Planning for spontaneity

I’ve posted many times about our preference for loosely-planned trips. We like to set up for as many possibilities as we can, then launch the Airstream and see what happens on a day-to-day basis. This means we rarely make reservations and change our trip route often.

4 corners areaOther people love to plan every detail of their trips, and I get that. For one thing, they probably feel better knowing what’s going to happen.  Reducing the element of chance makes some people comfortable, and allows them to focus on other things that perhaps they value more than spontaneity.

Looking at the map and calendar this week, Eleanor and I have come to realize two things:

  • We’ve driven almost every possible route through the Four Corners region to head northwest
  • We don’t really care which way we go this time

It’s not that we are jaded. We don’t have a case of “been there, done that” or “this place doesn’t have anything more to show us.” That would be foolish. What’s happening here is more subtle. We’ve hit almost every major attraction that we know about, and now we’re going to have to find the things we don’t know about.

So our plan, if you can call it that, is to simply head northwest in a meandering way with only the first night’s stop in mind. After that we’ll see what seems interesting along the way. Eventually we’ll end up at our first scheduled stop, in Ft Collins CO at a rally.

This should be fun. We have left some extra time in the schedule to pause at any spot we find interesting.  I know there are interesting towns, beautiful lakes, magnificent mountains, historic sites, tasty treats and western curiosities to discover along the way.  Can’t really go wrong between here and Denver, as long as we respect the vagaries of May weather at higher altitudes.

Further stops are vague, but we do plan to head up to Chicagoland to visit Zip Dee for a factory tour, and of course we’ll end up at Alumapalooza at the Airstream factory on May 31. Between major stops, we’ll pick the ripe fruit along the way.

Getting ready for a trip like this takes some time.  In the springtime as we are getting ready, we clear out things from the Airstream that have ceased to be useful or which have worn out, and we reload with a pile of this season’s necessities. We do have a set of permanent equipment, but that’s really just a base layer.  Most of what we haul changes rapidly as our interests, goals, sizes, obligations, technologies, tastes, and side trips change.

I have a few things I do every year that make this process easier.  First, I have a checklist. The checklist has four divisions:

  1. Before Departure.  This is a list of tasks that take a few weeks to complete, like getting the cars serviced, scanning paper documents, prepping the Airstream (empty holding tanks, full water, full propane, hitch lube, tire pressure), prepping the house, backing up computers, cleaning/clearing, arranging mail forwarding, and many other things.
  2. Day Before Departure.  This is a shorter list of the things I can only do right before we go, such as notifying the insurance company that we’ll have cars in “storage” mode for a while.
  3. Day of Departure.  This is a checklist of things to do as we are going out the door like removing final items from the house refrigerator, connecting the trickle charger to the car that will be stored, setting the thermostat in the house, and checking that everything is locked.
  4. Items to Pack.  This covers everything I need for unlimited time on the road.  Typically we are gone for four to six months (although I often fly back home to assume my guise as Temporary Bachelor Man) and so this list needs to be comprehensive.

Given how much we travel, I’ve found it’s much easier to simply have two of certain items so that I don’t have to unpack the basics from the Airstream.  That means I have an Airstream and a house version of things like: backpack, Dutch Oven, many clothes, charging cables, bathroom sundries, etc.

If you think about it, we don’t haul the Airstream’s microwave oven and refrigerator into the house every time we end a trip, so why should I waste time hauling things like the Verizon Mifi or my socks? Anything that’s inexpensive is duplicated.  This keeps the packing list short.

(The same goes for Eleanor’s kitchen: the Airstream kitchen is fully equipped all the time, with its own cookware—even its own cast iron skillet—plus basic ingredients and dishes. A bonus is that the Airstream is always ready to bug out in the event of a catastrophe.)

Since my personal packing typically only take a couple of hours, I can focus on critical things like Airstream maintenance to prevent breakdowns and delays, and those little things that make the trip more enjoyable. For example, one ritual every year is that I go to the local book swap and pick up 4-6 paperback books for reading on the road. I do this a month or so before we leave, so by the time we’re spending our first night beneath the pine trees of northern Arizona I have forgotten the titles—so it’s kind of a surprise to check my bedside shelf and see what books are waiting there.

There’s one other thing we are adding to the prep routine this year, at Eleanor’s suggestion.  Usually we rush around to get everything done in the last two weeks before we go, and then the day of departure is a little less joyous because there has been so much stress.  This year we are going to take 24 hours after the Airstream is ready, to decompress before we set out. We’ll get up late, eat out at one of our favorite restaurants, maybe take in a movie, and ignore all obligations for a day. Then the next day we’ll get up early and hit the road, refreshed.

