I’itoi Ki, the maze of life

I want to take a small diversion from our current efforts of packing and planning for this summer’s Airstream travel, to step back and consider why we do all of this.  Everything we do is part of a journey through life.  Today’s work of planning where we’ll tow the Airstream may not necessarily be consequential in the overall scheme of our life, but in some small way every experience we have and every effort we make adds to the sum total of who we are.

I named this blog “Man In The Maze” out of respect for the local native Americans, the Tohono O’odham (which means “desert people”) and their story of I’itoi, the man in the maze.  The I’itoi Ki pictured here is the sacred symbol of the O’odham.  It describes the path to wellness and wholeness, and symbolizes the spiritual journey of each person as they seek the deeper meaning of life.  I’itoi travels through life as through a maze, experiencing twists and turns while growing stronger and wiser.  He grows larger in respect to his surroundings, representing his increasing understanding of the world and himself.

Each of us follow that maze.  The life-changing twists and turns make us who we are.

Following the white path, we eventually we reach the dark center of the maze, which represents death but also an opportunity for enlightenment.  At the final turn, we can look back at the trail, reflect on our lives, and find acceptance of the last step.

Hopefully we’re all a long way from the center of the maze.  While a perspective on our whole lives will be nice someday, I use the I’itoi Ki to remind me that the twists and turns we are experiencing are a part of life, and every one provides a new chance to learn and grow.  We can’t stop traveling through the maze, so we may as well make the most of it.

Our summer plan is coming together.  Our first major stop will be Denver CO, then Jackson Center OH for Alumapalooza, then Vermont.  I’ll tour New England for a few days with my brother and some friends.  I’ll be Temporary Bachelor Man again in Tucson for a while, then joined by Eleanor and Emma at various points.  We’ll go to Alumafandango in August, Starfest (Mercedes) in September, and a few other places.  The Airstream will cover at least 6,000 miles (probably more).  It should be a good, busy, summer.  More later.

Living cheap on the road

Here’s another question I often am asked:  What does it cost to live on the road?

I think a lot of people ask this question because they assume that a life of travel has to be an expensive luxury.  This isn’t surprising, since (at least in the USA) most people’s view of free time is tied directly to the concept of “vacation” — and it isn’t a vacation unless you go somewhere and spend a lot of money.

It takes a little re-arranging of the brain space to grasp that full-time travel via an Airstream can be a really economical experience.  Some people try, and fail miserably, having spent many times more on fuel, admission tickets, and “supplies” (read: souvenirs), just like their vacations.  But I’m here to tell you that not only can it be cheaper than living in a stationary house, it can be a life-saver.

See, when I started Airstream Life magazine, I was severely under-capitalized: the curse of many small business entrepreneurs.  After a year of running the small and unprofitable business, it was clear that we needed to reduce our living expenses if our savings were to last long enough to reach profitability.  And our largest expense by far was the upkeep of our house.

The house was eating us alive, with mortgage, substantial taxes, maintenance, utilities, snowplowing, garbage collection … while we were traveling about 5 months per year on business. So after some consideration, we decided to sell it and live on the road for a while before building a smaller house.  A summer of living in our Argosy 24 turned into 36 months of life in our Airstream Safari 30.  Along the way we discovered that life in the Airstream was not only a lot of fun, but much more affordable than life in the house had been.

And that made all the difference.  I could not have succeeded with Airstream Life if we hadn’t lived on the road for three years.  Without the crushing burden of a house, we were able to stretch our savings to permit years of travel — combining a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a smart financial move.

Of course, we took care to ensure to cut our travel expenses whenever possible.  We saw people run through $50,000 in a year traveling by RV, and we saw people doing it on as little as $20,000 per year (and having the same amount of fun).  So we tried to emulate the folks who were having a frugal but wonderful time.

The “tricks of the trade” aren’t really tricks at all.  They’re just common-sense choices that you can make along the way, like limiting your driving.  There’s usually no need to zing back and forth across the country, but as I’ve said before, this is one of the top mistakes made by new full-timers.  One of our very best months was spent in the Four Corners region (CO, UT, AZ, NM) where we visited fourteen national park sites on a budget of $971.  You don’t have to spend a lot to experience a lot.

