From Maumee in the rain

After our tedious crossing at Sarnia, it was getting late so we spent the night at one of our notorious “undisclosed locations,” and in the morning paused to assess our situation.

Our goal was Airstream in Jackson Center OH, to meet people there. At this point it was Saturday, and we had no need to cover a lot of miles to make our goal by Monday. So all we really needed would be to find a decent place (uncrowded, pleasant) to spend a couple of nights on a sunny summer weekend on the way down I-75.

The trick with this of course was that on sunny summer weekends the good spots tend to be booked up in advance by weekenders. This might sound like a nightmare to those of you who are planners, but for me it is a great situation to be in. These days we don’t often have the opportunity to be agenda-free for a day or two. Rather than make a decision right off, we decided to start the day with a big breakfast and then meander out slowly. The weather was fine, the roads were uncrowded, and I didn’t have enormous amounts of work breathing down my neck. We stopped at giant flea market along the highway, and browsed junk for an hour, which is the sort of thing we haven’t done in years. Even with a tedious traffic jam in Detroit, we had a pretty pleasant drive.

I finally realized that if we were going to find a spot that met our criteria, we’d have to go where other people don’t think to go for vacation. Fortunately, we had both Detroit and Toledo on our route.

We eventually settled on spending our weekend in Toledo. Well, not really. We headed for Maumee Bay State Park, which is east of Toledo on the southern shore of Lake Erie in the town of Oregon, OH. Online reviews suggested it was a nice place, and a quick phone call verified that there were plenty of sites available. And it gave us a unique opportunity to visit Oregon and Ohio simultaneously.

Maumee Bay turned out to be a winner. The park is extremely well kept, not terribly crowded even on this gorgeous summer weekend, with great facilities, a beach, electricity at every site, and generally pretty. We snagged a non-reservable site for a night and liked it so much that we booked another day the next morning. Our Sunday was spent lounging around, reading books, and hanging out on the beach for a few hours. The beach had issues with high bacteria counts in the water, but overall the “weekend in Toledo” turned out great, the best I could have hoped for on a nice summer weekend on this route.

By Monday, things changed dramatically. Huge thunderstorms were scheduled to arrive early, so we hustled to get the Airstream packed, hitched, and ready to travel before 8:30 a.m. It’s never fun to hitch up or visit the dump station in the rain, and all the time I was outside I was being urged on by ominous thunder from a bank of dark grey that was sweeping up from the southwest. Literally seconds after we finished at the dump station, the first fat cold raindrops began to hit us.

This brings me to today’s real subject: safe driving in the rain. The heavy thunderstorms we encountered are not uncommon in the midsection of the country during the summer. Anyone who tows regularly will encounter them sooner or later. If you’re nervous about that, good—it means you’re not too cocky. Your first line of defense is always to take a break from towing and wait out the storm. We’ve done that a few times.

It’s hard for some people to accept that strategy, because all the cars and big semi-trailers will stay on the highway and drive at ludicrous speeds right up to the moment that they find themselves in a multi-car pileup. Obviously you shouldn’t go by their example. Your travel trailer may be great in dry weather but it’s no match for a car or a semi-trailer in a storm. Hydroplaning, stopping distance, control, and steering are all significantly worse in a heavy rain with wind.

After a moderately harrowing slalom through Toledo city streets, we were towing on I-75 in poor visibility and heavy rain. The water was coming down too quickly to drain well off the road, so there were pairs of rivers in each lane to increase the hydroplane effect. With a little experimentation (and this is where feedback from the vehicle’s steering is important) I found my most comfortable speed and stayed there until conditions improved.

It wasn’t long before some of the cars and trucks figured out they were going too fast. At every exit, bump, and curve we’d see a flurry of red brake lights. A few miles further we encountered blue flashing lights on the opposite side of the highway; the first, inevitable accident.

Ahead Eleanor spotted a car driving with lights off. We could only see it when it applied brakes; otherwise it was invisible. Later we got a look at it and realized it was red. Red cars tend to disappear the most quickly in fog because water filters out the color red first. (Ask any underwater photographer.) I made a special point of tracking that car and staying far away until it exited.

I was prepared to exit or pull over if the storm or fog thickened. But from radar images on Eleanor’s phone we knew that we were driving out of the storm, so the real task was to hold the course and keep plenty of distance between us and the car in front.

Keep in mind also that the affects of heavy rain can persist even after the storm is gone. Later, making a quick detour in Findlay OH to pick up some documents at the local Staples, I stepped on the brake at low speed and felt the ABS kick on. Why? The trailer’s tires were braking too aggressively for the wet pavement and thus skidding a little. The trailer will push the tow vehicle, and the tow vehicle brakes will have to work harder, which can cause the ABS to kick in on a wet surface.

