Road trip 2017

It’s that time of year again: Airstream road-trip planning season. (It’s a great time of year.)

Each year we head out of the rapidly-building Tucson heat for a massive cross-country Airstream trip that lasts all summer. Each year we end up in Vermont parked on the shore of Lake Champlain because that’s where family members are—but along the way there’s a great road trip.

Usually we get back home sometime in September or October, although one year we came back in November. It all depends on obligations and opportunities.

Trip-planning is great fun. With a vast American continent to cross there’s no end of tempting detours and stops. With an Airstream we get to take our time and meander, spend time with friends, drop in on lesser-known spots, and (very important) try all kinds of interesting things to eat. The problem is not finding places to go, it’s deciding which ones to skip because even with a month to travel each way there’s never enough time to do it all. What a great problem to have.

The key is not to be in a hurry or afraid. Being in a hurry causes people to take the Interstate when they don’t really need to, and miss everything except what’s at the exits. Being fearful causes people to avoid the unfamiliar, which is a shame because that’s where all the interesting stuff is found. So each year we try to break away from the places we’ve been before (except a few favorites or the unavoidable) and go someplace completely unknown to us.

That is getting harder each year.  Our Airstream has crossed the country at least thirty times, and for the last decade our route has been from Tucson to Jackson Center, Ohio, for Alumapalooza each May. I’m not sure there are many more ways to cross the Plains states. At this point the Airstream could probably drive itself there, like a horse pulling a carriage on a familiar route in the 19th century.

My M.O. is to start with an open map of the USA, and just browse the states between Point A and Point B. I look for national and state parks we haven’t visited, or roads that look curvy enough to be scenic. Then I browse the Internet looking for interesting events, curious destinations, etc.  Adding people we want to see along the way is helpful for picking out a route. For example, last year we met up with two of Emma’s Internet friends IRL.  (That’s “In Real Life” for those who are unschooled in Internet relationships. Remember when there was no other way to meet people other than in real life?)

Sometimes inspiration comes from the oddest places. One year I spotted a random article about “Forbidden Amish Donuts” and that instantly spurred a memorable detour through Amish country in western New York state. We’ve detoured for rallies, snorkeling, free parking, business meetings, to see snow, to get away from snow, national park badges, photo opps, factory tours, festivals, beaches … you name it.  The point is, with the Airstream we can do that.

I do get asked a lot how I can “take five months of vacation.” Of course, I don’t—I’m working all the time as we go, just like many other Airstreamers. These days it’s a lot easier to get online and work from most of North America. In the early days it was a rather tedious experience getting online. Now my cellular Internet is faster than my home Internet.

We don’t plan round-trips. We just plan enough to get through our major obligations, and figure the rest will take care of itself. So here’s our plan so far:

2017 eastbound trip route

Our favorite part of the route is always in the Four Corners region, which is why we’re willing to add a few hundred miles and spend hours toting our trailer up and down the mountain passes of Colorado. This year I’m not sure what exact stops we’ll make but the wide open spaces of the west make it easy to find great campsites. The only thing I know for sure is that we’ll avoid Moab this year. The campground in Arches National Park will be closed all summer and the others in the area will be heavily burdened in May.

There’s a rally in Fort Collins CO happening in mid-May, and we plan to attend that. I will probably do a maintenance presentation there. After that there’s no avoiding the Great Plains and the tedium that is associated with long drives in that area, but I think it will be made better by avoiding the numbing sameness of I-70 through Kansas in favor of Route 36.

The planned route ends where it always must, at the doorstep of Airstream in Jackson Center OH for Alumapalooza. It will be interesting to see how Jackson Center has grown and changed with Airstream bursting at the seams lately.

And after that? Not sure.  We’ve got thoughts of meeting one of the printers I work with in Ohio, visiting family and friends in Pennsylvania, doing genealogical research, camping in the Adirondacks … but who really knows?  It’s fine at this point to have a list of possibilities and a general goal (Vermont by a certain date). We’ll wing it on the rest.

Come along with us for the ride, through this blog.  We hit the road in mid-May.

The electric last mile

For several years I’ve watched fellow Airstreamers to see what they do about our version of “the last mile problem.” That’s the question of how to transport oneself from the campsite to nearby places, without getting in the tow vehicle or motorhome to drive.

