Road trip 2017

It’s that time of year again: Airstream road-trip planning season. (It’s a great time of year.)

Each year we head out of the rapidly-building Tucson heat for a massive cross-country Airstream trip that lasts all summer. Each year we end up in Vermont parked on the shore of Lake Champlain because that’s where family members are—but along the way there’s a great road trip.

Usually we get back home sometime in September or October, although one year we came back in November. It all depends on obligations and opportunities.

Trip-planning is great fun. With a vast American continent to cross there’s no end of tempting detours and stops. With an Airstream we get to take our time and meander, spend time with friends, drop in on lesser-known spots, and (very important) try all kinds of interesting things to eat. The problem is not finding places to go, it’s deciding which ones to skip because even with a month to travel each way there’s never enough time to do it all. What a great problem to have.

The key is not to be in a hurry or afraid. Being in a hurry causes people to take the Interstate when they don’t really need to, and miss everything except what’s at the exits. Being fearful causes people to avoid the unfamiliar, which is a shame because that’s where all the interesting stuff is found. So each year we try to break away from the places we’ve been before (except a few favorites or the unavoidable) and go someplace completely unknown to us.

That is getting harder each year.  Our Airstream has crossed the country at least thirty times, and for the last decade our route has been from Tucson to Jackson Center, Ohio, for Alumapalooza each May. I’m not sure there are many more ways to cross the Plains states. At this point the Airstream could probably drive itself there, like a horse pulling a carriage on a familiar route in the 19th century.

My M.O. is to start with an open map of the USA, and just browse the states between Point A and Point B. I look for national and state parks we haven’t visited, or roads that look curvy enough to be scenic. Then I browse the Internet looking for interesting events, curious destinations, etc.  Adding people we want to see along the way is helpful for picking out a route. For example, last year we met up with two of Emma’s Internet friends IRL.  (That’s “In Real Life” for those who are unschooled in Internet relationships. Remember when there was no other way to meet people other than in real life?)

Sometimes inspiration comes from the oddest places. One year I spotted a random article about “Forbidden Amish Donuts” and that instantly spurred a memorable detour through Amish country in western New York state. We’ve detoured for rallies, snorkeling, free parking, business meetings, to see snow, to get away from snow, national park badges, photo opps, factory tours, festivals, beaches … you name it.  The point is, with the Airstream we can do that.

I do get asked a lot how I can “take five months of vacation.” Of course, I don’t—I’m working all the time as we go, just like many other Airstreamers. These days it’s a lot easier to get online and work from most of North America. In the early days it was a rather tedious experience getting online. Now my cellular Internet is faster than my home Internet.

We don’t plan round-trips. We just plan enough to get through our major obligations, and figure the rest will take care of itself. So here’s our plan so far:

2017 eastbound trip route

Our favorite part of the route is always in the Four Corners region, which is why we’re willing to add a few hundred miles and spend hours toting our trailer up and down the mountain passes of Colorado. This year I’m not sure what exact stops we’ll make but the wide open spaces of the west make it easy to find great campsites. The only thing I know for sure is that we’ll avoid Moab this year. The campground in Arches National Park will be closed all summer and the others in the area will be heavily burdened in May.

There’s a rally in Fort Collins CO happening in mid-May, and we plan to attend that. I will probably do a maintenance presentation there. After that there’s no avoiding the Great Plains and the tedium that is associated with long drives in that area, but I think it will be made better by avoiding the numbing sameness of I-70 through Kansas in favor of Route 36.

The planned route ends where it always must, at the doorstep of Airstream in Jackson Center OH for Alumapalooza. It will be interesting to see how Jackson Center has grown and changed with Airstream bursting at the seams lately.

And after that? Not sure.  We’ve got thoughts of meeting one of the printers I work with in Ohio, visiting family and friends in Pennsylvania, doing genealogical research, camping in the Adirondacks … but who really knows?  It’s fine at this point to have a list of possibilities and a general goal (Vermont by a certain date). We’ll wing it on the rest.