Why was it so cheap? First off, we rarely splurged on full-hookup campgrounds. Instead, we prefer to stay in the national park campgrounds whenever possible.  They’re more natural, better located, and cheaper, in exchange for the trade-off of generally lacking the amenities of commercial campgrounds.

Second, we limited our travel.  We stayed several days in most locations, and never towed more than 100 miles.  When we found a good place, we stayed a while.  Staying put is always cheaper than towing somewhere else. Although we rarely stayed as long as a month, you can really save a lot of bucks with campground monthly rates.

Third, we didn’t buy anything except necessities.  Our souvenirs are strictly limited (because of space limitations too!), so early on we decided what we’d collect.  Eleanor buys a national park pin in almost every park we visit.  Emma sometimes gets one too, or a book, in addition to the Junior Ranger badge she usually earns.  We don’t buy logo apparel because we really don’t need it and the trailer would quickly fill up with the stuff.  (After all, we’ve visited well over 150 national park sites.)  We avoid the cute gift shops in town, and when we do buy something local, it’s most often edible.  I know a lot of people like to shop as they go, and I’m not saying you can’t do that, but you can’t expect a habit like that to be cheap.

Related to this, we were also careful to limit eating out.  It gets expensive quickly, not to mention the rapid impact on your waistline.  This is tougher than it might seem, because everywhere you go, there’s someone who wants to celebrate your arrival (or your new friendship) with dinner out.

Fourth, we took full advantage of the great deal that our nation’s parks offer.  For $85 per year we have free admission to every US national park in the world, including the ones in Guam, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands.  It’s a deal like no other.  If you are over age 62, the deal is even better: $10 for a lifetime pass.  Don’t miss it.

Fifth is the Big One: We sold our house.  You can’t leave cheaper on the road if you still have a house somewhere.  The house stills costs even if you don’t live in it, doesn’t it?  The only ways to make the economic formula work are to sell the house or rent it out while you are gone. We calculated the cost of owning our house at about $65 per day.  Once we had that burden lifted, it was easy to cost-justify the Airstream and the tow vehicle.  You’re even better off if you don’t have a loan on those vehicles.

“The cost of travel” is a red herring.  The cost of staying at home is the unspoken and dangerous story.  Unspoken, that is, until the recent mortgage crisis revealed how many people were living far beyond their means in the name of “home ownership.”  Dangerous, in the sense that if too many people realized how much better off they might be without the trappings of suburbia, the housing market could collapse further. Not everyone can break away from their current responsibilities and travel, but if you are lucky enough to be able to travel — even for a week or two — yes, you can live on the road and save money.

Why we picked this home base

After we sold our home in Vermont and started traveling full-time, we had the entire country to consider as a future residence.  We browsed and briefly lived in something like 46 states before we made our choice. So it’s understandable that one of questions we get asked most frequently is “Why did you pick Tucson?”

Really, the criteria was rather mundane:  we liked the desert climate (good for SAD and good for allergies), the cost of living is reasonable, we could buy a “lock and leave” house that wouldn’t need winterizing or constant air conditioning while we were gone, there’s year-round outdoor activity for adults and children, and Tucson has everything we need.  Having spent most of my life in rural country, I appreciate the convenience of living in a city even though it’s not as quiet as what I’m used to.

We don’t pretend that our criteria makes sense for anyone else, so after answering this question I am always quick to point out that it’s really up to everyone to figure out what’s important to them.  I probably don’t need to do that, since most of the folks asking the question are themselves frequent travelers and they tend to be very independent.  Of all the people who have asked the question, none of them have settled here. They’ve all found their own favorite places.

But we like southern Arizona a lot, especially for the diversity of things to do in the area.  Take Saturday, for example.  We decided that our mission would be to browse the Asian food markets in town.  Tucson doesn’t have nearly the Asian population of the California cities, but enough that we can easily find the exotic ingredients that Eleanor likes to use occasionally in her cooking.  We googled up a few likely spots and read the online reviews (mostly useless, as usual), and eventually came up with a list of three targets.  Right there, that’s a win — because in many other cities we’d just be plain out of luck.  I like the fact that I can find almost anything here.

tucson-leelee-market.jpgHaving just put some money into the Mercedes 300D for front end work last week, I wanted to give it a run. So we loaded up into the “Stuttgart Taxi” and cruised to our first stop, the Lee Lee Supermart in northwest Tucson.  This place tries to cover most of the major countries of far east Asia, so you’ll find Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc., all through the store.

