Numbers games

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I am in the business of publishing stuff about Airstreams primarily because it allows us to travel frequently as a family. It’s a fun job and I meet a lot of interesting people, but the big benefit is lifestyle. With the Airstream we can go out for long trips and it’s not expensive. “Will work for cheap travel,” might have been my motto in the early days.

Every time we are forced to travel without the Airstream I am shocked at the cost and reminded why most families travel rarely. At the moment I have an uncomfortable sensation of impending poverty as a result of traveling without the Airstream. We are in Europe, and it’s lovely, broadening, and expensive.  The apartment we’ve rented in Milan is very nice, but there’s no denying that our cost per night is strikingly high compared to staying in the Airstream.

This year the Airstream will be out for roughly 20-22 weeks (not counting the time we are in Europe), at an average cost of about $25 per day including fuel & campgrounds. (It’s a low number because many days we are courtesy-parking in driveways for free.) We can be away from home for about five months on the same budget as a couple of weeks in Europe, even if you don’t count the airfare. In other words, our daily cost is about 10 or 11 times more expensive without the Airstream.

So yeah, I miss the Airstream. Someday I’m going to work out an European Airstream and travel in that.

If we were using an Airstream right now, we probably would have camped at Camping Ca’Savio (a 45 minute ferry ride away) when we wanted to visit Venice. Actually you can camp there right now in an Airstream if you want, because they have six of them set up as permanent rentals right by the beach. Eleanor and I rode a ferry from Venice and walked across the narrow peninsula (stopping for gelato along the way, as is mandatory in Italy) to check it out.

Camping Ca'Savio Airstreams

Even though we can’t roam as much as we would with the Airstream, it has been a good trip. I find it useful to take some time to reflect on everything from a distance. The past few years have been heavy with obligations and challenges, and now I think we have the chance to get back to the sort of life we have enjoyed in the past.

That means working less frantically, leaving more time our daily schedule for ourselves, and taking more time on trips. For example, it has been about five years since we attended a good old fashioned weekend rally that we weren’t hosting ourselves.  I miss the simplicity of just showing up and hanging out with friends and fellow ‘streamers without any obligations at all. I guess you could say that my goal for the next few years is to “see more, live more, do less.

This is part of the reason why there will be fewer Aluma-events next year and in 2017. It was a lot of work to run around the country to host five-day events in Oregon, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona (all the while doing advance work for new events in California and Ontario). So in 2016 Brett & I will be hosting Alumapalooza and Alumafandango only.  Alumapalooza will continue as an annual event because it’s the “homecoming” event at the factory.

Other events, such as Alumafandango and Alumaflamingo will show up perhaps every other year. Alumafiesta in Tucson is gone forever*. So if you want to go to an “Aluma-event”, don’t wait for “next year”—there may not be one.

 * The brilliant campground management decided they could make more money by refusing rallies during “peak season”, AKA the only time anyone wants to be there. They offered that we could hold Alumafiesta in May. Let’s have a show of hands: who wants to go to Tucson in May?

Cutting back the events has given me time to work on other projects, which is why I finally managed to complete my Airstream Maintenance book this summer. If you don’t have a copy, check it out. Initial reviews have been great on Amazon, Airforums, and blogs.)

And that brings me to a minor rant. This has nothing to do with Airstreams and probably few people other than me care about this issue, but I have to say publicly that Amazon has done a serious disservice to niche publishers with their Kindle royalty scheme. You see, Amazon says that if you publish your book on Kindle with a retail price between $2.99 and $9.99, they’ll give you a fair 70% of the revenue.  That makes sense. After all, the author/publisher does the heavy lifting in this equation and takes on most of the risk, including research, writing, editing, design, and marketing.

But if you set a price above $9.99, Amazon cuts the royalty to 35%. This is their way of discouraging “expensive” Kindle books (since when is $10 expensive for a book?) In other words, Kindle authors gets less money for books priced at $19.00 than for books priced at $9.99. Amazon snarfs up the rest, even though their work is the same regardless of the retail price.

