Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City TX

We hadn’t anticipated being out this late in the year.  The original plan was to get home by about Halloween, but we blew through that and have continued to find reasons not to go home ever since.  The current loose plan had us getting home around November 14 but as you’ll soon see, that may change again.

I had forgotten a few of the key considerations when traveling by road during the winter. The big one is that after Daylight Savings Time ends the driving day gets very short, so we have to plan to be stopped by about 5 pm in order to avoid having to get into our campsite in the dark.  When we’re trying to cover 300 miles or more in a day this puts a little pressure on us to get started in the morning.

Pedernales Falls pano

Other things get trickier as well, such as burning through propane faster and the impact of hurricane season in the southeast.  Since we got to the Florida panhandle the weather has been hit-and-miss (mostly “miss”) with lots of clouds and rain everywhere.  I thought we’d escape it by heading west but we got soaked again in New Orleans, and then all this past weekend in Pedernales Falls State Park west of Austin.

Even with drizzle and mist all day Friday we managed to have a decent time visiting the falls. There are no dramatic waterfalls here, they’re really more of a series of flows over sloping rock, which can become huge and dangerous during flash floods. With rain falling most of the time we were hiking over the rock I think we were all very aware that in minutes the river could rise and wash us away, so we kept an eye on it.

But nothing like that happened. Instead we were treated to a peek at the rocks and fossils that are frequently covered by water, and the tiny pools of captured water that are abundant with microscopic life, and erosion caves at the edge.

And then, lacking much else to do, we went back to the Airstream.  I put on an old movie and Eleanor and Emma made their traditional “rainy day brownies” with ancho chile powder and salt on top.

Sometimes I hear people talking about that inevitable day when they are trapped by weather in their Airstream, and how they need to get a bigger trailer in order to survive it.  Our trailer is pretty big at 30 feet 11″ outside length, but for three people it’s still not a lot of space. I don’t think the size matters as much as your personalities. If you can’t get along for one day inside the Airstream, a bigger one probably won’t help. Try taking up a hobby that doesn’t need a lot of space, or pack some books or movies to entertain yourself.  Or, do as we did and put on your rain jacket and go hiking anyway. The trails won’t be crowded.

Our string of equipment malfunctions continues.  We drove from Pedernales Falls to Seminole Canyon State Park (Comstock TX), and here I happened to do a quick inspection of the Hensley hitch, because … well, that’s what I do.  There are a few things which have given us trouble in the past and so I am extra-sensitive to the potential for failure again, and the hitch is one of those things.  Hensley hitch crack 2015-11A crack formed in it back in August 2009 and it was replaced by Hensley under the lifetime warranty.  Today I spotted a crack in about the same location, and I know it wasn’t there a few weeks ago when I inspected the hitch in Ohio.

It would be nice if things like this failed in the driveway instead at a remote desert park with no cell phone service.  But I’ve learned you can’t pick your failure points, so the next best thing is to know where to find help.

With this problem I have two basic options: get a replacement from Hensley, or find a local welder to fix it.  I would rather have them replace it since the hitch head is pretty scabby looking anyway (most of the orange paint chipped off years ago and I’ve been patching it with spray paint ever since).  Also, finding a welder would require us to relocate to Del Rio (35 miles away) and stay there for a day or two even if we were lucky enough to find someone with time to do the job on Monday–and that would disrupt our trip.

The crack is not so severe that I’m afraid to tow with it.  I will have to start inspecting the hitch every time we stop, to ensure that the crack is not growing. Using Skype and the campground wifi I was able to leave a message for the Hensley technical support folks (it’s Sunday).

Right now the plan is to continue onward to Big Bend National Park and if we are really lucky a replacement head might be waiting for us by the end of the week in Alpine TX.  If not, we’ll consider alternatives depending on what the Hensley guys say.

That’s a problem for another day. Today we’re going hiking in Seminole Canyon.  Despite the ongoing technical challenges, the trip goes on!

Galveston TX

Nothing has broken today.  So that’s good.  Maybe our luck is turning.

Since we had reached the Gulf Coast last week and need to head back to home base in Tucson this month, there was little choice other than to go west.  I toyed with the idea of taking Rt 90 from New Orleans through Morgan City and New Iberia, since it’s a more interesting route than I-10, but ultimately decided to make some fast progress on the Interstate so that we could spend more time in Texas this time.

