Pack your inspirations

Alumapalooza is around the corner, and that means it’s time to get serious about traveling again.  That event (held every year at the Airstream factory after Memorial Day) has been the kick-off for our summer travels for the past six years, and this year will be the seventh.

We’re not the only ones gearing up to hit the road either.  I’m hearing from friends all over the country who are anticipating saddling up and hauling the Airstream out later this month or in May.  Many of them will be out for weeks, which is great for them.  They’ll have fun and maybe we’ll cross paths at some point.

Getting ready for Alumapalooza is really only the beginning for us.  The Airstream won’t be back to home base until September, or possibly October, so we have to pack and plan for a magical mystery expedition.  I don’t know exactly where we will be later this summer because some of our plans are going to be spontaneous, which means we could encounter temperatures from freezing to 110; activities like hiking, motorcycling, and swimming in the ocean; social events ranging from the five-day party that is Alumapalooza, to quiet nights in the middle of nowhere; and much more.

HSSA foster kittens-1A couple of weeks ago Eleanor and I started to talk about our preparations to hit the road, and just about every day we do something to advance the cause, because it really takes that long to get a family of three and a small business ready to go. It would be easy if it were a simple matter of packing, but of course there are all the other things in life that get in the way.

For example, we have foster kittens again (yes, those two pictured really are our current obligations: Coleman and Storm), and I’ve been doing maintenance on the cars, we are taking a language class, Emma has a karate tournament coming up, etc., etc.

HSSA foster kittens-2All of these projects and obligations seem overwhelming at times.  Sometimes I feel like the month of April is really just about getting ready to leave, and it seems tedious, but then once we do finally start traveling everything falls into perspective.  The prize of being on multi-month adventure is well worth the advance work.

What I really like about traveling this way is that we don’t have to plan everything in advance. I’m a planner by nature, but in this case it’s actually easier if we don’t.  We have a general plan based on a few hard deadlines (Alumapalooza late May in Ohio, Alumafandango late September in California) but everything else is subject to whims and winds—and opportunities that may arise.

Fuel prices, by the way, hardly come into it at all. I mention this because if you are considering becoming an Airstream traveler you might think fuel cost is a big deal.  Really, it’s one of the smaller budget items since traveling by road is more enjoyable when you drive less and explore locally more. I expect we’ll spend about $1,500 for fuel this season thanks to low diesel prices currently, and for four to five months of travel that’s a bargain.

Organ Pipe Quitobaquito pond

The photo above is from a recent 2-night trip with my friend Nick, back to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Out there in the desert you’ll find a strange sight, a lovely pond filled with tiny desert pupfish just a couple hundred feet from the border fence.  This memorable trip across southern Arizona wasn’t expensive. It’s not about how far you go, it’s about what you can find near where you are.

This season we’re winging it more than usual.  We always have a list of “maybe” ideas handy when we venture out, and this year’s list is really wild.  We’re considering “side trips” as far apart as Newfoundland and Oregon.  We’re keeping an eye out for cheap last-minute flights to Europe and bargain cruises to Alaska.  It’s quite likely that none of these ideas will pan out, but it’s fun to have ideas to consider.

As I said, flexibility is a big advantage of traveling this way. When we walk out the door of our house, the adventure begins. Discovering where it ends up is the fun part. Pack your ideas and inspirations in the Airstream and see what happens.

You can’t change a tire? Oh no.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“We’re going out on a long Airstream trip.  What sort of Roadside Assistance (AAA, Good Sam, etc) should I have, in case I get a flat tire?”

…. sigh …  I hear variations on this all the time. And I get a little sad every time I hear it, because too often things don’t work out well with this strategy.

The best roadside assistance program you can ever have is yourself. Even if you aren’t “mechanically minded,” or even if you have a physical disability that prevents you from being able to do a tire change, you need to know how to change a tire, and you need to have the necessary equipment on hand.