This sucks for a niche publisher like me.  I can’t justify spending years writing lengthy niche books (219 pages in this case) which only a few thousand people will buy, and letting Amazon take 65% of the revenue. Basically, their Kindle pricing penalizes people who publish specialized information.

So I won’t sell my maintenance book on Kindle.  Sorry, Kindle owners. But the good news is that Apple is more reasonable, and so you will find Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” in the Apple iBookstore at $24.99.  You’ll even save a few bucks compared to the print edition, if you like e-books. I hope you’ll give it a look either way.

We’ll be back in the Airstream in October. In keeping with the “see more, live more, do less” philosophy, we have no particular agenda for the trip back west from Vermont to Arizona, but we will take some time to allow things to happen along the way. After all, taking extra days in the Airstream is easy and affordable.  That’s a place where the numbers always work.

A week at OSH

I know a few people who read this blog have wondered why TBM hasn’t emerged yet.  I made a decision to work intensely for the first two weeks of July because a great event was on the horizon.  The formal name is EAA Airventure Oshkosh 2015, but everyone just calls it “Oshkosh” and it’s the greatest aviation event in the world.

OSH tower airshowThat’s no exaggeration. You can mention “Oshkosh” to any pilot around the world and they’ll immediately know you are talking about this event. About half a million people come to visit from 70 countries, and something like 8,000 airplanes fly in for the event, making the otherwise average airport at Oshkosh the busiest airport in the world.

I flew into OSH back in 1996 with Steve and Eric (the same guys who now are my companions on motorcycle trips in the summer), in the family Piper Arrow. It was quite an adventure flying in from the east through thunderstorms, and then camping next to the plane in tents for a few days, something I’ll always remember. Back then we were active members of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and so every days we’d run into fellow pilots and friends who were building their own planes, or with who we’d had many a pancake breakfast in a cold airplane hangar over the winter.

Earlier this year Brett and I found a business reason to come to Oshkosh again, so Brett stashed his motorhome in Milwaukee after Alumapalooza 7 (in early June) to await our return in July.  He flew in a day before me to get the motorhome ready (fridge cooled, stocked with food, fresh water tank filled, etc), and then I walked out of the General Mitchell Airport and found him waiting in the short term parking lot with an ice chest filled with refreshments.

That’s a very nice way to be received after a flight, kind of like being met by a limo, and I highly recommend it.

Wisconsin is a great place to visit in the summer. It has a lot in common with my home state of Vermont, with better weather.  I like the green rolling hills of corn, the out-of-the-way restaurants with German names, the obsession with cheese, and the oh-so-friendly almost Canadian attitude and accent of the locals. Lots of uncrowded spaces, really good custard everywhere … and did I mention a mind-blowing annual aviation event?

For someone deeply engaged in the Airstream world, Oshkosh offers a substantial side benefit: it’s also one of the biggest RV gatherings in the world. Nobody seems to make a big deal out of that, I guess because the RVs don’t fly and are thus much less interesting to the OSH crowd. But for me it was a strangely thrilling moment to pull up to a few hundred acres of mowed grass and see a thousand or more recreational vehicles all parked together in a giant ad hoc community. If you miss the old days of the really big rallies, this is one of the places you can still find the experience, and under my idea of ideal conditions too: grass, no hookups on most of the field, lots of smiling people, and few rules.

Of course “no hookups” meant boondocking all week. Brett’s motorhome had just 50 gallons of water on board, but we are both experienced boondockers and so it wasn’t really a problem to make it last.  For $30 we could have had the water refilled but it became a point of pride not to need that service so we executed our very best “Navy shower” technique every day. Brett rigged up 100 watts of portable solar panels to keep the battery charged, and two or three times a day we’d turn the panels to face the sun to optimize power generation.  We managed seven days and we still had some water and full batteries on the day we left.  Yes, for those of you who have never tried boondocking, it can be done.

