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.

Someone to blog over me

Hmm.. another long absence from the blog.  I can only plead guilty.  Life has interfered with blogging in so many ways I can’t begin to count.  But here’s a synopsis of what’s been going on.

The virus I mentioned earlier dogged me right through the week when I was supposed to be getting ready for Alumafandango, and then into the event itself.  The Saturday prior to the event I dragged my pathetic self out of bed, drove to Phoenix, caught a plane to Portland, and then rode four hours with Brett down to Canyonville to do pre-event work.  Sadly, I was in no shape to do any of those things, and so upon arriving at the hotel I collapsed into bed and proceeded to be fairly useless all weekend.  Brett did the heavy lifting, demonstrating once again that we could only do this as a partnership.

It was looking like I might even miss a few days of Alumafandango, but then on Monday things began to improve and by Tuesday when our first guests appeared I was able to approximate a smile and help kick off the event.  From there it was a marvelous week.  I didn’t have time to blog at all from the event, but you can probably read more about it from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and various blogs (Casarodante, TinCanz, Notes From The Cabin) than I could ever say.  (If you Google it, be sure you’re looking at comments about Alumafandango Seven Feathers, not the 2012 Alumafandango in Denver.)

What I really need these days is someone to read my mind and blog for me.  That’s not likely, so I recommend following my Twitter feed (“airstreamlife”) as a way to keep abreast of events.  These days I’m much more likely to get a quick tweet and a photo out, than a full blog entry.  I am, however, in active talks with a few folks who each want to become Editor of Airstream Life, and I have high hopes that one of them will work out and thus free up some time.  And I doubt I will ever stop blogging entirely, as it is a very useful outlet for thoughts.  As fellow Airstream blogger Ramona Creel says, “There’s too much stuff to keep in my head!”

Where were we?  Ah yes, Alumafandango.  We had about 65 Airstreams on site, and people just raved about everything: the campground, the seminars, the activities, entertainment, meals … Even the wildfires in the area were blowing away from us, so we had virtually no smoke.  The weather was great except toward the end where we had some pretty exciting thunderstorms.  Three awnings were damaged in the first round of storms, which the Sutton guys fixed on the spot using parts scavenged from their new display Airstreams.  After that everyone knew to pull in the their awnings when they were away.

Brett and I ran a seminar in which we accepted written questions on any subject related to Airstreaming, which we called “Airstreaming for Newbies” but really got into some advanced topics.  Nobody stumped us, and I got a few good ideas of topics to cover in the upcoming Maintenance book, from the questions people asked. We will definitely do that one again sometime in the future.

The highlights of the week were many: Randy Grubb’s “Decopod,” Antsy McClain & Edgar Cruz performing on stage, the frankly awesome seminars by Thom the service manager at George M Sutton RV, the Saturday night banquet, the on-site wine tasting and off-site winery tour, several really fun Happy Hours, Indian drumming … I knew we had a hit when people kept smiling at us and saying things like, “Wow, it just keeps going!”  About 1/3 of our attendees told us they were already planning to come again in 2014, and we haven’t even announced where or when we’re doing it again!

Now I’m back in Tucson, picking up where I left off two weeks ago, and thinking about what’s coming up.  There’s a lot of work ahead.  Our event planning team (Brett, me, Alice) is already working on the programs for our February 2014 events: Alumafiesta in Tucson and Alumaflamingo in Sarasota.  We want to have the tentative programs released in October.  Alumaflamingo already has 100 trailers signed up, so it looks like it will be a big one and we want to respond to that vote of confidence with a truly amazing program of activities.  It’s pressure, but the good kind.

I’ve also got to get the Winter 2013 issue in some sort of shape for publication this month, even though it’s not due to layout until later.  It’s looking like a good issue but there’s about 20 hours of editing work ahead.  And lately I’ve been consulting to the organizers of Tucson’s new Modernism Week event (now in its second year) on how to put together a vintage trailer show this year.  They are trying to get about ten nice vintage rigs for their show in the first week of October this year.  I may do a presentation there on the history of vintage trailers as well, if they need it. It will be a great event to attend, in any case, with lots of architectural tours.

