Old fashion socializing

The past few days in Anza-Borrego camping without my family has been an enlightening experience in some ways.  I have realized that when I am camping solo, I prefer to be away from campgrounds.  Campgrounds are filled with other people and their families and I find them strangely distracting. It’s the “alone in a crowd” feeling.

I don’t usually notice much about the other campers when we are traveling as a family, because we are engaged in our own lives and there’s usually something that needs to be done.  But when solo, there’s a stillness about the trailer that invites contemplation (navel-gazing, I suppose).  At those times, it’s great to be out in the desert with not much else around.

So I know that the next time I am looking for an opportunity to be alone and contemplative, taking the Airstream out for some boondocking will be just the ticket.  That may not be for some time, since we have a heavy travel schedule through February and March.

Anza-Borrego Slot canyon TroyOn this trip it was nice to see all my friends happily engaged in their lives.  Brian & Leigh were busy working on their respective jobs in their “office” at the dinette.  Likewise, Alex and Charon both seemed to be deep into creative projects of various types, although I did manage to break Alex away for one day of recreation.  Stevyn & Troy have been exploring the world of full-time travel, and while they are still getting their footing, I can see that it probably won’t be long before they have a regular routine with their two kids as well.

I took their family out for a little exploration, since they’ve never been to Anza-Borrego and had no idea of the many curiosities and phenomenae to be found.  The Slot Canyon, always a favorite, was a big hit.  It was as much fun for me to show it to them as it was for them to explore it.  I was particularly gratified when Troy turned to me and said he was having that peculiar sensation you get when you actually see something in person that you had previously known only from photographs in National Geographic.  I know that feeling—it’s one of the reasons we travel.

In the evening all of our local Airstream circle gathered by the tailgate of Troy’s pickup truck, with my old gas camping lamp hissing, and we talked for a couple of hours.  I had picked up an apple pie in town (nearby Julian CA is famous for those), and Leigh warmed it in the oven and split it among us.  It all seems so mundane as I recount this, but at the time it was the perfect thing to do.  As simple as it was, it felt like a great moment in life.

That’s perhaps the best thing about this sort of camping.  We have no shopping, no school, no jobs except what we bring with us, and few distractions.  The nights are cold and long in the desert winter, and you’ve got to make your own entertainment.  This encourages more of that introspection I was talking about, and it encourages old-fashioned socializing.  Bonding together over pie and conversation is what it’s all about.

I could have happily stayed out for another week, traveling through California and Arizona, but my time was up.  Appointments, obligations, and demands of work  were calling me back to home, so that evening I pre-packed the trailer and started thinking about the long drive back.  There are very few good overnight stopping points along I-8, and I needed to get back ASAP, so in the morning the only thing to do was to hitch up and hit the road as early as possible.

The Caravel has passed the test.  It’s always going to be a tiny and somewhat inefficient little trailer, but at least it’s a trailer in which everything works!  I have a list of about a dozen improvements that could be made, which I’m going to file for next summer.  For now, it’s ready to go, which means Brett will have a place to stay during Alumafiesta and—if I can work out a second tow vehicle—someday I’ll have it for TBM season…

I’ve never seen that before

I’ve been coming to this park for years, partly in a park this big there’s always an opportunity to see something new—if you just make the effort to look.  The rangers and volunteers who staff the visitor center, and the people you can find camping in the less-traveled areas, are a great source of tips.

Yesterday I pulled Alex away from his computer to get out for “an adventure.”  We decided to do a little off-roading near 17 Palms, a palm oasis that’s a couple of miles off S-22, starting at the primitive Arroyo Salado campsite.  The roads are always sandy, potholed, and occasionally a bit “technical” requiring some driving skill to avoid getting stuck.  None of the roads I’m going to talk about are passable with a 2 wheel drive vehicle, or any vehicle that doesn’t have high ground clearance.  I mention this because we still remember the Tale of the Sinking Dutchman, who thought that a Subaru Outback constituted a suitable conveyance on the local trails.  It has become a favorite campfire story among the 4WD owners.

