Ohiopyle, PA

After Alumapalooza ends we are usually looking for a couple of days of recovery time.  This year our route was taking us to Pennsylvania, so we figured it was a good opportunity to visit the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, “Fallingwater”.  We’re kind of FLW fans and have toured several of his works already, including the Welztheimer-Johnson House” in Oberlin OH; the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois; and the Lowell Walter Residence in Quasqueton, Iowa.

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While Fallingwater brings in the crowds, the real gem of this area is Ohiopyle State Park. This large park is known mostly for rafting, but the entire area is verdant with rolling hills and forests and a scenic view around almost every corner. The little town of Ohiopyle sits at the intersection of the Youghiogheny River and the Great Appalachian Passage (GAP) rail trail, which makes it a recreational hotspot. You can float down the river or ride your bike on the GAP all the way to Pittsburgh (77 miles) or 335 miles to Washington DC.

The original plan was to tour Fallingwater and then head onward the same day, but we liked the area so much that we decided to extend our stay to two nights. That gave Emma and me a chance to take our electric unicycles for a ride on the GAP trail and around the center of Ohiopyle, while Eleanor took a tour of another FLW house, Kentuck Knob.

Emma Ohiopyle GAP bridge

Being an old railbed, the GAP trail is very flat with a maximum grade of 2%. The six miles or so that we explored was all hard packed dirt, easy riding, and sprinkled with little interpretive signs along the side. Those signs talked about the natural features and the early settlers who had cleared lands and piled up stones to make orchards and small homes.

A few cyclists passed by, mostly making the long trip from Pittsburgh to Washington DC over a period of 5-6 days with camping stops along the way.  They were all rather intent on completing their mileage for the day so they missed all the interpretive signs.  We kept our speed to about 10 MPH most of the time and stopped at every sign, since we were in no hurry at all.

This was the first chance to prove to myself the value of hauling around these unicycles. Mine was very useful during Alumapalooza for personal transportation around the event (saving me miles of walking) but that’s a once-a-year thing.  I was wondering if I’d find other uses for them.

Rich Emma Ohiopyle falls

I discovered that the unicycles (or a scooter) are perfect for places like this. I think our two unicycles and the scooter (which Eleanor rides) will be permanent equipment in our Airstream. We don’t need them often, but when we do they are very handy and open up places that we might otherwise not explore.

The scooter, by the way, is simple to ride so there’s no real learning curve. I recommend it for most people who want to be able to go 12-15 miles on a lightweight & packable vehicle, without needing a bike rack. (There, that’s my sales pitch for the day.)

E E Ohiopyle SP

Ohiopyle Tonto catAfter the ride we met up with Eleanor and checked out the excellent state park Visitor Center, then a quick tour of Ohiopyle and a visit with Tonto the cat, who hangs around the bridge and greets people. Tonto is a young kitty but he already knows how to work the tourists for affection. We later ran into his owner, who is starting a local fund to get the stray cats of Ohiopyle spayed and neutered.

If you can’t tell, I was somewhat enchanted by the many attractions of Ohiopyle. There are a few waterfalls, swimming holes, lovely picnic spots, and much more. It’s a small place but a very relaxing one. We may stop there again on a future trip through Pennsylvania, or at least in the surrounding area.

Alumapalooza 8

I’m overdue to report on Alumapalooza, and part of the reason is that I don’t want to be repetitive. Every year we do it, the event seems to become bigger and better—and this year it was just fantastic.

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“Boondocker” the dog, who travels with Jim & Lynda Polk

I know, it seems like I’m just blowing my own horn. After all, nothing is that great, and things always go wrong.  That’s true: we had a case of heat exhaustion on the staff, we had to cancel one of the contests due to equipment failure, and the caterer performed below expectations.

But those problems were overshadowed by absolutely flawless weather (far better than we’ve ever had in eight years of running this event), a really happy crowd, a solid program of education and entertainment that kept everyone engaged, our superb volunteer staff, and a first-class effort by the Airstream people to make us all welcome despite being flat-out busy.

