Holidays in the Airstream

Halloween is coming up and like a lot of holidays it reminds me of great times we’ve had on the road. For three years we spent every holiday on the road in our Airstream, and many other holidays since then.  The Airstream is just a fun place to be.

Airstream Christmas 2005

Being in the Airstream makes each holiday so much more memorable.  We’re simultaneously away from our familiar surroundings and routines, and yet completely at home.  Christmas in the Airstream is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps because many of the trappings of that holiday are stripped away, leaving us to focus on the things that really matter: each other and the moment we’re in.

If you ever have lamented the fuss, traffic, commercialism, over-abundance, and family stress of Christmas, I strongly advise you to pack up the Airstream. Pick the right spot far away from the hubbub, shape a little potted rosemary bush into a tree, warm something nice-smelling on the stove, and suddenly Christmas becomes peaceful and magical again.

I remember very well each of the Christmases we spent in the Airstream because they were unique. The first was near San Diego, and we went to the San Diego Zoo on Christmas day.  The next year it was St George Island, and we walked the endless open beach by the state park.  The next year we bought a house and spent one night camped on the living room floor because the house had no furniture (then we moved back into the Airstream for another 10 months).

I like Halloween in the Airstream too, because we always see a different version of it.  In Oregon we joined a parade and saw some wonderfully incredible and creative costumes.

Medford OR halloween parade 2007

Rotten pumpkin AirstreamIn Disney’s Fort Wilderness we trick-or-treated in costume with dozens of other people through the campground. (Warning: the warm temperatures in Florida at that time of year mean that carved pumpkins rot quickly.)

We’ve spent many a New Year’s Eve camped at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, but in the past few years the park has gotten a little too popular at that time of year so lately we’ve been seeking alternatives locally. Still, I love a New Year’s Eve where the primary sound at midnight is a pack of coyotes howling.  Other people like parties, and if that’s your style you can always find a New Year’s Eve rally.

Eleanor has even successfully prepared a complete Thanksgiving dinner in the Airstream.  She had to shop for a very small turkey that would fit in the oven, and the limited counter space was a problem that required lots of pre-planning, but it worked out.  One tip if you ever do this: definitely find a full-hookup campsite.  Otherwise it’s hard to have enough water capacity for all the dishes afterward!

Chatfield SP Airstream snowPerhaps the best thing about major holidays is that many of them occur in the winter season. If you live up north each holiday gives you an excuse to load up the Airstream for some off-season camping, which can be a lot of fun.

You’ll burn more propane and use a lot of electricity but with a campground hookup it’s really no problem to take the Airstream out. Waking up to a fresh snow or a bit of frost on the ground somehow feels very cozy when viewed from your warm Airstream—and you know you don’t have to go anywhere.

I know we’re all supposed to enjoy holidays because each holiday is a chance to get together with the family. But if that’s not your reality, the Airstream has another huge advantage: you can be far away, and even unreachable if you want to be. There are lots of places in North America where cellular service still doesn’t penetrate (but you can still watch the football game on TV). Just look for state park campgrounds located in valleys, national forests, or open desert area.

And if you are staying home, keep in mind that your Airstream can be a great guest house for a visitor, with just a full tank of water and an electric plug. You might be enjoying the holiday at home, but perhaps someone you know wants to have a memorable holiday stay?  Considering that people are lining up to pay to stay in Airstream hotels all around the world, there’s a good chance you know someone who would get a kick out of a night in your very own “Air BnB”.

Thinking forward to Airstreaming 2017

Each year around this time I usually find myself considering our prospects for travel in the coming year.  This is when we start to sketch out a rough plan, starting with a possible post-Christmas or early January break.

(I know for most people in North America a trip in January isn’t very practical, and you have my sympathies. When we lived in Vermont all I could do in January was measure the depth of snow covering our ’68 Caravel, and periodically peek inside to make sure all was well.  It says something about our family’s dedication to Airstreaming that we chose to relocate to a place where it stays reliably above freezing day and night most of the winter.)

tucson-neon-signBut this year the Airstream has been mostly left to sleep through the winter in the carport, under cover.  It has served as our guest bedroom and spare refrigerator instead of as a travel vehicle. While I still have a list of improvements and fixes I want to make before we head out again next May, for now we’re staying put and focusing on other things.

