Winter camping in the southwest

We are back home now and I’m amazing that in the three weeks we were on the road I had so few opportunities to update the blog.  While it would be easy to blame it on a lack of good Internet opportunities (which was the case for four days in Death Valley and six days camped up by the San Francisco Bay area if you can believe that), the real reason has been that I often made the choice to spend time with people rather than with the computer. I guess that’s a good sign that my priorities were straight during the trip.


We went to Death Valley to be with Airstream friends as much as for the national park itself. Then we migrated to Thornhill Broome beach (Point Mugu State Park, on the California coast) for three days and met other Airstream friends there, and picked up my mother at LAX.  The four of us then towed up to Anthony Chabot Regional Park near Castro Valley CA (east of Oakland) and spent six days with yet another group of Airstream friends (from Europe), attending their wedding and touring San Francisco.

Then it was back down the coast, drop off Mom at the airport, and back east toward home. Three weeks fly by when you are traveling and doing lots of things. By the time we got back to Quartzsite for a final night, about to go home to Tucson, it seemed like we just got started.

Camping in winter, even in the southwest, presents special challenges. First, you’ve got to pick the right places to go. Snowbirds aren’t interested in encountering blizzards and we definitely don’t want to think about winterizing.  So the possibility of snow and freezing temperatures keeps us to the lowlands. Northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, and the Sierra Nevada range are strictly off limits because they are high elevation areas. Most RV’ers seems to cluster around a few reliably warm places strung along I-8 or I-10: Los Angeles, San Diego, Yuma, Quartzsite, Phoenix, Tucson.

The Pacific Coast is also OK but it’s hard to camp along the California coast sometimes. There aren’t enough places for everyone who wants to camp on the weekend, and prices are high especially since the state hiked prices at all the state parks. We spent $70 for one night at a decent RV park, which wasn’t an unusual price.

The short days of winter and cloudiness from this year’s El Niño storms in California made it hard to rely solely on solar for our electricity when we were boondocking.  Even in a less-stormy winter, desert temperatures drop fast at sunset and there’s usually a lot of furnace use.  We relied heavily on our catalytic heater because it doesn’t use electricity.

In the winter certain problems crop up that you wouldn’t notice in the summer camping season.  For example, the propane regulator has been “singing” various songs for a couple of years now, whenever a propane appliance is drawing gas—but only when it’s cold outside.  Since the regulator is right outside the bedroom, we were hearing it a lot on cold nights. Eleanor has been asking me to solve the problem for a while but until recently I wasn’t sure whether the tank, regulator, or propane hoses (“pigtails”) was the cause. Turns out it can be either the regulator or the hoses–or in our case both.

The noise (which varies from a low humming to an oscillating note) has gotten louder and finally one night it was too much.  I found an RV repair place in Ventura CA that stocked our regulator and swapped it out while we were camped at the beach later that day. It’s not a difficult job, taking about 20 minutes if you have the right wrenches on hand. That reduced the noise considerably but I still had to replace the pigtails later to get back to complete silence.  I’m adding “replace propane regulator” to our routine maintenance list, once every 10 years.

Airstream at Anthony Chabot Regional ParkAnother challenge of winter is condensation.  On this trip the El Niño rains and cool temperatures kept the Bay Area near Oakland right around the dewpoint during the day, and combined with four people in the Airstream it added up to lots of humidity inside. Two or three days we woke up to water dripping from the window glass, and that’s not good.

Why?  Because that amount of water condensing on the glass means that it’s also condensing in other places you can’t see.  Between the two aluminum sheets that comprise the exterior of the Airstream is a layer of fiberglass insulation.  Sometimes there are bare patches where the fiberglass has been pushed aside for something else, like an exterior water connection or a speaker in the ceiling.  When the humidity in the trailer is too high, the moisture will start to condense on the interior side of the aluminum skin, and soak the insulation.

You might not notice this until it gets severe enough to drip out from a seam, but it’s always a problem.  Repeated bouts of heavy condensation mean corroded wiring, rotted floors, mold, stains, and smells–all in places that are difficult to access and repair.

