You can’t change a tire? Oh no.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“We’re going out on a long Airstream trip.  What sort of Roadside Assistance (AAA, Good Sam, etc) should I have, in case I get a flat tire?”

…. sigh …  I hear variations on this all the time. And I get a little sad every time I hear it, because too often things don’t work out well with this strategy.

The best roadside assistance program you can ever have is yourself. Even if you aren’t “mechanically minded,” or even if you have a physical disability that prevents you from being able to do a tire change, you need to know how to change a tire, and you need to have the necessary equipment on hand.

Why? Lots of reasons:

  • Roadside assistance often takes hours to show up. You, or someone you know, can change a tire on your Airstream in about 10 minutes. Why wait all that time?
  • Deliverance teethFlats happen in all kinds of places, including places you really don’t want to be parked for long time. Like by the side of the highway, or in a rough neighborhood.
    You might start to feel like you’re in a scene from Deliverance.  It’s a hard transition from independent traveling Airstreamer to completely helpless potential target.
  • Not all mechanics have familiarity with Airstreams, or the proper tools for the job. Someone who doesn’t know that they shouldn’t put a jack under most parts of the belly pan, or the axle, can do serious damage.  A heavy-handed mechanic with an air wrench can do a lot more harm than good. (I learned this one the hard way myself.)
  • Roadside assistance programs don’t always cover every place. And cell phones don’t work everywhere. What would you do if you couldn’t reach the toll-free number, or they told you (as happened to a friend of mine) “you’re in a non-service area.”
  • A few tools are a lot cheaper than paying for roadside assistance year after year.

Airstream tireFortunately, it’s really not hard at all to change a tire.  Even if you physically can’t do it, having the tools on hand and knowledge of the correct procedure means someone else (perhaps a Good Samaritan) can help you.

I wrote a book about Airstream Maintenance that includes a big discussion explaining exactly how to swap a tire. But if you don’t want to buy the book, you can learn the procedure from a six-page booklet I published.  A free copy comes with every tire changing kit we sell in the Airstream Life Store. (That kit includes all the tools you need to swap a tire, and every Airstream owner should have those tools with them on every trip.)

Now, just so you realize I’m not just blogging this solely to promote my store:  I don’t care if you copy down the list of tools provided in the kit on the Airstream Life Store and go buy all the parts yourself at local stores. Just make sure you have them.  If you travel a lot, sooner or later you will need those tools.

One of things I always point out to people is that you don’t have to be very strong to do this job. For example, to get the tire out of the spare holder without lifting (after you’ve lowered the holder to the ground) just sit on the ground and push the tire out with your feet.

Sometimes the job seems hard because you’re doing it the hard way, so a little practice will help a lot. Try it in your driveway, or this June at Alumapalooza where we will have a tire-changing class & contest.

You might be thinking that flats are pretty rare, and you’ll take your chances. That’s OK, but there are other reasons to have the tools & knowledge handy. For example, sooner or later you’ll need a fresh set of tires. Have you ever had a tire shop act like your trailer was some sort of dangerous object?  I’ve heard things like, “I’m not allowed to take a wheel off a trailer,” and “We don’t have a jack big enough for a trailer like that.” Having the ability to swap a tire yourself can help a lot in such situations.

Stay independent, my friends.  Being prepared for common problems like flat tires will help keep your Airstream experience fun.

Cactus, sure—but FISH in the desert?

If you read my previous post (Black Bottles, Boots, and Borders) you might be a bit dismayed or even scared by my harping on border issues at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. So I want to give equal time to natural beauty of the Monument, because that is what you should really expect here.

Being the Centennial year of the National Park Service, quite a few promotions are going on.  All 410 units of the NPS have been holding occasional free entry days, and there’s a new program to give every fourth grader (and their family) a free pass to the parks for a year.  Some extra funding has been going to improve the parks, too.