I’m always intrigued with the strange and interesting new foods and ingredients in Asian markets.  It’s a temptation to start buying a little of everything, just to try it out.  But since we had three markets on our program for the day (two Asian and one “other”), we tried to be moderate in our choices.  I could easily see us filling the roomy trunk of the Stuttgart Taxi with a pile of groceries worth more than the car itself.

tucson-vermont-curry.jpgAnother fun part of this type of shopping is finding truly odd or confusing packaging.  There are things both lost and gained in translation from Asian languages, and sometimes the results can be laughable.  This keeps both adults and kids entertained.  Our first find was “Vermont Curry,” as seen here. Now, I’m from Vermont, and I can tell you that “Vermont” and “curry” go together about as well as “Kansas Lobster.” These days Vermont actually has a few ethnic restaurants, thanks to an increasingly diverse population, but as a child I remember that pizza was about as exotic as it got. If there were such a thing as Vermont Curry, it would probably have maple syrup in it.

tucson-steamed-potato.jpgAnother minor oddity was the House Of Steamed Potato brand kimchi crackers. Apparently this is a major brand in China, with several flavors.  I’m sure the name makes sense in Chinese, and I’m sympathetic to the problem of translation.  I wouldn’t want to try to translate “Ritz crackers” or “Count Chocula” to Chinese.

tucson-mang-gong-cake.jpgBut our favorite was found at our second stop, the Grantstone Supermarket: Mang Gong cakes. Nothing odd here, until you look closely at the bottom of the package. It reads, “The False Packing.”  It’s hard for an American to make any sense out of that.  Given the volume of illegal Asian product knock-offs, is this simply a pre-emptive attempt to admit that these are not real Mang Gong cakes? Perhaps in truth the package contains Nike sneakers.

Sometimes you can figure these things out by playing with synonyms of the words.  For example, could “false” be an attempt to say “low-cal”?  Or perhaps “imitation,”  “see-through,” “empty,” or “absent”?  Likewise, “packing” could mean “packaging,” or “wrapper”?  Maybe this is an attempt to advertise the see-through outer wrap, or to suggest that this has a decorative wrapper for gift-giving.  We need a good Chinese translator to help figure this one out.

tucson-biodiesel-fueling.jpgIt’s amazing that we managed to kill most of a day browsing Asian markets, but we did.  We are, as I’ve said before, easily amused.  I suppose the prospect of eating whatever Eleanor whipped up with the ingredients was helpful in keeping our patience in check too. By 3 p.m. we were wrapping up and heading home with the trunk only 1/4 full of groceries (fortunately for the budget).

There was just one more stop to make, at the Arizona Petroleum depot off 22nd Street, for biodiesel. I have been wanting to run some biodiesel in the Taxi, since it has an “old tech” engine and can eat almost any type of oil.  A little biodiesel helps clean out the fuel lines since it has higher solvency properties than dino diesel.  This pump dispenses B5, B20 and B99 (5%, 20%, and 99% biodiesel respectively) for $3.25 per gallon, which is about in line with local diesel prices at conventional fuel stations in Tucson right now.

I bought five gallons of B99 to mix with the 15 gallons of dino diesel in the tank.  It made the exhaust smell like a restaurant with a fryolator, which is actually quite pleasant.  Most cars I have smelt running B99 exclusively have exhaust reminiscent of french fries, and instead of annoying people, it usually makes them hungry.  I’d like to run this in the GL320 as well, but its super-high-tech engine and exhaust system are restricted to B5 at the most.

That’s not an atypical day for us, on a winter weekend in Tucson.  That’s why we like it here.  If we want to go to a festival, a farmer’s market, go for a hike or bike ride, attend a gallery opening, take sunset pictures, do some gardening, work on the car, roam the gardens, take a class, whatever — there’s always something.  You really can’t go wrong in Tucson this time of year, with lots of things happening and fantastic weather almost every day.

