What’s my old watch worth?

Just now I was winding a watch.  Remember doing that?  Decades ago we all had mechanical watches, and spending a few seconds every day casually winding the little crown was just something you did without thinking much about it.

1958 Sputnik watchI like the little break that winding a watch requires.  Like pausing to scratch an itch, or sneeze, or tie your shoes, it’s just a tiny moment when you aren’t expected to do anything else, and it buys you a fraction of the day that’s all your own.

That might seem very trite but consider that tennis champ John McEnroe used shoe-tying very effectively to throw off his opponents and grab a mini-break during intense matches.  Every moment counts, and some can be made to count more than others.

In the case of this watch, which happens to be a Soviet “Sputnik” (Спутник) watch made in 1958, there’s a comforting little zik-zik sound that I like to hear. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me that the watch is a fragment of history in itself, a commemorative item made in the First Moscow Watch Factory near the peak of the Soviet Union.  Just knowing that tickles me.

Perhaps it’s simpler than that.  I have to admit I like to see the little Sputnik dial rotating as the seconds tick by.

The ticking reminds me that this is an entirely mechanical device—no transistors, chips, battery, LCD display—made from tiny bits of geared metal and even tinier synthetic ruby bearings, lightly lubricated by oil, designed in the slide rule era, and powered by a few seconds of zik-zik every day. Such devices are virtually unknown and unappreciated by most people born in the 21st century, but since they still work (in many cases far better than their modern equivalents) I think we should all remember them.

I’ve written before about my penchant for vintage devices, which seems to have gotten more acute as I’ve grown older. It’s not nostalgia; most of the mechanical things we have were designed and obsolete before I was born.  I don’t recall my mother having a 1948 Mixmaster, but I love the one Eleanor inherited from her father.  My fascination is probably because of my father, who was trained as a machinist in his early career, and who had a basement full of fantastic devices for turning metal into mechanical wonders.

As a child I could not understand most of the tools.  I knew what his lathe could do, but not why I would have any practical reason to spin metal shavings off chunks of metal.  I loved hefting the weight of his micrometer and spinning the handle to watch the scale climb with uncanny smoothness.  It was a device of intriguing precision (which we associated so much with him that it was brought out at his memorial ceremony). But at no time did I have any idea what I might measure to a thousandth of an inch. I still don’t—but I like that tool.

My father made, among many other things, devices called Goldblatt Clamps.  He was so useful at making such things that he was given a deferment from the Korean War for a while (he went later). We still have a box of the clamps, made of precious metals such as silver and gold.  I have no use for Goldblatt Clamps but the mere idea of them is strangely compelling.

So perhaps for the reason that I grew up among machines, I have great respect for them.  The things engineers made in the 1950s and 1960s blow my mind to this day.  (One good example is the famous SR-71 “Blackbird”, which is still the fastest and highest flying aircraft ever made. It was designed on paper, 33,000 sheets of it.)

IMG_6323I can think of another reason I like the mechanical things.  I have an extremely close relationship with the laptop computer that I’m currently typing this on.  Airstream Life and most of my current life activities would be impossible without it. I spend all day with it, more time than I spend with my family, which is sort of horrifying if you think about it.  I spend more time with this thing than I do eating, sleeping, exercising … pretty much everything except breathing.

The computer is a valued tool which I appreciate mostly because it just works for its intended purpose, but it’s essentially a disposable black box. It can be opened but mostly what you’ll see are more black boxes. It works on principles that I intellectually understand but which I cannot touch, and it will inevitably fail for reasons that I cannot determine.  When that happens, it will likely not be repairable.

Thinking of that, I look at the watch I’m wearing today. It is the antidote to short-lived black boxes. An assembly line of Soviet comrades made this watch 58 years ago and it still works. It may work for another hundred years, given an occasional cleaning and lubrication.

Sure, it only does one thing, but that’s not its key value anymore. Now it is a bit of history, a reason to take a 30-second break each day, and a spark of perspective to counter the crazy smartphone world we inhabit. That’s worth more to me than knowing the current time with atomic precision.

You might wondering if I’m ever going to talk about Airstreams in this blog. I think I’ll leave making that connection to you, if you see one.  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

(PS: Temporary Bachelor Man will be posting next.)

Why I launch slowly

Tomorrow, the Airstream will leave home base and begin its annual trek across the USA, not to return until probably October.

