progressively hotter, we’ve spent every night in a state park or commercial campground just for the electric hookup to run the air conditioer. I don’t mind that because the state parks have all been great. Last night’s stop was perhaps the best of a great bunch: John Martin Reservoir State Park in the town of Hasty, CO. It has both sunny sites by the dam and shady sites beneath mature trees, and at least during this week it is mostly empty, which I love. Now that we are slowly climbing the plateau, we’re up to about 3,300 ft elevation and the nights are running cooler even if the days are still pretty hot.

A note about maintenance:  I’m reminded once again that this sort of rapid travel across the country does come with a price.  We have logged nearly 8,000 miles so far this summer (since leaving Arizona in May), which is about average for us.  In the past two weeks we’ve done routine and minor maintenance such as greasing the Hensley hitch, adding DEF to the car (a diesel thing), and disassembling the bathroom sink plumbing to clear a clog. But when we get home we’ll need to tackle the “bug list” that has been accumulating on the white board.

The GL320 is due for some love.  The car is now at 97,000 miles and due for an oil change, transmission fluid change (we do it about every 30k miles), and a new set of tires fairly soon. I don’t mind because the GL has been pretty good to us and looks good to go for many more miles. And I still get the question almost every week we travel: “Does that little car pull that trailer OK?” Watching people gape at our 30-foot trailer and “little” SUV can be pretty entertaining, especially at the fuel pump.

The Airstream also needs a few tweaks.  The rainstorms we’ve been driving through have revealed two leaks. The MaxxFan in the front bedroom seems to have a small, wind-driven rain leak.  That’s probably just a matter of re-caulking a spot, so I can do that easily once I get a chance to get on the roof.

The bigger problem is the front storage compartment, which has always leaked but really flooded in the last storm. We’ve had it “repaired” twice and nobody has ever been able to really get it to be totally waterproof. It is also difficult to open and close when the Airstream is hitched up, because the body of an Airstream is flexible, and the flexing causes the door to jam.  I have concluded after years of hassling with it that the only solution is to replace the compartment door with the updated design, which has rounded corners instead of square. This job will be major surgery that gets a little beyond my personal comfort zone, so I may recruit the help of one of my more experienced Airstream friends this winter.

In the meantime, since we may encounter rainstorms again today, we’ll seal the compartment with packing tape, as we used to do years ago when we were full-timing.  It’s a kludgy solution but it will do until we get home.  We’re only a little over 800 miles away from wrapping up this trip.

The Plains states turn out to be less plain

I have to admit that while we were in Jackson Center I was feeling a little dismay at the prospects for the rest of our trip toward home base in Arizona. We’ve covered this route so many times, heading both northeast and southwest, that it seems that there is little left for us to see. As blog stalker “insightout” commented, “How many times can you do it before you go insane?”

It is true that we have visited most of the major tourist stops along the way, but it’s perhaps a conceit to think that we have seen it all. Of course we haven’t. Nobody has seen everything in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, even people who live there.

The real trick for most people seems to be the flattish plains states, which form an unavoidable barrier from North Dakota through West Texas. Kansas and Nebraska particularly have a reputation for dull driving, but really they are all exercises in patience and opportunities for creative distraction. The latter is probably why Kansas boasts many things reputed to be the largest in the world, including a ball of twine, sunflower, and hand dug well. (Not to be outdone, Missouri has the largest golf tee and wind chimes.)

Our solution has been to wander a little off course and seek out state parks that we haven’t previously visited, which usually leads to a local attraction or other sort of tourist site. This idea led us off I-70 to Illinois’ Fox Ridge State Park, which is conveniently near the Lincoln Cabin State Historic Site, which is itself a fine destination for a few hours thanks to an excellent visitors center and a living history farm. I picked up a little knowledge about Dutch Oven cooking from talking to the historical re-enactors there. (It was particularly interesting to me because I’m currently reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is a great biography of Lincoln and his cabinet.)

From there we decided to wander further off the beaten path and meander through soybean farms up toward Springfield. There is a lot more “Lincoln” stuff to be seen in that region (reminds me of the Anne of Green Gables obsession in Prince Edward Island, but at least Lincoln is real). Our goal for the day wasn’t Lincoln but Wright—Frank Lloyd Wright, specifically his masterpiece Dana-Thomas House in downtown Springfield. If you are an FLW fan, this is definitely one to see.

Our camp in that area was Sangchris Lake State Park, about 30 minutes out of town. Like many state parks and Army Corps parks, the one was formed the damming of a river, and then development of a green and tranquil campground and other public facilities. We often are far from the action when we go to places like this, and cellular connectivity is a problem even with the booster and external antenna, but it’s worth the minor inconvenience for a quiet and scenic place to stay.

I was starting to get concerned about the amount of time we had been spending in Illinois, since Arizona remained 1,500 miles away and I do have deadlines that will force me back to home base soon. This wandering path was fun but I could hear the clock ticking. At the end of the month I have to have the Winter 2014 issue of the magazine at least mostly in the hands of my Art Director, and also head to Oregon to run Alumafandango. I’ve been working on both as we go, but it’s hard to stay ahead of ahead of the deadlines when you are also constantly on the move.

So after a half day in Springfield we pressed onward along I-72 through Illinois and into Missouri. This road eventually becomes Rt 36, a straight and quiet divided highway that parallels I-70 at a safe distance from major cities and Ferguson riots. We didn’t choose it because we were afraid to drive through St Louis, we were just trying to find a new path across Missouri. Alas, there’s little of interest along this route and most of the way we had very limited data service (Verizon “extended” network) so it wasn’t a huge hit with any of us, until we pulled into Pershing State Park that night.

Pershing, as you might guess, is in the middle of a hometown region of historical sites honoring General Pershing. I will admit I know next to nothing about the man, but we were all filled up with historical information from the Lincoln region and I was still anxious to make up some time, so the general’s legacy was lost on us this trip. Perhaps another time.

We surrendered to another inevitability however, dropping south to the tedium of I-70 through Kansas, just to speed up the trip a little. This brought us through Topeka and past signs for the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. This isn’t nearly as compelling a name as “Sea World,” but in the grand scheme of I-70 it was enough to bring us to a halt. I’m glad we did.

The site interprets the importance of a Supreme Court decision regarding racial equality and also manages to explore some sensitive racial history and issues in this country without being preachy. We found it to be fascinating, and it also counted as a good piece of homeschooling for Emma. We spent an hour there and would have stayed longer if we had the time. The final stop on our self-guided tour was a pair of headphones, through which Emma was introduced to the music of Marvin Gaye, playing “What’s Goin’ On.” I think she liked it.

I think what I’ve learned is that the mid western plains states are actually less boring the more time you spend in them. It’s racing through that causes the fatigue, because then all you see are the billboards and plains. There are plenty of small things to explore if we can take the time, and I’ll be thinking about that next May when we do this trip again.