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.

Pineapple season

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a colonoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Cat scratch fever

OK, we’ve been off the road for a few weeks.  But is that any reason to be going to the cats?

I would say “going to the dogs” but we are admittedly cat people, and you know that Eleanor and Emma foster kittens from the local Humane Society in between trips.  It was not long after we landed in Tucson that the first batch arrived: six cute kittens needing two medications each in the morning, and three medications in the evening, plus a little of our patented kitty socialization school.

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Having a batch of kittens will turn anyone’s life upside down.  Kittens want to jump, claw, fight, eat, and sleep—all the time, and if they can figure it out, all at the same time.  Kittens have no respect for litter boxes, so twice-daily cleanups are just part of the routine.  They don’t know how to share, and if it suits them to tip over a bowl full of water in the middle of the night, well, you just have to get up and deal with it.

In short, kittens are born with the knowledge that humans exist to serve them.  But in this house they are also patients, so we don’t take much flack when it comes to medicine time.  Their claws get trimmed (by me usually), and then with their defenses lowered we deal with them assembly-line fashion: first a squirt of medicine in the mouth, then a dab of ointment in each eye, and finally the despised nose drops.

It’s not all grief for the little beasts, though.  We do our best to give them back to the shelter with a better opinion of human beings.  Lots of snuggling, playing, attention, belly-rubs, snacks, and general carting around seems to work well in convincing them that we are worth keeping in servitude forever. Some lucky person will get one of these kittens and find that it has been pre-programmed to encourage human bondage.  (We don’t feel guilty about it–these guys need homes.)

In anticipation of some of my Airstream projects, I moved the trailer over to Rob’s place to borrow his somewhat taller carport.  Working there gives me a little more room for jobs that require access to all sides of the trailer and the roof.  Not five minutes after I parked the trailer, his cat “Chester” jumped from the roof of the house to the roof of the Airstream.  “Mmmmm… ” I could hear him saying, “a new roof to sit on.  How nice of you to bring it over for me.”

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After a few minutes of exploration, Chester decided to depart the roof.  But jumping back to the house wasn’t appealing to him, so he decided to see if sliding down the front dome of the Airstream would be appropriate.  During the testing phase he stepped just a bit too far out,  and began to slide down the dome.  I watched, completely helpless to do anything, as Chester put out his claws and ever-so-slowly, excruciatingly, slid down the aluminum dome leaving a foot-long claw scratch in the clearcoat.

Anyone who owns an Airstream can feel my pain.

Fortunately for Chester, he’s a very friendly and fluffy cat.  I couldn’t bear to gut him on the spot, as was my initial instinct.  Also, Rob was there watching.  So I picked Chester up, rubbed his tummy, and told him if he ever did that again he’d become a small yellow bath mat.  Chester later redeemed himself by catching a pack rat beneath the trailer, and the scratch in the clearcoat was shallow enough to buff out. So Chester and I are friends again.

(But I’m going to get on those projects soon.  I don’t know how much I can trust Chester.)

Time to fix

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Kitten season

While the Airstream sits dormant, we completely switch gears and concentrate on the elements of a traditional suburban life.  Well, at least a few of them.  Because we come and go frequently, we can’t participate in many of the common preoccupations that require a continuing presence. I haven’t joined a gym or auditioned for a dramatic production, nor have I enrolled in any classes at the university or joined the board of the local home owners association.

To tell the truth, I’m glad for that.  A good friend just confessed that (being a good natured person who wants to make the world a better place) he recently accepted committee or leadership roles in three different organizations and now has little time for himself.  One of those commitments is for a three year sentence, um, I mean “term”.  I don’t mind getting involved in things, but I’ve got a business to run too.

Also, it bothers some locals when they discover our odd nomadic ways.  A local club co-opted me to their board of directors a couple of years ago, and my frequent & long absences quickly became the topic of some discussion.  I don’t want to be a distraction, so I resigned after a year. Even our neighbors who have known us for years still occasionally wrestle with the fact that we might at any moment vanish for weeks or months.  It seems to be unsettling.

So there are only three local activities we maintain long-term:  orthodontia (just me now, as Emma got her braces off a month ago), karate class for our future black belt, and volunteering at the local Humane Society.

Eleanor and Emma volunteer because Emma has long wanted a pet.  We haven’t been able to find one that could keep up with our travels, and not die of heat stroke when we are boondocking in a national park somewhere that doesn’t have hookups and doesn’t allow pets on the trails. Dog, cat, rat, snake, various birds and reptiles—all have been evaluated and found wanting.  So in compensation for being such terrible parents, we came up with the idea of volunteering to foster kittens for the local Humane Society.

This is ideal, because we only have to commit to a pet for a few weeks at most, and then it goes back to be adopted.  It’s a great opportunity to teach Emma the rewards of volunteerism and also to experience the responsibility of taking care of a fellow creature.  We’ve fattened up and socialized kittens so that they are adoptable, we’ve visited quarantined cats so they don’t go crazy waiting to be let out of their cage, and most recently Eleanor and Emma took on four very young kittens that required bottle feeding.

four unnamed kittens bottle feeding, from Humane Society of Southern Arizona
The 11 p.m. feeding

You see, this is “kitten season” in Tucson.  It’s the time when litter after litter of kittens is  dropped off at the Humane Society, often without mothers.  When they are very young, they have to be fed by syringe or bottle every two hours, around the clock.  As you might guess, there is a very limited pool of people who are willing to do this, and so the staff is stretched to find foster homes for all those kittens.

Last Friday we got a call from a desperate staffer who had run down the list of volunteers and was on her penultimate phone number when she reached Eleanor.  By that evening we had four little mewlers in the house, each requiring feeding, burping, and assistance with bodily functions.  Those of you who had colicky babies can easily recall the sleep-deprivation that results.  It’s the same with kittens, except they cry quietly enough that Daddy can sleep through it.

Kitten bottle feeding, from Humane Society of Southern Arizona
Hey, this is good! What’s in this stuff?

The feeding process for all four kittens, including clean-up, took about 45 minutes, which means you have just 1 hour 15 minutes before the timer goes off and it’s time to get out of bed and do it all over again.  I helped with one or two of the feedings and realized that motherhood is not for me.  But I think I knew that already from the experience when Emma was a sleepless creature herself.

Roaring kitten
I am kitten, hear me roar!

I thought by the end of the weekend we’d thoroughly hate the little buggers, but I underestimated the cute factor.  This is nature’s way of preventing us from eating our children, I think.  When they really got a rhythm going on that bottle of milk, their little ears would start to flap in time with swallowing, making the grey kittens look like cute fuzzy Dumbos with tiger faces.  Then, with a big beard of milk on their faces, they’d collapse gratefully into a “milk coma,” lying atop their litter mates in the box.

Emma’s technique was praised by the local Society volunteer coordinator and I’m told a picture of her “perfect” bottle-feeding position will be part of the training program for future bottle-feeding volunteers.

We couldn’t keep the kittens as long as we’d like, because homeschooling and other critical daily functions were just not feasible around the kittens’ schedule, but at least we had them for three days and bought the staff a little time to find them a longer-term home.  I would like to think that Emma learned something about the realities of babies, too.

We have about a month before we need to saddle up again.  In those weeks, if we can snag a few kittens who aren’t bottle-feeding, we will.  It feels like having furry foster children is now a fundamental part of our “home base” experience, and we may as want get the full benefit of it while we have the opportunity.  Soon the Airstream will be rolling and when it does, this aspect of our life will go back on hold until next fall.