That’s our criteria for a place to live, perhaps because it closely mirrors the kind of life we had when we were traveling.  For me at least, once I had tasted the diversity and excitement of constant travel, I couldn’t fathom settling back into a town that didn’t have something going on all the time. No wonder it took years for us to find a place to buy a house.  Future full-timers beware: life on the road may be your dream, but keep in mind that you will face a tough job finding the ideal place to live afterward.

Myths and misconceptions

It’s a quiet time for us, relaxing at home base in the holiday season.  We have no plans to take the Airstream anywhere until after Christmas, which means we will have spent a full five weeks here in the house.  In the hiatus, since we have no Airstream adventures to relate, I want to use a few blog entries to talk about questions that I am often asked when we are traveling.

The reason for doing this is simply that I am constantly reminded of how much misinformation exists on the Internet about RV’ing. Online forums filled with urban myths, badly-researched or biased magazine articles published by people who should know better, and poorly-edited books from “RV experts” are the primary sources of misinformation that new RV’ers come to believe.  It’s a travesty. Most people don’t understand the most basic concepts of trailer hitching, for example, even though incorrect hitching can result in their death.  Many RV dealers are complicit in this as well, by the common practice of just shoving a new trailer owner out the door with minimal instruction.

When I was learning to fly airplanes, I was impressed at how safety-oriented the industry was.  Everything in aviation is ultimately about safety, which is why it has an incredibly impressive statistical record. As a member of the Airline Owners and Pilot’s Association (AOPA), I received a glossy monthly magazine (AOPA Pilot) which was extremely well produced and loaded with useful information. My parents (also private pilots) subscribed to a newsletter by Belvoir Publications which analyzed the causes of aircraft accidents, which they passed on to my oldest brother (another pilot) and me.  We read it like our lives depended on it — because they did.

In aviation, pilots in training are often expected to read a book from the 1940’s, called “Stick and Rudder.”  In that book, author Wolfgang Langewiesche precisely described what happens when a pilot controls an airplane, in a way that defuses misconceptions that would otherwise occur among pilots.  It was a seminal work, so important that it remains in print today.  There is no comparable book on towing in the RV industry, which is why I asked Andy Thomson to begin writing articles for Airstream Life on that subject.  We hope that someday Andy’s articles will be recompiled into a book much like “Stick and Rudder,” which I will publish.

No question, part of the reason that there is so much good information for aviators compared to the dearth of good information for RV’ers, is the fact that aviation is a very high-profile and wealthy industry. Despite the fact that there a new Airstream runs $35,000-100,000 dollars (about the same price range as a new Mercedes) and that there are hundreds of million-dollar Prevost buses on the road, RV’ing is still too often viewed as the domain of country bumpkins and “trailer trash.”  The industry sells itself short.  When we were learning new concepts in aviation, like Instrument Flight, we considered it a good investment to buy a series of King videos for $80. We watched so many videos of John and Martha King in the living room that it felt like they were members of the family. But even if you are willing to spend in order to learn RV’ing concepts, where do you look for trustworthy information? Too much of what’s out there is either unreliable, or produced by “interested parties” with significant bias.

That’s probably why I’ve been increasing the educational aspect of everything I can touch.  Last year’s Alumapalooza included seminars on towing, axles/brakes, and maintenance.  We’ll do the same again in 2011.   I’m also working on a book of my own for new Airstream owners, which I expect to publish in the first half of 2011.

Andy’s book probably will take a couple of years to complete, but when it comes out I expect it to be an important and long-lasting work.  If you haven’t seen his towing series in Airstream Life, it’s worth the price of subscription all by itself.  (We have some of the back issues in the online store.)

Now, you may be thinking, “Come on — towing is just driving. It’s not nearly as complicated as flying.”  To a certain extent that’s true, but if you can die because you didn’t understand a basic principle, isn’t it worth learning more? I really hate it when I run into long-time RV’ers who say, “We’ve been doing this for XX years, there’s nothing anyone can tell us that we don’t already know.”  Baloney.  I find those are the folks who are most often full of misconceptions and half-truths, and are anxious to spread them around like a virus.

