January 2009 trip plan

In the run-up to Christmas, a lot of tasks and projects have been shunted aside, but one item that remains prominently on our list is our next Airstream trip.   We have been looking forward to a few weeks of travel ever since we arrived in Tucson (an event which marked the end of our full-time travels).

The plan has always been to head to California and then roam around.   Primarily, that’s because in the bottom of the winter the weather conditions limit our travel.   From past experience we know that southern California, all of coastal California, and low deserts are generally reliable place to go, but even those places can have very chilly nights.   It’s also important to keep elevation in mind at all times, since — as I’ve said many times — weather out west is determined by altitude, not latitude.

That means we won’t be heading to Flagstaff (7000 ft), or for that matter, anywhere in northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, the Sierra Nevadas and other mountain ranges.   This time of year we even have to be careful about highway passes that exceed 4000 feet, since they can be snowed in while other parts of the road are sunny and warm.   Because of the need to stay low, our favorite spots in the west during winter are Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego, coastal Rt 1, the Sacramento Valley, and Death Valley.   Oregon is decent along the coast too, but we won’t be going that far north this time.

The trip “plan,” such as it is, loosely calls for visiting most of those spots over a 3-4 week period.   As always, we are winging it on most of the details, but we do have a few definite stops that will be the framework for the trip.   The only reservation we’ve made is for Anza-Borrego, because winter is peak season.   That particular stay was booked last July.

The Airstream is sitting ready to go, with only a few things left to be packed and checked before departure.   Since our arrival I’ve had a lot of time to take care of wear and tear from our last long trip, and there was quite a list.   The Armada needed a pair of exhaust manifolds (they seem to crack every 30k miles, the only significant maintenance problem we’ve encountered with this vehicle, but fortunately I got an extended warranty which covered them). The Armada also needed a new set of tires, oil change, some minor body work, and a thorough cleaning.

The Airstream needed a repair to the power converter, new axles, one replacement brake assembly, a new toilet seal kit, and a tire.   All of that has been done, and the rig has been test-towed, so we can head back out with complete confidence in our equipment.   There is a lingering leak somewhere around the stove vent, but since it’s impossible to work on the Airstream’s roof while it is parked in our carport, I plan to bring a tube of caulk and some tools with me, and deal with it sometime on the road.   We won’t see much rain, if any, in the southern California desert, but San Diego is another story…

Our friend “Tucson Terry” commented that we are now like everyone else, planning and looking forward to our next trip.   It’s true.   It’s not a bad thing, either.   There’s a certain excitement in anticipating a great tour.   Planning it and dreaming about it really is half the fun.   I felt the same sensation even when full-timing, because there were always low points where we were mostly parked and waiting for the next major stop.

One very pleasant change since the last time we traveled is of course the startling drop in fuel cost.   In our final month of full-timing, fuel was so expensive that we heavily curtailed our driving distances.   In Utah, we paid as much as $4.54 per gallon, and at one point we were elated to find a gas station on an Indian reservation that was “only” $3.80 per gallon.   Even though we needed less than 1/3 of a tank, we filled up to take advantage of the low price.

Those were the days of $80-100   fillups.   Yesterday   I filled up the Armada for $26.88.   It seemed almost like cheating.   But since this multi-week tour will cover 7-9 stops and at least 2,000 miles, I’ll take the discount.   We’ll save about $500 compared to fuel prices just three months ago.

Since we can afford to go a little further, and make more stops, this trip will be heavily oriented to seeing friends we made while we were on the road.   Every stop we have in mind will involve someone who befriended us along the way, and with whom we share some special memories.   I suppose this could be viewed as a trip of reminisces, but really it’s about continuing to make new memories.   I doubt we’ll spend a lot of time looking backward, and for sure we will try to explore some new territory as we go.   For benefit of our friends in the Revenue Service, let me point out that we also have numerous business-related stops along the way.

While we are traveling, I may resume daily or near-daily blogging.   This is as much for my benefit as for anyone who is interested, because if I don’t keep a journal I’ll forget what we did.   Those of you who have been deprived of photos in this blog can rejoice because no doubt my camera will get heavy use. (I only hope it keeps working — it’s showing signs of age lately.   It would be nice if Santa brought me a new Nikon D90, but I forgot to put it on my wish list.)   The trip begins December 28.

