An existential crisis for the Mercedes GL

When I bought the Mercedes GL320 in 2009 to be our new tow vehicle, I knew I was taking a big risk.  At $66,000 (out the door, tax included), it was almost double the price of the most expensive vehicle we’d ever purchased.  Mercedes has a reputation for expensive repairs and maintenance, and their dealer service network is small compared to just about any other brand.

The justification for taking this risk is complicated, but the major factor was the diesel powertrain.  At the time, only the European brands (Audi/VW, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover) offered diesel SUVs, and they rack up impressive performance stats.  In 2009 when we made this purchase, we were planning on many more years of Airstream travel, so it made some sense to invest for the long term. I felt confident the Mercedes 3.0 liter turbodiesel could last for hundreds of thousands of miles while carting as many as 7 people in comfort and delivering fuel economy (not towing) in the upper 30s.


In the past decade the European diesels have also been impressive for their emissions improvements and quietness. I can start my diesel dead cold in the morning at a campground and hardly anyone will even notice the sound, while the exhaust is scarcely more offensive than baby’s breath.


That’s all very nice, but there is one thing that a tow vehicle must be able to do to justify its existence: tow.  Our GL320, despite having 127,500 miles on it, has done as good a job of that as it ever has—until this week. One tiny problem this week managed to cripple it, rendering the GL entirely worthless as a tow vehicle.

We had a gentle rain on our last night at Beachside State Park on the Oregon coast.  Over a period of hours, a drop or two of water managed to work past the gasket on the right rear taillight, wick through some insulation on the inside, and drip down to a black plastic cover below.  This cover has thin vent slits in it because it houses a very expensive electronic device called a “Signal Acquisition Module” (SAM).

The water dripped through the vent slits and down to the exposed circuit board inside.  When the SAM gets wet, it behaves like any other electronic device when wet: it malfunctions spectacularly.  This SAM happens to control most of the functions in the rear of the vehicle, including trailer lights and brakes. Just one tiny drop of water in the right spot means no trailer lights or brakes.

This has been a recurring problem.  It first cropped up in February 2015 at Alumafiesta after a heavy rain, with the symptoms being taillights that didn’t work for a few hours. I didn’t find the cause until May 2015 at Alumapalooza when it happened again.  I dried the computer with a hair dryer and took it to a northestern Mercedes dealer in June.  The dealer service tech glopped everything up with black sealant and pronounced it fixed, which it wasn’t.

Water hit the SAM again in January 2016, so I dried it again and took the car to another Mercedes dealer (this time in the southwest) and they replaced the right taillight, noting this the leak was a known problem. They said the magic words that they say every time I have to buy an expensive replacement part: “This is an upgraded design, so it won’t have that problem again.”

That was a nice warm and fuzzy thought, but three weeks later the SAM decided it had suffered enough from the prior repeated water intrusions, and it died without warning—while towing in downtown Castro Valley, CA.  Imagine the fun: suddenly, no brakes and no lights on a 7,500 pound trailer in heavy traffic.

This time the hair dryer trick wasn’t going to work.  I had to tow the Airstream through city traffic for a mile with no brakes, signals, or lights to a Walgreen’s parking lot large enough to dump it.  Then I had to convince the manager of the pharmacy to let me leave the Airstream overnight.  Then I had to find a Mercedes dealer and pray that they had the part I needed—on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately Mercedes Benz of Pleasanton had the part and installed it the same day, for $1,300.

All was well until last week, when mysteriously the upgraded taillight assembly let in just a couple of drips during an Oregon sprinkle, and our expensive new SAM got wet for the first time.  You can imagine my reaction when I got into the car and the dash lit up with five warning messages—and of course, no trailer brakes.

After I ranted for a while, Eleanor and I got to work.  About 45 minutes of the hair dryer treatment got everything working except the left turn signal and taillight.  We decided to start towing toward Eugene OR (nearest dealer location).  Two hours later the left turn signal began working again.

