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.

IMG_4768

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.

Summer 2015, Airstream style

It’s that time of year.  While most of the country is celebrating the appearance of spring, it’s already getting kind of “warm” here in Tucson (meaning we had our first 90 degree day already) and we’ve working on our annual trip north to Alumapalooza. By mid-May, when Tucson tends to hit 100 for the first time, we’ve got to be on the road with our Airstream.

I look forward to that day with a combination of apprehension and excitement. It’s nice to get back out in the Airstream, but the prep is incredible. Every house project, Airstream project, and work project needs to be settled (if not finished), and that’s a ton of work. I always advocate to people that they try not to go out on their adventure of a lifetime with a pile of unfinished business, personal issues, or money problems—because those things tend to drag you back to home sooner than you’d like—and I try to take my own advice.

It’s not always possible, of course, to put a “hard stop” on everything in life, so the other side of it is to try to find ways to continue the necessities of life even as you roll down the road. I could write a book about that … and maybe someday I will.

The Airstream has been getting its seasonal maintenance.  Being a lady of a certain age and having many miles behind her, I do have to try to get ahead of problems before we head out. So far this spring I have:

  • replaced the failed refrigerator cooling unit (and the replacement has been running continuously for a month with no problems)
  • replaced the converter/charger with a Xantrex TrueCharge 2
  • replaced the dump valves
  • stripped off the rest of the old “Tour of America” decals
  • added some aluminum sheet to the belly pan to replace corroded metal (galvanic corrosion is slowly eating the pan, as it unavoidably will wherever steel meets aluminum, and I expect that some large sections will need replacement in a few years)
  • removed, wire brushed, and repainted the spare tire carrier. I scuffed it pretty badly coming out of a parking lot back in January.
  • touched up paint on the Hensley hitch (but it needs a total strip & powder coat)
  • disassembled the center Fantastic Vent, cleaned thoroughly, and re-assembled
  • flushed the hot water tank & replaced the drain plug
  • replaced the Pressure/Temperature valve on the water heater
  • upgraded the propane tanks to aluminum Worthingtons
  • installed new LED lights in the refrigerator and range vent

And on the tow vehicle, a bunch more stuff including the new dash cam, GPS, tires, rear shocks, front air struts … I think I’d rather not list the rest of it right now. The memory is a bit painful.

If you wonder why I go through all this trouble when I could just buy plane tickets and hotel rooms, well, you aren’t an Airstreamer. Yes, it’s a lot of stuff, but when I compare it to the life we’ve had, the things we’ve seen, and the people we’ve met, a few repairs and maintenance seem like a very small price to pay.

There’s more to do on the Airstream but it just won’t all get done before we go, so I’ll bring a few tools and parts along and give Super Terry something to do when I see him at Alumapalooza. For Super Terry’s benefit, that list includes:

  • installing a replacement entry door lock, because the one we have has jammed a few times
  • sealing a small leak somewhere near the front vent fan
  • lubricating the seals on the vent fans
  • updating the Parbond sealant around a few spots on the exterior

The big project I had planned, to add a fancy water filtration system, is just going to have to wait until fall, I’m afraid.  All the parts are here but the time to do it has gone.

Now it’s time to clean out whatever is left from last year that we no longer need, and stock the Airstream with the ingredients for fun for Summer 2015. Both Eleanor and I have been at it for a while and we’ll be finishing the job over the next two weeks.

So here’s the trip plan for the first half of the summer:

late May: Arizona to Ohio, and then Alumapalooza!

June: tow east to Vermont for a few weeks, and another week-long BMW motorcycle adventure (destination TBD)

late June: I’ll fly back west while the rest of the family remain in the northeast.  Brett & I will hike in Navajo National Monument, and then drop in on the WBCCI International Rally in Farmington NM for a couple of days.

July: Temporary Bachelor Man returns!

