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.

Summer 2015, Airstream style

It’s that time of year.  While most of the country is celebrating the appearance of spring, it’s already getting kind of “warm” here in Tucson (meaning we had our first 90 degree day already) and we’ve working on our annual trip north to Alumapalooza. By mid-May, when Tucson tends to hit 100 for the first time, we’ve got to be on the road with our Airstream.

I look forward to that day with a combination of apprehension and excitement. It’s nice to get back out in the Airstream, but the prep is incredible. Every house project, Airstream project, and work project needs to be settled (if not finished), and that’s a ton of work. I always advocate to people that they try not to go out on their adventure of a lifetime with a pile of unfinished business, personal issues, or money problems—because those things tend to drag you back to home sooner than you’d like—and I try to take my own advice.

It’s not always possible, of course, to put a “hard stop” on everything in life, so the other side of it is to try to find ways to continue the necessities of life even as you roll down the road. I could write a book about that … and maybe someday I will.

The Airstream has been getting its seasonal maintenance.  Being a lady of a certain age and having many miles behind her, I do have to try to get ahead of problems before we head out. So far this spring I have:

  • replaced the failed refrigerator cooling unit (and the replacement has been running continuously for a month with no problems)
  • replaced the converter/charger with a Xantrex TrueCharge 2
  • replaced the dump valves
  • stripped off the rest of the old “Tour of America” decals
  • added some aluminum sheet to the belly pan to replace corroded metal (galvanic corrosion is slowly eating the pan, as it unavoidably will wherever steel meets aluminum, and I expect that some large sections will need replacement in a few years)
  • removed, wire brushed, and repainted the spare tire carrier. I scuffed it pretty badly coming out of a parking lot back in January.
  • touched up paint on the Hensley hitch (but it needs a total strip & powder coat)
  • disassembled the center Fantastic Vent, cleaned thoroughly, and re-assembled
  • flushed the hot water tank & replaced the drain plug
  • replaced the Pressure/Temperature valve on the water heater
  • upgraded the propane tanks to aluminum Worthingtons
  • installed new LED lights in the refrigerator and range vent

And on the tow vehicle, a bunch more stuff including the new dash cam, GPS, tires, rear shocks, front air struts … I think I’d rather not list the rest of it right now. The memory is a bit painful.

If you wonder why I go through all this trouble when I could just buy plane tickets and hotel rooms, well, you aren’t an Airstreamer. Yes, it’s a lot of stuff, but when I compare it to the life we’ve had, the things we’ve seen, and the people we’ve met, a few repairs and maintenance seem like a very small price to pay.

There’s more to do on the Airstream but it just won’t all get done before we go, so I’ll bring a few tools and parts along and give Super Terry something to do when I see him at Alumapalooza. For Super Terry’s benefit, that list includes:

  • installing a replacement entry door lock, because the one we have has jammed a few times
  • sealing a small leak somewhere near the front vent fan
  • lubricating the seals on the vent fans
  • updating the Parbond sealant around a few spots on the exterior

The big project I had planned, to add a fancy water filtration system, is just going to have to wait until fall, I’m afraid.  All the parts are here but the time to do it has gone.

Now it’s time to clean out whatever is left from last year that we no longer need, and stock the Airstream with the ingredients for fun for Summer 2015. Both Eleanor and I have been at it for a while and we’ll be finishing the job over the next two weeks.

So here’s the trip plan for the first half of the summer:

late May: Arizona to Ohio, and then Alumapalooza!

June: tow east to Vermont for a few weeks, and another week-long BMW motorcycle adventure (destination TBD)

late June: I’ll fly back west while the rest of the family remain in the northeast.  Brett & I will hike in Navajo National Monument, and then drop in on the WBCCI International Rally in Farmington NM for a couple of days.

July: Temporary Bachelor Man returns!

There’s much more planned through October but my head would explode if I laid it all out right now. I figure we’ll cover about 8,000 miles of Airstream travel and at least 12 states, depending on how we head back. I want to do some exploring in parts of Arkansas and Missouri, especially around the Ozarks, where we’ve never been before.

Yes, it looks like another great summer coming up, Airstream-style.

Scrap metal

I got an email from a friend today who was asking on behalf of her friend about a vintage Airstream she wanted to purchase. The 1960s trailer was listed for $4,500.  The prospective buyer knows nothing about Airstreams except that they’re cool. That has become the number one qualification of vintage owners lately. I don’t like saying it, but that’s a problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I bought my first 1960s Airstream because it was cool too. But I took a lot of time to learn about them, and shop as carefully as I could, and eventually I scored a usable model that became my learning platform. We still have it; it’s the 1968 Airstream Caravel that we no longer use but lavish attention on nonetheless.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a money pit, the Caravel certainly hasn’t been an awesome investment.  Even with my attempt to learn as much as possible before buying, I still had a lot of painful lessons ahead, and they cost me plenty. As I mentioned in my prior blog, vintage trailer owners tend to sink more money into their trailers than they are ultimately worth on the open market.

