Alumapalooza 6 begins

The show is beginning.  We spend all year thinking about Alumapalooza, and when it finally comes together here on a patch of grass in central Ohio, it’s a great thing. Today is the day.

The past few pre-event days have been mellow.  All of the volunteer staff are very experienced at their jobs, and we’ve cross-trained people whenever possible, so if we hadn’t been required to relocate some things as a result of the factory expansion there wouldn’t have been much to talk about.  Everyone would have just gone ahead and done their job without any instruction. As it was, things were still pretty smooth. We’re lucky to have such great people who come back year after year to make this event happen.

A lot of attendees are repeat visitors, too.  We had 25 spots in the Service Center lot for early arrivals to boondock a few nights, and most of them were taken by people who had been here before. They just roll in at their convenience, settle in, and gab with their neighbors. We didn’t schedule anything except a cookout on Memorial Day, but the folks who arrive early generally don’t need scheduled activities to stay entertained.

Early parking at APZ6

Jackson Center weather is always tricky this time of year, with frequent and un-forecast changes.  When people ask us what weather to expect, we say “all kinds.”  This year has been a great example.  When I arrived it was dropping down to about 42 degrees at night.  Other years it has been 101.  You just never can be sure what’s coming, despite the attempts of the weather reporters to stay ahead of nature.

Airstream Life flagsThis year the major weather event has been wind, lots of it, which finally got strong enough to make everyone take in their flags, awnings, and patio mats (or stake them down very securely).  I was working on the roof of the Airstream with Super Terry over the weekend, scraping old cracked sealant off the aluminum with a putty knife, so that we could re-seal a couple of spots that might have become leaks. When I’d get a small piece of sealant scraped free, it would sometimes blow right off the roof.

Because of the uncertain weather, we decided to keep the job list to the bare minimum, so all we have done so far is replace the entry door lock and replace sealant in six or seven places.  Sometime this week I’m still hoping we can remove the wheels to check the brakes, but now that the event has started it will be hard to find the time. I might have to get to that job at a later stop in our travels.

The big news has been that E&E will miss Alumapalooza. They had planned to catch up with me by flying to Dayton, but Emma got a cold a week ago and still can’t equalize well enough to fly.  Our only good option was to have them fly to Cleveland next week, where I’ll pick them up as I’m heading east with the Airstream. So I’m still solo in the Airstream and will remain so quite a lot longer than I had expected.

Without Eleanor to back me up, I’ve had to make some adjustments and rely on the support of friends. There’s still plenty of food in the refrigerator but friends here have been inviting me to dinner nightly, which means I probably won’t have to go grocery shopping until next weekend.  That helps a lot, because during one of these events my time is always at a premium.  Our friend Mary has volunteered to throw my laundry in with her family’s on Thursday (she pointed out that Eleanor has done the same for them in the past).  Others have offered help, too. It’s nice to have such good friends. In this community you can almost take that for granted, which is a big part of the reason Airstream has been so significant in our lives.

APZ6 decal

As I mentioned, the factory expansion has changed a few things. We can only park about 50 Airstreams in the main field next to the factory, so Airstream personnel electrified another area closer to the Terra Port, and we plan to put another 50 or so there. This also meant the event tents couldn’t go in the usual spot, but we found a really pleasant location in the shade of mature sycamore trees, right next to the Terra Port.  The grass is nicer, the ground is more level, and we like how it turned out, so we’ll probably do it the same way again next year.

This also means the staff can park in the Terra Port for the entire event. After six years of parking in the field, I think the volunteers deserve the perk of full hookups during Alumapalooza. They work hard, sweating and getting sunburned (or rained on) every day for a week, and at the end of the day they have to haul the gray water from their shower several hundred feet in a portable tank to dump it.  Most of them didn’t get power for air conditioning, either.  We supplied them with ice cold water, laundry service, and a free pass—that’s it.

So now they have a well-deserved better deal. Our new spots in the Terra Port put all of the staff very close to the tents, so they can go back and forth quickly, and if the windows are open you can hear the chatter and laughter of attendees having a good time nearby. It’s perfect.

Jessie Kresa at AlumapaloozaBy 9:30 this morning we had already parked 25 trailers and a steady stream has continued to come in. It’s starting to look like Alumapalooza today, with rows of shiny Airstreams parked in the grass, flying flags and displaying lawn chairs and patio furniture under the awnings. By the end of the day we will have close to 100 parked, and more coming on Wednesday.

One of our special guests this year has been Jessie Kresa, a professional wrestler, who is here to show off her hot sauce. She was featured in Airstream Life in our Winter 2014    issue, and it’s great to finally meet her in person. Tonight she’ll join us on stage and give away some stuff, and then on Thursday she’s off to London England to wrestle someone to the ground. After meeting her, I suspect quite a few guys here are going to wish it was them.