OSH Airstream motorhome camped

There were a few Airstreams scattered around the field, but not as many as I’d hoped for. Perhaps someday we’ll organize a gathering at OSH. I know there are a lot of pilots and ex-pilots in the community.

OSH Airbus A350 flybyOSH B-29

Airventure is huge and features everything that flies. We saw seaplanes & amphibs, ultralights, warbirds, current military jets including the remarkable F-22, the Goodyear blimp, helicopters, gyrocopters, vintage aircraft, homebuilt, passenger jetliners, executive jets, drones flying in a dedicated UAV demo cage, powered parachutes, and gliders. There were hundreds of vendors, dozens of workshops and demonstrations, amazing airshows daily, and so much more that I can’t do justice to it here. Two days are barely enough to scratch the surface; after seven days we still had things on our list to do.

So perhaps it’s just as well that our original plan didn’t work out. Instead of working the show on one particular project as we had expected, we had time to explore for new opportunities—and found them. We ran into Airstream friends from both coasts and spent time with them. We found new products that might make the cut for the Airstream Life Store. We had time to talk about the next Alumafandango, which will be in northern California in September 2016.

OSH airplane parking

OSH Rich weldingAfter a few days we fell into a routine that started around 6:30 a.m., once the sun was pounding at the windows too loudly to ignore. We’d slather on the sunscreen and walk to the bus stop to catch one of the school buses that served Camp Scholler. We’d roam the exhibitions, checking out the aircraft of our fantasies (a HondaJet or perhaps a Velocity homebuilt) or talking to vendors about their products. One morning we took a free workshop and tried our hands at TIG welding.

Around noon we’d head back to the motorhome for lunch and an afternoon of watching helicopters fly overhead. At 6:30 p.m., the ultralights would take over, buzzing directly over us in the traffic pattern.  You can’t go to Oshkosh for quiet. You have to love the sound of aircraft because there’s rarely a daylight moment without something roaring, buzzing, screaming, or pounding overhead—from drones to the new Airbus A350 xWB. I happen to enjoy sunny days with the awning out, parked in a grassy field, with a warm breeze and the sound of flying machines, so I took the opportunity to make the helicopter periods my siesta. Very relaxing.

There are a lot of “only at Oshkosh” moments. For example, only at Oshkosh would you find yourself picnicking under the nose cone of a B-52 while listening to Gary Sinise & The Lt Dan Band.  Only at Oshkosh will you get to try your hand at welding and then flying a drone helicopter in the same day, and think that it’s nothing unusual. It’s the kind of event that people cherish so much that they have been coming for decades, and pass the tradition to their children.

OSH drone camera

We got some great ideas for next year’s Alumapalooza while we were here. We had already planned to make a full day of music during next year’s program. Now we are thinking of developing another full day of hands-on workshops, where participants will be able to actually try basic repair and maintenance techniques using their own hands and tools we supply. Very different from prior Alumapaloozas, but I think it will be a lot of fun, especially with some contests and prizes.

So it turned out to be one of the better business trips Brett and I have had, and a great TBM activity too.  I highly recommend a week of Oshkosh for anyone with an RV. Maybe I’ll see you there in a future year?

A Grand Tour

I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time—and wondering if we could really pull it off.

It started on Saturday, when I was in Vermont after the 6-day motorcycle trip to the Adirondacks. I only had a couple of days to catch up on work and re-pack for a trip out west. From Sunday morning on, I had the singular experience of waking up somewhere and knowing that I would be going to bed somewhere entirely different that night.

In the Airstream, this is fun. You can roam where you want, knowing that each night you will end up in your comfortable rolling home and familiar bed. But when the travel involves airlines and hotel rooms, the charm tends to slip away quickly.