The Mercedes GL is a remarkably capable off-road vehicle.  I know that probably 99.9% of owners never take them off pavement, but they should give it a try.  We’ve off-roaded with ours in many places over the years, and it has always been surprisingly good it, despite its bulk and street tires.  I’m selective about where we go because I don’t want to strip the paint off by rubbing a piece of sandstone, and I sure don’t want to get stuck.

17 Palms was very nice, but I’d seen it before and after a few minutes of marveling at this strange palm oasis (the result of an underground water supply) we decided to press onward to a place we’d never been: the “Pumpkin Patch.”

This is an area of “concretions”, which are basically like pearls made of natural cement.  Wet sand sticks to a “seed” object like a pebble, and becomes cemented to it.  Wind erosion shapes the concretions as they gradually become exposed to the surface, hence the pumpkin shape.

Pumpkin Patch is in the adjacent Ocotillo Wells Off-Highway Recreational Vehicle Area, which is a long way to say that it’s where the ATV’ers and motorcyclists are allowed to ride.  We met up with a few of them and they tipped us off to a hidden spot where supposedly there were “statues” made of rock.  They weren’t sure where exactly they saw it, and sent us on a wild-goose chase down the Pumpkin Patch Trail.

I can now attest that this trail is passable by cars … but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really like off-roading in tricky conditions and have the right vehicle.  It’s really Jeep country.  Since Alex and I were, uh, “rather concerned” by the conditions as we slowly drove through, we didn’t stop to take photos, but we probably should have.  If you drove this trail in a Jeep you would not believe that we’d done it in a Mercedes GL.

Of course we never found the rock statues, but by the time we escaped Pumpkin Patch Trail and settled into the relatively flat washes, we didn’t really care.  It about another 90 minutes to work our way out of there and back to the pavement of S-22, plus time for a stop at another spot we’d never seen before: Vista Del Malpais.

Alex called Vista Del Malpais “the best view in the park,” and I think he might be right.  It’s a lot like the view from Font’s Point but even more panoramic.  The Salton Sea is visible to the east, badlands spread out in front in Technicolor beauty, and mountains ringing three sides.  It really can’t be fully captured in a single photo.  Going to Vista Del Malpais is mandatory if you really want to appreciate it, like seeing Grand Canyon in person.

After all that, it seemed like a good idea to head over to the Palms At Indian Head Hotel for a burger by the swimming pool.

Just as the sun was setting behind the mountains, Alex & Charon put on a show for all the RV’ers in their encampment (about 1/4 mile from my site) and for anyone else who cared to show up.  This is the same show they’ll be doing at Alumafiesta next month in Tucson, full of sword swallowing, fire breathing, and other specialties of the sideshow arts.  I’ve seen it probably eight times and I still love it.  From the reaction of the crowd (from age 3 to 60+) it was clear they loved it too.

Today’s plan is much like yesterday’s plan: no plan.  We shall see what happens.  It’s another beautiful day in Borrego Springs CA (sorry to all of you trapped by the snow & cold right now), and probably it is my last day before heading homeward, so I’m going to try to make the most of it.

Out in the desert

Yesterday I relocated the Caravel out to the open desert, just beyond the boundaries of town.  No more full hookup for me on this trip.  The Caravel’s systems all worked beautifully while I was in the state park campground for two nights, and so the next step is to test everything in boondock mode (without hookups).

I’m very pleased with the way the trailer is finally working out, after years of tweaking it.  There are still things I’d like to improve, and I suppose there always will be, but it is eminently usable right now.  I’d like to get the main door to open and close more easily, and it needs a 12v power outlet somewhere, and perhaps a couple of USB power outlets by the dinette.  Stabilizer jacks would be nice, as would a vintage-style awning.  Oh, and while I’m at it, a discrete rooftop antenna for cellular Internet, an easier way to convert the gaucho to a bed, a lighter dinette table, and I’m sure I can think of many other things too …

Somehow I doubt I’m going to get to all of those projects, at least not until I start using this trailer on a more routine basis.  The Caravel is a fun trailer for one person, but not highly practical.  You can do only one thing at a time in it. You can cook, eat, sleep, shower, or work—pick any one, and put everything away before switching to the next.  There just isn’t room to leave anything out.

