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.

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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.

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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.

Whether east or northeast

Every year when I make this trip from Arizona to Ohio, there’s the risk of some sort of challenging weather. It’s just the nature of crossing the Rockies or Plains states in early summer. One year it was a late May snow in Colorado. Another time it was lightning strikes that came too close for comfort. And nearly every year there’s a line of nasty thunderstorms that can contain hail or a tornado. So I pay attention to the weather reports and keep a weather radar app on the iPad.

IMG_0452The picture above shows the radar on Saturday afternoon. I’m still in Austin, visiting friends, and it’s darned lucky I chose this route because I managed to duck the worst of the weather that’s plowing east right now.

Getting lucky is great but it doesn’t happen often enough—so I need to plan ahead. The way things look today, if I took the shortest route to Ohio starting on Sunday (northeast through Dallas and Hot Springs) I would run the risk of catching up to that huge frontal boundary and end up right in the middle of some unpleasant weather. No, thanks.

So I’ve decided to take the New Orleans option, heading 533 miles straight east on I-10. That will take all day Sunday and Monday, and if my luck holds the worst of the front will be lifting northeast and out of my way by Tuesday.

This will add about 200 miles to the trip overall, but it’s well worth it. In addition to avoiding a potentially challenging towing experience, there’s the compensation of spending a pleasant evening in New Orleans and grabbing a little something tasty.

This is one of the many reasons I hate to have a fixed itinerary on a big trip. Stuff happens: weather, repairs, distractions, opportunities. Why have an Airstream that can go on any road, and then limit yourself to a specific route and schedule if you don’t absolutely have to? I’ve had too many trips where I absolutely positively had to get somewhere, and it almost always sucks.

As I mentioned, I’m in Austin to visit friends so this morning I looked up another one, my dear friend Vicki, and we met for a late breakfast at Bouldin Creek Cafe, which is a vegetarian place near downtown. Neither of us are vegetarian but I’m discovering that eating vegetarian (or even vegan, surprise!) can result in some pretty decent meals. And these days when I meet up with my old friends (note: they are older; I don’t seem to age) it’s often a game of comparing what we don’t eat.

Person 1: I’m gluten-free these days, and I’m cutting back on sugar.

Person 2: I’m not eating anything with cholesterol or caffeine.

Person 3: I don’t eat anything with a face, or dairy.

Waitress:  … *sigh* …

IMG_0835After breakfast I did a little shopping at the massive Whole Foods in downtown (a mandatory stop for me), and then hopped on my electric unicycle to tour the downtown as quickly as possible, since the rain was bearing down on Austin. This is why I love having the unicycle on Airstream trips. It was easy to cover several miles of downtown streets and parks in an hour. After that I could see heavy dark gray clouds menacing the city from the west, so I zipped back to the car. Less than 10 minutes later the deluge hit.

I’ve spent much of the afternoon hunkered down in my Airstream haven and listening to the rain pattering on the aluminum roof. In between rain showers I’ve been prepping for the next two days of driving (330 miles on Sunday and 220 on Monday). The GL wanted some diesel fuel and more air in the tires. One of the stabilizer jacks squealed for a spritz of silicone spray. And I’ve got over a dozen books on the shelves that were waiting for a rainy “nothing to do” day like this to be cracked open.

So while it’s uncomfortably humid and warm, it has been a great day nonetheless and it is slipping away too fast. I’ve got less than an hour before my hosts return home and I think we’re going out for dinner again tonight. I would stay another day to look up more old friends, but with a deadline to be in Ohio by Thursday it’s time to move on.  Hopefully my plan to stay south and away from the weather front will work out.

Van Horn TX to Austin

IMG_0802Tucson to Austin in two days is a slog. I don’t think I’ve done a run like this since we did the Aluma-zooma back in 2014, driving from Tucson to Sarasota in seven days. Now I remember why I try to avoid towing days over 400 miles.

But having done it, I’m thrilled to be in Austin. I’m courtesy parked at the home of my Airstream friends Erica and Jef, who I haven’t seen in at least six years. This is a great spot to catch up on some sleep and just chill after the 16-hour marathon drive. The overhanging live oak trees make the setting very park-like. From what they tell me, I’m just 15 minutes from downtown Austin.

As with most courtesy parking, I’ll be on a limited hookup while I’m here, for three nights. Jef ran a heavy-duty power cord out to the Airstream so I won’t need to ration battery power. (The solar panels on the Airstream are in the shade.) The amperage won’t be sufficient to run the air conditioner, which is a shame because it’s humid here—a clear indication that I’ve crossed from West Texas to East Texas—but I really don’t mind. The fans are enough and the skies are forecast to be mostly cloudy for the duration of my stay.

I arrived with mostly full water and mostly empty holding tanks, so I should be fine in that department for the next few days. Permission has been granted to release gray water here, and refill the water tank from their hose, so I could probably stay for a couple of weeks without a problem. If I accepted their offer to use the house bathroom, I could stay all summer. So I’m not feeling any pressure to be frugal with the Airstream’s resources.

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In the picture above you may notice Erica’s 1961 Bambi. She bought that one from Diane Bailey, and if you have ever camped anywhere in the southwest with an Airstream crowd, you’ve probably met Diane. It’s an adorable little trailer.

The best part of this stop is that I have no particular agenda. Other than visiting with Jef, Erica, and their son Dax, I have a few other old friends in the area that I may see, or I may just stay here and chill. Frankly, as much as I like Austin, I’d just as soon not have to deal with Austin traffic right now.

The weather is going to be my big challenge for the next few days. “Major and severe weather” is expected in the midsection of the country, running almost from Canada to Mexico, and there’s no way I’ll be able to avoid it. I was lucky to have chosen the southern route this year because the upper Plains states are likely to see more severe thunderstorms (which means the likelihood of hail, every Airstreamer’s worst nightmare).

At this point my best route may be to continue easterly toward New Orleans, which is not a bad option in my mind. There are things I’d really like to see and do in New Orleans, well worth the detour. I’m not going to decide just yet. I’ve got until Thursday to get to Ohio so it feels like the best course of action is to make no decisions until Sunday. In the meantime, I can try to make a small contribution to keeping Austin weird this weekend.