Learning to do an Airstream pre-trip inspection

Mexico horses on beachLast week I got a call from a local Airstream owner who wanted to know where he could get a pre-trip inspection before going to the beach in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.  This owner had recently purchased my Airstream maintenance guide recently but he didn’t feel ready to do this inspection himself.

I can understand that. It takes time to absorb all the information and feel confident that you’re not going to overlook something important.  The temptation is always there to just call a professional and pay them to inspect instead.

That’s why in the book I recommend that new owners start learning to inspect while their Airstream is still new, so they can become accustomed to how things are supposed to be.  Any changes that occur later will be a lot more obvious that way.

This particular Airstreamer was quoted $350 by a shop to get an inspection done. This would include testing all the systems and a general inspection to find any problems.  This might be worthwhile to many people for a pre-purchase inspection, especially if they aren’t highly familiar with Airstreams, but I can’t see why any long-time owner should have to pay such a fee.

First off, there’s very little inspecting that a shop will do that you can’t do yourself.  The only really complicated tools you need are eyes, fingers, and a brain.

Second, if you already own the trailer you’re really just paying them to find problems that they will then charge you to fix.  To my way of thinking such an inspection should be free or very cheap.  Lots of automotive repair shops will offer free brake inspections, for example–and they are doing that because there’s a good chance they’ll find something that needs repairing.

Third (in this case) the Airstream was in pristine condition. It was a 2009 model that had been used only a few times.  The owner told me the first tank of propane lasted him six years!

Since the last trip it was stored under cover and on pavement in a desert environment.  That’s just about the ideal environment for storage. The only major things to worry about in that situation are keeping the battery charged, discouraging rodents (pack rats) and preventing things from drying out (rubber seals and battery fluid primarily).

The owner never hesitated to get repairs and maintenance done, and it showed.  The wheel bearings were recently re-packed, the exterior was clean, and the tires and brakes were in great condition.  The fact that he was considering paying $350 to have it inspected before a 500 mile round-trip showed how meticulous and careful he was about maintenance.  So it wasn’t likely that the Airstream needed much to be ready for its trip.

I don’t normally get involved but in this case I was interested in meeting this owner and understanding better what challenges he might be facing to get his Airstream ready after a long period of storage. (I’m collecting updates for a future second version of the maintenance book.)  So we arranged to meet at his house on Friday.

We walked around the trailer talking about the things described in pages 18-25 of my book, but clearly this trailer didn’t need a deep inspection. The only problems I could find were:

  • one missing interior rivet (see replacement procedure on page 57)
  • one loose hose clamp on an exterior gas line (p. 193)
  • low air in the tires (which is normal after long storage, discussed on p. 120)
  • a few window latches that needed a quick shot of silicone spray (p. 82)
  • a door hinge pin that was working its way out (p. 84)

The inspection and test drive took less than an hour including stopping off at a local tire shop to get some air. We didn’t need any tools to do the inspection.

Was this worth dropping the Airstream off at a local shop and paying $350?  Of course not.

We’re all led to think that only professionals can do a good job of maintaining vehicles, because vehicles are too complex for the average person.  Airstreams aren’t complex.  They’re really very simple conglomerations of lots of separate items, and just about anyone can learn how to inspect and do basic maintenance on them.

I replaced the missing rivet and left the owner with a short list of things to fix and check on his own, including checking the water in the batteries (p. 178).

By the way, he’s towing with a new BMW X5 and I have to say that it’s an awesome combination with that 23-footer.  We adjusted his Reese Strait-line hitch to improve the weight distribution and took it out for a test drive.  The drive was so enjoyable I almost didn’t want to let him have it back.  We got up to 45 MPH and I did a few fast lane changes and two simulated emergency braking maneuvers and just couldn’t believe the excellent performance from this combination.

I normally don’t experience such good manners from somebody else’s tow vehicle combination except when driving one of Andy Thomson’s tricked-out rigs, so it was a nice surprise. My own Airstream and tow vehicle are optimized for best possible towing performance too, but there’s a world of difference between the long wheelbase Mercedes GL/30-foot Airstream compared to the BMW X5 and a 23-footer.