Organ Pipe crestateEmma always does the Junior Ranger program, but this park also has a “Desert Ranger” program for older kids and adults, and the park offers a special pin to anyone who hikes five miles in the park.  We decided to go for all of it.  Participating in things like this just gives you a better appreciation and enjoyment of a national park, so why not?

Having to study the exhibits in the Visitor Center in order to fill out the Desert Ranger booklet is why now we all know the correct term for a cactus that has this sort of mutation. It’s called “crestate,” and I’ve been told that it’s the result of suppressed genes from the long-ago days when cacti evolved from ancient ferns. (Not sure if that latter part is true.)

We’ve seen many saguaro cactus in Arizona with crestate shapes, but this was the first time we’d spotted it on an Organ Pipe Cactus. Even some rangers didn’t know that was possible.

We spotted that one on the hike to the Milton Mine, about half a mile down the trail on the left, in case you want to check it out for yourself.

There’s not a lot left at the mine locations now. You have to use your imagination, building up from the concrete foundations and a few other things that have survived a hundred years in the desert.

When we visit such places I’m always struck by the difficulty early prospectors would have experienced to get out here, and survive for even a few days.  There’s no natural source of water except a small seep several miles away. To a non-native’s eye there’s no food either, so the miners would undoubtedly pack in supplies as evidenced by the rusted steel cans abandoned in a heap nearby.

Organ Pipe mine tailings

From the look of the ore in the tailings pile I assume they were hunting copper (although I’m sure a little silver or gold would have been welcome too). You can see the greenish spots on the rocks, from oxidized copper. Ultimately the mine was unsuccessful. The big commercial successes came later with the advent of open pit mining.

(The town of Ajo north of the park, was a company town for a big mining operation, but the mines there have been idled for years, awaiting a rise in copper prices that would make it profitable to dig again. It’s now a town of Border Patrol agents and their families, housing 550 agents at present.)

Organ Pipe E&E Airstream shade

We found the best bird watching was right at our campsite.  The sites are well landscaped with all kinds of native plants and cacti, and so visits from Cactus Wrens, Bullock’s Oriole, Gambel’s Quail, and the couple pictured below (species I haven’t identified) were common and easy to photograph.  Bert used his Zip Dee awning and Solar Shade as a sort of contrived “photo blind” and got some nice shots for his collection.

Organ Pipe birds

The one creature nobody expects to see in the desert is a fish, but here they are.  Surviving somehow in shallow, hot, sometimes low-oxygen pools and springs, these little devils are a reminder of how life endures even in the most inhospitable spots on the planet.  They’re like little mascots for desert parks: spunky, ancient, and surprising.  In the photo you can see the iridescent blue of an adult male Desert Pupfish, and if you look closely you’ll see several brown females or juveniles as well. They live at Quitobaquito, but you can see them in an exhibit at the Visitor Center.

Organ Pipe Desert Pupfish

Now we are home again, and we’ve got our various badges and patches for having completed the Junior Ranger and Desert Ranger books and a 5-mile hike, and we’ve got a fresh ink stamp in our National Parks Passport.  It was a great weekend.

This won’t be our last visit.  I expect we’ll be back with our Airstream many more times. The southwestern desert is a strange and wonderful place, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one of the places you can see it best.

Black bottles, boots, and borders

We live 70 miles from Mexico, so border issues are always a topic here.  It’s something you can always count on, like death, taxes, and comical politics. There have been problems here with people illegally immigrating or smuggling as long as there has been a border, and while the times change, the fundamental arguments, responses, and failures seem to be perennial.

Back in the late 19th century it wasn’t the Mexicans that people worried about, it was the Chinese.  They were seen as taking away American jobs with their cheaper labor.  (This was the inspiration for the shamefully racist series of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and other laws. But as has been true throughout history, banning a race of people didn’t solve anything.)

The first official lawmen to patrol the border were with US Customs (Chinese Bureau). Later the responsibility migrated to Immigration, and eventually in 1924 the US Border Patrol was formed. One of the first people to patrol the border in this area, way back in 1887, was Jefferson Davis Milton, who rode on horseback between Yuma and Tucson.

