An All-American Stop: Zip Dee

As always, the stop that takes a little extra effort is more rewarding.  In this case, stopping at Zip Dee was a great choice. I’ve wanted to visit this facility for years, but never made the detour from our travels and braved the Chicagoland traffic to pull the Airstream up to Elk Grove Village before.  

The factory is not open to the public, but since we are carrying Zip Dee chairs, bags, and other accessories in the Airstream Life Store, I wanted to get a peek inside to see how it’s all made. These days it’s rare to find a product made in the USA, and the folks at Zip Dee pride themselves on that.

I talked to Jim Webb, the president, and he emphasized how even the screws and bolts are made in the US.  He said he could tell the difference between a US-made bolt and an imported bolt just by the way the bolt threads catch when starting to insert the bolt. The US ones are smoother and the metal (always stainless steel or aluminum on Zip Dee products,so they never rust) is more consistent. That obsessiveness about the source and quality of materials is everywhere in the building.

Most components of the company’s products are hand made.  I didn’t see a single robot or other automation in the assembly area. About 30 people currently work there, and most of them are engaged in bending, cutting, drilling, sewing, and packing. There’s a lot of hand labor that goes into building every awning, chair, and every other product they make.

I learned something reassuring while talking to Jim. Zip Dee simply won’t make cheap stuff. When pressured by major distributors and retailers to cut the cost (and quality) of products, Jim’s answer is simple: “We aren’t in that business.”  Plenty of other companies will make low-cost, lower-quality chairs, awnings, shades, bags, etc., so why play that game?  This is a company that takes pride in building something really good—something that will last.

Parked at Zip Dee Inc, Elk Grove Village IL

Zip Dee has one RV space next to their building for customers who arrive to have awnings installed, so we took that. As urban camping goes it was fine. Not too noisy even with O’Hare only a few miles away.  I prefer the occasional sound of a jet to train horns at night.

The outdoor GFI outlets in the RV space all kept popping on us so we skipped using the shore power and relied on our battery  exclusively. We used a lot of power.  It was well into the 80s all day and didn’t cool off much at night so we ran all 3 fans all night, plus we watched a movie using the inverter and charged up laptops.  The  net results was that our battery was at 29% capacity by morning (down 74.5 amp hours), the lowest we’ve ever gone with this new Lifeline 8D. 

Solar brought it back up to 51% by 4 pm and I figured that was plenty until I saw the sites at our next stop, the Dunewoods Campground at  Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  Every site deeply shaded and no chance of meaningful solar gain. Oh well, that’s why we have a big battery.  We spent the night like tent campers, laughing over a game of cards and ice cream instead of a movie, and saved the power to run the fans again during the humid night.  We woke up to 19% capacity, which will be fine if we get a few hours of sunshine while towing down to Indianapolis today.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska

[Facebook readers: I don’t post every blog entry on Facebook, so you may have missed a few posts. If you want to catch up our travels from the past week, check out my blogsite at maze.airstreamlife.com]

We have been moving quickly the past few days.  From Fort Collins we headed up to bag a national park site, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, just because we could.  This particular park is small, doesn’t have camping, and is located in a fairly remote area, so it’s tough to visit.

Back in 2007 when we were at Scottsbluff I considered going to Agate but it seemed too remote when I looked at the Nebraska map.  That was silly, since it’s only about 50 miles away.  Turned out to be a pretty nice spot, with a great visitor center (and an awesome collection of Sioux artifacts that by itself was worth the trip).  Despite the name, the park is not really about Agate, but is very strong on fossils.  (Come find out what a daemonelix is.)  Emma snagged a Junior Ranger badge and we hiked one of the trails until the weather turned abruptly blustery and cold.

Agate Fossil Beds Emma Jr Ranger

On the recommendation of one of the park staff, we are not taking the quickest possible route across Nebraska (I-80) because it’s also the most boring.  Instead we headed north to Rt 20, which has turned out to be a much nicer way to go.  Rt 20 has—unlike I-80—actual scenery!  Rolling hills!  Lovely state parks!

It’s enough to make me feel badly about all those things I said in the past regarding the dullness of traversing Nebraska.  It’s still vast and often startlingly empty, but at least not so straight and tedious that you’re tempted to lash the steering wheel with a rope and take a nap.

Ft Robinson SP Airstream

Our stop for the night was Fort Robinson State Park, which is one of the many small treats of traveling this route.  I posted a review on Campendium.