When Eleanor and spent our first night in this trailer, back in August 2003, we were traveling without Emma and found the Caravel to be delightful.  It rained that first night, and I remember feeling wonderfully encompassed in the tiny aluminum shell while the rain pattered on the roof.  Later when we traveled with Emma (age 3) it never seemed too small, probably because our point of comparison was a tent.  Today I think I would describe it as “romantic” for two if you like cozy surroundings.  (I mean “cozy” in the real estate sense:  small.)  The three of us no longer fit in it, at least not at the same time.

The real point of a vintage trailer like this, if we’re going to be brutally honest here, is that it attracts lots of admirers because it’s just so darned cute.  Everyone comes over and admires it. I give a lot of tours, so I feel obliged to try to clean it up every morning just to be ready for the possibility of someone wanting to peek inside.  Being so small, it doesn’t take long to see it all, in fact you can see it all just by leaning in the front door.

Being out here in the desert is much quieter than the state park campground.  By unspoken agreement, the RVs parked out here are scattered very widely unless they are deliberately camping together, so my nearest neighbors are Brian & Leigh about 100 feet away.  Stevyn & Troy are probably 200 feet away, and other than that I am mostly surrounded by open space and dry creosote bushes.  I prefer it, these days, to a campground, even though the Caravel isn’t optimized for boondocking.

It’s not bad even with only one battery, because the trailer doesn’t need much power.  I converted all the lights to LED and so the only significant long-term power draws are the circuit board in the refrigerator (even on gas it will use 6-10 amp-hours per day) and the laptop.  To make up for that, Brian has lent me his portable solar panel, which generates 120 watts peak, and that’s more than enough to recharge my daily needs, in about an hour.

There’s no furnace in this trailer either, just a catalytic heater which uses no electricity. The past two nights have been balmy, which is pretty rare right now since the eastern half of the country is in the deep-freeze. I hadn’t even needed to turn on the heater until last night when the overnight temperature dropped to 35 degrees F.  Around 5 a.m. I finally couldn’t stand it and fired up the catalytic heater, and then of course I couldn’t get back to sleep so I ended up at dawn taking pictures.  That wasn’t really so bad, especially later when I found a photo in my email from my friend Charlie showing his home in Indiana covered by 10 inches of snow and temperatures dipping to -14 degrees F.

Today’s plan is to roam around the park with Alex, rather aimlessly.  We plan to buy a Julian apple pie, otherwise it’s a solid plan of do-nothingness.  Last night a few of us went to Font’s Point to see the badlands at sunset, when they are just stunning, and I think that set the tone for the next few days. We’re just going to take in the beauty of this place and not worry about agendas.  Or anything else.

Readying for a solo mission

After a few weeks of concentrating on non-travel stuff, I’m ready to get out on the road again–and back to a favorite destination.

For the several years we had a tradition of spending time in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park around New Year’s Eve. It has always been a relaxing experience, slightly tinged with magic on those cold dark desert nights, where coyote howls are more common than fireworks or music.  We always ran into friends and fellow Airstreamers on that trip, and during the days we hiked and explored the back roads, badlands, washes, and mountains of the park.

Two years ago the tradition was broken when our disc brake actuator failed, preventing us from leaving the driveway.  Last year, we elected to stay home and see Paula Poundstone at Tucson’s downtown Rialto theater.  It seems like the spell that drew us annually had finally been broken.

Part of that is the result of changing circumstances.  We’re all older now, and we’ve got more going on in our lives than ever before.  Priorities change.  Hard decisions have to be made about how to spend time and money.  Eleanor and Emma have obligations near home for the next couple of weeks that they can’t shirk.  But for me, there’s still a faint siren song I can hear from Anza-Borrego, and as winter deepens the song gets a little louder.

So this year Eleanor has encouraged me to take the trip solo, in the tiny 1968 Airstream Caravel.  I rarely travel via Airstream without my family, so at first I resisted. This is something we’ve always done together.  Unless I have a defined goal for the trip, I always feel like I’m just wasting time and fuel driving hundreds of miles solo.  It feels lonely and strange to be camping out in the desert by myself, although know people who love doing that, for the privacy and peacefulness.