Why? Lots of reasons:

  • Roadside assistance often takes hours to show up. You, or someone you know, can change a tire on your Airstream in about 10 minutes. Why wait all that time?
  • Deliverance teethFlats happen in all kinds of places, including places you really don’t want to be parked for long time. Like by the side of the highway, or in a rough neighborhood.
    You might start to feel like you’re in a scene from Deliverance.  It’s a hard transition from independent traveling Airstreamer to completely helpless potential target.
  • Not all mechanics have familiarity with Airstreams, or the proper tools for the job. Someone who doesn’t know that they shouldn’t put a jack under most parts of the belly pan, or the axle, can do serious damage.  A heavy-handed mechanic with an air wrench can do a lot more harm than good. (I learned this one the hard way myself.)
  • Roadside assistance programs don’t always cover every place. And cell phones don’t work everywhere. What would you do if you couldn’t reach the toll-free number, or they told you (as happened to a friend of mine) “you’re in a non-service area.”
  • A few tools are a lot cheaper than paying for roadside assistance year after year.

Airstream tireFortunately, it’s really not hard at all to change a tire.  Even if you physically can’t do it, having the tools on hand and knowledge of the correct procedure means someone else (perhaps a Good Samaritan) can help you.

I wrote a book about Airstream Maintenance that includes a big discussion explaining exactly how to swap a tire. But if you don’t want to buy the book, you can learn the procedure from a six-page booklet I published.  A free copy comes with every tire changing kit we sell in the Airstream Life Store. (That kit includes all the tools you need to swap a tire, and every Airstream owner should have those tools with them on every trip.)

Now, just so you realize I’m not just blogging this solely to promote my store:  I don’t care if you copy down the list of tools provided in the kit on the Airstream Life Store and go buy all the parts yourself at local stores. Just make sure you have them.  If you travel a lot, sooner or later you will need those tools.

One of things I always point out to people is that you don’t have to be very strong to do this job. For example, to get the tire out of the spare holder without lifting (after you’ve lowered the holder to the ground) just sit on the ground and push the tire out with your feet.

Sometimes the job seems hard because you’re doing it the hard way, so a little practice will help a lot. Try it in your driveway, or this June at Alumapalooza where we will have a tire-changing class & contest.

You might be thinking that flats are pretty rare, and you’ll take your chances. That’s OK, but there are other reasons to have the tools & knowledge handy. For example, sooner or later you’ll need a fresh set of tires. Have you ever had a tire shop act like your trailer was some sort of dangerous object?  I’ve heard things like, “I’m not allowed to take a wheel off a trailer,” and “We don’t have a jack big enough for a trailer like that.” Having the ability to swap a tire yourself can help a lot in such situations.

Stay independent, my friends.  Being prepared for common problems like flat tires will help keep your Airstream experience fun.

A deal on solar panels

You know … I had such a good time at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument last week that I did something unusual. At Eleanor’s suggestion, I left the Airstream parked in the campground so we could come back as a family for another visit. We’ve never done that before.

So I came home on Wednesday, re-packed and caught up on some work, and then Friday all three of us went back just for the weekend.

It was a weird thing to come to the campground and find the Airstream sitting there, all set up and ready for us.  It was more like having a vacation house. But it was great: We just piled in, and I slid out the awning and Solar Shade, and opened the windows and let the warm desert breezes flow through … and it was an “Aaaahhhhh” moment.  No obligations, no deadlines, and glorious sunshine in a quiet park.

Organ Pipe E&E Airstream shade

That feeling lasted all weekend as we hiked out to abandoned mines and filled in our “Desert Ranger” books (everyone got a patch), and visited with other Airstreamers, and generally just chilled out. I have to say, it was a great mini-vacation.

Organ Pipe Airstream interior

As we were camping I was reminded of how great it is to have solar panels on the roof of the Airstream.  The Twin Peaks campground at Organ Pipe has a few rows where generators aren’t allowed, and I noticed that most of the Airstreams were clustered there (including us). It was more peaceful without the rumble of generators firing every morning while people microwaved their coffee.

Organ Pipe chain link chollaThis time of year the sun angle is low and I often wish I had just a little more sun-gathering capability, so I’m now using a 120-watt portable solar panel kit to augment the fixed panels on the roof.  This has turned out to be so great that I’m going to start selling the same kit in the Airstream Life Store.

Having a set of portable panels means you can set them on the ground where the sun is shining (even if the Airstream is in shade) and angle them to catch the early morning and late afternoon light that flat roof panels miss. This effectively gives you a lot more power collection especially during the short winter days and cloudy days.  They have adjustable legs so you can set the angle to match the sun, and they fold up to easily store in a zippered carry case.

I’ve got a bunch of these solar panel kits coming in next week.  They’re somewhat expensive, but if you were ever thinking about getting a set, I’ve got a deal for you.  The kit we are now selling includes 120 watts of top quality folding panels with all the bells & whistles. It’s totally “plug and play”—you don’t need anything else to get started—and we include a few crucial accessories that other sellers don’t include. We’re going to sell this complete kit for $636.