The solution is ventilation.  We didn’t open the windows enough to compensate for four people breathing, washing, cooking, and using a catalytic heater.  (The cat heater produces quite a lot of water vapor during operation.)  It is counter-intuitive to open the windows and roof vents when you’re trying to stay warm, but you have to do it.

Yesterday, five days after the last rain, I removed a ceiling speaker in the Airstream and found water droplets still collected on the aluminum above.  Once the moisture gets in there, it takes quite a while to dry out, even in the arid desert of Tucson. Imagine how long it stays—and how much damage it does—if you live in a damper climate.

Last year we were towing from Arizona to Florida in February and ran into cold temperatures and rain in Texas.  We didn’t winterize the trailer because we were towing along I-10, deep in the south.  That episode taught me another lesson about winter travel because along the highway the city water fill froze, cracked, and sprang a leak inside the trailer. Sometimes you just get unlucky.

It’s a tricky time of year to do much with a travel trailer, but still the opportunities and cost savings are worth it.  Our trip to Los Death Valley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco wouldn’t have been possible without our Airstream.  I’ll just remember that winter makes things a little more complicated … and go anyway.

Driving to Big Bend National Park

For most of its distance, Texas Route 90 from Del Rio to Marathon is not a drive you would rave about, unless you are into vast empty spaces.  The towns along this route were all former watering stops for the railroad and without steam trains passing through they haven’t had much reason to exist.

Many don’t, and now only the fly-speck of Dryden and the slightly-larger towns of Sanderson and Marathon offer any services at all.  They’re spaced about 50 miles apart, so it’s important to pay attention to your fuel level. Remember, everything’s bigger in Texas.

Big Bend towing AirstreamAt Marathon the signs indicate that it’s not that far to Big Bend National Park, but “not that far” in west Texas terms is 39 miles—and that’s just to the Persimmon Gap Entrance Station.  From there it’s another 26 miles to the center of the park, Panther Junction, and the speed limit drops from the “west Texas sensible speed” of 75 MPH to 45 MPH, so this trip seems endless.  Fortunately the scenery gradually gets more interesting with the craggy Chisos Mountains in the distance and colorful outcrops of rock that are beautifully illuminated by the setting sun.

… which is good, since the sun was setting fast on us at this point.  From Panther Junction to the Cottonwood Campground is about 40 miles and I was somewhat concerned about getting in before it was too dark. We finally dragged in at about 6 pm and there was still enough light in the sky for us to find a nice campsite that wasn’t shaded by cottonwood trees so we could gather solar energy during our stay.

The next morning, we awoke to this:

Big Bend Cottonwood Airstream campsite

Picking a campground at Big Bend is a strategic choice because of the size of the park.  Normally we stay at the Rio Grande Village end of Big Bend because we have a lot of favorite hikes and activities in that area.  This year we wanted to re-visit and show Emma some hikes and spots near Castollon that we haven’t seen since our first visit in 1997.  The driving distance between Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village is about 60 miles.

No matter where you stay in Big Bend there’s a sort of “end of the road” feel.  Unless you are in the Chisos Mountains (and most Airstreamers aren’t because trailers over 20 feet aren’t allowed on the entrance road), you’re probably just a couple hundred feet from the Rio Grande River and Mexico.  There’s no further south that you can drive from here. This is a wonderfully remote park.

We particularly like Cottonwood because it’s a no-hookup campground that doesn’t allow generators or campfires. So it’s blissfully quiet and we can open all the windows at night to let in fresh desert air without being choked by someone’s smoldering mess of an amateur “fire” (usually just a plume of smoke). Instead, we smell sage, creosote bush and desert flowers, and we hear chirping birds and the faint breeze passing through the cottonwood leaves.

No hookups, no dump station, and only a limited amount of potable water means that most campers don’t stay long.  But we love it here, the weather is perfect, and our Airstream is boondock-ready so we opted for three nights.  That’s plenty of time to hike nearby Santa Elena Canyon, the Burro Mesa Pour-Off trail, Tuff Canyon, and visit a few of the historic house ruins.

Galveston TX

Nothing has broken today.  So that’s good.  Maybe our luck is turning.