In Eugene I had a friendly chat with the service tech, in which I explained that intermittent lack of brakes and lights means the car can’t tow. That triggers what I would call an existential crisis for the Mercedes GL320.  If it can’t tow reliably after a light rain, I can’t use it. He understood the conundrum, but had little to offer other than tearing apart the interior of the car to look for other possible leak points—at $140 per hour, my expense.

I talked with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV about possible replacement vehicles. Andy has been a very reliable source of information over the years, despite his tendency to terrify Americans with his non-truck towing suggestions. He listed the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and the new Durango (based on the Mercedes platform) as possible replacements, but pointed out that my GL has relatively little trade-in value.

Worse, there are no suitable new diesel SUVs available.  VW screwed us all on that one. Friends at Mercedes dealerships have told me that Mercedes has quietly suspended shipments of new diesel SUVs to the US. Audi and VW of course are out of the question, and BMW’s X5 might be available but it’s too small for us.

So we’ve taken the path of least resistance. The taillight assembly has been replaced again but I’ll never trust it.  We are going to rig up a plastic shield over the SAM to block the water droplets. It’s a low tech, easy fix that will probably work just fine for the life of the car.

And, despite my momentary lapse of confidence, I think we’ll stick with the GL.  Hopefully the SAM will survive this one episode of water intrusion. To be sure I’ll test it a week or two before every trip. I still want to see the odometer turn over 200,000 miles before we re-consider getting rid of it, and more miles would be nice.

On balance the car has been everything I hoped it would be: a comfortable, confident driving, capable tow vehicle. It’s amazing to me how something so small—a drop of water— can entirely destroy the practical value of the car.

[Nerd Alert]  I’m reminded of that scene in “The Fifth Element” when the evil Zorg chokes on a cherry and Father Vito Cornelius says, “There, you see how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing now, how your entire empire can come crashing down because of one little cherry.” [/Nerd Alert]  We live by a tenuous thread all the time, and little moments like this make that thread briefly visible.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to keep on towin’. We’re heading to the California redwoods next.

After the Practical Pause: Oregon

When we’ve got to stop for a week to take care of “real life” stuff, it’s a “Practical Pause”.  The Practical Pause is a key strategic tool for people who travel long-term.  There’s no way you can just keep roaming around without eventually running into the need for repairs or maintenance, medical stuff, work, paying bills, etc.

Rather than fight it, or try to do everything while you’re traveling, it’s easier to just find a comfortable place to park for a few days.  This is one of the advantages of traveling by Airstream, since those days are generally inexpensive and it’s easy to do everything since you’re already home.

We build in these pauses every few days to do basic things like getting groceries, doing laundry, cleaning up the Airstream, blogging, or just catching our breath.  Every 2-3 weeks we take a longer break so that I can get ahead on work (this takes off a lot of stress; fewer things to worry about when I’m out of communication in a remote area).  If we are traveling for months, there’s usually a time where one or all of us flies away and then returns to the Airstream to resume the trip. The active full-timers I know mostly do the same thing.

Parking in Olympia was that opportunity, but even during that time we had a chance to run into Seattle twice and play tourist for a while, so the Practical Pause wasn’t solely about completing obligations.

Everything was done by 9/1, a few days earlier than expected.  This presented an opportunity to have a few extra days on the road before getting to Alumafandango, but also a challenge because we’d need to find camping over the dreaded Labor Day weekend.

Most people don’t dread Labor Day, I know—but when you are in a populous area, need a campsite, and don’t have a reservation made weeks in advance, it’s a problem.  After some storming of both our brains and a few websites, we managed to grab a couple of nights in Portland OR, and a couple of nights at Beachside State Park on the coast of Oregon, which got us through the holiday crush.

The highlight of Portland?  Probably Washington Park, with its fantastic landscape, Rose Test Garden, Holocaust Memorial, and Japanese Garden.  But a close runner-up had to be Powell’s City of Books.  (Yep, nerd alert.)  It’s awesome and we could have spent the day there.

