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Super Terry vs. the devious brakes

We were all set to hit the road this morning.   Eleanor even commented on the fact that we had everyone ready, and the trailer all packed up, an hour before we had expected to leave.   The plan was to tow the trailer up to Julian (elev. 4000) and then down to the town of Campo, right on the border with Mexico.   Our friends Daisy and Don are there, volunteering at the San Diego Railroad Museum.   They promised us a train ride and dinner tonight.   Eleanor was bringing a Julian apple pie for dessert.

All of those plans are in the past tense now, because we’ve had an equipment failure.   I hitched up the trailer, including connecting the 7-way trailer plug, and   about five minutes later, the disc brake actuator spontaneously went on.

Normally, the only way the actuator could go on without the truck brakes being activated first would be if the emergency breakaway switch was activated or shorted.   I cycled the breakaway several times (pulling the pin in and out), but it had no effect.   I pulled the 7-way plug out to ensure that the truck’s brake controller wasn’t sending a false signal — no result.   I quickly tossed everything out of my bedroom closet to check the wiring in the region of the brake actuator, and it all looked good.   I wiggled wires.   Nothing.

With the actuator running full on, we had three problems.   (1) The trailer would not go anywhere.   The disc brakes are locked full on, which means we’d have about as much chance of towing it as we would trying to tow a beached whale.   (2) The actuator pump would probably eventually overheat or burn out.   (3)   The power draw of the unit (about 20 amps DC) would quickly drain our batteries.   We solved the third problem by plugging the Airstream into the campsite power again.

Finally, with no other choices, I got out the wire cutters and began snipping wires.   It was like trying to defuse a bomb.   Cut the right wire, and the problem ends.   Cut the wrong wire and you’re just wasting time.     Eleanor stood by to assist.   “Headlamp!”   “Check!”   “Hand me the cutters!”   First I cut the breakaway controller wire to verify it wasn’t shorted out.   That had no result, so I went into the closet again and cut the blue wire running to the actuator. The blue wire carries the signal from the truck’s brake controller.   I figured we might have a bad 7-way plug, but snipping the blue wire also had no result.   Then I cut the 12-gauge black wire (12vDC +) and finally the actuator shut off.

So the immediate problem is solved, but of course we have no brakes.   Towing up the Banner Grade to Julian is clearly out of the question.   We are in Borrego Springs, CA, a town with no RV services and very little else.   The nearest real service is 50 miles away in Brawley, or 70 miles away in Coachella (Palm Springs area).

If we were really in a pinch I’d probably tow up to Coachella since the road is mostly flat and not particularly crowded.   But we have an ace in the hole, or rather, an ace mechanic.   We have “Super Terry,” who is working up in Corona, CA at Inland RV.   Super Terry (formerly just known as Terry, but I needed to differentiate him from Tucson Terry)   has — miracle of miracles — a brand new Kodiak disc brake actuator sitting on the shelf.

He is now and forever known as Super Terry because upon hearing of our plight, he immediately volunteered to drive   the 109 miles from Corona down to us with a truck loaded with tools and equipment, and replace the brake controller right here.   Now that’s a friend.

We are due to leave the state park today at noon.   We could ask for an extension, but part of the work will be to bleed the brakes, and I doubt the park rangers would find that an acceptable practice.   So we are going to tow the Airstream about five miles over to a boondocking site known as “Pegleg” and do the work there.

As with all of our on-the-road disasters, we will make the best of it.   So let’s count our blessings:   We’ll get another night in the lovely desert.   We’ll get to have our friend Terry over for lunch, and dinner, and breakfast (he’ll be staying the night for sure).   We are going to get a very convenient repair to what could have been a thorny problem.   And, out of sheer pity perhaps, Bill has given me a gift of Jake Shimabukuro’s album “Gently Weeps.”   So we’ve got new music to enjoy tonight while we boondock under the stars.

I’ll post an update after we get the work done.

The home stretch

For me, there are several key stages to Alumapalooza. Because it’s nearly a two-week endurance trial, it’s helpful to break it up with milestones. First is the pre-event stage, where all the staff are organizing, I’m collecting shipments, and Super Terry comes to do trailer maintenance.

Then there’s the “Hump Day” milestone, which is Wednesday of the event. By then, all the attendees have arrived, registration is done, and we’ve managed to sort out the parking of 200+ rigs. This year parking was the toughest job because of all the rain that softened the ground before we got here. On Hump Day everyone starts to relax and suddenly all the little quibbles & questions that were pervasive on Tuesday magically vanish.

APZ10 Eleanor Brett culinary seminar
Brett and Eleanor prepping for her second culinary demonstration, “Small Plates, Big Finish”.
APZ10 Eleanor culinary seminar
We auctioned off rights to eat what Eleanor made in her culinary demo (for charity). JJ and Sandy Johnjulio, and Dave and Anne-Marie McKeever enjoyed 7 courses with wine pairings.

And the final milestone is today, Saturday, when all of the seminars are done and there’s not much to think about except the Swap Meet and a day of entertainment. This year we have three musical acts performing and one mentalist/magician, plus a car show, a police K-9 demo, and catered dinner. So this is a definite day to chill, even for those who are working in orange shirts. This is the home stretch.

