Blog meets blog, again

The phenomenon of people starting travel blogs has really gained steam since we first started ours back in October 2005.   Just counting the current Airstream travel blogs, I can easily find dozens.   To keep my blogroll under control, I only list the blogs of full-time Airstream travelers (you can see the links at right), but there are many more.

Usually we meet the fellow bloggers after they have been traveling for a while, but in this case we found the opportunity to meet some future Airstream travelers/bloggers before they actually got on the road full-time. The blog is called Malimish.com, and it is the product of a nice family of three from California. At this point they’ve only had their Airstream for two months (traded up from a T@b trailer), but they seem to already be in love with it and are planning to hit the road full-time in the spring.

Our luck stems from the fact they they like to go to Tucson for vacations, and so through a series of fortunate coincidences we discovered they would be at Catalina State Park this weekend.   So they popped over for dinner last night and we got to meet the entire crew (except for the cat) plus Carrie the guest traveler.

malimish-family.jpg

It’s amazing how much we always have in common with other young full-timers.   (Hey, no cracks about us being not-so-young-anymore!)   I like to share the knowledge and experiences we’ve accrued with other people, in the hope that they’ll go out and have even more fun than we did (by avoiding our worst mistakes).   Honestly, I think a year on the road is something everyone should experience in their lifetime.   Whether you do it all at once or a month at a stretch, full-timing will change you for the better.

I am especially impressed with the fact that these cool folks are doing it with a cat and a toddler.   That might seem scary, but most kids seem to thrive on travel, and it’s not really much harder than raising a toddler at home in my opinion.   We started traveling with Emma up to five months per year when she was just three years old.

The cat, I’m not so sure about.   I’ve never had a cat or dog that didn’t get sick in the car, or howl incessantly.   But hey, if your cat travels well (and I’ve seen many that do), who am I to say anything against it?   Our friend Sharon (see The Silver Snail blog, linked at right) travels with both a cat and a dog. So it can be done successfully.

We may encounter the Malimish crowd again in January, when we are roaming California, but there are no specific plans yet.   I am very interested to see how their blog shapes up once they start full-time travel next year.

This week my focus is the annual RV Industry Association trade show, which is always held in Louisville KY around this time of year.     This blog entry comes to you from Las Vegas airport, where I am awaiting a connecting flight.   I’ll be at the show Tuesday and Wednesday, then fly home on Thursday assuming nobody has managed to give me a cold.   The RVIA show is where the manufacturers show their new products and try to get orders from dealers.   It’s also a major opportunity to conduct all kinds of RV-related business, which is why I’ll be there with Brett.   We are going to try hard to get some new advertisers.

Believe me, little else could get me out of Tucson and into the snowy/rainy gloom of Louisville this time of year.   Tucson is a paragon of sunshine and pleasantness this time of year, while Louisville is facing that grim “mixed precipitation and high winds” sort of forecast that makes my skin crawl.   Just call it “40 to 60 percent chance of blecccch,” and you’ve got the concept.   But I’ll be indoors all day, roaming around under the giant tungsten lights and washing my hands after every handshake, so for the most part I won’t notice.   Wish me luck.

Top 12 mistakes of full-timers

In the past year, I’ve been getting a lot of requests from people for information about the full-time lifestyle.  Most of our lessons are covered in the Tour of America blog archives, but since not everyone wants to read through all 800+ blog entries, I’m going to summarize “The Top Twelve Mistakes Made By Full-Timers” here.   Hopefully this list will help a few prospective travelers to start off on the right foot.  In no particular order, here they are:

1.  Driving too much.  Everyone starts out with a bang — rushing away from home base to get to the first great destination.  Over the first few months, new full-timers seem to cover thousands of miles per month, and then gradually they calm down and begin to stop at all the great little things that they’ve been passing by.  That’s when they get into the rhythm of full-timing, and inevitably start to enjoy their travels more.

Tip: Slow down!  Stay longer, talk more, meet more people, explore the small stuff — and save money by traveling less and getting weekly rates at campgrounds.  Set a limit, like no more than 100 or 150 miles on driving days, and no more than two or three travel days each week.

