The last tour of the GL?

After plodding through the mushy wet snow for a couple of days it was a welcome change to have the sun come out in Fort Collins and watch it all melt. The two pictures below were taken two days apart:

Fort Collins Airstream slushFort Collins Airstream campsite sun

And that changed the mood of the entire rally. No longer was everyone hunkered down inside with the furnace blowing, peering out through fogged windows in the hope of seeing sunshine. Suddenly people were outside, walking around and talking to their fellow rally-goers. Emma and I went for rides, Eleanor and I went for walks. It all turned out very nicely.

Saturday night the weather was so fine that people were grilling outdoors and I offered test rides to anyone who wanted to try our electric kick scooter. About ten people hopped on and zipped away—and they all came back with a big smile.  This guy even popped a wheelie.

Fort Collins scooter wheelie

Fort Collins was nearly our halfway point to Alumapalooza, which meant we still had 1,100 miles to go.  After the rally there was no avoiding that we were going to make our 31st crossing of the American Great Plains, so we braced ourselves and began to log some miles.

Kansas center of USATo mix things up we always look for a new route. I think we’ve driven every possible major route through the center of the continent but there was a bit of northwestern Kansas we hadn’t seen before so we headed that way. It’s not much different from other parts of Kansas but at least it was new.

The nice thing about taking the quieter roads is that there’s more variety and occasionally an under-appreciated state park in which to spend the night. This time it was Prairie Dog State Park.

A single night in a state park isn’t enough time to get to know it, but clearly it’s a jewel judging by the number of locals who had staked out spots with their RVs and fishing boats.  The park has a nice small lake stocked with fish. (There’s also lots of space for unicycle riders.)

Prairie Dog SP Emma

Rains came in the evening, and despite my efforts to cover the delicate rear computer in the GL, a few drops of water got in again. I woke up at 3 a.m. to see the taillights glowing (a clear sign that the computer was freaking out). Computers and water don’t mix.

I dried it off and covered the computer better but the damage was done: multiple error messages in the console, and the brake controller was ON all the time. That’s because the computer was telling the brake controller that the brakes were applied when they weren’t.  This meant the trailer couldn’t be towed. And of course the nearest Mercedes dealer was 3.5 hours away.

At noon we were still without functioning brakes and we had to leave the campsite, so I disconnected the 7-way cord to the trailer and towed gingerly to another part of the park without brakes or taillights. I pulled fuses in hopes of forcing a reset, to no avail. Finally, on the phone Colin Hyde came up with a temporary solution: cut the wire to the brake controller that receives the braking signal.

I did that and reconnected the 7-way cable. Now we had taillights and manually-operated brakes, so we could proceed. I just had to keep a hand on the manual brake lever and coordinate braking the trailer by hand with braking the car with my foot. It’s not as hard as you might think.

A few hours later I reconnected the cut wire and found the computer had returned to normal. We were back in good operating condition from that point onward. But I wonder how long the circuitry will continue to work, now that it has gotten wet twice. (I also rigged up an elaborate multi-layer water protection system, in the hopes of preventing a third dousing. I can’t stop the actual leak but I have fixed things so any water that gets in will be shunted far away from the computer.)

The rest of the drive was uneventful and uninteresting. Suffice to say we survived KS, MO, IL, and IN without extreme weather or dramatic failures and pulled into Jackson Center OH—center of the Airstream universe—by Wednesday evening. We’re set up at the Terra Port and getting ready for Alumapalooza 8.

I am eyeing a replacement vehicle. The GL’s recent crises involving the water leaks, along with numerous other age-related problems, are starting to drive my repair costs to an unacceptable level.

We’re at eight years and 134,000 miles with this tow vehicle, which is less than I had hoped for when I bought it, but still a respectable amount of use. The choice of what might replace the GL is difficult since our criteria are complex, but I hope to make a decision in the next few weeks: keep or replace, and replace with what?  I’ll talk about that in more detail in another blog.

Left turn at Albuquerque

BugsABQ“I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!” — Bugs Bunny



If we had, we would be in California right now, instead of this:

Chatfield SP Airstream snow

It was a bit of a shock to wake up in Chatfield State Park to snow falling, since even the gloomy forecast didn’t predict it until the following night. What a change from the previous day’s sunny 72 degrees.

And the danged snow just kept coming down all morning, until we had about five inches on the grass. Emma was delighted, Eleanor was tickled to take photos from inside the Airstream, and I was horrified. That’s how we all generally react to snow.

