Altered reality

As I sit here in the Airstream, writing, a thunderstorm is approaching. I’ve been working at the dinette quietly (so as not to disturb my sleeping fellow travelers) since 8:30, while watching other campers pack up and flee ahead of the approaching storm.

Our plan had been to travel up to Bayfield WI, which sits on a large peninsula in southern Lake Superior and which is an excellent starting point for exploring the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Then we were going to head further around the lake and north to the remote Grand Portage National Monument. During that visit we planned to take a ferry to Isle Royale National Park.  Isle Royale has the distinction of being the least-visited National Park, because it’s hard and expensive to visit, and it was sort of a “bucket list” spot for me.

This is despite some disdainful online reviews of Isle Royale as a gray, forbidding, and unfriendly place.  Any island in the north has the possibility of being grim on a bad weather day, just as they can be delightful on a sunny summer day. It’s that wide range of moods that seems to attract some people. We were prepared to deal with Isle Royale regardless of weather (up to a point; I’m not getting on a boat for hours if the lake is heaving like a roller coaster). It’s an experience no matter what, and we collect experiences. A singularly uniform collection of perfect weather would be boring.

As an aside, I want to share a tangential review of Isle Royale National Park that was pointed out to me by my friend/correspondent Dr C as “probably the best review ever written”:

Everytime, upon returning from that cold, deadly and unforgiving nightmare-paradise that is Isle Royale, I made it a point to head straight in to the welcoming embrace of Zik’s bar. I’ll tell you honestly and straight away: I loved that place. I loved it with all my heart like a sailor loves his woman from afar during a terrible gale, knowing that he’ll never return to her but loving and loving all the same, with a reckless abandon matched only by those terrible waves smashing the ship to bits, driving that sailor to his doom though he loves and loves all the while. But that all came to a devastating end this past June. Yes. It was June. That month that sings to a man’s soul in the sweet tones not unlike those emitted from the golden throat of a decrepit but beautiful Greek bard-master. My favorite bartender, who was a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain, had been sacked by his sister for the crime of “keeping it real” and had been replaced by a vindictive lummox who damaged my pride and insulted my intelligence. He did all this before ejecting me from the bar for ordering my favorite drink: a scotch with two egg whites. For some reason he took issue with my request. He must have had a bad association with eggs. —Dylan Seuss-Brakeman


Grand Portage cancellation

But neither Isle Royale nor Zik’s Bar will work out for us now.  There is only one campground within 30 miles of Grand Portage (offered by the Indian casino that seems to be the source of most civilized amenities in that area) and that place is booked solid. No other RV camping exists in the small town of Grand Portage MN, and the outlying national forest sites are all far away and lack cellular service. I hate to admit it but cell service is a serious requirement for me these days.  After hunting for alternatives for an hour, we finally decided the best path was to scratch Grand Portage/Isle Royale off our itinerary.

This sort of thing rarely happens, but when it does there’s always something else to substitute.  We’ll cut 286 miles and about four days off our trip by skipping the Grand Portage side trip. We decided to spend an extra day in the Apostle Islands area and save the other day or two for later out west, when we’ll certainly find something else that makes us want to stay longer than planned.  Heck, we’ve already had that happen twice on this trip and we’ve only been out for 9 days.

To unsettle our plans a bit further, we finally ran into some weather.  We’ve been remarkably lucky so far, with brilliant summer weather all the way from New York to Wisconsin, but now in Ashland WI (our starting point on the shore of Lake Superior) we finally got whacked with thunderstorms this morning and a 100% chance of rain in the Apostle Islands tomorrow.

Ashland WI Kreher RV park-1

The photo above is from yesterday. Today it is gray and occasionally rainy, so it looks like we will have a subdued visit to Lake Superior.  We’ve decided to stay in this cozy waterfront city RV park for another day and get some work done.  It’s a nice spot, with a hike/bike trail attached, a cool oceanographic research ship docked nearby, and a huge dock that we can walk out on for an even better view of the lake area. The surrounding town seems pleasant, and there’s really no reason to rush now.

Ashland WI Kreher RV park-2

In fact, given the weather I might have passed on the Apostle Islands this time and moved further west but I’m trapped by that bane of all full-timers:  mail drop.  Even in this high-tech payment world, most of my advertisers pay their bills by paper check, and so I’m required to occasionally get a mail drop somewhere or run out of money. Plus I am expecting a few other packages, like copies of the Fall magazine. I’d like to see that.

Yesterday morning I told everyone to ship via FedEx and UPS to the campground further north we thought we’d be at by Tuesday evening, so at some point on Thursday I really need to get over there and pick up my mail. We’ll move tomorrow between storms, if possible.  In the meantime, it’s a working day and plenty of things to do here at my desk by the shore of Lake Superior.

Down the UP, to Door County WI

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Wisconsin always remind me of Vermont.  There are no mountains here, but the abundant scenic byways, small towns, and long stands of forest are comforting. Except for a few minutes of highway construction in Green Bay, the drive from De Tour Village MI to Sturgeon Bay WI was easy and quiet.

