Superbloom, bah humbug

We were planning to head out last week to one of our favorite spots, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. But then the New York Times, NPR, LA Times, CNN, and even Wired blabbed to everyone about the “superbloom” of desert flowers, and the crowds showed up.

[Big sigh here]  One of the reasons I love going to Anza-Borrego is because it is so wonderfully peaceful, slow-paced, and quiet.  There are thousands of square miles of desert filled with canyons, mountains, precipices, badlands, palm oasis, and human history, and all you have to do is wander off the beaten path to find a spot all your own.

Anza Borrego Airstream solitude

But Wired summed it up:

The nearby community of Borrego Springs more than doubled in size as 5,000 people poured into the area on Saturday, an influx that filled motels, prompted the sheriff to close miles of road, and sparked a fistfight over a pork Cubano.

Our friends Bert & Janie are out there now.  Bert called me a few days before we planned to leave, warning that for the first time he’s ever seen Borrego Springs has traffic jams (a real feat for a town with a population density of 79 people per square mile) and many of the hiking trails were overrun with crowds.

I wouldn’t necessarily cancel a trip just on that basis, but I was behind on the Summer 2017 magazine (having lost some time in February due to a virus) and so it seemed like the smart choice would be to try again in early April, when the crowds have departed.

Anza Borrego canyon

To all those people who drove out from Los Angeles and San Diego to look at the flowers:  I understand the flowers are nice, but if you only go to Anza-Borrego when the media tells you there’s a “superbloom” you’re missing the real beauty of the place.  There’s a subtle beauty that you can only experience without the distraction of thousands of other people nearby.  It takes time to experience, time in which your mind slowly unwinds and relaxes.  Then you begin to notice the little things: the sound of the breeze, an occasional buzz of a bee, the clearness of the air, the silent passage of a desert jackrabbit or bighorn sheep, and the soft light that colors the rocks at dusk.

Anza Borrego sunset  Anza Borrego badlands view

It seems like the past few years we’ve had to search a little harder for the peaceful experiences we formerly took for granted in national and state parks.  The National Park Service was perhaps too successful in promoting the 100th anniversary of the park system last year, and as a result many parks were overcrowded. Even before the anniversary year we noticed it was getting harder to find campsites, and on occasion we had to skip popular national parks even during the “shoulder season”.

Having the Airstream makes it easier for us than for the weekend travelers who need to book a motel.  In a place like Anza-Borrego we can escape the center of the hubbub and retreat to the niches of the park to hear only the whispering breeze and the coyotes howling at night. But that’s the advantage of the vast desert. In most other parks, you can’t just pull off the road and wander around until you find a nice patch to call your own for the night.

If you watch the orientation movie in most national park visitor centers it will almost always emphasize quiet enjoyment of the park.  You’ll hear how our parks are an opportunity to relax, get away from technology and daily stress, appreciate nature, and re-connect with family & friends.

Anza Borrego boondocking

That’s all still true.  I guess the only thing that has changed is that you have to go a little further off the beaten path each year.

This is part of the reason why I sometimes encourage people to travel outside of their personal comfort zone. Every tourist wants to go to Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone and Yosemite.  Go there and you’ll be sure to meet busloads of people. Those are great places but if you’ve got wheels, be different and try the lesser spots: unknown state parks and BLM sites, national forest campgrounds, trails that aren’t conveniently located, places you haven’t read about in travel magazines, the quirk and oddities of this country, and places that have a reputation for horrible weather. I guarantee that if you go with an open mind you’ll find things you never expected but are glad you experienced.

For us, the trick will be to visit Anza-Borrego when the New York Times isn’t talking about it. We used to visit the state park campground every year during the last week of December or first week of January, but I suspect that tradition is over permanently. Still, the door hasn’t closed—it has just moved. I look on this as an opportunity to discover new spots that we love, at other times of year, in order to keep finding peace and relaxation out in the wide southern California desert.

Life in the white box

This week I’m at Alumaflamingo in Florida, which is one of the events we occasionally run around the USA.  Everything’s going well here and all the attendees seem to be having a good time, but I’m in hell … White Box Hell.