I’ll be running a couple of events later today, so for the morning I’m just watching the parkers and water/electric crew do their job. This afternoon the program starts at 2:30 and runs to 8:00, and then tomorrow we go into it full-tilt starting at 7:30.

Back home in Jackson Center, Ohio

After a decade of driving across country to stay in the Airstream Terra Port, it’s amazing I still have anything to say about it.  But every time I get in the last few miles on I-75, or that two-lane country highway that leads straight as an arrow between the soybeans and corn fields, right to Airstream, I feel a little quiver of excitement. Airstream, and the little Village of Jackson Center, Ohio, are as familiar to me as old family members and as enjoyable to anticipate as a vacation cabin.

This year the factory is a little more exciting. Airstream has been booming the past few years. Now there are over 500 employees, and the factory just expanded to try to keep up with demand. A larger office mezzanine has been built above the factory floor, as part of Airstream’s philosophy to have office and management staff stay close to production. There always was an office mezzanine but now it’s big enough to house nearly everyone, and it’s really nice.  (Touring Coach staff are still across the street, near their production line.)

The expansion is good news for everyone, except perhaps the organizers of Alumapalooza. We’ve lost half the field we formerly used for parking trailers, so we had to scramble to re-organize the parking plan and electrical lines in order to accommodate 125 Airstreams. It got figured out eventually, and in some ways the parking plan is better, so in the long run the factory expansion might even turn out to be a good thing for us too.

It certainly will be good for Jackson Center.  We love this town, but the local businesses have often struggled economically and there’s always been the threat that the downtown would go the way of so many others, with empty storefronts and sad remainders. Airstream has been the anchor that has kept JC alive, and now with more Airstreams being sold, there’s reason to believe that JC will get a well-deserved boost.

I was talking with the restauranteur of the beautiful brick building nearby, formerly known as The Verandah restaurant. This old Victorian-era house was once a boarding house that Wally Byam himself stayed in. He told me that he’s been waiting all year for Alumapalooza to come back, since it’s the biggest economic injection the village gets. For the week we are here, he needs extra staff.

That made me glad, because we have always tried to leave something positive behind, and support the local businesses whenever possible.  We buy all our consumable supplies locally, even if we could get a better price 30 miles away in Sidney.  This year the local restaurant will be doing our catering.  Our attendees flood the local stores, watch movies at The Elder Theater (one screen, right in the center of town), attend the JC Community Days fair, walk to town for ice cream, and run in the annual Tiger Trot 5k race.  We donate hundreds to the local Food Bank (proceeds from our charity auction and Gong Show). While we are here, Jackson Center is our town.

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I’m set up in the Terra Port for the duration.  Unlike prior events, the staff will stay here until the end of Alumapalooza, so we’re making ourselves comfortable. I put up my new Arizona state flag just to try out the new flagpole. When Alumapalooza starts, I’ll put up the rest of them, including the Airstream Life flag.  I don’t know why, but flying flags is a big part of rally tradition. I like the color and personality flags add to a field of silver Airstreams, so I have a variety.  The “We take no prisoners” Jolly Roger will be flying too.

Today is Friday, four days before the event.  We’re doing some light prep work now, and as the rest of the volunteer staff gather, things will really start to get busy.  Over the weekend we are expecting about 30-40 Airstreams to arrive for a sort of pre-party that we traditionally hold, with a cookout on Memorial Day and lots of socializing.

They’ll mostly be parked in the Service Center lot without hookups, but nobody cares (we’re all in Airstreams, so who needs hookups?).  They’ve come for the fun. That’s what it’s all about. No wonder I like coming here.

Happy Airstream, happy driver

I’m on the road at last, for my big solo trip from Arizona to Ohio.

I’m glad there was time to work out the bugs that popped up in January when I went to California, and during Alumafiesta. The Airstream felt great from the very first mile in Tucson. I like it when the equipment is running smooth: the tires gently hissing and the TPMS telling me they are running cool, the hitch lubed and free of squeaks, the Mercedes purring along …

The day was sunny and surprisingly cool for southern Arizona in May, so I put the pedal down and began cruising along I-10 at 70 MPH.  (I don’t run ST tires with their anemic 65 MPH speed rating, and my rig is very carefully hitched up, so 70 MPH is no problem on good road.) The miles just flew by, and it wasn’t long before familiar roadside sights began to show up.

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Maybe it was the happy car and trailer affecting me, or perhaps the fine weather, or perhaps the very nice send-off from my wife and daughter (who will join me in a week), but for whatever reason I just kept on rolling.  Soon I was passing through central Las Cruces and its collection of historic signage along Rt 70, then through the White Sands Missile Range, and in the afternoon I found myself in beautiful northern New Mexico with a minor problem.