2.  Keeping too much in storage.  This is a classic.  Ask any full-timer who has been traveling for more than a year, and you’ll get a story about how much stuff they left behind in storage, and how much they’ve come to regret it. Storage is expensive, but worse than that is the shock you’ll get when you come back and find all the stuff you paid to store that you didn’t even remember owning (or no longer want!)

Tip: If you plan to be out for more than a year, be aggressive about getting rid of the marginal items.  Sure, it’s still useful, but will you be happy to pay $10 to store a $5 item for a year?  Better to get rid of it and buy another one when you get back. Try your local Freecycle (on Yahoo! Groups) to get rid of low-value but useful items.

3.  Trying to keep a rigid schedule, OR not allowing enough time to explore.  Isn’t the point of full-timing that you can explore without a schedule?  Yet I have met many newbie full-timers who are rushing to keep up with their schedule, just like they did when they had jobs or kids in school.  When you hit a good spot you’ll nearly always find you want to stay longer than you thought, so if you must make plans, leave yourself lots of time and plenty of options.

Tip: Don’t make reservations unless absolutely necessary.  Remember, you’re a full-timer — you can wait until a space opens up. The exceptions are airline tickets (where prices go up if you wait), and really popular things that must be reserved months in advance.

4.  Being afraid to camp without hookups.  You can only see the country if you’re willing to get off the beaten path once in a while. Boondocking terrifies some people, but it’s actually fun, easy, and economical.  It’s in those rustic national park, state park, Bureau of Land Management, National Forest, and Corps of Engineers campgrounds that you’ll find some of the most memorable outdoor experiences in the USA.

Tip: Get to know the capacities of your holding tanks, and how long they will last.  This takes practice.  The best way to learn to boondock is to just do it.

5. Not carrying water.  This one amazes me.  People will advise you to carry less water in order to improve your fuel economy.  It’s a myth, at least for our rig.  If you are not climbing a mountain, 200 lbs of water (25 gallons) isn’t going to impact your fuel economy much.  With travel trailers and motorhomes on relatively flat land, aerodynamics play a larger role than weight. (But see Tip #7 before you decide.)

Not having water means you must go where the water hookups are, and you can’t stop spontaneously at a delightful spot along the way.  It also means that if you have a problem and can’t reach your intended destination, you’re out of luck for showers, cooking, and toilet.  Yet I constantly hear from other travelers that they recommend leaving the water tank empty and filling up only when they arrive.  That’s like leaving your gas tank on 1/4 all the time and hoping there’s a gas station every 50 miles.

Tip:  If you’re concerned about weight, just carry 10-15 gallons.  That’s enough to get you through a night with careful conservation.

6. Using the wrong mail forwarding service.  When we were looking for a new mail forwarding service, people advised us to “just use any UPS Store.”  Bad idea.  What if that little shop in the strip mall closes?  It just happened to a friend and fellow full-timer a few months ago, and he had a heck of a time moving everything to another address.

I recommend looking for an established mail forwarding specialist that has a succession plan in place in case the owners retire or the business has to move.  Also, look for a service that will give you excellent personal attention via phone and email.  It can work to have a friend or relative forward your mail, but ask yourself if that person will keep doing it reliably and regularly for a year or more.

Tip:  We use and recommend St. Brendan’s Isle.  Others use Escapees mail forwarding.  There are a lot of other services that specialize in RV’ers, too.  Do a Google search to find them.  USPS “change of address notifications”  are not a good choice — temporary mail forwarding is unreliable and lasts only for six months.  The USPS Premium mail forward service is better but too expensive.

Try to reduce the volume of mail you receive by using e-billing (see Tip #11), asking to be removed from mailing lists, and closing unnecessary accounts.  Ideally you should just get a few pieces of mail each week, so you can spend most of your time enjoying the travel experience.

Make sure whatever service you choose will forward your periodicals (magazines) — we get a lot of complaints from subscribers who paid for the cheapest service they could get and found out later that their magazines were getting tossed.  Ask if they will deliver urgent mail by FedEx if needed (at your expense).  Also, make sure you get a physical address, not a PO Box, or you may have trouble with banks and drivers licenses later.

