The Big Bad Wolf comes to Jackson Center

He huffed and puffed …

At the risk of having this blog turn into an ongoing weather report, I will tell you a story about a storm again. Here in central Ohio at this time of year there is always some challenging weather, usually in the form of thunderstorms that march in solid red lines across Illinois and Indiana and give us “exciting” (chaotic) times. Everyone who has attended Alumapalooza or has been Airstreaming for more than a few years has experienced this.

In small doses a little chaos can be fun but it’s not great as a lifestyle, especially when one is living in an Airstream as I and 400+ other people are currently doing here. The past few days rain has been particularly abundant and it’s making me appreciate the  calm and astonishingly cool weather I’m missing right now in southern Arizona.

We call the ordinary thunderstorms “dust control” or “leak checks”. They’re generally harmless to Airstreams, which after all float down the highway in a 70 MPH wind every day without incident. If the three little piggies had built their houses of aerodynamically-shaped aluminum there wouldn’t be a fable to tell. A bit of wind-driven rain may test the waterproofing of your Airstream trailer but it’s not going to blow it over.

On those rare occasions when there’s the threat of a tornado we just generally just duck and cover, because there’s not much else that can be done. Last night some folks thought we were in danger and took shelter in the factory, which is the correct procedure when there’s a tornado sighted. But most of the attendees rode it out in their Airstreams. Personally, I was busy writing an email and hardly noticed anything else. I guess I’m jaded by a decade of going through this.

Apparently a tornado did hit about 25 miles from here, and there was some damage in Dayton too (70 miles south). Here in Jackson Center we got the usual rain, lightning and thunder. It was nothing like the actual tornado we experienced back in 2008. Colin Hyde didn’t even take in his vintage-style rope-and-pole awning, and it was still upright and undamaged in the morning.

Apparently the posts on social media last night were far noisier than the thunder. So if, based on those reports, you are wondering if we survived the drama, now you know.

APZ10 Lambert cat

FA09 cover smallWhile the bad weather gets all the press, in reality most of the time it has been pretty nice here. There has been enough sunshine to get a few members of our parking crew pretty solid sunburns, and the mornings have been gorgeous. On Monday I had time to go around and visit friends before the Memorial Day cookout, including this old kitty who lives with Michael and Tina Lambert.

(Michael is the lead of The Excella Tones, who will be performing on Saturday at Alumapalooza. He’s also a talented artist whose work adorned the Fall 2009 issue of Airstream Life. You can see the original print on his wall in the photo above.)

Other than the rain at night, Monday passed by pleasantly. The pre-event cookout was a big success and gave the early arrivals a chance to meet each other. Suzie (Airstream Life Store Manager) and I did a trial setup of our pop-up store and ended up having a few customers in the afternoon. Just in talking to people I could sense them relaxing and settling into the groove of Alumapalooza, which is always great. It’s really what this event is all about.

APZ10 Memorial Day cookout

In contrast, Tuesday is always the toughest day for the staff and this year proved it again. The overnight rains made a difficult parking situation even harder, which put the parking staff to a test like they’ve never had before. Some sites are still infeasible due to soft ground, and to avoid turning the nice grassy field into muddy ruts we’ve had to go to a slower parking protocol: drivers unhitch and a tractor moves the trailers to their site. Some of them will be un-parked the same way on Sunday but as I keep reminding people, we have never left an Airstream behind. So there’s no need to get panicky about “getting out” later.

APZ10 field ruts

Other than the parking challenge, it has been a good day. I was busy most of the day in the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store but managed to break away long enough to check out the vendor area, Eleanor’s first food seminar (cheese and chocolate pairings), and a few other things. (Credit for bike group photo: Adam Grillot)

APZ10 bicycle ride

Happy Hour is the usual turning point of the first day because at last most people are parked and can settle in to enjoy the experience. Brett and I hand out a bunch of door prizes, ad lib some lame jokes, and serve free beer & wine. Not surprisingly, everyone has a good time. From here, everything just gets easier and more fun.

