A Grand Tour

I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time—and wondering if we could really pull it off.

It started on Saturday, when I was in Vermont after the 6-day motorcycle trip to the Adirondacks. I only had a couple of days to catch up on work and re-pack for a trip out west. From Sunday morning on, I had the singular experience of waking up somewhere and knowing that I would be going to bed somewhere entirely different that night.

In the Airstream, this is fun. You can roam where you want, knowing that each night you will end up in your comfortable rolling home and familiar bed. But when the travel involves airlines and hotel rooms, the charm tends to slip away quickly.

It began on Saturday night when Eleanor and I relocated to an airport motel, so that on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m. she could take me to catch a flight from Vermont to New York City, and onward to Sacramento CA.  I met Brett at the airport in Sacramento, to drive around California’s beautiful countryside. (We were scouting a site for Alumafandango 2016, and things went very well. We’ll have an announcement about that in July.) That night we split a room at some nondescript motel off Rt 49, in an area of California that was once known for gold mining, and now is known for wineries. That was our 27-hour Day One.

Monday morning we scouted some more, visited the state capitol, and caught a late flight to Tucson, getting in around midnight. We settled into my house for the night. That was Day Two.

Tuesday morning we picked up a shiny new Airstream Interstate Grand Tour on loan from Airstream, at the local dealership (Lazydays), loaded it up with about 100 pounds of gear and food (much of which Eleanor had set out for us a month ago) and launched immediately toward Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. We spent that night at Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low.  Day Three.

Now I have to say that the Airstream Interstate was a fantastic relief after jet planes and motel rooms. Not only could we slow down our pace of travel, but it meant that for a while we could sleep in a bed more than once. The Airstream, stocked with our food and gear, could be our home.

Airstream Interstate in AZ

And what a glamorous home it is.  The new Grand Tour floorplan of the Interstate is a big improvement for those who want more of a traditional RV. Bigger kitchen, double the fridge/freezer space, much more storage, permanent beds, a nice little desk, and many other small pleasantries make it really usable. If you read my blogs from last summer when I tried out a regular Interstate, you know I liked driving it, and the Grand Tour retains that fine handling and ride (and an incredible list of safety features).

Airstream Interstate Salt River canyonWhen Brett and travel together there’s always a little bit of a battle over who gets to drive, and with the Interstate there was no question we both wanted the wheel as much as possible. I had picked the most scenic route I could on our northward journey, from Tucson to Globe, and then up to the beautiful Salt River Canyon, and finally up the Mogollon Rim to Show Low where the pine trees are tall and the summer air is much cooler than the low desert below. Even when we were gaping at the scenery deep in the Salt River Canyon, Brett wanted to keep the driver’s seat rather than give it up to get a better view.

We averaged about 15.5 MPG on that trip, which is pretty impressive for a 25-foot long motorhome on a hilly climb that eventually ended well over 6,000 ft. Or at least we thought that was good until the next day when we averaged 18 MPG on more level terrain through the Navajo nation in northern Arizona.

The goal for this leg was Navajo National Monument, a less-visited national park near Kayenta AZ.  We first visited as a family on 2008, and hiked 5 miles roundtrip to the impressive Betatakin cliff dwelling. Ever since that trip, I’ve wanted to go back to visit the even-more-impressive Keet Seel cliff dwellings, and this trip was finally my chance.

You don’t just pop in and hike to Keet Seel. The trip requires a permit from the park, a mandatory orientation by a ranger, good gear, and some stamina. It’s an 18 mile round-trip on foot if you do it right, and considerably longer if you miss a turn in the canyons. (More on that later.) So you can see that getting to this point was the product of planning we’d done months in advance.

The Interstate turned out to be an ideal base camp for this trip.  We parked in a canyon view site (in the Navajo Nat’l Monument campground, which is free, no hookups), and spent the evening checking our gear and eating dinner outside with a spectacular view of the sunset on the red Navajo Sandstone. One nice thing about the Interstate is that it fits in places a travel trailer couldn’t go, and there’s virtually no setup after arriving. We just pushed the electric awning button and slid open the big side door.

Airstream Interstate Navajo National Monument

And that was Day Four.  Funny how the days seemed to be much more filled with adventure and camaraderie now that we were traveling at about 50 MPH instead of 500.

