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.

Numbers games

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I am in the business of publishing stuff about Airstreams primarily because it allows us to travel frequently as a family. It’s a fun job and I meet a lot of interesting people, but the big benefit is lifestyle. With the Airstream we can go out for long trips and it’s not expensive. “Will work for cheap travel,” might have been my motto in the early days.

Every time we are forced to travel without the Airstream I am shocked at the cost and reminded why most families travel rarely. At the moment I have an uncomfortable sensation of impending poverty as a result of traveling without the Airstream. We are in Europe, and it’s lovely, broadening, and expensive.  The apartment we’ve rented in Milan is very nice, but there’s no denying that our cost per night is strikingly high compared to staying in the Airstream.

This year the Airstream will be out for roughly 20-22 weeks (not counting the time we are in Europe), at an average cost of about $25 per day including fuel & campgrounds. (It’s a low number because many days we are courtesy-parking in driveways for free.) We can be away from home for about five months on the same budget as a couple of weeks in Europe, even if you don’t count the airfare. In other words, our daily cost is about 10 or 11 times more expensive without the Airstream.

So yeah, I miss the Airstream. Someday I’m going to work out an European Airstream and travel in that.

If we were using an Airstream right now, we probably would have camped at Camping Ca’Savio (a 45 minute ferry ride away) when we wanted to visit Venice. Actually you can camp there right now in an Airstream if you want, because they have six of them set up as permanent rentals right by the beach. Eleanor and I rode a ferry from Venice and walked across the narrow peninsula (stopping for gelato along the way, as is mandatory in Italy) to check it out.

Camping Ca'Savio Airstreams

Even though we can’t roam as much as we would with the Airstream, it has been a good trip. I find it useful to take some time to reflect on everything from a distance. The past few years have been heavy with obligations and challenges, and now I think we have the chance to get back to the sort of life we have enjoyed in the past.

That means working less frantically, leaving more time our daily schedule for ourselves, and taking more time on trips. For example, it has been about five years since we attended a good old fashioned weekend rally that we weren’t hosting ourselves.  I miss the simplicity of just showing up and hanging out with friends and fellow ‘streamers without any obligations at all. I guess you could say that my goal for the next few years is to “see more, live more, do less.

This is part of the reason why there will be fewer Aluma-events next year and in 2017. It was a lot of work to run around the country to host five-day events in Oregon, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona (all the while doing advance work for new events in California and Ontario). So in 2016 Brett & I will be hosting Alumapalooza and Alumafandango only.  Alumapalooza will continue as an annual event because it’s the “homecoming” event at the factory.

Other events, such as Alumafandango and Alumaflamingo will show up perhaps every other year. Alumafiesta in Tucson is gone forever*. So if you want to go to an “Aluma-event”, don’t wait for “next year”—there may not be one.

 * The brilliant campground management decided they could make more money by refusing rallies during “peak season”, AKA the only time anyone wants to be there. They offered that we could hold Alumafiesta in May. Let’s have a show of hands: who wants to go to Tucson in May?

Cutting back the events has given me time to work on other projects, which is why I finally managed to complete my Airstream Maintenance book this summer. If you don’t have a copy, check it out. Initial reviews have been great on Amazon, Airforums, and blogs.)

And that brings me to a minor rant. This has nothing to do with Airstreams and probably few people other than me care about this issue, but I have to say publicly that Amazon has done a serious disservice to niche publishers with their Kindle royalty scheme. You see, Amazon says that if you publish your book on Kindle with a retail price between $2.99 and $9.99, they’ll give you a fair 70% of the revenue.  That makes sense. After all, the author/publisher does the heavy lifting in this equation and takes on most of the risk, including research, writing, editing, design, and marketing.

But if you set a price above $9.99, Amazon cuts the royalty to 35%. This is their way of discouraging “expensive” Kindle books (since when is $10 expensive for a book?) In other words, Kindle authors gets less money for books priced at $19.00 than for books priced at $9.99. Amazon snarfs up the rest, even though their work is the same regardless of the retail price.

This sucks for a niche publisher like me.  I can’t justify spending years writing lengthy niche books (219 pages in this case) which only a few thousand people will buy, and letting Amazon take 65% of the revenue. Basically, their Kindle pricing penalizes people who publish specialized information.

So I won’t sell my maintenance book on Kindle.  Sorry, Kindle owners. But the good news is that Apple is more reasonable, and so you will find Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” in the Apple iBookstore at $24.99.  You’ll even save a few bucks compared to the print edition, if you like e-books. I hope you’ll give it a look either way.

We’ll be back in the Airstream in October. In keeping with the “see more, live more, do less” philosophy, we have no particular agenda for the trip back west from Vermont to Arizona, but we will take some time to allow things to happen along the way. After all, taking extra days in the Airstream is easy and affordable.  That’s a place where the numbers always work.

Why you might be wrong about everything

This week I bought the Airstream Safari a new set of tires. There wasn’t anything wrong with the old tires, other than being old.  The tire industry makes various recommendations about replacing tires—I’ve heard anywhere from 4 years to 10 years, and the length of time seems to correlate with the confidence the manufacturer has in its product.

Old Michelin tires

In this case the tires were Michelin LTX that we installed in January 2010, and although the tires were only used for five years and eight months, they were manufactured in late 2008 and early 2009.  Tires begin to age from the day they are made, not the day they are installed, so I considered these to be nearly seven years old.

Old tires checking

That didn’t bother me much, but on close inspection some fine “checking” (which is the tire industry term for cracking at the surface of the rubber) was apparent. Since my Airstream, livelihood, and family all depends on safe and reliable operation of these tires, it seemed like the time to swap in a new set.

