Alumafandango and beyond

Alumafandango is done, and it was a big success.  I don’t think we’ve ever had an event quite like this.  Taking over the entire 100-site campground really made a difference to everyone.

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The attendees liked it because everyone was part of the Airstream community, and the campground was filled with shining aluminum travel trailers.  I liked it for those reasons too, and because it made for easy photo-ops at every turn.

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alumafandango-eleanor-sushi-demoThe campground management liked it because, as they said, ours was the nicest (and neatest) group that had ever visited the park.

It was just plain cool to have nothing but Airstreams (and Airstreamers) gathered for six nights/five days in this beautiful place up in California’s historic gold country.

The program was a hit too.  We did daily workshops on things like battery maintenance, propane systems, PEX plumbing, and tire changing—and all of them were very well attended.  (We’ll do even more workshops at the next Alumapalooza in Ohio.)  Eleanor did popular sushi-making demonstration, with hands-on workshop.

antsy-mcclain-alumafandango-2016We had several other speakers, pool parties, cookouts, and two nights of entertainment including an evening parking lot performance by Antsy McClain.

(Antsy had no problem doing a show under the stars on asphalt. He said, “Waylon Jennings told me, ‘You’ve never done your last gig on a flatbed truck or at a VFW dinner’.”) Antsy always puts on a terrific performance, and we love having him at our events.

Of course we’re beat after running the event (with Brett), so when everyone else was going home happy and relaxed we just wanted to lie down for a while.

Alumafandango 2016 marks the 20th event I’ve run with Brett.  We started doing this eight years ago with Vintage Trailer Jam 2008, and since then we’ve done two VTJs, seven Paloozas, four Fandangos, three Fiestas, two Flamingos, and two Palm Springs Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows. (Plus, I’ve done two Tucson Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows by myself.)  It has been a heck of an adventure … and we hope to keep it going for quite a while longer!

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-emmaIt’s hard to drive through the northwest corner of California and not stop to see the Pacific Coast Redwood trees.  I mean, it’s possible to avoid them by sticking resolutely to Interstate 5, or perhaps driving Route 101 with blinders on, but for us the temptation to take a detour to Avenue Of The Giants is overwhelming.

So we don’t fight the call of the majestic trees. We exit the 101 and meander down the winding road that brings us eventually to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we camp for a couple of days.  It’s rejuvenating to unhitch and explore one of the redwood groves on foot.  There’s a certain peacefulness that comes from being among the great old trees and the mossy ground, deep in the shaded glens.

We’ve seen the Pacific Coast Redwoods (and their relatives, the Giant Sequoias) before but they never fail to impress. Each time we visit the forest we learn something small that makes the experience unique, so it’s not the “same old trees” every time.  Wandering a grove without any goal in mind, just letting inspiration flow, is the key.

Since on this trip we were heading toward Alumafandango, I suppose it was also inevitable that a phone call come in to interrupt our moment.  In this case it was an anxious tour leader wanting to get reassurance from Eleanor.

Wisely, she decided to complete the call before we started our walk, so that she’d be clear of business things while in the redwood grove. That’s a lesson I had to learn early on in our travels as well.  Mental compartmentalization is crucial if you want to work and play on the road. You don’t ever want to embark on a hike or any relaxation until you’ve cleared your head of the cares of the working day, otherwise they will haunt your experience and taint the happy memories you’re working to build.

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These were our last two nights before landing in Jackson CA for pre-event prep, so I particularly valued them.  Once we hit the event site, it’s always go-go-go, and we’ll have 12 nights sitting in the same spot. The redwoods were an ideal spot to mentally escape the concerns ahead, and get ourselves psyched to work hard for an extended period.

Old fashioned movie night

We were towing the Airstream on Rt 101 through Coos Bay OR, when the we spotted something we don’t see much anymore: a downtown single-screen movie theater.

I love those old theaters. They remind me of days past when as a poor student I would go see a cheap matinee for a dollar or two on a hot afternoon, and sit in the coolness of a vast (mostly empty) theater on a worn velvet seat, and marvel at the elaborate Art Deco decorations surrounding me.