Back in Vermont, Eleanor has managed some repairs to the trusty Mercedes GL320.  It had some minor body damage from two separate incidents (one dating back a couple of years), and we finally took it to the body shop to get all of that cleaned up.  Little dings can add up: the insurance claim was over $3,000 thanks to a ridiculously expensive front bumper part.  It’s the sort of stuff that could be—and was—easily ignored but I hate to see it accumulate and make the car look junky before its time.  The GL has about 74,000 miles on it so far, mostly towing, and I certainly intend to keep it for a few more years, so it was time to bite the bullet and pay the deductible to keep the car looking good.

In two weeks I need to head back to Vermont and then set out with the Airstream (and once again, E&E) on our voyage west.  We don’t have the slightest plan yet what route we are taking.  All we know is that we need to be back in Tucson by Oct 1, which gives us about a month to travel roughly 2,500-3,000 miles (depending on route).  I’m looking for little things along the way to fill up our itinerary so we won’t go too fast.

This is a nice problem to have, after last year’s mad dash over the concrete Interstates. Slow travel is the best.  It won’t be a vacation, but at least it will be an opportunity to take in some fresh new scenery in the Airstream before we settle back into home base for the winter.  And there will be plenty to blog about!

2013 trip plan

It’s that time of year again, when I finally start writing about the trip plan for the summer.  Every winter I plot and obsess about where we’ll go in the summer, because (a) planning is a way to get through the boring parts of the winter; (b) summer is our big opportunity to go places, since we are “forced” to travel east for Alumapalooza anyway.

This year’s plan is especially exciting to us.  Late next week we’ll hit the road toward Alumapalooza.  This is a long slog, something north of 2,000 miles to Ohio, and lots of tedious Interstate travel, but we try to mix it up a little each year with new stops or routes.  After doing this trip from Tucson at least five?  six? times, I think we’ve exhausted every possible route so now we are going a little off the concrete path and adding unnecessary miles just to see something new.

2013 trip leg 1The big goal for this leg is the Great Smokies National Park (“B” on the map).  We have never visited with the Airstream, and yet it’s reputedly the most visited National Park in the entire NPS system.  Eleanor and I went once, back in the 1990s, pre-child, pre-Airstream, and we didn’t get a chance to do any hiking, so this visit will probably be entirely different.  Should be a nice chance to chill out before we jump into the long days of running Alumapalooza.

To get there on our schedule, we must bear up to once again traversing the I-10 and I-20 route through Texas.  It’s not the most exciting drive, but I prefer it slightly to I-40 through Oklahoma, or I-70 through Kansas, or I-80 through Nebraska.  No matter which way you cross the Plains, you are going to see a lot of flatness and emptiness, so all you can do is pick the type of emptiness you prefer.  I like the kind with more desert in it than grass.

2013 trip leg 2In Ohio we’ll be running Alumapalooza for a week (including prep time).  After that, and a mandatory decompression session with Airstream friends in eastern Ohio, we’ll head east along a well-trodden path of I-90 with only one or two quick stops in New York.

Why the rush?  Well, there are only ten days between Alumapalooza and our next major travel leg, and in that short time I’ve got to tow the Airstream 800 miles and catch up/get ahead on work.  I also have a quick overnight motorcycle tour to Americade planned with my brother and some of his friends.  It’s a lot to pack into a short time.

A few days later, Eleanor and I will head to New York City to catch a plan to Germany.  Eleanor and I are going to camp with the European Airstreamers at their annual gathering, just north of Frankfurt.  We’ll be staying for three nights in a new Euro-spec Airstream provided courtesy of Roka Werk AG, the German Airstream dealership.  Very cool, and I can’t wait.

Of course, I have to sing for my supper; in this case, doing a presentation about “America’s National Parks” for the assembled Europeans.  In the process of researching it I was amazed at what I didn’t know about the National Parks.  We’ve visited close to 200 of them now (Emma has over 60 Junior Ranger badges) and still there’s so much more to see and learn.  I’ve spent several nights picking out the best photos we have for the slide show, which has brought back a lot of great memories.