Come along with us for the ride, through this blog.  We hit the road in mid-May.

Superbloom, bah humbug

We were planning to head out last week to one of our favorite spots, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. But then the New York Times, NPR, LA Times, CNN, and even Wired blabbed to everyone about the “superbloom” of desert flowers, and the crowds showed up.

[Big sigh here]  One of the reasons I love going to Anza-Borrego is because it is so wonderfully peaceful, slow-paced, and quiet.  There are thousands of square miles of desert filled with canyons, mountains, precipices, badlands, palm oasis, and human history, and all you have to do is wander off the beaten path to find a spot all your own.

Anza Borrego Airstream solitude

But Wired summed it up:

The nearby community of Borrego Springs more than doubled in size as 5,000 people poured into the area on Saturday, an influx that filled motels, prompted the sheriff to close miles of road, and sparked a fistfight over a pork Cubano.

Our friends Bert & Janie are out there now.  Bert called me a few days before we planned to leave, warning that for the first time he’s ever seen Borrego Springs has traffic jams (a real feat for a town with a population density of 79 people per square mile) and many of the hiking trails were overrun with crowds.

I wouldn’t necessarily cancel a trip just on that basis, but I was behind on the Summer 2017 magazine (having lost some time in February due to a virus) and so it seemed like the smart choice would be to try again in early April, when the crowds have departed.

Anza Borrego canyon

To all those people who drove out from Los Angeles and San Diego to look at the flowers:  I understand the flowers are nice, but if you only go to Anza-Borrego when the media tells you there’s a “superbloom” you’re missing the real beauty of the place.  There’s a subtle beauty that you can only experience without the distraction of thousands of other people nearby.  It takes time to experience, time in which your mind slowly unwinds and relaxes.  Then you begin to notice the little things: the sound of the breeze, an occasional buzz of a bee, the clearness of the air, the silent passage of a desert jackrabbit or bighorn sheep, and the soft light that colors the rocks at dusk.

Anza Borrego sunset  Anza Borrego badlands view

It seems like the past few years we’ve had to search a little harder for the peaceful experiences we formerly took for granted in national and state parks.  The National Park Service was perhaps too successful in promoting the 100th anniversary of the park system last year, and as a result many parks were overcrowded. Even before the anniversary year we noticed it was getting harder to find campsites, and on occasion we had to skip popular national parks even during the “shoulder season”.

Having the Airstream makes it easier for us than for the weekend travelers who need to book a motel.  In a place like Anza-Borrego we can escape the center of the hubbub and retreat to the niches of the park to hear only the whispering breeze and the coyotes howling at night. But that’s the advantage of the vast desert. In most other parks, you can’t just pull off the road and wander around until you find a nice patch to call your own for the night.

If you watch the orientation movie in most national park visitor centers it will almost always emphasize quiet enjoyment of the park.  You’ll hear how our parks are an opportunity to relax, get away from technology and daily stress, appreciate nature, and re-connect with family & friends.

Anza Borrego boondocking

That’s all still true.  I guess the only thing that has changed is that you have to go a little further off the beaten path each year.

This is part of the reason why I sometimes encourage people to travel outside of their personal comfort zone. Every tourist wants to go to Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone and Yosemite.  Go there and you’ll be sure to meet busloads of people. Those are great places but if you’ve got wheels, be different and try the lesser spots: unknown state parks and BLM sites, national forest campgrounds, trails that aren’t conveniently located, places you haven’t read about in travel magazines, the quirk and oddities of this country, and places that have a reputation for horrible weather. I guarantee that if you go with an open mind you’ll find things you never expected but are glad you experienced.

For us, the trick will be to visit Anza-Borrego when the New York Times isn’t talking about it. We used to visit the state park campground every year during the last week of December or first week of January, but I suspect that tradition is over permanently. Still, the door hasn’t closed—it has just moved. I look on this as an opportunity to discover new spots that we love, at other times of year, in order to keep finding peace and relaxation out in the wide southern California desert.