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Drone photo by Randy Miller

It was so successful overall that I was joking to people we should just call it quits this year, getting out on top. But we’ve already registered 36 sites for next year’s Alumapalooza 9, so I guess we’re committed now.  (Public registration is now open; just call Marie at 813-200-8877 and leave a message if she doesn’t answer. She’ll call you back.  We’ll have online registration open in a week or two.)

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The program was pretty packed so I won’t go over everything that happened, just a few highlights. Let’s see, we had about 45 early arrivals over Memorial Day weekend so the Monday cookout was well attended. Eleanor did a foodie seminar again, this time on “plate presentation”.

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Eleanor’s “plate presentation” seminar

Colin Hyde’s trailer was the site of nightly “trailer jams”, although I have to admit I was in bed too early to attend any of them. As is traditional, he taped an episode of The VAP from Alumapalooza.

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We gave away two Pedego electric bicycles, valued at $2,950 each.  The winners both decided to donate the bikes back, so we auctioned them off for charity. Between those auctions, the Gong Show, the chicken barbecue lunch, and other things I think something over $8,000 was raised for charities. Most of it went to the local food bank, and the rest went to cancer research and Habitat for Humanity.

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The musical performances were great. Myles and Tim Thompson were talented and well-received, the Open Mic night was a success as always, and then the Thompsons backed up Antsy for the final show on Saturday.

Antsy McClain APZ8
Antsy McClain

I feel like Alumapalooza has matured. It’s got a momentum now, a vibe that people expect, and lots of people who support it. I feel like it can continue for years. The only trick these days is finding space.  Airstream is expanding so quickly that we are never sure if we’ll have room to park. This year we had room for about 140 rigs.  Next year, who knows?  We’re looking for more space in the area but can’t make promises yet, so if you want to go to APZ9 in 2018 I strongly recommend you register early.

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Lisa and Beth at one of the factory entrances

At the end we were all happy, tired, and officially in summer mode.  I even picked up a moderate tan, despite trying to avoid the sun. I think this is an omen of a nice long traveling summer ahead.

Our next event will be APZ9 in 2018 since we’ve already done two events this year (Alumaflamingo in Florida was the other). That means we’ve got a break to relax. Our personal plan is to stay in Vermont through July, and then head to Newfoundland in August. That plan could change depending on other circumstances, so we’re not making reservations for the ferry or anything else yet.

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Once we finish up in August it will be a long sprint back to Arizona for arrival in late September. But we’ll think about that later. Right now it’s only June and there’s quite a bit of ice cream and sunsets and boat rides to be had. The Airstream is parked at its summer base and all is well.

The last tour of the GL?

After plodding through the mushy wet snow for a couple of days it was a welcome change to have the sun come out in Fort Collins and watch it all melt. The two pictures below were taken two days apart:

Fort Collins Airstream slushFort Collins Airstream campsite sun

And that changed the mood of the entire rally. No longer was everyone hunkered down inside with the furnace blowing, peering out through fogged windows in the hope of seeing sunshine. Suddenly people were outside, walking around and talking to their fellow rally-goers. Emma and I went for rides, Eleanor and I went for walks. It all turned out very nicely.

Saturday night the weather was so fine that people were grilling outdoors and I offered test rides to anyone who wanted to try our electric kick scooter. About ten people hopped on and zipped away—and they all came back with a big smile.  This guy even popped a wheelie.

Fort Collins scooter wheelie

Fort Collins was nearly our halfway point to Alumapalooza, which meant we still had 1,100 miles to go.  After the rally there was no avoiding that we were going to make our 31st crossing of the American Great Plains, so we braced ourselves and began to log some miles.

Kansas center of USATo mix things up we always look for a new route. I think we’ve driven every possible major route through the center of the continent but there was a bit of northwestern Kansas we hadn’t seen before so we headed that way. It’s not much different from other parts of Kansas but at least it was new.

The nice thing about taking the quieter roads is that there’s more variety and occasionally an under-appreciated state park in which to spend the night. This time it was Prairie Dog State Park.