And yes, since it’s Portland we had great donuts, Chinese lunch, walked the waterfront and much of downtown, rode the MAX, and generally had an excellent time.  Even the sun shone most of the day.


We detoured west to Oregon’s fabulous coastline because it’s absolutely spectacular.  I like it more than California’s Route 1, which is saying a lot.  Mostly I like it because it’s longer, easier to drive, less crowded, and there are more camping opportunities.


Scoring a site at Beachside State Park (near Waldport) for Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend was a minor miracle.  Somebody must have cancelled just before we hit ReserveAmerica, and I’m glad they did.  We had a shady site one row back from the wide open miles of sandy beach.  Fifty steps from our door we were on the sand, and yet the trees sheltered us enough that we could leave the awnings out day and night without fear of a wind coming up.


It’s crabbing season here, and walking down the beach we found dozens of grumpy-looking crabs getting sloshed around in the surf.  When they got a chance between waves they’d dig themselves into the sand, leaving only a tiny breathing hole.  We’d usually get one last glare before they disappeared.



The water of course was cold, but we are Vermonters at heart so we waded into the surf anyway. My feet went numb. After that it wasn’t bad.

Oregon has many great attributes, and the coastline is at the top of the list as far as we’re concerned.  It’s a camper’s paradise. We always have a great time here. But in the next blog, you’ll see that even in paradise things can go wrong …

North Cascades National Park, WA

You can thank the Mercedes GL for this blog because it has had a hiccup that forced us to pause our travel.  We’re currently in Creswell OR, near Eugene, awaiting a part that was ordered yesterday.  I’ll talk about that in a future blog.

First, let me fulfill the promise I made a while back, to talk about our trip to North Cascades National Park.  That lovely visit to Lake Chelan boosted our interest in going further up into North Cascades.  (Technically the town of Chelan is outside the park, but taking the ferry up the lake to Stehekin put us into North Cascades for a day.)


If you could fly over the North Cascades with your Airstream from Chelan WA to Newhalem (near the center of the park) the trip would be fairly short, perhaps 70-80 miles.  But since the roads skirt the eastern edge of the mountain range, it’s a 134 mile trip that took us over four hours with a couple of stops.

The reason for the stops should be obvious from the photo below: it’s just gorgeous up there.


[Just an aside: virtually every time I pull into a large fuel station someone stares at the Airstream and asks me “does that Mercedes pull that big trailer OK?”  But when I’m at elevation in the mountains at a place like this, nobody asks.]


The really prime viewpoint is the Diablo Lake overlook (above).  Diablo is one of three lakes created by hydroelectric dams along the Skagit River that provide power to Seattle.  The amazing color of the water is the result of “glacial flour”, which is basically ground-up dust from the ancient bedrock.  You see the same thing in the rivers and lakes in Alberta.  As stunning as it is in a photo, it’s even nicer in person.

north-cascades-gorge-high-damAlthough we ended up spending four days in the national park, the best way to appreciate this area is to explore the backcountry.  That means dedicating some time to hiking, tenting, fishing, etc.  We didn’t have time for that on this visit, but I made a note to return for a longer visit–and bring my tent and hiking boots.  This is a beautiful, wild, and vast national park and I want to see more of it.

Since we had squeezed North Cascades into our trip itinerary at the last moment, we were obliged to keep the visit short and get on toward Seattle. Eleanor needed to fly back to Tucson for an appointment, and I had at least six or seven days worth of work to catch up on.

So we parked the Airstream at Washington Land Yacht Harbor in Lacey, for an affordable full hookup, and that’s how this trip across the United States ended.

I’ve never bothered to count how many times we have crossed the country, but the number of one-way trips certainly is more than 25 at this point.  It’s not really a point of pride, as I believe that the key to enjoyable Airstreaming is the amount of time you stop rather than the amount of miles you drive.

If I could go back and change the past I would be glad to have spent twice as much time at many places. When you travel slowly it’s amazing how often you trip over some place that’s truly fantastic, while on the way to somewhere else.

