News after Alumapalooza 7

We’re all OK.  That’s the first message I have to put out to friends and family when there’s a blank spot in the blog.  People often wonder if something horrible has happened to us, but it’s always more benign than that. Usually it’s just “life” that has happened—and we’ve had quite a bit of “life” lately.

I won’t try to recount it all in one blog entry, so expect a few over the next week. Right now I just want to run through where we’ve been.

We left off in the Chicago area, visiting Zip Dee. After battling the Chicago area traffic and interstate highway potholes, we ended up at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and spent a quiet night at the Dunes Campground before moving on to visit a friend of Emma’s down by Indianapolis.  (I did post a few tweets during this time just so followers on social media would know we were still alive.)

Airstream wet parking lot IN
After one of many thunderstorms along the way

From there we went to Alumapalooza 7, and that’s a whole week of stuff that I could write about, but these days with the extensive Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and various blogs by attendees, it’s been pretty well covered.  My take is that this was one of the best Alumaploozas yet and we all (even the hard-working volunteer crew) had a great time.

There were two big changes in the format this year.  We put in a full day of music and a half day of hands-on workshops. These were huge hits, especially the workshops. People really got pumped to try things like PEX plumbing, using a torque wrench, testing for propane leaks, etc., with their own hands under the guidance of an expert. They got a lot of confidence from it, so expect to see more workshops next time.

We also made a big announcement at Alumapalooza:  We are bringing Alumaflamingo, our Florida event, back in February 2017!  The location will be the Daytona FL area, and the dates will be Feb 21-26 (it will be a six-night event!)  Expect something very different from the prior Alumaflamingo events … and if you want a clue, think about the fact that Speedweeks at Daytona is the week after our event.

Right now we aren’t accepting reservations but we expect to open up online registration in a few weeks, so check the official website or become a friend of Alumaevents on Facebook to stay updated.

While I was in Jackson Center I had some meetings with Airstream management and we talked about ways to coordinate their upcoming new product launches with upcoming publication dates of Airstream Life magazine.  Everyone already knows about the new Nest fiberglass trailer, which is expected in late 2017 or early 2018, but there are some other interesting developments pending as well that currently nobody can talk about.  (Don’t ask me for hints!)  All I can say is that you’ll see the best pictures and read the most in-depth coverage of every new product in the pages of Airstream Life.

We have a certain routine after Alumapalooza which involves a decompression session at our friends’ home near Cleveland.  That’s essential for good mental health after a week-long party with 250 guests, at least for me.  Two days is about right to get me feeling less crazed. From there we roamed further east to Hershey PA to visit family and then north to Plattsburgh NY to spend a few days at Colin Hyde Trailer Restorations for a major project.  I’ll talk more about that in a future blog.

Rallying in Fort Collins, CO

I hate to leave people in suspense.  We left off with the refrigerator being balky on propane back at Sylvan Lake, so let me start by saying we have a good theory as to what happened with that.

By the morning the fridge was running well again and our trip to Fort Collins was thankfully uneventful. When we got parked at the campground and settled in for the three-day rally that’s going on here, I started calling the Brain Trust and local propane suppliers to try to get an answer as to why we had trouble.

The leading theory is that oil and heavy hydrocarbon contamination (from a variety of sources during processing, transportation, and storage) has formed a gooey clog in the line. This clog usually has a strong smell because the ethyl mercaptan used as an odorant in propane concentrates in the oily residues.  So people assume it is the odorant, but it’s really oil.  Whatever—I just want to get rid of it.

Since things are currently normal, we’re going to keep an eye on it for the next week and then do a preventative service in Ohio with Super Terry.  We’ll disconnect the propane line and blow it out with compressed air, clean the refrigerator jet if it needs it, and inspect the pigtails that attach to the propane tanks. I’ll be interested to see what comes out.

Meanwhile, we’re at a rally, and it’s a good time.  We haven’t attended someone else’s rally in years, and it’s nice to kick back and be a customer for a change.  The Rocky Mountain Airstream unit is composed of some really great people, including quite a few folks who have been friends for years (but who we haven’t seen in a while) so it’s also a sort of reunion.

We’re just doing the typical rally stuff: eating, socializing, exploring Fort Collins, eating, Open House, and eating. I joined Luke Bernander on Saturday morning to present a little seminar about all kinds of Airstream maintenance stuff, but that’s the limit of my effort here.  (I’ve got other “real” work to do back at the trailer between meals and social gatherings.)

Ft Collins rally Argosy 20 moho

What I really like about these events is the opportunity to see some exceptionally rare Airstreams, or just interestingly modified ones.  The pair above is a polished Argosy 20 motorhome pulling a polished Argosy 24 trailer.  Argosy trailers had galvanized steel roof end caps, which doesn’t polish up nicely.  That’s why the owner (Patrick Phippen) painted them black.

Ft Collins rally Wally Bee

This is a one-of-a-kind trailer.  The Wally Bee was a prototype fiberglass trailer from the early 1950s, of which two were made.  Only this one survives, and it was just a ragged shell when Luke Bernander saved it. The outside is done, beautifully, and he’s at work on the interior. It’s kind of neat to see in the context of Airstream’s recent announcement about launching the Nest fiberglass trailer, which resembles this slightly.  Over 60 years later, they’ve come full circle.

Ft Collins rally Lotus Europa

And of course you don’t just see cool trailers at these things.  In the foreground of the photo above is a 1972 Lotus Europa. It’s absolutely beautiful and I couldn’t stop looking at it.  Never seen one before!  Behind it is a customized 50’s Airstream turned into a mobile bar.  There are two mobile bars at this event, which kind of gives you a peek into the party-hearty nature of this WBCCI unit.

I’ll be sorry to leave tomorrow. This has been a great opportunity to catch up and relax a bit, and Fort Collins is a cool town with a lot going on.  We could stay another day or two but it’s a choice between that and some other things in Nebraska or Chicago that we are considering, so I think we’ll be moving onward.  I’m not sure where we will be the next couple of nights, but one thing is certain: we must cross the vastness of Nebraska. Might as well get a start on it.

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.