This is why I’ve been silent on the blog since we returned to home base back in early October. I came back from our summer of travel thinking that it was time to take stock and focus on personal projects for a while. The break has been good, an opportunity to look at the big broad world and consider my place in it for the next decade. To do that, I forced myself to step away from the “usual” and build time into each day to think about something completely different.

I don’t know what’s coming out of that yet, but it has been a meditative sort of exercise and thus well worth doing on its own virtues. As an entrepreneur I’m accustomed to the ground moving beneath my feet, so once in a while it’s good to stop the motion and just feel the earth beneath—metaphorically speaking.

Still, life goes on and periodically I have been forced to come out of my trance to engage with it. On January 17 at 1:00 pm I’ll be at the WBCCI International Board of Trustees (IBT) rally in Casa Grande AZ to speak about Airstream maintenance stuff.  This IBT rally is an obligatory one for officers of the club and so the program tends to be loaded with business meetings rather than the sort of stuff we do at Aluma-events.  I figured the attendees might like something a little different, so I’ll try to be that.

Brett & I are also working on Alumaflamingo, since that’s right around the corner in February (20-26, in Daytona FL. Brett is handling the heavy lifting on that one (I did the same for Fandango last September, so it’s his turn). I’ll be there for 5 days and probably doing a talk or two on something. If you are going to be there and have a request for a seminar or workshop, let me know.

The Alumapalooza schedule is also underway. That event, our “signature” one at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center OH, will be May 30 – June 3.  Once again much of the program is changing; we’re going for a heavy hands-on workshop format in 2017, so there will be at least two different workshops every day for you to try.  No experience needed, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot. Of course, we’ll still have lots of entertainment and fun, too, so don’t feel like you’ll be forced to work and think while you’re on vacation!

People are already asking if we are going to hold another Alumafandango in California in 2017.  Sorry, not in 2017 but there will be some sort of west coast event in 2018.  We’re working on locations right now.

My zen state has also been periodically interrupted by Airstream’s relentless development of new products.  You already probably know about the upcoming Nest fiberglass trailer. It’s in development and is expected to be released as a 2018 model year product but official details haven’t yet been released regarding how it will differ from the Nest prototype that you can see on the Internet.  We’re going to do an article on it in the Fall 2017 issue of Airstream Life.

The Basecamp (version 2) is already out and we’ve got a big layout coming in the Spring 2017 issue of Airstream Life.  You’ll see that in February, both in our print version and online versions. The new Basecamp looks cool and I predict it will be a success.

And then there’s a new Airstream trailer motif that I’m not allowed to talk about until January.  All I can say is that you’ll see it on the cover of our Spring 2017 issue and subscribers will see a beautiful photo spread with all the details.

And then … well, there’s more stuff in the product development pipeline in Jackson Center.  I won’t even give a hint of what’s coming (not yet, anyway) but rest assured the folks at Airstream are definitely not resting on their laurels. I really have to hand it to them. With sales growing year-on-year for five years in a row, other companies might be tempted to “innovate” in RV industry terms. That means putting a different color of swoopy vinyl decal on the outside and adding some LEDs. But Airstream is stretching the boundaries of what it has traditionally done, with entirely new concepts for travel vehicles. That takes guts, willingness to accept risk, and forward thinking.

That’s a good example for anyone in business. I’m going to be doing a lot of similar things in 2017, mixing up the staid old formula anywhere it needs to be invigorated. Or to put it another way: I’ll be trying to obsolete my own ideas before someone else does.

Having a travel trailer is a great tool for that. You can sit at home all day thinking but sooner or later you’ve got to cross-pollinate, share ideas, get inspired, challenge your own thinking, etc.  And what better way than to find all those opportunities than to hit the road next spring?

So I can see a 2017 travel plan developing. Our Airstream, when it wakes up, will find a whole new set of roads ahead to explore. Where they lead, I can’t say.  For now I guess it’s good enough to start thinking about the first mile of exploration. After that, the story tends to write itself.

Temporary Bachelor Man strikes again

Temporary Bachelor ManRight now he is lurking in his secret lair, but soon that superhero of summer, Temporary Bachelor Man will appear.

It has been too long since he donned the Mighty Vest Of Masculinity, slipped on the Sacred Sunglasses Of Limited Eyesight (e.g., ne-cherchez-pas-la-femme), lifted the Flaming Torch Of Bachelor Cooking, and wore the all-powerful Cuffs Of Household Servitude.