I’m trying to capture that spirit as I gear up for this trip.  Perhaps while I am out there I will find inspiration in the expanse, and write something fantastic and new.  Perhaps I will meet new friends and have an adventure out in the wilderness.  Maybe I’ll finally get a good photo of a scorpion or tarantula (probably not—wrong time of year).

At least I know that a few friends will be there as well.  I’m planning to meet up with Brian & Leigh from Aluminarium, which is always fun.  They have become hard-core boondockers and it’s fascinating to see them working their high-tech jobs in the open desert half a mile from the nearest road.

I’ll also spend a few days in the desert with Stevyn & Troy, who are new to Airstream full-timing and boondocking.  I feel slightly responsible for them because last September when we stayed at their home in Missouri, we encouraged them to try full-timing and now they are.  With Brian & Leigh’s help, we are going to give them a practical taste of “Boondocking 101” for a few days.  It will be a steep learning curve for them, but fun for us to pass on the knowledge.  If you are a Airstreamer who will be in the Borrego area this weekend or next week, let me know and I’ll send you the coordinates.

While prepping the Caravel the past few days, I’ve been feeling like a total noob.  The Caravel hasn’t been used by me since October 2011, and it has undergone quite a bit of renovation work since, so it isn’t pre-packed for travel like the Safari.  As a result, I have to think carefully about everything that will be needed for the trip:  tools, clothes, food, hoses, kitchen supplies, office equipment—everything, right down to the tow ball. (The Caravel tows on a ball, whereas the Safari uses a square “stinger” for the Hensley hitch.)  It’s amazing how much stuff I take for granted because the Safari is so well set up for full-timing, and always kept prepped to go.  Half the time I can’t even remember where things are supposed to go in the Caravel.

Eleanor has been helping in her usual way, by providing me with abundant food and remembering to check for the practical items that I would typically forget.  (“Dish soap and a sponge?  Oh yeah, that.”)  Together we will get it done and I’ll be well-equipped in the end, but it is taking much longer than I would have thought to pack a 17-foot trailer for five or six days of bachelor travel.  (Yes, I’m bringing the TBM gear, too!)

You might recall that a few weeks ago I finished a project to completely re-plumb the Caravel’s fresh water system.  I also had a new power hitch jack installed, and new safety chains.  And earlier in the year I replaced the propane regulator and associated hoses & hardware.  Part of the reason for taking the Caravel to Anza-Borrego is to road-test all that work.  It would be much easier to take the Safari, and the fuel economy isn’t much different for the big trailer, but Brett will be borrowing the Caravel next month during Alumafiesta so I’d like to have it fully debugged before he gets here.  A few hundred miles of towing plus five or six days of camping should shake out the bugs, if there are any. So part of my packing list is a bag of tools and a box of leftover plumbing supplies.  If the plumbing springs a leak, or a gas line needs to be tightened, I should be able to fix it even in the middle of nowhere.

Really, the only part that worries me is the fresh water system.  Leaks are so frustrating and can be subtle, yet devastating.  I tested the plumbing again this week and everything seems fine: no leaks, no problems.  The final step for that system is to sanitize, which is easy.  (The procedure is described on p. 59-60 of The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.) I took care of that yesterday, and today I’m going to finish most of the packing and do a little dusting inside the cabinets too.  Every time I get in there to pack things I come out with dusty hands; the poor Caravel has sat unused for far too long.

And of course there’s all the stuff that I will have to check on the trailer itself, like the tire pressure.  It all amounts to a lot of prep work for a short trip.  I’ve concluded that it’s really much easier if you use your Airstream frequently, like we do with the Safari.  Leave it ready to go as much as you can, keep the batteries charged and the cabinets stocked with non-perishables, have a dedicated set of tools and utensils that never leave the trailer, and you’ll be on the road that much quicker.  We are starting to work toward that with the Caravel.

The trip will begin on Friday with a long-ish drive to Borrego Springs, CA (380 miles).  I’ll have Internet even in the boondock sites, and probably lots of time to write, so a few blog posts from the road are likely.

Too much plumbing history

Like all projects, the Caravel plumbing replacement moves forwards a little unevenly—a few hours one days, and a few minutes the next.  Yesterday I got less than an hour of work done on it, because I was tied up most of the day with other projects, the kind that pay for this project.  The major accomplishment was screwing down the water pump and neatening up the wiring with some new butt splices. But although there wasn’t a lot of visible progress made, I was happy to take some time to think about the remaining plumbing to figure out how best to correct it.