Since we had reached the Gulf Coast last week and need to head back to home base in Tucson this month, there was little choice other than to go west.  I toyed with the idea of taking Rt 90 from New Orleans through Morgan City and New Iberia, since it’s a more interesting route than I-10, but ultimately decided to make some fast progress on the Interstate so that we could spend more time in Texas this time.

We’re now in Galveston, for no particular reason other than we’ve never been here before.  Actually I have but it was in the 1980s, long before storms remodeled the place, and it seems entirely different now.  We’ve been roaming around the town freely in the absence of summer crowds.  No hassles for parking, all the businesses seem laid-back, the campgrounds all have available sites, beaches are empty, and the fall weather is fine.

Galveston SP floodingThe only downside is that there has been a lot of rain over the past two weeks and this has led to pools of flooding, which has in turn led to a massive hatching of mosquitoes.  In town they are barely noticeable but at the state park a few miles west they are, frankly, apocalyptic.  We can’t even go from the Airstream to the car without a mad dash and then a few minutes of swatting the dozen or so that seem to slip in. For any activity outside that lasts more than a minute I wear DEET, or come back with welts all over.

Flooding has also made access to the beach, bathrooms, and other campsites a slog. This morning I saw the park staff pumping water in an attempt to restore access to the bathrooms but this effort was unsuccessful. They’re just going to have to wait until it dries up naturally.

Galveston ferry

Don’t get the idea that this isn’t a good place to go, because the state park is actually very nice. We just caught it at a rough time. And Galveston has been very nice to us. We took advantage of the fine weather to walk the famous Seawall and some of the older parts of town, as well as ride the free ferry from Galveston to Port Bolivar (highly recommended; look for dolphins and lots of huge ships at sea), and check out a few spots like Seawolf Park, Hotel Galvez, Pleasure Pier, and The Strand.  Emma got a roadschooling lesson today about the conditions our WW II vets experiences aboard a submarine and destroyer escort ship.

Galveston seawolf park

The refrigerator remains on life support, or more accurately dry ice support.  With a little help from the -109 degree temperature of dry ice all is well, but that costs $20 a pop and I’m getting tired of having to buy the stuff.  I did manage to get Arcticold on the phone Tuesday (they didn’t return the call but I have the cell phone # of somebody and I’m not afraid to use it) and after hearing the anemic temperatures of the exterior coils during our two-day “hotwire” test he finally agreed that a warranty replacement was in order.

That situation is far from resolved.  The next step is an email from someone else in the organization, to confirm the shipping arrangements, and I haven’t seen that yet.  In any case there’s no chance of getting a new cooling unit until after we get home, so hopefully it will be in Tucson this month and I’ll have a chance to make the swap before our next trip at Thanksgiving.

Galveston Airstream sunset

We’re now debating our next few stops. As of this morning we are the owners of a $70 Texas state parks pass, which deletes the onerous daily per-person cost that all Texas state parks have these days.  In our case the pass is worth about $15 per day in savings, which adds up fast. And since we have it, we’ll probably hit a few more state parks along the route just to get our money’s worth, so their clever pricing ploy worked on us.

Texas has some pretty good parks, but they’re spread out across a lot of territory and connecting the dots involves quite a lot of driving. So far we’ve decided only to aim for Pedernales Falls tomorrow, and continue to take the trip day by day. We’ve got about nine days to get home and we want to keep the spontaneity level high as long as possible.  (Except that we’d appreciate it if nothing else spontaneously broke.)

Fighting entropy

Technology kept collapsing around us last week, despite my hopes for a turnaround in luck. The refrigerator dropped back to its prior level of weak performance, managing to keep the interior only about 46 degrees on electric and about 50 degrees on propane. In addition to everything else that went wonky, the rear-view cam on the Airstream went dark as we left Destin FL, and so it made sense to drop in on our friends at Airstream of Mississippi (Gulfport, MS, right off I-10) for a little help.

Jesse bent stabilizerAS of MS (also known as Foley RV) has a small but capable service department.  Jesse (pictured here) swapped out the bent stabilizer in a few minutes, which I appreciated particularly because it meant I didn’t have to lie on my back and wrestle it off with my own wrenches.  The service guys were kind enough to take a good stabilizer off a used Airstream, since they didn’t currently have a new stabilizer in inventory. That’s good service!