After the 3-day Gathering, we’re going to plan hookey for a while, touring around Europe in a rental car.  What will we do?  I’m not sure, but don’t expect me to return calls for a while.   I’m not even bringing my laptop, just an iPad.  It will be a wonderful opportunity to disconnect.

Then it’s back to Vermont for a week or so with family, and then I’ll fly back to Tucson for July, reverting into my alter-ego personality of Temporary Bachelor Man for four weeks.  I can’t tell you what to expect from that either. You never know what TBM will do.  Probably he’ll be buried in work from all the time I was offline in June, but I’m certain he’ll do his best to make a small roadtrip in the time available.

In August I’m flying up to Oregon to run Alumafandango.  Being the first time in that location, it should be a lot of fun with a lot of new faces.  We’re going to release the Preliminary Event Program in June (most likely), and it will be typically packed with stuff to do all day.  The setting up there in Canyonville is just beautiful, too.

Mid-August?  I dunno.  Probably a little more TBM, then flying to Vermont to retrieve the family (remember them?) and the Airstream.  After that we are kind of open on the plan, including the return timing.  We might leave in August and take a long trip across the northern tier before heading home, or we might hang in New England until early September and then bolt home (out of necessity due to appointments).

In prior years our annual round-robin has run anywhere from 8,000 to 14,000 miles total (including side trips not towing).  I’m expecting about the same this year.  Fuel prices are about the same as last year so I don’t expect a major change in the budget.  We’ll spend the same amount for the Airstream portion of the trip as we would have taking the family on a two week cruise.  Not cheap, but to my mind a bargain for an entire summer of fun.

Mobile Internet, part II

OK.  I’m sitting here looking at my fingers as I type.  I see three small cuts (nicks from sharp aluminum edges), three broken nails, and one knuckle scuff.  I have been fighting the mobile Internet installation, and finally won.

When I started on the project Saturday I figured it was a two or three hour job:  pull out all the old gear, run a new antenna cable, mount the new antenna, and then install the new gear.  No big deal.  But every step of the way, I was tested.  This was an exercise in beating frustration, which is part of why it took two and a half days to complete.

Nothing would go right the first time.  Now, I can admit that some of the trouble was the result of my inexperience with some things, but I’m not a total noob, so there’s a piece I can attribute to some other force:  bad karma, juju, luck, biorhythyms, alien influence, whatever.  Nothing was as easy as it was supposed to be, and when I realized how things were going to be, I decided I would stick it out even if it took all week.

The big problem was the antenna.  The old antenna was something called an NMO Mount, which means that the installer made a 3/4″ hole in the Airstream’s roof that I would have to plug.  The new antenna requires a side mount (it was designed for buildings rather than RVs) and so I had a very limited range of places I could put it, unless I wanted to fabricate a custom aluminum bracket. I very nearly did, but then found that the bracket upon which the TV antenna rests made a perfect mount.

[NOTE added 5/14/2013:  I’m an idiot.  I should have just returned this antenna and done some more looking.  Since I went through this nightmare install, I discovered a replacement that would have just screwed right onto the existing NMO mount, avoiding the need to run a new antenna cable and seal up the old hole.  I would recommend this antenna to anyone who wants the same 4G performance but with a much lower profile:  Laird Phantom.]

Airstream antennaThis location was ideal:  away from metal objects on the roof that might block the signal (such as the solar panel and air conditioner), low enough that the antenna will clear the carport entryway, and right where I can easily inspect it.  I had to run the coaxial antenna cable through the base mounts that hold up the front solar panel.  That was actually one of the easy problems, solved with the purchase of a 1/2″ drill bit and two rubber grommets.