Now, if you live in the Tucson area, don’t think I’m starting to do house calls.  This was a one-off deal!  Instead, take some time to learn more about how things work on your Airstream and you’ll find you can easily do it yourself.  Someday you’ll be proficient enough to pass on the knowledge to a fellow traveler.  Personally I was glad I did: I made a new friend, and he’s going to have a great trip to Mexico in a very sweet Airstream 23D.

Looking back / looking forward

Fall 2015 trip 1Our trip from Vermont to Arizona has finally wrapped up.  After Big Bend National Park we made overnight stops at two old favorites: Balmorhea State Park (Toyahvale, TX) and Rock Hound State Park (Deming, NM), and then landed at home on Saturday.

By the numbers it was a big trip:

  • nearly a month on the road
  • over 3,600 miles of driving and 60 hours of drive time (plus side trips)
  • nine State Parks (General Butler/KY, Fred Gannon/FL, Henderson Beach/FL, Bayou Segnette/LA, Galveston Island/TX, Pedernales Falls/TX, Seminole Canyon/TX, Balmorhea/TX, Rock Hound/NM)
  • two National Parks (Mammoth Cave and Big Bend)
  • I took about 600 photos (and E&E took more)
  • six on-the-road repairs

Despite a few frustrations, we had a nice trip overall.  Challenges are to be expected, and after having lived in our Airstream for three years we are used to the ebb and flow of life on the road. We all understand how to be flexible when things happen that force a change in plan.  Perhaps it’s also easier to take the bad with the good because the freedom of travel means that most of the experience is very good.

Fall 2015 trip 2

Now of course comes the hardest part: settling back in at home.  My Airstream “bug/improvement” list has about a dozen things on it, mostly small stuff.  It has been away from home base since May and has traveled about 8,000 miles.  I’ve been doing routine maintenance all along, but now we need to do a big clean-out of the trailer, digging deep into the storage areas that we rarely examine to get rid of accumulated stuff we don’t use anymore.

I’ve learned from experience that it’s easier to adjust slowly to fixed-base life. Even though it might seem simple, there’s an emotional reaction that happens when you shift from the free-wheeling life to all the cares and concerns of fixed-base life: house maintenance, medical appointments, work, social obligations etc.  It’s like jet leg: you can’t adjust to it all at once.  So we always unpack over a period of days, taking out things as we need them and giving ourselves plenty of time to absorb the reality of our situation.

Speaking for myself, the worst thing to do is to give into the temptation to immediately immerse myself in a dozen pent-up obligations. This results in overload, because inevitably I’ve got a dozen house and Airstream projects to tackle, Airstream Life work, appointments to keep … and thinking about all of it just makes the whole landing process too stressful.  Instead, I try to focus on one project at a time, and also think about the next trip we might take.

We’ve already got plans to travel a little around Thanksgiving, and we’re considering a pre-Christmas or holiday week trip as well. The Airstream is there to be used, and fuel prices are very low right now.  Even if we only go 50 miles, we’ll have an adventure and an opportunity to change perspective. So while I’m looking at a pile of obligations at home base right now, the magic carpet awaits and it is giving us something to look forward to.

Remembering Big Bend National Park

It wasn’t until we’d arrived and I started flipping through my photo archive on the computer that I realized we haven’t been to Big Bend since 2008. How did seven years go by since our last visit?

This park can’t be “done” in a single visit.  It can’t be described in a single page.  You have to make the trip again and again to really dig into Big Bend.  We’ve been here four times and there’s still so much left to see and do.

This visit we started with a classic: Santa Elena Canyon.  Sheer walls rising 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande, a river ecosystem, and if you go early in the morning you get some spectacular light.  (We didn’t go early … but I remember from a prior trip.) Emma had never been here so it was fun for us to show it to her.

Big Bend Santa Elena canyon Eleanor

After that we hunted up some spots we hadn’t explored before (or didn’t remember), like ruins and views.  You really can’t go wrong in Big Bend. There are no bad spots.

Big Bend Burro Mesa pouroff Rich climbingBig Bend has a special meaning to us.  It’s the place that really kicked it all off for us.  Back in the 1990s a friend in Austin told me about it, and then another friend in Vermont told me more.  Inspired, I planned a trip in March 1997 where Eleanor and I flew out to Midland/Odessa, rented a car, drove for hours and then spent a few nights tent camping at the primitive Paint Gap Hills sites.