Since you’re a blog reader, if you contact me before March 10, 2016 and you’re one of the first 10 people to respond, I’ll send you a discount coupon to use on my store that will reduce your price by $50I guarantee you will never find a better price on this full kit (including extension cable and 7-way plug adapter) anywhere.

Click here to read more about what we’re offering, but be sure to get the discount coupon from me before you place your order.

I’ll talk a little more about our Organ Pipe Cactus National Park experience in the next blog, because it’s an interesting place and we had a few, uh, “adventures” in the back country …

Beach camping

I love camping at a beach by the open sea.  We’ve done it at every opportunity, from Connecticut to California.  There is something unique about camping at the edge of the ocean.  It is one of those places that most people can only visit briefly, for a glorious but all-too-short day at the sandy beach before heading home.  But with an Airstream your home can be just a few feet from the beach, providing a comfortable and cozy shelter while you watch the setting sun reflecting on the water, or listen to the endless rhythm of pounding surf.

Charlestown Breachway Emma 2004Some of my best camping memories are from beachside places.  One of our very first experiences, back in 2004 when our 1968 Caravel was still very new to us, was camping at Charlestown Breachway State Beach in CT.  It was just an asphalt lot by the ocean, but being fresh to the Airstream lifestyle, it was a magical time.

It probably helped that Emma was just four years old. Everything was pretty magical back then, and it cemented our fondness for beachside camping.

Since that first experience we’ve camped by the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, most of the eastern seaboard states, extensively in Florida and the Gulf Coast, Padre Island National Park, Puerto Peñasco and Bahia Kino in Mexico, California, and Washington.  The only place we didn’t absolutely love was Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach CA, and that’s mostly because heavy highway traffic was obnoxiously close.

For sure, your camping experience by the ocean can vary quite a lot. It might be peaceful and rustic, colorful and carnival-like, foggy and quiet, or blazing with sunshine and salt breezes. In California there are roads built close to the water nearly everywhere, so often the campsites are just asphalt spots sandwiched between beach and highway. Still, a lot of the sites are pretty nice.

The sound of the surf at night is a big part of the attraction for me.  I distinctly remember the sound on that first night in Connecticut, and the different sounds we heard one wild & windy night in North Carolina, and yet another memorable night on St George Island (FL) where Eleanor and I stayed up late listening to the waves and talking (that was the night we decided it was time to buy a house after two years on the road). You only get that wonderful sound of waves crashing when you’re camped by the water.

Thornhill Broome Airstream

On our trip in January this year we visited Thornhill Broome campground (part of Point Mugu State Park), between Oxnard and Malibu. It’s directly adjacent to the Pacific Coast Highway. The beach is rocky but there’s some sand.  Like all the west coast sites the water is pretty cold most of the time. No hookups at all, nor dump station, and the gate gets locked at 10 pm.  Still, it’s popular because it’s close to Los Angeles and Ventura, and we liked it.

If you visit here, try for a weekday to avoid crowds. For practical supplies and services, go north to Oxnard, and for people-watching and an entertaining California scene, go south to Malibu. It’s  just a short and scenic drive down the road.

Thornhill Broome friends VW busOur Airstream friend David organizes an annual get-together of fellow travelers (mostly vintage trailer owners) here every September, so we timed our visit to coincide. That was a good call. We spent a very pleasant evening with some new friends, sitting in a little courtyard they’d built between a vintage VW bus camper and a vintage Eriba Puck (German camper), while David made chili for everyone and Emma played cards with the other kids in a vintage motorhome.

This sort of self-entertainment is “low concept” to many people today. They don’t think they can have a good time without being on an expedition, a cruise ship, or a theme park, but I think we get just as much out of a quiet night with a few good people as anything else we’ve done. I think we all need to do some camping to stay in touch with what’s real, and what matters.

Now, I love camping in all sorts of places.  Beaches, forests, deserts, even badlands …  all of those peaceful places are good for keeping you centered. But beaches will always be special. I don’t know why.  I’m just going to roll with it.

Why you go to Death Valley

Death Valley Stovepipe Wells AirstreamsYou don’t come to Death Valley for the fast Internet.  Or for good cell phone coverage.  This is part of what makes it a rare and peaceful place, because once you arrive there is a moratorium on ringing phones, text messages, social media, and other such distractions.