Granted, most of the time you’ll want to drive because your destination is too far, or the weather is inclement, or because you need to haul a lot of stuff.  I’m talking about those times when you just want to go a short distance, like to the Visitor Center or to a neighborhood store for a few small items.

This is becoming a big issue in some national parks, because (being Americans) we like to drive everywhere and that’s just not working out very well as the parks become more crowded.  Zion National Park has become a sort of poster child for this problem. Years ago the park went to a shuttle bus system and even that is getting mobbed during peak times. It’s not much better at the south rim of Grand Canyon, either.

FL panhandle Airstream bikes

We used to bring bicycles along with us, when we were full-timing.  At first it was a pair of regular bikes that we carried on the roof.  That was not very successful for us—the bikes got rusty and it was a pain to get them off the tall SUV roof.  We switched to folding bikes, which were great but they took up a lot of our trunk space.  Still, we got a lot of use out of them.  These days there’s a factory-approved rear rack for Airstreams (by Fiamma) which is popular, although it blocks access to rear hatches.

I’ve seen people hauling motorcycles and gas-powered scooters in their pickup beds.  We don’t have a pickup truck so those vehicles were non-starters for us.

On rare occasions I’ve seen Airstreamers with skateboards and kick scooters (like Razor).  Those are cute but I’m no Tony Hawk and pushing a board isn’t appealing to me for longer distances.

For a while I was intrigued by the idea of a Segway, but after some examination it didn’t seem like such a hot idea. Segways cost upwards of $6,000 and even with folding handles they would take up much more space than we have available. Getting three (one for each member of the family) would be a cool $18k.  Not happening.

ninebot-mini-pro-noirThen the self-balancing craze hit.  Suddenly we had hoverboards, electric unicycles, mini-Segways, and one-wheeled skateboards, all of which are electrically powered and rechargeable. I got interested again, and checked them all out.

It turns out that hoverboards are not really practical transportation; they’re slow and can’t handle much terrain.  Mini-Segways (including those made by Ninebot, pictured at right) are much better but not fast enough for me.  Those are kind of like the original Segways but instead of a handle you get a shorter brace that you steer with your knees.  The big advantage is that they’re a tenth of the cost.

pedego-interceptor-electric-bicycleElectric bikes are coming up in popularity too, and I think these have a great future. If you haven’t checked them out lately, you should. The late model e-bikes can be pedaled like regular bicycles, they aren’t particularly heavy, and they can go great distances at speeds up to 20 MPH.  One manufacturer, Pedego, will be at Alumapalooza 8 this year to show their e-bikes. Don DiCostanzo, CEO of the company, will be there in person to talk to everyone and let you test ride one.  That should be fun.

L6-White-ObliqueThe downside of the e-bikes is that they get kind of pricey, running $2,000+ for good ones. Also, unless it’s a folding e-bike you’ll need a bike rack or truck bed carrier.

A much less expensive and more portable “last mile” alternative for Airstreamers is an electric scooter.  These look kind of like the kick-scooters that kids often ride, but they are entirely self-propelled by an electric motor. The good ones are definitely not kid toys; these suckers can propel an adult for up to 25 miles.

At well under $1k the scooters have a lot to offer: plenty of range, speeds up to 15.5 MPH, easy to ride, and they fold down to fit in a small space (so you don’t need a bike rack). You just unfold it, stand on it, and press the button to get going.

I like these scooters so much that I’ve added the best electric scooter I could find to the Airstream Life Store. I’ll be bringing one to Alumapalooza 8 this May for demo rides, and I think people will be surprised at how handy and portable they are.

V5F-RSPersonally, I enjoy an electric unicycle.  I know, it sounds insane, but they really are strangely practical—if you can get past the learning curve. They’re light (about 25-30 pounds) and very portable. Wearing a backpack I can carry around a fair bit of stuff while riding one. Dirt, grass, and bumpy asphalt are no problem for a skilled rider. They’re ideal for short, quick trips or lengthier urban explorations (video). My electric unicycle can carry me over 12 miles at up to 15.5 MPH, which is about as far and fast as I want to go on this mode of transit.

The downside of the electric unicycle (or EUC) is that you can get injured pretty easily by falling off. So it’s not for everyone.  I wear full protective gear like most skateboarders on every ride: helmet, elbow pads, knee pads, and wrist guards. Sometimes I wear a motorcycle hoody that incorporates shoulder and back protection as well.