The next morning we hoisted our packs, loaded with about 30 pounds of gear and water each, and walked right from the door of the Airstream down a dusty road and began our descent into the canyons …

Keet Seel deserves its own blog entry, so I’ll write more about that in the next day. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to Wally Byam

That Interstate trip I took last July in California wasn’t just for fun.  At the time I mentioned that one goal was to write a guidebook for Interstate owners, much like the Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.  Well, I’ve finally done it. It took a few months of research to put everything together, and another couple of months for Jennifer to complete the illustrations and layout, but I think the result was worth the time.

Airstream Interstate motorhome coverThe Interstate motorhome is a tricky machine. Not only is it packed with a zillion features that all need explanation, but Airstream continually modifies it during production, so it’s very hard to make blanket statements about anything. So once I started driving it around, I realized I was going to need to tread very carefully in order to explain it properly. That’s why the book has over 40 illustrations just to cover the basics, plus six essential checklists, and many more hints and tips. (Yes, that was a sales pitch, but hey, I’ve got to make a living.)

Even with the learning curve, the Interstate is really very easy and fun to use. I borrowed one for 10 days to do some first-hand research, and I found that it only took a week to get comfortable with it.  With this book in hand, I probably would have been up-to-speed in a day or so—which of course, is why I write these things.

The book is now published on Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes, so you can get it as an e-book from either of those sources. (I’m not yet sure if it will be available in print format, but hopefully that will happen early next year.)

Newbies Airstreaming cover croppedWhile Jennifer was working on the illustrations, I was making final updates to The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming, so the Second Edition will be coming out in a week or so on Kindle and iTunes, and we should have printed copies later in October.

Lots of little things have changed about Airstreams since I wrote the first version, but I was surprised (and pleased) to see that most of the essentials haven’t changed at all.  If you’ve read the Newbies Guide, you might have noticed that it’s almost as much about the philosophy of Airstreaming, as it is about the practicalities.  In other words, it’s just as important to understand the “why” or even the “zen” of Airstream travel, as it is to know which valve to pull when you are dumping the tanks.  That zen of Airstreaming has remained constant since Wally Byam’s days. In short, relax, and explore.

Wally expressed this as his “Four Freedoms.”

    1. Airstream travel keeps you free from reservations and inconveniences of modern travel because you can make your own schedule and travel in your own vehicle.
    2. You are free from many of the limitations of age, meaning that young children and elderly people alike (and of course all us Baby Boomers in between) can expand their horizons and live healthier lives.
    3. Airstreaming gives you what Wally called  “the freedom to know,” meaning that you can explore the world intimately, meeting real people and experiencing things in a way the average tourist never gets to do.

And finally, they all add up to “the freedom for fun.” If you adopt the principles of Airstream travel fully, you can’t help but have a good time.  You are freed from your worries and ailments and schedules, so that your mind opens to new possibilities and new opportunities.

I’m glad none of that has changed.  I put a lot of effort into writing guides that help remove your worries about the mechanics of Airstreaming (whether trailer or motorhome) so you can relax and get the real benefit of traveling this way. But Wally Byam did the real work when he invented the philosophy.

Sleepless ferret time

I left off in the last blog about halfway through my 10 day trip in the Airstream Interstate. … and then, silence. That’s because I got back from the trip and immediately launched into a couple projects atop my day job of being the Airstream Life magazine Editor & Publisher, not the least of which was to write a guidebook about the Airstream Interstate.

Writing a guidebook is not really such a bad job, unless you, for reasons that cannot be fully explained here, have a deadline to complete the entire thing in three weeks. Then it’s an exercise to see how long you can stand to (in the words of Hunter S Thompson) work like a sleepless ferret, and still produce readable prose.

Not only readable, but accurate. These days, in the era of e-books, anyone can be a publisher, and sadly there are a lot of guidebooks available now that lack reliability and comprehensiveness. So I spent the last three weeks gorging on information and attempting to become expert on the intricacies of the Interstate motorhome, while typing out pages as quickly as I could.

So my blog stories of the Interstate trip suffered, but the good news is that I finished the first draft of the book last night. It’s off to my illustrator, and then I’ll run it past a few folks at Airstream and Airstream dealerships for fact-checking.  With luck, the ebook can be out in September. It will probably run about 80 pages long in the final version. I’m just glad it’s off my desk and out of my head, so I can think like a normal person for a while.

