Landing at The Mothership … again!

At long last, I’m in Jackson Center, Ohio. After 2,000+ miles of driving and seven stops, I’m parked next to what Airstreamers call “The Mothership”, the factory where all Airstreams have been birthed since 1969.

This is a near-mythical place for Airstream fans. Located in the middle of soybean and corn farms and far from any significant population centers, it’s not a destination you’d seek out for any reason other than to visit Airstream. The factory is here because Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, needed an east coast production facility and he got a deal on a disused WWII-era bazooka factory in the middle of nowhere (the place you’d probably want to locate a bazooka factory). Some of the old factory buildings are still here, still in use, but mostly Airstream has grown into a massive campus on both sides of the main street, and they are adding another 700,000 square feet right now.

The biggest reason to come here, in my biased opinion, is Alumapalooza, which Brett and I hold once a year in the week after Memorial Day. We’ve been doing it for ten years. It’s a 5-day camping event that lasts for 10 days (because most of the attendees show up early).

The other big reason is the factory tour. It’s an old-school tour where you walk right down the production line, meet the people who are building Airstreams, and get sawdust and aluminum shavings in your shoes. No “virtual tour” here, and no “Exit through the Gift Shop”.

Sonora KY overnight parking

Being here at last always make the tribulations of the long drive seem worth it, and this time there were plenty of tribulations. I spent the last night on the road next to a noisy highway in Sonora KY, woke at 3:10 a.m. and decided to hit the road around 5:45 to get an early start on what I expected would be a long day.

In four hours of driving I encountered rush-hour traffic in Cincinnati studded with commuters who clearly wanted to be crushed by 7 tons of Mercedes and Airstream, construction delays, and thunderstorms. Then I picked up Eleanor in Dayton and we began to do the mandatory errands (groceries, photocopies, various other supplies) that lead up to our final arrival at Airstream.

When we landed in the Terra Port and freed the Airstream from its harness, a dozen or more friends were already on hand and eager to say Hi. As I walk through the Service Center and around the campus I see dozens of familiar faces from Airstream, all smiling and welcoming us back. Each visit feels like a homecoming. Even the newbies are not strangers for long; Airstreamers are tremendously gregarious.

Alumapalooza is a big deal here. It’s a chance for Airstream employees to meet the people who buy their product, and there’s a lot of feedback that goes into product improvement. Relatively speaking our group of 450 is also a tidal wave of humanity for the tiny Village of Jackson Center (pop. 1500). The local restaurants like Heidi’s “Heidout” have to anticipate us.

Alumapalooza has been the only event held at the Airstream factory since 2010, when we started it up. Back then I didn’t think about how long we’d be doing it and I guess I never expected it to last this long, but a decade later here we are and the event is the biggest it has ever been. We’re expecting something like 225 Airstreams.

Alumapalooza 10 staff meeting

To pull off an event of this size is a big logistical challenge. We do it with a volunteer staff of just 22 people (having a meeting above) and some help from Airstream.  The trick is to have really good people. Most of our volunteers have been helping run the event for years and they are smart folks who hold (or held) positions of significant responsibility in their real life. Here they wear orange shirts and work hard in the Ohio humidity, hence the nickname “the Dirty Oranges”. They sweat, and sometimes melt like coconut butter in the heat, and for this they are the heroes of the event. We provide them with lots of cold water, clean shirts, and not much else, and yet they keep coming back.

For the next ten days the Dirty Oranges will be handling the bulk of the work. I’ll be like Marlon Perkins, back in the safety of the RV while others tackle the Komodo dragons. Once the event officially starts on Tuesday my job will mostly be to run the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store, host Happy Hour daily with Brett (the funnest part of my day), troubleshoot as needed, and do a few presentations. Eleanor is on tap to make dinner nightly for the Store staff, and she also does the Dirty Orange laundry, in addition to doing two fairly complex culinary presentations.

So we’ll all be busy. And it has begun …

8th Annual Buellton Vintage Trailer Bash

Our good friend David Neel has been organizing a “Vintage Trailer Bash” in Buellton CA for eight years, and each year he very kindly invites us to attend. Normally we’re still traveling somewhere far away from California in September (except last year when we were busy with Alumafandango) so we’ve missed out.

But not this year! Coming back to Arizona in August has its perks, and one of them is being able to hitch up the old Caravel for a 600 mile road trip to the gorgeous Pacific coast for a rally.

The only problem was that the Caravel hasn’t been used much over the past few years, and storage is never kind to a travel trailer. Even though we have kept it out of the sun in a dry desert climate, inevitably things get funky. So I ended up replacing the spare tire, battery, and a few belly pan rivets. The toilet valve was stuck, the entry door lock was stubborn, the bathroom vanity needed a latch re-aligned, some screws and nuts had magically vibrated loose or gone missing, the dump valves had begun to leak (uck) … you get the picture.