They also took a look at the mysterious failure of the rear-view cam and figured out in a few minutes that the problem was in the flexible cable that carries the signal from the Airstream to the car. A little tweaking and that problem was solved too.  I was starting to have hope.

Airstream of Mississippi Foley RVI should pause here to say that Rick Foley and his team are really great—making Airstream of Mississippi one of my favorite dealerships to visit. Rick is a “real Airstreamer.” He actually became an Airstream dealer after being a vintage Airstream owner and falling in love with the lifestyle.  That’s good motivation by my standards.  Rick has a nice Argosy motorhome these days, which is looking sweet thanks to a recent repaint in the neighboring bodyshop.

At that point we still thought the refrigerator was working, so I didn’t ask about that, but later that day when we pulled into Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego LA (across the river from New Orleans), it was obvious that we still had a cooling problem.

Since we’d already reduced our perishables to a bare minimum, the weakness of the refrigerator wasn’t as much of a crisis as before.  We left it running in hopes it might recover, and spent a day in New Orleans with our good friends Lexie and Charon, visiting a few old favorite places.  I had to get a really good muffaletta, for one thing, and so we had lunch at a place I’ve been visiting for muffalettas since 1983.

New Orleans Cafe Du Monde sugar lipsIn my college years I visited Cafe Du Monde many times, but never before midnight. It was something of a ritual back then, topping off an evening of wandering and listening to jazz leaking out of the cafes and restaurants, with an order of 3 beignets and coffee.

Being a tad older these days, we hit it in the mid-afternoon this time. It was exactly as it always is: simple, crowded, and fun. Wearing powdered sugar from the beignets is de rigeur.  I had left a few white smudges on my green Airstream Life baseball cap as a souvenir until the heavy rains over the weekend washed them off.

We had only one good weather day out of three this visit, so we made the most of it, walking all around the French Quarter and riding the St Charles streetcar its full length at sunset.  Everyone was out in their Halloween costumes a day early because of the strong forecast of rain on Halloween, and this made the people-watching just fantastic.  New Orleans is a city of drama and costume already, so when you mix in Halloween and massive  parties along St Charles and Carrollton, it’s a virtual show.

Bayou Segnette awning

The next day I tackled what technical problems I could, with Lexie’s help.  I’d had several packages sent to the park, so at this point I was able to replace the dead Wilson cellular booster, replace the failing showerhead and flexible hose with an Oxygenics model, and replace the TPMS with the latest version with user-replaceable batteries (this is the same one I sell in the Airstream Life Store).  I also lubed the awning arms with silicone spray since they were sticking.  I felt like I was making progress against entropy.

Dometic refrigerator pressure testThe big project was the fridge. First, I wanted to make sure that the propane gas pressure was set correctly at the regulator.  Low pressure can cause the refrigerator to fail when running on gas.

Lexie had an old-fashioned blood pressure manometer that read millimeters (mm) of mercury (HG).  In the photo at right you can see our almost steampunk-appearing test rig. We bought a few pieces of brass at the local hardware store to screw into the test port on the refrigerator (1/8″ FIP by the way) and connected the rubber hose from the blood pressure gauge to that.

Since the optimal gas pressure is 11 inches of water column, I just had to find an online converter to figure out what that was in mm/HG.  The answer is 20.5, and sure enough, the gas regulator was set too low.  We quickly adjusted that, but I knew it wasn’t the whole story since the refrigerator wasn’t working properly on gas or electric.  (Also, the regulator seems to be at its adjustment limit, so it may need replacement soon too if I can’t find the correct spring.)

I decided to do the test that Arcticold requested.  This involved disconnecting the 120 volt wires to the refrigerator’s circuit board, and cutting/splicing them to connect the electric heating element directly.  Essentially this “hotwires” the heater so it runs full bore even if the refrigerator is turned off.  This test eliminates any possibility of failure caused by a faulty circuit board, thermistor, or gas burner.

