Down the UP, to Door County WI

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Wisconsin always remind me of Vermont.  There are no mountains here, but the abundant scenic byways, small towns, and long stands of forest are comforting. Except for a few minutes of highway construction in Green Bay, the drive from De Tour Village MI to Sturgeon Bay WI was easy and quiet.

Escanaba WI Dobbers PastiesAlong the way we stopped in Escanaba to snag a few pasties for lunch, and before we could get out of the car we were visited by two enthusiastic Airstreamers-to-be, who exclaimed “We’ve been following you for an hour!”  At first I thought this might set a record for aluminum stalking but really they were just heading the same direction along Rt 41.  By the time we all pulled into the parking lot at Dobber’s Pasties they had figured out who we were, and we had a nice chat before going inside to get lunch.

Pasty, by the way, does not rhyme with “tasty” although it should.  They’re like calzones on the outside, but without tomato sauce on the inside. Instead they’re filled with diced potatoes, meats, cheese—all kinds of things depending on which type of pasty you choose.  Unfairly, the name rhymes with “nasty,” but let’s overlook that.

They’ve been beloved by Yoopers for generations. We get them whenever we are up here, and clearly from the sign (above) Dobber’s knows it.

The trip plan I posted in yesterday’s blog shows that this dip down to the Door County peninsula is a pretty big detour. We’re doing it for our kid. These days there’s a lot of fear about the perverts and weirdos who kids might meet online, but our experience has been different. Emma has been videochatting online with some pretty cool kids for a couple of years now, and we vowed that we’d make the necessary side trips so she could meet them in person. We met Hannah in Indianapolis on our way to Alumapalooza, and now we’re here to meet Emily from Sturgeon Bay. Both visits have been spectacular successes.

The parents are always a little skeptical at first, which is natural considering what they’re faced with.  A strange family that lives in a trailer and wanders the country like gypsies is going to drop in for a visit?  Imagine what would go through your head.  Lock the doors, keep an eye on their hands, and make sure the ammo is dry, I expect. But all the parents have been great, quickly seeing that we’re only a little weird, and the girls always have a great time.

Door County Fair rabbits


This time we met them at the Door County Fair and spent a couple of hours on the classic fair rides, and checking out the 4-H exhibits of poultry, rabbits, horses, and an amazing array of baked goods (which inspired me to get back to bread baking when we get home).

While the girls were hanging out, Eleanor and I had a chance to roam up the peninsula to Egg Harbor and walk the town and marina.  We were surprised to see the population listed at merely 201 people.

It’s a small town, kind of like an outpost on Martha’s Vineyard. Tourists outnumber the locals by a fair amount. I was expecting something bigger and more touristy. It’s actually nice to see that much of Door County is quieter and smaller than I expected.

Egg Harbor Marina

OK, having seen more of the countryside I can see that it’s definitely different from Vermont in a lot of ways (we don’t have cherry orchards, for example), but there’s still a nice country vibe.  My one suggestion to Door County:  get rid of the billboards before they take over, like Vermont did in 1968.

We like Door County enough that we have decided to spend another day here, roaming around and picnicking at one of the sandy beaches, before resuming our northern trek through the national parks.  Tomorrow we’ll head back up and spend the next five or six days around Lake Superior.

Up and over the Great Lakes

It’s August, and for us the summer travel adventure has finally begun.  It has been a great summer in New England, but the Airstream has been stationary since early June.  It’s time to put all thirty feet of aluminum to full use, back on the road.

As always, we have an ambitious plan and not as much time as we’d like.  There will be compromises and missed opportunities, but we can’t dwell on that. The trick to pulling off a really massive trip in a time crunch without regret is to make the tough choices and focus on the good stuff that’s left.

Summer 2016 trip part 1

Our first “leg”, if you can call it that, is from Vermont to Seattle WA, which will be 3000+ miles. I have charted a route that hits about six national park sites along the way, plus visits with friends and detours for varied reasons. There would be no way to accomplish everything we have planned in just six weeks without cutting a few corners, so we elected to blast through the first 800 miles by taking the shortcut from northern New York through Ottawa and the province of Ontario, and over to Sault Ste Marie, MI.