That’s because I’m in a rented trailer, provided by the campground.  I had to fly to Florida because I didn’t have time to make the 4,000 mile roundtrip this winter, and there was literally no other place for me to stay during this week.  It’s the annual “Speedweeks” at Daytona and all the accommodations are taken.

On one hand this is a good opportunity to see what travel trailer life is like when you don’t have an Airstream.  I suppose I could say that this broadens my perspective and perhaps instills new appreciation for the difference in quality when you step up to an Airstream.  But it’s also a shock. This ain’t no Airstream 2 Go, it’s a relatively low-end white box even for an industry that’s not generally known for quality.

IMG_7079The maker of this trailer, Pilgrim, died in 2008 as an early victim of the recession, so there aren’t any units less than nine years old.  Nine years is nothing for an Airstream, but it is a long time for the average white box trailer.

This one is typical: the exterior corners have begun to split and separate, the thin plastic vents have cracked, the ceiling has large water stains from roof leaks, and the furniture is starting to pull apart at the staples.

That’s even more disturbing because this particular unit never travels. It’s an on-site rental only. It never will travel thanks to moisture rising from the damp Florida soil. The exposed lightweight steel frame beneath has rusted away.

IMG_7080

I sometimes hear Airstreamers complaining about the mattress in their new trailer, but they wouldn’t if they tried the one I’ve been on for the past week. It’s a lumpy and thin thing that barely insulates from the hard plywood below. At night it’s always cold because there’s a huge uninsulated storage compartment directly beneath. I’d rather sleep on my Therm-A-Rest camping mattress.

The only thing I like about the trailer is the ducted air conditioning, which Airstream added across their line a couple of years ago. Airstream’s ducted air is whisper-quiet.  The Pilgrim’s air is somewhat noisy but still far better than the old style of air conditioner that sounds like a jet blast.

I’ve done what I can to make this trailer “home” for the week and—to count my blessings—it is a reasonably comfortable place to eat, sleep, and shower. I shouldn’t complain too much about it. My point is only that had I started RVing with a trailer like this, I would be astonished and envious looking at the new Airstreams available today.

And yes, I’d be thinking that the $20k or so I spent on my white box is a lot less than the $40-70k for an equivalent length Airstream … and then I’d think: how can I swing that payment? Because the Airstream is a better product in almost every way, and it will last a lifetime with good care.  The white box I’m in today is destined for a landfill in a few years.  When you look at it that way, you see how an Airstream is a really good value over the long run.

The last electrical upgrade?

Perhaps this is the ultimate and final power system upgrade  on our Airstream. I certainly hope so.

Over the years we’ve installed solar panels, bigger batteries, an amp-hour meter, an upgraded (Intellipower) power converter-charger (which we replaced with a Xantrex converter-charger), even bigger batteries, and finally a fancy Xantrex converter-charger-inverter.  It has been a great learning process and I really like how the capabilities of our Airstream have been enhanced, but … please … let this be the last electrical upgrade we do on this trailer.

We discovered an issue with the Xantrex converter-charger-inverter installation that I’ve already described in a prior post, and I’ve been preparing for the last month or so to deal with it. In short the device wasn’t wired optimally, and the result was that we could not plug the Airstream into any common household GFCI outlet without tripping it. That limited where we could “driveway camp” as we traveled last summer, so it has been a priority to get it corrected this winter.

Long ago when I installed the Intellipower charger, I removed the lower (converter/charger) section of the original Parallax 7155 power converter-charger and left the AC and DC distribution panels. We’ve continued using those original distribution panels, since there wasn’t any reason to mess with them—until now.

Airstream power distribution panel-3

Our goal here was to install a new AC distribution panel. That’s because it needed to be split into two: a Main panel for the air conditioner and refrigerator, and a Subpanel for the inverter-supplied circuits. Although that isn’t terribly complicated in theory, it triggered an avalanche of other tasks.

It started with the panel itself. The only product I could find to fit the bill was the Progressive Dynamics PD55B003 AC panel, and since it didn’t come with DC distribution built-in, I also had to order the companion PD6000 DC panel.

That meant we’d be ripping out every AC and DC connection in the panels and re-wiring them all.  And since the new panels are physically larger than the original, we needed to cut new holes in the fascia below the refrigerator.  And that meant the propane leak detector had to be relocated.  The avalanche had begun.