I especially like the balconies for what they symbolize.  To me they speak of a different age, when one title playing at the theater was all we needed to have an excuse to go out for the evening.  We could have little care for what was playing—it would still beat whatever was on TV that night.  These days most old movie theaters with balconies have been converted into second-story mini-theaters, if they still exist at all. The bulk of them are gone forever, victims of the suburban multiplex cinema.

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In Coos Bay we spotted the Egyptian Theater, and even though it was daytime as we drove by, it was the tall neon sign that caught my attention first. Fantastic design and theme, the type you rarely see these days in a world of corporately-divined “theme” restaurants and entertainment.  I’m a fan of old neon too, so an elaborate sign like this one always draws me in.

Amazingly, the Egyptian is still operating and nearly intact inside, with even the balcony lately released from mini-theater bondage.  The theater was only showing movies on weekends, so we were lucky to find that on the day we arrived a 7:00 pm showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was scheduled.  We had to go back and see it.

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Emma, being 16, had not seen nor heard of Psycho, and Eleanor and I hadn’t seen it in many years.  I couldn’t imagine a better way to have the experience of seeing this classic 1960 movie than in the type of theater it was originally shown.

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egyptian-theater-coos-bay-1So we dropped the Airstream at Bullards Beach State Park (20 minutes south), then turned around to walk the historic lower harbor of Coos Bay and then into the Egyptian.  I was immediately a fan. How can you not be, when there’s interior decor like King Tut flanking the stairs to the balcony?

Inside it was everything I had hoped for:  stained glass “EXIT” signs, dim and dramatic interior, all sorts of structurally unnecessary but fantastically moody interior design elements and even a “mighty” Wurlitzer Orchestra Theater Organ hidden behind a grand facade high above … but sadly, very few people.

In one sense I like having the place empty and serene, with just a dozen or so avid vintage-movie lovers enjoying glorious black-and-white on the big screen.  Emma was certainly entranced.  Watching the drama of Psycho unfold slowly, and Anthony Perkins’ wonderfully understated portrayal of Norman Bates in a real theater is much more immersive an experience than on your home TV, no matter how big your screen is.

But I was sorry to see how few other people were there with us.  I worry about the few old-time theaters like the Egyptian that still survive.  The Egyptian is a remarkable example of the Egyptian style of theater that was popularized back in the 1920s, and lives now by the grace of donors and members of the Egyptian Theater Preservation Association. This place is a treasure—a museum of movie history, in a way—that you can still use the way it was nearly a hundred years ago.

In case you are worried about Emma, she had a great time.  The slow burn of Psycho (which I regard as near the peak of Hitchcock’s art) grabbed her like no YouTube video or manga comic ever could; a good broadening experience for a young writer/artist.  Popcorn, a classic b/w movie, a great theater, and nice people. It was a night to remember.  I hope someday we can go back.

An existential crisis for the Mercedes GL

When I bought the Mercedes GL320 in 2009 to be our new tow vehicle, I knew I was taking a big risk.  At $66,000 (out the door, tax included), it was almost double the price of the most expensive vehicle we’d ever purchased.  Mercedes has a reputation for expensive repairs and maintenance, and their dealer service network is small compared to just about any other brand.

The justification for taking this risk is complicated, but the major factor was the diesel powertrain.  At the time, only the European brands (Audi/VW, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover) offered diesel SUVs, and they rack up impressive performance stats.  In 2009 when we made this purchase, we were planning on many more years of Airstream travel, so it made some sense to invest for the long term. I felt confident the Mercedes 3.0 liter turbodiesel could last for hundreds of thousands of miles while carting as many as 7 people in comfort and delivering fuel economy (not towing) in the upper 30s.

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In the past decade the European diesels have also been impressive for their emissions improvements and quietness. I can start my diesel dead cold in the morning at a campground and hardly anyone will even notice the sound, while the exhaust is scarcely more offensive than baby’s breath.