The Airstream sits in the carport tonight, fully loaded for the expedition, tested, and hitched. After the weeks of preparation and packing, it feels like a quiet moment before a storm, full of anticipation of the unknown experiences to come.  It’s exciting and a little scary.

I like to tow the Airstream out very gently as it departs its winter shelter, like a mighty ship slowly breaking free of dock. There’s a practical reason for this: with the windows rolled down I can listen carefully for anything that might be amiss, perhaps something dragging, an unexpected squeak from the wheels, a scrape or a hiss.  Of course I’ve done a careful pre-trip inspection and walked around the trailer doing final checks three times, so the precaution of listening should be unnecessary, but I like to have that last moment of assurance before we head toward Interstate 10 and accelerate to full cruising speed.

From that point the Airstream will be expected to roll smoothly and quietly for many thousands of miles.  Our trip plan calls for heading up to northern Arizona as far as we can get on our first day, stopping somewhere in the Four Corners area, then gradually continuing on to Ft Collins CO by Thursday. After a rally, we’ll make stops in the plains states and eventually Chicago, then over to the Airstream factory for Alumapalooza.

After Alumapalooza we’re going to make a stop or two in PA and NY, eventually ending up at Colin Hyde’s shop in Plattsburgh for some upgrades.  (I’ll talk more about that in a future blog.)  Then to Vermont to see family, and later in the summer we’ll head west all the way to the Pacific Ocean and down to central California for Alumafandango in late September. The end of the trip will be in early October, probably, back at home base in Arizona.

It’s an ambitious plan and in the course of it the Airstream and its tow vehicle will accumulate perhaps 8,000 – 10,000 miles.  We’ll spend about 130 nights in the Airstream (I’ll spend a bit less because I’ll be TBM in Arizona for a month) and sleep in about 18 different states.  But we do something like this every year, so the “trip of a lifetime” by most accounts will be just “the summer” for us. After a decade it has become something we are used to, but it’s no less exciting for that.

I often read comments from bloggers and people on forums, asking for advice and expressing their concerns about launching on a big trip.  That is understandable if you’ve never done anything like this before, but if you are one of those people let me give you my bit of advice: it’s easier than you think.  You can do it. You’ll figure it out and probably have a great time in the process. Just take a moment to breathe before you go.

Even now, after literally years spent in our Airstream and who-knows-how-many miles, I have a little trepidation as we pull out of the driveway. That’s the other reason why I listen to the Airstream and launch it slowly, majestically, into the sunlight and down the road. I’m really just giving myself time to absorb the change, and gather courage for the challenges and adventures that will soon follow.

Starting Monday I’ll be posting more frequently with photos and stories from the road.

Pack your inspirations

Alumapalooza is around the corner, and that means it’s time to get serious about traveling again.  That event (held every year at the Airstream factory after Memorial Day) has been the kick-off for our summer travels for the past six years, and this year will be the seventh.

We’re not the only ones gearing up to hit the road either.  I’m hearing from friends all over the country who are anticipating saddling up and hauling the Airstream out later this month or in May.  Many of them will be out for weeks, which is great for them.  They’ll have fun and maybe we’ll cross paths at some point.

Getting ready for Alumapalooza is really only the beginning for us.  The Airstream won’t be back to home base until September, or possibly October, so we have to pack and plan for a magical mystery expedition.  I don’t know exactly where we will be later this summer because some of our plans are going to be spontaneous, which means we could encounter temperatures from freezing to 110; activities like hiking, motorcycling, and swimming in the ocean; social events ranging from the five-day party that is Alumapalooza, to quiet nights in the middle of nowhere; and much more.

HSSA foster kittens-1A couple of weeks ago Eleanor and I started to talk about our preparations to hit the road, and just about every day we do something to advance the cause, because it really takes that long to get a family of three and a small business ready to go. It would be easy if it were a simple matter of packing, but of course there are all the other things in life that get in the way.

For example, we have foster kittens again (yes, those two pictured really are our current obligations: Coleman and Storm), and I’ve been doing maintenance on the cars, we are taking a language class, Emma has a karate tournament coming up, etc., etc.

HSSA foster kittens-2All of these projects and obligations seem overwhelming at times.  Sometimes I feel like the month of April is really just about getting ready to leave, and it seems tedious, but then once we do finally start traveling everything falls into perspective.  The prize of being on multi-month adventure is well worth the advance work.

What I really like about traveling this way is that we don’t have to plan everything in advance. I’m a planner by nature, but in this case it’s actually easier if we don’t.  We have a general plan based on a few hard deadlines (Alumapalooza late May in Ohio, Alumafandango late September in California) but everything else is subject to whims and winds—and opportunities that may arise.