In a way, the Michelins have been an experiment. Those of you who have read my blogs from 2005-2010 know that we historically had terrible results from using ST (Special Trailer) type tires on the Safari. After years of constantly replacing them because of on-the-road failures, I took the advice of Andy Thomson at Can-Am RV and installed the Michelin LTX instead.

As always, Andy was spot-on with his advice. We’ve never had a problem since. Those tires have traveled over 45,000 miles and the tread is still good.  Not one tread separation or flat, whereas I was accustomed to dealing with a problem every few months when I was trying various brands of ST tires. In other words, the Michelin experiment was a success.

So it’s probably no surprise that I ordered up a fresh set of the same tires again (from Tire Rack).  It was interesting to note that Michelin has re-designated them. Before they were Michelin LTX M/S LT235/75R15  104/101R. That decodes as follows:

  • M/S =mud and snow
  • LT = Light Truck
  • 235/75 R15 = the size of the tire. My Airstream came with a Goodyear 225/75, so the Michelins are just a little wider. R15 means they go on a 15″ wheel.
  • 104/101 R is their weight carrying capacity. In this case, they had two designations. 104 decodes as 1,985 lbs of weight per tire, which means all four had a capacity of 7,940 lbs. That’s a few hundred pounds more than our Airstream typically weighs when loaded.  (The “101R” adds a caveat. If you want the tire to go up to 106 MPH, don’t exceed 1,819 lbs per tire.)

The new tires are Michelin LTX M/S 2 P235/75R15 108T. For whatever reason, Michelin is now calling them passenger tires (that’s what the “P” means) and giving them a higher load rating of 2,183 lbs per tire. But that’s really misleading. The industry says that if you want to use them on a truck or trailer you should divide by 1.1, which brings the load rating right back to 1,985.  (Isn’t it fun, all the secret codes and hidden rules they have? No wonder people get confused.)

The speed rating went up too: “108T” means now we can theoretically tow at 118 MPH, as long as we keep under 2,208 lbs per tire.  Sounds like fun.

I don’t hesitate to recommend these tires to my friends who ask for advice, because I’ve had this very good experience. But if you are happy using some other tire and having no problems, I don’t see a need to switch. Our 1968 Caravel does very well on ST tires, probably because it covers relatively few miles and is a much lighter trailer.

Now, having said all this, I’ve exposed myself to a small controversy. Some people like to debate this subject—and many others, such as tow vehicle choice—and undoubtedly one of them will either get in touch with me to inform me of my poor choice or open a thread on an online forum somewhere to discuss it. I have been intrigued to study the reasons why this continues to happen.

It’s perhaps oversimplifying, but I see two basic groups in every perennial online towing debate.

On one side you have what I’ll call the Rationalists. They look at the numbers and the guidelines. If, for example, the industry says that ST tires are engineered specifically for the needs of travel trailers, with reinforced sidewalls and special tread designs, that’s what the Rationalists will go by. After all, that’s what the experts say—and who are we to second-guess the engineers and the RV industry? They are the ones who made the things! Using LT or P tires is a sort of “off label use,” which might open you up to liability if something bad happens. And finally (say the Rationalists) just because those tires work for a few people doesn’t mean they’re a good idea.

On the other side you have the Empiricists. They look at actual experience, and argue that it has more value. If hundreds or even thousands of people are using LT or P-designated tires with a much higher success rate than the ST tires, who cares what the industry claims? Clearly their claims have been disproved by reality. This brings into question the industry motivations for steering us toward an inferior product (perhaps it was because the RV industry loves a low price? or perhaps to maximize profits?), which leads to deeper suspicion of industry guidelines.

Usually, both the Rationalists and the Empiricists firmly believe they are right, and they’ll often defend their position to the point of spoiling a party. (I used tires as an example, but the real fireworks get started over tow vehicle choice.) The problem is that neither side really has all the data.

The Rationalists don’t really know if the information they have received is correct. They’re just trusting what they see as the most authoritative source, and as we know, seemingly-authoritative sources can be dead wrong, biased by economic considerations, or distorted. The Empiricist can’t prove the validity of experience without a statistically valid survey. They’re just trusting what they’ve learned anecdotally. Neither side can definitively disprove the claims of the other, so the debate never ends.

Both sides will occasionally invoke the mythological concept of “common sense”.  There is no common sense related to complex decisions like tow vehicles or tires. You might think that over time, a consensus would emerge from the Internet based on an averaging of real-world experience, but it’s no more reliable than standing in the middle of a stadium and asking everyone to tell you which football team is best.

Another favorite argument is the “laws of physics”. Nobody ever explains which laws of physics (Newton, Bernoulli, Avogadro?) they are invoking. Since there are many physical laws and the dynamics of towed vehicles involve many of them at the same time, I suspect that really the claimants are speaking of an imaginary law that says everyone must agree with them.

Since nobody knows everything, it’s easy for one side to introduce doubt into the other side’s argument, by suggesting possible (and unprovable) reasons why their position has a fatal flaw. Often this takes the form of suggesting a hidden liability or potential negative outcome that has been rumored. This puts your opponent on the defensive, but beware, because both sides can play this game.

Copernicus believed the sun was the center of the universe, altering a 2,000 year-old belief stemming from the ancient Greeks that the Earth was the center.  Turns out everyone was wrong, and they were the smartest people on the planet at the time. Elon Musk, a genius at work in our own time, puts it this way: “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

So my advice to people who get all worked up in debates about tow vehicles, tires, catalytic heaters, running the propane while towing, and other similar subjects is simple: remember why you got into Airstreaming. I’m guessing it wasn’t so you could argue with other people.

Anyway, you’re probably both wrong. Go camping and forget about it!

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.