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.


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.


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.

What’s the meaning of a single kitten?

I’ve come to realize that it’s not prepping and packing the Airstream that takes so much time before a long trip.  It’s everything else.

If only you could put life on hold for a while, just to have more time to dedicate to getting your adventure vehicle set to go. Checking the air in the tires, filling the fresh water & propane, cleaning, stocking the refrigerator and all that would be enjoyable. Half the fun of a trip is in the anticipation, and there are so many wonderful cues to remind you of past trips.

For example, I put my aluminum dutch oven in the front compartment yesterday. It was just a small thing to pack, a tool that I don’t use all that much, but I remember every time I have cooked with the dutch oven on the road, and every one of those times is a great memory. So I was smiling on the inside as I put that dutch oven in the Airstream.  I know I’ll use it sometime during our next few months of travel and we’ll eat something special that day.

Those moments would be more frequent if life didn’t keep getting in the way. But there’s lots of “real work” (job) to be done, prep for Alumapalooza 6, maintenance stuff, final appointments, prescriptions to fill, and all those things that fill up our days outside the Airstream. Funny thing, we still did all that when we were full-timing but it felt so much easier. Is that my memory of the trip, or was life just less complicated?

This year we couldn’t leave without pitching in to help the local Humane Society again in their annual “kitten season”. For some reason there are always too many kittens showing up this time of year, and not enough volunteers to take care of them, so we picked up a litter of five absolutely adorable little beasts, all different colors, and they’ve been sucking up all of our time. See below for a picture of my desk and a clear explanation of why sometimes I can’t get things done.

Kittens on desk

Sadly this year has been hard for the beasties. The Humane Society people reported an unusually high rate of “failure to thrive,” which is sort of a catch-all for “something killed the kitten.”  We’ve never lost a kitten before, but this year we have had two die in our arms and it has been enormously saddening.

The latest one was this morning at about 5:30 a.m. We fought to keep her going for a week but a combination of diseases picked up while a stray doomed her, and there was nothing anyone could do.

Kitten on desk

We’re down to three now, including that fierce little tortiseshell you see above, and they aren’t out of danger yet. Still, I am optimistic that they will survive.  They’re gaining weight and playing more actively, which are both very good signs. We’re throwing all our energies into caring for them, even though it’s going to make getting out of the house on schedule very difficult.

Our goal is to leave them plump and healthy. When we finally leave in the Airstream, these little furballs will go to another foster home for a week, and after that they should be adoptable.

It’s a coincidence, but in the Fall 2015 issue of Airstream Life we’ll have a feature article about visiting the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. Several of our friends have made the trip and reported what a great experience it was, so when the opportunity arose I dispatched a freelancer, and she came back with beautiful photos and a great story.  You can camp there, by prior arrangement, and volunteer to help if you want.

A single kitten might not seem to make a difference in this world, where great injustices and inhumane acts happen every day, but we believe in (as the bumper sticker says) thinking globally and acting locally. Not only will we save three little lives but hopefully someone will be very happy to have each of them as a pet. If it is a good thing to make a teddy bear so that a child might have a toy, it must be a very good thing to save a life so that a child might have that living companion to help teach them compassion and responsibility.

In any case, we’ve learned a few things and gained some perspective from this experience. I don’t any of us regret having taken on the challenge, even though it has been difficult. We’ll have time to think about it, and talk about it, on the long drive northeast starting in a week.

The things you take home

We are home after a little over two weeks of traveling from Vermont to Arizona, and for the past week we have been slowly unpacking the Airstream and catching up on the obligations of daily life. It has been four months since the Airstream was at home base, so there’s a lot of cleaning and tweaking to be done.

The first week at home can be tough. I think that for a lot of people it is easy to sink into a sort of semi-depression after a great trip, as they are forced to re-enter the “real world” of work.  This is really unfortunate.  Obviously it’s kind of counter-productive if you go out on a trip and get refreshed, then come back to home base only to promptly lose all that fresh energy.

Since we are out traveling often (and so have to make the re-adjustment back to home life just as often) I’ve developed some personal strategies to ensure that that depression doesn’t strike me. It never consciously occurred to me that this was something I needed to do, but gradually over the years it just felt better to do certain things to soften the transition from footloose travel to homebound routine.

One of the things I try to do is to anticipate the return with joy rather than dread, while we are still traveling. If you truly dread your home life you probably should make some changes, but I think for most people it’s just a few obligations or the fear of losing the pleasant mellow of vacation, that has them down. They try not to think about “the real world” because they are afraid it will overshadow what they’re experiencing at that moment, even if the real world isn’t really that bad.

I look at it another way. I think about the things that I like about being home, and the things I want to do once I get there, in the days leading up to the end of a trip. This way the arrival back at home is just another fun stop along the way. For example, while were in Colorado and New Mexico I was also mentally preparing a list of things to do in Tucson: a old favorite restaurant to re-visit, showing Eleanor the new Tucson streetcar, checking out some venues for next year’s Alumafiesta, going to Scottsdale for a car show, finishing a Mercedes project with my buddy across town, Dad’s night with the guys, sunrise in our bedroom, and seeing our stray cat “Priscilla” again.

Writing up that list, it looks mundane and even silly to me now, but long ago I realized that it’s important to appreciate the little things that fill your life with bits of joy. I could have thought of the crummy stuff that is coming, like a series of dental appointments and expensive car maintenance, because that’s part of life too—but why go there?  Those things will get worked out eventually whether I worry about them or not.

Another thing that we all like to do is collect things along our travels that we can enjoy after the travel is over. I don’t mean antique furniture or souvenir snow globes, because those just add to our clutter and we don’t really need them.  I’m talking about intangibles and consumables, like new ideas and food.  Ideas in particular are the real riches of life (at least to me). They add to our store of knowledge and our internal diversity of thought, constantly expanding us into more interesting people.  (Food is also constantly expanding us, especially now that we are over 50, but that’s an argument for moderation rather than avoidance.)

While we were at the Lincoln Cabin historic site in Illinois, I watched the historical interpreters making a wonderful Irish Soda Bread in their Dutch Oven. It looked so nice and smelled so good that we all stood around and admired it while I asked questions about how they made it. This idea lodged in my head, and so it became once of the things that I looked forward to doing once we got back to home base.

Yesterday Eleanor picked up some ingredients and verified we had the rest: buttermilk, flour, Baking Powder, salt, raisins, brown sugar. She researched various recipes and we discussed them together.  I wanted one that was simple, so I could easily make it when camping, and yet reasonably tasty. And today, with the help of both Eleanor and Emma, I made my very first Irish Soda Bread in the new aluminum Dutch Oven that I’ve been hauling around in the Airstream for the past year.

It’s not perfect bread, but that’s not even close to the point. What really matters to me is that I was looking forward to doing this, and the anticipation of this simple act was enough to soften the landing. It even got me happy about the chore of clearing out the front compartment of the Airstream, because that’s where my Dutch Oven was.

And of course, the idea of making a Soda Bread became the other kind of souvenir that we like to bring back from a trip: food. So in a way, it was perfect.

There’s one more strategy that I use when a trip is winding down, or just ended.  That’s the one we all do. I think about future trips, and talk to my family about them, and pretty soon we have something else to anticipate while we are getting on with whatever has to be done. As they say, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  Enjoy life.


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.