Tomorrow we’ll start early. Suzie and I will set up the store around 7:30. I’ve got two workshops to present with Brett at 8:30 and 9:00 and then I’ll run back to the store to help Suzie. At 9:30 Mike Benson of TST will be talking about tire pressure monitoring systems so we’ll get swamped at the store right after that.

At 3:00 I’ll be presenting a seminar about traveling to National Parks, and autographing books. Then right over to Happy Hour to do the Brett & Rich show again. If I’m still awake after all that I can catch a local band in the main tent, but I suspect it will be dinner and emails and bedtime again. Maybe this time with a bit less lightning?

All the little things

If you’re looking for lots of travel excitement or Alumapalooza news, you might want to come back on Tuesday, because right now we’re still in the lead-up to the event. These last few days are dedicated to setting the stage (literally and figuratively) so that we’re ready to host 450 people for most of a week. It’s a lot of work.

APZ10 setting chairsAPZ10 parking trailer

Lisa and Beth were busy getting all the registration materials set up on Thursday, Matt and his parking crew were figuring out how to park early arrivals without losing them in soft clay starting on Friday, Brett has been everywhere with his walkie-talkie dealing with a thousand details, a bunch of us pitched in to set tables and chairs for 400 people, I have been working out hassles related to shipments for the new Airstream Life Pop-Up Store and checking on important little things back in Tucson, and Eleanor has been prepping for a lot of cooking. In addition to her two culinary seminars and Dirty Orange laundry duties, she also committed to making dinner for the Pop-Up Store staff (mostly Suzie and me) nightly.

APZ10 Super Terry water pump

Traditionally on the Sunday before Alumapalooza, Super Terry and I take care of a list of maintenance items on the Airstream. We do this mostly because Sunday is a relatively quiet day before the event gets going, and because it’s the first full day Super Terry can be on site. It might seem easier to just schedule a maintenance appointment with Airstream’s Service Center but as an organizer it’s a huge problem to lose my trailer for a day during the event, so I haven’t tried that since 2010.

APZ10 free toiletThis year my list was fairly benign: replace the toilet (for a leaking seal & general wear), flush the disc brake fluid, adjust one window, replace the water pump, replace a worn-out lift arm on a Fantastic Vent. Nothing major. As always, Super Terry is so competent that I was basically redundant, just there to answer questions and fetch things, and even with a trip to the hardware store it was all done in a couple of hours. The Airstream is back to 100% operational status, which is a relief since I’ll be logging some serious miles and a lot of nights in the next 90 days.

There has been a lot of noise on Facebook about the wet conditions here in Jackson Center. I can only assume people who are raising the issue have not been to Alumapalooza before. It’s usually wet in the weeks before the event, and thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence. It seems that every year someone raises the alarm and starts a rumor that the event is going to be cancelled, or that everyone will get stuck in the mud. Trust me, we’ve never left an Airstream behind and we’ve never cancelled. It always works out.

In the first year of Alumapalooza it rained every day and by Saturday we’d had enough with the mud and damp, so we downloaded Jimi Hendrix playing his twisted version of the National Anthem during the rain at Woodstock, turned the speakers up to 11 and blasted the field in the early morning. It was a good “what the hell” moment, and it worked. People popped out of their trailers like gophers, looked for the source of the sound, and then generally gave us a big thumbs up. Half of them were probably at Woodstock originally, so they got it.

APZ10 Coleman happy hour

Of course the early arrivals see little of this. They are here to chill, and they are experts at it. By Saturday night little gatherings and happy hours were popping up all over the field. My friend Rhonda Coleman, who drove out from Oregon in her new Interstate motorhome, is a bit of a party animal and immediately hosted a mai tai party. Rhonda knows how to socialize, and everyone who knows her knows her Airstream is the first place to stop.

In a way, this is the best time to relax at Alumapalooza. Nothing’s happening right now. On Tuesday the factory will re-open and the roads will be flowing with trucks, tractors, and forklifts. The giant air-cleaning system for the wood shop will get fired up (and it runs two shifts so you’d better get used to the roar of it day and night). All the Airstreamers will be here and the local restaurants and stores will be maxed out. You won’t be able to go 50 feet without running into someone you know, or someone who wants to get to know you.