The person who wanted to buy the Airstream had dreams of turning it into a rental unit, using it herself occasionally, and decorating the interior herself. That’s all good, but if you don’t have a broad set of skills, lots of time, and a well-equipped workshop, the road from a “basket case” trailer to glamping heaven is paved with glue and cactus spines.  This buyer didn’t have any of the right qualifications.

So even before I looked at the trailer in question, I could say with confidence that a vintage project probably wasn’t right for her. But to be fair, I took a look at the online photos of the trailer too.

Colin Hyde in Airstream
Colin Hyde demonstrates a slight problem with this Airstream. This one was actually restorable, although at considerable expense.

Define “disaster”: an Airstream shell that has no interior, no windows, body damage, and a rotten wood floor. That’s what most people call scrap metal. There’s hardly any value in that, even if it is a very old Airstream (and 1960s-era is not considered very old in the Airstream world).

To get started on a project like this you would first need to find a way to transport it, since with no interior and a structurally deficient floor it would be unsafe to tow.  Then you’d need a good work space for two or three years, plus a long list of skills—or a really fat wallet to pay someone else to do all the dirty work.  $50,000-100,000 could disappear easily.

And yet, this buyer was ready to plunk down 45 hundred simoleons to acquire this decaying shell of an Airstream.  That’s the power of desire, triumphing over good sense.

Airstreams are enticing, no question. So I am writing this blog to warn those who don’t know what they are getting into. If you want to get into a project, fine, but don’t buy scrap metal. When you see an Airstream with no windows or with missing roof vents, it means it has been suffering water damage for years, not to mention the ravages of rodents and insects.

Junk AirstreamThe floor will be rotten.  The frame will probably be rusted. The insulation will be compacted and riddled with rodent trails. In short, the trailer is garbage. Junk. Restorable only at a ridiculous cost.

If you want a project, buy something that is at least intact, meaning with no major body damage, still sealed against the elements, and complete with all the doors and windows. If you don’t care about the interior because you’re going to strip it out and replace it anyway, at least make sure the structure underneath is still viable.  Don’t trust the seller on this—check it out yourself or find someone to check it out for you.

If you want to go camping in the next year, or you have a tighter budget, or you are utterly clueless about anything mechanical—buy a nice used Airstream that someone has recently camped in. There are plenty of good ones on the market.  They really aren’t rare, and Airstream keeps making more of them.  Most people will be happier without the horrible learning curve of buying a junker.

To those who make a sideline business out of selling scrap Airstreams to clueless buyers for outrageous prices: you should be ashamed of yourselves. Yes, if they are willing to pay and you don’t hide anything, it’s ultimately the buyer’s responsibility. But really, do you sleep well at night? Do something positive and help people by selling worthwhile trailers. Take the junk where it belongs: the recycling center.

Are you ready for a vintage project?

I got a call today from a good friend who is considering whether to plunge into an Airstream project. He’s got an older Airstream Classic 310 motorhome, which is one of the early models with an aluminum body. Those old Classics are basically an Airstream trailers mounted on a bread truck chassis, and the only major difference is the length.

Last night I met another friend at a doughnut shop to talk about a possible 1965 Airstream Safari project. Very different from the motorhome, but the basic issues were the same. Both of my friends wanted to get my opinion on the projects, and some insight as to whether the Airstreams were worth the effort.

After these conversations I began to think about all the times I’ve been asked by people about their vintage projects. Since starting the magazine in 2004, and working on a couple of my own vintage projects, I’ve probably seen several hundred vintage trailer restorations, refurbishments, and customizations. I have no idea how many we’ve published in Airstream Life but certainly dozens.

Vintage Airstream projects are always happening. Some never stop, and many never are finished. There’s always someone who wants to decide whether it makes sense to tackle a project, and I guess that’s why it’s common that I get asked about it regularly.

Vintage Airstream
Vintage Airstream at Region 1 WBCCI rally, Connecticut

I’ve come to realize that it’s not the trailer or motorhome you start with that really matters. Certainly you can make your life a lot easier if you start with something that’s not a total wreck, but the real determinant of a successful restoration is the person who takes on the challenge.

