Ohiopyle, PA

After Alumapalooza ends we are usually looking for a couple of days of recovery time.  This year our route was taking us to Pennsylvania, so we figured it was a good opportunity to visit the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, “Fallingwater”.  We’re kind of FLW fans and have toured several of his works already, including the Welztheimer-Johnson House” in Oberlin OH; the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois; and the Lowell Walter Residence in Quasqueton, Iowa.

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While Fallingwater brings in the crowds, the real gem of this area is Ohiopyle State Park. This large park is known mostly for rafting, but the entire area is verdant with rolling hills and forests and a scenic view around almost every corner. The little town of Ohiopyle sits at the intersection of the Youghiogheny River and the Great Appalachian Passage (GAP) rail trail, which makes it a recreational hotspot. You can float down the river or ride your bike on the GAP all the way to Pittsburgh (77 miles) or 335 miles to Washington DC.

The original plan was to tour Fallingwater and then head onward the same day, but we liked the area so much that we decided to extend our stay to two nights. That gave Emma and me a chance to take our electric unicycles for a ride on the GAP trail and around the center of Ohiopyle, while Eleanor took a tour of another FLW house, Kentuck Knob.

Emma Ohiopyle GAP bridge

Being an old railbed, the GAP trail is very flat with a maximum grade of 2%. The six miles or so that we explored was all hard packed dirt, easy riding, and sprinkled with little interpretive signs along the side. Those signs talked about the natural features and the early settlers who had cleared lands and piled up stones to make orchards and small homes.

A few cyclists passed by, mostly making the long trip from Pittsburgh to Washington DC over a period of 5-6 days with camping stops along the way.  They were all rather intent on completing their mileage for the day so they missed all the interpretive signs.  We kept our speed to about 10 MPH most of the time and stopped at every sign, since we were in no hurry at all.

This was the first chance to prove to myself the value of hauling around these unicycles. Mine was very useful during Alumapalooza for personal transportation around the event (saving me miles of walking) but that’s a once-a-year thing.  I was wondering if I’d find other uses for them.

Rich Emma Ohiopyle falls

I discovered that the unicycles (or a scooter) are perfect for places like this. I think our two unicycles and the scooter (which Eleanor rides) will be permanent equipment in our Airstream. We don’t need them often, but when we do they are very handy and open up places that we might otherwise not explore.

The scooter, by the way, is simple to ride so there’s no real learning curve. I recommend it for most people who want to be able to go 12-15 miles on a lightweight & packable vehicle, without needing a bike rack. (There, that’s my sales pitch for the day.)

E E Ohiopyle SP

Ohiopyle Tonto catAfter the ride we met up with Eleanor and checked out the excellent state park Visitor Center, then a quick tour of Ohiopyle and a visit with Tonto the cat, who hangs around the bridge and greets people. Tonto is a young kitty but he already knows how to work the tourists for affection. We later ran into his owner, who is starting a local fund to get the stray cats of Ohiopyle spayed and neutered.

If you can’t tell, I was somewhat enchanted by the many attractions of Ohiopyle. There are a few waterfalls, swimming holes, lovely picnic spots, and much more. It’s a small place but a very relaxing one. We may stop there again on a future trip through Pennsylvania, or at least in the surrounding area.

Alumapalooza 8

I’m overdue to report on Alumapalooza, and part of the reason is that I don’t want to be repetitive. Every year we do it, the event seems to become bigger and better—and this year it was just fantastic.

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“Boondocker” the dog, who travels with Jim & Lynda Polk

I know, it seems like I’m just blowing my own horn. After all, nothing is that great, and things always go wrong.  That’s true: we had a case of heat exhaustion on the staff, we had to cancel one of the contests due to equipment failure, and the caterer performed below expectations.

But those problems were overshadowed by absolutely flawless weather (far better than we’ve ever had in eight years of running this event), a really happy crowd, a solid program of education and entertainment that kept everyone engaged, our superb volunteer staff, and a first-class effort by the Airstream people to make us all welcome despite being flat-out busy.

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Drone photo by Randy Miller

It was so successful overall that I was joking to people we should just call it quits this year, getting out on top. But we’ve already registered 36 sites for next year’s Alumapalooza 9, so I guess we’re committed now.  (Public registration is now open; just call Marie at 813-200-8877 and leave a message if she doesn’t answer. She’ll call you back.  We’ll have online registration open in a week or two.)

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The program was pretty packed so I won’t go over everything that happened, just a few highlights. Let’s see, we had about 45 early arrivals over Memorial Day weekend so the Monday cookout was well attended. Eleanor did a foodie seminar again, this time on “plate presentation”.

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Eleanor’s “plate presentation” seminar

Colin Hyde’s trailer was the site of nightly “trailer jams”, although I have to admit I was in bed too early to attend any of them. As is traditional, he taped an episode of The VAP from Alumapalooza.

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We gave away two Pedego electric bicycles, valued at $2,950 each.  The winners both decided to donate the bikes back, so we auctioned them off for charity. Between those auctions, the Gong Show, the chicken barbecue lunch, and other things I think something over $8,000 was raised for charities. Most of it went to the local food bank, and the rest went to cancer research and Habitat for Humanity.