White Sands

You see, on the first day of a trip like this we never bother with a campground, since the trailer is loaded with everything. Being solo, there’s even less reason for a campground. The water and food supply on board will easily last me 5-7 days. So unless there’s oppressive heat we just look for an overnight parking spot (and sometimes even when there is oppressive heat and humidity.)

I had absolutely perfect weather on Saturday. Not a cloud in the sky, dry air, temperatures perfect for sleeping, but there was, somewhere in the northern part of New Mexico and not a clue where I was spending the night. The campgrounds along my route were bad and overpriced, and there were few overnight parking spots to choose from. So I kept pressing the accelerator and running down the road until the sun set … and beyond.

It was 10:30 pm local time when I finally pulled into a parking lot in Amarillo TX, 690 long miles from Tucson. Not as bad as it sounds since I’d crossed two time zone boundaries and for me it was only 8:30. This ridiculous slog meant I’d covered more than a third of the trip in a single day, and that was great because it meant I could slow down for the rest of the trip.

Tornadoes and hail are always the worry when crossing the Plains states this time of year.  Every year I have to dodge something. This year a huge frontal boundary was ahead of me, spawning tornadoes in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. This was the easiest year ever, since all I had to do was stay behind the storm line and enjoy the lovely cool weather.

Airstream at Natural Falls SP OKToday’s drive was similar. I-40 all the way, across the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. The drive was not much to write home about, but I had a nice time anyway. With an early start and no pressure to get anywhere, I had plenty of time to stop in Oklahoma City to make some calls, and in Tulsa to think about where to go next.

Finally I decided to deviate slightly to get off the Interstate and explore something new.  I ended up 438 miles from my starting point, at Natural Falls State Park in eastern Oklahoma, just in time for dinner.

The Airstream still didn’t need a campground. There was plenty of water and the sun had replenished my batteries for free (which always happens by early afternoon this time of year thanks to a high sun angle). But I just wanted to have a quiet place to stop and some scenery around me that didn’t involve a lot of asphalt, so the $20 charged for a water/electric pull-thru spot at Natural Falls seemed like an excellent idea.

Natural Falls SP 2015-05

And it was.

The park has a nice paved trail that leads to the falls. It was just the thing after two days spent in the car.  Time to kick back for a while and think about what’s on the agenda for the next two days.  I still want to get to Jackson Center by Wednesday, but other than that there’s no plan.

And something happened to put my travels into perspective. The toll booth lady admired the Airstream and said my trip on the turnpike ($5) would be free if I’d just go back five miles and drop the Airstream off at her house. She went on to say how much fun she’d have with her grandkids in it. The compliment was nice, but on balance I decided to keep the Airstream. It’s a privilege to have it and I thank her for reminding me. Tonight as I relax in the Airstream, and tomorrow as I explore northern Arkansas I’ll be thinking about that.

Solo traveler

The kittens are taking over.  I say that because they have commanded Eleanor & Emma to change plans, and stay here in Tucson another week to give them more TLC. That means I’ll be towing the Airstream solo, about 2,000 miles, to Jackson Center OH and the Airstream factory.

Only one other time have I towed the Airstream such a long way by myself.  That was back in December 2009, picking up the Caravel in Michigan and towing it through a lot of freezing weather all the way to Tucson. Without my traveling companions it was, in a word, boring (except when the window shattered).

So I’m not exactly pumped by this idea.  On one hand it will be a little easier to travel on only my schedule. I can cover more miles per day by myself, because there are fewer stops and distractions.  On the other hand, I’ll miss all the little rituals and pleasures we have developed amongst ourselves to make long trips like this more engaging. Much of those come from the unnecessary stops and distractions that Eleanor and Emma inspire.

I’ll have to try to relish solo travel, and not rush through the country too much. Pre-planning helps with this; just having a few key destinations along the way to visit, even if they are relatively mundane, keeps me from zooming by and ending up with highway malaise. Maybe I’ll drop in on that restaurant in Missouri that’s in a cave, or finally visit Eureka Springs AR, or seek out some Route 66 stuff.

The prospect of an Airstream-related problem while I’m towing solo is an aspect that doesn’t bother me much. I’ve gotten comfortable with the reality of on-the-road repairs. This comfort comes from having dealt with all kinds of troubles in the past: electrical issues, brakes failing, tire tread separations (many), rain water leaks, plumbing leaks, hitch problems, loss of a wheel, awning damage, bumper ripped off … you name it—we’ve experienced it. It’s never fun but at least every time something happens and you successfully deal with it, your store of knowledge and confidence grows.

Although the trip starts next weekend, I’m doing the final prep now because this week I will be flying to Seattle to attend the annual Airstream Dealer Meeting. My primary role is to be there as part of the Airstream community, representing just how beloved the brand is.  My goal is to convince more dealers that they are missing out if they aren’t part of Airstream Life and Outside Interests. My expectation is that it will rain. But it should be interesting and even fun, so I’m looking forward to it.

