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.

Maybe the best Palooza yet

This might have been the best Alumapalooza ever.

Going into it, I was thinking maybe it would be a little quiet because we had a smaller crowd this year (about 120 trailers on the field).  But we’d done a ton of work putting together a bigger and better event program than ever before, and that paid off.  We added off-site tours, more vendors, more new Airstreams on display, a kettle corn stand, and new seminars to the old favorites, and Mother Nature cooperated by bringing us nearly flawless weather all week.  I realized we had a winner when people started coming to me on the second day and saying, “We’re having a great time!  Thanks for putting this on.”  Usually it takes a couple of days before the compliments flow.

APZ5 crew

It was also less stressful than other events we’ve done, because we had an awesome crew of people. There has been some change every year, but most of them have been working Alumapalooza for years and they really know their jobs.  This year we added two new volunteers (Loren & Mike, on parking) and our jazz diva Laura was summarily promoted to “Trash Wench”.  (Her job was to collect the trash in the mornings. Before anyone objects, let me say that she picked her own title.)

Airstream Life flags

There was a nice breeze every day, so we flew the Airstream Life flag for the first time in several years.  It was nice to see lots of other flags flapping in the wind all week as well.  Felt festive.

The events of the week were so complex that I can’t really do justice to them here.  You can download the schedule from the Alumapalooza 5 website if you are interested. Basically we stayed busy from about 8:00 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. every day. Big hits included Open Mic night, the Aluminum Gong Show, Happy Hour, Josh Rogan, Eric Henning’s magic, and most of the seminars.

Killdeer chicks

Early in the week, someone spotted a killdeer nest just about ten feet from the vendor tent.  This was staked off immediately and dubbed the “Jackson Center Temporary Killdeer Preserve.”  Momma Killdeer sat on four eggs all week, and on Saturday they hatched—which got a big round of applause when we announced it at Happy Hour.  That was the first birth we’ve ever had at an event.

The photo above shows only about 1/3 of the field.  Since the field was dry, we could spread out and give everyone as much privacy as they wanted.  Most clustered close to the main tent.

Airstream always offers some cheap deals on parts during Alumapalooza, but this year they went nuts and filled a service bay with scratched and used items that were mostly taken off other trailers or returned under warranty.  The bargains were incredible. We scored a convection microwave, barely used, for $100 (retail about $500), which Eleanor will use to develop a convection microwave cooking seminar for future events, and an 18-foot curbside awning for $150 (retail about $900). Why so cheap?  The awning has one tiny hole in it, made by someone with a 5/16″ drill bit.  We’ll patch that easily.

I also got a water heater cover for the Caravel for $5, and a bunch of other $5 items.  Brett landed a nice pure-sine inverter, unbelievably cheap.  (Wish I’d seen that first!)   Super Terry filled his trailer with parts and still couldn’t fit everything he bought. The bargains alone would be worth the price of a trip to Jackson Center.

Jim Webb Zip Dee

Since I now had an 18-foot tube in my possession that I couldn’t fit in the car, I needed to get it installed right away.  Fortunately, Jim Webb, the president of Zip-Dee Awnings, and Greg Blue (a Z-D rep) were on site.  They were busy all week with service calls, so they didn’t get to my installation until about 8 p.m. on Friday.  The sun set while they were working, so they ended up finishing the job by flashlight with a crowd of onlookers. A few people couldn’t believe that the president of the company would be doing this … but that’s the kind of company Zip-Dee is, and the kind of guys Jim & Greg are.  They finally wrapped up at about 10:30 pm, just in time for Jim to drive five hours back to Chicago.

(By the way, guys — I love the new curbside awning.)

It was a long week, but also the time flew by.  It ended the way they always do, with lots of people smiling and wishing they didn’t have to go home, a big dinner, a concert, and a slightly sleep-deprived staff.  On Sunday morning we watched all the trailers depart, cleaned up the field, and put away our stuff.

Elder Theater Airstream Life seatThat afternoon E&E and I wandered down to the local one-screen cinema, The Elder Theater, to see Maleficent.  Airstream Life had made a donation to help the theater switch to digital projection, and this was my first chance to see the plaque the theater had mounted on a seat in thanks.  If you go, look for the Airstream Life seat in the center section, about 2/3 down, one seat in from the left aisle.  I was pleased to sit there and enjoy the digital picture, knowing that this old gem of a theater was still able to operate thanks to the financial donations of dozens of people.

Alone at Airstream

That night the Terra Port filled up with people who were waiting for service appointments in the following week, so we just stayed parked in the field alone that night.  Why move?  It was peaceful, and we still had power and water. So while Eleanor and Emma had one last visit with people in the Terra Port, I was able to chill out with a “guy movie” and a Klondike bar all by myself in the green grass, while the sun set beautifully in the west one more time.

And now we are in our usual decompression spot, the driveway of our friends Lou & Larry, near Cleveland.  We’ve got one day here, and then we’ll be trundling east on the final legs to Vermont, to start the next adventures. Coming up: motorcycling through Quebec and New Brunswick.

Pre-Palooza activities

The Airstream is happy.  It traveled about 2,000 miles from Tucson to Jackson Center OH without incident.  Being a bit rushed, the trip didn’t encompass a lot of great overnight spots, but we did manage to take in two state parks (Twin Bridges in OK, and Onondaga Cave in MO) … and two Cracker Barrels and a Wal-Mart.  So overall, it was successful.