Of course, this sort of thing is of limited utility if only one member of the family is willing to use it. So I gave Emma a shot at it and being a young person with a highly flexible brain she picked it up very quickly—three lessons—and a few days later she was riding over bumps and around corners with shocking ease.

Eleanor has decided she’s more interested in riding the scooter. That’s great, each of us have our favorite electric “last mile” vehicle and they all fit in the car easily. At the end of a long day of towing we can zip away on short errands instead of having to unhitch. If we are staying just one night in a campsite, I am always grateful to not have to unhitch.

Recognizing that there is no perfect “last mile” solution for everyone, I’m wondering what others will do in the future. Most people will of course continue to drive everywhere, but will any significant number also start to adopt something electrically-powered?

I hope so.  Not only will this help with traffic congestion and air pollution, but electric vehicles also are silent and help keep campgrounds peaceful. Bicycling or unicycling takes you out of your personal aquarium so you can meet more people, smell the flowers, and feel the sunshine. (Of course, walking does too, and it’s completely free.)

I’d like to do an article about this topic in a future issue of Airstream Life magazine. So if you’ve got something to add (photos, personal experiences, ideas, referrals to other people) please let me know.  That would be cool of you.

(Also, if you want to learn to ride an EUC and are coming to Alumapalooza 8, let me know and I’ll try to arrange a couple of lessons for you.)

Superbloom, bah humbug

We were planning to head out last week to one of our favorite spots, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. But then the New York Times, NPR, LA Times, CNN, and even Wired blabbed to everyone about the “superbloom” of desert flowers, and the crowds showed up.

[Big sigh here]  One of the reasons I love going to Anza-Borrego is because it is so wonderfully peaceful, slow-paced, and quiet.  There are thousands of square miles of desert filled with canyons, mountains, precipices, badlands, palm oasis, and human history, and all you have to do is wander off the beaten path to find a spot all your own.

Anza Borrego Airstream solitude

But Wired summed it up:

The nearby community of Borrego Springs more than doubled in size as 5,000 people poured into the area on Saturday, an influx that filled motels, prompted the sheriff to close miles of road, and sparked a fistfight over a pork Cubano.

Our friends Bert & Janie are out there now.  Bert called me a few days before we planned to leave, warning that for the first time he’s ever seen Borrego Springs has traffic jams (a real feat for a town with a population density of 79 people per square mile) and many of the hiking trails were overrun with crowds.

I wouldn’t necessarily cancel a trip just on that basis, but I was behind on the Summer 2017 magazine (having lost some time in February due to a virus) and so it seemed like the smart choice would be to try again in early April, when the crowds have departed.

Anza Borrego canyon

To all those people who drove out from Los Angeles and San Diego to look at the flowers:  I understand the flowers are nice, but if you only go to Anza-Borrego when the media tells you there’s a “superbloom” you’re missing the real beauty of the place.  There’s a subtle beauty that you can only experience without the distraction of thousands of other people nearby.  It takes time to experience, time in which your mind slowly unwinds and relaxes.  Then you begin to notice the little things: the sound of the breeze, an occasional buzz of a bee, the clearness of the air, the silent passage of a desert jackrabbit or bighorn sheep, and the soft light that colors the rocks at dusk.

Anza Borrego sunset  Anza Borrego badlands view

It seems like the past few years we’ve had to search a little harder for the peaceful experiences we formerly took for granted in national and state parks.  The National Park Service was perhaps too successful in promoting the 100th anniversary of the park system last year, and as a result many parks were overcrowded. Even before the anniversary year we noticed it was getting harder to find campsites, and on occasion we had to skip popular national parks even during the “shoulder season”.

Having the Airstream makes it easier for us than for the weekend travelers who need to book a motel.  In a place like Anza-Borrego we can escape the center of the hubbub and retreat to the niches of the park to hear only the whispering breeze and the coyotes howling at night. But that’s the advantage of the vast desert. In most other parks, you can’t just pull off the road and wander around until you find a nice patch to call your own for the night.

If you watch the orientation movie in most national park visitor centers it will almost always emphasize quiet enjoyment of the park.  You’ll hear how our parks are an opportunity to relax, get away from technology and daily stress, appreciate nature, and re-connect with family & friends.

Anza Borrego boondocking

That’s all still true.  I guess the only thing that has changed is that you have to go a little further off the beaten path each year.

