First day: Tucson, AZ to Van Horn, TX

I always find that there is a one day adjustment period when I get back on the road after a long time. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been hauling around this Airstream for 15 years, or that towing it is like putting on a well-worn glove. Once the Airstream starts rolling, my mental framework gets a little bent and it takes a few hours to get used to the new shape.

In this case I couldn’t get on the road until after noon, which disturbed my routine even more. Normally I’ll start a long summer trip as early as possible, but there were several errands that had to be done on Wednesday morning before I could hitch up. Even after hitching up I had a mandatory stop at the Airstream Life office/warehouse to pick up inventory for the pop-up store.

The back bedroom is now jammed full, as well as the back of the car, the area under the dinette, one side of the bed, and some of the main hallway. There’s hardly a place to put my feet when I sit. I really don’t want to know how much weight I’m pulling, and it’s a good thing I’m traveling solo. Anyone who would want to come with me on this trip would have to be rather petite.

Since I’m heading to Austin, the first two days aren’t going to be full of interesting things. From Tucson to Van Horn is about 470 miles of Interstate 10, a fairly dull drive pockmarked by a few small cities—and El Paso, which for some reason always causes me a small case of indigestion. The traffic is inevitably far crazier than a city of that size should have; it’s like Dallas crammed into a single corridor. Let’s just say that this trip through didn’t alter my expectations, as I avoided various inventive lane-change maneuvers that the locals were demonstrating at sunset.

With Austin about 900 miles away, I had a choice between three 300-mile days or two 450-mile days. Having done this drive many times, I chose to go for the quick run and skip some favorite stopover spots like Balmorhea State Park and Caverns of Sonora. That left me with Van Horn, a town mostly known for being a stopover. It’s sort of the airport hotel of west Texas, with plenty of places to stay but only one reason to be there.

Because Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, I managed to cross two time zones in one day, so after 472 miles of driving I pulled into a forgettable little RV park at 10:00 pm Central Daylight Time. Normally I wouldn’t drive that late but of course for me it was only 8:00. The park features the standards of its ilk: dirt spaces, old but serviceable hookups, plenty of noise from the adjacent Interstate, hand-written notices from the sole proprietor, and anonymity. I was surprised to get the last space. Apparently quite a few people are staying in Van Horn long-term, from the look of the Jeeps and ruts and satellite dishes set up around me.

But I won’t be. The time zones are working against me, so even though I woke up at 4:45 Arizona time to respond to emails and write this, I’ll be hitting the road around 9:00 am local time. That means arriving in Austin by dinner if I don’t take a big break somewhere.

Fortunately I’m feeling the towing groove now. I think the changed view outside my window this morning has put my mind at ease. Even though the scene outside while I eat breakfast is merely dirt, desert scrub, and highway, it’s proof that the Airstream is mobile, as it was born to be. Those neurons in my brain that love new stimuli are lighting up with anticipation. So in a few minutes I’ll have this house/cargo carrier back on the asphalt, soaring east on I-10, all eight tires humming and the Mercedes diesel purring. It’s time to get going.

Growing older with an Airstream

The other day I found myself having one of those conversations that older people seem to have. You know, the kind of conversation you never think you’ll have when you’re young, like a serious explanation of how your colonoscopy went. In this case I was commiserating with a friend (a Gen-Xer, but still someone in her fifties), about how most consumer products of this century are designed for short lives, and consequently are often rented rather than owned. Phones and cars come to mind, and even most brands of RVs, but not Airstreams.

It has long been a selling point for Airstream that the aluminum trailers last forever, with normal care and maintenance, but I never thought I’d grow old with my Airstream. Honestly, when I bought it during my early 40s I had no thought to keeping it for any particular length of time. It was just an expedient to a full-time family adventure.

But that adventure stretched out for three years, and then became a half-timing experience for the family each summer, and now I find myself still in the Airstream, old enough to stay at “55+” communities and wondering if the trailer will outlive me. It’s a strong possibility; I’ve seen many Airstreams that are old enough to collect Social Security still rolling on the roads and making a splash at vintage rallies. Will my Airstream someday be one of those historic relics, “discovered” resting behind a barn somewhere and restored by a nostalgic member of the Flying Car Generation in 2065?

I kind of hope so. I’d like my Airstream to still be in serviceable condition in 2065, if not actually in use, and beloved by someone who is at this very moment being born. While I’m fantasizing, I’d like this person to have a son or daughter who is in training to join the Mars or Moon Colony program. It would be like having your vintage Corvette purchased by a member of the Apollo space program, a neat juxtaposition of past and future adventure.

Ah, but first the Airstream must take care of me, and so I must take care of it. I’m about to launch for points East in a few days, and that means a careful check of all the systems and supplies. I’ve documented what I check in my book Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance so I won’t repeat it here. A good inspection of the Airstream is not difficult, requires no tools trickier than a flashlight, and doesn’t take all that long. You can bring your Airstream to a service center for inspection but I recommend you start doing it yourself. You know your Airstream better than anyone and are really the best person for the job.