Life in the white box

This week I’m at Alumaflamingo in Florida, which is one of the events we occasionally run around the USA.  Everything’s going well here and all the attendees seem to be having a good time, but I’m in hell … White Box Hell.

That’s because I’m in a rented trailer, provided by the campground.  I had to fly to Florida because I didn’t have time to make the 4,000 mile roundtrip this winter, and there was literally no other place for me to stay during this week.  It’s the annual “Speedweeks” at Daytona and all the accommodations are taken.

On one hand this is a good opportunity to see what travel trailer life is like when you don’t have an Airstream.  I suppose I could say that this broadens my perspective and perhaps instills new appreciation for the difference in quality when you step up to an Airstream.  But it’s also a shock. This ain’t no Airstream 2 Go, it’s a relatively low-end white box even for an industry that’s not generally known for quality.

IMG_7079The maker of this trailer, Pilgrim, died in 2008 as an early victim of the recession, so there aren’t any units less than nine years old.  Nine years is nothing for an Airstream, but it is a long time for the average white box trailer.

This one is typical: the exterior corners have begun to split and separate, the thin plastic vents have cracked, the ceiling has large water stains from roof leaks, and the furniture is starting to pull apart at the staples.

That’s even more disturbing because this particular unit never travels. It’s an on-site rental only. It never will travel thanks to moisture rising from the damp Florida soil. The exposed lightweight steel frame beneath has rusted away.

IMG_7080

I sometimes hear Airstreamers complaining about the mattress in their new trailer, but they wouldn’t if they tried the one I’ve been on for the past week. It’s a lumpy and thin thing that barely insulates from the hard plywood below. At night it’s always cold because there’s a huge uninsulated storage compartment directly beneath. I’d rather sleep on my Therm-A-Rest camping mattress.

The only thing I like about the trailer is the ducted air conditioning, which Airstream added across their line a couple of years ago. Airstream’s ducted air is whisper-quiet.  The Pilgrim’s air is somewhat noisy but still far better than the old style of air conditioner that sounds like a jet blast.

I’ve done what I can to make this trailer “home” for the week and—to count my blessings—it is a reasonably comfortable place to eat, sleep, and shower. I shouldn’t complain too much about it. My point is only that had I started RVing with a trailer like this, I would be astonished and envious looking at the new Airstreams available today.

And yes, I’d be thinking that the $20k or so I spent on my white box is a lot less than the $40-70k for an equivalent length Airstream … and then I’d think: how can I swing that payment? Because the Airstream is a better product in almost every way, and it will last a lifetime with good care.  The white box I’m in today is destined for a landfill in a few years.  When you look at it that way, you see how an Airstream is a really good value over the long run.

The Airstream “sharing economy”

Last week a woman who knows us only slightly asked Eleanor if we ever rent our Airstream to other people.  She wanted to see if an Airstream might be right for her family and thought she could evaluate it by trying ours first. Perhaps more to the point, she noted it would also be useful as housing for her visiting sister for a few days.

The idea comes up now and again, but to date we’ve always passed over the opportunity to collect a few dollars.  An Airstream is very personal, especially to us since we’ve lived in ours for several years (cumulatively) including a three year period of full time travel.  Renting it to a stranger would feel like an invasion of privacy.

Lately I’m hearing more inquiries and I attribute it to two things:

  1. The so-called “sharing economy”, where people rent their homes through VRBO, AirBnB and other sites. Heck, people even rent overnight space on their guest beds through sites like CouchSurfing.org, and use of their personal cars through GetAround and Turo.  There’s talk that car sharing will be a big thing among Millennials and younger generations, especially as self-driving cars become the norm. (They’re coming sooner than you think!)
  2. Lots of interest in Airstreams in general.  For the past four years Airstream has been selling as many trailers & motorhomes as they can make and there’s no sign of a slowdown yet. Those of us in the business think the Baby Boomer retirement tidal wave may propel the RV industry for up to 10 more years. So people who can’t afford an Airstream or who don’t think they’ll use one enough to justify a purchase are looking to borrow or rent instead.