Our next trip leg takes us south into California for Alumafandango, but before we get there we’ve got a little time to explore Oregon and northern California. I’ll get into that in the next blog.

Where have all the megabytes gone?

Modern tech is great.  Cellular networks and the Internet are like oxygen to us frequent travelers, especially people like me who work from the road.  I couldn’t do what I do without those two technologies in my Airstream.

The really amazing part of this is how quickly the capabilities of mobile tech improve. In 2003 we had no mobile Internet at all.  You had to find public wifi or haul a satellite dish around.  In 2005 we got one of the first cellular Internet data boxes on the market, as a loaner for evaluation.  It cost $3,000 and was the size of a dictionary.  When I went to rallies everyone wanted to borrow the signal.

Just a decade later we have devices the size of a pack of gum that give us Internet at speeds literally thousands of times faster.  We talk to our phones and think it’s no big deal that an artificial intelligence answers with a cogent response. And every serious Airstream traveler I meet has some form of this tech, so nobody thinks it’s worth borrowing anymore.

But there’s a big hairy downside to this, which is increased complexity.  If you don’t understand the implications of the new tech as it arrives—and some technological update arrives almost every day—you’re going to eventually get caught at the losing end of something you never saw coming.

I’m pretty tech savvy and it still happens to me regularly.  Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and a million other players are constantly coming up with new stuff to make my life better, and most of the time it does, but at the same time it’s like someone changed the dance floor to an ice rink in mid-step.

Well, I can handle tech stuff, given some time. The human element is trickier. I’ll give you an example.

When we got on the road last May I noticed an amazing spike in the amount of data we were using.  We have a Verizon Jetpack like many other people, and I had bumped up the data allowance to 24 gigabytes (gb) per month, which is a lot.  The previous year we had gotten by on 6-8 gb per month, so I was feeling pretty smug about how we’d never have to worry about data usage again.

Strangely, before we even got to Alumapalooza in Ohio, half of our data allowance was gone.  The rest disappeared by the end of the billing cycle. I queried my fellow travelers but they denied responsibility.  I re-iterated the importance of not watching YouTube or other videos, and avoiding sites where video ads automatically load.

I pointed the finger particularly hard at Emma, since she’s a known bandwidth hog. Many teenagers these days use the Internet as a hangout, constantly interacting on social media, chat rooms, forums, even shared Google Docs—and Emma in particular is famous for having twenty to thirty tabs open simultaneously on her browser.  Her defense has always been that she avoids videos and doesn’t leave web pages open that might automatically refresh themselves (or have ads that refresh).

So I dug into the tech problem.  First, I made sure nobody else was using our wifi.  I’ve used the name “Airstream Life” for the wifi ID for years and it was possible a few other people had devices that would log onto our wifi automatically when they were nearby.

I also looked at usage logs, changed the password, checked all the laptops for applications that would automatically update themselves, and turned off or limited cloud services that automatically sync data (like iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.)

What I found is a deck stacked against RVers who use cellular hotspots like Verizon Jetpack/Mifi devices.  There are many ways your laptop can be using data when you don’t know about it.  Some applications will automatically send data reports, synchronize files, or update themselves unless specifically told not to.  The problem here is that you’ve got to find them all.  There is no single setting that takes care of this, so the job requires a methodical approach, checking each application and service individually.

The other problem is that Apple has set up mobile operating system to update certain things when the phone or tablet is connected to wifi.  This means when your iPhone or iPad is sharing your hotspot, they think they have unlimited data and they begin to use it as such. So it’s a good idea to tell your iDevices to “forget” your hotspot.

I did all that and it didn’t help.

Last Friday Verizon notified me that 18 gb of our data plan had been eaten up by the Mifi in just two weeks.  At that rate I would run out of data in a week or so, and be unable to work, so this was serious.  I started digging through the computers, iPad and iPhones again in a frantic search for a clue as to where the data was going.