Each summer I take a few weeks away from the Airstream to fly back down to southern Arizona and bake in the heat, solo. It’s a great opportunity for me to get serious projects done, since there’s nobody else here and little going on to distract me.

This means I tend to put my head down and tackle those projects that have accumulated in the first half of the year. It’s much like hacking away at an overgrown kudzu in the back yard, except it’s in my brain. After a few weeks, things are much clearer and the mental constipation that comes from having too much unfinished business is gone.

But there’s a real risk of being over-focused.  I could easily end up resembling Howard Hughes in his final days cooped up in his penthouse at the Xanadu Hotel.  I get so engaged with my projects that it is easy to forgo the niceties of shaving, eating, and engaging with humanity.

That’s the reason for TBM.  His heroic character inspires me to escape laptop computer bondage once in a while, and go explore Tucson for those little details of the city that I would miss in the busier snowbird season. TBM is a mighty tester of local restaurants and food trucks, prowler of odd corners and back streets of Tucson, and watcher of movies featuring absurd testosterone.

In other words, there’s nothing like a little deprivation to make you appreciate what you have.  “Nothing going on” means there’s reason to go digging a little deeper, which means just going out and poking around until something (a historic building, a cultural event, a rattlesnake) emerges.

Tucson is a curious city and most people miss that fact. It’s the only city I’ve ever seen that has dirt roads and horse ranches right in the middle of everything. It has all kinds of strange and historic neighborhoods that are so cut off by latter-day road projects that you almost can’t get to them without knowing the secret route. In a country driven by chain-store development, the illogical corners and little urban mysteries are exactly what I like about the place.

Last Sunday I picked up my buddy Nate for a day of cruising the parts of inner Tucson that we had no business visiting, looking for interesting things. It was perfect weather for it: 107 degrees and blazing sunshine ensure that very few other people will be out, so whenever we found something worth photographing we could simply stop the car in the middle of the road and take our time. It was a uniquely Tucsonian thing to do, and given a liter of water per person for a half-day, I would recommend it to any urban explorer.

One easy aspect of Tucson to explore is food.  For such a small city, Tucson has a remarkable range of cuisine. I don’t know why. Restaurants keep popping up and disappearing, so much that I once calculated I could visit a different restaurant five days a week for a year.

Sadly, half of them would be hamburger places. I have nothing against hamburgers but I don’t know why we need McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Five Guys, In’n’Out, Whataburger, Smashburger, Monkey Burger, Blake’s Lotaburger, Zinburger, Freddy’s, Fuddruckers, Culver’s, Diablo Burger, Graze Premium, All American Burger, and many other local spots.  They’re mostly good, but a dozen or so chains selling essentially the same product is not the definition of “variety”.  Hamburger joints are second only in number to the Mexican restaurants, but since we are only 70 miles from Mexico I can understand better why those are plentiful.

One of my TBM goals this year is to explore new and different local restaurants.  I think the only way to know if you’ll like a place is to actually eat there.  Yelp, in my opinion, is worse than useless.  Too many of the reviews seem to be from whiny people talking mostly about themselves and complaining in a most disgusting tone of entitlement about how the waiter didn’t bring their ice water fast enough.  I have found several real gems of restaurants that I love, and every single one of them is panned mercilessly by the self-absorbed Yelpers, people who think Cajun cooking comes with red sauce because that’s what they get at the mall Food Court.

Whoops, did I just go off on a rant there?  I was going to say that my prowl with Nate ended up at a local Indian cafe and market, which wasn’t bad at all for a late lunch, and that seemed like an excellent reward for our efforts. My goal therefore, for the two weeks I have left as TBM, will be to explore other local hidden restaurants as frequently as I can.

Now, I won’t be telling you about what I find unless you come to Tucson. In our new world of crowd-sourced information, there’s benefit to keeping a few things quiet. A quick way to ruin a good local attraction is to tell the world about it. But I mention this as a suggestion to you.  If you live in, or near a place that you have never really fully explored, perhaps it’s time to do so.

