Camping in downtown Chicago

I’ve been towing this 30 foot Airstream around North America for 12 years now and we’ve pulled it through 48 states, so we’ve certainly passed through a lot of major cities. As a general rule, born out of several heart-stopping experiences, I avoid going through major cities like New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago. When I have to go through one of those places I try to time it to miss the worst of the traffic.

This is one of those times. The story starts with our recent purchase of a replacement Mercedes GL350 to tow the Airstream. In the previous GL we used a clever aftermarket gadget that puts the view from our Airstream trailer camera on the dashboard of the Mercedes LCD screen. This little interface box isn’t hard to install but it does require removing the factory radio stack, and half a brain.  I was able to find the first requirement among the automotive electronics installers available to me in Vermont, but not the second.

The result was an inoperable camera, and no way for me to fix it without a greater set of electronics skills than I have. So I decided to head directly to the manufacturer: Mid-City Engineering in Chicago IL. Because they needed to have both the Mercedes and the Airstream in their shop to get the camera working properly, I had to face the terrible reality: we would need to tow the Airstream directly into the heart of Chicago, a place as clogged with traffic as your heart would be after a Quadruple Bypass Burger from Heart Attack Grill. For a family towing a trailer, this is not friendly territory.

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There are no campgrounds in Chicago. The only place to park overnight with a trailer is the truck marshalling yard at McCormick Plaza, nestled in the bosom of 53-foot trailers, flanked by a busy rail line and four lanes of traffic on Lake Shore Drive. Overhead, jets and an occasional helicopter pass by. It’s kind of like the worst Wal-Mart you ever spent a night at, without the rotisserie chicken and coffee.

There are no services for the RV’er, so you have to arrive prepared for a siege: full fresh water, empty holding tanks, fully charged batteries, and plenty of food.  Getting off the property on foot is difficult due to fencing and minimal sidewalks, so calling a cab is the best choice. But for all the inconvenience (and $35/day) there is a major compensation: you’re practically in downtown Chicago, and that’s pretty special.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon to avoid most of the traffic, which worked (mostly). Unfortunately we hit a pair of hot days with suffocating humidity and of course we had no air conditioning. On Monday with the temperatures soaring fast we pulled up the Uber app and got a ride north to Lincoln Park Zoo.

Chicago E&E lakeshore downtown

The plan was not to visit the zoo, but instead to ride the Lakefront Trail south all the way to the Museum of Science and Industry.  This would bring us past most of the downtown sights. Since it was so brutally humid, we brought out electric transportation: electric unicycles for me and Emma, and an electric scooter for Eleanor. All of them were easily capable of riding the 13 miles of trail, plus a bit extra for side trips.

(If you’re wondering where all this stuff goes: Eleanor’s scooter folds down for storage. We carry it in the back of the GL, strapped down with two bungee cords. The two unicycles go in the Airstream in padded 22″ cymbal cases.)

Chicago Millenium eclipse

With the wheels we made quick progress to downtown, and then detoured for some exploring around Maggie Daly Park, Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park and Millennium Park.  (We had to walk the wheels through Millennium Park; they were showing a live eclipse feed on the big screen.)

Chicago Buckingham fountain pano

In the photo above you can see the orange Segways of a group tour.  We kept passing these tours in the parks. Segways are close relatives of our unicycles, using the same basic technology, but of course much easier to ride.

Chicago Chris family downtownIn downtown we met up with a new friend, Chris, for lunch.  A fellow electric unicycle rider, on this day Chris was sporting a fashionable purple cast on his wrist. This was the result of a recent fall, so he couldn’t join us for a ride. However, it says a lot about the addictive nature of electric unicycles that he is still looking forward to getting back on his wheel ASAP. We’ll probably meet up in Phoenix this December for a group ride.

From there we rejoined the Lakefront Trail and continued south, checking out all the major sights and beaches.

By 4 pm everyone was starting to feel the strain of a very full day combined with near-90 degree temperatures and sweltering humidity, so when we at last reached the Museum of Science & Industry there was really no debate whether to go inside. We called for a ride and headed back to the Airstream.

Chicago lakeshore trail beach

Of course being in the Airstream was not exactly a relief from the heat.  We’ve been using the tricks we have learned over the years for staying cool in uncomfortable heat, but the ultimate solution will come from nature when a cold front passes through and dries everything out on Tuesday.

We’ll make a decision on Tuesday afternoon, after our service appointment, whether to buy a couple more days of parking in the truck lot or head west to other destinations. Either way, this has been a pretty fun visit to a big city and I guess I’m glad we went through the trouble (and the noise) to be here.  It will seem almost surreal in a few days when I contemplate it from the open spaces of the west.