So far my checklist has yielded only a few things that need attention. I had to lube the awning arms with Boeshield T-9 because they were getting hard to slide. One of the Fan-tastic Vents has a wonky gear mechanism that causes it to not close correctly, and the hydraulic disc brake fluid should be replaced just based on the length of time it has been in use. I could take care of those last two items myself, but it’s always more fun to work with Super Terry and neither task is urgent, so they’ll get done when we meet up in the days before Alumapalooza.

Alumapalooza, of course, is high on my list of things to prepare for. This year it’s particularly tricky because I’m going to try something new: an Airstream Life Pop-Up Store. We’ll have a big tent filled with some of the most popular Airstream upgrades that we sell. Every year the Canadian attendees beg me to bring stuff to Alumapalooza so they can avoid the prohibitive cost of shipping across the border, and there are a lot of items that are best shopped in person (like wood cutting boards).

We’ll also have “show pricing” on certain things like TST tire pressure monitors. So in addition to shipping a bunch of stuff to Jackson Center, the back bedroom of the Airstream will be filled with boxes—in addition to my bicycle, two electric unicycles, and other toys for the summer. Maybe it’s a good thing Emma doesn’t come on these trips anymore …

I’m almost done prepping for this trip, which is about right since launch is in three days. The Airstream looks poised and ready to go. Clothes are packed, food is stocked, laundry is done, the interior has been cleaned, and all systems are go. Just a few more errands to run in the next few days, and the Airstream & I will begin the long trek east. We’re both a year older than the last time, but we’re both still game.

Back in the saddle

What better place to write a blog entry than in my Airstream? For 14 years I’ve been blogging steadily, rarely missing more than a week in all that time, and probably 90% of my blatherings have been composed and written right where I’m sitting now: at the dinette table of my Airstream. It’s the most inspirational place I know, because it holds the memories of every place I’ve been and the view out the window is always changing.

So it feels like I’m sitting in a well broken-in saddle on my favorite horse, as I flip open the laptop and resume the Man In The Maze after an unusual six month hiatus. I needed some time off to take care of “life” (you know, all the stuff that happens while you’re making other plans) but lately I’ve been looking forward to writing again.

There’s a light warm breeze causing the palm trees to sway ever so slightly in Tucson this morning, an iced coffee on the table, and Bruce is singing “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. I’m anticipating an inspirational summer full of adventure. In short, conditions are ideal for writing. So the blog is resuming today, and it’s going to continue until at least October.

This year my travel will be a bit different. I’ll be traveling solo from Tucson to (eventually) Jackson Center, Ohio, the home of Airstream and of course the 10th Alumapalooza. Emma will be busy with college classes and her part-time job, and Eleanor will be staying back with her for a while. She’ll fly up to Ohio to participate in Alumapalooza, of course, doing two culinary demonstrations this year.

Since I’m going to be alone for the drive, it’s up to me alone to figure my route. I’ve decided to look up friends that I haven’t seen in a while, with the first major stop being Austin, TX. If we’ve met but lost touch, and you live anywhere near the route from Austin to Dayton, ping me. Or, if you want to suggest an interesting place to stop, I’m open to suggestions. I’ve got a few extra days in the schedule to spend on “whatever”, which is really my favorite way to plan an Airstream trip.

If you want to follow along, saddle up. My rough itinerary after Alumapalooza will be:

  • Vermont to visit family and friends for a few weeks
  • some sort of motorcycle trip in New England or New York … or Quebec
  • likely a side trip to Montreal
  • WBCCI International Rally in Doswell, VA
  • Massachusetts to visit friends
  • Vermont again for a while, with another side trip likely
  • bicycling the Great Appalachian Path and C&O Canal trails from Pittsburgh PA to Washington DC
  • some sort of random route back to Arizona, arriving in October.

In short, it’s going to be a fun summer, filled with adventure and wonderful people. I know I’ll be seeing a lot of you in Ohio at the Airstream factory in a few weeks, and I’m really looking forward to that.

If you’re not one of the 400+ Airstreamers coming to Alumapalooza, I hope you’ve got some other fun summer travel plans. Life is good and there’s a lot of this great country to explore.

Exploring America’s National Parks

Before I continue with the next post on our trip through Utah, I have to announce something I’m pretty excited about. My next book will be coming out soon—and it’s a topic that is particularly special to me: exploring America’s National Parks.

This book is the culmination of 14 years of working with Bert Gildart, who has been contributing to Airstream Life magazine continuously since 2004. Bert is known for his romantic and inspirational articles about national parks and other American destinations, and for his incredible photography (especially wildlife photography). He also happens to be the only person to contribute to every issue since the magazine began in 2004, other than me.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that my family has visited a lot of national parks over the years. Last time I counted we’d been to over 140 of them, so I’ve got a lot of advice to share. Visiting the parks has been an obsession that started even before we had an Airstream, and over 20 years later we’re still actively seeking out more every time we get in the Airstream. (Flaming Gorge Nat’l Rec Area, in recent posts, is an example.)

National_Parks_book_front_cover For a long time Bert and I have talked about writing a book together, but it was only a couple of years ago that we got serious about it. We decided to write from two perspectives: Bert’s warm & fuzzy style of travel essays about a few selected national parks, and my practical style of “here’s how you do it.” Because we are very different writers, we hoped the contrast would give you a better understanding than any single writer could.