This is part of the reason why I sometimes encourage people to travel outside of their personal comfort zone. Every tourist wants to go to Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone and Yosemite.  Go there and you’ll be sure to meet busloads of people. Those are great places but if you’ve got wheels, be different and try the lesser spots: unknown state parks and BLM sites, national forest campgrounds, trails that aren’t conveniently located, places you haven’t read about in travel magazines, the quirk and oddities of this country, and places that have a reputation for horrible weather. I guarantee that if you go with an open mind you’ll find things you never expected but are glad you experienced.

For us, the trick will be to visit Anza-Borrego when the New York Times isn’t talking about it. We used to visit the state park campground every year during the last week of December or first week of January, but I suspect that tradition is over permanently. Still, the door hasn’t closed—it has just moved. I look on this as an opportunity to discover new spots that we love, at other times of year, in order to keep finding peace and relaxation out in the wide southern California desert.

Life in the white box

This week I’m at Alumaflamingo in Florida, which is one of the events we occasionally run around the USA.  Everything’s going well here and all the attendees seem to be having a good time, but I’m in hell … White Box Hell.

That’s because I’m in a rented trailer, provided by the campground.  I had to fly to Florida because I didn’t have time to make the 4,000 mile roundtrip this winter, and there was literally no other place for me to stay during this week.  It’s the annual “Speedweeks” at Daytona and all the accommodations are taken.

On one hand this is a good opportunity to see what travel trailer life is like when you don’t have an Airstream.  I suppose I could say that this broadens my perspective and perhaps instills new appreciation for the difference in quality when you step up to an Airstream.  But it’s also a shock. This ain’t no Airstream 2 Go, it’s a relatively low-end white box even for an industry that’s not generally known for quality.

IMG_7079The maker of this trailer, Pilgrim, died in 2008 as an early victim of the recession, so there aren’t any units less than nine years old.  Nine years is nothing for an Airstream, but it is a long time for the average white box trailer.

This one is typical: the exterior corners have begun to split and separate, the thin plastic vents have cracked, the ceiling has large water stains from roof leaks, and the furniture is starting to pull apart at the staples.

That’s even more disturbing because this particular unit never travels. It’s an on-site rental only. It never will travel thanks to moisture rising from the damp Florida soil. The exposed lightweight steel frame beneath has rusted away.

IMG_7080

I sometimes hear Airstreamers complaining about the mattress in their new trailer, but they wouldn’t if they tried the one I’ve been on for the past week. It’s a lumpy and thin thing that barely insulates from the hard plywood below. At night it’s always cold because there’s a huge uninsulated storage compartment directly beneath. I’d rather sleep on my Therm-A-Rest camping mattress.

The only thing I like about the trailer is the ducted air conditioning, which Airstream added across their line a couple of years ago. Airstream’s ducted air is whisper-quiet.  The Pilgrim’s air is somewhat noisy but still far better than the old style of air conditioner that sounds like a jet blast.

I’ve done what I can to make this trailer “home” for the week and—to count my blessings—it is a reasonably comfortable place to eat, sleep, and shower. I shouldn’t complain too much about it. My point is only that had I started RVing with a trailer like this, I would be astonished and envious looking at the new Airstreams available today.

And yes, I’d be thinking that the $20k or so I spent on my white box is a lot less than the $40-70k for an equivalent length Airstream … and then I’d think: how can I swing that payment? Because the Airstream is a better product in almost every way, and it will last a lifetime with good care.  The white box I’m in today is destined for a landfill in a few years.  When you look at it that way, you see how an Airstream is a really good value over the long run.

The last electrical upgrade?

Perhaps this is the ultimate and final power system upgrade  on our Airstream. I certainly hope so.

Over the years we’ve installed solar panels, bigger batteries, an amp-hour meter, an upgraded (Intellipower) power converter-charger (which we replaced with a Xantrex converter-charger), even bigger batteries, and finally a fancy Xantrex converter-charger-inverter.  It has been a great learning process and I really like how the capabilities of our Airstream have been enhanced, but … please … let this be the last electrical upgrade we do on this trailer.

We discovered an issue with the Xantrex converter-charger-inverter installation that I’ve already described in a prior post, and I’ve been preparing for the last month or so to deal with it. In short the device wasn’t wired optimally, and the result was that we could not plug the Airstream into any common household GFCI outlet without tripping it. That limited where we could “driveway camp” as we traveled last summer, so it has been a priority to get it corrected this winter.