Let’s talk about it

After such an absence from this blog—the longest continuous blank spot since I started blogging in 2005—I wonder where to begin.  These days social media, blogs, and such demand a continuous stream of updates and trivia, even if there’s nothing to say. I find myself wishing for the days of paper correspondence again, where a month or two away wouldn’t be considered unusual.

Certainly much has happened in the Airstream Life world and personal life, but we’ve done no Airstream travel since arriving in Vermont back in early June and so I’ve been disinclined to fill this blog with other details. It’s not that I felt no one would be interested; it was more a matter of trying to live in the moment.

VT Summer-2

That’s because this season marks a milestone for us. Our summer location for the past decade (the place where I grew up) on the shores of Lake Champlain is going away. The house will be sold and a family tradition will come to an end. No more Tiki Bar parties on the beach, views across the broad lake to the Adirondacks, Frisbee on the lawn, tubing on the lake, sunset dinners on the deck, and nights sleeping in our Airstream beneath the old cedar trees. Knowing this, we’ve savored each day of the short and sweet Vermont summer.

VT Summer-3

That sounds sad, but I prefer to look forward. The memories of past summers and the life-shaping experiences we’ve had can never be taken away from us. Rather than bemoan what is gone, we’ll be looking to new opportunities here in Vermont and in other places. From our years of Airstream travel I have learned that there is always another adventure around the corner, if we just bother to break out of our mental rut and go look for it.

VT Summer-1

There are lots of fun things pending indeed …  Some of our Vermont traditions are perennial, like evening trips to the ice cream stand, weekend Farmer’s Markets, boat rides on the lake, blueberry picking, sweet corn on the cob, the County Fair or Fire Dept BBQ, daytrips to Montreal … all those low-key and local activities that seem so small but end up being fond and important moments in retrospect. None of those things are going away.

This year we added a few things to our repertoire which will help make up for what we can’t do next year. Emma and I have had a blast exploring bike trails and urban areas on our electric unicycles, for example.

After years of borrowing motorcycles for annual rides around New England and Canada, I finally bought my own (an eBay steal) and outfitted it with luggage for week-long tent camping expeditions. The first major trip was across New Hampshire and Maine to Acadia National Park in July. It was a flawless trip. The guys are talking about a bike trip to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island next year, so there’s another nugget of the summer that will be retained.

But I remind myself that every year is different. None of us will ever be this age again and so we must seize the opportunities we have right now, or possibly forgo them forever.  It’s not about what we can’t do anymore, it’s about what we can do. Everything new we do has a chance to be the next cherished memory.

Or as I always say, Airstreaming is not about where you go, it’s where you stopand the things you do when you get there. Our Airstream has traveled exactly zero miles in the last 60 days but nonetheless it has made possible a wonderful summer.

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Now it’s winding down for us. Obligations in other places are clamoring for our attention, and we’ll be getting on the road soon. Today is a prep day: cleaning the Airstream inside and out, testing systems that haven’t been used in a while, re-packing and shipping excess stuff home, making rough travel plans, etc.  It’s the lead-up to yet another adventure, so even the prep work comes with a certain excitement of anticipation.

I’ll try to remember to live in the moment, even as we launch across the country knowing that a heap of obligations and responsibilities await us. A summer of savoring has been good practice. But now that summer is almost over, I’ll also try to balance that with more regular updates so that I can share experiences and lessons as we go.

Ohiopyle, PA

After Alumapalooza ends we are usually looking for a couple of days of recovery time.  This year our route was taking us to Pennsylvania, so we figured it was a good opportunity to visit the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, “Fallingwater”.  We’re kind of FLW fans and have toured several of his works already, including the Welztheimer-Johnson House” in Oberlin OH; the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois; and the Lowell Walter Residence in Quasqueton, Iowa.

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While Fallingwater brings in the crowds, the real gem of this area is Ohiopyle State Park. This large park is known mostly for rafting, but the entire area is verdant with rolling hills and forests and a scenic view around almost every corner. The little town of Ohiopyle sits at the intersection of the Youghiogheny River and the Great Appalachian Passage (GAP) rail trail, which makes it a recreational hotspot. You can float down the river or ride your bike on the GAP all the way to Pittsburgh (77 miles) or 335 miles to Washington DC.

The original plan was to tour Fallingwater and then head onward the same day, but we liked the area so much that we decided to extend our stay to two nights. That gave Emma and me a chance to take our electric unicycles for a ride on the GAP trail and around the center of Ohiopyle, while Eleanor took a tour of another FLW house, Kentuck Knob.