And the schedule! I spend a lot of time each winter working on the program. You can download a copy of the 2010 Survival Guide here. I try to keep it as full as possible. This year we have seminars, music, and workshops happening all day in two tents for five days, plus outdoor stuff like bike rides and Dutch Oven cooking. So once the event gets going, there’s little downtime. By Tuesday night I’ll be thinking fondly of this quiet period.

Landing at The Mothership … again!

At long last, I’m in Jackson Center, Ohio. After 2,000+ miles of driving and seven stops, I’m parked next to what Airstreamers call “The Mothership”, the factory where all Airstreams have been birthed since 1969.

This is a near-mythical place for Airstream fans. Located in the middle of soybean and corn farms and far from any significant population centers, it’s not a destination you’d seek out for any reason other than to visit Airstream. The factory is here because Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, needed an east coast production facility and he got a deal on a disused WWII-era bazooka factory in the middle of nowhere (the place you’d probably want to locate a bazooka factory). Some of the old factory buildings are still here, still in use, but mostly Airstream has grown into a massive campus on both sides of the main street, and they are adding another 700,000 square feet right now.

The biggest reason to come here, in my biased opinion, is Alumapalooza, which Brett and I hold once a year in the week after Memorial Day. We’ve been doing it for ten years. It’s a 5-day camping event that lasts for 10 days (because most of the attendees show up early).

The other big reason is the factory tour. It’s an old-school tour where you walk right down the production line, meet the people who are building Airstreams, and get sawdust and aluminum shavings in your shoes. No “virtual tour” here, and no “Exit through the Gift Shop”.

Sonora KY overnight parking

Being here at last always make the tribulations of the long drive seem worth it, and this time there were plenty of tribulations. I spent the last night on the road next to a noisy highway in Sonora KY, woke at 3:10 a.m. and decided to hit the road around 5:45 to get an early start on what I expected would be a long day.

In four hours of driving I encountered rush-hour traffic in Cincinnati studded with commuters who clearly wanted to be crushed by 7 tons of Mercedes and Airstream, construction delays, and thunderstorms. Then I picked up Eleanor in Dayton and we began to do the mandatory errands (groceries, photocopies, various other supplies) that lead up to our final arrival at Airstream.

When we landed in the Terra Port and freed the Airstream from its harness, a dozen or more friends were already on hand and eager to say Hi. As I walk through the Service Center and around the campus I see dozens of familiar faces from Airstream, all smiling and welcoming us back. Each visit feels like a homecoming. Even the newbies are not strangers for long; Airstreamers are tremendously gregarious.

Alumapalooza is a big deal here. It’s a chance for Airstream employees to meet the people who buy their product, and there’s a lot of feedback that goes into product improvement. Relatively speaking our group of 450 is also a tidal wave of humanity for the tiny Village of Jackson Center (pop. 1500). The local restaurants like Heidi’s “Heidout” have to anticipate us.

Alumapalooza has been the only event held at the Airstream factory since 2010, when we started it up. Back then I didn’t think about how long we’d be doing it and I guess I never expected it to last this long, but a decade later here we are and the event is the biggest it has ever been. We’re expecting something like 225 Airstreams.

Alumapalooza 10 staff meeting

To pull off an event of this size is a big logistical challenge. We do it with a volunteer staff of just 22 people (having a meeting above) and some help from Airstream.  The trick is to have really good people. Most of our volunteers have been helping run the event for years and they are smart folks who hold (or held) positions of significant responsibility in their real life. Here they wear orange shirts and work hard in the Ohio humidity, hence the nickname “the Dirty Oranges”. They sweat, and sometimes melt like coconut butter in the heat, and for this they are the heroes of the event. We provide them with lots of cold water, clean shirts, and not much else, and yet they keep coming back.

For the next ten days the Dirty Oranges will be handling the bulk of the work. I’ll be like Marlon Perkins, back in the safety of the RV while others tackle the Komodo dragons. Once the event officially starts on Tuesday my job will mostly be to run the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store, host Happy Hour daily with Brett (the funnest part of my day), troubleshoot as needed, and do a few presentations. Eleanor is on tap to make dinner nightly for the Store staff, and she also does the Dirty Orange laundry, in addition to doing two fairly complex culinary presentations.