I’m a big believer in vacations. It’s hard to vacation when email is beckoning and the obligations of work can follow you every step of the way, so I think big western parks like Death Valley should stay “quiet zones” forever—but I’m sure that’s not going to be the case.  Already in most of the remote places of the west there’s some spots of cellular service and so the responsibility is on me to put the phone and laptop away to disconnect for a few days. That takes self-discipline.

To a self-employed person, it feels like shirking.  Being cut off from the Internet is like going without water; you can only do it for a limited time, and gradually things begin to stink. The longer you ignore email and let the voicemails pile up, the more you know you’ll have to deal with later.

I have many friends who work and live full-time in Airstreams, and those people plan ahead carefully to ensure they can get online as they travel. My friend Kyle is one of those people, so for him to tow his Airstream Classic 34 out to the “quiet zone” of Death Valley required getting ahead on work the week before in Pahrump NV, and then formally taking vacation time for the four days we would be camped at Stovepipe Wells in the vast desert.

Death Valley mapYou also don’t come to Death Valley for the high-concept entertainment.  There is little shopping, and no commercial attractions except the lowest elevation golf course in the world. It is a huge, mostly empty place with subtle pleasures: eerie landscapes, tiny animal tracks in the sand dunes, a fragment of human history, abandoned mines and ghost towns, strange salt formations, superlative altitudes (282 feet below sea level and 11,000 feet above), and of course legendary heat in the summer.

Perhaps this is why there was hardly anyone there in January.  You’d think the place would be flooded with visitors from northern states, escaping the gloom and snow for a patch of inexpensive desert sun, but the Stovepipe Wells campground was 90% empty, and we encountered few people during our explorations (except near Furnace Creek, by the Visitor Center and “ranch”).

We have visited Death Valley I think four times over the past decade, and each time we find something different. It’s too big to see in a single visit, even if you stay a week.  Driving from Scotty’s Castle or Ubehebe Crater south to the Devil’s Golf Course (for example) is about 70 miles one way.  It’s easy to do 150 miles a day roaming from one interesting spot to another, and then back to your campsite.

Death Valley Ubehebe CraterNormally we pick Furnace Creek as our campsite because it’s fairly central.  This time we chose Stovepipe Wells just because it seemed like we might do more stuff in the northern part of the park. Scotty’s Castle (a popular historic house) was closed due to flooding, but that still left Ubehebe Crater (pictured at left), the Sand Dunes, Rhyolite ghost town, Leadfield ghost town, and the epic one-way Titus Canyon drive.

Titus Canyon was the big goal for me this time.  Eleanor and I first visited Death Valley in the early 1990s, camping in a tiny “2 man” tent and driving a rental car, and when I spotted Titus Canyon I was desperate to drive it.  There are only two ways to experience Titus Canyon: by driving the entire road from Rhyolite (about 3-4 hours) or by walking uphill from the parking lot.

Alas, we didn’t have time to drive it, so we walked a bit of the lower canyon and put it on the “someday” list, where it remained for over twenty years.  This visit I was determined to make the trip.

Since it’s a one-way road, you have to first exit the national park by driving to Nevada.  This adds a “might as well” stop to the trip: Rhyolite ghost town in Nevada.  There are a few buildings still there, and the most notable are the former train station (which no longer has tracks to it) and the Tom Kelly House (composed mostly of glass bottles).

After a visit to Rhyolite (a quick one since it was rather cold due to higher elevation), we embarked on the Titus Canyon drive.  This drive is best with a high clearance vehicle and you’d better be OK with bumps because the first few miles are a tedious flat slog through the desert on a rocky road.  After that it gets scenic—really scenic.

Death Valley Red Pass Mercedes

It was worth the wait.  Every twist of the road (and there are many of them) revealed a new vista.  We lunched at Red Pass, a spectacular spot high in the mountains, and then slowly worked down to the abandoned mining outpost of Leadfield.

Death Valley Titus Canyon Mercedes

Eventually the road enters narrow Titus Canyon for a couple of miles, which is very cool, and finally pops out into the wide open Death Valley to a small dirt parking lot. There we found a few envious visitors who were staring at the sign that says “one way traffic only”.

So that’s the sort of thing you go to Death Valley for.  Oh, and one other thing … the sunsets.

Death Valley Airstreams at sunset