As you can see, our trips are really front-loaded.  We do a ton of prep in a very structured way so that we can wing it while we’re traveling. “Planning for spontaneity” seems to work for us.

In a week we’ll hit the road and I’ll be posting along the way. Whatever we see, you’ll get a peek at too.  And I hope to see many of you in Ohio at the Airstream factory later this month!

Pack your inspirations

Alumapalooza is around the corner, and that means it’s time to get serious about traveling again.  That event (held every year at the Airstream factory after Memorial Day) has been the kick-off for our summer travels for the past six years, and this year will be the seventh.

We’re not the only ones gearing up to hit the road either.  I’m hearing from friends all over the country who are anticipating saddling up and hauling the Airstream out later this month or in May.  Many of them will be out for weeks, which is great for them.  They’ll have fun and maybe we’ll cross paths at some point.

Getting ready for Alumapalooza is really only the beginning for us.  The Airstream won’t be back to home base until September, or possibly October, so we have to pack and plan for a magical mystery expedition.  I don’t know exactly where we will be later this summer because some of our plans are going to be spontaneous, which means we could encounter temperatures from freezing to 110; activities like hiking, motorcycling, and swimming in the ocean; social events ranging from the five-day party that is Alumapalooza, to quiet nights in the middle of nowhere; and much more.

HSSA foster kittens-1A couple of weeks ago Eleanor and I started to talk about our preparations to hit the road, and just about every day we do something to advance the cause, because it really takes that long to get a family of three and a small business ready to go. It would be easy if it were a simple matter of packing, but of course there are all the other things in life that get in the way.

For example, we have foster kittens again (yes, those two pictured really are our current obligations: Coleman and Storm), and I’ve been doing maintenance on the cars, we are taking a language class, Emma has a karate tournament coming up, etc., etc.

HSSA foster kittens-2All of these projects and obligations seem overwhelming at times.  Sometimes I feel like the month of April is really just about getting ready to leave, and it seems tedious, but then once we do finally start traveling everything falls into perspective.  The prize of being on multi-month adventure is well worth the advance work.

What I really like about traveling this way is that we don’t have to plan everything in advance. I’m a planner by nature, but in this case it’s actually easier if we don’t.  We have a general plan based on a few hard deadlines (Alumapalooza late May in Ohio, Alumafandango late September in California) but everything else is subject to whims and winds—and opportunities that may arise.

Fuel prices, by the way, hardly come into it at all. I mention this because if you are considering becoming an Airstream traveler you might think fuel cost is a big deal.  Really, it’s one of the smaller budget items since traveling by road is more enjoyable when you drive less and explore locally more. I expect we’ll spend about $1,500 for fuel this season thanks to low diesel prices currently, and for four to five months of travel that’s a bargain.

Organ Pipe Quitobaquito pond

The photo above is from a recent 2-night trip with my friend Nick, back to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Out there in the desert you’ll find a strange sight, a lovely pond filled with tiny desert pupfish just a couple hundred feet from the border fence.  This memorable trip across southern Arizona wasn’t expensive. It’s not about how far you go, it’s about what you can find near where you are.

This season we’re winging it more than usual.  We always have a list of “maybe” ideas handy when we venture out, and this year’s list is really wild.  We’re considering “side trips” as far apart as Newfoundland and Oregon.  We’re keeping an eye out for cheap last-minute flights to Europe and bargain cruises to Alaska.  It’s quite likely that none of these ideas will pan out, but it’s fun to have ideas to consider.

As I said, flexibility is a big advantage of traveling this way. When we walk out the door of our house, the adventure begins. Discovering where it ends up is the fun part. Pack your ideas and inspirations in the Airstream and see what happens.

You can’t change a tire? Oh no.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“We’re going out on a long Airstream trip.  What sort of Roadside Assistance (AAA, Good Sam, etc) should I have, in case I get a flat tire?”

…. sigh …  I hear variations on this all the time. And I get a little sad every time I hear it, because too often things don’t work out well with this strategy.

The best roadside assistance program you can ever have is yourself. Even if you aren’t “mechanically minded,” or even if you have a physical disability that prevents you from being able to do a tire change, you need to know how to change a tire, and you need to have the necessary equipment on hand.