7. Traveling overweight.  I don’t mean you, I mean your RV!  Hardly anyone ever weighs their rig, and yet everyone should.  Overweight travel means tire problems, premature brake wear, handling problems, hitching problems, and DANGER!  Don’t do it.

Tip:  Drop in on a CAT Scale (located at truck stops all over the country) and get weighed!  It costs just $8.  If your rig is approaching or over the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating on the serial number plate, start culling out the heavy stuff.  Traveling overweight is asking for trouble, and it’s the most easily prevented cause of accidents.

8. Deferring maintenance.  Oh yeah, we all do it.  But still, for a full-timer or long-distance traveler, it’s crazy.  You’re putting extra miles and wear on every system, and that means you need to think about maintenance as a preventative step, not as a response only when something breaks.

Tip:  Start at the bottom and work up. Think about brakes, tires, wheel bearings, axles, shocks, and hitch parts.  Then look at other things that can kill you, and the systems that control them.  Check for propane leaks, faulty appliances, batteries in smoke and CO detectors, date on the fire extinguisher, signals, tight bolts, lubricated parts, etc.

Everything in your rig came with an Owners Manual.  Pull ’em all out and look for the parts that say “DANGER” or “CAUTION,” then act accordingly.  Then maintain the heck out of everything you own at least annually.  If you don’t want to do it or don’t know how, find a really good service center and plan on spending 4-5 days there every year.

9. Not understanding the rig.  If you go out on the road assured by the dealer that “you’re all set,” you’re going to have a nasty surprise someday.  A hitch part might break, a tire will go flat, an appliance will stop working, etc., and if you don’t really understand the systems, you’ll be at the mercy of whoever you meet who claims to.  AAA membership is not a substitute for having a spare and knowing how to use it.

Tip: (Shameless self-promotion here)  Get a copy of The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming.  For about $10, it’s the quickest, most reliable way to get up to speed quickly.  You can also get it from Amazon.com.   Or, you can spend six months reading contradictory and often uninformed opinions on Internet forums.

In general, try to learn how to change a tire, jump a flat battery, grease the hitch, find and replace the fuses (all of them including truck and trailer), lubricate the locks, check the tires, test for gas leaks, winterize, and logically troubleshoot other problems.  As Robert Heinlein said, “specialization is for insects.”

10.  Choosing the wrong state of residence.  Some states have lower income taxes than others, some have punitive residency requirements, some are very expensive for vehicle registrations, and a few have perks (like discounted state resident rates for theme parks).  Think three times before you choose a state of residence.  It’s easiest if it matches your mailing address, but that’s not always necessary.

Tip:  Look at the cost of vehicle registrations, income taxes, health insurance rates, vehicle insurance rates, and residency requirements.  Once you’ve got a state picked out, move all your accounts to your mailing address, and get a passport too.

11. Not using online banking.   A lot of people just love paper statements, but you’ll find that if you don’t use e-billing to get your bills, you’ll often get hit with late charges on your credit cards and other bills.  That adds up fast, and can affect your credit rating.  These days banks are narrowing the gap between when they send your bill and when it must be paid.

Tip: Get every credit card, utility, bank, and other recurring relationship to send you an e-bill, or get rid of that vendor Have all your small recurring bills (cell phone, etc) billed automatically to your credit or debit card, to reduce the number of bills you get. Save copies of the e-bills on your computer as PDFs so you can refer to them if you need to.  Use online banking to simplify your bill paying. It’s generally free and easy to use.

12. Relying too heavily on the GPS.  GPS is a great tool and we love it, but it is no substitute for a good map, or common sense.  The GPS database won’t tell you about all the things you’d like to see, either.  But it will send you down a one-lane (or non-existent) back road to save 10 feet on the route.