My buddy Nate and I spent a couple of hours analyzing what needed to be done.  In the process we realized that we’d have to run a new electric line to the refrigerator because Airstream originally had it sharing a circuit with all the other GFCI protected outlets in the bathroom and kitchen. (I wanted the fridge on a separate circuit so it can’t accidentally be run from the inverter, which would deplete our batteries very quickly.)

We also realized we’d need a completely new fascia built to mount the new AC & DC panels and the relocated propane leak detector. I could have made it myself but it was much easier to hire a local guy who made a beautiful and precisely-cut fascia from 3/8″ black walnut for $60. So Nate drew up a very precise drawing to show exactly what we’d need.

Power panel fascia diagramAirstream power distribution panel-2

Suddenly this little re-wiring project was looking a bit more daunting. We ended up with this shopping list: three new circuit breakers, an AC panel, a DC panel, assorted clamp connectors, 5 feet of Romex, GFCI outlet & box, black screws, plus the custom-made walnut fascia. The hardware was easy to get. The woodworking, on the other hand, caused a three week delay.

Over this past weekend we finally got started. Like many other “three hour” jobs, the various complications and surprises blew our estimate away.  Saturday’s work alone stretched into six hours as a result of minor complications and “might as well” items.

A few examples:

  • I found a section of floor covering that needed replacing while we had everything out;
  • We discovered small extrusions on the AC panel that required us to trim the opening in the wood fascia a little wider;
  • Nate spent some time cleaning up and labeling the mess of wiring under the refrigerator;
  • We had to remove the inverter to identify the input and output wire colors, since the previous tech didn’t label them and they were hidden from view.

There were several other small issues of the same variety, which inevitably result from “working behind” someone else who didn’t take time and care to do things as nicely as we’d like. This is why I prefer to do my own work (or with a good partner like Nate). If we ever have to get into this system again, we’ll find all the wires bundled, labeled, and secured.

Airstream power distribution panel-4

In the end, the job we that thought would take three hours stretched over three days, with a total of about 12 hours of time invested including runs to the hardware store. To be fair, the wiring part of the job did take less than three hours—it’s all the other “little things” that sucked up the rest of the time.

Airstream custom power panelAirstream power distribution panels done

I’m glad we did this.  Not only did we get the whole-house inverter finally set up the way I wanted it, but we fixed a bunch of small secondary problems and ended up making the interior look nicer too.  The new walnut fascia and the black plastic distribution panels are a big improvement over the way things looked before. We even managed to shave a few pounds off; those original distribution panels were framed in steel and they weighed a surprising amount.

 

One final important note

The final challenge was a GFCI circuit breaker that we re-used from the original installation.  It was fine right until we pressed the GFCI “TEST” button. Then it buzzed for a couple of seconds and fried itself. GFCIs have a definite lifespan, and this one was 12 years old and had not been tested recently. If we’d had an electrical fault in the trailer, this GFCI would not have protected us.

So learn from my bad example and go press the TEST button on each of your GFCI receptacles and circuit breakers today.  (The RV must be connected to shore power to do this test, so if yours is in storage, make a note to do the test before your first trip of the season.)

When you press the TEST button, the breaker or outlet should trip off instantly with an audible snap, cutting off the power. Then you can press the RESET button to restore power. If either the TEST or RESET buttons doesn’t work, you’re missing a crucial piece of electrical protection that could save your life someday.  Time to get a new GFCI.

Winter options for Airstreams (and their owners)

Even in Arizona it’s winter now, and our Airstream is mostly dormant. Although we boast of having a 365-day camping season, in practice we do relatively little camping in the winter because the Sonoran desert is chilly at night, and the nights are long. Sword swallowing in the desertWe have to plan our days carefully because around 5 pm the dark comes crashing down and the temperatures plummet. You want to be back at camp, all set up and cozy when dusk arrives.  There’s not much natural entertainment after dark except for the songs of the coyotes.

It can, however, be quite interesting to make your own fun on those long dark nights in the desert.