From there we’ve been winging  it across Nebraska’s countryside, stopping in small towns for roadside breaks, and listening to podcasts when there’s little outside to see.  We found a quiet little State Recreation Area near Stanton NE (also on Campendium) and that was a good find too.

The rest of the travel has been, sadly, Interstate highway through Iowa and Illinois.  Right now we are stopped about 90 miles from the Chicago area, heading to an appointment tomorrow with the kind folks from Zip Dee (the people who made your Airstream awning and probably also your chairs).

We’re also going to get the windshield replaced while we are in the Zip Dee parking lot, because something cracked it on Monday night.  Alas, that’s part of the price of doing a lot of highway travel. We have zero-deductible glass insurance for that reason.

But we won’t hang around in the Zip Dee parking lot for long, because by Saturday we need to be in Ohio to help prep for next week’s Alumapalooza.  The excitement is building for that event and it looks like it’s going to be a great time. More on that soon.

Rallying in Fort Collins, CO

I hate to leave people in suspense.  We left off with the refrigerator being balky on propane back at Sylvan Lake, so let me start by saying we have a good theory as to what happened with that.

By the morning the fridge was running well again and our trip to Fort Collins was thankfully uneventful. When we got parked at the campground and settled in for the three-day rally that’s going on here, I started calling the Brain Trust and local propane suppliers to try to get an answer as to why we had trouble.

The leading theory is that oil and heavy hydrocarbon contamination (from a variety of sources during processing, transportation, and storage) has formed a gooey clog in the line. This clog usually has a strong smell because the ethyl mercaptan used as an odorant in propane concentrates in the oily residues.  So people assume it is the odorant, but it’s really oil.  Whatever—I just want to get rid of it.

Since things are currently normal, we’re going to keep an eye on it for the next week and then do a preventative service in Ohio with Super Terry.  We’ll disconnect the propane line and blow it out with compressed air, clean the refrigerator jet if it needs it, and inspect the pigtails that attach to the propane tanks. I’ll be interested to see what comes out.

Meanwhile, we’re at a rally, and it’s a good time.  We haven’t attended someone else’s rally in years, and it’s nice to kick back and be a customer for a change.  The Rocky Mountain Airstream unit is composed of some really great people, including quite a few folks who have been friends for years (but who we haven’t seen in a while) so it’s also a sort of reunion.

We’re just doing the typical rally stuff: eating, socializing, exploring Fort Collins, eating, Open House, and eating. I joined Luke Bernander on Saturday morning to present a little seminar about all kinds of Airstream maintenance stuff, but that’s the limit of my effort here.  (I’ve got other “real” work to do back at the trailer between meals and social gatherings.)

Ft Collins rally Argosy 20 moho

What I really like about these events is the opportunity to see some exceptionally rare Airstreams, or just interestingly modified ones.  The pair above is a polished Argosy 20 motorhome pulling a polished Argosy 24 trailer.  Argosy trailers had galvanized steel roof end caps, which doesn’t polish up nicely.  That’s why the owner (Patrick Phippen) painted them black.

Ft Collins rally Wally Bee

This is a one-of-a-kind trailer.  The Wally Bee was a prototype fiberglass trailer from the early 1950s, of which two were made.  Only this one survives, and it was just a ragged shell when Luke Bernander saved it. The outside is done, beautifully, and he’s at work on the interior. It’s kind of neat to see in the context of Airstream’s recent announcement about launching the Nest fiberglass trailer, which resembles this slightly.  Over 60 years later, they’ve come full circle.

Ft Collins rally Lotus Europa

And of course you don’t just see cool trailers at these things.  In the foreground of the photo above is a 1972 Lotus Europa. It’s absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t stop looking at it.  Never seen one before!  Behind it is a customized 50’s Airstream turned into a mobile bar.  There are two mobile bars at this event, which kind of gives you a peek into the party-hearty nature of this WBCCI unit.

I’ll be sorry to leave tomorrow. This has been a great opportunity to catch up and relax a bit, and Fort Collins is a cool town with a lot going on.  We could stay another day or two but it’s a choice between that and some other things in Nebraska or Chicago that we are considering, so I think we’ll be moving onward.  I’m not sure where we will be the next couple of nights, but one thing is certain: we must cross the vastness of Nebraska. Might as well get a start on it.