APZ10 Airstream Life pop-up store staff
Rich, Suzie, and friend guarding the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store.
APZ10 pop-up store
A few of the items in the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store. Wood sink cover/cutting boards were a popular item.
APZ10 Airstream Supply Company
Airstream announced its new online store, “Airstream Supply Company”

For me, this is a particularly significant “home stretch”, because it’s my last one. I’ve organized Alumapalooza for ten years. I’ve also run two Vintage Trailer Jams in NY, two Palm Springs Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows, two Tucson Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows, four Alumafandangos (CO, OR, CA), three Alumafiestas (AZ), and three Alumaflamingos (FL). That’s 26 major events in 12 years.

So it may not be a surprise to you that I’m stepping back from organizing more events. I need to switch to a new path before I become a bobble-head. I’ve got other things that I want to do, new projects (like books to write) and new adventures, in different places. I want to sit in the gazebo in the early morning and listen to the birds cooing, and let my brain wander for a few months. Having a little time off over next winter—when I would normally be organizing the next Palooza—will make that possible.

Don’t worry about Alumapalooza. Brett is going to carry on the tradition, with other people helping him. I’ll still have some input and offer help where I can but it won’t be my event in the future. Airstream Life magazine will continue to be an official sponsor, and we may have another pop-up store next year (I’m not sure yet). If I’m at Alumapalooza 11, you might even see me on stage with Brett at Happy Hour doing our usual goofball routine.

I’m glad to be wrapping up on a high note. This year was challenging because of weather but in all other ways a huge success. At 220+ rigs it was easily the largest event we’ve ever run. Everyone seems to be having a great time (as always) and already they are eagerly signing up for next year. It’s a great feeling to have originated Alumapalooza with Brett ten years ago, to have worked with him in close partnership to make it a cornerstone of the Airstream community, and to leave it in his extremely capable hands to continue for the future. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.

APZ10 sunset window view

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.

Growing older with an Airstream

The other day I found myself having one of those conversations that older people seem to have. You know, the kind of conversation you never think you’ll have when you’re young, like a serious explanation of how your colonoscopy went. In this case I was commiserating with a friend (a Gen-Xer, but still someone in her fifties), about how most consumer products of this century are designed for short lives, and consequently are often rented rather than owned. Phones and cars come to mind, and even most brands of RVs, but not Airstreams.

It has long been a selling point for Airstream that the aluminum trailers last forever, with normal care and maintenance, but I never thought I’d grow old with my Airstream. Honestly, when I bought it during my early 40s I had no thought to keeping it for any particular length of time. It was just an expedient to a full-time family adventure.

But that adventure stretched out for three years, and then became a half-timing experience for the family each summer, and now I find myself still in the Airstream, old enough to stay at “55+” communities and wondering if the trailer will outlive me. It’s a strong possibility; I’ve seen many Airstreams that are old enough to collect Social Security still rolling on the roads and making a splash at vintage rallies. Will my Airstream someday be one of those historic relics, “discovered” resting behind a barn somewhere and restored by a nostalgic member of the Flying Car Generation in 2065?

I kind of hope so. I’d like my Airstream to still be in serviceable condition in 2065, if not actually in use, and beloved by someone who is at this very moment being born. While I’m fantasizing, I’d like this person to have a son or daughter who is in training to join the Mars or Moon Colony program. It would be like having your vintage Corvette purchased by a member of the Apollo space program, a neat juxtaposition of past and future adventure.

Ah, but first the Airstream must take care of me, and so I must take care of it. I’m about to launch for points East in a few days, and that means a careful check of all the systems and supplies. I’ve documented what I check in my book Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance so I won’t repeat it here. A good inspection of the Airstream is not difficult, requires no tools trickier than a flashlight, and doesn’t take all that long. You can bring your Airstream to a service center for inspection but I recommend you start doing it yourself. You know your Airstream better than anyone and are really the best person for the job.

So far my checklist has yielded only a few things that need attention. I had to lube the awning arms with Boeshield T-9 because they were getting hard to slide. One of the Fan-tastic Vents has a wonky gear mechanism that causes it to not close correctly, and the hydraulic disc brake fluid should be replaced just based on the length of time it has been in use. I could take care of those last two items myself, but it’s always more fun to work with Super Terry and neither task is urgent, so they’ll get done when we meet up in the days before Alumapalooza.

Alumapalooza, of course, is high on my list of things to prepare for. This year it’s particularly tricky because I’m going to try something new: an Airstream Life Pop-Up Store. We’ll have a big tent filled with some of the most popular Airstream upgrades that we sell. Every year the Canadian attendees beg me to bring stuff to Alumapalooza so they can avoid the prohibitive cost of shipping across the border, and there are a lot of items that are best shopped in person (like wood cutting boards).

We’ll also have “show pricing” on certain things like TST tire pressure monitors. So in addition to shipping a bunch of stuff to Jackson Center, the back bedroom of the Airstream will be filled with boxes—in addition to my bicycle, two electric unicycles, and other toys for the summer. Maybe it’s a good thing Emma doesn’t come on these trips anymore …

I’m almost done prepping for this trip, which is about right since launch is in three days. The Airstream looks poised and ready to go. Clothes are packed, food is stocked, laundry is done, the interior has been cleaned, and all systems are go. Just a few more errands to run in the next few days, and the Airstream & I will begin the long trek east. We’re both a year older than the last time, but we’re both still game.

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.