IMG_6484This cuts off a lot of territory that we’ve traveled many times (NY, PA, OH) in favor of a quick and scenic drive through Ontario.  Not much to regret there, except that Eleanor was kind of eyeing a stop at Niagara Falls this year (we’ve been there before and we’ll hit it another time).

And if you had a reason to travel long distances through Canada this summer you couldn’t ask for a better combination of low fuel prices and favorable dollar exchange rate.  A few years ago we would have paid the equivalent of US$5.00 or more per gallon for diesel; this August it was about US$2.60.

Normally I would want to take a few days to cover 800 miles but this was one of the compromises built into the trip.  By covering this leg quickly we bought time to spend in the Great Lakes and western National Parks.  We ended up in Sault Ste Marie MI on the second night and ran into our friends Leigh & Brian there, which was a bonus.  I posted reviews and photos of the two campsites we used along the way on Campendium.

I’m always suspicious of everything on the Airstream after it has been sitting a while, so I gave it a good inspection before we left Vermont and took some time along the way to check the Hensley hitch and other components that we’ve touched this summer.  Everything has been perfect, except for the annoying mice.  They love the Airstream when it is parked in Vermont, and because they’re very destructive we have to trap and remove them all summer.

This summer Eleanor trapped at least six, and there was still one left when we started towing, which turned out to be a mouse corpse decaying underneath the furnace. We found his remains by the smell and left him resting in peace at a roadside stop somewhere in Ontario. Mice are cute but when it comes to your Airstream a “zero tolerance” policy is best.

MI Airstream courtesy parkingNow that we’re back in the USA we’ve had a chance to settle in for a few days while courtesy parking at the summer home of our friends Charlie and Lynn. This is a half-visit, half-working stop.

Actually, mostly working for me.  From prior visits we know that there’s good cell service here, a 30-amp plug, and I can hear the waves splashing on the shore of Lake Huron just outside my dinette window, so it’s an excellent place to do some work.

There’s no high-concept entertainment in the area, which is just fine. This park of Michigan is quiet, decorated with evergreen forests and farms and very few people. Our big activities have been a trip to the sandy beach with our host family, a church supper, walking the Gogomain Bridge, and talking with our hosts. Tonight we’re going out to Raber Bay for some of the local whitefish.

From here we’ve got a long list of stops: Sturgeon Bay, perhaps Apostle Islands, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and many other places on the way to Seattle.  It’s going to be an interesting trip, culminating in Alumafandango in California on September 20.

DeTour MI beach family


The fall of TBM and the resurrection of the hitch

“What ever happened to TBM?”  I’ve been getting this question a lot lately.  I have hesitated to tell the truth because so many millions of men around the world look up to him —but the awful truth must come out.

TBM was vanquished by work. Yes, that killer of adventure, soiler of fantasy, shroud of exploration … sheer, overloading obligation.  I tried valiantly to break away for a few days of tent camping in the cooler mountain elevations of northern Arizona, and some day trips, but again and again I was restrained at my desk by 1,001 projects that all needed attention.

Well, don’t feel too badly for TBM.  I still ate out at a few favorite restaurants, watched a few guy movies, met some local friends, went to a car show, etc—so it wasn’t all bad.  And to rationalize the situation, I resolved that in exchange for a late summer of Airstream travel (which we have since begun) it was a reasonable tradeoff to spend a few weeks in advance chained to a desk.

I also resolved that this won’t happen again if I can help it, so I’m cutting back on various obligations and hiring some more people to help.  A new Associate Editor is taking off quite a bit of workload on the magazine, and I’m drastically reducing my involvement in events since they take a massive amount of time.  (But don’t panic—Alumapalooza will be back in 2017!)

Hensley hitch refurbishedBack in New York at Colin Hyde’s shop, our Hensley hitch was being refurbished, and boy did that turn out to be an eye-opening experience. You might recall that we disassembled it and found many more worn parts and cracks than expected.

As Colin predicted, Hensley replaced the entire lower unit under the lifetime warranty rather than trying to repair it. When Colin’s shop got the unit back, they scuffed the paint and then repainted everything (top, bottom, bars, etc) with a really good automotive enamel so it will hold up better than the paint Hensley uses.  (The orange in particular is famous for fading quickly and deteriorating.)

All the new parts were installed, and then of course we greased it, installed it, and adjusted it.  It looks better than new now, which is good because the grand total for this job was more than half the price of a new one.