Here’s a really simple example.  How many times have you heard that reducing weight in your trailer will improve your towing fuel economy?  Like a lot of things, there’s some truth to that, but not nearly what people think.  Sure, lowering the trailer weight will result in less energy needed to get the trailer moving from a stop, or pull it up a hill.  But RV’ers spend most of their fuel budget pushing air out of the way, not pulling away from STOP signs.  Aerodynamics play a much larger role in fuel economy than weight.

The misconception about the impact of weight has led to the popular myth that you can save fuel by not carrying water in your fresh water tank.  It’s nonsense, but it is continually spread even by experienced trailerites.  I recently read a book by an Airstreamer who had bought into the myth that reducing his trailer’s weight by dumping his water supply would improve his fuel economy.  So, one windy day on the Interstate he dumped his water, and lo-and-behold his fuel economy did increase that day.

What really happened?  Most likely, the wind decreased slightly, or he reduced his speed a little.  The reduction of weight caused by the loss of 20 or 30 gallons of water, when traveling on the Interstate, is not going to result in significant fuel economy improvement.  If you don’t believe it, then consider this:  Does your fuel economy change materially if you add one passenger to your vehicle?  Probably not unless you strap him to the roof, where he can block some of the windstream.

I had a radical example of the importance of aerodynamics vs. weight last December, when I was towing my 17-foot Airstream Caravel from Michigan to Arizona with a diesel tow vehicle.  Along that 2,000 mile route, I averaged 13 MPG, which is about the same that I get towing the big 30-foot Airstream Safari. But the Caravel weighs just 2,500 pounds, while the Safari weighs about 7,500 pounds.  Triple the weight, almost double the length — and yet, about the same fuel economy.  If a 5,000 pound difference didn’t affect my fuel economy, why would a 160 pound difference (the weight of 20 gallons of water)?

The reason for the similar fuel economy lies in the fact that both Airstream trailers have approximately the same frontal area to pull through the air.  The Caravel is a foot narrower, but that doesn’t make much difference.  In either case, you’re still pulling a rounded block face measuring about 60-70 square feet through the air at highway speed, and that takes a heck of a lot of energy.

winnebago-1966.jpgLook at the boxy Winnebago pictured at left.  The fuel economy of those things at highway speeds is horrible, about 6 MPG on a good day.  Would you make an airplane that looked like that?  It looks like an origami project.  All the folds, flat faces, and square corners add up to incredible amounts of aerodynamic drag. Adding a couple of hundred pounds to that aerodynamic disaster wouldn’t be noticed in terms of fuel consumption.

Airstreams are inherently much more “slippery” than most other travel trailer designs, so we get better fuel economy overall.  Airstream claims about 20% better, which I can believe based on many conversations I’ve had with owners of other brands.  But it could be better.  Even an Airstream has lots of drag-inducing objects hanging off which reduce fuel economy, such as awning, air conditioner, door handle, etc.  When the economic justification is there (higher fuel prices), you’ll see more radical designs of travel trailers and motorhomes that eliminate the bulges and junk on the outside.

The industry is of course interested in reducing weight too, but that’s mostly a response to small tow vehicles with lower overall towing capacity.  The real fuel economy savings will come when travel trailers slip through the air with less drag.

This example of the “weight myth” is just one of dozens that permeate the RV space.  You’re not going to die if you don’t understand it, but there are other myths and misconceptions that are more dangerous, or which cause people to waste their money.  When I’ve spotted them in the past, I’ve talked about them, but perhaps not enough.  I think my tolerance for the “industry standard” level of ignorance and banality has begun to fade, so in the future I’ll call ‘em as I see them.

“How do you decide where to go?”

When we were full-timing, one of the questions we were often asked was, “How do you decide where to go?”  This question always mystified me, because it was never clear to me exactly what was meant by the question.  There were many possible interpretations.

Some people meant, “Of all the great places in the country, how do you choose which ones to visit?” This is the easiest variation to answer, because that’s how I see the travel opportunity.  North America is loaded with interesting people, geography, history, foods, adventures, etc.  There are so many possible places to investigate that an interested person can travel full-time by RV for over a decade and still find new and exciting things to discover.  We have friends who have, in fact, done this and are still on the road.

