Heading west, part 2: Flaming Gorge, Utah

Driving 400 miles a day is not my idea of ideal Airstream travel. It’s more like being a long-haul truck driver, with “gas and go” stops along the endless concrete, and few opportunities to stop and explore. We only do it when we have to trade off one part of the country for another, and that’s why we chose to rush through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The reward, we decided, would be Utah.

Utah’s a great state. It’s under-appreciated in my opinion. Not only does Utah have an amazing constellation of national parks (Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, and some smaller units of the National Park Service), and dinosaurs being dug up regularly, but it is also just beautiful nearly everywhere. I love the rocky red and yellow outcrops, the hoodoos and pine forests, and the ever-changing roads. So we traded a few states we’ve visited many times for a week to explore Utah a little more.

We arrived with a souvenir from Nebraska. Near Grand Island the Tesla caught a rock in the windshield which put a nice long crack right in the driver’s field of view. Being a relatively new car made by a nascent manufacturer, spare parts are hard to get, and so after a few phone calls from the roadside we realized we had no choice but to press on and ignore the crack. A replacement windshield wasn’t going to be available for two weeks. Although the crack continued to grow from 7″ to about 24″ over the next day, the laminated glass would not shatter or fail and so it was just a matter of learning to ignore it.

The windshield crack was a low point in the trip. We had been on the road for days of uninspiring highway driving and we were still at least a day and a half away from our goal, and then our new car had gotten damaged in the middle of Nebraska. It felt like bad karma, but there was nothing to do except keep plowing west against the headwinds and crossing our fingers that nothing else would go wrong.

I started feeling better when we hit Cheyenne WY. For some reason being in the dry and wide-open west, especially at high altitude, always invigorates me. We spent the night boondocked in a parking lot. Although normally we never leave the Airstream in an “overnight parking” situation, in this case we felt safe to leave the Airstream and Mercedes hitched up and take the Tesla to get a steak dinner at a suitably western restaurant. Eating out at a place where guys would be wearing their best cowboy hats and jeans felt like the right thing to do in Wyoming. Even though I was exhausted that night and not much of a conversationalist, it felt recuperative.

From Cheyenne it was still nearly a full day of driving to Flaming Gorge, but everything seemed like it was getting better. Wyoming along I-80 is stark, open, and occasionally harsh, but also beautiful as the light filters through clouds to make the yellow hills glow. Despite constant winds and tough uphill climbs, I enjoyed the drive much more than I had any of the previous three days.

Flaming Gorge-2

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Utah is an amazingly beautiful area surrounding a reservoir. The reservoir is the result of a 1950s dam project along the Green River (part of the series of dams that include Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell, and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead). It’s relatively quiet, dominated mostly by fishermen and other boaters on the reservoir, and it’s not hard to find your own little piece of paradise along the lake or on a trail. Plenty of camping opportunities too—although there’s only one campground with hookups. You’ll find that in the little town of Dutch John, which was the town created for the original dam workers.

Flaming Gorge-1

Most non-boaters seem to take the dam tour, hit the visitor center at Red Canyon, and move on. But there’s a lot more to do here if you take the time, such as horseback rides and excellent hikes along the riverbanks. If you don’t have a boat there are lots of fishing guides ready to take you out for a day. We spent a day exploring the river downstream of the dam, where the current runs strong and clear and cold, and watched birds from a flat rock. Occasionally fishermen would float by, but mostly we were alone.Flaming Gorge downstream fishermen

Getting in and out of Flaming Gorge is fun with an RV, since there are unavoidable steep grades no matter how you arrive. 8-10% is not really a big deal with proper technique—it’s more of a psychological challenge, especially when the road is winding and there are steep drop-offs. But if you go, be sure you know the right way to control your rig’s speed when descending a steep hill so that you don’t smoke your brakes. This even applies to cars: we smelled a few sets of hot brakes on the way in.

Utah Airstream near Flaming Gorge

Now that we had slowed down, we had time to think about where we would go next. We had over a week of time left, and I saw no reason to get home early, so after a bit of thinking I proposed we go to Salt Lake City. In all of our travels to 49 states we had never made it to Salt Lake City, and for years our friend Jim Breitinger had been telling us to come visit him there. Since Jim had long ago courtesy-parked his Airstream in our driveway, he wanted to repay the favor. So we packed up after three nights and started pulling the Airstream northwest …

 

Heading west with an Airstream and a Tesla

In the last blog I alluded to the fact that for the first time, Eleanor and I aren’t traveling with Emma in the Airstream. I wrote that just as we headed back out on the road in August, anticipating that things would be very different for us without our little traveling companion.