Antenna closeup

The simplest path to the electronics cabinet was through the existing 3/4″hole in the roof.  I thought I was being clever to use the old antenna wire to pull through the new one, but the old line kept snagging.  So I used the old antenna wire to pull through a few feet of slick & smooth plastic vacuum line (left over from the Mercedes 300D renovation), and then used that to pull the new antenna line through–and discovered that the new one wouldn’t quite fit through an internal brace inside the Airstream’s ceiling.

I tried everything to get that wire through, wiggling it, greasing it, pushing it and pulling it, but it just wouldn’t go. I even drilled little holes behind the overhead cabinet to try to locate the problem.  By the time I had exhausted every possible approach, the entire overhead cabinet and doors were completely removed along with one of the ceiling mounted JVC speakers, the curtains, one power outlet, a 12 volt outlet, the coaxial cable outlet, part of the white vinyl wall covering, and (just for good measure) the obsolete DVD changer.  With the tools burying the dinette table and bits of fiberglass insulation, sawdust, and aluminum shavings everywhere, the Airstream looked like it was still on the assembly line.

Airstream wire chaseIn the end, there was nothing to do about it.  The new antenna cable was just too large to fit through that hidden constriction. After sleeping on it, and consideration of the idea of relocating the entire electronics cabinet, there was really only one practical solution left.  We drilled a fresh hole in the ceiling and ran the wire down the ceiling about four inches to a point where it could disappear again.  A plastic wire chase helps minimize the visual impact.

There were many more challenges, but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that nothing could be taken for granted.  Every splice was suspect, every hole was in the wrong place, every trick I tried was confounded, and in the end the job took about eight hours, not counting three stops at the hardware store.

Airstream Internet install completeBut finally, it works.  The picture shows the install. It’s a little cluttered looking in the photo.  In reality we have more useful space in the closet than we had before, because I neatened up a lot of the DC wiring and tied up the excess.  That little plastic bag at the bottom contains a 12vDC + wire that is leftover from two installations ago and is still hot.  I’m keeping it in case I need more power in this cabinet later.

There’s a little more work to be done on the roof.  I still have to seal up the rest of the 3/4″ hole from the old antenna, where the new antenna line emerges. I never did find the right caulk locally, so I’ve got a tube on order from an eBay seller.

I’m in the Airstream now, using the new wireless Internet system to write this blog.  The reception is fantastic even in the brick carport (router reports -53 dBm).  I can’t wait to try it out in a remote place during our next trip east.

Since I started this project, I noticed that Kyle and Kevin both went with similar equipment.  Since Kevin is an engineer/publisher who must get online daily when he’s traveling, and Kyle is a full-timer who does Internet consulting, I figure we are in good company.  The transition to 4G technology is raising a lot of questions for people, so I may do a seminar at Alumafandango (Oregon, Aug 6-10) on that subject.  (By the way, if you’re planning to come to Alumafandango, now’s the time to register.  Spaces are filling up quickly!)

It’s as easy as bungee jumping

Quiet blog?  Only above the surface.  Back here at Airstream Life World Headquarters, things have been pleasantly busy.

These days my work as Editor of Airstream Life has been almost a backdrop to putting together events.  Financially this makes no sense, as the magazine pays the bills and the events are more of a hobby business, but I can’t stop myself.  Either Brett or I will come up with an idea for “something cool” and then suddenly we are spending far too many hours to make it come off.  I think we are both just compulsive about building new things, and we enjoy that more than our day jobs.

Back in late October we flew out to Oregon to do a site visit to the Seven Feather Casino/Hotel/RV Resort, wondering if we could put on an event there.  (By the way, I think that I spent more nights in hotel rooms last year with Brett than I did with my wife, and that’s slightly disturbing.)  Once on-site, we found a charming and well designed campground and a staff of extremely nice people who convinced us that it was the place to go next, and that’s how Alumafandango Seven Feathers was born.  We announced it a few weeks ago, for August 6-11, 2013, and now we are hustling to get seminars, entertainers, and tours put together so that everyone who comes will have a great time.

