Walking Chicago

The weather in Chicago turned so ideal that we decided to extend our stay for a fourth day, to walk the downtown and just be brainless tourists. The ability to make a spontaneous change of plans is one of the things I like most about traveling by Airstream.

By now it was a familiar routine: walk to the edge of Moe Street by the truck parking lot, tap the Uber app, and in about two minutes someone pulls up to take us into the heart of the city.  We left the electric wheels behind this time, intending to log as many miles of walking as possible.  (Gotta keep the Fitbit happy, you know.)

Chicago Alp Blossom cheeseOther than enjoying a leisurely view of a major city, the best reason to walk is to justify eating as much as possible along the way.  Chicago is a great place to graze, so we started with the French Market, which is just the sort of place Eleanor loves best. Thirty or so food stalls means a minimum hour-long visit. I don’t mind.  I bought a Honeycrisp apple and sliced it up with my pocket knife to share with Emma, just to stave off the constant impulse to eat everything we saw.

After resisting pastries, kabobs, chocolates, seafood, and much more, we finally lost our control at the cheese counter. The cheese at left is an example of what went into my backpack that morning. It’s called Alp Blossom and the colorful rind is compressed and dried flowers.  The taste is magnificent.

If you try it, don’t waste it on a cracker. Just nibble it and savor it. Besides, at $20/lb. it’s not the kind of cheese you melt over nachos!

We lingered at a sidewalk cafe over French pastries and coffee. I think it was probably over two hours before we even left the block. And then on to Union Station, crossing the Chicago River (one of several times), past the “Willis” Tower (which everyone knows is forever the Sears Tower), up State, along the Riverwalk, and over to Navy Pier.  We stopped and browsed enough that this took most of the day.

Chicago E&E riverChicago Union Station

Another cab ride brought us to Chinatown that evening, where we got dinner and then headed back to (home sweet home) the truck parking lot and our Airstream.

Eleanor’s comment that night was that she’d like to come back to Chicago to explore some more. Maybe even catch a live show of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. It’s ironic that we all felt that way, because we started this visit with a sense of dread—Oh no we’ve got to tow the Airstream into a major city— and it became a really memorable and fun visit. I may have re-think my attitude toward major metros, and begin to embrace the advantages of urban camping.

A tight spot in Chicago

I mentioned before that our reason for towing the Airstream to Chicago was to get a little work done on our backup camera setup. I’ve been working with Mid-City Engineering, the company that sells the module we’ve been using since 2009. This mod allows me to see the view from the Airstream’s backup camera on the dashboard of the Mercedes GL350.

We had some trouble getting the mod to work in the new GL, and I finally decided to brave the inner city and visit Mid-City in person. This took some planning, as their shop is located off an alley and there isn’t much space to maneuver a 30-foot trailer.

tight alleys

(The red arrow above shows the approximate position of the Airstream.) The only way in was via what is optimistically called Elizabeth Street. That turned out to be the easy part.

Chicago Airstream alley Polish

The guys at Mid-City fixed us up with a new camera on the Airstream (the existing one was dead for unknown reasons). However, we had to wait until 6:30 for the new camera to arrive at the shop, and so by the time the work was done it was getting dark. Plus, I needed to fuel up the GL and that was never going to work at any of the local gas stations with the trailer in tow.

To help out, the Mid-City guys left all the gates unlocked for us based on our promise to lock everything up when we left. They went home around 7:30, leaving us alone in the dark alleyway.

The owner offered to let us spend the night there, but we decided to head back to the truck lot downtown. So, I unhitched the GL from the Airstream and very carefully maneuvered the car around the building to go get fuel. If you look closely at the satellite view above you might think there’s no road around the northeast side of the building, and you’d be right. There is just barely space to get a car around the perimeter, inches from the brick building and chain link fences. It took me a few minutes to clear all the obstacles.

That still wasn’t the hard part.  Coming back, I had to perform the same maneuver in the dark, backwards because the car needed to arrive in position to hitch up again. That took a bit more sweat and care.

And yet the biggest challenge was yet to come.