This probably wasn’t a particularly lucrative occupation, so Milton also prospected for mines, and he opened one in the land that was eventually to become Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. As part of our weekend vacation we decided we’d hike out to the Milton Mine just to have an excuse for a pleasant day in the park.

Organ Pipe border barrier

Driving along the steel vehicle barrier that marks most of the border in this area, we were reminded how the border is more of a political and economic concept rather than physical thing. The fence here is not designed to stop people (and even if it were “300 feet tall” it wouldn’t). It’s just designed to stop vehicles. The Border Patrol does the rest of the job, with high-tech surveillance and manpower. Although we couldn’t see them while we were parked by the fence, there’s no doubt that they could see us.

Organ Pipe black water bottlesOur six-mile roundtrip hike up the mine trail was a mere lark for us, but for the unfortunates who try to cross this land with the help of human smugglers called coyotes, the same mileage can be a life-and-death struggle. The heat and dryness here, even in late February, quickly sap you of water at the astonishing rate of about a gallon per day.

Looking for signs of immigrants who had passed by before, we would occasionally find large black water bottles discarded and trapped by the wind in the branches of a creosote bush.  The coyotes have convinced their clients that these black bottles help them evade detection (because they don’t glint in the sun).

That’s a ridiculously outmoded idea given the technology of the US Border Patrol today, which can detect humans from the vibration of their footsteps and the heat signatures of their bodies, but nonetheless Mexican factories continue to churn out black plastic bottles and (no doubt) sell them to the unsuspecting immigrants for additional profit. We had no trouble finding a half-dozen bottles, which I collected and brought back to Tucson later for recycling.

We encountered no one else on our hike but as we went I could not stop reflecting on how garishly we represented the economic divide between north and south. We visited the fence as tourists, posing for photos with digital cameras and then hopping back into our air conditioned Mercedes SUV.  We hiked with the latest sports gear, sucking water from our Camelbaks, munching packaged protein bars, and protected by Neutrogena sunscreen.

Organ Pipe boot repairAnd then we encountered a shallow overhang in a dry wash where a bit of litter told the story of people who spent a few hours here, hiding from the sun and the law. They were desperate to get to the economic land of milk and honey. We were hiking for fun.

I wondered how much water they had left at that point, less than six miles from the border fence with 60 miles yet to go. I wondered if that group of immigrants had any idea what they were up against, and if they were already losing hope.

Fortunately that wasn’t our experience.  Instead we had a sort of “First World problem” along the trail when Eleanor’s elderly Vasque boots began to come apart.  I didn’t know this when we set out but those boots were 21 years old and they were ripe for failure.  Three miles into the hike and close to the second mine (Baker), the sole of Eleanor’s left boot began to come off.

Eleanor managed a sort of field repair on the boot by partially removing the lace and running it underneath the boot to secure the sole temporarily.  She and I turned back at that point (leaving Bert and Emma to continue on to the Baker mine) as the boot continued to fall apart.

About a mile from the car the sole finally fell off completely and the other boot wasn’t looking too good either. In the end Eleanor survived the hike but the boot failure left her with some bruises around the ankle and some muscle ache from the uneven height of her shoes.

Organ Pipe boot closeupHere was another reminder of the difference between a hike that starts north of the fence and one that starts south of the fence.  Nobody in our group died, and Eleanor will get a new pair of boots out of this.  (I might even make a recommendation that she get a new pair every decade or so from now on.)  Paradoxically, the boot failure has made me feel more fortunate than ever.

Now, you might be getting the impression that border issues overshadow everything in the national park.  That’s really not the case.  I was attuned to these things before I arrived and so I was thinking about it. The park management and the Border Patrol have worked hard to restore the park to a state where you don’t see people skulking through, and every part of the park is safe.

In my next blog entry, I’ll write about the natural side of things and you’ll get the rest of the story—and see what a glorious place Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument really is.