I owe you a conclusion to the blog series I started.  After I finished coastal Route 1 I headed up to spent a couple of nights in friendly driveways in the Silicon Valley area. I have a few friends up there, and one of them had a nice long fenced-in driveway in Los Altos that was just perfect.

After that I took the inland (101) route back to the Murphy Auto Museum Oxnard and spent the Fourth of July having dinner in Malibu with a friend.  I’ve never been to Malibu before, but now that I’ve had a chance to see some of the spectacle there (lots of elaborate parties going on, and the people-watching was fantastic) it’s possible we’ll make another visit as a family someday.

On Saturday the fifth I took the Airstream down the coast to San Pedro (where the cruise ships depart Los Angeles) to meet some other folks. I got there a little early, so I found a spot in a Home Depot parking lot where a Mexican food truck was making quesadillas, and had a casual lunch in the Interstate under the shade of some trees. At this point I was feeling completely at ease with the motorhome; we were a team of urban explorers willing to go anywhere.

Tom M, a friend and blog reader, wrote in to ask:

- Was there anyplace that it was too big to park?

Well, yes, you can’t fit a 25-foot motorhome just anywhere. Some friends I wanted to visit in Sunnyvale CA had a driveway that was less than 25 feet long, and HOA rules about “oversized vehicles” being parked overnight on the street, so I stayed in Los Altos and they picked me up. But in Veterans Memorial Park in Monterey CA, there was a rule supposedly prohibiting vehicles over 23 feet or so.  Half a dozen white box “Cruise America” rental motorhomes were camped there, all much longer than the limit, so I found a campsite that fit the Interstate and spent a peaceful night. Otherwise, I took it just about everywhere I wanted.

- Was it a hassle to pack-everything-up when you wanted to take day trips from the campsite?

Not for me, but then I was traveling light & solo. You can’t really spread out a lot in a B-van, so getting ready to break camp was mostly a matter of doing the dishes and tossing a few things into cabinets. I was usually ready to go in less than 10 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

The portability of the machine was its best feature, at least to a guy who has spent the last nine years in a rig 53 feet long. I took every opportunity to park it in places I’d never go with our 30-foot trailer, including parallel-parking on the street in Santa Barbara, pull-outs along California Route 1 and Tucson’s Catalina Highway (pictured below), grocery store parking lots, and undersized campsites.

 

Perhaps my favorite stop was on the coast north of Malibu at Point Mugu. I would have spent the day there if I didn’t have an appointment later that day…

After finishing business in Los Angeles, it was time to head toward home. My conundrum was where to stay.  All week I’d been wrestling with this: toward the coast it was pleasantly cool but the holiday travelers had everything booked up in advance, while inland I’d find plenty of uncrowded places to stay–all of which would be scorching hot. So leaving Los Angeles was bittersweet.

I finally opted for heat, but with a compromise.  North of Palm Springs is the Morongo Casino, which offers free overnight RV parking. Being a little higher in altitude and not quite as far into the Coachella Valley it was not terribly hot (by my standards) which meant a night around 80 degrees. It wasn’t practical to run the generator all night for air conditioning, so I just lived with it.

The next day was my torture test for the Interstate. Seven hours of driving through 100+ degree temperatures, at 75 MPH most of the way, including a 1000 ft climb where the road signs say to turn off the air conditioning or risk overheating.  The Interstate was impressive, and I got 16.0 MPG despite the fast drive. It was too hot in the back, where the dash A/C couldn’t reach, so at one point I ran the generator and the ceiling air just to see what would happen. (It worked fairly well.)

I spent one night at home in Tucson, then took a day to drive up to the peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains to get caught in a thunderstorm, then drove the Interstate to a meeting in town (again no trouble parking) and finally spent the night in Casa Grande AZ before dropping the motorhome off in Scottsdale in the morning. Total: 1,600 miles of driving in ten days.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  This was a fun trip. People who drive these things really have an interesting range of opportunities available to them. Obviously you give up a lot in terms of space, but on the other hand you get a lot of flexibility.

In fact, I’m hoping to get another shot at it later. Airstream is bringing out a new B-van in September, to be called “Grand Tour,” and it is supposed to be more camper-ish (less seating, more space for living).  I want to get my hands on it. That’s going to be difficult for a while, since production will probably be limited and I expect demand to be high.

