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.

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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.

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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.

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.