Escanaba WI Dobbers PastiesAlong the way we stopped in Escanaba to snag a few pasties for lunch, and before we could get out of the car we were visited by two enthusiastic Airstreamers-to-be, who exclaimed “We’ve been following you for an hour!”  At first I thought this might set a record for aluminum stalking but really they were just heading the same direction along Rt 41.  By the time we all pulled into the parking lot at Dobber’s Pasties they had figured out who we were, and we had a nice chat before going inside to get lunch.

Pasty, by the way, does not rhyme with “tasty” although it should.  They’re like calzones on the outside, but without tomato sauce on the inside. Instead they’re filled with diced potatoes, meats, cheese—all kinds of things depending on which type of pasty you choose.  Unfairly, the name rhymes with “nasty,” but let’s overlook that.

They’ve been beloved by Yoopers for generations. We get them whenever we are up here, and clearly from the sign (above) Dobber’s knows it.

The trip plan I posted in yesterday’s blog shows that this dip down to the Door County peninsula is a pretty big detour. We’re doing it for our kid. These days there’s a lot of fear about the perverts and weirdos who kids might meet online, but our experience has been different. Emma has been videochatting online with some pretty cool kids for a couple of years now, and we vowed that we’d make the necessary side trips so she could meet them in person. We met Hannah in Indianapolis on our way to Alumapalooza, and now we’re here to meet Emily from Sturgeon Bay. Both visits have been spectacular successes.

The parents are always a little skeptical at first, which is natural considering what they’re faced with.  A strange family that lives in a trailer and wanders the country like gypsies is going to drop in for a visit?  Imagine what would go through your head.  Lock the doors, keep an eye on their hands, and make sure the ammo is dry, I expect. But all the parents have been great, quickly seeing that we’re only a little weird, and the girls always have a great time.

Door County Fair rabbits


This time we met them at the Door County Fair and spent a couple of hours on the classic fair rides, and checking out the 4-H exhibits of poultry, rabbits, horses, and an amazing array of baked goods (which inspired me to get back to bread baking when we get home).

While the girls were hanging out, Eleanor and I had a chance to roam up the peninsula to Egg Harbor and walk the town and marina.  We were surprised to see the population listed at merely 201 people.

It’s a small town, kind of like an outpost on Martha’s Vineyard. Tourists outnumber the locals by a fair amount. I was expecting something bigger and more touristy. It’s actually nice to see that much of Door County is quieter and smaller than I expected.

Egg Harbor Marina

OK, having seen more of the countryside I can see that it’s definitely different from Vermont in a lot of ways (we don’t have cherry orchards, for example), but there’s still a nice country vibe.  My one suggestion to Door County:  get rid of the billboards before they take over, like Vermont did in 1968.

We like Door County enough that we have decided to spend another day here, roaming around and picnicking at one of the sandy beaches, before resuming our northern trek through the national parks.  Tomorrow we’ll head back up and spend the next five or six days around Lake Superior.

Up and over the Great Lakes

It’s August, and for us the summer travel adventure has finally begun.  It has been a great summer in New England, but the Airstream has been stationary since early June.  It’s time to put all thirty feet of aluminum to full use, back on the road.

As always, we have an ambitious plan and not as much time as we’d like.  There will be compromises and missed opportunities, but we can’t dwell on that. The trick to pulling off a really massive trip in a time crunch without regret is to make the tough choices and focus on the good stuff that’s left.

Summer 2016 trip part 1

Our first “leg”, if you can call it that, is from Vermont to Seattle WA, which will be 3000+ miles. I have charted a route that hits about six national park sites along the way, plus visits with friends and detours for varied reasons. There would be no way to accomplish everything we have planned in just six weeks without cutting a few corners, so we elected to blast through the first 800 miles by taking the shortcut from northern New York through Ottawa and the province of Ontario, and over to Sault Ste Marie, MI.

IMG_6484This cuts off a lot of territory that we’ve traveled many times (NY, PA, OH) in favor of a quick and scenic drive through Ontario.  Not much to regret there, except that Eleanor was kind of eyeing a stop at Niagara Falls this year (we’ve been there before and we’ll hit it another time).

And if you had a reason to travel long distances through Canada this summer you couldn’t ask for a better combination of low fuel prices and favorable dollar exchange rate.  A few years ago we would have paid the equivalent of US$5.00 or more per gallon for diesel; this August it was about US$2.60.

Normally I would want to take a few days to cover 800 miles but this was one of the compromises built into the trip.  By covering this leg quickly we bought time to spend in the Great Lakes and western National Parks.  We ended up in Sault Ste Marie MI on the second night and ran into our friends Leigh & Brian there, which was a bonus.  I posted reviews and photos of the two campsites we used along the way on Campendium.

I’m always suspicious of everything on the Airstream after it has been sitting a while, so I gave it a good inspection before we left Vermont and took some time along the way to check the Hensley hitch and other components that we’ve touched this summer.  Everything has been perfect, except for the annoying mice.  They love the Airstream when it is parked in Vermont, and because they’re very destructive we have to trap and remove them all summer.

