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.

IMG_4798

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.

Things polishing taught me

For years I’ve seen the amazing mirror shines that people have put on their vintage Airstreams, and I’ve thought, “I’ll never do that on my ’68 Caravel.” My impression of polishing was that it was an exercise for (a) people who are trying to pump up the re-sale value of a trailer. i.e., flippers; (b) people who think a day spent detailing a car for a show is a day well spent, i.e., (to my point of view) masochists.

Well, there I was on Friday and Saturday of this past weekend, in the driveway spending most of the daylight hours with a rotary buffer in my hands … and so I have to admit that my assessment was far too harsh. There are good reasons to polish a vintage Airstream that go beyond financial profit or masochism.

As I said in the previous blog entry, the impetus for this project was Patrick’s offer to come down with a batch of Nuvite polishes and tools, and show me how to do it. It was impossible to say no to that.  So despite my earlier prejudices, I’m now one of those guys who has polished his Airstream—and you know, it’s kind of cool.

In the course of the two days, I learned many things, such as:

  1.  Polishing isn’t as hard as I thought.  I had imagined severe muscle strain from holding a heavy rotary buffer, and excruciating effort to reach every little crack and seam. Actually, the buffer did all the work and even the edging work wasn’t that bad.
  2. It’s not as messy as I thought.  I suited up with a long-sleeved shirt, vinyl gloves, and a baseball cap, so my skin was barely exposed. I thought I’d end up covered in black aluminum oxide, but it wasn’t much at all and it washed off easily. Even the driveway cleanup was easy: just a push broom to sweep up all the little black fuzzies that came off the buffing pads. However, I’m glad I chose to wear my cheap sneakers.
  3. Polishing actually “repaired” the surface of the Caravel’s metal body, at least at a microscopic level.  After nearly fifty years, the skin had a lot of pitting and scratches. The polish moves the metal around so that pits and scratches get filled.  I was amazed to see lots of little scratches disappear.
  4. The neighbors love it.  I was concerned that two days of buffer noise, flecks of black polish getting flung around, and the sight of us working on a vehicle in the driveway in defiance of our neighborhood’s antiquated deed restrictions, might cause some of the neighbors to get a little upset.Far from it—people who were passing by paused to wave or give us a thumbs-up. Yesterday a neighbor dropped by to say how amazed she was with the shine. Turns out that polishing a vintage Airstream is kind of like having a baby. Everyone praises you, even though it’s noisy and messy. Now my Airstream has been transformed from a kind-of-cool “old trailer” to a showpiece.

The only unfortunate part of this is that we ran out of time.  Patrick came down from Phoenix on Friday so we didn’t get started until noon, and both Friday and Saturday we had to stop around 5:30 because we ran out of daylight.  It’s hard to get big outdoor projects done near the Winter Solstice. (I suppose I shouldn’t complain—many of you are buried in snow right now.) On Sunday we both had other things to do.

We got as far as polishing every section of the trailer two or three times in Nuvite F7 (with F9, a more aggressive grade for a few heavily pitted areas). We also managed to do about 90% of the trailer with the next grade, Nuvite C. Realizing we would run out of time, we finished just one panel with the final grade (Nuvite S) using the Cyclo polisher and some towels, just to see how it would look. That’s what Patrick is doing in the photo above.

It’s fantastic. The shine is definitely mirror grade. The metal still has lots of blemishes (deep scratches, minor dings, and pits) but from more than five feet away all you see is a reflection of the world around the Airstream. Click on the photo for a larger version and notice how well you can see the palm tree in the reflection. You can even me taking a photo.

Compare that section to the panels above, which have been done up through Nuvite C but haven’t had the final step yet. The blackish smudging on the upper panels is just some leftover polish that we haven’t cleaned up with mineral spirits yet.  It wipes right off.

Since we are both tied up with holiday and year-end stuff, and then I’ve got Alumafiesta prep to do, Patrick has offered to come down for a day sometime in January to do the final work on the Caravel. That should take him about 4-5 hours. If I can help, I will.  In any case, the Caravel will be on display at Tucson/Lazydays KOA during Alumafiesta in late January 2015, so if you are coming to that event you can see for yourself what we did.

The Performance Towing Experience

A stretch of non-Airstream time and no blog entries can only mean one thing:  plotting the next adventures.

For months I’ve been chafing to write about one of the most exciting projects our event team has ever attempted.  This is something entirely new, which we are calling “PTX,” for “Performance Towing Experience.”   And now, since it’s coming together, I want to give you advance notice of it.

Next July 2015, we are going to take Airstream trailers to the race track—and you can drive them!

We’ll have three courses: a dragstrip run for demonstrations by our instructors, a low-speed cone course for beginners to towing, and a closed road course where experienced drivers can pull their Airstream through a slalom and practice maneuvers like emergency braking.

Whatever your level, PTX is going to be the place to learn more about towing, get your hitch optimized, get a safety check, practice things you hope you never have to do on the road, and compare different towing combinations by actually driving them.

This has never been done before, as far as we know.  That’s a big part of why I’m so pumped about it.

PTX will include three days of educational seminars and practice on the courses, plus three days where you can watch others race (on vintage motorcycles and other vehicles), and up to seven nights of camping!

We’ll be camped at the Grand Bend Motorplex, in Grand Bend Ontario.  It’s just about two hours drive from Detroit, or about 4-5 hours from Buffalo NY.  Camping will be mostly boondocking but there will be water available, a dump station, bathrooms, showers, and you can bring a generator.

We are anticipating that the event will have three levels of participation:  Spectator, Driver (beginning towing), and Advanced Driver (experienced towing).  Even Spectators will have a lot to do. We’ll have several off-site tours and events for Spectators, as part of the program.  The Motorplex is very close to the white sand beach at Lake Huron, and there’s a surprising amount of things to do in the area. And of course we’ll have the usual Happy Hours, catered dinner, social events, door prizes, and fun that we have at all our other events.

I’m really hoping that, besides being fun, this event helps improve safety.  Instead of relying on “rules of thumb,” and anecdotal reports on the Internet, and outdated advice, participants will have the chance to learn what works first-hand.  I’m hoping they actually feel the differences brought on by proper hitch tuning, tire choices, and tow vehicles.

No matter what you tow with, PTX will be an opportunity to make it tow better … and that should improve safety!

If you want to learn more about it, check the PTX website and sign up for our new Aluma-events newsletter, called “Outside Interests.”

By the way, the newsletter is another new project I’ve very excited about.  We just launched it last month.  Outside Interests comes out every three weeks, and shares news about Airstream, tips, profiles, and special deals on upcoming events—including PTX.  It’s sort of a companion to Airstream Life magazine, but entirely free and delivered by email.  Give it a try if you are curious; you can always unsubscribe if you want.