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.

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.


This may go down as one of the most busy February months of our family’s life.  On Sunday we wrapped Alumafiesta in Tucson, which was a considerable event in itself, and now we are embarked on a 2,000 mile cannonball run across the southern tier to Florida, where we will work on Alumaflamingo for another week.

Fiesta was a success.  We had about 100 Airstreams in the campground (after a few last-minute cancellations) and it seemed that just about everyone had a great time.  The program was as packed full of activities as we could make it, and so Brett & I were busily running around for five days making sure it all happened as we’d planned it.

During the week Eleanor was commuting from our house to complete preparations for the heavy travel yet to come, and finalizing all those other details that come before departure.  Emma, meanwhile, was parked inside the Safari with a cold, not doing much except Pokemon-related activities. (You might be surprised to realize what a wide range of Pokemon-related activities exists, but listing them all is far beyond the scope of this blog.)

After running all the activities of the event (many seminars and off-site tours, five Happy Hours, a bike ride, two walks, one hike, two breakfasts, one dinner, three Open Grills, four evening presentations, Food Truck Friday, a ukulele practice session, etc.) we were all completely exhausted.  And that’s where Aluma-Zooma comes in.

Due to a series of circumstances mostly beyond our control, we have a second event this month: Alumaflamingo in Sarasota Florida.  Because it is the first year for Flamingo, we decided it would be best if we took the Airstream to that event rather than flying in, which means that on the last day of Alumafiesta we were re-packing for immediate departure east on I-10.  We have to traverse seven states in a week, a rapid pace in the best of circumstances.

These are not the best of circumstances.  On the last day of the Fiesta I began to detect the impact Emma’s cold virus on myself, and then Eleanor began to feel some symptoms too, so our tow vehicle became a sort of plague ship with the three of us all sporting various symptoms—and nearly 2,000 miles of rapid driving ahead.

Brett, meanwhile, has flown ahead and will be spending the next week trying to get all the remaining pieces of the Flamingo event puzzle into place; not an easy task with nearly 240 trailers expected, 23 vendors, and a schedule just about as packed as the one we just completed in Tucson.  I can’t do much to help while I’m driving, so at this point I’m just a telephone consultant with a hoarse voice.

Fortunately we are joined on this adventure by our supportive friends, Alex and Charon (famous for their talents in the sideshow arts, including fire breathing and swordswallowing) and their hairless cat Brundlefly.  With us they form a 2-Airstream caravan, and it is making the trip much more fun to travel to together.  Alex has painted a sign on the back of their 1960s-era Airstream Overlander which says:

Tucson to Sarasota
180 hours

We left Tucson at about 3:30 pm on Sunday and pulled into Lordsburg NM that evening for an overnight boondock behind a restaurant.  I was feeling pretty poorly and crashed into bed at about 8:00, waking at 4:45 with a raging sore throat, but got back to sleep and by 7:00 a.m. was feeling much better and looking somewhat less like a person with terminal fatigue.  Eleanor pitched in later on Monday by towing the Airstream 100 miles of our 350-mile daily quota even though she wasn’t feeling top-notch herself, and so tonight we are in Balmorhea State Park in west Texas and all is well.

As expected, we have driven out of the balmy southwest weather and into that deep freeze that we keep hearing about on the news.  Even here in southwest Texas, it was 38 degrees before sunset, a horrifying change from the lovely 70s that Tucson is currently enjoying.  I couldn’t hook up the water hose because it is going to freeze tonight.  Balmorhea is famous for its crystal-clear warm water springs, and normally we’d go swimming or snorkeling here, but even with water at 80 degrees or so it is just too darned cold outside to even consider the idea.  So instead we just fed the catfish and watched the turtles swimming before the skies became dark and fiendishly cold.

The trip plan is to drive about 300-400 miles daily all the way to Sarasota.  With time being short, it’s going to be Interstate highway all the way.  Not very interesting. Still, since we’ve all done this trip many times (but not as a caravan) we have the opportunity to share our favorite roadside stops with each other, and that’s fun.  I’ll update the blog as often as I can while we are traveling, and you’ll also see brief updates and more photos on Twitter (follow @airstreamlife).

A great week ahead

That energy level I mentioned in the previous post has very suddenly kicked into a higher quantum state.  (Apologies to real physicists who are wincing at that statement.)  Airstreams are pouring into Tucson from all over, and it’s impossible for me to remain calm about it.

Lately I can’t drive in the southwest corner of Tucson without seeing one on the road.  Normally Airstream spotting is a rare event, but this week it’s a regular thing.  Today I made my daily trip to the Alumafiesta site and found silver dots all over the 400-site campground.  Right now they are a minority but by the end of the day Monday a giant aluminum formation will take shape: Airstreams lined up in rows, signalling by their shiny presence that something interesting is about to happen.

My main mission today was to drop off the ’68 Caravel for Brett to use.  While I was trying to set it up in the site, two non-Airstream owners came by separately to talk about vintage trailers, and one Airstream owner as well.  This was fun but it made setup take about an hour.  That Caravel sticks out in a crowd.  There is no flying under the radar in a vintage Airstream.

In just a couple of hours I ran into Koos and Stefan (who flew in from The Netherlands to attend Alumafiesta), Rob, Chris, Stevyn & Troy, Numeriano, and a few other people who waved from a distance. I’d say there are about 15 Airstreams in the park right now, and that’s just the beginning.  That’s in addition to the several Airstreams that are boondocked in BLM land off Rt 86, near Saguaro National Park West.