I don’t mention all this to intimidate people who tow (or who are thinking about towing). It’s just that I get photos emailed to me on a regular basis of “interesting” accidents involving Airstreams, and I’d like to see the number of such accidents decline. This may be something we can help with, in our future special event next July in Ontario. Things are moving ahead with that event, and the plan is to announce details by October of this year.

Hot sauce

I’m sure there’s some great saying to be quoted that ties together travel and adversity, but I’m going to skip the Internet search for clever quotes and just draw my own conclusions. After all, it’s our own voyage and our own adversity to deal with.

Not that this has been a bad trip!  On the contrary, we have overall had a very nice few days of Airstream travel. But even on the nice days there is usually some small aggravation or diversion from the plan that has to be dealt with. Perfection, in travel and all other things, is hard to come by.

On our first day we were quite lucky in many ways: we had a pleasant and uneventful drive through the Adirondacks of New York state, west along the Thruway to the Buffalo area, and ended up snagging one of the three remaining sites at Darien Lakes State Park on a Thursday night.

This is a particularly good result considering that the Airstream has sat in Vermont for a couple of months, under trees which rain down an acidic combination of dead leaves, blooms, and branches (mixed with a little bird dropping for extra toxicity). It has been neglected and taken for granted all summer, and then—after a roof wash and a quick inspection—put back into service and expected to operate flawlessly for 360 miles on the first day out.

Since storage kills Airstreams quicker than use, I was pleased to find that all of the critical systems survived and we had no major problems, other than a few mice that Eleanor successfully trapped out in the two weeks before departure.

(You might ask why storage is more deadly than use, and the short answer is that during use the Airstream is maintained and problems are caught early; whereas in storage problems tend to fester and cause damage while your back is turned.)

The plan was to clear Canadian customs the next morning and drive to London, Ontario, to meet Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes the Towing column for the magazine, and we are talking about putting together a very interesting new event with him for 2015. But our travel schedule was tight, allowing us only four hours to get to London, and I was feeling the pressure all morning, probably because I was aware that we really didn’t have a lot of leeway if something went wrong.

Something did go wrong. In Brantford ON we got mired in a traffic jam on the freeway, which eventually ground to a complete halt. We sat there for over 30 minutes, parked among the semi-trailers, reading books while the more agile cars broke loose and took an entrance ramp ahead (going the wrong way) to escape. This was not an option for the trucks and us, being too long to make the 300-degree right turn necessary to get on the entrance ramp. Eventually, all the cars were gone and I realized we now had room to make a three point turn on the highway, drive in the wrong direction down the breakdown lane, and then up another entrance ramp further back in the direction we had come from.

This might seem nerve-wracking but it felt like great fun to me.  How often do you get to drive backwards down the freeway—with a travel trailer? Coming up the curved entrance ramp in the wrong direction was a little odd, especially when I came to the police car with lights flashing that was blocking the ramp, but amazingly there was just enough room to squeeze the Airstream through, across two lanes of heavy traffic, and once again into a legal travel configuration.

Eleanor got a really fun part of this. While we were parked on the highway she had gone into the trailer to make sandwiches.  A few minutes later I got the opportunity to escape the highway and warned her that we might start moving at any moment, with her inside.  I half expected to find her later looking like Lucille Ball in “The Long Long Trailer,” covered with ingredients and bruises from being tossed around inside the Airstream, but when I finally found a parking lot a few miles later and pulled over, she was ready inside the Airstream with three sandwiches neatly bagged up and ready to serve. It turns out that it’s a pretty smooth ride in there.

After our detour and a quick nosh on those sandwiches we were a solid hour behind schedule. We raced up to London, grabbed Andy, and headed onward together to Grand Bend to do some scouting.

Grand Bend is a nice little beach town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, just about an hour from the Sarnia ON-Pt Huron MI crossing. I’ll talk more about what we found there in a later blog entry, but suffice to say now that it’s a very nice spot and after just a couple of hours of scouting we decided that we definitely are going to launch a new event there for July 2015. I promise that it will be absolutely unique, and if you travel anywhere within 1,000 miles of Michigan next summer you should plan to go.

Andy had to head back home but we spent the night at the Pinery Provincial Park (the equivalent of a US state park).  Pinery is a very nice place, quite massive, which feels a lot like an overgrown Florida State Park. There are about 1,000 campsites, all tucked under tall pine trees on sandy spots in a forest. People reserve it a year in advance to get a summer weekend, which is why we could only get Thursday night.

I wasn’t really unhappy about having to leave after one night.  The park was too big for my taste, too crowded (even though it covered hundreds of aces and the entrance road was over 4 km), and the campground loop was too tight. We had to do some careful planning to find a route out of our campground loop that would allow the Airstream out without hitting a tree or scraping an overhead branch. In all the hundreds of campgrounds we’ve visited, this one ranked above all others in sheer difficulty to navigate with a 30-foot trailer.