Chicago Airstream alleyway

Once hitched, the first step was to carefully back the Airstream onto N Elizabeth Street again, and then go forward (southeast).  We couldn’t turn right onto W Walton Street due to cars parked everywhere, so the only escape was down N Elizabeth.  On the satellite image this looked easy, but it turns out that at night the residents park on both sides of the street, leaving only a narrow single lane down the middle for traffic to pass.

That single lane would be no problem for, say, a Mini Cooper.  It was nerve-wrackingly tight for the big Mercedes GL, and seemingly impossible for the Airstream, which is 8.5 feet wide.  Still, I swallowed hard and decided to go for it, knowing that if we got stuck I’d have to back up—and that might be worse.

I wish I had photos, but you know how it is in the moment of crisis. There was a dim light from some streetlamps, and cars parked crazily along the curbs. We literally inched the Airstream forward with Eleanor hanging out the passenger window to look down the side as the Airstream squeezed past parked cars. Our progress was glacial. At many points we cleared cars by about an inch.

At several points I stopped the rig entirely to see if we were completely screwed. A local in his car behind us began honking, frustrated at having to wait a few minutes for this aluminum behemoth to clear his street. That always adds to the fun but I’ve learned not to let people rush me so I ignored the honking.

Finally, we reached a point about 3/4 of the way down the block where there was simply no possibility of getting through—the cars were parked too far from the curbs and we just couldn’t fit between them.

I jumped out of the GL, prepared to go negotiate with the local driver behind us. You can imagine how that would have gone.  ME: “Uh, we can’t fit. You’ll have to back up the alley or we’ll be here all night.”   DRIVER:  “!@$@#$!#$ you, tourist @#$#@%”

But before that happened, Eleanor began folding the side mirrors of the cars parked along the street. Those inches made the difference, and I was able to creep the Airstream past the final cars, inch by inch, without clipping anything.

You can imagine our relief when we finally cleared the block and began working our way back to the highway.  It’s a great feeling to have survived an ordeal like that.  All seemed well as we rolled down the entrance ramp to I-90/94 … and then Eleanor said,

Did we lock the gate?

Of course in all the excitement we forgot about the gate.  So we took the first exit, maneuvered our rig through the streets again, but this time did NOT go down the Elizabeth Street alley.  I pulled over to the side of a larger road with the flashers on, and Eleanor ran down the alley to lock the gate.

Later, set up again in our space at the truck lot, life seemed very peaceful in comparison. Sure, there was still lots of loud activity around us and we had to run the fans all night for white noise, but the roominess of the truck lot felt pretty good after our alley experiences. Plus, the weather had changed for the better and we had a free day in Chicago to look forward to.

As much as this shortened my probable lifespan I have to admit it was fun to face the challenge.  Still, little nightmares like this don’t have to be part of the game for most people.  Recreational towing is supposed to be fun. If you would prefer to avoid premature graying I’ll recommend staying off the side streets and alleys of cities.

Dirty little secrets about electricity

We decided to extend our visit to Chicago for an extra day, after necessary business was concluded, because a cold front came through and weather conditions became exceptionally nice. After a trip across town with the Airstream (an urban towing “adventure” that I’ll blog another day) we returned to the McCormick Place Truck Marshalling Yard for another night.

After three nights the truck yard feels like home. It’s not nearly as scary as it first seemed. We’re accustomed to the noises: the occasional bang of a tractor trailer hitching up, the clack-and-whoosh of commuter rail zipping by, the night-time jackhammering on the Rt 41 overpasses during construction, etc.  It feels like we could spend a lot of time here if we wanted to.

At this point we have two limitations: fresh water and electricity. We have no source to fill the Airstream’s fresh water tank so it’s just a matter of conservation. We’ll be here a little over three days in total, which is easily covered by our 39-gallon tank plus a few jugs of drinking water.

Electricity is normally not an issue thanks to rooftop solar panels that charge the Airstream’s big Lifeline 8D battery. But it was cloudy Sunday through Tuesday, and we were running all three roof vents 24 hours a day to cope with the heat, plus the fridge fans, so our power consumption was higher than usual.