So we’ll all be busy. And it has begun …

On my last leg

The road is long … too long sometimes. If you’ve read this blog over the past few years you know how I feel about long days on the Interstate. It’s soul-sapping—the exact opposite of what good travel should be. I didn’t get into Airstreaming so I could play at being a over-the-road truck driver, stopping for quick gas-and-goes, eating whatever is convenient, and listening to the shriek of tires on concrete rather than birds in the trees.

But sometimes this is the hand I deal myself. I really should have left Tucson a week earlier so that this could have been a leisurely trip, but it’s so beautiful in Tucson in April and early May that I can never bring myself to leave. The attraction of this season was particularly enchanting and fun, so I delayed as long as possible knowing that I’d pay a price later. The price is 50 hours of drive time, day after day, along less-than-inspiring roads

I vow that next year things will be different. But that’s a topic for another blog. This week I have searched for ways to spice up the trip and you may recall that I opted to add 200 miles to my route (and stay clear of major storms) by going to New Orleans instead of through Dallas and Hot Springs. This turned out to be a brilliant move, affording me one precious wonderful night in the city to break up an otherwise tedious run ever since I left Austin.

I parked the Airstream in Westwego (across the Mississippi river) at Bayou Segnette State Park, and immediately set the air conditioning to “deep freeze” all night in the hope of finally drying out the interior. This strategy worked wonderfully. By morning everything was restored to a normal state of crispness rather than Shrek’s Swamp, and I was no longer in danger of sprouting mushrooms from my ears.

While the Airstream was desiccating, I took the opportunity to go downtown and meet some friends who were just wrapping up work at a conference. We went out for dinner at Galliano’s (excellent) and of course the traditional late-night coffee and beignets with conversation at Cafe du Monde, because that’s what one does. I’ve been hitting that place every few years since my college days back in the [cough] early 1980s. In the past my visits were usually not before midnight, but these days I’m a bit older and I was looking forward to getting to bed.

In my defense, it had been a trying day on the road. A planned 3.5 hour drive from Lake Charles to New Orleans turned into a 7 hour drive thanks to a major accident on I-10. In my experience this sort of “Interstate parking lot” traffic jam is actually better with an Airstream in tow because you at least have access to food and a bathroom, should either of those needs arrive.

I was fine for the 2.5 hours we spent creeping along the Interstate but I was witness to a fellow who was not as fortunate. As I followed his car at 2 MPH, I observed as he dumped the contents of a full water bottle out the window, and then battled his way to the breakdown lane to use that water bottle as a repository, much like Howard Hughes in his later days. I was tempted to offer my bathroom to the poor fellow, but then traffic accelerated to a scalding 5 MPH and his parked econobox disappeared from the side view mirror. Given the extent of that traffic jam, he may still be there trying to get back into the line of cars…

As I mentioned, my weather-avoidance strategy worked wonderfully. While New Orleans was just as humid as everywhere else I’d been lately, the skies were blue with puffy white cumulus as I hitched up in the morning and towed up through Mississippi and into Alabama. I couldn’t ask for better conditions, and I was sort of on Cloud 9 myself. My goal for Tuesday was to log at least 325 miles, and I did easily, ending up at the charming Tannehill Ironworks Historic State Park off I-59.


I promised myself that I would pay for 30-amp power in order to keep the Airstream dry, and I did but I didn’t really need to. The humidity here, at least, had dropped to a tolerable level and the outside air was cool enough for comfortable sleeping.


Sadly, the repeated frequent days on the road had allowed a slight backup of work to accumulate. Rather than wandering the park on foot and getting some exercise I spent the balance of the afternoon and evening at my laptop. I don’t recommend this. A person really needs to do something besides sit all day, and give both the muscles and the eyes something fresh to do. With each day of 7-8 hours I find a small deterioration in my flexibility, stamina, and sense of well-being. Four or five days of that and I’m in danger of becoming a tumbleweed.