By this I mean walking or driving through the places you have never had reason to go to, just to see what’s there.  Walk along the river that runs through your city (or in our case, the dry washes). Check out that bike path, even if you have to do it on foot.  Try a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and banter with the waitress. Waltz into that bookstore in the old brick building. Make a list of odd places you’ve seen and start ticking them off, one by one.

Then you’ll have adopted the heroic and expansive attitude of Temporary Bachelor Man, Discoverer of the Unexpected. It’s just like traveling in the Airstream, only very very local.  So I predict you’ll be surprised and somewhat invigorated by whatever you find.

Looking back / looking forward

Fall 2015 trip 1Our trip from Vermont to Arizona has finally wrapped up.  After Big Bend National Park we made overnight stops at two old favorites: Balmorhea State Park (Toyahvale, TX) and Rock Hound State Park (Deming, NM), and then landed at home on Saturday.

By the numbers it was a big trip:

  • nearly a month on the road
  • over 3,600 miles of driving and 60 hours of drive time (plus side trips)
  • nine State Parks (General Butler/KY, Fred Gannon/FL, Henderson Beach/FL, Bayou Segnette/LA, Galveston Island/TX, Pedernales Falls/TX, Seminole Canyon/TX, Balmorhea/TX, Rock Hound/NM)
  • two National Parks (Mammoth Cave and Big Bend)
  • I took about 600 photos (and E&E took more)
  • six on-the-road repairs

Despite a few frustrations, we had a nice trip overall.  Challenges are to be expected, and after having lived in our Airstream for three years we are used to the ebb and flow of life on the road. We all understand how to be flexible when things happen that force a change in plan.  Perhaps it’s also easier to take the bad with the good because the freedom of travel means that most of the experience is very good.

Fall 2015 trip 2

Now of course comes the hardest part: settling back in at home.  My Airstream “bug/improvement” list has about a dozen things on it, mostly small stuff.  It has been away from home base since May and has traveled about 8,000 miles.  I’ve been doing routine maintenance all along, but now we need to do a big clean-out of the trailer, digging deep into the storage areas that we rarely examine to get rid of accumulated stuff we don’t use anymore.

I’ve learned from experience that it’s easier to adjust slowly to fixed-base life. Even though it might seem simple, there’s an emotional reaction that happens when you shift from the free-wheeling life to all the cares and concerns of fixed-base life: house maintenance, medical appointments, work, social obligations etc.  It’s like jet leg: you can’t adjust to it all at once.  So we always unpack over a period of days, taking out things as we need them and giving ourselves plenty of time to absorb the reality of our situation.

Speaking for myself, the worst thing to do is to give into the temptation to immediately immerse myself in a dozen pent-up obligations. This results in overload, because inevitably I’ve got a dozen house and Airstream projects to tackle, Airstream Life work, appointments to keep … and thinking about all of it just makes the whole landing process too stressful.  Instead, I try to focus on one project at a time, and also think about the next trip we might take.

We’ve already got plans to travel a little around Thanksgiving, and we’re considering a pre-Christmas or holiday week trip as well. The Airstream is there to be used, and fuel prices are very low right now.  Even if we only go 50 miles, we’ll have an adventure and an opportunity to change perspective. So while I’m looking at a pile of obligations at home base right now, the magic carpet awaits and it is giving us something to look forward to.

The standard to beat: 1948 technology

I don’t know if it’s a matter of getting older, but my perspective on modern stuff continues to warp to the point that I am starting to despise all new consumer products.  A trip to Best Buy still gets me a little excited about all the shiny new gear, but at the same time I have a mental reservation because I know that most of that cool stuff will fail far too soon, or be technologically obsoleted in just a few years.

My Vizio television doesn’t just turn on; it has to “boot up.”  Periodically it tells me to wait because it’s downloading a software update. Sometimes it “crashes” like a computer, spontaneously shutting down and re-booting. My Sony Blu-Ray player will hang occasionally if it is connected to the wrong type of wifi network, even though I don’t actually use the wifi features.

I’m lucky to get three years out of a cell phone before it goes wonky or the battery ceases to hold a charge.  Microwave ovens: maybe 4-5 years before they cook themselves. By adding electronic control panels, manufacturers have even managed to make it likely that a traditional oven or a washing machine will need a $200 repair after a few years.