The eye-opening part was discovering all the parts that had failed without our knowledge.  I knew the lower unit had cracked and suspected that the cadmium-plated steel bushings (“binoculars”) were also cracked.  I didn’t know the extent of the cracking—and it was extensive—nor that the steel cylinders where the weight bars are inserted had stretched beyond repair.

The really shocking part was the bearings. There are eight of them in a Hensley, standard automotive-type bearings and races.  You’d think that since they barely turn they wouldn’t wear.  In fact the opposite seems to be true.  Despite being packed with grease, all eight bearings and races were seriously rusted.  It seems that the lack of spinning allows water to settle without being evaporated. The “dust caps” on the top and bottom aren’t waterproof, so water gets in and stays there, particularly on the bottom bearings where the dust caps actually trap water.

Hensley hitch rusty bearings and races

The picture says it all.  Look at the rust on the bearings and the wear marks abraded into the races. These bearings were about six years old. All of them were bad.

The bearings are user-replaceable but the races are not.  Colin’s guys found a way to remove the races, which involved welding little tangs on the races so they could be punched out, but for most people the solution will be to return the unit to Hensley under warranty.  My recommendation to all owners now is to do five-year inspection and/or disassembly to check the state of these bearings, particularly in a wet climate.  When you look at this picture, keep in mind that my trailer spends 8 months of the year in sunny dry Arizona.

BMW motorcycle Quebec ferry

The end of the story is simple. I flew back to Vermont in late July, reunited with my family, cleaned up and prepped the Airstream, installed the hitch, and we got on the road.  (But in the midst of that, I did manage to sneak out two quick days of TBM activity: motorcycling north from the Lake Champlain islands, up the Richelieu River all the way to the St Lawrence through the beautiful French heart of Quebec.)

We’re now in the Airstream on a two month adventure that will take us from east coast to west, at least six national parks, and many interesting stops.  So buckle up: the blog is about to get busy again.

Refurbishing the Hensley hitch

Remember last November when we found a crack in the Hensley hitch?  We took it to a local welder in Del Rio TX and got a quick fix on it.

Well, of course that wasn’t the end of the story.  For years I’ve been saying that the hitch was due for a complete overhaul, so I took the opportunity this summer while the Airstream is parked in Vermont.  I removed the hitch and toted it across Lake Champlain to Colin Hyde Trailer Restoration.

That poor hitch was looking pretty awful.  The orange paint flaked off a long time ago, and I’ve been patching it periodically with silver spray paint. It was a patchwork of rust, flaking paint and grease. From prior experience I knew it would have a broken internal bushing (the “binocular” part) and during inspection Colin and I spotted elongated holes in various places.

Hensley broken binocular bushingsSo I called up Hensley and ordered every part that was worn or which might fail in the future, which included 8 bearings, the “binocular” bushings, some new U-brackets, dust caps, spare zerk fittings, and even a full sticker kit so we could make it look like factory-new again.  That was about $250 in parts (they threw in the stickers for free).

Hitch ball no greaseNow, Hensley doesn’t have a recommended service interval, so owners are left to their own judgement as to when an overhaul is due. I think I waited too long. It has been seven years and certainly well over 70,000 miles of towing since we got this unit (itself a replacement).

Colin called me a couple of days later to say that mine was “the worst” Hensley they’d ever seen. Apparently the battered nature of my hitch was the subject of some amusement over at the shop.

The bushings were broken not just once as expected, but into three separate pieces.  The chrome had been worn off the hitch ball.  One of the lower bearings had rusted (due to water intrusion through the dust cap).

Hensley lower cracksThat crack we thought we’d fixed?  Now it was three separate cracks running across the bottom unit, hidden by a layer of dried grease.

Worst of all, the tubes that accept the binocular bushings and weight transfer bars had stretched. Now they are oval, to the tune of about 1/10 of an inch and they have separated from the main body. The new bushings won’t even fit in.

So, after Chris spent some time at the shop degreasing and sandblasting away endless layers of paint, it was decided that the entire lower section of the hitch needed to be sent to Hensley for warranty repair.  They received it this week, and have promised I’ll get it back well before it’s time to hit the road in later July.