Now that the Interstate trip is over, and the book is mostly done, what’s next? Tomorrow I fly back to Vermont to be reunited with my family, and in a week or so we’ll start the next adventure, our 3,000 mile trip back to Arizona, via Ontario.

 

An ideal TBM vehicle

Traveling in the Airstream Interstate turned out to be a good TBM*  adventure. I recommend it.

(* = Temporary Bachelor Man)

As a solo travel vehicle, it’s pretty roomy.  I didn’t need all the nine seating positions, but during the course of the trip I managed to try all of them out anyway.  In the evening I could watch a movie on the Blu-Ray player from one of the seats in the second row, or from the bedroom/rear couch in the back.  Sometimes I’d swivel the front passenger seat around and use it as my workstation with the dining table.  Other times, like when I was parked at the beach, I’d put my feet up on one seat in the back (don’t tell Airstream I did this with their loaner) while sitting on the opposite seat, to read a book.  When the bed was set up, I had the equivalent of a King all to myself.

Being TBM my plan was to move fast and travel light, if you can call having five tons of vehicle “light”.  What I mean is that I stocked the fridge with only a few essentials, slept in a sleeping bag rather than setting up the bed nightly with sheets, and moved every day.  I wasn’t going to be living in the Interstate like a full-timer, but I intended to use every system on the rig that I could, because there were four major goals to the trip:

1. Learn how the Interstate works, for a book I’m working on.

2. Gather information and photos for an article for The Star, the Mercedes-Benz Club of America (which will appear in the Sept/Oct issue).

3. Build up a stock photo library for future Airstream Life articles.

4.  Cover a lot of miles to get plenty of driving experience.

But driving around aimlessly is no fun, so I set a goal to get up to the Silicon Valley area to see some friends, taking the scenic coastal Route 1 highway to get there. This turned out to be a great decision.  The last time we did that highway was with the 30-foot Safari in tow, and it was one of the most memorable drives we’ve ever done. With a 25-foot motorhome, it was even easier.

Grant me a moment for a minor car review here:  The Mercedes Sprinter is an awesome basis for a motorhome.  Considering its bulk, it handles remarkably well, accelerates and brakes well, gets good fuel economy (on diesel), and is really easy to drive.  Anyone with decent driving skills would have no trouble taking it on a curvy, hilly, occasionally intimidating road like California Route 1.  And I really liked the fact that I could pull over in any of the small dirt spaces alongside the highway to stop and take pictures.  So I did that a lot.

The weather along this road is pretty changeable, thanks to fog banks that reside just offshore.  When the fog was away, it was generally about 80 degrees.  When the fog crept in, suddenly it would be as low as 55 degrees.  I liked that.  In one day I got dozens of shots for my photo library, with radically different scenery.

In Monterey I found a public parking lot with dedicated RV spaces for “RVs up to 25 feet”. Well guess what, mine was 25 feet, so I plunked myself down next to the harbor for a day just to listen to the water sounds while catching up on some work.  Monterey even provided free public wifi, and a short walk away at Fisherman’s Wharf I was able to get a nice salmon sandwich for lunch and listen to the sea lions bellowing for a while.  If they hadn’t had a “no overnight sleeping” ordinance I probably would have never left.

This was where the size of the Interstate really worked for me.  Not only was it easy to navigate downtown Monterey, but I was able to squeeze into a little city park at the top of a hill for the night.  The park is too small for most travel trailers and it didn’t take reservations, so by just showing up I actually scored a nice campsite for a night despite the masses of holiday campers elsewhere.

The next day I didn’t have as much luck.  I made sure to dump and fill before leaving the campground because I knew I might not get another campground for a while.  Sure enough, I finished the coastal drive as far as Big Sur, but every campground along the route was full.  Eventually I ended up at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which also had a “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign.  From prior experience I knew that despite the sign it pays to ask, and sure enough they had an overflow area where I was allowed to stay for the night.  It wasn’t a deal, since I had to pay the same rate as a campsite ($35) for what amounted to a parking space in a neglect asphalt lot, but given that it was July 1 in Big Sur, it was lucky to get anything at all.