Tip:  Use the GPS as just one of several tools.  Keep and use a good road atlas.  Research things to do on the Internet and through local brochures before you plan your route.  When traveling in the west always have a supply of drinking water in the truck, and be sure to ask locally for information before going on any dirt road.  When approaching state or national parks, always follow the official brown signs rather than the shortcut your GPS is advising.

California road trip

I have trouble staying in one place for more than a month.   The southwest is delightful this time of year, with dry and warm days and crisp evenings filled with stars.   Tucson has been just fine in all respects, but with the Airstream sitting in the carport, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity to explore a little more.

Early on Thursday morning I pulled the Airstream out of the carport and headed west.   Eleanor and Emma stayed home to take care of other things, so I was alone to think and observe as the desert scenery drifted by.   Even though our hiatus has not been long, it was a strange feeling being back on the road, both invigorating and yet uncertain.   I’m so used to traveling with my two companions that towing the Airstream alone is always a little uncomfortable.   Why am I doing this?   Where am I going?   But the little things in the desert soon steal my attention, and then I’m looking at every ordinary thing (tractors, dead motels, billboards, farms, dusty roads) and wondering what story lies behind it.   Each thing invites exploration, so the road is never dull even though I’ve traveled it before.

The iPod played a nice medley of music, and each song reminded me of a different place.   I hear Barenaked Ladies and I think of a week we spent in Victor, ID with our friend Rich C.   I hear Squeeze and I’m thinking of humid nights driving across I-10 through the swamps between Baton Rouge and Lafayette.   I hear Blink182 and I’m thinking of a particular week in Tampa.   Some songs lead me to Vermont, others to Mexico, and one particular album always reminds me of a dark early morning when we went to catch a snorkel boat in Maui.   I like having music that reminds me of these places, it’s like an alternate form of memory.

The reason I’m on the road is to get the Airstream a pair of new axles.   It has been sagging a little lately, and that has made it hard to hitch up properly.   A heavy trailer like ours needs to distribute its tongue weight across both axles of the tow vehicle (in this case, our Nissan Armada), and lately that weight distribution hasn’t been what it should be.  I can tell by the way the Armada is starting to sag in the rear.  When the axles on the trailer sag, it messes up the geometry that makes weight distribution work.   It also means the trailer is getting a rougher ride, which is bad for longevity.

In Corona, CA, 458 miles from our home, a business called Inland RV specializes in Airstream axles.   I could have gotten the axles replaced locally, but Inland RV really knows the axle business and they support the magazine with their advertising dollars, which means a lot to me in this economy.   Besides, our two good friends Terry and Marie have recently relocated to work at Inland and I wanted to see them as well.   Terry is a super mechanic and I wanted him to see the condition of all the trailer’s running gear (bearings, brakes, tires, axles) and check for other problems.

We had a mystery squeak coming from the brakes and I wanted him to take a look at that too.   Terry correctly diagnosed the squeak problem before I even arrived, just from the description.   It was caused by a prior service center not peening over little tabs on the outer brake pads, and easily fixed.   Stuff like that makes me crazy — why can’t the first guys do it right?   I’ll drive my Airstream hundreds of miles to find someone who can do the job right the first time, and often I have to.

The service work went well on Friday, but I hung around for another night to visit a little more.   The shop has extended me the courtesy of parking in the service bay, which is a peculiar experience.   We did this once before, at Roger Williams Airstream in Weatherford, TX.   Being indoors means that “day” and “night” lose meaning.   It is sunset when the shop closes, the doors lock, and the big fluorescent shop lights are switched off.   There is no dawn until someone comes in.   I awoke in the pitch black wondering what time it was.   It was like a winter morning in the far north, when the sun doesn’t rise for hours after the people do, except that the temperature never changed regardless of what was going on outside.

A trip like this has to include at least a little tourism, so we took Saturday to check out the March Field Air Museum.   It’s like Tucson’s Pima Air & Space Museum, but smaller.

Eleanor packed the Airstream with enough food for me to live for a week, and it has hardly been touched because everyone else keeps feeding me.   I’m well-stocked to wander around southern California for a long time.   There’s some temptation to do that, but it’s not the same when I know E&E are waiting for me to return to Tucson.   Aimless wandering is best done as a family.   I’ll go home on Sunday, and instead plan the next big trip, which I suspect will happen — based on prior history — in just a few weeks.