That was the year of Comet Hale-Bopp.  We watched it through binoculars and spotted both tails, thanks to the dark skies of Big Bend.  One night a bolide occurred, so bright that we could actually see it through the walls of our tent.  We crossed the Rio Grande to visit the Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen (you could freely cross back then) and eat tacos and drink Mexican Cokes. We soaked in the hot springs and watched the sunsets light up the limestone cliffs each evening.  Everything was unfamiliar, exotic, fascinating.

And this was the experience that hooked us on camping in National Parks.  We have been doing it ever since.  The first half dozen or so we visited with a tent, one or two per year, and after we got the Airstream we picked up the pace.  I don’t have an accurate count but probably we’ve visited over 120 National Parks since, not counting those we’ve visited more than once.  So, thank you Big Bend, for being so magnificent.

Big Bend house ruin view

We spent only three days on this visit, which is hardly anything for a park so large but enough to chill and enjoy a few hikes and special places.  After all the technical challenges and bad weather of the past two weeks it was a great way to spend the last few days of our trip west.  Only a few days remain before we land at home base.  I’m glad we are able to end our trip with a pleasant reminder of how it all began.

Driving to Big Bend National Park

For most of its distance, Texas Route 90 from Del Rio to Marathon is not a drive you would rave about, unless you are into vast empty spaces.  The towns along this route were all former watering stops for the railroad and without steam trains passing through they haven’t had much reason to exist.

Many don’t, and now only the fly-speck of Dryden and the slightly-larger towns of Sanderson and Marathon offer any services at all.  They’re spaced about 50 miles apart, so it’s important to pay attention to your fuel level. Remember, everything’s bigger in Texas.

Big Bend towing AirstreamAt Marathon the signs indicate that it’s not that far to Big Bend National Park, but “not that far” in west Texas terms is 39 miles—and that’s just to the Persimmon Gap Entrance Station.  From there it’s another 26 miles to the center of the park, Panther Junction, and the speed limit drops from the “west Texas sensible speed” of 75 MPH to 45 MPH, so this trip seems endless.  Fortunately the scenery gradually gets more interesting with the craggy Chisos Mountains in the distance and colorful outcrops of rock that are beautifully illuminated by the setting sun.

… which is good, since the sun was setting fast on us at this point.  From Panther Junction to the Cottonwood Campground is about 40 miles and I was somewhat concerned about getting in before it was too dark. We finally dragged in at about 6 pm and there was still enough light in the sky for us to find a nice campsite that wasn’t shaded by cottonwood trees so we could gather solar energy during our stay.

The next morning, we awoke to this:

Big Bend Cottonwood Airstream campsite

Picking a campground at Big Bend is a strategic choice because of the size of the park.  Normally we stay at the Rio Grande Village end of Big Bend because we have a lot of favorite hikes and activities in that area.  This year we wanted to re-visit and show Emma some hikes and spots near Castollon that we haven’t seen since our first visit in 1997.  The driving distance between Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village is about 60 miles.

No matter where you stay in Big Bend there’s a sort of “end of the road” feel.  Unless you are in the Chisos Mountains (and most Airstreamers aren’t because trailers over 20 feet aren’t allowed on the entrance road), you’re probably just a couple hundred feet from the Rio Grande River and Mexico.  There’s no further south that you can drive from here. This is a wonderfully remote park.

We particularly like Cottonwood because it’s a no-hookup campground that doesn’t allow generators or campfires. So it’s blissfully quiet and we can open all the windows at night to let in fresh desert air without being choked by someone’s smoldering mess of an amateur “fire” (usually just a plume of smoke). Instead, we smell sage, creosote bush and desert flowers, and we hear chirping birds and the faint breeze passing through the cottonwood leaves.

No hookups, no dump station, and only a limited amount of potable water means that most campers don’t stay long.  But we love it here, the weather is perfect, and our Airstream is boondock-ready so we opted for three nights.  That’s plenty of time to hike nearby Santa Elena Canyon, the Burro Mesa Pour-Off trail, Tuff Canyon, and visit a few of the historic house ruins.

Seminole Canyon State Park, Comstock TX

We stayed in Seminole Canyon State Park once before, on a long trip from Big Bend National Park on desolate Route 90, but we were in a hurry to get to San Antonio for some reason and spent only one night. I don’t remember why we were in a hurry but I do remember that we vowed to return again someday to explore the canyon.