I was right: driving back was a little strange. Eleanor was following me in a car for the 3,800 mile trip, so for most of the day I was alone in the Airstream with my thoughts and a few podcasts.  The familiar chatter of E&e was gone, and I realized that even their silent physical presence (as they read books during the long drive) was something I missed.

For a while we were just hustling to cover the miles, until we could get to something that was of particular interest. We breezed through New York with just a short stop at the Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park (plenty of room in the parking lot for RVs), dropped in on our friends in Ohio for a couple of nights, and then zipped up to the Detroit area to finally hit a place that had been on my list for a while: The Henry Ford Museum and Dearborn Village.

Dearborn Village flowers house

Those were great and I highly recommend both. That’s part of Dearborn Village above, at a place where we stopped to try the High Tea. It took us two days to see all of Dearborn Village and the Henry Ford (plus a couple of hours to do the Ford Rouge Plant tour), so if you go, I wouldn’t skimp on the time.

The visit was made better because we camped at Camp Dearborn in Milford MI.  It’s a nice place—about 30-40 minutes drive to Detroit—and the Tin Can Tourists go there annually so the staff is accustomed to seeing all kinds of cool vintage trailers. But best of all they have a nice discount ticket deal with The Henry Ford Museum, and you’ll definitely see all kinds of cool stuff there.

Henry Ford Museum cool car

Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion house by Rich Luhr

The photo above is the interior of a Dymaxion aluminum house, invented by Buckminster Fuller. (We talked about it in the Spring 2005 issue of Airstream Life, if you still have that issue in your collection.) Being made of aluminum, the Dymaxion house is beloved by many Airstreamers.

2018 travel route west

From Detroit heading west we had no planned stops at all, so for a while I was somewhat at a loss for what to do and where to go. That’s odd, since as the family navigator I usually have at least a rough idea of where we are headed. Here’s another place where Emma’s influence was critical: normally I’d be looking for educational opportunities for her. I wasn’t used to having to figure a route for two adults in their 50s. Where do childless people stop in Iowa and Kansas?

Airstream & Tesla plugged in

Finally we decided to just plow west against the headwinds on I-80 and try to get as far as we could in the next three days. It was an uninteresting part of the trip, so this is probably a good time to mention that the car Eleanor was driving was a new Tesla Model 3, an electric car.

For those who know me, it’s no surprise that I’m a big believer that electric cars will be huge in the next few years, nor will anyone be surprised that I waited to get this car for over two years. I am looking forward to the day when I can buy a Tesla pickup truck and finally get free of the dreaded “CHECK ENGINE” light and all the other hassles associated with internal combustion engines and transmissions.

The car is relevant particularly along this leg of the trip because I know there’s a lot of confusion about electric cars, and one thing people often seem to believe is that you can’t drive them very far.

That’s ancient history. Even against a typical Plains State headwind, Eleanor stopped for a quick recharge about the same number of times I stopped to buy diesel fuel, and her cost was about $5-10 versus the $65-80 I was dropping on diesel.  A few times we charged the car for free on campground 50-amp connections. In the end, it cost $99 in electricity to drive the Tesla 3,800 miles (2.6 cents per mile). I’ve paid more than that for a single fill-up of our tow vehicle.

Wyoming Sierra Trading Post AirstreamOn those nights in Iowa and Kansas where we were just parking overnight in a lot it was no problem to find a place to stash the car. In fact it was kind of handy because we could go out for dinner without unhitching, as we did in Cheyenne WY the night we parked at Sierra Trading Post.

The rest of the time we were lucky enough to get campsites with room to squeeze in the car, or at least park it nearby. If we could each the power pedestal it was a bonus, but we didn’t worry about it. Tesla’s Superchargers are conveniently spaced along the highways and the car can go over 300 miles on a charge, so we never really had any concern about where we’d charge up next—even when we got into some remote parts of Utah.

Part 2 of this trip starts there. I’ll continue the story in a few days.

 

Re-start

I’ve often said that it’s easy to wreck an Airstream by neglecting it, but it’s hard to wear out an Airstream by using it. Despite a long hiatus in this blog, our Airstream has seen a fair bit of use over the last ten months. I haven’t been writing about it because I felt, after 12 years of continuous blogging (Vintage Thunder, Tour of America, Man In The Maze) that it was time to take a long break.

The break was not just from blogging, but also from tackling new projects like books and events. We’re just doing Alumapalooza now—instead of Alumafiesta, Alumafandango, Alumaflamingo—which gives us time to attend other events that other people are hosting. That’s kind of a novelty for us. Last February Eleanor and I hit a Greater Los Angeles Airstream Club event in Palm Springs during Modernism Week, and it was refreshing to just float along while someone else sweated the daily details.