Chatfield SP Eleanor photo

Well, in such a situation there are clear protocols: First, crank up the heat.  Second, make a hearty breakfast.  Third, go outside and throw snowballs around.  We’re in an Airstream that we just loaded for five months on the road, so believe me when I say we had all the gear needed for this event: warm socks, a variety of teas, lots of propane, cold weather clothes, toast & marmalade, bad/classic movies on DVD, etc.

We were due at a rally in Fort Collins, but waited until about noon to leave the state park, hoping the weather would clear.  It didn’t. Weighing the options it seemed like the best move was to tow during midday when the temperatures were sufficiently above freezing to avoid icing on the roads. The trek to Fort Collins up I-25 was slow and occasionally “exciting” but overall safe enough and we got to the KOA in fine condition.

Fort Collins Airstream slushThe GL had to fight a little to push the Airstream back into the snow-filled campsite. Even with all-wheel drive it was tough when the all-season tires slipped. This is definitely winter tire weather.

However, please notice the tire tracks on the snow: one pass to get parked—that’s our “performance guarantee”. I hate hacking the trailer into a site (going back and forth repeatedly). Eleanor took the brunt of this particular job since she had to go out in the wet slush and heavy falling snow to guide me in.

It’s probably a testament to the devotion and hardiness of the local Airstream club that more than half of the rally attendees eventually arrived despite the conditions.

Normally I’ll do everything possible to avoid snow. Towing in snow is craziness. We once bailed out of a great trip in Banff because it was October and a small snowstorm was looming. At that time of year one good snowfall might mean you’re stuck for weeks, because just as one begins to melt another snowfall arrives.

But this is May, so any snow that lands will melt quickly even up here at 5,000 feet.  The roads and bridges aren’t going to freeze (at least not for long) and there was no chance of the temperatures declining further as long as we didn’t go further up in altitude. So coming here was a calculated decision. No biggie to wait out a couple of days of snow.

We started our trip with full propane cylinders of course, but using the furnace all night and the catalytic heater all day means we will probably drain a cylinder before we leave on Sunday. Normally I don’t have to buy propane until the end of the summer. We’d be burning it even faster if we didn’t have the catalytic heater to use during the day (it’s much more efficient than the furnace).

Our strategy lately is to run the cat heater by day because it’s efficient. It’s fine for our 30 foot trailer down to about freezing. Below that, the ends of the trailer tends to get chilly. At night when temperatures are likely to drop below freezing we switch to the furnace. That way the trailer is heated more evenly and the holding tanks get a little warmth too (so they don’t freeze).

All of this will hopefully be of academic interest only in a few days. I’m looking forward to rolling down to the Great Plains and points east for a sudden switch to summertime greenery and warmth.  So for us, summer starts Sunday or Monday.

From desert heat to Rocky Mountain snow

Airstream ready for departureThe saying is that “the journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”  The problem is that it takes a while to get ready for that first step. Lots to pack, arrange, and prepare when you don’t plan to be home for five months.

And that explains why our Airstream left the driveway two days later than planned.  Things weren’t quite ready and in the context of months, a couple of days isn’t really a big deal so it made sense to delay the trip just a little.

This delay cost us a couple of good stops. I was planning to go to Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monument, then up to the Four Corners region and stop at Hovenweep National Monument. But we had also committed to a rally in Fort Collins and so instead of just moving the entire schedule back, we had to skip past the Four Corners.

That meant taking the Interstate highway system, a necessary but tedious expedient. Taking the Interstate is a great way to get from A to B without seeing anything. Almost as good as a jetliner. But we were slightly pressed for time and so we plowed west on I-10 and north on I-25, with the only good part being the detour through Hatch, New Mexico and a stop for lunch beside the town’s collection of advertising statues.

Hatch NM Airstream

After a night in Albuquerque we pressed onward to Littleton CO and Chatfield State Park, just outside the Denver metro area.  This park surrounds a flood-control project that forms a nice little lake.  There’s a bike trail surrounding the lake, which enticed Emma and I out for a very pleasant morning of riding on our electric unicycles, for 14 miles.

Chatfield SP Emma EUC

But now that we’ve gotten here, the weather is about to make us regret doubly our decision to skip the sunny and dry Four Corners region…

Fort Collins rally wx

Snow?  High temps of 37?  Isn’t this May?

This will definitely put a damper on the rally, but knowing the Airstreamers they’ll all find a way to have a good time anyway. Personally I’m going to stay in the trailer all day Friday with the catalytic heater and a movie marathon running.

To get ready Eleanor and I went digging in our under-bed storage and swapped out all our shorts and sandals for those items we keep on board for the occasional spate of bad weather. I keep a few items in the Airstream at all times: long underwear, hat, gloves, warm socks, and some grungy clothes for emergency roadside repairs. This stuff rarely comes out, and I sure didn’t expect it to be needed four days after leaving the near-100 degree weather in Tucson.