On Monday, Verizon informed me that another 4 gb had disappeared over the weekend.  I started physically turning off the Mifi whenever I wasn’t using it, but now the crisis I had feared was upon me.  I spent most of Monday at Panera Bread, nursing a chai tea latte and using their free wifi.

Then I found a useful app which helped me identify the problem.  It’s called Bandwidth+ and it’s free to Mac users on the App Store for free.  I highly recommend it.

Bandwidth app

It just sits in the top toolbar and shows you how much data you’ve used since reset.

I put Bandwidth+ on all the laptops this morning, and checked a few hours later. In four hours  … (wait a second.  Let me put that into Daddy-speak) … in four hours of working my fingers to the bone trying to provide a living for my family and put food on the table and save for a college education for my beloved daughter,  I used a grand total of 100 mb.  That’s not a lot.

Emma woke up at the crack of 10:30 a.m., promptly got on her laptop to check in on her virtual world, and in one hour she used 145 mb. In other words, she was consuming data at a rate almost six times as fast as her under-appreciated, hard-working Dad.

I also looked through the data usage logs with Verizon tech support and together we found several evenings between 9 pm and midnight when our usage exceeded two gigabytes.  (A gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes.)  That’s like eating the entire buffet table at a Las Vegas casino. You could stream a feature-length movie with two gigabytes.  Funny thing, though: those nights I wasn’t working late.

So the problem seems to be identified:  TEENAGER.

At this point there was only way to deal with the problem.  I bought another 6 gb from Verizon to get through the rest of the billing period and changed the wifi password.  If you are parked to an Airstream on the west coast sometime this month and you see a wifi signal called “Sorry Emma”, well, you’ll know why.

Modern day problems.  They’re different, but in the end, they’re the same.

Chillin’ in Chelan

You know, America is a big country full of amazing things.  Just when I think I’ve seen it all, we go around a corner and there’s something that adds a new dimension.  This week it was North Cascades National Park in north-central Washington state.

While we were absorbing the sad fact that our Montana trip was going to be considerably abbreviated (mostly due to crowding around the Glacier area) I noticed North Cascades National Park in our road atlas. It’s not one of the “big name” western parks and I never hear anyone talk about it, so I assumed at first it was one of those obscure units of the National Park Service that’s comprised of a lot of forest and few visitor-friendly amenities.

But it was a “National Park”, meaning that it took an act of Congress to gain its status, and that is a rare thing indeed.  Of over 400 units of the National Park Service, only 58 are designated “National Park”. The rest are National Monuments, Historical Sites, Lakeshores, Battlefields, Recreation Areas, etc.  Even some western major sites like Devils Tower, Dinosaur, Organ Pipe Cactus, and Natural Bridges are designated National Monuments, not Parks.  So there had to be something more there than I had suspected.

The atlas showed a long, narrow lake winding its way into North Cascades, called Lake Chelan (pronounced “shell-ANN”) and a ferry service the entire length called “Lady Of The Lake”.  This ferry is one of three ways to reach the town of Stehekin (“stuh-HEE-kin”) at the extreme northern end of the lake. The other ways are on foot through the mountains, and seaplane. This seemed like something worth checking out, so we decided to cut down to I-90 in Montana and zip straight to Washington so we’d have a few days to spend up in the Cascades.

I should mention that the drive over was uneventful by my standards, but then I sometimes forget that I’m used to dealing with a lot of hairy situations while towing. If nothing blows up or fails spectacularly during a tow, I generally write it off as “uneventful.” But Eleanor does some of the driving now, and she caught what I call “a learning opportunity” in the last few miles of our trip.

Washington dust 12 gradeWe were navigating mostly by GPS during this leg and so didn’t notice that there was a 12% downgrade to Chelan Falls.  This by itself would be intimidating enough for a towing-trainee but it was compounded by a strong wind and blowing dust.  When Eleanor spotted this sign she knew she was in for some excitement.

Going down is always harder than going up, at least psychologically.  The sensation of a trailer pushing causes many people to ride the brakes down the hill, which is of course a mistake because on a long grade you’ll have overheated brakes or perhaps no brakes at all.