I spent a chunk of the winter and spring closing out projects so that when we hit the road in May, I’d be able to focus on traveling across the country with Eleanor and Emma. This might have been the last time we ever do this together, since Emma is now 18 and heading toward all the obligations and opportunities her age implies. We did nothing exceptionally different on this trip compared to any other year, but for me there was a certain tinge of sadness in the background because I knew it could well be the end of a wonderful era of Airstreaming as a family with our daughter as a child.

Emma Four Corners lunch stop
A lunch stop somewhere in the Four Corners region

We spent a couple of days in Moab with our friends Koos & Stefan, a couple of weeks at the Airstream factory doing Alumapalooza, another day or two in Ohio with Loren & Mike, and a few other small stops. Every time we stopped it felt like a farewell tour. Here’s the kid one last time. Enjoy, because the next time you see us she’ll be an adult and we’ll be empty-nesters. Traveling together is all we’ve known since Emma was a toddler. What will we do next?

APZ9 Eleanor seminar
Eleanor’s culinary seminar at APZ9

Rich Eleanor BostonThe summer, mostly spent in Vermont, slipped away like a dream in the morning. There were the traditional activities of a Vermont summer, like Farmer’s Markets on Saturday morning, dinners with friends in the Champlain Valley, fishing and boat rides on the lake, a motorcycle trip for me (to Nova Scotia), trips to the Boston area to see other friends and family, concerts & movies & fireworks … and then before the sweet corn and blueberries were ripe, it was time to fly Emma back home.

 

She’s there now, managing by herself, living on her own. For the first time in her life she’s bound by a school schedule. She’s driving around in her car, looking for a part-time job and prepping for college. Eleanor and I, on the other hand, find ourselves in the northeast with a 30-foot Airstream and a lot fewer obligations than we’ve had in the past two decades. This would seem to be an enviable situation—lots of time and eight wheels ready to roll—but we are both still adjusting to the concept.

Several times we have considered downsizing from the 30 foot Safari Bunkhouse but ultimately we know that this Airstream suits us pretty well even though it is quite a bit bigger than we need. Fourteen years of upgrades and customizations have resulted in a travel trailer that fits us like well-worn leather jacket—and Airstreams really don’t wear out if you take care of them.

And that brings me back to the first sentence of this little essay. After sitting still in Vermont for two months it finally came time to hitch up and head west.  I always have a little sense of unease on the first day because it’s the day that all the little things that have gone wrong during storage become apparent. The first travel day of a long trip is usually the hardest one for me.

The week before we were scheduled to go I began to run through the usual pre-trip prep, like filling the propane and re-organizing our supplies for travel. The night before departure I checked the tire pressure and found that one of them was a few pounds low, so I removed the tire pressure sensor and pumped it up. The next morning, that tire was completely flat.

What happened? When I removed the sensor, a tiny rubber gasket that seals the stem apparently fell out. Without this gasket, the sensor will leak air. (This was easily verified with a few squirts of soapy water solution from my “little things” toolkit.) Unfortunately, I somehow forgot to include the little baggie of spare gaskets that is provided with every TST sensor kit, so I just removed the sensor for now and will replace it later.

By itself that wasn’t a big deal, but it led to the discovery that my 23-year-old air pump was ready to die, and it did so with a pathetic “cough” just as it completed the job. Farewell, old friend. So our first stop of the trip was to buy a replacement, and truth be told I like it a lot better. Since we have a “whole house” inverter on our Airstream, I can now use a powerful 120-volt AC pump instead of that anemic 12-volt pump.

These sorts of bugs really slow down the departure day. You think you’re going to get somewhere and then stuff happens. It was noon before we had everything squared away, which led to us not getting very far. At first this was frustrating but then Eleanor pointed out that we’re not on a tight schedule. We’ve got plenty of time to get to Arizona.

For the next 2-3 weeks of travel across the country Eleanor and I have time to think. This trip is more than just a drive home; it’s a chance to gain perspective on what our future travels will be like. The trailer is bigger and quieter without Emma, but also less energetic and thrilling. Much of what we saw and did over the past 15 years has been channeled through our child, infused with her spirit and freshness, and I’ll miss that.

What will the next two decades of travel be like? I think we can only find out by moving forward, rather than bemoaning the inevitability of our little girl growing up. She’ll always be a part of it even if it’s only via picture messages and phone calls. Eleanor and I will hitch up again in the morning, and see what the road brings.

Holidays in the Airstream

Halloween is coming up and like a lot of holidays it reminds me of great times we’ve had on the road. For three years we spent every holiday on the road in our Airstream, and many other holidays since then.  The Airstream is just a fun place to be.