By the time we towed the Airstream from the truck yard to our stop across town on Tuesday, the Tri-Metric was telling us that the battery’s usable capacity we depleted to 39%.  (We count only half the actual rated capacity of the battery as usable, so our usable is 127.5 amp-hours. 39% of that is about 50 amp-hours, so we used about 78 amp-hours of battery capacity. This slightly understates total power consumption because the drain from the battery was offset by whatever solar power was generated.)

Without good sunshine for a full day, we needed to plug in get that power back. So while we were parked in an alleyway for a few hours (I’ll explain why in the next blog) I ran a cord to an ordinary 15-amp household-type outlet.

Chicago Airstream alleyway

You might be surprised to find that your Airstream uses very little electrical power, except when running the air conditioner or microwave oven.  I’ve always said that living in an Airstream (or indeed many types of RVs) is one of the greenest lifestyle changes you can make. This is the first time I’ve bothered to actually calculate the electrical portion of it.

TrimetricThe red/black meter is our Trimetric 2020, which is measuring the power going into the battery.  It’s showing that the Airstream’s built-in battery charger is running near maximum capacity (55 amps) with a net of 49.8 amps going into the battery at that moment. So this represents the peak consumption of our Airstream’s battery charger.

What does that 49.8 amps translate to?  You multiple the amps by 12 (volts) to get 598 watts. That’s not a lot of power when you consider that your coffee maker by itself will use 1,500 watts.

WattmeterNow here’s the curious part. The white meter pictured is counting the watts at the plug, so it’s measuring all the power going into the Airstream. In the photo it’s showing that we were drawing 1,068 watts.

Why the difference between 1,068 and 598 watts?  It appears that somehow at least 470 watts are disappearing before they get to the battery.

Actually, there are more than 470 watts disappearing. At the time these photos were taken, the rooftop solar panels were generating 119 watts of power that was also going into the battery bank. So of the 598 watts showing at the Tri-Metric meter, the battery was actually receiving 479 watts of power from the wall outlet and 119 from the solar panels.

That leaves 589 watts of the 1,068 coming from the wall outlet (at the white wattmeter) unaccounted for. Those electrons were going somewhere else.  Where?

Some of that power was being consumed by appliances in the Airstream. The refrigerator was running on gas, but it still consumes a small amount of 12 volt power, as do many other appliances in standby mode.  The total of all these “parasitic” power draws accounts for another 2.5 amps (on average in our trailer, YMMV), or 30 watts. That still leaves 559 watts missing.

The ugly truth is that most of that 500 watts is going to waste, at the battery converter/charger.  Sadly, most RV power converters are very inefficient, dissipating as much as half of the power they consume as heat. That’s why they have big cooling fins or cooling fans.

A high-end charger will have something called Power Factor Correction to enable a much higher efficiency rate (95% is possible). But since most people will never notice the difference, it’s not something the RV industry suppliers tend to build into their converters.

So in practical terms this 500 watt waste is not a big deal. We fully charged our Airstream, our two electric unicycles, electric scooter, all our i-devices and laptops, camera batteries, etc. and the wattmeter showed that we used only about 2 kilowatt-hours (kWh).  That was our requirement for two days of life in the Airstream, electric toys included.

To put that into perspective, our house uses an average of 54 kWh in the same amount of time, meaning that our electrical consumption for two days in Chicago was 27 times more efficient.  Now to be fair, we didn’t run the air conditioning during our stay in Chicago and we definitely would have if the option was available, which would have brought our usage much higher. But still, it would have been a lot less power than living at home.

Another way to look at it: we’re using about 10-12 cents worth of power a day. So you can see why it doesn’t really pay to upgrade to a more efficient power converter.

Now that everything is re-charged, and Chicago is enjoying absolutely beautiful dry clear weather with temps in the mid-70s, we’ll enjoy another day in the city. The solar panels will easily keep up with whatever power we need, and even if they didn’t our full battery has plenty of capacity.