Well, on a journey of 1,000 miles (or in our case about 10,000 miles) change is to be expected. Before this trip is over we’ll visit at least 11 states and perhaps a couple of Canadian provinces. It won’t be sunny every day, nor will it always be warm. But, if we’re lucky, it will always be interesting.

Road trip 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 eastbound trip route

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

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

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

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

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

Wandering in Montana

After a few days of boondocking it’s nice to hit a full hookup campground for a night just to get everything back in ship-shape.  The Airstream is inevitably full of dirt and gravel tracked in from the campsite, we are perhaps a bit less fresh than we’d like to be (due to careful conservation of water), all the little electronic devices we carry need charging up, the laundry basket is full, it’s time to get some groceries, and maybe dump the tanks if there wasn’t a place to do it before.

Montana Airstream lunch stop Ft Union

The definition of many Airstreamers is “someone who spends $75,000 on a trailer and then looks for free campsites,” and there’s a bit of truth in that. But there’s a good reason.  I personally hate paying the rates commercial campgrounds charge when what we get in return is a lengthy set of rules, a tedious check-in process, an un-level campsite with dodgy electric, street noise, and neighbors so close we can hear them chewing. We look for the state park and federal sites not because they’re cheaper (or free)  but because they are so much less annoying.

But sometimes you need the full hookups.  In this part of eastern Montana there aren’t a lot of choices in campgrounds.  A few nice-sounding Federal and State campgrounds didn’t have the services we needed and were too far off in the boonies for our needs, so we just grabbed the first commercial campground we could along Route 2, “the Hi-Line” road—and resolved to accept whatever fate handed us.

As it turned out we got pretty lucky and found a residential park that had a few transient spaces available, for $25 a night. The site was a lumpy bit of dirt but it was quiet, the utilities worked and the friendly manager even tipped Eleanor off to the best washing machine in the laundry room. The town was too small to have a decent grocery store but we’d find groceries further west in Havre later.

Ft Union to Missoula

Last spring when I was planning this trip I wanted to travel the Hi-Line across Montana to see what the small towns and native reservations looked like, and because it was an appealing alternative to I-94. There really isn’t much to grab the tourist’s attention along this route except for a dinosaur museum in Malta, the Fort Peck area around the reservoir, and a few other small curiosities such as a buffalo jump and some roadside art. The road is reputed to be the most dangerous in Montana, due to a 70 MPH speed limit and few passing lanes. Still, I’m glad we took this path at least once.

At Havre we faced a decision: continue along Rt 2 to the Glacier area, or dive south through Great Falls and back to the Interstate at Missoula?  Bert Gildart told us the crowds around Glacier and the Flathead Lake area were unbearable (by Montana standards) and a look at ReserveAmerica confirmed it: all Glacier-area campgrounds booked solid.  No, thanks.  We’ll come back another time when it’s not peak season and the NPS isn’t driving attendance up with their centennial celebration.

So we are going to press on westward, heading for the northwest corner of Washington around the North Cascades National Park, where hopefully things will be quieter.  This means a lot of driving over the weekend, but that’s fine if it yields a few days of really nice country at the end, and this way we’ll arrive in the park when a lot of working folk are heading back to home. Besides, we need to get to Seattle in less than a week, so we’ve dawdled as much as we can.

Two related observations:

  1. When I tell non-Airstreamers that we are taking “only” a month to cross the country, they always give me a peculiar look. They’re used to the idea that you can only take off a little vacation time and so such a trip must be a rush-rush thing. So I explain to them that having the Airstream means I can work as I travel—relatively little of my time is spent “vacationing”— and slow down to enjoy things more. Usually this gets me a blanker stare.

    This trip has been a relatively quick one.  We will have traveled well over 3,000 miles from Vermont to Washington in 25 days, which is an average of 120 miles per day. There have been so many times we wished we could detour further, stay longer, relax more on this itinerary.  I think the ideal amount of time to cross the USA is about two to three months. Maybe when we’re closer to retirement we can slow down and travel like we did in the 2005-2008 full-timing days.

  2. When thinking about North Cascades National Park, I realized that we have been to 38 of the 58 designated National Parks in the NPS system so far.  We’ll bag two more—Mt Rainier and North Cascades—before this trip is over.  We may never see some of the National Parks (like American Samoa and Virgin Islands) but I do think we’ll continue visiting the 400+ units of the National Park Service for the rest of our lives.  They are an amazing treasure and the best value for an Airstream owner anywhere.