Emma Ohiopyle GAP bridge

Being an old railbed, the GAP trail is very flat with a maximum grade of 2%. The six miles or so that we explored was all hard packed dirt, easy riding, and sprinkled with little interpretive signs along the side. Those signs talked about the natural features and the early settlers who had cleared lands and piled up stones to make orchards and small homes.

A few cyclists passed by, mostly making the long trip from Pittsburgh to Washington DC over a period of 5-6 days with camping stops along the way.  They were all rather intent on completing their mileage for the day so they missed all the interpretive signs.  We kept our speed to about 10 MPH most of the time and stopped at every sign, since we were in no hurry at all.

This was the first chance to prove to myself the value of hauling around these unicycles. Mine was very useful during Alumapalooza for personal transportation around the event (saving me miles of walking) but that’s a once-a-year thing.  I was wondering if I’d find other uses for them.

Rich Emma Ohiopyle falls

I discovered that the unicycles (or a scooter) are perfect for places like this. I think our two unicycles and the scooter (which Eleanor rides) will be permanent equipment in our Airstream. We don’t need them often, but when we do they are very handy and open up places that we might otherwise not explore.

The scooter, by the way, is simple to ride so there’s no real learning curve. I recommend it for most people who want to be able to go 12-15 miles on a lightweight & packable vehicle, without needing a bike rack. (There, that’s my sales pitch for the day.)

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Ohiopyle Tonto catAfter the ride we met up with Eleanor and checked out the excellent state park Visitor Center, then a quick tour of Ohiopyle and a visit with Tonto the cat, who hangs around the bridge and greets people. Tonto is a young kitty but he already knows how to work the tourists for affection. We later ran into his owner, who is starting a local fund to get the stray cats of Ohiopyle spayed and neutered.

If you can’t tell, I was somewhat enchanted by the many attractions of Ohiopyle. There are a few waterfalls, swimming holes, lovely picnic spots, and much more. It’s a small place but a very relaxing one. We may stop there again on a future trip through Pennsylvania, or at least in the surrounding area.

Alumapalooza 8

I’m overdue to report on Alumapalooza, and part of the reason is that I don’t want to be repetitive. Every year we do it, the event seems to become bigger and better—and this year it was just fantastic.

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“Boondocker” the dog, who travels with Jim & Lynda Polk

I know, it seems like I’m just blowing my own horn. After all, nothing is that great, and things always go wrong.  That’s true: we had a case of heat exhaustion on the staff, we had to cancel one of the contests due to equipment failure, and the caterer performed below expectations.

But those problems were overshadowed by absolutely flawless weather (far better than we’ve ever had in eight years of running this event), a really happy crowd, a solid program of education and entertainment that kept everyone engaged, our superb volunteer staff, and a first-class effort by the Airstream people to make us all welcome despite being flat-out busy.

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Drone photo by Randy Miller

It was so successful overall that I was joking to people we should just call it quits this year, getting out on top. But we’ve already registered 36 sites for next year’s Alumapalooza 9, so I guess we’re committed now.  (Public registration is now open; just call Marie at 813-200-8877 and leave a message if she doesn’t answer. She’ll call you back.  We’ll have online registration open in a week or two.)

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The program was pretty packed so I won’t go over everything that happened, just a few highlights. Let’s see, we had about 45 early arrivals over Memorial Day weekend so the Monday cookout was well attended. Eleanor did a foodie seminar again, this time on “plate presentation”.

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Eleanor’s “plate presentation” seminar

Colin Hyde’s trailer was the site of nightly “trailer jams”, although I have to admit I was in bed too early to attend any of them. As is traditional, he taped an episode of The VAP from Alumapalooza.

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We gave away two Pedego electric bicycles, valued at $2,950 each.  The winners both decided to donate the bikes back, so we auctioned them off for charity. Between those auctions, the Gong Show, the chicken barbecue lunch, and other things I think something over $8,000 was raised for charities. Most of it went to the local food bank, and the rest went to cancer research and Habitat for Humanity.

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The musical performances were great. Myles and Tim Thompson were talented and well-received, the Open Mic night was a success as always, and then the Thompsons backed up Antsy for the final show on Saturday.

Antsy McClain APZ8
Antsy McClain

I feel like Alumapalooza has matured. It’s got a momentum now, a vibe that people expect, and lots of people who support it. I feel like it can continue for years. The only trick these days is finding space.  Airstream is expanding so quickly that we are never sure if we’ll have room to park. This year we had room for about 140 rigs.  Next year, who knows?  We’re looking for more space in the area but can’t make promises yet, so if you want to go to APZ9 in 2018 I strongly recommend you register early.