Christmas gifts for travelin’ folk

Over the past few years, I’ve asked friends and family not to get us much of anything as Christmas gifts.   We had the excuse of living in a 30-foot Airstream, where space was at a premium, so for the most part everyone understood.   We asked for edible gifts, if people felt a gift was necessary, and small lightweight things that would be useful in our traveling life.   This tended to stymie people, so the volume of things we received dropped to a bare minimum (except to Emma).

In reality, our intention was to keep our lives simple and our overhead low.   While we enjoy giving and receiving as much as anyone, it just wasn’t part of our lifestyle.  Now that we are in a house, the excuse of limited space has gone away, and so we find ourselves back on the slippery slope toward a commodity-filled holiday.

But we still don’t want much.  I asked Santa for a 120-volt air compressor because the 12-volt one I carry around is pretty anemic at filling our trailer tires to 65 psi.  I also asked for a Garmin GPS to replace the absolutely awful “Navigon” GPS that we got free (with a set of four Continental tires).  We tried the Navigon for a few weeks but decided we’d rather be lost than keep fighting with it.  Fortunately, I’ve been good this year, so I think I’ll get what I asked for.

Eleanor wants a couple of kitchen tools and some clothes.   She’s keeping her favorite clothing in the Airstream for travel, and so all she has in the house are the clothes she really doesn’t like.   (You can see where her priorities are.) Santa has sent her off to go shopping for clothes today, with the only stipulation being that she has to spend 99.9% less than Sarah Palin.

Emma has written a charming letter to Santa asking for various art supplies, which she will get. A few other surprises are coming her way, too.

Even though we have a house, we still try to act as if we might go back to full-timing at any moment, at least when it comes to acquiring things.   For example, DVDs are always stripped from their cases and put into multi-disc sleeves so they take up less space and are easily portable.   Before we bought a Christmas tree this week, we figured out how we would dispose of it on the 27th so we could hit the road on the 28th.   It’s all about retaining our mobility, but the added benefit is that this practice also keeps our “house overhead” low.

Because we still plan to travel, and many of you do too, I’m going to bring back a feature that I wrote last year on the Tour of America blog:   Gifts for full-timers and frequent travelers.   If you’re wondering what to get for that crazy nomad in your life, check this list.

The basic premise is that people who travel a lot via RV live in small spaces, and they need to travel light.   So the ideal gift is very useful, lightweight, small, and requires no maintenance. Even better are consumable gifts. Here are a few things your traveling friends might love:

  • Gift cards to places that RV’ers frequent: Camping World, Cracker Barrel, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. Or, if you prefer, get a gift card for services RV’ers commonly use: fuel or other travels needs, or cell phone.   Just be sure that you check the fine print on gift cards, to make sure they don’t expire and don’t have “maintenance fees”.   You could also get a KOA Value Kard Rewards (good for a 10% discount at over 450 campgrounds)
  • Entertainment: CDs, DVDs, Netflix gift subscriptions, or for that digitally-savvy traveler an iTunes gift card.   (Yes, you can receive Netflix on the road if you use mail forwarding.)
  • A National Parks Pass, or for someone with children, an ASTC museum Passport. Both are great money-savers and valid nationwide.
  • If you have an in-person visit, consider a nice rosemary bush as a miniature Christmas tree.
  • Food. You just can’t go wrong there unless you ship them a giant crate of pineapples. Food is great because it doesn’t take up space for long. Homemade goodies like popcorn treats are especially appreciated, at least by us. Or if you want something themed, you could get Silver Joe’s coffee, or Happy Camper wine.
  • Photos. Most RVs I see have photos mounted on the walls somewhere to remind them of the people they plan to visit.   A gift certificate for photo printing and mounting might be just the thing.
  • A cool Airstream shirt, sweatshirt, hat, poster, slippers, or a set of aluminum tumblers from the Airstream Life store (shameless plug #1)
  • A subscription to Airstream Life. (Shameless plug #2) If you don’t like them that much, get them a subscription to Trailer Life instead.
  • A useful book that might inspire some new travel, like this book about camping in America’s Southwest.

Any other gift ideas?   Post ’em as a comment.   Thanks!

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.