I’ll let you in on a “full timer” secret: The best camping this time of year isn’t in Arizona, it’s in California, particularly near the coast where the temperature swings are more moderate. Last January we took full advantage of that with a two week trip to Death Valley and the coast up to San Francisco. Even with frequent El Niño rains around the Bay Area it was a great time.

If you follow the blogs of various full-time RVers you have probably noticed that they tend to congregate over the winter in a few areas. Most full-timers hate freezing nights—the propane really disappears fast when overnight lows are below freezing—and so unless they have an obligation to be somewhere, Airstreamers head for a few reliably warm spots in the continental US.  Basically that’s southern Florida (below I-4), southern Texas, southern Arizona, southern California, the Pacific coast, and a few warm national park sites like Death Valley, Big Bend, and Padre Island.

This year we skipped our usual post-Christmas or early January trip to California, the first time we’ve done that in a decade or so. Instead, we will take a trip in mid-March.  March is an especially nice month to visit the low desert (anywhere from Texas to California) because it’s springtime and the desert plants will be blooming.

Picacho peak springtime

Desert flowers-1Last year the media and the parks were talking up something called the “Superbloom” and that might lead you to think that other desert springtimes are not worth the trip, but you’d be missing out. Every spring in the desert is wonderful.  The weather is nearly perfect: sunny, warm but rarely hot, and even if the blooms are below average you will still see lots of tiny flowers and green cacti if you just take some time to go for a short hike.

When it’s not out traveling our Airstream is fortunate to have a cozy carport to snooze in, protected from the slow degradation of weather and kept happy with a 30-amp power hookup. We keep it warm and mostly packed so that we can host occasional overnight guests or hitch up for an impromptu trip if some inspiration should overwhelm us.

If you have an Airstream that’s not in use over the winter, my first advice is always to keep it under cover if you can. I don’t mean a tarp, because:

  • tarps flap in the wind and can actually cause damage to the clearcoat from scuffing
  • a tarp will trap moisture rising up from ground and inhibit the Airstream from being able to dry out naturally, which can actually cause more moisture-related problems than it prevents!

Any sort of structure that keeps the rain, snow, and sunshine off your Airstream will help preserve it over the winter. If you use a storage facility, opt for a covered space—it’s worth the premium!  But try to avoid enclosed barns and tents that have earth floors, unless there’s a vapor barrier in the ground. Any corrosive material or damage to the clearcoat will be encouraged to become blooms of white spidery filiform corrosion during winter storage in a humid environment.

Ideally your Airstream should be stored below 60% relative humidity, although obviously that’s not always possible. Given a choice between a humid indoor environment, and a cold winter outdoors with some snow, I’d make sure the roof was leak-free and store it in the snow.  The dry winter air is far better than a damp and somewhat warmer environment.

(There’s a lot more to know about over-winter storage. Check out “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” pages 150-163.)

My other piece of advice is to consider taking a long trip to a warmer climate if you can. Lots of Airstreamers take their rig south during the winter, then store it in a covered spot for a return trip later in the season. Seems like a great idea to me: essentially your Airstream becomes a moveable vacation condo!

Whatever you do, stay warm and plan ahead. Even if you can’t get away over the winter a long lovely season for camping is not far away. While your Airstream dreams in its winter bed, you can dream of travel and camping yet to come.

The Airstream “sharing economy”

Last week a woman who knows us only slightly asked Eleanor if we ever rent our Airstream to other people.  She wanted to see if an Airstream might be right for her family and thought she could evaluate it by trying ours first. Perhaps more to the point, she noted it would also be useful as housing for her visiting sister for a few days.

The idea comes up now and again, but to date we’ve always passed over the opportunity to collect a few dollars.  An Airstream is very personal, especially to us since we’ve lived in ours for several years (cumulatively) including a three year period of full time travel.  Renting it to a stranger would feel like an invasion of privacy.

Lately I’m hearing more inquiries and I attribute it to two things:

  1. The so-called “sharing economy”, where people rent their homes through VRBO, AirBnB and other sites. Heck, people even rent overnight space on their guest beds through sites like CouchSurfing.org, and use of their personal cars through GetAround and Turo.  There’s talk that car sharing will be a big thing among Millennials and younger generations, especially as self-driving cars become the norm. (They’re coming sooner than you think!)
  2. Lots of interest in Airstreams in general.  For the past four years Airstream has been selling as many trailers & motorhomes as they can make and there’s no sign of a slowdown yet. Those of us in the business think the Baby Boomer retirement tidal wave may propel the RV industry for up to 10 more years. So people who can’t afford an Airstream or who don’t think they’ll use one enough to justify a purchase are looking to borrow or rent instead.