We chose places to visit based on a combination of factors that were unique to us:  business needs, personal interests, weather, family, invitations, etc.  I wouldn’t pretend that our criteria precisely matches anyone else’s criteria.  The beauty of RV travel is that you can customize your experience to your exact interests, with hardly anything to interfere.  You don’t have to worry about transportation timetables, baggage limits, availability of hotels, etc.  You can stay longer and pay less.  You bring all the comforts of home along with you.  So of course you always do whatever the heck you want, whenever you get the chance.

Other people who asked the question assumed that we traveled on a rigid schedule and therefore meant, “How do you decide how long to make your scheduled stops?” Even working, most of the time we had a fairly flexible schedule.  The first year we were out, we obligated ourselves to be at various Airstream dealers when they were having special sales events.  This meant we had to zig-zag all over the country at inconvenient times, ending up in Indiana in March (not an ideal time to visit).  After a year of that, we stopped promising to be at events and started drawing out a more rational schedule.

“Schedule” is much too strong a word for what we really had.  We kept a list of ideas, long-term obligations, and general goals in mind.  Our actual travel plan was worked out between 1 day and 2 months at a time, no longer. Anything more than two months away was simply a “goal” (such as spending summer in Vermont).  While we always hit the goals, we never let the plan become too organized because that would eliminate happenstance, lucky finds, changes of heart, serendipity, new friends, and unforeseen opportunity from playing their vital part.

Some people who asked the question were concerned with having only perfect stops, so they meant, “How do you know what places are good and which are not?”  Folks like this are usually oriented to the “vacation mode” of travel, where you have a very limited amount of time (a week or two) and want to make the absolute most of it with some sort of fantastic adventure.  To be reasonably sure this is going to happen, you usually need reservations and strict plans.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the mode of a full-timer, so the question really didn’t apply to us.  Full-timers don’t have the restriction of a vacation, and come to find that life on the road shares some realities with life in a house.  In other words, you can’t expect every moment of full-timing to be perfect and wonderful, any more than you can in stationary life.  There are fantastic days of adventure that you could never have anticipated or planned, and there are many more of the mundane days where you had to catch up on laundry or spend the day waiting at the service center.

But I always tried to answer this question anyway. I’d treat it literally, and tell people that we used various sources of information to guide us, including the Internet (RVparkreviews, various travel forums, National Park Service, etc.), tips and invitations from friends, and knowledge of events or rallies that we wanted to attend. Regardless of our pre-planning, we accepted that there would always be surprises of the pleasant and unpleasant kind.  If you fear the uncertainty of that, you probably should stay close to previously-traveled routes.

A few people who asked the question had no concept of what our travel was like at all, and meant, “What do you do if you’re not following the normal air/rental car/hotel/destination resort program?”  That represents a certain cluelessness about RV travel, but I liked that because it meant I could open someone’s eyes to an opportunity that they probably had never considered before.

However, these people broke into two subgroups:  (a) Those who were genuinely curious about what it was like to travel in an RV because they might like the concept for themselves someday; and (b) Those who were curious because they regarded us as nutcases and perhaps thought they would be amused by the tale of our oddball behavior.  The latter group would never seriously consider doing what we were doing, so I never invested a lot of time in trying to convince them to change their ways.  After all, RV’ing isn’t for everyone.

The former group (a) was more interesting.  People’s eyes tend to widen as you describe the idea of pitching the package trips and instead going on a wonderful free-flowing roadtrip where everything has the potential to be an adventure.  The trick here is to appreciate the small things along the road.  Those who were hung up on having a High Concept trip would eventually realize they would be happier flying to the resort in Maui and going to the nightly luau, than finding historic architectural beauty camped behind a deserted Rt 66 gas station in Oklahoma.

The literal answer to this version of the question is elusive in its simplicity:  You do whatever interests you.  If you aren’t interested or passionate about something, life can be pretty boring.  I think little healthy obsessions are part of what makes people stand out from the crowd.  Our obsession over the past several years has been Airstreaming, and it will continue to be for some time, because the lifestyle (full time or not) has yielded so many incredible benefits for all of us.  The Airstream is a vehicle to indulge our interests and discover new ones at the same time. Where it takes you depends on who you are.