Ready to go

The Airstream still feels like home to us, even though it is sitting in the carport with half of our possessions taken out of it.   But it isn’t home anymore, and so we have been systematically reducing its contents to only what we envision we’ll need for specific trips.   It’s an awkward process, full of questions and uncertainties.   Everything has to be re-examined.   The key criterion is simply whether we will need it if we’re out for a month or two.

Before we were full-timers, we did what most people did.   We kept a minimum complement of equipment and supplies in the trailer during the summer season, and reloaded many other things in the days leading up to departure.   Now I’d like to keep this trailer ready for immediate travel without a lot of reloading.   That means duplication of many things that we use in both the house and trailer.

Most of it is easy: toothbrushes, shampoo, dishes, bedding, some clothes.   Anything in the house that is needed on the road and is reasonably cheap will have a permanent counterpart in the trailer.   We have enough clothes to leave a four-season supply in the trailer and still have what we need in the house.   Toys that we only use during travel will stay in the Airstream too, like our snorkel gear and wetsuits.   A few things like my office equipment (laptop, printer, cellular router) and Eleanor’s perishable spices will have to be loaded at the last minute.

That means we’re organizing the house to suit the trailer. All of my office gear stays in one cabinet in the house. All of Eleanor’s key spices are in a simple plastic bin in the kitchen.   When it’s time to go, we grab the contents of the office cabinet and the spice box and we’re ready.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but the goal is to be able to take off on impromptu trips without agonizing over packing.   I hate the question, “Did we remember to pack the ______?”   With a well-designed system, I hope we can get the Airstream ready to go for a week-long trip in less than an hour.

It’s also nice to have the Airstream ready for habitation in the unlikely event of a natural disaster or other event that might require evacuation.   That’s unlikely here in Tucson, where the chance of forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunami, mudslides, and floods are minimal.   All we get are severe thunderstorms during summer and the occasional dust storm. But maybe someday they’ll have a problem at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.   I think with a little more prep, we could get out of here in 10 minutes and not miss anything important for weeks.

For a lot of people, the amount of travel we still plan to do is formidable.   We’ll be gone much of the year, including all the summer months.   I was talking to a neighbor today about our plans and I could see his startled reaction as I said, “Well, of course we’ll be gone all summer.”   I have to remind myself that while it seems like nothing to us to be living in the Airstream for a few months, it’s a very big deal to most people.   So we will still carry things that weekenders wouldn’t bother with.   We’ve got extensive laundry and cleaning supplies, extra tools, spare parts, reference books, dishware for guests, and a lot of food.

The next major trip is scheduled for after Christmas, although we are likely to go out for a few days here and there in November.   The post-Christmas trip has no definite end planned to it; we may be out for as little as eight days or as much as a month.

I’ve never thought much before about what it takes to store the trailer for long periods.   It needs a certain amount of TLC to stay ready for the road.   For example, the water system needs sanitizing.   Bleach is the usual method, mixed with a full tank of water and run through all the faucets.   A measured amount in the system for a few hours will kill all the bugs.   I’ve put a smaller amount of bleach in the system for storage, to keep it from growing bacterial slime while the trailer sits.

The tires slowly lose air (about one pound per month), too.   Desert dust accumulates inside because we have the windows open for ventilation.   We’re trying to combat such things by treating the Airstream as if we were still living in i, so I’ll be out there next week doing some cleaning and checking tire pressures.   We’ve left the refrigerator on, with a few basics still in it, so there’s less to reload later.   (As a side benefit, I can grab a cold drink out of it when I’m in there working.)

Mostly, this is compensation for not traveling as much.   I like the idea of the Airstream staying “live” and ready, just like it was during our full-timing days.   We are living as homeowners now, and it’s a big change, but the shock is mitigated a little by the knowledge that our escape pod is right there, ready to go.   We may do just fine in suburbia and not need it, but it’s nice to have.