Camping in downtown Chicago

I’ve been towing this 30 foot Airstream around North America for 12 years now and we’ve pulled it through 48 states, so we’ve certainly passed through a lot of major cities. As a general rule, born out of several heart-stopping experiences, I avoid going through major cities like New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago. When I have to go through one of those places I try to time it to miss the worst of the traffic.

This is one of those times. The story starts with our recent purchase of a replacement Mercedes GL350 to tow the Airstream. In the previous GL we used a clever aftermarket gadget that puts the view from our Airstream trailer camera on the dashboard of the Mercedes LCD screen. This little interface box isn’t hard to install but it does require removing the factory radio stack, and half a brain.  I was able to find the first requirement among the automotive electronics installers available to me in Vermont, but not the second.

The result was an inoperable camera, and no way for me to fix it without a greater set of electronics skills than I have. So I decided to head directly to the manufacturer: Mid-City Engineering in Chicago IL. Because they needed to have both the Mercedes and the Airstream in their shop to get the camera working properly, I had to face the terrible reality: we would need to tow the Airstream directly into the heart of Chicago, a place as clogged with traffic as your heart would be after a Quadruple Bypass Burger from Heart Attack Grill. For a family towing a trailer, this is not friendly territory.

Chicago McCormick truck yardChicago McCormick truck yard2

There are no campgrounds in Chicago. The only place to park overnight with a trailer is the truck marshalling yard at McCormick Plaza, nestled in the bosom of 53-foot trailers, flanked by a busy rail line and four lanes of traffic on Lake Shore Drive. Overhead, jets and an occasional helicopter pass by. It’s kind of like the worst Wal-Mart you ever spent a night at, without the rotisserie chicken and coffee.

There are no services for the RV’er, so you have to arrive prepared for a siege: full fresh water, empty holding tanks, fully charged batteries, and plenty of food.  Getting off the property on foot is difficult due to fencing and minimal sidewalks, so calling a cab is the best choice. But for all the inconvenience (and $35/day) there is a major compensation: you’re practically in downtown Chicago, and that’s pretty special.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon to avoid most of the traffic, which worked (mostly). Unfortunately we hit a pair of hot days with suffocating humidity and of course we had no air conditioning. On Monday with the temperatures soaring fast we pulled up the Uber app and got a ride north to Lincoln Park Zoo.

Chicago E&E lakeshore downtown

The plan was not to visit the zoo, but instead to ride the Lakefront Trail south all the way to the Museum of Science and Industry.  This would bring us past most of the downtown sights. Since it was so brutally humid, we brought out electric transportation: electric unicycles for me and Emma, and an electric scooter for Eleanor. All of them were easily capable of riding the 13 miles of trail, plus a bit extra for side trips.

(If you’re wondering where all this stuff goes: Eleanor’s scooter folds down for storage. We carry it in the back of the GL, strapped down with two bungee cords. The two unicycles go in the Airstream in padded 22″ cymbal cases.)

Chicago Millenium eclipse

With the wheels we made quick progress to downtown, and then detoured for some exploring around Maggie Daly Park, Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park and Millennium Park.  (We had to walk the wheels through Millennium Park; they were showing a live eclipse feed on the big screen.)

Chicago Buckingham fountain pano

In the photo above you can see the orange Segways of a group tour.  We kept passing these tours in the parks. Segways are close relatives of our unicycles, using the same basic technology, but of course much easier to ride.

Chicago Chris family downtownIn downtown we met up with a new friend, Chris, for lunch.  A fellow electric unicycle rider, on this day Chris was sporting a fashionable purple cast on his wrist. This was the result of a recent fall, so he couldn’t join us for a ride. However, it says a lot about the addictive nature of electric unicycles that he is still looking forward to getting back on his wheel ASAP. We’ll probably meet up in Phoenix this December for a group ride.

From there we rejoined the Lakefront Trail and continued south, checking out all the major sights and beaches.

By 4 pm everyone was starting to feel the strain of a very full day combined with near-90 degree temperatures and sweltering humidity, so when we at last reached the Museum of Science & Industry there was really no debate whether to go inside. We called for a ride and headed back to the Airstream.