There were two major puzzles to solve.  The first was the city water fill.  I had made some incorrect assumptions, namely that the original 2.75″ round filler was no longer available as a modern part, and also that it did not have a check valve.  This lack of a check valve was a major annoyance, since it meant that anytime the fill was not capped tightly our water would pump out it and onto the ground.

Because of those two incorrect assumptions, I had bought a modern Shurflo city water fill for $30 to replace what we had.  It comes with a pressure regulator and check valve built-in, all very neatly package but considerably larger than the original. I would have to enlarge the existing hole to 3.75″, and that gave me pause.  Anytime you have to cut an Airstream’s skin, you should take a day or two to think about it first.  It doesn’t heal itself.

Colin set me straight on this.  A replacement for the original filler is available, and it does have a built-in check valve.  (The original one did too, but the check valve failed many years ago.)  I found it for $12 at Camping World.  It’s Valterra part # A01-0172LF. You can see it in the photo, just above the original one.

The only problem is that the replacement unit takes three screw holes, and the original took two holes, so I’ll have to drill a couple of new holes.  I can live with that.  The old holes will be hidden behind the aluminum flange of the filler, and sealed with caulk.

Space inside the trailer closet to attach the plumbing to this filler is very limited.  For some reason, it was installed next to the black tank and so there are only 4 inches of clearance to work in.  If it had been installed just a few inches forward on the trailer body, there would have been plenty of working space.  This is one accessibility issue that I can’t rectify (at least, not without patching one hole on the skin and making another).

After some visualizing, I realized that it would be simple to put a 90-degree elbow on the inside of the city water fill so that the water line goes upward and then via an 18″ loop of clear flexible line (to absorb shock from city water pressure) to the closet manifold that we installed the day before.  This design also has the advantage of self-draining if the trailer is ever winterized again.  To do this, I need a special elbow that goes from pipe thread to PEX, and I couldn’t find one locally so I added it to another order from PEX Supply and will get it next week.

The second puzzle was how to re-route the plumbing to the water heater so that it would meet the design goals of (a) easy access for future maintenance/repair; (b) neatness (so we’ll have more usable storage space), and (c) reliability.  From a reliability point of view, I’m not a fan of the typical winterization valves sold in RV stores.  I like the way Airstream does it instead, with a very clear winterization bypass and three shut-off ball valves.  It took me a while to figure out a neat solution, and when I did I realized that the project will require more shutoff valves than I had ordered, so that went on the next order as well.

Since a major chunk of the project is now on hold for parts (which won’t arrive until sometime next week), the next thing to do was to rip out the rest of the plumbing, since I no longer needed it to understand what was going on.  The stuff that was left was frankly depressing to see and I was glad to get it out of there.

The most interesting bit was this (above).  This was a repair done by an Airstream shop to a section of PEX that was leaking at the fitting.  The fitting was leaking because it was installed without an elbow and thus had been overstressed.  The mechanic put in the blue section of PEX that you see, using steel clamps. This is a reliable system, nearly equal to the copper crimps.

IMG_1831

The repaired section was fine, but the pinhole leak we found before Alumafiesta occurred right next to it, in the first 1/4″ of the white PEX, just past the clamp.  Why?  It appears that something (a fitting? a clamp?) cut into the white PEX a little bit.  It’s barely visible in the closeup view above. The mechanic should have trimmed off the last inch or so of white PEX to ensure good material, but for whatever reason he didn’t, and so this last inch sprang a leak when subjected to city water pressure.

This may help explain why I decided to just gut the entire system and replace it with new.  There’s too much history in this system.  I want a “no stories” plumbing system.  If something goes wrong, I will have to blame myself but also I will know exactly how to fix it, and that’s infinitely more satisfactory than being bewildered while cursing some anonymous prior owner or mechanic.

Even while waiting for parts I can still do some work on the bathroom sink plumbing and get started on the winterization bypass for the water heater, so it’s possible I’ll put a few hours in over the weekend.  Otherwise, expect updates next week.