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The musical performances were great. Myles and Tim Thompson were talented and well-received, the Open Mic night was a success as always, and then the Thompsons backed up Antsy for the final show on Saturday.

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Antsy McClain

I feel like Alumapalooza has matured. It’s got a momentum now, a vibe that people expect, and lots of people who support it. I feel like it can continue for years. The only trick these days is finding space.  Airstream is expanding so quickly that we are never sure if we’ll have room to park. This year we had room for about 140 rigs.  Next year, who knows?  We’re looking for more space in the area but can’t make promises yet, so if you want to go to APZ9 in 2018 I strongly recommend you register early.

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Lisa and Beth at one of the factory entrances

At the end we were all happy, tired, and officially in summer mode.  I even picked up a moderate tan, despite trying to avoid the sun. I think this is an omen of a nice long traveling summer ahead.

Our next event will be APZ9 in 2018 since we’ve already done two events this year (Alumaflamingo in Florida was the other). That means we’ve got a break to relax. Our personal plan is to stay in Vermont through July, and then head to Newfoundland in August. That plan could change depending on other circumstances, so we’re not making reservations for the ferry or anything else yet.

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Once we finish up in August it will be a long sprint back to Arizona for arrival in late September. But we’ll think about that later. Right now it’s only June and there’s quite a bit of ice cream and sunsets and boat rides to be had. The Airstream is parked at its summer base and all is well.

The GL is dead, long live the GL

A lot has happened since the last blog. That’s the curse, when things are interesting there’s often no enough time to write, and when I have time it’s usually because nothing is happening.

So here I sit in a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Pennsylvania, snarfing up the speedy wifi and catching up on work & blog … with a lot of stories to tell from the past two weeks.  (I’ll get to Alumapalooza later, this blog is about our tow vehicle.)

The short version is that I condemned our 2009 Mercedes GL320, because it was getting about as reliable as an incontinent cat. At only 134,000 miles it had only about half the miles I had hoped to accumulate, but still with a respectable eight years of service.

After the wet-computer episode in Kansas, I had to take stock of the car to decide if it made sense to keep it on the road.

By the time we got to Ohio I was fairly certain the best economic outcome would be to replace the car ASAP despite the fact that this would put us into a car payment again.  Beyond that, we can’t really tolerate an unreliable vehicle, with all the long-distance and frequently remote travel we do.

As I’ve mentioned a few times here, I really like towing with diesel. Until an electric tow vehicle enters the market with reasonable range, there’s no powerplant available that performs like diesel for towing—and yields astonishingly good fuel economy when not towing. Unfortunately, all the V-6 passenger car diesels in North America have been suspended due to continuing fallout from the VW/Audi “dieselgate” mess.  We tried, but we just couldn’t wrap our heads around a pickup truck (and there’s only one light-duty diesel truck left since the Dodge RAM Ecodiesel was suspended).

2015 Mercedes GL350 diesel

My friend Chris, who just happens to be the General Manager of a Mercedes Benz dealership, found me a 2015 Mercedes GL350 diesel with Certified Pre-Owned Warranty. I wasn’t going to go back to Mercedes after all the reliability issues of the previous GL, but the CPO Warranty swayed me. See, it has something that’s worth a lot to me: an UNLIMITED MILEAGE Mercedes-Benz warranty. So whatever happens between now and August 2021 is on their dime, not mine.  We’ll probably accumulate 70-100k miles in that time.

Now, if switching tow vehicles in the middle of a trip seems like a hassle, try it in the middle of Alumapalooza. This deal would never have come off if not for the supreme efforts of Chris and Super Terry. Chris bought the car at a dealer auction, got it certified quickly, and arranged for a driver to bring it halfway from Pennsylvania.  Super Terry jumped in our old GL and drove four hours to meet the other driver, swapped cars and paperwork, then turned around and brought it back to Ohio. Both of those guys are heroes to me.

Switching from one GL to another simplified one aspect: we didn’t have to mess with hitch ball height or anything else. We just moved our stuff and installed a wireless brake controller. Bam! Done. Super Terry even installed the brake control module on the trailer for me.

[By the way, I’m now a fan of the Tekonsha Prodigy Wireless Brake Controller. It works well just like our previous Prodigy but without any wiring on the tow vehicle. You just plug the remote into a cigarette lighter outlet, which means I can move it from one vehicle to another in seconds and I won’t have to worry about the car’s computer deciding to shut it off because it got wet & grumpy.]

The new car has been great so far.  After Alumapalooza we towed over to Ohiopyle PA and I was shocked at how much better the 2015 drove compared to the 2009. A bit more power, much quieter, smoother acceleration, lighter steering, lots of interesting tech, etc. It’s really almost a decadent experience to be towing with it.

The Mercedes receiver hitch is considerably better in the 2015 than the 2009, so we’ve been able to just drop the Airstream on it without a problem but we do plan to get a reinforcement installed this summer, once we are settled in the northeast and have time to breathe. I plan to make this car work for its living, just like the last one, and I don’t ever want to have a hitch issue crop up.

Right now we’re stopped at the dealership to get a few minor niggles handled (nothing serious) and tomorrow we’ll be on our way north. I’ll backfill the blog over the next few days with posts about our 12 days in Jackson Center for Alumapalooza, and our stop in the lovely little town of Ohiopyle.