When I get back and the Airstream launches this weekend I’ll probably blog daily until I get to Jackson Center. Given the time of year I’m sure I’ll be dodging thunderstorms and even hail along the way, but other than that and the certainty of a visit to Wal-Mart, the trip is a story waiting to be written.  Come along for the ride–and let me know if there’s a place along the way I should visit.

Why I like traveling slowly

Wally Byam is known as the founder of Airstream and a relentless promoter of the travel trailer lifestyle. Among his accomplishments were mind-bogglingly difficult trips to the most exotic points of the world that could be reached by road in the 1950s. Wally was making a point: traveling slowly by road is the only way you’ll really see the world, engage the people, and have authentic experiences.

I don’t think most of today’s North American travelers have a clue what an authentic experience feels like. Today we are the willing thralls of another set of relentless promoters, those who sell packaged vacations, “dining experiences”, shore excursions from cruise ships, and all-inclusive resorts.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those. I have enjoyed many of those types of experiences myself.  No one would ever say that a visit to Epcot Center’s World Showcase is a fair replacement for visiting any of the countries displayed there, but it is fun anyway. Sometimes we just want escapism and predictability, with no risk of being bewildered by an incomprehensible desk clerk, or being stripped of your wallet by a pickpocket in a train station.

The downside to the safe, sanitized and homogenized experiences is that you are kept inside a comfortable bubble with no risk of being challenged by new opinions, terrifying (but tasty) food, confusing accents, fascinating cultural practices, and all the other wonderful differences that make the world such an interesting place. The only broadening that happens in a package environment is that which occurs on your waistline.

Worse, you may have no idea what you are missing. A planned experience keeps you in your comfort zone, close to people like yourself, and the memories you make will be those of the people you were with, but you may not remember much of the town you visited except for the airport, hotel, restaurant, and theme park. Whether you think that’s good, bad, or irrelevant is a matter of opinion.

If you are the kind of person who likes challenges and is willing to accept the risk that your day may not go as planned in exchange for authentic experiences, you’ll crave real travel eventually–and there lies the advantage of traveling by Airstream.

We are about to launch on a 2,000+ mile trip across the country, for probably the 19th or 20th time.  It’s an effort to cross the USA that many times without retracing all the miles, but for the sake of experience an effort will be made to find some roads through little towns that connect us to Jackson Center, Ohio—the so-called “blue highways” of America.  We do this because it seems like a massive waste of effort and energy to haul ourselves up through the heartland without diving deep into it, even if we are anxious to get to Alumapalooza. And there’s still so much of America to visit.

The Airstream allows us to do something we can’t do any other way. If we see something we like, we can stop and stay as long as we want without worrying about budget. Parking the Airstream in a full-hookup campground is incredibly affordable, to the point that when we were full-timing we discovered it was cheaper than staying at home. Thus, we stay longer, we see more, we do more, we live more.  This is “slow travel,” and it’s wonderful.

This point has been driven home to me many times, and it is again today because I am planning two trips simultaneously. One is our Airstream travel for this summer, and the other is a trip to Europe in September. How I wish we could have our Airstream in Europe! Every day we spend in Europe, even being careful, amounts to hundreds of dollars in accommodations and food. We have no choice but to plan an itinerary that maps our activities day-by-day, with little flexibility. If we find a place we would like to visit a little longer, it’s tough luck because the hotel may be booked up and the cost of changing train tickets or airfares will be punitive.

I became so frustrated with the inflexibility, rules, and costs of traditional hotel/air travel that I seriously considered stationing an Airstream in Europe, complete with tow vehicle. (It’s not feasible for us this year, but it may be soon.) We are spoiled by the comfort and convenience of traveling by Airstream, to the point that I almost don’t want to explore any other way. I want to see all the corners of the world, but I want to do it with my Airstream, not in a series of hotels and jumbo jets.

Here’s the travel plan for our eight day trip from Arizona to Ohio:  drive northeast and stop where we like. 

That’s it. All we have to do is show up in Jackson Center by about May 22, give or take a day. We’ll improvise the rest as we go, no reservations, no schedules, no worries. I hate to even think about how rigid our travel in Europe will be, by comparison.

Perhaps you have to experience slow travel to appreciate it fully. But I think everyone can come up with a frame of reference if they dig deep. Look at it this way: The airline trips you usually recall the best are the horrible ones where there was turbulence, an obnoxious passenger, or when they lost your luggage. The rest are just too boring to remember.

On the other hand, you probably still remember fondly that great road trip you did as a kid, or in school with your friends. Trips like that, which are measured in days filled with events, stick with you because they helped make you. Slow travel is good for you. Try to get some this summer.