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That’s all very nice, but there is one thing that a tow vehicle must be able to do to justify its existence: tow.  Our GL320, despite having 127,500 miles on it, has done as good a job of that as it ever has—until this week. One tiny problem this week managed to cripple it, rendering the GL entirely worthless as a tow vehicle.

We had a gentle rain on our last night at Beachside State Park on the Oregon coast.  Over a period of hours, a drop or two of water managed to work past the gasket on the right rear taillight, wick through some insulation on the inside, and drip down to a black plastic cover below.  This cover has thin vent slits in it because it houses a very expensive electronic device called a “Signal Acquisition Module” (SAM).

The water dripped through the vent slits and down to the exposed circuit board inside.  When the SAM gets wet, it behaves like any other electronic device when wet: it malfunctions spectacularly.  This SAM happens to control most of the functions in the rear of the vehicle, including trailer lights and brakes. Just one tiny drop of water in the right spot means no trailer lights or brakes.

This has been a recurring problem.  It first cropped up in February 2015 at Alumafiesta after a heavy rain, with the symptoms being taillights that didn’t work for a few hours. I didn’t find the cause until May 2015 at Alumapalooza when it happened again.  I dried the computer with a hair dryer and took it to a northestern Mercedes dealer in June.  The dealer service tech glopped everything up with black sealant and pronounced it fixed, which it wasn’t.

Water hit the SAM again in January 2016, so I dried it again and took the car to another Mercedes dealer (this time in the southwest) and they replaced the right taillight, noting this the leak was a known problem. They said the magic words that they say every time I have to buy an expensive replacement part: “This is an upgraded design, so it won’t have that problem again.”

That was a nice warm and fuzzy thought, but three weeks later the SAM decided it had suffered enough from the prior repeated water intrusions, and it died without warning—while towing in downtown Castro Valley, CA.  Imagine the fun: suddenly, no brakes and no lights on a 7,500 pound trailer in heavy traffic.

This time the hair dryer trick wasn’t going to work.  I had to tow the Airstream through city traffic for a mile with no brakes, signals, or lights to a Walgreen’s parking lot large enough to dump it.  Then I had to convince the manager of the pharmacy to let me leave the Airstream overnight.  Then I had to find a Mercedes dealer and pray that they had the part I needed—on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately Mercedes Benz of Pleasanton had the part and installed it the same day, for $1,300.

All was well until last week, when mysteriously the upgraded taillight assembly let in just a couple of drips during an Oregon sprinkle, and our expensive new SAM got wet for the first time.  You can imagine my reaction when I got into the car and the dash lit up with five warning messages—and of course, no trailer brakes.

After I ranted for a while, Eleanor and I got to work.  About 45 minutes of the hair dryer treatment got everything working except the left turn signal and taillight.  We decided to start towing toward Eugene OR (nearest dealer location).  Two hours later the left turn signal began working again.

In Eugene I had a friendly chat with the service tech, in which I explained that intermittent lack of brakes and lights means the car can’t tow. That triggers what I would call an existential crisis for the Mercedes GL320.  If it can’t tow reliably after a light rain, I can’t use it. He understood the conundrum, but had little to offer other than tearing apart the interior of the car to look for other possible leak points—at $140 per hour, my expense.

I talked with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV about possible replacement vehicles. Andy has been a very reliable source of information over the years, despite his tendency to terrify Americans with his non-truck towing suggestions. He listed the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and the new Durango (based on the Mercedes platform) as possible replacements, but pointed out that my GL has relatively little trade-in value.

Worse, there are no suitable new diesel SUVs available.  VW screwed us all on that one. Friends at Mercedes dealerships have told me that Mercedes has quietly suspended shipments of new diesel SUVs to the US. Audi and VW of course are out of the question, and BMW’s X5 might be available but it’s too small for us.

So we’ve taken the path of least resistance. The taillight assembly has been replaced again but I’ll never trust it.  We are going to rig up a plastic shield over the SAM to block the water droplets. It’s a low tech, easy fix that will probably work just fine for the life of the car.