No problem, this gave me another chance to experience boondocking in the Interstate.  I was getting to know this machine pretty well, and even starting to feel a little pride of ownership (except that it would only be mine for a few more days).  At this point I’d figured out all the key stuff: the efficient way to take a shower using the hand-held showerhead in the wet bath; where things fit best in the refrigerator; how to convert from seats to bed in less than a minute; how to change lanes in traffic without crushing somebody in a Mini; which outlets were powered by the inverter, etc.  But I never did figure out what that hammer was for …

Cool day in a cool van

My goal for the Interstate was to try to find its natural place in the world, in other words to see what it was best at doing.  Having pulled a 30-foot Airstream travel trailer all over southern California, I had the opportunity to compare experiences and go where the big trailer couldn’t.

There was a problem with this great plan, however.  June 28, my first day, was also the first day of a holiday week.  In my part of the world people don’t begin celebrating July 4 until at least July 2, but the Californians apparently feel differently.  They crowded every available campsite from San Diego to San Francisco for the entire week and I discovered my chances of getting a nice spot anywhere near the ocean were virtually nil.

Had I not had several years of experience at finding alternative overnight stops, I might have given up right then and headed inland to the scorching desert.  No problem getting campsites in places where the temperature is running 110 degrees or so. But I wanted to experience the coast, so it was time to call on every resource I had.

My Saturday night stop was easy.  I just stayed parked at the Murphy Auto Museum overnight.  I hadn’t planned to spend the first night without hookups, but it seemed like a good chance to test all the Interstate’s systems.  Sunday morning I took a drive up to Ojai, then wandered down to Santa Barbara on country roads past orchards and ranches, staying off Hwy 101 for as long as possible.  That’s one of the nice things about the Interstate compared to a travel trailer.  I didn’t have any hesitation about trying narrow, winding road that might eventually force me to make a U-turn.  Twenty-five feet of motorhome isn’t exactly compact, but it’s a breeze to turn around compared to 53 feet of truck and trailer.

In Santa Barbara I got my first tank of diesel.  Turns out the Interstate has the same fuel capacity and slightly better fuel economy than my GL320, so it was a familiar experience, and not nearly as traumatic as I had feared it might be.  At the fuel station I got the first of many inquiries about the Interstate.  This is not a stealthy vehicle. People can’t help but notice it, and quite a lot of them will ask questions or even hint for an interior tour.  I ended up giving 15-20 tours over the course of ten days.  People want to know what it costs and what fuel economy it gets, and then they are often amazed to find that it has a full bathroom with shower.

A little further up the road I saw a sign for El Capitan Beach State Park and decided to drop in there, just to park in the day-use area for a while.

For $9 I had this spot for the entire day, and it was a truly beautiful day.  I opened all the windows, broke out a cold drink and a snack and a book, and settled in for a while.  I could hear people walking by and saying, “That’s a cool van!” and similar comments.  With the blackout windows and the day/night shades in “day” position, they couldn’t tell I was in there.

Later, when I felt like company, I slid out the big side door and got a spontaneous visitor about every twenty minutes.  One guy claimed the Interstate cost $300,000.  Another was so excited he went back to get his wife and kids for a second tour.  One woman got in, then gave me a look that said Uh-oh, I just got in a van with a strange man, but stayed for the tour anyway and then got her husband and friends. Lots of people took photos of themselves next to it.

I couldn’t spend the night here, so I wandered further up the coast on the PCH, ending up in Buellton.  There’s a good RV park there that I figured was far enough inland to maybe have a site available, and that turned out to be a good guess.  $63 with taxes reminded me that I was indeed in California.

Well, I needed a chance to hook up and try out all those systems too.  The full hookup site gave me a chance to try the fancy new macerator dump that the Interstate uses (no more stinky slinky) and I was favorably impressed with the neatness of the system.  I found a small water leak coming from the rig but it turned out to be just a dripping P&T valve on the water heater.  That’s an overpressure protection valve, and it’s a common issue that is easily rectified, but I just let it drip because it’s not significant and I didn’t expect to be using the water heater much.

This evening I tested the video system by playing a movie on the Blu-ray DVD and both LCD TVs.  With a Bose active noise-cancellation headset plugged into the headphone jacks (by the second row seats), I couldn’t hear a thing from outside nor the vent fan humming above my head, and I got totally immersed in the movie.  This Interstate experience was starting to feel very decadent, especially compared to the two weeks I just spent on a motorcycle. I was beginning to think that after ten days it might be hard to give the thing back.