Airstreams really prefer to be used rather than stored. Even in ideal storage conditions, stuff happens. In our climate, rubber seals go bad and lubricated parts dry up. I wasn’t surprised we had to do some maintenance, and overall I was pleased that it was as mild as it was. The fundamentals of the trailer were all still good: no weird smells, no rot or leaks, appliances all fine—so with a few days of part-time tweaking and lubricating we were ready to go. The final step was on the second day of travel: we stopped at a car wash in Blythe CA to get the dust off and were feeling pretty good about things.

Marana Airstream Caravel

Of course it wasn’t quite that easy. Something had to happen. See that white blob on the roof (the AC shroud) in the photo above? After a few years the plastic shroud covering an RV air conditioner tends to get brittle and crack, and then come loose.  Apparently, ours suddenly departed the Caravel somewhere along I-10 in California—unbeknownst to us— and so we arrived at the rally with a naked air conditioner. It gave the trailer a bit of a “Mad Max” look on the roof.

(I have since ordered a replacement shroud which will be at our home on Friday. It’s a simple matter of four screws to put on a new one, so not a big deal. I have no idea where the old one is. Upon landing it undoubtedly experienced a RUD.)

Buellton Vintage Rally mod girls

Buellton Vintage Rally mod coupleThe rally, in case you are wondering, was fantastic. David really has found an ideal mix of trailerites and activities, and the result is a fun time with a lot of cool people. In fact, the rally is so popular that it sells out in a matter of days, so David has had to deal with a lot of flack from people who want to attend but couldn’t get in. Success has its drawbacks.

We participated in the vintage fashion show and the vintage scooter parade, among other things.  Eleanor made a 1960s dip (which contained of a lot of stuff you’d never knowingly eat today, but which when combined actually tastes pretty good) for the Vintage Appetizer Party. She and Emma missed no opportunities to dress up, including the 70’s Disco Party and the Tiki Party.

Of course we had to watch the vintage movie by the pool (the 1966 Batman movie, fantastically campy), and who would miss the morning “donut truck” on Sunday before departure? When at a rally, diets are forgotten and there is no shame in being goofy.

 

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Returning home, I had a mix of feelings about the Caravel. The trip had proved that it is really too small for us, but the trailer is so adorable and relaxing that part of me wanted to keep it. It’s fun to meet up with other vintage trailer owners, and once we sell the Caravel that door will be never be open to us in the same way.

Quartzsite Airstream Caravel 2017-09

This made our final night, parked in the remote BLM land at Quartzsite, somewhat poignant. I took a picture of Emma sleeping in the trailer, in exactly the same position as that little three-year-old we used to travel with, and realized this was the end.  The Buellton bash was an excellent way to experience it just one last time so we’d all remember the Caravel with a fresh fond memory.

We’ll probably stick close to home for the next month or two, but you never know. Perhaps something will come to entice us away for a few days. In the meantime we’re going to be perfecting the Caravel for sale and planning a longer trip for this winter.

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.

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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.

Thinking forward to Airstreaming 2017

Each year around this time I usually find myself considering our prospects for travel in the coming year.  This is when we start to sketch out a rough plan, starting with a possible post-Christmas or early January break.

(I know for most people in North America a trip in January isn’t very practical, and you have my sympathies. When we lived in Vermont all I could do in January was measure the depth of snow covering our ’68 Caravel, and periodically peek inside to make sure all was well.  It says something about our family’s dedication to Airstreaming that we chose to relocate to a place where it stays reliably above freezing day and night most of the winter.)

tucson-neon-signBut this year the Airstream has been mostly left to sleep through the winter in the carport, under cover.  It has served as our guest bedroom and spare refrigerator instead of as a travel vehicle. While I still have a list of improvements and fixes I want to make before we head out again next May, for now we’re staying put and focusing on other things.

This is why I’ve been silent on the blog since we returned to home base back in early October. I came back from our summer of travel thinking that it was time to take stock and focus on personal projects for a while. The break has been good, an opportunity to look at the big broad world and consider my place in it for the next decade. To do that, I forced myself to step away from the “usual” and build time into each day to think about something completely different.

I don’t know what’s coming out of that yet, but it has been a meditative sort of exercise and thus well worth doing on its own virtues. As an entrepreneur I’m accustomed to the ground moving beneath my feet, so once in a while it’s good to stop the motion and just feel the earth beneath—metaphorically speaking.

Still, life goes on and periodically I have been forced to come out of my trance to engage with it. On January 17 at 1:00 pm I’ll be at the WBCCI International Board of Trustees (IBT) rally in Casa Grande AZ to speak about Airstream maintenance stuff.  This IBT rally is an obligatory one for officers of the club and so the program tends to be loaded with business meetings rather than the sort of stuff we do at Aluma-events.  I figured the attendees might like something a little different, so I’ll try to be that.