Airstream Christmas 2005

Being in the Airstream makes each holiday so much more memorable.  We’re simultaneously away from our familiar surroundings and routines, and yet completely at home.  Christmas in the Airstream is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps because many of the trappings of that holiday are stripped away, leaving us to focus on the things that really matter: each other and the moment we’re in.

If you ever have lamented the fuss, traffic, commercialism, over-abundance, and family stress of Christmas, I strongly advise you to pack up the Airstream. Pick the right spot far away from the hubbub, shape a little potted rosemary bush into a tree, warm something nice-smelling on the stove, and suddenly Christmas becomes peaceful and magical again.

I remember very well each of the Christmases we spent in the Airstream because they were unique. The first was near San Diego, and we went to the San Diego Zoo on Christmas day.  The next year it was St George Island, and we walked the endless open beach by the state park.  The next year we bought a house and spent one night camped on the living room floor because the house had no furniture (then we moved back into the Airstream for another 10 months).

I like Halloween in the Airstream too, because we always see a different version of it.  In Oregon we joined a parade and saw some wonderfully incredible and creative costumes.

Medford OR halloween parade 2007

Rotten pumpkin AirstreamIn Disney’s Fort Wilderness we trick-or-treated in costume with dozens of other people through the campground. (Warning: the warm temperatures in Florida at that time of year mean that carved pumpkins rot quickly.)

We’ve spent many a New Year’s Eve camped at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, but in the past few years the park has gotten a little too popular at that time of year so lately we’ve been seeking alternatives locally. Still, I love a New Year’s Eve where the primary sound at midnight is a pack of coyotes howling.  Other people like parties, and if that’s your style you can always find a New Year’s Eve rally.

Eleanor has even successfully prepared a complete Thanksgiving dinner in the Airstream.  She had to shop for a very small turkey that would fit in the oven, and the limited counter space was a problem that required lots of pre-planning, but it worked out.  One tip if you ever do this: definitely find a full-hookup campsite.  Otherwise it’s hard to have enough water capacity for all the dishes afterward!

Chatfield SP Airstream snowPerhaps the best thing about major holidays is that many of them occur in the winter season. If you live up north each holiday gives you an excuse to load up the Airstream for some off-season camping, which can be a lot of fun.

You’ll burn more propane and use a lot of electricity but with a campground hookup it’s really no problem to take the Airstream out. Waking up to a fresh snow or a bit of frost on the ground somehow feels very cozy when viewed from your warm Airstream—and you know you don’t have to go anywhere.

I know we’re all supposed to enjoy holidays because each holiday is a chance to get together with the family. But if that’s not your reality, the Airstream has another huge advantage: you can be far away, and even unreachable if you want to be. There are lots of places in North America where cellular service still doesn’t penetrate (but you can still watch the football game on TV). Just look for state park campgrounds located in valleys, national forests, or open desert area.

And if you are staying home, keep in mind that your Airstream can be a great guest house for a visitor, with just a full tank of water and an electric plug. You might be enjoying the holiday at home, but perhaps someone you know wants to have a memorable holiday stay?  Considering that people are lining up to pay to stay in Airstream hotels all around the world, there’s a good chance you know someone who would get a kick out of a night in your very own “Air BnB”.

How To Airstream

Bambi blue awningI’m working on a new blog, as sort of an adjunct to this one, called “How To Airstream.”

The reason is that the Airstream Life Store has become a big project of mine, and I’m spending a lot of time researching great solutions to Airstream problems these days.  That’s so I can find things worthy of recommending to the customers.

As a result, my brain is full of details about things like “Why you really need to own a torque wrench” and all the reasons why most RV drinking water hoses suck.

I’ve been digging into mysteries, like “Why is there a plug on your Airstream that says Use only ZAMP portable solar?” and why people get locked out of their Airstreams so often.

A lot of this information is in my books, but I keep learning new things and it will be a few years before I update the books again.  In the meantime, I want to share what I’ve learned.

The “How To Airstream” blog is separate from this one because it’s more commercial.  If I find a good solution that we are going to sell in the store, I’ll put it there rather than here.  That way Man In The Maze can be more about the travel and lifestyle topics and I can avoid crossing the line into shameless promotion of the store.

Right now the How-To blog has a few dozen entries in it, many of which were adapted from prior issues of our newsletter Outside Interests.  I’ll be writing new tips and product reviews on an irregular basis. Things are still a little rough over there, since I am still working on the the design template, but please take a look.

I’m very interested in whatever questions or ideas for topics that you may have.  Just use the “Ask A Question” link at the top of the page, or put in a comment below the blog. The more questions I can answer—even if it takes me a while to find the facts—the more of a resource the How To Airstream blog can be for everyone.