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.

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.

Why I like traveling slowly

Wally Byam is known as the founder of Airstream and a relentless promoter of the travel trailer lifestyle. Among his accomplishments were mind-bogglingly difficult trips to the most exotic points of the world that could be reached by road in the 1950s. Wally was making a point: traveling slowly by road is the only way you’ll really see the world, engage the people, and have authentic experiences.

I don’t think most of today’s North American travelers have a clue what an authentic experience feels like. Today we are the willing thralls of another set of relentless promoters, those who sell packaged vacations, “dining experiences”, shore excursions from cruise ships, and all-inclusive resorts.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those. I have enjoyed many of those types of experiences myself.  No one would ever say that a visit to Epcot Center’s World Showcase is a fair replacement for visiting any of the countries displayed there, but it is fun anyway. Sometimes we just want escapism and predictability, with no risk of being bewildered by an incomprehensible desk clerk, or being stripped of your wallet by a pickpocket in a train station.

The downside to the safe, sanitized and homogenized experiences is that you are kept inside a comfortable bubble with no risk of being challenged by new opinions, terrifying (but tasty) food, confusing accents, fascinating cultural practices, and all the other wonderful differences that make the world such an interesting place. The only broadening that happens in a package environment is that which occurs on your waistline.

Worse, you may have no idea what you are missing. A planned experience keeps you in your comfort zone, close to people like yourself, and the memories you make will be those of the people you were with, but you may not remember much of the town you visited except for the airport, hotel, restaurant, and theme park. Whether you think that’s good, bad, or irrelevant is a matter of opinion.

If you are the kind of person who likes challenges and is willing to accept the risk that your day may not go as planned in exchange for authentic experiences, you’ll crave real travel eventually–and there lies the advantage of traveling by Airstream.

We are about to launch on a 2,000+ mile trip across the country, for probably the 19th or 20th time.  It’s an effort to cross the USA that many times without retracing all the miles, but for the sake of experience an effort will be made to find some roads through little towns that connect us to Jackson Center, Ohio—the so-called “blue highways” of America.  We do this because it seems like a massive waste of effort and energy to haul ourselves up through the heartland without diving deep into it, even if we are anxious to get to Alumapalooza. And there’s still so much of America to visit.

The Airstream allows us to do something we can’t do any other way. If we see something we like, we can stop and stay as long as we want without worrying about budget. Parking the Airstream in a full-hookup campground is incredibly affordable, to the point that when we were full-timing we discovered it was cheaper than staying at home. Thus, we stay longer, we see more, we do more, we live more.  This is “slow travel,” and it’s wonderful.

This point has been driven home to me many times, and it is again today because I am planning two trips simultaneously. One is our Airstream travel for this summer, and the other is a trip to Europe in September. How I wish we could have our Airstream in Europe! Every day we spend in Europe, even being careful, amounts to hundreds of dollars in accommodations and food. We have no choice but to plan an itinerary that maps our activities day-by-day, with little flexibility. If we find a place we would like to visit a little longer, it’s tough luck because the hotel may be booked up and the cost of changing train tickets or airfares will be punitive.

I became so frustrated with the inflexibility, rules, and costs of traditional hotel/air travel that I seriously considered stationing an Airstream in Europe, complete with tow vehicle. (It’s not feasible for us this year, but it may be soon.) We are spoiled by the comfort and convenience of traveling by Airstream, to the point that I almost don’t want to explore any other way. I want to see all the corners of the world, but I want to do it with my Airstream, not in a series of hotels and jumbo jets.

Here’s the travel plan for our eight day trip from Arizona to Ohio:  drive northeast and stop where we like. 

That’s it. All we have to do is show up in Jackson Center by about May 22, give or take a day. We’ll improvise the rest as we go, no reservations, no schedules, no worries. I hate to even think about how rigid our travel in Europe will be, by comparison.

Perhaps you have to experience slow travel to appreciate it fully. But I think everyone can come up with a frame of reference if they dig deep. Look at it this way: The airline trips you usually recall the best are the horrible ones where there was turbulence, an obnoxious passenger, or when they lost your luggage. The rest are just too boring to remember.

On the other hand, you probably still remember fondly that great road trip you did as a kid, or in school with your friends. Trips like that, which are measured in days filled with events, stick with you because they helped make you. Slow travel is good for you. Try to get some this summer.