It began on Saturday night when Eleanor and I relocated to an airport motel, so that on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m. she could take me to catch a flight from Vermont to New York City, and onward to Sacramento CA.  I met Brett at the airport in Sacramento, to drive around California’s beautiful countryside. (We were scouting a site for Alumafandango 2016, and things went very well. We’ll have an announcement about that in July.) That night we split a room at some nondescript motel off Rt 49, in an area of California that was once known for gold mining, and now is known for wineries. That was our 27-hour Day One.

Monday morning we scouted some more, visited the state capitol, and caught a late flight to Tucson, getting in around midnight. We settled into my house for the night. That was Day Two.

Tuesday morning we picked up a shiny new Airstream Interstate Grand Tour on loan from Airstream, at the local dealership (Lazydays), loaded it up with about 100 pounds of gear and food (much of which Eleanor had set out for us a month ago) and launched immediately toward Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. We spent that night at Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low.  Day Three.

Now I have to say that the Airstream Interstate was a fantastic relief after jet planes and motel rooms. Not only could we slow down our pace of travel, but it meant that for a while we could sleep in a bed more than once. The Airstream, stocked with our food and gear, could be our home.

Airstream Interstate in AZ

And what a glamorous home it is.  The new Grand Tour floorplan of the Interstate is a big improvement for those who want more of a traditional RV. Bigger kitchen, double the fridge/freezer space, much more storage, permanent beds, a nice little desk, and many other small pleasantries make it really usable. If you read my blogs from last summer when I tried out a regular Interstate, you know I liked driving it, and the Grand Tour retains that fine handling and ride (and an incredible list of safety features).

Airstream Interstate Salt River canyonWhen Brett and travel together there’s always a little bit of a battle over who gets to drive, and with the Interstate there was no question we both wanted the wheel as much as possible. I had picked the most scenic route I could on our northward journey, from Tucson to Globe, and then up to the beautiful Salt River Canyon, and finally up the Mogollon Rim to Show Low where the pine trees are tall and the summer air is much cooler than the low desert below. Even when we were gaping at the scenery deep in the Salt River Canyon, Brett wanted to keep the driver’s seat rather than give it up to get a better view.

We averaged about 15.5 MPG on that trip, which is pretty impressive for a 25-foot long motorhome on a hilly climb that eventually ended well over 6,000 ft. Or at least we thought that was good until the next day when we averaged 18 MPG on more level terrain through the Navajo nation in northern Arizona.

The goal for this leg was Navajo National Monument, a less-visited national park near Kayenta AZ.  We first visited as a family on 2008, and hiked 5 miles roundtrip to the impressive Betatakin cliff dwelling. Ever since that trip, I’ve wanted to go back to visit the even-more-impressive Keet Seel cliff dwellings, and this trip was finally my chance.

You don’t just pop in and hike to Keet Seel. The trip requires a permit from the park, a mandatory orientation by a ranger, good gear, and some stamina. It’s an 18 mile round-trip on foot if you do it right, and considerably longer if you miss a turn in the canyons. (More on that later.) So you can see that getting to this point was the product of planning we’d done months in advance.

The Interstate turned out to be an ideal base camp for this trip.  We parked in a canyon view site (in the Navajo Nat’l Monument campground, which is free, no hookups), and spent the evening checking our gear and eating dinner outside with a spectacular view of the sunset on the red Navajo Sandstone. One nice thing about the Interstate is that it fits in places a travel trailer couldn’t go, and there’s virtually no setup after arriving. We just pushed the electric awning button and slid open the big side door.

Airstream Interstate Navajo National Monument

And that was Day Four.  Funny how the days seemed to be much more filled with adventure and camaraderie now that we were traveling at about 50 MPH instead of 500.

The next morning we hoisted our packs, loaded with about 30 pounds of gear and water each, and walked right from the door of the Airstream down a dusty road and began our descent into the canyons …

Keet Seel deserves its own blog entry, so I’ll write more about that in the next day. Stay tuned.

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.


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.