Why? Lots of reasons:

  • Roadside assistance often takes hours to show up. You, or someone you know, can change a tire on your Airstream in about 10 minutes. Why wait all that time?
  • Deliverance teethFlats happen in all kinds of places, including places you really don’t want to be parked for long time. Like by the side of the highway, or in a rough neighborhood.
    You might start to feel like you’re in a scene from Deliverance.  It’s a hard transition from independent traveling Airstreamer to completely helpless potential target.
  • Not all mechanics have familiarity with Airstreams, or the proper tools for the job. Someone who doesn’t know that they shouldn’t put a jack under most parts of the belly pan, or the axle, can do serious damage.  A heavy-handed mechanic with an air wrench can do a lot more harm than good. (I learned this one the hard way myself.)
  • Roadside assistance programs don’t always cover every place. And cell phones don’t work everywhere. What would you do if you couldn’t reach the toll-free number, or they told you (as happened to a friend of mine) “you’re in a non-service area.”
  • A few tools are a lot cheaper than paying for roadside assistance year after year.

Airstream tireFortunately, it’s really not hard at all to change a tire.  Even if you physically can’t do it, having the tools on hand and knowledge of the correct procedure means someone else (perhaps a Good Samaritan) can help you.

I wrote a book about Airstream Maintenance that includes a big discussion explaining exactly how to swap a tire. But if you don’t want to buy the book, you can learn the procedure from a six-page booklet I published.  A free copy comes with every tire changing kit we sell in the Airstream Life Store. (That kit includes all the tools you need to swap a tire, and every Airstream owner should have those tools with them on every trip.)

Now, just so you realize I’m not just blogging this solely to promote my store:  I don’t care if you copy down the list of tools provided in the kit on the Airstream Life Store and go buy all the parts yourself at local stores. Just make sure you have them.  If you travel a lot, sooner or later you will need those tools.

One of things I always point out to people is that you don’t have to be very strong to do this job. For example, to get the tire out of the spare holder without lifting (after you’ve lowered the holder to the ground) just sit on the ground and push the tire out with your feet.

Sometimes the job seems hard because you’re doing it the hard way, so a little practice will help a lot. Try it in your driveway, or this June at Alumapalooza where we will have a tire-changing class & contest.

You might be thinking that flats are pretty rare, and you’ll take your chances. That’s OK, but there are other reasons to have the tools & knowledge handy. For example, sooner or later you’ll need a fresh set of tires. Have you ever had a tire shop act like your trailer was some sort of dangerous object?  I’ve heard things like, “I’m not allowed to take a wheel off a trailer,” and “We don’t have a jack big enough for a trailer like that.” Having the ability to swap a tire yourself can help a lot in such situations.

Stay independent, my friends.  Being prepared for common problems like flat tires will help keep your Airstream experience fun.

A deal on solar panels

You know … I had such a good time at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument last week that I did something unusual. At Eleanor’s suggestion, I left the Airstream parked in the campground so we could come back as a family for another visit. We’ve never done that before.

So I came home on Wednesday, re-packed and caught up on some work, and then Friday all three of us went back just for the weekend.

It was a weird thing to come to the campground and find the Airstream sitting there, all set up and ready for us.  It was more like having a vacation house. But it was great: We just piled in, and I slid out the awning and Solar Shade, and opened the windows and let the warm desert breezes flow through … and it was an “Aaaahhhhh” moment.  No obligations, no deadlines, and glorious sunshine in a quiet park.

Organ Pipe E&E Airstream shade

That feeling lasted all weekend as we hiked out to abandoned mines and filled in our “Desert Ranger” books (everyone got a patch), and visited with other Airstreamers, and generally just chilled out. I have to say, it was a great mini-vacation.

Organ Pipe Airstream interior

As we were camping I was reminded of how great it is to have solar panels on the roof of the Airstream.  The Twin Peaks campground at Organ Pipe has a few rows where generators aren’t allowed, and I noticed that most of the Airstreams were clustered there (including us). It was more peaceful without the rumble of generators firing every morning while people microwaved their coffee.

Organ Pipe chain link chollaThis time of year the sun angle is low and I often wish I had just a little more sun-gathering capability, so I’m now using a 120-watt portable solar panel kit to augment the fixed panels on the roof.  This has turned out to be so great that I’m going to start selling the same kit in the Airstream Life Store.

Having a set of portable panels means you can set them on the ground where the sun is shining (even if the Airstream is in shade) and angle them to catch the early morning and late afternoon light that flat roof panels miss. This effectively gives you a lot more power collection especially during the short winter days and cloudy days.  They have adjustable legs so you can set the angle to match the sun, and they fold up to easily store in a zippered carry case.