A little trouble at Sylvan Lake

Driving through Colorado is always nice, especially on some of my favorite routes like Route 50 that wind through the mountains and offers incredible vistas.  Today’s drive was mostly I-70 but the western part of I-70 in Colorado is one of the nicest Interstate stretches in the country, so I don’t dread it as I do other stretches of the highway.

Eleanor was driving the first leg from the Colorado River in Utah when we heard some squeaking from the hitch.  Now that she’s in the driver’s seat, she’s attuned to the little things that formerly she wouldn’t have noticed.  This sound was a familiar one to me, indicating that it was time to add some grease to the hitch ball.

On a Hensley hitch it’s a little tougher to access the hitch ball, so I’ve worked out a technique, which I demonstrated for Eleanor. I’ll put that part indented here so those of you who don’t care can skip ahead.

Basically you leave the trailer hitched to the car so that the car supports the heavy part of the Hensley for you. You do this by loosening the weight distribution strut jacks, then the hitch head struts, then disconnecting safety chains and 7-way cable, and releasing the hitch coupler.  With the power tongue jack it’s simple to lift the upper part of the head up and off the ball. The lower part of the hitch stays with the car.Hensley hitch ball grease point

I put in a pair of disposable gloves for the next part. You just squirt some heavy grease on the ball and work it all over with your fingers.  A thick coating on the ball is best, so that some of the grease coats the underside of the coupler too.  Note in the photo there’s a distinct (rusty) band along the upper front of the ball where the grease tends to get squeezed out by pressure.  This is where you need to apply the most grease. If you let it get dry, the chrome on the ball will be quickly worn off and the ball will be prone to wear (spalling) and rust.

Once greased, lower the power jack back down until the ball is reseated, and reconnect everything.

The trick is to count the number of turns you loosen the hitch head struts, so you can tighten them by exactly the same amount. This keeps the head in alignment with the trailer, so you don’t have the trailer pushing the tow vehicle sideways when braking.

With that job done (in a pullout, in about 5 minutes), we had a very pleasant drive through Colorado. But along the way we discovered a real problem.  The refrigerator had mysteriously switched off during the night (with a “CHECK” light indicated on the control panel) and we had re-started it before we left.  At one of our stops we found it had gone off again. When I restarted again I could hear the gas flame making a lot of noise, like a rocket launch, sputtering, and going out frequently.

Uh-oh. Time for some diagnosis before our Klondike bars melted. Now, normally I would pull out my copy of “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” for some help, but since I wrote that book I already know that this particular problem isn’t covered. I made a mental note to add this situation into the next edition.

The flame looked pretty good on the refrigerator when it was burning, but it kept going out. So the process was to figure out whether the problem was in the refrigerator, the regulator, the lines, or the gas tank. Switching tanks didn’t seem to help. The regulator was newly installed in January and looked perfectly clean.  I couldn’t check the gas pressure because I left my manometer at home, but I could light the stove and see that the flame looked good—and to add to the mystery, the furnace ran without a problem. I crawled under the trailer and inspected the gas lines for damage but they were perfect. Even the refrigerator was new in January, so I was really mystified.

This left me with three theories:

  1. The gas valve on the refrigerator was failing.
  2. The gas jet on the refrigerator needed adjustment and/or cleaning.
  3. There was some sort of contamination in the propane that was intermittently clogging the jet on the refrigerator.

At this point on the drive, I couldn’t do more, so I coaxed the fridge into running simply by resetting it (power cycling it) many times until it finally seemed willing to stay lit.
Now, if I had been thinking about the refrigerator later in the drive we probably would have opted for a campsite with electricity so that the fridge could run on electricity instead of gas.  But we forgot all about it and decided to drive up to remote Sylvan Lake State Park, near Eagle CO.

Sylvan Lake State Park

I’ll post a review of Sylvan Lake on Campendium later so you can get the details about this place, but right now all you need to know is that it’s beautiful and isolated. Zero cell phone service, which meant that when we arrived and found the refrigerator off again, I couldn’t call my usual brain trust for ideas. Also, the climb up to Sylvan Lake is 2,000 feet of elevation gain above Eagle, the last 4 miles or so are rough, potholed red dirt road, and towing above 10 MPH was not possible most of the way. So we were fairly committed once we arrived.

A thunderstorm had just left the area, but not before pelting Eleanor with sleet and small hail as she directed me into the campsite. The temperature up at 8,500 feet was a mere 46 degrees.  It was not the most inspirational start, but once we got settled in we discovered what a lovely place Sylvan Lake really is.  We took a walk around the lake (about 2 miles) and threw some snowballs at each other, and eventually we were glad we’d made the effort to be here.