So I took the opportunity to teach Eleanor the right way to get down a steep hill without melting the brake discs.  She got a little sweaty but she managed and it was—I hope—a confidence-building experience.

In any case, a nice public park awaited us at the bottom of the hill, at Beebe Bridge Park, along a river.  While setting up we found two empty metal cannabis tubes abandoned next to our site.  Hadn’t seen that before.  (It’s legal here.) I don’t care if people want to smoke the stuff, but sheesh, at least throw away your trash!

Beebe Bridge Chelan Falls Airstream

We set the Airstream up a few miles away from the ferry dock and caught the Lady Express at 8:30 am the next morning.  The Lady Express is the “quick” boat, an all-aluminum ferry with twin turbodiesel engines and forty-inch propellers that push it up the lake at 24 MPH.  It’s a fun ride on a sunny day.

Chelan WA Lady of the Lake and Lady Express

The Lady of the Lake is on the left in the photo above. It is larger and slower (about 14 MPH), taking 4 hours to travel the length of Lake Chelan.  The Lady Express is at right.  Because of the way the schedules work, the ideal play for daytrippers (in the summer) is to take the Lady Express north in the morning to arrive at Stehekin by 11:00, then pick up the Lady Of The Lake at 2:00 for the return trip.  That gives you the maximum time in Stehekin.

Lake Chelan jetskiiers

The ferry attracts jetskiiers along the southern portion of the lake, where the vacationer are clustered.  This part of the lake relatively calm (especially compared to the “narrows” section further north) so sometimes the only waves the jetskiiers can find to play on are those created by the ferry boats.  It’s a lot like watching dolphins bow-riding waves in front of ships.

Chelan WA vineyards

The area around Chelan reminded us of Lake Como in Italy, a little.  Add in a few old stone estates, olive trees, and walking trails up into the hills and it would be a lot closer.

Lake Chelan Airstream

Of course, in Italy you probably wouldn’t find an Airstream parked on the hillside …

Stehekin is an unusual outpost.  One person described arriving as being “like summer camp.” The moment you land there are people waiting to greet you, direct you to the Rainbow Falls tour or the NPS Visitor Center or the Lodge, and dusty red buses to haul you around.  There are only a few things to do there, and since the local economy is entirely built on tourism, they want to make sure you have a chance to enjoy everything.

Stehehkin welcome home

Stehehkin Rainbow FallsIt’s a bit funny when you see all the cars parked in Stehekin and reconcile that with the facts: there are only 80 year-round residents, there is only one road, and it’s just 13 miles long.  Of course, the population is quite a bit bigger in summer with tourists in town, including dozens of hikers.

Three hours in a tiny village might seem like a long time but it flew by for us.  We checked out Rainbow Falls, ate lunch at the famous local bakery, walked two miles back to town, and then hit the Visitor Center.  There’s so much to see, photograph, taste … and no distractions. Zero cell service, a feature I’m coming to appreciate because it is so rare.  Most of the time I need to be connected, but when I am taking a day off it’s nice to see the phone enforce it with a “No Service” indicator.

There are other ways to get here.  Next time I want to hike in, taking a couple of days to explore some of the Cascades trails.  You can use the Lady Of The Lake to help with that, either getting dropped off or picked up at a few “flag stops” along the lakeshore.  In places where there is no dock the steel-hulled boat just runs aground lightly, then extends a gangplank to pick up hikers.

We picked up a hiker at one such flag stop on the way back.  He confessed to having missed the boat the night before (thinking it was a smaller boat and not the ferry), so he had to tent-camp an additional night.  That sounded a lot like a fortuitous moment to me. It was a beautiful place to spend a night all alone. Lucky bastard.

Stehehkin Lake Chelan view

Seven hours of cruising on the lake and three hours roaming Stehekin was just about the best use of a sunny day in the summer I could think of.  I highly recommend the trip.

Our next stop was further north in the Cascades, but I’ll talk about that in a future post.