This time we did, and I was surprised to see how impressive it is.  Not the deepest, widest, or most colorful, but Seminole Canyon is strange and compelling for other reasons.  The park staff or volunteers lead hikes into the canyon (this is the only way visitors are allowed to enter) for $5. Once at the bottom you can see the smooth carved floor and walls of limestone that evoke images of massive floods and rushing water—but there’s hardly any water at all.

Seminole Canyon view

The canyon has no source other than runoff from the surrounding plains. It’s just a big storm drain, with the commensurate boom-and-bust water flows, leading into the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande).  Most of the time it’s dry.

The official hike leads to a rock shelter with hundreds or perhaps thousands of petroglyphs left by ancient people.  We’ve seen many petroglyph sites across the southwest but each one is slightly different, so this one has its own style.  Shamanistic figures and symbols are dominant here and that’s very different from the Mogollon style we see in parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

Seminole Canyon petroglyphs

The petroglyphs are slowly fading due to increased humidity from the nearby (man-made) Amistad Reservoir and other natural influences. They won’t last forever, and they are well worth a look.

After the volunteer-led hike into the canyon we decided to do some of the canyon rim trails.  I had figured the trails would be a little dull after going into the canyon but I was very wrong. The route we chose turned out to be a fantastic (and easy) walk with spectacular views at every turn—and sometimes beneath our feet!

Seminole Canyon Eleanor overhang

There’s a fair bit of history too.  The second transcontinental railway passed through here, and you can see remains of the rail beds and stone ovens constructed for use by the workers.  The visitor center has a good interpretive area that talks about the railway, the origin of the name Seminole Canyon, the “black Seminoles,” the lifestyle of the ancient people who lived here and latter-day ranching.

And, as in many parts of the desert, if you look closely you’ll see wildflowers …

My impression: Seminole Canyon State Park is an overlooked gem. It’s a long drive to get here so it’s not a convenient stop, but with Amistad Reservoir nearby I would say the destination opportunities are well worth making the trip and spending a few days.

And now to the continuing saga of on-the-road-repairs:  first thing Monday morning I got on the computer and used Skype (thanks to campground wifi; there’s no Verizon service here) to call Hensley Manufacturing.  Steve was extremely courteous to me and laid out the two options I already knew about:  get the crack in the hitch welded locally at my expense, or ship the hitch back for a repair.

I found a welding shop in Del Rio to fix the crack, and after I get back to Tucson, Hensley will send me a replacement hitch head under the lifetime warranty.  Of course, the old hitch head has to go back and I have to pay the shipping for both so this is not completely free, but at this point the hitch head has plenty of wear and is due for a refurb anyway.  It will cost about $250 in shipping, which I think is well worth it for a factory refurbished unit. Turns out I misunderstood. They’ll accept the head for a free repair under the warranty but I’ll get the same unit back, which means the other wear items will still be present.  I’ll probably do my own refurb at home, instead.

The welding shop in Del Rio deserves a shout-out. Arc-Rite in Del Rio TX was awesome. They took me into the shop right away, asked me how I wanted it fixed (“MIG or stick?”) and had the job done in about ten minutes—with a final bill of just $18.15.  Nice guys, great service, and I really appreciated that they didn’t make me wait.

By the way, the easy way to transport the Hensley hitch is shown in the photo.  I just disassembled it while it was still attached to the car and secured the top from swiveling with a Velcro strap.  No lifting, no hassle.

If you’ve ever got to work on yours, my number one tip is to wear disposable gloves and have paper towels handy.  The hitch is simple to disassemble, but the grease gets everywhere and cleanup is a lot quicker if you don’t have to scrub black grease off your hands.

After the 75 mile roundtrip to Del Rio with the hitch, a quick stop for ice, re-assembling & re-greasing the hitch, a quick shower and packing up, it was nearly noon.  We decided to make a break for Big Bend despite the late start.

This was a tougher decision than it might appear, because Route 90 and Route 385 are almost barren of services of any kind (Sanderson and Marathon are two exceptions). Once we started we were committed to going to Big Bend—or boondocking somewhere roadside.  So, onward along the southern border of Texas we went.  Big Bend or BUST!