We’re now in Galveston, for no particular reason other than we’ve never been here before.  Actually I have but it was in the 1980s, long before storms remodeled the place, and it seems entirely different now.  We’ve been roaming around the town freely in the absence of summer crowds.  No hassles for parking, all the businesses seem laid-back, the campgrounds all have available sites, beaches are empty, and the fall weather is fine.

Galveston SP floodingThe only downside is that there has been a lot of rain over the past two weeks and this has led to pools of flooding, which has in turn led to a massive hatching of mosquitoes.  In town they are barely noticeable but at the state park a few miles west they are, frankly, apocalyptic.  We can’t even go from the Airstream to the car without a mad dash and then a few minutes of swatting the dozen or so that seem to slip in. For any activity outside that lasts more than a minute I wear DEET, or come back with welts all over.

Flooding has also made access to the beach, bathrooms, and other campsites a slog. This morning I saw the park staff pumping water in an attempt to restore access to the bathrooms but this effort was unsuccessful. They’re just going to have to wait until it dries up naturally.

Galveston ferry

Don’t get the idea that this isn’t a good place to go, because the state park is actually very nice. We just caught it at a rough time. And Galveston has been very nice to us. We took advantage of the fine weather to walk the famous Seawall and some of the older parts of town, as well as ride the free ferry from Galveston to Port Bolivar (highly recommended; look for dolphins and lots of huge ships at sea), and check out a few spots like Seawolf Park, Hotel Galvez, Pleasure Pier, and The Strand.  Emma got a roadschooling lesson today about the conditions our WW II vets experiences aboard a submarine and destroyer escort ship.

Galveston seawolf park

The refrigerator remains on life support, or more accurately dry ice support.  With a little help from the -109 degree temperature of dry ice all is well, but that costs $20 a pop and I’m getting tired of having to buy the stuff.  I did manage to get Arcticold on the phone Tuesday (they didn’t return the call but I have the cell phone # of somebody and I’m not afraid to use it) and after hearing the anemic temperatures of the exterior coils during our two-day “hotwire” test he finally agreed that a warranty replacement was in order.

That situation is far from resolved.  The next step is an email from someone else in the organization, to confirm the shipping arrangements, and I haven’t seen that yet.  In any case there’s no chance of getting a new cooling unit until after we get home, so hopefully it will be in Tucson this month and I’ll have a chance to make the swap before our next trip at Thanksgiving.

Galveston Airstream sunset

We’re now debating our next few stops. As of this morning we are the owners of a $70 Texas state parks pass, which deletes the onerous daily per-person cost that all Texas state parks have these days.  In our case the pass is worth about $15 per day in savings, which adds up fast. And since we have it, we’ll probably hit a few more state parks along the route just to get our money’s worth, so their clever pricing ploy worked on us.

Texas has some pretty good parks, but they’re spread out across a lot of territory and connecting the dots involves quite a lot of driving. So far we’ve decided only to aim for Pedernales Falls tomorrow, and continue to take the trip day by day. We’ve got about nine days to get home and we want to keep the spontaneity level high as long as possible.  (Except that we’d appreciate it if nothing else spontaneously broke.)

Fighting entropy

Technology kept collapsing around us last week, despite my hopes for a turnaround in luck. The refrigerator dropped back to its prior level of weak performance, managing to keep the interior only about 46 degrees on electric and about 50 degrees on propane. In addition to everything else that went wonky, the rear-view cam on the Airstream went dark as we left Destin FL, and so it made sense to drop in on our friends at Airstream of Mississippi (Gulfport, MS, right off I-10) for a little help.

Jesse bent stabilizerAS of MS (also known as Foley RV) has a small but capable service department.  Jesse (pictured here) swapped out the bent stabilizer in a few minutes, which I appreciated particularly because it meant I didn’t have to lie on my back and wrestle it off with my own wrenches.  The service guys were kind enough to take a good stabilizer off a used Airstream, since they didn’t currently have a new stabilizer in inventory. That’s good service!

They also took a look at the mysterious failure of the rear-view cam and figured out in a few minutes that the problem was in the flexible cable that carries the signal from the Airstream to the car. A little tweaking and that problem was solved too.  I was starting to have hope.

Airstream of Mississippi Foley RVI should pause here to say that Rick Foley and his team are really great—making Airstream of Mississippi one of my favorite dealerships to visit. Rick is a “real Airstreamer.” He actually became an Airstream dealer after being a vintage Airstream owner and falling in love with the lifestyle.  That’s good motivation by my standards.  Rick has a nice Argosy motorhome these days, which is looking sweet thanks to a recent repaint in the neighboring bodyshop.