In my case I’ll have to recover once I get to Ohio. The detour to New Orleans sucked up any margin I had in the travel plan, so there’s nothing to be done but cover at least 320 miles each day until Thursday. I have to be in Dayton on Thursday to pick up Eleanor at the airport, in Troy OH to pick up printed materials that afternoon, and in Jackson Center shortly after to receive about 50 boxes of store inventory. There’s a long list of other pre-event tasks that must be accomplished over the weekend too. Once Monday arrives, there will be little opportunity for anything but Alumapalooza—which is not bad thing, because the event is fun.

One day left of towing … and then I park with a sigh of relief in the Terra Port at the Airstream factory for 11 days. I’ll try to update the blog daily once the event starts, but if it gets overwhelming, forgive me!

Oh yeah, I’m “living the dream”

There’s always a certain temptation among travel bloggers to present an idealized version of travel. They skip over the mundane and the disappointing, and sensationalize those brief moments of peak beauty. The YouTube vloggers are particularly guilty of this and of course I understand why: scenic beauty and an idealized narrative always gets more clicks.

I’ve tried to avoid doing that, in all my blogs since 2004. We’re all grownups and we know life isn’t always ideal, so I’ve written about roadside breakdowns and unsavory dump station accidents. I feel this gives more validity to the great days and fulfilling adventures, since here you always get the good with the bad. And besides, I don’t care about clicks. There are no ads on this blog.

Austin Rich and pupToday was one of those days that people don’t blog about. It started with a feeling of waking up in a swamp thanks to the incredible humidity in Austin. The dewpoint was 72 and the temperature was 74, which means I was close to having fog inside the Airstream. The condensation was getting out of control despite all the fans.

This kind of humidity is not good for the long-term health of an Airstream (or any other brand). It seeps into everything, saturates the insulation, and encourages mold in corners and inaccessible places. Given time and lack of ventilation, the trailer can start to smell like wet dog. Wood can delaminate as glues begin to fail. Even with air circulation all of the paper starts to wrinkle (including toilet paper, laser printer paper, and even cardboard boxes).  I hate humidity, which is a big part of why I live in a desert.

Austin HumidThe best solution would be to turn around and go back to the desert, but given the impractical nature of that idea, the next best move would be to find a campsite with an electrical hookup that can support the air conditioner—and leave it running continuously.

The problem for me is that I have to actually make forward progress. So the only option for me was to press onward. Before leaving I did a load of laundry in my hosts’ house just to try to get the dampness out of the sheets and towels. After baking my clothes and sheets dry, I hitched up the Airstream and headed out of town in the faint hope of a less humid future. Given that I was heading to Louisiana, this was not highly realistic. But at least there was the prospect of spending a few hours in an air conditioned car.

… and that brings up the next challenge of the day. I needed to move forward but not so far that I end up in a massive storm. If I’d pushed hard I could have made New Orleans by nightfall, but NOLA was getting hammered with heavy rain. The compromise ended up being near Lake Charles, 330 miles from Austin, where the rain was intermittent and winding down.

… and that brings up the next choice. I’m here early and there’s not much of interest in the area (plus I don’t want to unhitch for just one night). I’m just going to do some work, have dinner, sleep, and hit the road early.  So: pay for a campsite that I really don’t need and deal with a tedious campground check-in process just to get 30-amp power and run the air conditioner, or park somewhere free & convenient & uncomfortable and make a quick getaway?

I think most people would cough up the $35 or so and get a campsite, but (Rationalization #1) I enjoy taking on a bit of adversity now and then. It makes for better blogs (even though I still insist I’m not a click-whore) and I subscribe to the theory that one should face one’s fears and dislikes. Also (Rationalization #2) I’m traveling in Bachelor Mode, so I can do whatever I want. If I had a chica sharing the damp sheets with me I’d probably be encouraged to look at things differently. And Rationalization #3 is that when I park in odd places “interesting” things occasionally happen: a fire, a tornado, a late-night eviction …

Uh, wait a second, maybe I should get a campground.