After 24 hours of running like this it was clear the cooling unit wasn’t performing.  The fridge stayed in the upper 40s.  We let it run like this for another 12 hours, taking temperatures of the exterior tubing periodically with an infrared thermometer so I could report to Arcticold.  On Sunday I re-wired it back to original–with one exception.  Now it has a set of “quick disconnect” plugs so that I can easily repeat this test without cutting anything.

I gave Arcticold a call this morning and got voicemail again, which I expected.  They didn’t call back today, so it looks like this could be a long slog.  Meanwhile, we’re back to putting dry ice in the freezer to protect the few things remaining in there.

Eleanor making shrimp & grits

Despite not having reliable refrigeration, Eleanor is still managing to cook well.  In the photo above she’s making a spectacular meal of South Carolina’s famous “Shrimp & Grits” with a few crabcakes on the side.  She has adopted a philosophy of buying fresh stuff daily as we need it, and using the refrigerator mostly as a moderately cool place to store less perishable things like canned drinks and butter.

We’re also making a few substitutions like buying UHT milk. It turns out that refrigeration is overrated, and by the end of this trip we may have figured out that we don’t need it at all.  After all, Wally Byam toured Europe in 1948 without a refrigerator. I think we can get across Texas and the desert southwest.

Weather changes

Through September I kept saying, “We’ve got to get out of Vermont by mid month or things are going to get tricky.” It wasn’t really news. After living in Vermont for years we all knew precisely what was coming, and when. The campgrounds shut down, water hoses freeze, and in an RV the daily propane burn becomes enormous.

The benefit of waiting was beautiful foliage everywhere.  My brother and I took a last ride on the BMWs just to tour some of the dirt backroads of central Vermont and see it at peak.

VT BMW bikes and foliage

Departing this late is always a dangerous game, as sudden weather changes are to be expected in fall this far north. We picked Friday Oct 16 as our departure date and it seemed like a good bet until we got to western Pennsylvania along the shore of Lake Ontario on I-90. Then we hit a sudden storm of sleet and ice pellets.

Ohio sleet Airstream 2015-10Eleanor and I watched in horror as the temperature plummeted from 47 degrees to 33 degrees in less than five minutes.  Heavy sleet was pelting the car and the front of the Airstream, and covering the road in a rough sheet of treachery.

When that happens you have to start looking for options to bail out. There is no point in plowing forward with a trailer in tow when conditions are that bad.  We got off at the next exit and filled up with fuel (where I took this photo).

Ten minutes later the storm had passed. It was just a little reminder of how things can change quickly in the north in October, especially along the shore of a Great Lake that produces its own special weather.

Sleet in October?  I wouldn’t have been surprised up in northern Vermont, but down in Pennsylvania I felt fairly immune. I won’t make that mistake again.

For the rest of the drive along the lake and past Cleveland we were in and out of storms. We pulled over a second time at a rest area to consider options again, and decided that we’d make a choice at the split of I-90 and I-271. If the weather continued as it had, we’d spend the night boondocking at one of the usual commercial establishments known to allow overnight parking and we’d call our friends to tell them we weren’t going to make it to their house that night.

Far better to disappoint your friends by saying you’ll be arriving the next day, than to call them to say you won’t be arriving at all because you slid off the road. “Get-there-itis” is often fatal.

By the way, this experience is a very good reason to travel with both propane cylinders as full as possible during the late fall and winter season. You can easily find yourself spending an unexpected night along the road with only your propane supply to keep you warm, and on a freezing night the furnace will burn a lot of it.

Ohio sunset Airstream 2015-10

In this case we were lucky.  The weather got better as we turned south away from the lake, and we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset, and we made it to our friends’ home with no problems.  Here’s one shot of us towing happily to the west, near the end of the sunset and a safe trip.

Now, two days later, we are in Jackson Center at Airstream. It’s not any warmer here. Last night I had to disconnect the water hose because it would have frozen solid. I’ve got a day of prep work to do for Alumapalooza 7, and then we will make a rapid exit to the south with the beaches of the Florida panhandle on our minds.  We are definitely “chasing 72 degrees,” as many full-timers do.