Fuel prices, by the way, hardly come into it at all. I mention this because if you are considering becoming an Airstream traveler you might think fuel cost is a big deal.  Really, it’s one of the smaller budget items since traveling by road is more enjoyable when you drive less and explore locally more. I expect we’ll spend about $1,500 for fuel this season thanks to low diesel prices currently, and for four to five months of travel that’s a bargain.

Organ Pipe Quitobaquito pond

The photo above is from a recent 2-night trip with my friend Nick, back to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Out there in the desert you’ll find a strange sight, a lovely pond filled with tiny desert pupfish just a couple hundred feet from the border fence.  This memorable trip across southern Arizona wasn’t expensive. It’s not about how far you go, it’s about what you can find near where you are.

This season we’re winging it more than usual.  We always have a list of “maybe” ideas handy when we venture out, and this year’s list is really wild.  We’re considering “side trips” as far apart as Newfoundland and Oregon.  We’re keeping an eye out for cheap last-minute flights to Europe and bargain cruises to Alaska.  It’s quite likely that none of these ideas will pan out, but it’s fun to have ideas to consider.

As I said, flexibility is a big advantage of traveling this way. When we walk out the door of our house, the adventure begins. Discovering where it ends up is the fun part. Pack your ideas and inspirations in the Airstream and see what happens.

Black bottles, boots, and borders

We live 70 miles from Mexico, so border issues are always a topic here.  It’s something you can always count on, like death, taxes, and comical politics. There have been problems here with people illegally immigrating or smuggling as long as there has been a border, and while the times change, the fundamental arguments, responses, and failures seem to be perennial.

Back in the late 19th century it wasn’t the Mexicans that people worried about, it was the Chinese.  They were seen as taking away American jobs with their cheaper labor.  (This was the inspiration for the shamefully racist series of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and other laws. But as has been true throughout history, banning a race of people didn’t solve anything.)

The first official lawmen to patrol the border were with US Customs (Chinese Bureau). Later the responsibility migrated to Immigration, and eventually in 1924 the US Border Patrol was formed. One of the first people to patrol the border in this area, way back in 1887, was Jefferson Davis Milton, who rode on horseback between Yuma and Tucson.

This probably wasn’t a particularly lucrative occupation, so Milton also prospected for mines, and he opened one in the land that was eventually to become Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. As part of our weekend vacation we decided we’d hike out to the Milton Mine just to have an excuse for a pleasant day in the park.

Organ Pipe border barrier

Driving along the steel vehicle barrier that marks most of the border in this area, we were reminded how the border is more of a political and economic concept rather than physical thing. The fence here is not designed to stop people (and even if it were “300 feet tall” it wouldn’t). It’s just designed to stop vehicles. The Border Patrol does the rest of the job, with high-tech surveillance and manpower. Although we couldn’t see them while we were parked by the fence, there’s no doubt that they could see us.

Organ Pipe black water bottlesOur six-mile roundtrip hike up the mine trail was a mere lark for us, but for the unfortunates who try to cross this land with the help of human smugglers called coyotes, the same mileage can be a life-and-death struggle. The heat and dryness here, even in late February, quickly sap you of water at the astonishing rate of about a gallon per day.

Looking for signs of immigrants who had passed by before, we would occasionally find large black water bottles discarded and trapped by the wind in the branches of a creosote bush.  The coyotes have convinced their clients that these black bottles help them evade detection (because they don’t glint in the sun).

That’s a ridiculously outmoded idea given the technology of the US Border Patrol today, which can detect humans from the vibration of their footsteps and the heat signatures of their bodies, but nonetheless Mexican factories continue to churn out black plastic bottles and (no doubt) sell them to the unsuspecting immigrants for additional profit. We had no trouble finding a half-dozen bottles, which I collected and brought back to Tucson later for recycling.

We encountered no one else on our hike but as we went I could not stop reflecting on how garishly we represented the economic divide between north and south. We visited the fence as tourists, posing for photos with digital cameras and then hopping back into our air conditioned Mercedes SUV.  We hiked with the latest sports gear, sucking water from our Camelbaks, munching packaged protein bars, and protected by Neutrogena sunscreen.

Organ Pipe boot repairAnd then we encountered a shallow overhang in a dry wash where a bit of litter told the story of people who spent a few hours here, hiding from the sun and the law. They were desperate to get to the economic land of milk and honey. We were hiking for fun.