I’ve got a bunch of these solar panel kits coming in next week.  They’re somewhat expensive, but if you were ever thinking about getting a set, I’ve got a deal for you.  The kit we are now selling includes 120 watts of top quality folding panels with all the bells & whistles. It’s totally “plug and play”—you don’t need anything else to get started—and we include a few crucial accessories that other sellers don’t include. We’re going to sell this complete kit for $636.

Since you’re a blog reader, if you contact me before March 10, 2016 and you’re one of the first 10 people to respond, I’ll send you a discount coupon to use on my store that will reduce your price by $50I guarantee you will never find a better price on this full kit (including extension cable and 7-way plug adapter) anywhere.

Click here to read more about what we’re offering, but be sure to get the discount coupon from me before you place your order.

I’ll talk a little more about our Organ Pipe Cactus National Park experience in the next blog, because it’s an interesting place and we had a few, uh, “adventures” in the back country …

Beach camping

I love camping at a beach by the open sea.  We’ve done it at every opportunity, from Connecticut to California.  There is something unique about camping at the edge of the ocean.  It is one of those places that most people can only visit briefly, for a glorious but all-too-short day at the sandy beach before heading home.  But with an Airstream your home can be just a few feet from the beach, providing a comfortable and cozy shelter while you watch the setting sun reflecting on the water, or listen to the endless rhythm of pounding surf.

Charlestown Breachway Emma 2004Some of my best camping memories are from beachside places.  One of our very first experiences, back in 2004 when our 1968 Caravel was still very new to us, was camping at Charlestown Breachway State Beach in CT.  It was just an asphalt lot by the ocean, but being fresh to the Airstream lifestyle, it was a magical time.

It probably helped that Emma was just four years old. Everything was pretty magical back then, and it cemented our fondness for beachside camping.

Since that first experience we’ve camped by the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, most of the eastern seaboard states, extensively in Florida and the Gulf Coast, Padre Island National Park, Puerto Peñasco and Bahia Kino in Mexico, California, and Washington.  The only place we didn’t absolutely love was Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach CA, and that’s mostly because heavy highway traffic was obnoxiously close.

For sure, your camping experience by the ocean can vary quite a lot. It might be peaceful and rustic, colorful and carnival-like, foggy and quiet, or blazing with sunshine and salt breezes. In California there are roads built close to the water nearly everywhere, so often the campsites are just asphalt spots sandwiched between beach and highway. Still, a lot of the sites are pretty nice.

The sound of the surf at night is a big part of the attraction for me.  I distinctly remember the sound on that first night in Connecticut, and the different sounds we heard one wild & windy night in North Carolina, and yet another memorable night on St George Island (FL) where Eleanor and I stayed up late listening to the waves and talking (that was the night we decided it was time to buy a house after two years on the road). You only get that wonderful sound of waves crashing when you’re camped by the water.

Thornhill Broome Airstream

On our trip in January this year we visited Thornhill Broome campground (part of Point Mugu State Park), between Oxnard and Malibu. It’s directly adjacent to the Pacific Coast Highway. The beach is rocky but there’s some sand.  Like all the west coast sites the water is pretty cold most of the time. No hookups at all, nor dump station, and the gate gets locked at 10 pm.  Still, it’s popular because it’s close to Los Angeles and Ventura, and we liked it.

If you visit here, try for a weekday to avoid crowds. For practical supplies and services, go north to Oxnard, and for people-watching and an entertaining California scene, go south to Malibu. It’s  just a short and scenic drive down the road.

Thornhill Broome friends VW busOur Airstream friend David organizes an annual get-together of fellow travelers (mostly vintage trailer owners) here every September, so we timed our visit to coincide. That was a good call. We spent a very pleasant evening with some new friends, sitting in a little courtyard they’d built between a vintage VW bus camper and a vintage Eriba Puck (German camper), while David made chili for everyone and Emma played cards with the other kids in a vintage motorhome.

This sort of self-entertainment is “low concept” to many people today. They don’t think they can have a good time without being on an expedition, a cruise ship, or a theme park, but I think we get just as much out of a quiet night with a few good people as anything else we’ve done. I think we all need to do some camping to stay in touch with what’s real, and what matters.

Now, I love camping in all sorts of places.  Beaches, forests, deserts, even badlands …  all of those peaceful places are good for keeping you centered. But beaches will always be special. I don’t know why.  I’m just going to roll with it.