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Lisa and Beth at one of the factory entrances

At the end we were all happy, tired, and officially in summer mode.  I even picked up a moderate tan, despite trying to avoid the sun. I think this is an omen of a nice long traveling summer ahead.

Our next event will be APZ9 in 2018 since we’ve already done two events this year (Alumaflamingo in Florida was the other). That means we’ve got a break to relax. Our personal plan is to stay in Vermont through July, and then head to Newfoundland in August. That plan could change depending on other circumstances, so we’re not making reservations for the ferry or anything else yet.

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Once we finish up in August it will be a long sprint back to Arizona for arrival in late September. But we’ll think about that later. Right now it’s only June and there’s quite a bit of ice cream and sunsets and boat rides to be had. The Airstream is parked at its summer base and all is well.

The last tour of the GL?

After plodding through the mushy wet snow for a couple of days it was a welcome change to have the sun come out in Fort Collins and watch it all melt. The two pictures below were taken two days apart:

Fort Collins Airstream slushFort Collins Airstream campsite sun

And that changed the mood of the entire rally. No longer was everyone hunkered down inside with the furnace blowing, peering out through fogged windows in the hope of seeing sunshine. Suddenly people were outside, walking around and talking to their fellow rally-goers. Emma and I went for rides, Eleanor and I went for walks. It all turned out very nicely.

Saturday night the weather was so fine that people were grilling outdoors and I offered test rides to anyone who wanted to try our electric kick scooter. About ten people hopped on and zipped away—and they all came back with a big smile.  This guy even popped a wheelie.

Fort Collins scooter wheelie

Fort Collins was nearly our halfway point to Alumapalooza, which meant we still had 1,100 miles to go.  After the rally there was no avoiding that we were going to make our 31st crossing of the American Great Plains, so we braced ourselves and began to log some miles.

Kansas center of USATo mix things up we always look for a new route. I think we’ve driven every possible major route through the center of the continent but there was a bit of northwestern Kansas we hadn’t seen before so we headed that way. It’s not much different from other parts of Kansas but at least it was new.

The nice thing about taking the quieter roads is that there’s more variety and occasionally an under-appreciated state park in which to spend the night. This time it was Prairie Dog State Park.

A single night in a state park isn’t enough time to get to know it, but clearly it’s a jewel judging by the number of locals who had staked out spots with their RVs and fishing boats.  The park has a nice small lake stocked with fish. (There’s also lots of space for unicycle riders.)

Prairie Dog SP Emma

Rains came in the evening, and despite my efforts to cover the delicate rear computer in the GL, a few drops of water got in again. I woke up at 3 a.m. to see the taillights glowing (a clear sign that the computer was freaking out). Computers and water don’t mix.

I dried it off and covered the computer better but the damage was done: multiple error messages in the console, and the brake controller was ON all the time. That’s because the computer was telling the brake controller that the brakes were applied when they weren’t.  This meant the trailer couldn’t be towed. And of course the nearest Mercedes dealer was 3.5 hours away.

At noon we were still without functioning brakes and we had to leave the campsite, so I disconnected the 7-way cord to the trailer and towed gingerly to another part of the park without brakes or taillights. I pulled fuses in hopes of forcing a reset, to no avail. Finally, on the phone Colin Hyde came up with a temporary solution: cut the wire to the brake controller that receives the braking signal.

I did that and reconnected the 7-way cable. Now we had taillights and manually-operated brakes, so we could proceed. I just had to keep a hand on the manual brake lever and coordinate braking the trailer by hand with braking the car with my foot. It’s not as hard as you might think.

A few hours later I reconnected the cut wire and found the computer had returned to normal. We were back in good operating condition from that point onward. But I wonder how long the circuitry will continue to work, now that it has gotten wet twice. (I also rigged up an elaborate multi-layer water protection system, in the hopes of preventing a third dousing. I can’t stop the actual leak but I have fixed things so any water that gets in will be shunted far away from the computer.)

The rest of the drive was uneventful and uninteresting. Suffice to say we survived KS, MO, IL, and IN without extreme weather or dramatic failures and pulled into Jackson Center OH—center of the Airstream universe—by Wednesday evening. We’re set up at the Terra Port and getting ready for Alumapalooza 8.

I am eyeing a replacement vehicle. The GL’s recent crises involving the water leaks, along with numerous other age-related problems, are starting to drive my repair costs to an unacceptable level.

We’re at eight years and 134,000 miles with this tow vehicle, which is less than I had hoped for when I bought it, but still a respectable amount of use. The choice of what might replace the GL is difficult since our criteria are complex, but I hope to make a decision in the next few weeks: keep or replace, and replace with what?  I’ll talk about that in more detail in another blog.