A single night in a state park isn’t enough time to get to know it, but clearly it’s a jewel judging by the number of locals who had staked out spots with their RVs and fishing boats.  The park has a nice small lake stocked with fish. (There’s also lots of space for unicycle riders.)

Prairie Dog SP Emma

Rains came in the evening, and despite my efforts to cover the delicate rear computer in the GL, a few drops of water got in again. I woke up at 3 a.m. to see the taillights glowing (a clear sign that the computer was freaking out). Computers and water don’t mix.

I dried it off and covered the computer better but the damage was done: multiple error messages in the console, and the brake controller was ON all the time. That’s because the computer was telling the brake controller that the brakes were applied when they weren’t.  This meant the trailer couldn’t be towed. And of course the nearest Mercedes dealer was 3.5 hours away.

At noon we were still without functioning brakes and we had to leave the campsite, so I disconnected the 7-way cord to the trailer and towed gingerly to another part of the park without brakes or taillights. I pulled fuses in hopes of forcing a reset, to no avail. Finally, on the phone Colin Hyde came up with a temporary solution: cut the wire to the brake controller that receives the braking signal.

I did that and reconnected the 7-way cable. Now we had taillights and manually-operated brakes, so we could proceed. I just had to keep a hand on the manual brake lever and coordinate braking the trailer by hand with braking the car with my foot. It’s not as hard as you might think.

A few hours later I reconnected the cut wire and found the computer had returned to normal. We were back in good operating condition from that point onward. But I wonder how long the circuitry will continue to work, now that it has gotten wet twice. (I also rigged up an elaborate multi-layer water protection system, in the hopes of preventing a third dousing. I can’t stop the actual leak but I have fixed things so any water that gets in will be shunted far away from the computer.)

The rest of the drive was uneventful and uninteresting. Suffice to say we survived KS, MO, IL, and IN without extreme weather or dramatic failures and pulled into Jackson Center OH—center of the Airstream universe—by Wednesday evening. We’re set up at the Terra Port and getting ready for Alumapalooza 8.

I am eyeing a replacement vehicle. The GL’s recent crises involving the water leaks, along with numerous other age-related problems, are starting to drive my repair costs to an unacceptable level.

We’re at eight years and 134,000 miles with this tow vehicle, which is less than I had hoped for when I bought it, but still a respectable amount of use. The choice of what might replace the GL is difficult since our criteria are complex, but I hope to make a decision in the next few weeks: keep or replace, and replace with what?  I’ll talk about that in more detail in another blog.

Left turn at Albuquerque

BugsABQ“I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!” — Bugs Bunny

 

 

If we had, we would be in California right now, instead of this:

Chatfield SP Airstream snow

It was a bit of a shock to wake up in Chatfield State Park to snow falling, since even the gloomy forecast didn’t predict it until the following night. What a change from the previous day’s sunny 72 degrees.

And the danged snow just kept coming down all morning, until we had about five inches on the grass. Emma was delighted, Eleanor was tickled to take photos from inside the Airstream, and I was horrified. That’s how we all generally react to snow.

Chatfield SP Eleanor photo

Well, in such a situation there are clear protocols: First, crank up the heat.  Second, make a hearty breakfast.  Third, go outside and throw snowballs around.  We’re in an Airstream that we just loaded for five months on the road, so believe me when I say we had all the gear needed for this event: warm socks, a variety of teas, lots of propane, cold weather clothes, toast & marmalade, bad/classic movies on DVD, etc.

We were due at a rally in Fort Collins, but waited until about noon to leave the state park, hoping the weather would clear.  It didn’t. Weighing the options it seemed like the best move was to tow during midday when the temperatures were sufficiently above freezing to avoid icing on the roads. The trek to Fort Collins up I-25 was slow and occasionally “exciting” but overall safe enough and we got to the KOA in fine condition.

Fort Collins Airstream slushThe GL had to fight a little to push the Airstream back into the snow-filled campsite. Even with all-wheel drive it was tough when the all-season tires slipped. This is definitely winter tire weather.

However, please notice the tire tracks on the snow: one pass to get parked—that’s our “performance guarantee”. I hate hacking the trailer into a site (going back and forth repeatedly). Eleanor took the brunt of this particular job since she had to go out in the wet slush and heavy falling snow to guide me in.