There’s much more planned through October but my head would explode if I laid it all out right now. I figure we’ll cover about 8,000 miles of Airstream travel and at least 12 states, depending on how we head back. I want to do some exploring in parts of Arkansas and Missouri, especially around the Ozarks, where we’ve never been before.

Yes, it looks like another great summer coming up, Airstream-style.

Scrap metal

I got an email from a friend today who was asking on behalf of her friend about a vintage Airstream she wanted to purchase. The 1960s trailer was listed for $4,500.  The prospective buyer knows nothing about Airstreams except that they’re cool. That has become the number one qualification of vintage owners lately. I don’t like saying it, but that’s a problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I bought my first 1960s Airstream because it was cool too. But I took a lot of time to learn about them, and shop as carefully as I could, and eventually I scored a usable model that became my learning platform. We still have it; it’s the 1968 Airstream Caravel that we no longer use but lavish attention on nonetheless.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a money pit, the Caravel certainly hasn’t been an awesome investment.  Even with my attempt to learn as much as possible before buying, I still had a lot of painful lessons ahead, and they cost me plenty. As I mentioned in my prior blog, vintage trailer owners tend to sink more money into their trailers than they are ultimately worth on the open market.

The person who wanted to buy the Airstream had dreams of turning it into a rental unit, using it herself occasionally, and decorating the interior herself. That’s all good, but if you don’t have a broad set of skills, lots of time, and a well-equipped workshop, the road from a “basket case” trailer to glamping heaven is paved with glue and cactus spines.  This buyer didn’t have any of the right qualifications.

So even before I looked at the trailer in question, I could say with confidence that a vintage project probably wasn’t right for her. But to be fair, I took a look at the online photos of the trailer too.

Colin Hyde in Airstream
Colin Hyde demonstrates a slight problem with this Airstream. This one was actually restorable, although at considerable expense.

Define “disaster”: an Airstream shell that has no interior, no windows, body damage, and a rotten wood floor. That’s what most people call scrap metal. There’s hardly any value in that, even if it is a very old Airstream (and 1960s-era is not considered very old in the Airstream world).

To get started on a project like this you would first need to find a way to transport it, since with no interior and a structurally deficient floor it would be unsafe to tow.  Then you’d need a good work space for two or three years, plus a long list of skills—or a really fat wallet to pay someone else to do all the dirty work.  $50,000-100,000 could disappear easily.

And yet, this buyer was ready to plunk down 45 hundred simoleons to acquire this decaying shell of an Airstream.  That’s the power of desire, triumphing over good sense.

Airstreams are enticing, no question. So I am writing this blog to warn those who don’t know what they are getting into. If you want to get into a project, fine, but don’t buy scrap metal. When you see an Airstream with no windows or with missing roof vents, it means it has been suffering water damage for years, not to mention the ravages of rodents and insects.

Junk AirstreamThe floor will be rotten.  The frame will probably be rusted. The insulation will be compacted and riddled with rodent trails. In short, the trailer is garbage. Junk. Restorable only at a ridiculous cost.

If you want a project, buy something that is at least intact, meaning with no major body damage, still sealed against the elements, and complete with all the doors and windows. If you don’t care about the interior because you’re going to strip it out and replace it anyway, at least make sure the structure underneath is still viable.  Don’t trust the seller on this—check it out yourself or find someone to check it out for you.

If you want to go camping in the next year, or you have a tighter budget, or you are utterly clueless about anything mechanical—buy a nice used Airstream that someone has recently camped in. There are plenty of good ones on the market.  They really aren’t rare, and Airstream keeps making more of them.  Most people will be happier without the horrible learning curve of buying a junker.

To those who make a sideline business out of selling scrap Airstreams to clueless buyers for outrageous prices: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Yes, if they are willing to pay and you don’t hide anything, it’s ultimately the buyer’s responsibility. But really, do you sleep well at night? Do something positive and help people by selling worthwhile trailers. Take the junk where it belongs: the recycling center.