All of this technology has a short life span, and we just accept it as part of the rapid pace of consumerism. We aren’t really buying tech anymore, effectively we just rent it by virtue of our expectation that it won’t last. Thinking that any technological device we buy today could be handed down to the kids as an heirloom is a laughable prospect, even with high-end kitchen appliances. Instead, we are encouraged to buy extended warranties to perhaps eke out another year or two before the device heads for a landfill.

The idea that once upon a time you could buy an electric appliance and use it for decades is probably bewildering to most people born after the era of Compact Disc. Why wouldn’t you want to toss that old dinged-up thing after a few years, and buy the latest version with new programmable features, for a cheap price?

Ah, but what they don’t know is the heartening feeling of a trusted old tool, whether in the garage workshop or the kitchen. Eleanor’s Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 9 is a great example. Originally owned by her father, she has owned it and used it as long as I’ve known her. That wonderful old machine just keeps going and going, because the Mixmasters were made in an age when you had to build a product that lasted, if you were going to convince people to spend money on it.

What a strange philosophy in today’s world, eh? Mercedes-Benz used to be that way—I remember the parents of childhood friends who bought a Mercedes at considerable cost back in the 1970s and justified it because the car would last longer than what was coming out of Detroit at that time. It did too, until the Vermont road salt finally consumed it. Now people buy premium cars for reasons other than longevity, because hanging on to a car implies you can’t afford a new one. Many buyers ditch the car at the end of their lease, so the manufacturers have less incentive to build a car that lasts longer than the average car payment.

A few months ago Eleanor’s Mixmaster seemed to be running a little warm. After 67 years of use, it had a right to, I suppose. We were concerned that the motor might burn out, so I suggested she switch to the other vintage Mixmaster I bought back in 2013, while I disassembled the Model 9 and refurbished it.

As part of this, I offered to completely clean up and repaint every component of the Mixmaster. I would even source replacement decals, so the finished project would look like a brand new 1948 appliance. But Eleanor didn’t want me to go any further than cleaning up the dried bits of dough that were stuck to it, and I immediately understood why. A “new” Mixmaster wouldn’t look like the trusted old family friend she’s known for decades. Losing the patina would be like erasing memories. The value of the Mixmaster wasn’t how good it looked after all these years, it was how worn it looked.

Now, I could probably find another Model 9 out there in good working condition for fifty or sixty dollars. They aren’t particularly rare, and they don’t have a ton of market value. But this was the one her father touched, and which they used together, and that provenance gave it sentimental value. Sentimental value trumps market value every time.

Some parts for the old Mixmasters aren’t available anymore, so I bought a working donor for parts. I bought a new power cord, and found a guy who sold the old service manuals so I bought one of those too. Then I took the Model 9 apart, ran out of time, and put all the parts in a box. Eleanor’s Mixmaster sat there for months, disassembled, until last week when I finally had time to tackle it.

Mixmaster service manual sampleThe service manual was a strange thrill all by itself. Typewritten pages, only two sketches, and meticulous instructions on how to diagnose, repair, lubricate, and adjust every little mechanical component. I could imagine some engineers in a post WWII office, writing and revising the manual in longhand before finally handing it over to the secretarial pool to be typed up and proofread. You just don’t see manuals like that anymore for most products, because they’re not worth fixing.

IMG_4616

The interior of a vintage Mixmaster is a brilliant bit of design, almost like a watch, with dozens of carefully crafted bits that work together in mechanical harmony. Part of my motivation for taking on this project was to learn; inside the Mixmaster are spinning governors with breaker points, a resistor and capacitor, calibrated springs, carbon brushes, and gears—none of which I understood before I removed the first screw. I was fascinated to delve into the world of 1940s engineering and see how it was done before integrated circuits and microprocessors took over.

IMG_4612

What really impressed me was the incredible durability of the design. This thing is old enough to collect Social Security, and yet once I had it apart I found no significant wear on any of the components. I felt faintly ridiculous for having bought a parts donor; all the Model 9 needed was some ancient dough cleaned out from the air vents, a new power cord, fresh grease, and a minor adjustment to the “armature thrust screw.” It’s now re-assembled and working as good as new.

Good for another sixty years?  Perhaps so. All I am sure of is that it will turn on instantly every time we twist the dial, and it won’t ever need a software update, and it won’t report what we’re mixing to any social media sites or the NSA, and it will never be worthless. Manufacturers of modern technology: there’s your standard to beat.