Back at camp, the refrigerator still had problems, and we discovered the water heater wasn’t too happy either. This narrowed my theory to one: gas contamination.  The appliances with tiny calibrated gas jets (water heater and refrigerator) were having trouble dealing with the gas, while the less fussy appliances with big jets (stove and furnace) were fine.

I’ve read about ways that propane contamination can occur, but since I’m writing this in a no-Internet zone I can’t study that subject right now. As I recall, the solution is to have the propane tanks purged. I suspect the problem to be from only one of the two tanks, since I had one filled this week in Tucson and we were not using that one when the problem appeared.

For now, we are burning propane only from the Tucson tank and hoping that the contamination in the lines eventually works its way out.  I’ve had to reset the refrigerator several times since last night (most notably at 1:10 AM) and it’s still intermittently shutting down, but with luck we can limp into Ft Collins later today without a complete ice cream meltdown and at that point we can switch to electric cooling while I find a propane service center in town.

No flight plan in Utah

There are always certain risks when you travel without a firm plan, and we’re well aware of them.  Spontaneity is fun, except when Plan A, B, and C all fall through and you find yourself having to improvise to find a place to park overnight. Then it becomes a challenge.

We left Winslow AZ yesterday around noon, after taking some time to explore the ruins at Homolovi Ruins State Park. (It’s an interesting site, without much interpretation but literally piles of colorful potsherds and bits of half-buried pueblo walls to inspire the imagination.) Thunderstorms were building all around, which lent a certain drama to the vast open skies of this part of Arizona, but also reminded me that we didn’t know exactly what we were driving into.

Our route north took us through the Navajo Nation, which is huge and mostly open, up through the towns of Chinle and Many Farms, and then up Rt 191 into Utah. This is a fabulously scenic drive, and Eleanor kept saying that more people should have the opportunity to see this gorgeous part of the country.  Photos can’t capture fully the panorama that keeps emerging around each turn. You need to get on your motorcycle or in your car and drive it yourself.

Our plan was to drive for six to seven hours. There is little cell service in this area, so on-the-road planning with the iPad wasn’t practical. I resorted to the way we did it in our first days of full-timing, consulting a dog-eared Road Atlas and guessing where we might feel like stopping for the night.

We were working against a few factors:  No cell service, widely spread out camping options, a popular time of year in the Four Corners, the threat of severe weather, and a late start. We passed a delightful looking spot along a river near Bluff UT only because there are no cell service and I thought I might need to do some work in the evening.  That turned out to be a mistake, because the place we eventually ended up also had no service.

By dinner time we had roamed up through Moab (which is getting a bit touristy in the center), turned right onto Rt 128, and began hunting for a spot amongst the tall red rock sandstone canyons that wind along the Colorado river for about 25 miles.  From a prior trip we knew there is a string of small no-hookup National Recreation Area campgrounds here, and we figured that being a Tuesday it would be no problem to find a spot we could tuck into for a night.

Alas, not so.  We checked out ten different campgrounds, each filled with tents and kayakers.  Most of the sites were sized only for tents, so even if they had been empty we couldn’t have stayed. The sun got low and we started thinking about our options, which weren’t good: turn back to Moab (now nearly 30 miles of twisting road behind us) or proceed to Fuita CO (at least an hour away).  And it was now 8:00 pm with official sunset descending at 8:26.

This is when your resolve to fly without a plan gets tested.  This is when people get grumpy. Fortunately we’ve been in this situation many times and know better than to panic or start the “I told you so” sort of discussion.  It’s important to remember that nothing really bad is going to happen.  The worst case is that you have to drive further than planned and compromise your campsite ideals for a night, staying somewhere that you might not have chosen but which is still suitable and safe.

We got lucky. The very last campground along Rt 128 is Dewey Bridge, a tiny 7-site spot with (like all the others along this route) no amenities.  We snagged the last available space, just ten minutes before official sunset (and long after shadows in the deep canyons had covered us).  $15 per night for nothing but a spot by the river, but we were glad to get it.

I feel almost embarrassed to relate this tale of sheer luck to you, since by all rights we should have been forced to our penance somewhere along I-70 in Colorado instead of landing a bucolic site in a canyon along a scenic river. It might have been a more cautionary tale in that case.  But it’s the same point either way: “spontaneous” can be good or bad.