Hensley disassembledColin says they’ll take one look at it and decide to melt it down, but I think Hensley will repair it. It will be interesting to see what comes back.

Meanwhile Colin’s guys will continue working on the rest of the hitch. There’s really not much left of it, once we figure in all the new parts I bought, and the replacement lower unit.

We’ve decided to restore the famous Hensley orange paint (but a better, longer-lasting version, says Colin).  I have some suspicions about that too.  I figure it’s all a learning opportunity.

For now there’s nothing to do but wait. Assuming everything goes as planned, we’ll have the hitch reassembled and ready in late July, just in time for us to launch again across the country.  Our schedule calls for departure before August 1, in order to spend six weeks transiting the north country from Vermont to Seattle WA. It will be nice to take off knowing the hitch is back up to 100% again.

Custom Zip Dee chair storage

We’ve never had Zip Dee chairs.

I know, it’s almost blasphemous to admit it, especially after all these years of Airstreaming.  Zip Dee and Airstream go together like Ford and Firestone did before the war.  Zip Dee awnings have been original equipment on Airstreams for over 50 years, and the chairs go back about that far too.

Airstream Zip Dee chairs and awningThe relationship is so tight that most Airstreams have specific storage just for these wonderful folding chairs—but the 2004-2006 Safari bunkhouse was one of those that didn’t.  And when we were full-timing, we just didn’t have room for any.  So we never sat down.

But these days we are making more opportunities to sit down under the awning and relax.  So I took the plunge and ordered three Zip Dee chairs to match our awning, one chair for each of us.

Of course, we still didn’t have anywhere to put them, so for the past few months those chairs have been riding in the back of the Mercedes.  This wasn’t ideal (it was a pain to get them out from under all the other stuff we carry), so I asked Colin Hyde to put on his genius beanie and figure out a solution for me.

His inspiration came in the form of an old propane tank cover from a 1980s Airstream Excella, which was for sale in the Alumapalooza Swap Meet for $25.  At Colin’s suggestion I bought it and brought it to his shop when we came in for the major front end repair.

As the front end work was being done, the guys fabricated a pair of steel braces where the battery box used to be, and began cutting down the Excella propane tank cover to the exact size and trapezoidal shape needed to fit tightly between the real propane tanks and the Airstream’s body.

You can see those braces below.  They are awaiting drilling and paint at this point in the job.  Note how they rise up to hold the chair storage above the hitch parts on the A-frame. With the front hatch gone, this is empty space so it makes sense to put something here.

Airstream welded base for storage

Airstream Zip Dee chair storage openI’m not really doing justice to the amount of work that went into this.  The modification of a propane tank cover into a very different shape was complicated, and in retrospect it might have been easier just to start with new aluminum.

Colin has some very talented guys on his crew, and what they did to make this cover—with weathertight base and top— was impressive. It even has bucked rivets!  But it was a ridiculous amount of work. Colin says he does not plan to ever make one again, so don’t ask.

The photo at right shows the chair storage with the lid open.  You just open the lid and lift the chairs out, which is easy.  The box stays in place, unlike the propane tank cover.

This is a “beta” version. I may add some weatherstripping to the lid later.  It might also get a latch, if we find the tight-fitting lid pops open during travel. There are already a couple of drain holes in case water collects inside the box.

The box can hold four chairs, believe it or not. Right now we are using cardboard to separate the chairs and fill some space since we only have three chairs at present.  A bit of Prodex insulation is fitted into the bottom to prevent chafing. Later I’ll get two Zip Dee Chair Bags (each one holds two chairs), which will protect the chairs and give us handles to lift them out, so we can ditch the cardboard.

Airstream Zip Dee chair storage closed

If you’re wondering about the net impact on tongue weight, it’s probably about the same as it was from the factory.  We’ve made many modifications over the years (switching aluminum propane tanks, relocating battery rearward, deleting hatch and steel battery box, adding chair storage) so it’s hard to gauge the net effect without going to the truck scale.  I’ll do that soon, but the weight of the braces, aluminum box, and three chairs is only about 35-40 pounds.

I really love this addition.  It looks Airstream-y (meaning cool), it’s practical, and it makes use of otherwise-wasted space on the A-frame. I can’t really cost-justify it but I love it all the same.  And now we can finally escape the stigma of not having any Zip Dee chairs in our Airstream.