The book is called EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks From Your RV.  We used the term “RV” instead of Airstream because the book can be useful to any RV traveler, but just between you and me, you’ll find photos of Airstreams almost exclusively on the pages.

This is book I’ve wanted to write for many years. I used to do a slide show about visiting America’s National Parks at rallies, and every time I did it the room was always packed full, and people asked lots of good questions. It seems that lots of Airstreamers have figured out that the best of America is tucked away in the national park system—and they want to share in the joy of exploring it.

The book is in layout right now, so I don’t have a final page count but I think it will run about 150-180 pages. [UPDATE: final page count is 184 pages!] We’re going nuts with photos, so it’s extensively illustrated. I’ve put some thumbnails of the first few pages below, just to give you the idea.

Like my other books, I’m going to offer Airstreamers an advance purchase deal.  The book will be shipping in late December 2018 for $29.95,  but if you reserve a copy before December 15 you’ll save $11.95 per copy.  Click here for more info on that.

Like I said, I’m super excited about this. I hope a lot of you will benefit from this book and get going on your own national park adventures. They’re the greatest bargain in America and, in my opinion, the ultimate “bucket list”.

EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks With Your RV, by Bert Gildart and Rich Luhr, 184 pages, softcover, 10 3/4″ x 10 3/4″ Collectors book format. Available in the Airstream Life Store and Amazon.com in December 2018.

Salt Lake City, UT

In 15 years of extensive Airstream travel, it is amazing that we never managed to get to Salt Lake City, Utah.

It wasn’t for lack of interest. Our Airstream friend Jim had been telling us for years that we needed to come to SLC, but it was never quite on our route. Salt Lake City is an easy stop if you are heading east or west on I-80, but we always took Bugs Bunny’s famous “left turn at Albuquerque” (or Denver or Flagstaff) and missed it. The few times we were headed further west we tended to go north and end up in Washington state.

This time I made it a goal. SLC still wasn’t “on the way” but after all that rushing through the midwest we had earned some slow & meandering travel, so after Flaming Gorge we headed northwest instead of the obvious southbound route home.

Jim had very kindly offered his driveway in central SLC (a 10 minute walk from downtown), which was very appealing. I always treat driveway camping offers with a little healthy skepticism because it’s fairly common for people to not appreciate how difficult it can be to maneuver a 30-foot trailer into a driveway. The homeowner’s car, truck, and boat may get in there easily, but things change when you are in a rig that measures 54 feet long and 8.5 feet wide.

I did my usual vetting of the site, using Google satellite images, and it looked marginal but worth a shot. Unfortunately a satellite image doesn’t tell the whole story: when we arrived there was heavy rush hour traffic even in the residential side streets, and lots of cars parked along the street that reduced our turning area by a crucial 6-7 feet. We took a few stabs at it with Eleanor standing outside holding a walkie-talkie to guide me and stop traffic (massively annoying local commuters in the process) but after a few attempts to back the Airstream in, it became obvious it just wasn’t going to work.  I called it quits after digging some ruts in Jim’s front landscaping and “trimming” a bunch of tall flowers near his mailbox.

I try to always have a backup plan for situations like this, and so we already knew there was a decent KOA near downtown. All we had to do was navigate downtown rush-hour traffic with a big trailer … which can be incredibly stressful but as always we survived and I’m sure the locals that I traumatized while changing lanes in their faces with a giant slab of aluminum will eventually recover.

SLC signsDowntown SLC

Salt Lake City surprised us. It’s actually a pretty interesting town with a good food scene and natural beauty in the surrounding hills. We hoofed it around the downtown for half a day and visited the Natural History Museum of Utah, which is world-class. If you like dinosaurs it’s worth a visit just to see the well-presented collection, but there’s also a lot more worth checking out including a thought-provoking native culture exhibit.

Ut Natural History museum fossil lab

Jim got a behind-the-scenes look at the room where volunteers prepare fossils. It’s painstaking work, done by dedicated people who spend many hours wearing noise-cancelling headphones (the fans and tools can be loud) while they focus on details that most people would never notice. There’s a certain thrill in being close to the fossils as they gradually emerge from the stone that has held them for tens of millions of years.

SLC Jim B and Eleanor_That afternoon we hit a Italian grocery that Jim recommended, and Eleanor stocked up on several interesting cheeses, chocolates, olives, and tiny “champagne” grapes. Together they hatched a plan to have some sort of crazy cheese-and-chocolate pairing session before we had the dinner that Jim made.

I’ve never had cheese and chocolate together but, yes, it works. Especially when you are sitting out on the backyard patio with friends and the sky turning to stars as you eat.

Two night in Salt Lake City weren’t enough, but we made a note to come back for another visit with Jim. SLC won us over, so I’m sure we’ll make another detour.

At this point we still had a few days left and nowhere in particular to go. All we knew at this point was that we should be generally heading south. I took a look at the map and decided we’d visit Glen Canyon National Recreation Area next, near Page AZ.