But before we can pull that off, we need to get Alumapalooza 4 on track.  I got tired of some of the repeat seminars, so we’ve basically started over with a list of new ideas—which of course means a lot of work.  Only a few favorites will repeat, and they will all have interesting twists.  Alex & Charon are coming back but instead of vacuum-sealing Alex in a bag they are going to do something else horrible.  We’ll do the Backup Derby again but this year I think the windows of the tow vehicle will be blacked out.  We’ll have yoga again, but this time it will be in the nude.

Just kidding about that last item.

And before we can pull off Alumapalooza 4, we need to get past Alumafiesta in Tucson.  That’s coming up in two weeks.  Registration closes today, so soon I’ll be putting together all the attendee lists and various other things we need, and then Eleanor and I have to finalize our trailers.  Yes, I said “trailers” plural.  Because Brett & Lisa are flying in, we have to supply them with our 1968 Airstream Caravel for housing, completely furnished & equipped.  We have never loaned out this trailer before so it has meant a lot of extra prep work to turn it into a “rental”: lots of cleaning, re-packing, testing, and counting the silverware…  I may have to ask Brett for a security deposit.

Ah, kidding again.  I’ll just replace the silver with flatware from Home Goods.

Things have been complicated lately by two factors:  (1) This is the season for all good snowbirds to arrive in Tucson.  A few friends have popped by already, and in a week or so we will be inundated.  I wouldn’t dare complain about this, since we look forward to our friends coming to town, but it means that all our prep has to be done well in advance.  (2) It has been unbelievably cold (for Tucson) lately.  To put that into perspective, keep in mind that here we never have to winterize the trailers.  We just leave them parked and turn on the furnace for a night or two.

Since New Year’s Eve we’ve had at least five freezing nights and more are forecast through Thursday (then we get back to the normal stuff for this time of year, 68 by day and 45 by night).  Our propane ran low very quickly, so I popped an electric space heater in each trailer instead and went off to the local LP supplier to get four 30# LP tanks filled plus a 20# for the gas grill.  This is what we call “winter” in Tucson.

In the process I discovered that one of the propane “pigtails” on the Safari was leaking.  These are the flexible hoses that run from the propane tank to the regulator (see video explanation from last year).  They’re stupidly unreliable lately.  I don’t know if the quality of construction is dropping or I’m just buying the wrong brand, but lately it seems I can only get a year out of them before they start leaking at the crimped metal connections.  The current pair date from last summer.

I called Super Terry for a consultation on this, and he recommended going from 12″ to 15″ lines so that there’d be less stress on them.  I ordered four new ones (about $11 each), being quite sure not to get the same brand as before, and will just keep a pair in the Airstream from now on as spares, along with the wrenches needed to remove and install them, and my soapy-water spray bottle and plumber’s tape.  You know yours have gone bad when you smell gas around the propane bottles, and your furnace quits.  Usually this happens in the middle of the night.  Once you have the pigtails in hand they take only a few minutes to swap, but sometimes finding the right type and length is harder than you’d think, so I’d recommend everyone carry at least one spare with them.

I had a nice meeting with the people at Lazydays last week to finalize details about our event and the food & beverage.  They are really rolling out the red carpet for us, including an open bar & appetizers at our first Happy Hour, and generally first-class service all around.  I had a pre-event dream last night, which always happens to me a few weeks before we do an event, and for the first time it wasn’t a nightmare.

We must be getting better at this event business.  At least I should hope to have learned a few things, after all the ones we’ve done: Two Vintage Trailer Jams, two Modernism Weeks, three Alumapaloozas, one Alumafandango, and in 2013 three more events.  That’s eight behind us and three ahead, plus two on the drawing board.  I guess people are taking notice, because in the past month we’ve had two inquiries about running events for other people.  Probably only one of those will actually pan out.  It’s flattering to be asked in any case.  I don’t know if it makes business sense since (like bungee-jumpers) we are mostly in it for the thrill, but you never know where an opportunity might lead.  I’ve learned to check out every opportunity that pops up, as sometimes even things that look hopeless will take an unexpected turn for the better.  Except at a Bourbon Street bar, looking is usually free.