I was also a bit peeved that we had reserved an electric site, paid a total of CAN$56 in fees, and got Dunes site #25 which is marked on the Pinery map as having electric—but did not have electricity anywhere that we could find. If we’d had more time I would have taken it up with the staff but we were again on a tight schedule and in the end it just wasn’t worth the hassle. We had more scouting work to do on Friday before the 2 pm checkout time, so I decided to just focus on work and then head to some place that was less popular.

In our travels we’ve usually had the best times at quiet places, but it’s hard to find campground that is both pleasant and unpopular on a summer weekend in the north.  At this point we had no idea where we were going to spend the night.  The good part was that we also had no itinerary for the weekend.  My next scheduled stop was at Airstream and there was no point in getting there until Monday, and it was only 264 miles away, which meant we could go anywhere we wanted in the meantime.

So after heading southwest from Grand Bend we stopped at Point Edward park under the famous Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia, ON.  This is a sweet little spot for a break, where you can watch the gorgeous blue-green water flow by in the river, walk the grassy park, marvel at the enormous bridges overhead, and ogle your first view of America just across the river in Pt Huron MI. We spent the afternoon.

The traffic on the Blue Water bridge is so bad there’s an app you can download to watch the traffic and figure the best time to try to make it through.  It’s bad because US Customs is right on the other side, which causes traffic to back up over the bridge and often a mile or two back into Sarnia. At 5 pm we launched into it; at 6:30 pm we finally cleared customs, having traveled a mere two miles or so. It was a frustrating end to the day, but if you look at the bright side, we had a nice long view from the top of the bridge…

So was our trip good, or bad?  I say it’s a matter of how you view things.  I think (being an optimist most of the time) that it was very good. Eleanor agrees. It wasn’t perfect but here we are, still standing, still traveling, still together, and more adventures lie ahead. My conclusion: a little adversity is the “hot sauce” that makes travel all that much more interesting.

Turtle shells and teddy bears

Let’s see, if this is Tuesday then I must be in Vermont.  That’s because last week I was in Montreal and the weekend before I was in Tucson.

Traveling is fun, but too much of it can be overwhelming. Eleanor and I have to make an effort to try to stay grounded when we are really moving a lot.  This is a skill we honed during our full-timing period, when the scenery was always changing and the only constant was ourselves and the Airstream.  You have to develop a sort of mental turtle shell that you carry around all the time, which is a sense that no matter where you are, you are still safe and still you.

Emma’s pediatrician called this the “inner teddy bear” for kids, but it’s the same thing.  Emma developed her inner teddy bear a long time ago and it has served her well since. Kids are far better equipped to build up their turtle shell or teddy bear, if we just let them and don’t fill them with the same fears we adults often have.

I meet a lot of adults who are fearful of travel, and I can understand this because strangeness of surroundings, people, food, languages, climate, etc., is intimidating. But I also feel sorry for the adults who are full of regret for the travel experiences they have not been able to enjoy, because they seem to be unable to find the self-confidence they need to do what they want. It’s harder for adults to change themselves, and yet we must if we are to continue to grow. Having traveled in Airstreams for the last decade certainly has forced us to change.

This summer has gone well so far, meaning that most of the things we wanted to do have come off more or less according to plan, and we’ve had no major disasters.  We might regret whatever we haven’t accomplished, but on the whole the positives far outweigh the negatives, and that’s about as close to perfection as real life ever gets. We ran a great event (Alumapalooza) at the Airstream factory, then got to Vermont for nice visits with family, and my motorcycling trip was a success. Eleanor and I got to take side trips, I got to play TBM for a few weeks, and the Interstate motorhome trip through California was pretty awesome. I have a souvenir of the motorcycling, namely a tiny bit of mobility loss in my left shoulder, but that should clear up with time and some more physical therapy.

Today Eleanor is working on getting the Airstream re-packed after several weeks of being parked. As always, our belongings (mostly Emma’s) are scattered all through my mother’s house and the Airstream needs a good cleaning in and out. I’ll be on the roof this afternoon, washing off the accumulated blooms and leaves so that our solar panels will work again. Tomorrow, the Airstream rolls out.

Our itinerary this week includes a stop in Ontario, where we are going to be scouting a site for a possible new event to be held in 2015. After that we’ll drop in on Airstream for a couple of days, and then we really don’t have a plan other than getting to Tucson no later than Aug 24. Might go through Colorado this time, but who knows? After such a rigidly planned summer, I think it will be nice to have a loose schedule for a week or two. The inner teddy bears are telling us that whatever we decide to do, we’ll be OK.