And, despite my momentary lapse of confidence, I think we’ll stick with the GL.  Hopefully the SAM will survive this one episode of water intrusion. To be sure I’ll test it a week or two before every trip. I still want to see the odometer turn over 200,000 miles before we re-consider getting rid of it, and more miles would be nice.

On balance the car has been everything I hoped it would be: a comfortable, confident driving, capable tow vehicle. It’s amazing to me how something so small—a drop of water— can entirely destroy the practical value of the car.

[Nerd Alert]  I’m reminded of that scene in “The Fifth Element” when the evil Zorg chokes on a cherry and Father Vito Cornelius says, “There, you see how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing now, how your entire empire can come crashing down because of one little cherry.” [/Nerd Alert]  We live by a tenuous thread all the time, and little moments like this make that thread briefly visible.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to keep on towin’. We’re heading to the California redwoods next.

After the Practical Pause: Oregon

When we’ve got to stop for a week to take care of “real life” stuff, it’s a “Practical Pause”.  The Practical Pause is a key strategic tool for people who travel long-term.  There’s no way you can just keep roaming around without eventually running into the need for repairs or maintenance, medical stuff, work, paying bills, etc.

Rather than fight it, or try to do everything while you’re traveling, it’s easier to just find a comfortable place to park for a few days.  This is one of the advantages of traveling by Airstream, since those days are generally inexpensive and it’s easy to do everything since you’re already home.

We build in these pauses every few days to do basic things like getting groceries, doing laundry, cleaning up the Airstream, blogging, or just catching our breath.  Every 2-3 weeks we take a longer break so that I can get ahead on work (this takes off a lot of stress; fewer things to worry about when I’m out of communication in a remote area).  If we are traveling for months, there’s usually a time where one or all of us flies away and then returns to the Airstream to resume the trip. The active full-timers I know mostly do the same thing.

Parking in Olympia was that opportunity, but even during that time we had a chance to run into Seattle twice and play tourist for a while, so the Practical Pause wasn’t solely about completing obligations.

Everything was done by 9/1, a few days earlier than expected.  This presented an opportunity to have a few extra days on the road before getting to Alumafandango, but also a challenge because we’d need to find camping over the dreaded Labor Day weekend.

Most people don’t dread Labor Day, I know—but when you are in a populous area, need a campsite, and don’t have a reservation made weeks in advance, it’s a problem.  After some storming of both our brains and a few websites, we managed to grab a couple of nights in Portland OR, and a couple of nights at Beachside State Park on the coast of Oregon, which got us through the holiday crush.

The highlight of Portland?  Probably Washington Park, with its fantastic landscape, Rose Test Garden, Holocaust Memorial, and Japanese Garden.  But a close runner-up had to be Powell’s City of Books.  (Yep, nerd alert.)  It’s awesome and we could have spent the day there.

And yes, since it’s Portland we had great donuts, Chinese lunch, walked the waterfront and much of downtown, rode the MAX, and generally had an excellent time.  Even the sun shone most of the day.

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We detoured west to Oregon’s fabulous coastline because it’s absolutely spectacular.  I like it more than California’s Route 1, which is saying a lot.  Mostly I like it because it’s longer, easier to drive, less crowded, and there are more camping opportunities.

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Scoring a site at Beachside State Park (near Waldport) for Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend was a minor miracle.  Somebody must have cancelled just before we hit ReserveAmerica, and I’m glad they did.  We had a shady site one row back from the wide open miles of sandy beach.  Fifty steps from our door we were on the sand, and yet the trees sheltered us enough that we could leave the awnings out day and night without fear of a wind coming up.

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It’s crabbing season here, and walking down the beach we found dozens of grumpy-looking crabs getting sloshed around in the surf.  When they got a chance between waves they’d dig themselves into the sand, leaving only a tiny breathing hole.  We’d usually get one last glare before they disappeared.

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The water of course was cold, but we are Vermonters at heart so we waded into the surf anyway. My feet went numb. After that it wasn’t bad.

Oregon has many great attributes, and the coastline is at the top of the list as far as we’re concerned.  It’s a camper’s paradise. We always have a great time here. But in the next blog, you’ll see that even in paradise things can go wrong …