Not only do you need to have (or acquire) some skills and knowledge, but you also need to have a commitment to the project. A full restoration takes a lot of time. Sure, you can do a shabby job in 100 hours, but I’m not talking about those sorts of “eBay restorations” where someone makes over a vintage trailer cosmetically for quick re-sale (hint: look for a quickie polish job that looks swirly in bright sun, black-and-white checked floor, and Coca-Cola memorabilia) or ignores serious structural problems, or dumps a bunch of household cabinetry and appliances into it (thus turning a lightweight travel trailer into an unbalanced and crippled condo on wheels).

A more sensitive and attentive vintage restoration or customization (the difference being whether you try to match the original intent or modernize it) will go deep into the Airstream and take hundreds of hours, at least. How deep?  As deep as it takes. Typically this means gutting the interior (saving re-usable interior appliances and woodwork), dealing with frame rust and floor rot, and replacing lots of parts that won’t be noticed by the average person but which really matter.

I’m talking about parts like under-floor insulation, wiring, and plumbing. You work on these things because you don’t plan to flip the end product for a quick buck. You work on these things because you want to end up with something that respects the intent of the original Airstream: light weight, structurally strong, travel-worthy on any road and in all weather, and efficient with resources (water, propane, electricity). That’s how the Airstreams were designed, and it pains me to see vintage “restorations” which eviscerate that intent.

Caravel aluminum replacement

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to keep an Airstream true to its original design. Many cool and creative new uses have been found for old Airstreams, and I respect that because it’s a great example of adaptive re-use. Unlike just about every “white box” travel trailer or motorhome made in the last sixty years, Airstreams have an amazing capacity to be re-used as pop-up stores, promotional trailers, coffee shops and cafés, toy haulers, meeting rooms, and art. Make an Airstream into anything you want, but if you are going to make it back into a travel trailer, at least be sure it’s a good one.

Sometimes people go a little crazy on their restorations. I have seen friends lavish so much attention on every detail that they’ve spent 2,000 hours or more, working night after night in their garage to produce a museum-perfect restoration. Others I know have spent well over $200,000 on a personalized vintage Airstream.  I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. Like concours-quality automotive restorations, those Airstreams are inspirational. Here’s to the crazy ones; we need them to show us the ultimate standard, even if we aren’t going to achieve that level ourselves.

Gail Buck vintage Airstream
Gail Buck and her vintage Airstream

To the friends I spoke with this week, I gave the same basic advice: don’t look so much at the trailer you’re starting with. Look at yourself. Guaranteed: the project will take more money and more time than you expected, and you will definitely “invest” more money than the outcome is worth on the open market. Those things don’t matter.

Vintage Airstream at VTJ 08What really matters is whether a vintage restoration is how you want to spend your time and money. If you just want a trailer to go camping, there are easier and quicker routes. A full-blown vintage restoration is not a practical thing, it’s a commitment to the point almost of being a lifestyle. If you sell the project after you’ve started, you will lose money. Do it not because it makes any sense, but rather because you really want to do it.

And, I should mention, because you really want to be seen in it.  Let’s face it, a big part of the reward for spending countless nights and weekends painstakingly re-building and installing parts is the praise and admiration the vintage rig  generates once it is on the road.  People love to see cool vintage trailers and motorhomes. You’ll get invited to be in vintage shows, and random people in campgrounds and parking lots will ask for tours. A really good restoration makes you a celebrity—or to be entirely accurate, it makes you the manager for a celebrity.

Likewise, if you really need the finished product because your life-long dream is to operate a mobile coffee shop or kettle corn popper or pop-up store, you might have good motivation to do a good job and actually finish it.

But don’t look solely to the reward. You have to enjoy the process. If you see the project as a chance to learn new skills, demonstrate your chops as a woodworker/ plumber/ electrician/ interior designer/ upholsterer/ polisher/ metalworker (and all those skills do usually come in to play at some point), or just have an excuse to buy lots of new tools and set up a cool workshop, you’ve probably got a good motivation to tackle and finish a vintage Airstream project.

Having done a couple of projects, I feel I’ve learned a lot that I could apply to another vintage trailer. The third one, I’m certain, would be much easier. Once in a while the temptation arises, but I’ve been able to quash it on the grounds that I don’t have the working space or the time to devote. (The fact that I have absolutely no need for a third Airstream in my life hardly enters into it. As I said, you do these things for no practical reason.) Someday perhaps I will have that free time and working space, and then I’ll have to fight hard against the Siren call of aluminum.

In the meantime, I wish my friends well as they consider their projects. If they take the plunge, I hope they commit to the fullest because that’s how they’ll get the best result. And I’ll be happy to pitch in when I can or provide long-distance advice. If you can’t do a project yourself, it’s almost as gratifying to see someone else do a good job on one.  We’ll have more projects in future issues of Airstream Life magazine, too.