Tomorrow I will go over to drop off the Safari in site 1415. The guy occupying my space today is in an Airstream but he is not coming to Alumafiesta. He came last year, and so tomorrow he’s heading to Sarasota to attend Alumaflamingo!  Lucky guy—he’s got two weeks to make the trip, so he gets to spend six days chilling in Destin FL on the way.  We have only one week to go the same 2,000 miles, so we have to zip along I-10 in a sort of Airstream Cannonball Run with no fun stops.  (Alex & Charon are making the trip with us, and Alex is already calling it “Aluma-zooma”.)

Yesterday I had lunch with Chris and Leslie.  They are attending Alumafiesta in a brand-new 30-foot Airstream bunkhouse.  Leslie writes for Airstream Life, and Chris is the developer of our new—TA- DA!—  iPad app.  Yes, Airstream Life is finally available in digital format on iPad. Almost every issue published (minus two) is available, which is pretty remarkable considering most have been out of print for years.  If you’ve got an iPad you can check it out (free) by clicking here.  We’ve got a special limited time offer on eight of the back issues for $0.99 each, and if you are a subscriber you get four issues for free!

I had a small surprise this week after sending out a notice to attendees that we would be doing an informal “beginner class” on ukulele.  I figured that maybe two or three people would be interested.  Suddenly about 15 people came out of the bushes waving ukuleles, and about a third of them had never actually played one.  So I’ll be leading a group at 1:00 on Tuesday, and if it goes well we will probably have a few sessions during the week. I’m excited about that.  Maybe we’ll get a few songs up to performance quality and play for the attendees at one of the Happy Hours.

Tonight we are having a pre-event “kick back” dinner at home, before the heavy action begins tomorrow.  This is our last chance to have a meal as a family at home, so Eleanor has made some nice mushroom risotto and a cake, and I’ll be grilling steaks.  Tonight we feast, for tomorrow we enter the fray …  It should be a great week.

Aluminum energy

“It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon …”  So starts many a tale from Garrison Keillor, and many times I have been tempted to lift that line in prelude to a blog entry that, like a Wobegon story, gradually reveals events that are anything but quiet.

Here in the desert I can feel the energy ramping up.  While the polar vortex captures the attention of those in the north, we have our own sort of vortex which re-directs RV travelers to Arizona right around February every year.  First it’s the annual migration to Quartzsite, where thousands of RV’ers congregate for cheap camping and flea-market shopping every winter.  Now Alumafiesta has entered the picture in a small way, bringing our Airstream friends from all over the country to Tucson for a week or two of warm weather and camaraderie.

I can tell by many signs that the Airstreams are approaching.  The most obvious sign is the mail piling up in our front hallway.  Several friends have asked if they can have their mail forwarded to our house, and of course we always agree because it’s the right thing to do for fellow Airstreamers.  When we were full-timing we often were helped by people along the way who received mail for us, so this is a sort of “pay it forward” gesture.  Looking at our hallway right now I see three boxes, two large flat envelopes, and four other large boxes that contain Alumafiesta supplies sent by Brett.  My email inbox contains a bunch of tracking numbers for additional packages to arrive this week.

Another sign of the impending aluminum invasion can be seen at our friend Rob’s house, not far away.  He has a bit of acreage and a few hookups, and the word got out, so now he has four RVs camped by his house, one of which is waiting to attend Alumafiesta.  On the southwestern side of Tucson there’s a bit of BLM land that allows free camping, called Snyder Hill, and the first Airstreams have appeared there as well.  Over at the Alumafiesta campground (Tucson/Lazydays KOA), I can see a few glints of silver starting to take over.  In nine days, about 110 Airstreams will be camped there.

Last week I started getting emails from people who are on their way.  One photo came from Rockhound State Park in Deming, NM (at left).  Other emails have come from central California, Texas, Florida, and a few from frigid parts of the north country.

Everyone wants to get together, of course, because Airstreamers are generally social types and we see many of our good friends only once a year or so.  This year it’s a little frustrating because we are deeply engaged in getting ready for two major events (Alumafiesta and Alumaflamingo) and about six weeks of Airstream life/travel between here and Florida.  Eleanor has been working on a new food demo that she’s going to do at both events, and I’ve been trying to get the Summer 2014 magazine at least 70% done by February 1. Plus, Emma has been working toward a higher rank karate belt and so we’ve been taking her to practice five nights a week.  It’s really a drag when work and school get in the way of having a good time.

A few days ago I pulled out the “Safari Departure List” that I maintain for pre-trip preparation. This list has checkboxes for about eighty things that we need to do before we head out on a multi-week trip.  It covers everything: what to pack, taking care of the house and utilities, prepping the Airstream and car, and various notifications we need to make.  Completing this list takes about two weeks if I don’t rush, so every day I’m trying to check off at least five or six items.  Lots of them are easy, like filling the car with fuel and updating our mail forwarding order, so it’s not terribly hard, and having the checklist means I don’t have to try to remember what’s next—which is good, because with everything going here I can barely remember what comes after I put toothpaste on the brush.

With all the activity comes a certain amount of excitement.  Great things are about to happen. We’ll see lots of Airstream friends, travel cross country, present talks and demonstrations, tour Tucson and Sarasota, lead a ukulele band (at Alumaflamingo in Florida), and then hit the beach on our way home for a bit of vacation.  It’s hard to complain; Airstreaming is fun.

The anticipation keeps us energized.  Some would say “stressed” but I prefer to think of it as all positive energy.  A hundred+ Airstreams parked together will raise the temperature of Tucson and make everyone smile.  All these people coming to town with great intentions, friendly faces, and interesting thoughts to share, will infuse us and give us the boost we need to get it all done.  So I say, “bring on the aluminum energy!”  The fun is about to begin.