Long ago when I installed the Intellipower charger, I removed the lower (converter/charger) section of the original Parallax 7155 power converter-charger and left the AC and DC distribution panels. We’ve continued using those original distribution panels, since there wasn’t any reason to mess with them—until now.

Airstream power distribution panel-3

Our goal here was to install a new AC distribution panel. That’s because it needed to be split into two: a Main panel for the air conditioner and refrigerator, and a Subpanel for the inverter-supplied circuits. Although that isn’t terribly complicated in theory, it triggered an avalanche of other tasks.

It started with the panel itself. The only product I could find to fit the bill was the Progressive Dynamics PD55B003 AC panel, and since it didn’t come with DC distribution built-in, I also had to order the companion PD6000 DC panel.

That meant we’d be ripping out every AC and DC connection in the panels and re-wiring them all.  And since the new panels are physically larger than the original, we needed to cut new holes in the fascia below the refrigerator.  And that meant the propane leak detector had to be relocated.  The avalanche had begun.

My buddy Nate and I spent a couple of hours analyzing what needed to be done.  In the process we realized that we’d have to run a new electric line to the refrigerator because Airstream originally had it sharing a circuit with all the other GFCI protected outlets in the bathroom and kitchen. (I wanted the fridge on a separate circuit so it can’t accidentally be run from the inverter, which would deplete our batteries very quickly.)

We also realized we’d need a completely new fascia built to mount the new AC & DC panels and the relocated propane leak detector. I could have made it myself but it was much easier to hire a local guy who made a beautiful and precisely-cut fascia from 3/8″ black walnut for $60. So Nate drew up a very precise drawing to show exactly what we’d need.

Power panel fascia diagramAirstream power distribution panel-2

Suddenly this little re-wiring project was looking a bit more daunting. We ended up with this shopping list: three new circuit breakers, an AC panel, a DC panel, assorted clamp connectors, 5 feet of Romex, GFCI outlet & box, black screws, plus the custom-made walnut fascia. The hardware was easy to get. The woodworking, on the other hand, caused a three week delay.

Over this past weekend we finally got started. Like many other “three hour” jobs, the various complications and surprises blew our estimate away.  Saturday’s work alone stretched into six hours as a result of minor complications and “might as well” items.

A few examples:

  • I found a section of floor covering that needed replacing while we had everything out;
  • We discovered small extrusions on the AC panel that required us to trim the opening in the wood fascia a little wider;
  • Nate spent some time cleaning up and labeling the mess of wiring under the refrigerator;
  • We had to remove the inverter to identify the input and output wire colors, since the previous tech didn’t label them and they were hidden from view.

There were several other small issues of the same variety, which inevitably result from “working behind” someone else who didn’t take time and care to do things as nicely as we’d like. This is why I prefer to do my own work (or with a good partner like Nate). If we ever have to get into this system again, we’ll find all the wires bundled, labeled, and secured.

Airstream power distribution panel-4

In the end, the job we that thought would take three hours stretched over three days, with a total of about 12 hours of time invested including runs to the hardware store. To be fair, the wiring part of the job did take less than three hours—it’s all the other “little things” that sucked up the rest of the time.

Airstream custom power panelAirstream power distribution panels done

I’m glad we did this.  Not only did we get the whole-house inverter finally set up the way I wanted it, but we fixed a bunch of small secondary problems and ended up making the interior look nicer too.  The new walnut fascia and the black plastic distribution panels are a big improvement over the way things looked before. We even managed to shave a few pounds off; those original distribution panels were framed in steel and they weighed a surprising amount.

 

One final important note

The final challenge was a GFCI circuit breaker that we re-used from the original installation.  It was fine right until we pressed the GFCI “TEST” button. Then it buzzed for a couple of seconds and fried itself. GFCIs have a definite lifespan, and this one was 12 years old and had not been tested recently. If we’d had an electrical fault in the trailer, this GFCI would not have protected us.

So learn from my bad example and go press the TEST button on each of your GFCI receptacles and circuit breakers today.  (The RV must be connected to shore power to do this test, so if yours is in storage, make a note to do the test before your first trip of the season.)

When you press the TEST button, the breaker or outlet should trip off instantly with an audible snap, cutting off the power. Then you can press the RESET button to restore power. If either the TEST or RESET buttons doesn’t work, you’re missing a crucial piece of electrical protection that could save your life someday.  Time to get a new GFCI.