It’s probably a testament to the devotion and hardiness of the local Airstream club that more than half of the rally attendees eventually arrived despite the conditions.

Normally I’ll do everything possible to avoid snow. Towing in snow is craziness. We once bailed out of a great trip in Banff because it was October and a small snowstorm was looming. At that time of year one good snowfall might mean you’re stuck for weeks, because just as one begins to melt another snowfall arrives.

But this is May, so any snow that lands will melt quickly even up here at 5,000 feet.  The roads and bridges aren’t going to freeze (at least not for long) and there was no chance of the temperatures declining further as long as we didn’t go further up in altitude. So coming here was a calculated decision. No biggie to wait out a couple of days of snow.

We started our trip with full propane cylinders of course, but using the furnace all night and the catalytic heater all day means we will probably drain a cylinder before we leave on Sunday. Normally I don’t have to buy propane until the end of the summer. We’d be burning it even faster if we didn’t have the catalytic heater to use during the day (it’s much more efficient than the furnace).

Our strategy lately is to run the cat heater by day because it’s efficient. It’s fine for our 30 foot trailer down to about freezing. Below that, the ends of the trailer tends to get chilly. At night when temperatures are likely to drop below freezing we switch to the furnace. That way the trailer is heated more evenly and the holding tanks get a little warmth too (so they don’t freeze).

All of this will hopefully be of academic interest only in a few days. I’m looking forward to rolling down to the Great Plains and points east for a sudden switch to summertime greenery and warmth.  So for us, summer starts Sunday or Monday.

From desert heat to Rocky Mountain snow

Airstream ready for departureThe saying is that “the journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”  The problem is that it takes a while to get ready for that first step. Lots to pack, arrange, and prepare when you don’t plan to be home for five months.

And that explains why our Airstream left the driveway two days later than planned.  Things weren’t quite ready and in the context of months, a couple of days isn’t really a big deal so it made sense to delay the trip just a little.

This delay cost us a couple of good stops. I was planning to go to Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monument, then up to the Four Corners region and stop at Hovenweep National Monument. But we had also committed to a rally in Fort Collins and so instead of just moving the entire schedule back, we had to skip past the Four Corners.

That meant taking the Interstate highway system, a necessary but tedious expedient. Taking the Interstate is a great way to get from A to B without seeing anything. Almost as good as a jetliner. But we were slightly pressed for time and so we plowed west on I-10 and north on I-25, with the only good part being the detour through Hatch, New Mexico and a stop for lunch beside the town’s collection of advertising statues.

Hatch NM Airstream

After a night in Albuquerque we pressed onward to Littleton CO and Chatfield State Park, just outside the Denver metro area.  This park surrounds a flood-control project that forms a nice little lake.  There’s a bike trail surrounding the lake, which enticed Emma and I out for a very pleasant morning of riding on our electric unicycles, for 14 miles.

Chatfield SP Emma EUC

But now that we’ve gotten here, the weather is about to make us regret doubly our decision to skip the sunny and dry Four Corners region…

Fort Collins rally wx

Snow?  High temps of 37?  Isn’t this May?

This will definitely put a damper on the rally, but knowing the Airstreamers they’ll all find a way to have a good time anyway. Personally I’m going to stay in the trailer all day Friday with the catalytic heater and a movie marathon running.

To get ready Eleanor and I went digging in our under-bed storage and swapped out all our shorts and sandals for those items we keep on board for the occasional spate of bad weather. I keep a few items in the Airstream at all times: long underwear, hat, gloves, warm socks, and some grungy clothes for emergency roadside repairs. This stuff rarely comes out, and I sure didn’t expect it to be needed four days after leaving the near-100 degree weather in Tucson.

Well, on a journey of 1,000 miles (or in our case about 10,000 miles) change is to be expected. Before this trip is over we’ll visit at least 11 states and perhaps a couple of Canadian provinces. It won’t be sunny every day, nor will it always be warm. But, if we’re lucky, it will always be interesting.