Brett & I are also working on Alumaflamingo, since that’s right around the corner in February (20-26, in Daytona FL. Brett is handling the heavy lifting on that one (I did the same for Fandango last September, so it’s his turn). I’ll be there for 5 days and probably doing a talk or two on something. If you are going to be there and have a request for a seminar or workshop, let me know.

The Alumapalooza schedule is also underway. That event, our “signature” one at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, will be May 30 – June 3.  Once again much of the program is changing; we’re going for a heavy hands-on workshop format in 2017, so there will be at least two different workshops every day for you to try.  No experience needed, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot. Of course, we’ll still have lots of entertainment and fun, too, so don’t feel like you’ll be forced to work and think while you’re on vacation!

People are already asking if we are going to hold another Alumafandango in California in 2017.  Sorry, not in 2017 but there will be some sort of west coast event in 2018.  We’re working on locations right now.

My zen state has also been periodically interrupted by Airstream’s relentless development of new products.  You already probably know about the upcoming Nest fiberglass trailer. It’s in development and is expected to be released as a 2018 model year product but official details haven’t yet been released regarding how it will differ from the Nest prototype that you can see on the Internet.  We’re going to do an article on it in the Fall 2017 issue of Airstream Life.

The Basecamp (version 2) is already out and we’ve got a big layout coming in the Spring 2017 issue of Airstream Life.  You’ll see that in February, both in our print version and online versions. The new Basecamp looks cool and I predict it will be a success.

And then there’s a new Airstream trailer motif that I’m not allowed to talk about until January.  All I can say is that you’ll see it on the cover of our Spring 2017 issue and subscribers will see a beautiful photo spread with all the details.

And then … well, there’s more stuff in the product development pipeline in Jackson Center.  I won’t even give a hint of what’s coming (not yet, anyway) but rest assured the folks at Airstream are definitely not resting on their laurels. I really have to hand it to them. With sales growing year-on-year for five years in a row, other companies might be tempted to “innovate” in RV industry terms. That means putting a different color of swoopy vinyl decal on the outside and adding some LEDs. But Airstream is stretching the boundaries of what it has traditionally done, with entirely new concepts for travel vehicles. That takes guts, willingness to accept risk, and forward thinking.

That’s a good example for anyone in business. I’m going to be doing a lot of similar things in 2017, mixing up the staid old formula anywhere it needs to be invigorated. Or to put it another way: I’ll be trying to obsolete my own ideas before someone else does.

Having a travel trailer is a great tool for that. You can sit at home all day thinking but sooner or later you’ve got to cross-pollinate, share ideas, get inspired, challenge your own thinking, etc.  And what better way than to find all those opportunities than to hit the road next spring?

So I can see a 2017 travel plan developing. Our Airstream, when it wakes up, will find a whole new set of roads ahead to explore. Where they lead, I can’t say.  For now I guess it’s good enough to start thinking about the first mile of exploration. After that, the story tends to write itself.

Alumafandango and beyond

Alumafandango is done, and it was a big success.  I don’t think we’ve ever had an event quite like this.  Taking over the entire 100-site campground really made a difference to everyone.

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The attendees liked it because everyone was part of the Airstream community, and the campground was filled with shining aluminum travel trailers.  I liked it for those reasons too, and because it made for easy photo-ops at every turn.

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alumafandango-eleanor-sushi-demoThe campground management liked it because, as they said, ours was the nicest (and neatest) group that had ever visited the park.

It was just plain cool to have nothing but Airstreams (and Airstreamers) gathered for six nights/five days in this beautiful place up in California’s historic gold country.

The program was a hit too.  We did daily workshops on things like battery maintenance, propane systems, PEX plumbing, and tire changing—and all of them were very well attended.  (We’ll do even more workshops at the next Alumapalooza in Ohio.)  Eleanor did popular sushi-making demonstration, with hands-on workshop.

antsy-mcclain-alumafandango-2016We had several other speakers, pool parties, cookouts, and two nights of entertainment including an evening parking lot performance by Antsy McClain.

(Antsy had no problem doing a show under the stars on asphalt. He said, “Waylon Jennings told me, ‘You’ve never done your last gig on a flatbed truck or at a VFW dinner’.”) Antsy always puts on a terrific performance, and we love having him at our events.

Of course we’re beat after running the event (with Brett), so when everyone else was going home happy and relaxed we just wanted to lie down for a while.

Alumafandango 2016 marks the 20th event I’ve run with Brett.  We started doing this eight years ago with Vintage Trailer Jam 2008, and since then we’ve done two VTJs, seven Paloozas, four Fandangos, three Fiestas, two Flamingos, and two Palm Springs Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows. (Plus, I’ve done two Tucson Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows by myself.)  It has been a heck of an adventure … and we hope to keep it going for quite a while longer!