Chicago lakeshore trail beach

Of course being in the Airstream was not exactly a relief from the heat.  We’ve been using the tricks we have learned over the years for staying cool in uncomfortable heat, but the ultimate solution will come from nature when a cold front passes through and dries everything out on Tuesday.

We’ll make a decision on Tuesday afternoon, after our service appointment, whether to buy a couple more days of parking in the truck lot or head west to other destinations. Either way, this has been a pretty fun visit to a big city and I guess I’m glad we went through the trouble (and the noise) to be here.  It will seem almost surreal in a few days when I contemplate it from the open spaces of the west.

Let’s talk about it

After such an absence from this blog—the longest continuous blank spot since I started blogging in 2005—I wonder where to begin.  These days social media, blogs, and such demand a continuous stream of updates and trivia, even if there’s nothing to say. I find myself wishing for the days of paper correspondence again, where a month or two away wouldn’t be considered unusual.

Certainly much has happened in the Airstream Life world and personal life, but we’ve done no Airstream travel since arriving in Vermont back in early June and so I’ve been disinclined to fill this blog with other details. It’s not that I felt no one would be interested; it was more a matter of trying to live in the moment.

VT Summer-2

That’s because this season marks a milestone for us. Our summer location for the past decade (the place where I grew up) on the shores of Lake Champlain is going away. The house will be sold and a family tradition will come to an end. No more Tiki Bar parties on the beach, views across the broad lake to the Adirondacks, Frisbee on the lawn, tubing on the lake, sunset dinners on the deck, and nights sleeping in our Airstream beneath the old cedar trees. Knowing this, we’ve savored each day of the short and sweet Vermont summer.

VT Summer-3

That sounds sad, but I prefer to look forward. The memories of past summers and the life-shaping experiences we’ve had can never be taken away from us. Rather than bemoan what is gone, we’ll be looking to new opportunities here in Vermont and in other places. From our years of Airstream travel I have learned that there is always another adventure around the corner, if we just bother to break out of our mental rut and go look for it.

VT Summer-1

There are lots of fun things pending indeed …  Some of our Vermont traditions are perennial, like evening trips to the ice cream stand, weekend Farmer’s Markets, boat rides on the lake, blueberry picking, sweet corn on the cob, the County Fair or Fire Dept BBQ, daytrips to Montreal … all those low-key and local activities that seem so small but end up being fond and important moments in retrospect. None of those things are going away.

This year we added a few things to our repertoire which will help make up for what we can’t do next year. Emma and I have had a blast exploring bike trails and urban areas on our electric unicycles, for example.

After years of borrowing motorcycles for annual rides around New England and Canada, I finally bought my own (an eBay steal) and outfitted it with luggage for week-long tent camping expeditions. The first major trip was across New Hampshire and Maine to Acadia National Park in July. It was a flawless trip. The guys are talking about a bike trip to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island next year, so there’s another nugget of the summer that will be retained.

But I remind myself that every year is different. None of us will ever be this age again and so we must seize the opportunities we have right now, or possibly forgo them forever.  It’s not about what we can’t do anymore, it’s about what we can do. Everything new we do has a chance to be the next cherished memory.

Or as I always say, Airstreaming is not about where you go, it’s where you stopand the things you do when you get there. Our Airstream has traveled exactly zero miles in the last 60 days but nonetheless it has made possible a wonderful summer.

VT Summer-6VT Summer-7

Now it’s winding down for us. Obligations in other places are clamoring for our attention, and we’ll be getting on the road soon. Today is a prep day: cleaning the Airstream inside and out, testing systems that haven’t been used in a while, re-packing and shipping excess stuff home, making rough travel plans, etc.  It’s the lead-up to yet another adventure, so even the prep work comes with a certain excitement of anticipation.

I’ll try to remember to live in the moment, even as we launch across the country knowing that a heap of obligations and responsibilities await us. A summer of savoring has been good practice. But now that summer is almost over, I’ll also try to balance that with more regular updates so that I can share experiences and lessons as we go.