This summer Eleanor trapped at least six, and there was still one left when we started towing, which turned out to be a mouse corpse decaying underneath the furnace. We found his remains by the smell and left him resting in peace at a roadside stop somewhere in Ontario. Mice are cute but when it comes to your Airstream a “zero tolerance” policy is best.

MI Airstream courtesy parkingNow that we’re back in the USA we’ve had a chance to settle in for a few days while courtesy parking at the summer home of our friends Charlie and Lynn. This is a half-visit, half-working stop.

Actually, mostly working for me.  From prior visits we know that there’s good cell service here, a 30-amp plug, and I can hear the waves splashing on the shore of Lake Huron just outside my dinette window, so it’s an excellent place to do some work.

There’s no high-concept entertainment in the area, which is just fine. This park of Michigan is quiet, decorated with evergreen forests and farms and very few people. Our big activities have been a trip to the sandy beach with our host family, a church supper, walking the Gogomain Bridge, and talking with our hosts. Tonight we’re going out to Raber Bay for some of the local whitefish.

From here we’ve got a long list of stops: Sturgeon Bay, perhaps Apostle Islands, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and many other places on the way to Seattle.  It’s going to be an interesting trip, culminating in Alumafandango in California on September 20.

DeTour MI beach family


The fall of TBM and the resurrection of the hitch

“What ever happened to TBM?”  I’ve been getting this question a lot lately.  I have hesitated to tell the truth because so many millions of men around the world look up to him —but the awful truth must come out.

TBM was vanquished by work. Yes, that killer of adventure, soiler of fantasy, shroud of exploration … sheer, overloading obligation.  I tried valiantly to break away for a few days of tent camping in the cooler mountain elevations of northern Arizona, and some day trips, but again and again I was restrained at my desk by 1,001 projects that all needed attention.

Well, don’t feel too badly for TBM.  I still ate out at a few favorite restaurants, watched a few guy movies, met some local friends, went to a car show, etc—so it wasn’t all bad.  And to rationalize the situation, I resolved that in exchange for a late summer of Airstream travel (which we have since begun) it was a reasonable tradeoff to spend a few weeks in advance chained to a desk.

I also resolved that this won’t happen again if I can help it, so I’m cutting back on various obligations and hiring some more people to help.  A new Associate Editor is taking off quite a bit of workload on the magazine, and I’m drastically reducing my involvement in events since they take a massive amount of time.  (But don’t panic—Alumapalooza will be back in 2017!)

Hensley hitch refurbishedBack in New York at Colin Hyde’s shop, our Hensley hitch was being refurbished, and boy did that turn out to be an eye-opening experience. You might recall that we disassembled it and found many more worn parts and cracks than expected.

As Colin predicted, Hensley replaced the entire lower unit under the lifetime warranty rather than trying to repair it. When Colin’s shop got the unit back, they scuffed the paint and then repainted everything (top, bottom, bars, etc) with a really good automotive enamel so it will hold up better than the paint Hensley uses.  (The orange in particular is famous for fading quickly and deteriorating.)

All the new parts were installed, and then of course we greased it, installed it, and adjusted it.  It looks better than new now, which is good because the grand total for this job was more than half the price of a new one.

The eye-opening part was discovering all the parts that had failed without our knowledge.  I knew the lower unit had cracked and suspected that the cadmium-plated steel bushings (“binoculars”) were also cracked.  I didn’t know the extent of the cracking—and it was extensive—nor that the steel cylinders where the weight bars are inserted had stretched beyond repair.

The really shocking part was the bearings. There are eight of them in a Hensley, standard automotive-type bearings and races.  You’d think that since they barely turn they wouldn’t wear.  In fact the opposite seems to be true.  Despite being packed with grease, all eight bearings and races were seriously rusted.  It seems that the lack of spinning allows water to settle without being evaporated. The “dust caps” on the top and bottom aren’t waterproof, so water gets in and stays there, particularly on the bottom bearings where the dust caps actually trap water.

Hensley hitch rusty bearings and races

The picture says it all.  Look at the rust on the bearings and the wear marks abraded into the races. These bearings were about six years old. All of them were bad.

The bearings are user-replaceable but the races are not.  Colin’s guys found a way to remove the races, which involved welding little tangs on the races so they could be punched out, but for most people the solution will be to return the unit to Hensley under warranty.  My recommendation to all owners now is to do five-year inspection and/or disassembly to check the state of these bearings, particularly in a wet climate.  When you look at this picture, keep in mind that my trailer spends 8 months of the year in sunny dry Arizona.

BMW motorcycle Quebec ferry

The end of the story is simple. I flew back to Vermont in late July, reunited with my family, cleaned up and prepped the Airstream, installed the hitch, and we got on the road.  (But in the midst of that, I did manage to sneak out two quick days of TBM activity: motorcycling north from the Lake Champlain islands, up the Richelieu River all the way to the St Lawrence through the beautiful French heart of Quebec.)

We’re now in the Airstream on a two month adventure that will take us from east coast to west, at least six national parks, and many interesting stops.  So buckle up: the blog is about to get busy again.