I wondered how much water they had left at that point, less than six miles from the border fence with 60 miles yet to go. I wondered if that group of immigrants had any idea what they were up against, and if they were already losing hope.

Fortunately that wasn’t our experience.  Instead we had a sort of “First World problem” along the trail when Eleanor’s elderly Vasque boots began to come apart.  I didn’t know this when we set out but those boots were 21 years old and they were ripe for failure.  Three miles into the hike and close to the second mine (Baker), the sole of Eleanor’s left boot began to come off.

Eleanor managed a sort of field repair on the boot by partially removing the lace and running it underneath the boot to secure the sole temporarily.  She and I turned back at that point (leaving Bert and Emma to continue on to the Baker mine) as the boot continued to fall apart.

About a mile from the car the sole finally fell off completely and the other boot wasn’t looking too good either. In the end Eleanor survived the hike but the boot failure left her with some bruises around the ankle and some muscle ache from the uneven height of her shoes.

Organ Pipe boot closeupHere was another reminder of the difference between a hike that starts north of the fence and one that starts south of the fence.  Nobody in our group died, and Eleanor will get a new pair of boots out of this.  (I might even make a recommendation that she get a new pair every decade or so from now on.)  Paradoxically, the boot failure has made me feel more fortunate than ever.

Now, you might be getting the impression that border issues overshadow everything in the national park.  That’s really not the case.  I was attuned to these things before I arrived and so I was thinking about it. The park management and the Border Patrol have worked hard to restore the park to a state where you don’t see people skulking through, and every part of the park is safe.

In my next blog entry, I’ll write about the natural side of things and you’ll get the rest of the story—and see what a glorious place Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument really is.

Looking back / looking forward

Fall 2015 trip 1Our trip from Vermont to Arizona has finally wrapped up.  After Big Bend National Park we made overnight stops at two old favorites: Balmorhea State Park (Toyahvale, TX) and Rock Hound State Park (Deming, NM), and then landed at home on Saturday.

By the numbers it was a big trip:

  • nearly a month on the road
  • over 3,600 miles of driving and 60 hours of drive time (plus side trips)
  • nine State Parks (General Butler/KY, Fred Gannon/FL, Henderson Beach/FL, Bayou Segnette/LA, Galveston Island/TX, Pedernales Falls/TX, Seminole Canyon/TX, Balmorhea/TX, Rock Hound/NM)
  • two National Parks (Mammoth Cave and Big Bend)
  • I took about 600 photos (and E&E took more)
  • six on-the-road repairs

Despite a few frustrations, we had a nice trip overall.  Challenges are to be expected, and after having lived in our Airstream for three years we are used to the ebb and flow of life on the road. We all understand how to be flexible when things happen that force a change in plan.  Perhaps it’s also easier to take the bad with the good because the freedom of travel means that most of the experience is very good.

Fall 2015 trip 2

Now of course comes the hardest part: settling back in at home.  My Airstream “bug/improvement” list has about a dozen things on it, mostly small stuff.  It has been away from home base since May and has traveled about 8,000 miles.  I’ve been doing routine maintenance all along, but now we need to do a big clean-out of the trailer, digging deep into the storage areas that we rarely examine to get rid of accumulated stuff we don’t use anymore.

I’ve learned from experience that it’s easier to adjust slowly to fixed-base life. Even though it might seem simple, there’s an emotional reaction that happens when you shift from the free-wheeling life to all the cares and concerns of fixed-base life: house maintenance, medical appointments, work, social obligations etc.  It’s like jet leg: you can’t adjust to it all at once.  So we always unpack over a period of days, taking out things as we need them and giving ourselves plenty of time to absorb the reality of our situation.

Speaking for myself, the worst thing to do is to give into the temptation to immediately immerse myself in a dozen pent-up obligations. This results in overload, because inevitably I’ve got a dozen house and Airstream projects to tackle, Airstream Life work, appointments to keep … and thinking about all of it just makes the whole landing process too stressful.  Instead, I try to focus on one project at a time, and also think about the next trip we might take.

We’ve already got plans to travel a little around Thanksgiving, and we’re considering a pre-Christmas or holiday week trip as well. The Airstream is there to be used, and fuel prices are very low right now.  Even if we only go 50 miles, we’ll have an adventure and an opportunity to change perspective. So while I’m looking at a pile of obligations at home base right now, the magic carpet awaits and it is giving us something to look forward to.