At that point we still thought the refrigerator was working, so I didn’t ask about that, but later that day when we pulled into Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego LA (across the river from New Orleans), it was obvious that we still had a cooling problem.

Since we’d already reduced our perishables to a bare minimum, the weakness of the refrigerator wasn’t as much of a crisis as before.  We left it running in hopes it might recover, and spent a day in New Orleans with our good friends Lexie and Charon, visiting a few old favorite places.  I had to get a really good muffaletta, for one thing, and so we had lunch at a place I’ve been visiting for muffalettas since 1983.

New Orleans Cafe Du Monde sugar lipsIn my college years I visited Cafe Du Monde many times, but never before midnight. It was something of a ritual back then, topping off an evening of wandering and listening to jazz leaking out of the cafes and restaurants, with an order of 3 beignets and coffee.

Being a tad older these days, we hit it in the mid-afternoon this time. It was exactly as it always is: simple, crowded, and fun. Wearing powdered sugar from the beignets is de rigeur.  I had left a few white smudges on my green Airstream Life baseball cap as a souvenir until the heavy rains over the weekend washed them off.

We had only one good weather day out of three this visit, so we made the most of it, walking all around the French Quarter and riding the St Charles streetcar its full length at sunset.  Everyone was out in their Halloween costumes a day early because of the strong forecast of rain on Halloween, and this made the people-watching just fantastic.  New Orleans is a city of drama and costume already, so when you mix in Halloween and massive  parties along St Charles and Carrollton, it’s a virtual show.

Bayou Segnette awning

The next day I tackled what technical problems I could, with Lexie’s help.  I’d had several packages sent to the park, so at this point I was able to replace the dead Wilson cellular booster, replace the failing showerhead and flexible hose with an Oxygenics model, and replace the TPMS with the latest version with user-replaceable batteries (this is the same one I sell in the Airstream Life Store).  I also lubed the awning arms with silicone spray since they were sticking.  I felt like I was making progress against entropy.

Dometic refrigerator pressure testThe big project was the fridge. First, I wanted to make sure that the propane gas pressure was set correctly at the regulator.  Low pressure can cause the refrigerator to fail when running on gas.

Lexie had an old-fashioned blood pressure manometer that read millimeters (mm) of mercury (HG).  In the photo at right you can see our almost steampunk-appearing test rig. We bought a few pieces of brass at the local hardware store to screw into the test port on the refrigerator (1/8″ FIP by the way) and connected the rubber hose from the blood pressure gauge to that.

Since the optimal gas pressure is 11 inches of water column, I just had to find an online converter to figure out what that was in mm/HG.  The answer is 20.5, and sure enough, the gas regulator was set too low.  We quickly adjusted that, but I knew it wasn’t the whole story since the refrigerator wasn’t working properly on gas or electric.  (Also, the regulator seems to be at its adjustment limit, so it may need replacement soon too if I can’t find the correct spring.)

I decided to do the test that Arcticold requested.  This involved disconnecting the 120 volt wires to the refrigerator’s circuit board, and cutting/splicing them to connect the electric heating element directly.  Essentially this “hotwires” the heater so it runs full bore even if the refrigerator is turned off.  This test eliminates any possibility of failure caused by a faulty circuit board, thermistor, or gas burner.

After 24 hours of running like this it was clear the cooling unit wasn’t performing.  The fridge stayed in the upper 40s.  We let it run like this for another 12 hours, taking temperatures of the exterior tubing periodically with an infrared thermometer so I could report to Arcticold.  On Sunday I re-wired it back to original–with one exception.  Now it has a set of “quick disconnect” plugs so that I can easily repeat this test without cutting anything.

I gave Arcticold a call this morning and got voicemail again, which I expected.  They didn’t call back today, so it looks like this could be a long slog.  Meanwhile, we’re back to putting dry ice in the freezer to protect the few things remaining in there.

Eleanor making shrimp & grits

Despite not having reliable refrigeration, Eleanor is still managing to cook well.  In the photo above she’s making a spectacular meal of South Carolina’s famous “Shrimp & Grits” with a few crabcakes on the side.  She has adopted a philosophy of buying fresh stuff daily as we need it, and using the refrigerator mostly as a moderately cool place to store less perishable things like canned drinks and butter.

We’re also making a few substitutions like buying UHT milk. It turns out that refrigeration is overrated, and by the end of this trip we may have figured out that we don’t need it at all.  After all, Wally Byam toured Europe in 1948 without a refrigerator. I think we can get across Texas and the desert southwest.