Ten years ago I had to search around for the few places in the world where you could rent an Airstream “hotel room”.  These days there are literally hundreds of Airstream hotel rooms (at dozens of locations) and more keep popping up. That’s a trend that I suspect may be a bubble and I’m wondering how soon it will pop.

It might be hard to resist the call when someone is willing to pay $100-200 a night to sleep in your Airstream—until you look at the risk and expenses. The woman who inquired most recently wanted us to put the trailer on her land. Let’s see, that’s about two hours of my time for hitching up, towing across town, unhitching, setting up utilities, and explaining how to use everything.

Then there’s the time spent getting the trailer ready for guests, which we do often in the winter for friends. That normally takes a couple more hours, including doing the sheets & towels, stocking a little food & coffee, and removing our personal items. Afterward of course there’s cleanup and more laundry.

Finally, there’s the hassle factor. One set of friends had a little boy who didn’t get the memo on how to flush the toilet, so he filled the black tank in the first evening. When I was called the water level was within half an inch of overflowing the toilet bowl. If we didn’t have a handy sewer hookup in the carport that would have been a massive problem.

Another guest left such a mess (I’ll spare the details) that it took several hours to restore the trailer to habitable condition. (That person was put on double-secret probation, which means “never again”.) And we take precautions even with our friends: dogs are carefully screened and smokers are forbidden. Fortunately we’ve never had any permanent damage but there’s no question being an innkeeper comes with certain risks.

But what about the idea of buying a used Airstream cheap and then setting it up as a permanent rental? Sure, lots of people are doing that. From what they tell me, there’s not much of a business model in renting to individuals but the corporate rental gigs can be nicely profitable—when you can get them. The “cute” vintage trailers tend to get the biggest bucks, as long as they look nice.

Airstream Caravel Monahan Sand Dunes

Personally I’ve been offered as much as $2,000 for “three days” of rental of our 1968 Caravel (pictured above) at a trade show, but in the end we’ve never actually gone through with a rental deal. The $2,000 was predicated on my towing it for six hours up to Las Vegas, and there were load-in and load-out dates that had to be respected so my total time investment was going to be nearly a week. It just didn’t make sense once I factored in my time, travel mileage, and either airfare or hotel for several days—not to mention the risks associated with putting a delicate vintage trailer in the middle of a trade show floor.

Airstream Caravel in driveway

So in my opinion there are a lot of problems with the “sharing economy” at least as far as it applies to Airstreams.  Still, I would like to find a way to either make the Caravel stop costing us money every year (insurance, minor upkeep) and get it out of our carport. We hardly ever use it and two Airstreams are too much for a suburban driveway. But like an elderly pet, the Caravel is so beloved that we can’t just get rid of it.

Right now the grand plan is for Emma to inherit the Caravel at some point. I wonder if that will actually happen. A characteristic of her generation that I’ve been noting lately is they don’t want their parents’ stuff. [See articles: 1, 2, 3, 4]  It’s not just the silver tea set and ridiculously formal dining room furniture they don’t want. This allergy extends to pretty much all the material goods. The kids want to make their own lives, not duplicate ours—and they are accustomed to getting the latest new version of everything every year or two.

Big sigh. I can relate to that. I never wanted anything of my parents’ either. They gave me a rusty 1977 Chevy Camaro in 1984 and it was helpful for a while during college, but once I had my first post-college job I preferred to buy my own stuff even if I had to take out a loan to do it. Fortunately there are always going to be a subset of American society that values nice old vehicles, and if Emma doesn’t show marked interest in the Caravel someday one of those other folks will get it instead.

And now that I think of it, there’s the original “sharing economy”: If you don’t need it, sell it to someone who will use it. Airstreams last a long time with proper care. I think I’ll offset my costs by keeping mine in good shape and hopefully someday sell it and get my money back, or make a little bit on appreciation.