We landed in Jackson Center a day earlier than planned, Friday, and most of the key staff also were in early, so pre-event work has been reasonably light.  Just the usual stuff: marking & flagging the field, pre-inspection of the water and electric, organizing, etc.  In between actual work, the Terra Port has been busy with maintenance and socializing.  Most people are socializing and enjoying the spectacularly nice weather.  People are trying out Jackson Center’s new restaurant (replacing the Verandah, which closed a while back), or buying baked goods from the Amish couple across the street.  E&E and I walked downtown for ice cream one night, and I see Matt & Beth scooting around on their folding bikes, Emma and Kathryn are zooming around doing young teenager things, there’s a lot of chit-chat under the awnings, etc.  But Brett and I have also been spending time ticking off items on our accumulated “bug lists,” with the assistance of Super Terry.

Our Airstream’s list included replacing the leaking toilet bowl seal, fixing a couple of latches, cleaning and adjusting the water heater, and inspecting the disc brakes.  Nothing too major, but the toilet bowl seal isn’t really an appetizing job and of course we had to work around loss of the bathroom and hot water while those things were being serviced.  As always, I learned a few things watching, er, “assisting” Super Terry on those jobs.  Doing the water heater in particular was useful because I afterward I was able to finally finalize that section of my Maintenance Guide with first-hand knowledge.

Upon inspection we found the disc brakes to be in perfect condition, and the Michelin LTX tires are also looking good.  The tires don’t show much wear compared to last year’s inspection about 10,500 miles ago, but they should probably be replaced later this year just on the basis of age.

Brett’s motorhome needed some new radiator hoses (and because they run all the way to the water heater in the back, there’s a LOT of hose), and a few other tweaks, so he was underneath it for the better part of a day, and then with Super Terry he replaced the main awning fabric too.

There are two things you can be sure of when Airstream maintenance is happening at a rally:  (1) There will be a lot of tool-swapping, as people borrow what they need from neighbors; (2) A crowd will gather for any interesting mechanical procedure.  At this point we are all used to it, so it’s completely expected and fine when people show up and make themselves at home on a chair to watch you work. At least six people got a good look at my toilet once it was out on the bench for the seal replacement.  (It’s amazing what we find interesting.) It’s actually very nice because at any point if you need a tool or supply, someone in the group will get it from their truck for you.  Saves trips to the hardware store.  But I did think that we are some sort of weird people who want to spend Memorial Day weekend working on our trailers in a parking lot.

Now it’s Monday, Memorial Day, and the pre-Alumapalooza vibe is gelling.  As this writing the Terra Port is full with event staff and Airstream service customers, and there are another seven Airstreams with attendees boondocking in the Service Center parking lot. Another 15-20 will show up later today, and we’re going to have a cookout (courtesy of Airstream) on the grass this evening. Tomorrow at 9 a.m., we’ll open the main field for parking, weather permitting.

Right now conditions are excellent.  We’ve had temperatures in the low 80s daily, nice light breezes, cool evenings, and hardly even a cloud much less rain.  This means the field is dry and ready to hold 100+ Airstreams on Tuesday, even if we do a get some rain during the day tomorrow.  This is a far cry from a couple of years ago when it rained for weeks prior to the event and the ground was so wet we had to park trailers on asphalt while we were waiting for the mud to settle, and for days afterward some spots were still flooded.

So our luck is holding.  All the signs are in place for a very successful Alumapalooza 5.  Check Twitter for @alumaevents or #APZ5 for updates and photos, and also the Alumapalooza Facebook page.  We should have regular postings all week there.

Flamingo done, what next?

Let’s start with the biggest and best news: Alumaflamingo was a big success.  I know a lot of long-time Florida State Rally attendees were wondering if it would be worthwhile, and from the anecdotal reports we received on-site, they drove away with smiles on their faces.  We had over 250 Airstreams parked on the field, and next year I would be surprised if the number wasn’t much higher.

Pulling off an event of this site was a monumental task, and of course a few things didn’t come off as planned, but overall I was pleased with the results.  The SNAFUs were minor: two presenters failed to show up (in one case, an attendee jumped in to take over), we ran out of Airstream t-shirts, we had to cancel the third campfire night because of wind, etc.  These small glitches were outweighed by the successes, in my opinion.  Several presentations and tours got high praise, the meals were a hit, the entertainment and vendors were great, and as I mentioned before, the parking crew managed to park over 200 trailers in a single day.  We kept the attendees busy day and night with things to do, and I think a lot of them were surprised by that.

About 30 Airstreams have been signed up for next year already, and we haven’t officially opened registration yet!  It’s great that the event has been so well accepted, but of course that means we need to start planning for next year … and right now I need a vacation.  We’ve just completed a marathon of sorts: five days of Alumafiesta, a week-long drive 2,000 miles across the south, and then five days of Alumaflamingo.  Time for a break.

Our first post-event stress reliever was to visit Lido Beach in Sarasota before hitching up the Airstream.  The beach is a great reviver, with the sound of waves and the squinch of white sand beneath one’s toes, and the seagulls & pelicans flying around.  In just a couple of hours, most of which I spent lying on a beach blanket, I started to see what we’d managed to accomplish—and it feels good.

Now parked in Tampa, we are spending three days at an RV park to catch up on things, and then we will go offline for a four-day weekend.  The trip back west will begin on Tuesday, March 3.  I don’t have an itinerary for the return trip, but I can say with some confidence that we will go a lot more slowly.  I can’t face another 2,000 mile race along I-10.  People keep asking when we will get home (including people in Tucson who I need to see), and I keep saying “sometime in mid-March.”  At this point that’s a good answer. The return trip is an opportunity, and if we do it right, it might be the best part of our entire voyage.