Ten years ago I had to search around for the few places in the world where you could rent an Airstream “hotel room”.  These days there are literally hundreds of Airstream hotel rooms (at dozens of locations) and more keep popping up. That’s a trend that I suspect may be a bubble and I’m wondering how soon it will pop.

It might be hard to resist the call when someone is willing to pay $100-200 a night to sleep in your Airstream—until you look at the risk and expenses. The woman who inquired most recently wanted us to put the trailer on her land. Let’s see, that’s about two hours of my time for hitching up, towing across town, unhitching, setting up utilities, and explaining how to use everything.

Then there’s the time spent getting the trailer ready for guests, which we do often in the winter for friends. That normally takes a couple more hours, including doing the sheets & towels, stocking a little food & coffee, and removing our personal items. Afterward of course there’s cleanup and more laundry.

Finally, there’s the hassle factor. One set of friends had a little boy who didn’t get the memo on how to flush the toilet, so he filled the black tank in the first evening. When I was called the water level was within half an inch of overflowing the toilet bowl. If we didn’t have a handy sewer hookup in the carport that would have been a massive problem.

Another guest left such a mess (I’ll spare the details) that it took several hours to restore the trailer to habitable condition. (That person was put on double-secret probation, which means “never again”.) And we take precautions even with our friends: dogs are carefully screened and smokers are forbidden. Fortunately we’ve never had any permanent damage but there’s no question being an innkeeper comes with certain risks.

But what about the idea of buying a used Airstream cheap and then setting it up as a permanent rental? Sure, lots of people are doing that. From what they tell me, there’s not much of a business model in renting to individuals but the corporate rental gigs can be nicely profitable—when you can get them. The “cute” vintage trailers tend to get the biggest bucks, as long as they look nice.

Airstream Caravel Monahan Sand Dunes

Personally I’ve been offered as much as $2,000 for “three days” of rental of our 1968 Caravel (pictured above) at a trade show, but in the end we’ve never actually gone through with a rental deal. The $2,000 was predicated on my towing it for six hours up to Las Vegas, and there were load-in and load-out dates that had to be respected so my total time investment was going to be nearly a week. It just didn’t make sense once I factored in my time, travel mileage, and either airfare or hotel for several days—not to mention the risks associated with putting a delicate vintage trailer in the middle of a trade show floor.

Airstream Caravel in driveway

So in my opinion there are a lot of problems with the “sharing economy” at least as far as it applies to Airstreams.  Still, I would like to find a way to either make the Caravel stop costing us money every year (insurance, minor upkeep) and get it out of our carport. We hardly ever use it and two Airstreams are too much for a suburban driveway. But like an elderly pet, the Caravel is so beloved that we can’t just get rid of it.

Right now the grand plan is for Emma to inherit the Caravel at some point. I wonder if that will actually happen. A characteristic of her generation that I’ve been noting lately is they don’t want their parents’ stuff. [See articles: 1, 2, 3, 4]  It’s not just the silver tea set and ridiculously formal dining room furniture they don’t want. This allergy extends to pretty much all the material goods. The kids want to make their own lives, not duplicate ours—and they are accustomed to getting the latest new version of everything every year or two.

Big sigh. I can relate to that. I never wanted anything of my parents’ either. They gave me a rusty 1977 Chevy Camaro in 1984 and it was helpful for a while during college, but once I had my first post-college job I preferred to buy my own stuff even if I had to take out a loan to do it. Fortunately there are always going to be a subset of American society that values nice old vehicles, and if Emma doesn’t show marked interest in the Caravel someday one of those other folks will get it instead.

And now that I think of it, there’s the original “sharing economy”: If you don’t need it, sell it to someone who will use it. Airstreams last a long time with proper care. I think I’ll offset my costs by keeping mine in good shape and hopefully someday sell it and get my money back, or make a little bit on appreciation.

Thinking forward to Airstreaming 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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