Happy Airstream, happy driver

I’m on the road at last, for my big solo trip from Arizona to Ohio.

I’m glad there was time to work out the bugs that popped up in January when I went to California, and during Alumafiesta. The Airstream felt great from the very first mile in Tucson. I like it when the equipment is running smooth: the tires gently hissing and the TPMS telling me they are running cool, the hitch lubed and free of squeaks, the Mercedes purring along …

The day was sunny and surprisingly cool for southern Arizona in May, so I put the pedal down and began cruising along I-10 at 70 MPH.  (I don’t run ST tires with their anemic 65 MPH speed rating, and my rig is very carefully hitched up, so 70 MPH is no problem on good road.) The miles just flew by, and it wasn’t long before familiar roadside sights began to show up.

IMG_4768

Maybe it was the happy car and trailer affecting me, or perhaps the fine weather, or perhaps the very nice send-off from my wife and daughter (who will join me in a week), but for whatever reason I just kept on rolling.  Soon I was passing through central Las Cruces and its collection of historic signage along Rt 70, then through the White Sands Missile Range, and in the afternoon I found myself in beautiful northern New Mexico with a minor problem.

White Sands

You see, on the first day of a trip like this we never bother with a campground, since the trailer is loaded with everything. Being solo, there’s even less reason for a campground. The water and food supply on board will easily last me 5-7 days. So unless there’s oppressive heat we just look for an overnight parking spot (and sometimes even when there is oppressive heat and humidity.)

I had absolutely perfect weather on Saturday. Not a cloud in the sky, dry air, temperatures perfect for sleeping, but there was, somewhere in the northern part of New Mexico and not a clue where I was spending the night. The campgrounds along my route were bad and overpriced, and there were few overnight parking spots to choose from. So I kept pressing the accelerator and running down the road until the sun set … and beyond.

It was 10:30 pm local time when I finally pulled into a parking lot in Amarillo TX, 690 long miles from Tucson. Not as bad as it sounds since I’d crossed two time zone boundaries and for me it was only 8:30. This ridiculous slog meant I’d covered more than a third of the trip in a single day, and that was great because it meant I could slow down for the rest of the trip.

Tornadoes and hail are always the worry when crossing the Plains states this time of year.  Every year I have to dodge something. This year a huge frontal boundary was ahead of me, spawning tornadoes in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. This was the easiest year ever, since all I had to do was stay behind the storm line and enjoy the lovely cool weather.

Airstream at Natural Falls SP OKToday’s drive was similar. I-40 all the way, across the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. The drive was not much to write home about, but I had a nice time anyway. With an early start and no pressure to get anywhere, I had plenty of time to stop in Oklahoma City to make some calls, and in Tulsa to think about where to go next.

Finally I decided to deviate slightly to get off the Interstate and explore something new.  I ended up 438 miles from my starting point, at Natural Falls State Park in eastern Oklahoma, just in time for dinner.

The Airstream still didn’t need a campground. There was plenty of water and the sun had replenished my batteries for free (which always happens by early afternoon this time of year thanks to a high sun angle). But I just wanted to have a quiet place to stop and some scenery around me that didn’t involve a lot of asphalt, so the $20 charged for a water/electric pull-thru spot at Natural Falls seemed like an excellent idea.

Natural Falls SP 2015-05

And it was.

The park has a nice paved trail that leads to the falls. It was just the thing after two days spent in the car.  Time to kick back for a while and think about what’s on the agenda for the next two days.  I still want to get to Jackson Center by Wednesday, but other than that there’s no plan.

And something happened to put my travels into perspective. The toll booth lady admired the Airstream and said my trip on the turnpike ($5) would be free if I’d just go back five miles and drop the Airstream off at her house. She went on to say how much fun she’d have with her grandkids in it. The compliment was nice, but on balance I decided to keep the Airstream. It’s a privilege to have it and I thank her for reminding me. Tonight as I relax in the Airstream, and tomorrow as I explore northern Arkansas I’ll be thinking about that.

Solo traveler

The kittens are taking over.  I say that because they have commanded Eleanor & Emma to change plans, and stay here in Tucson another week to give them more TLC. That means I’ll be towing the Airstream solo, about 2,000 miles, to Jackson Center OH and the Airstream factory.

Only one other time have I towed the Airstream such a long way by myself.  That was back in December 2009, picking up the Caravel in Michigan and towing it through a lot of freezing weather all the way to Tucson. Without my traveling companions it was, in a word, boring (except when the window shattered).

So I’m not exactly pumped by this idea.  On one hand it will be a little easier to travel on only my schedule. I can cover more miles per day by myself, because there are fewer stops and distractions.  On the other hand, I’ll miss all the little rituals and pleasures we have developed amongst ourselves to make long trips like this more engaging. Much of those come from the unnecessary stops and distractions that Eleanor and Emma inspire.

I’ll have to try to relish solo travel, and not rush through the country too much. Pre-planning helps with this; just having a few key destinations along the way to visit, even if they are relatively mundane, keeps me from zooming by and ending up with highway malaise. Maybe I’ll drop in on that restaurant in Missouri that’s in a cave, or finally visit Eureka Springs AR, or seek out some Route 66 stuff.

The prospect of an Airstream-related problem while I’m towing solo is an aspect that doesn’t bother me much. I’ve gotten comfortable with the reality of on-the-road repairs. This comfort comes from having dealt with all kinds of troubles in the past: electrical issues, brakes failing, tire tread separations (many), rain water leaks, plumbing leaks, hitch problems, loss of a wheel, awning damage, bumper ripped off … you name it—we’ve experienced it. It’s never fun but at least every time something happens and you successfully deal with it, your store of knowledge and confidence grows.

Although the trip starts next weekend, I’m doing the final prep now because this week I will be flying to Seattle to attend the annual Airstream Dealer Meeting. My primary role is to be there as part of the Airstream community, representing just how beloved the brand is.  My goal is to convince more dealers that they are missing out if they aren’t part of Airstream Life and Outside Interests. My expectation is that it will rain. But it should be interesting and even fun, so I’m looking forward to it.

When I get back and the Airstream launches this weekend I’ll probably blog daily until I get to Jackson Center. Given the time of year I’m sure I’ll be dodging thunderstorms and even hail along the way, but other than that and the certainty of a visit to Wal-Mart, the trip is a story waiting to be written.  Come along for the ride–and let me know if there’s a place along the way I should visit.

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.

A cure for road malaise

This was a pretty good trip west, considering that we were covering a familiar route and thus were susceptible to the malaise of “the road too often traveled.”* Our experiments with alternate routes ended up much like you’d expect: some successes, some failures.  On the positive side, we found some very nice roads through Kansas (and more through Missouri and Arkansas that we’ll try next year), lots of historic sites, several new state parks, and amazing scenery through New Mexico.

* apologies to Robert Frost

To the negative side, our cadence through the trip was off.  Normally on a rush-rush trip (and two weeks to go from Vermont to Arizona is definitely a rush in our book), we’ll travel 350-400 miles for a day or two, then take a couple of days off to browse an area and recuperate from sitting in the car.  This time we tried a different routine of exploring in the morning, then driving 200-300 miles to another interesting spot for the night so that we can explore it again the next morning.  It was efficient but too grueling, and after a week of this I was burning out. So we’ve decided to go back to the previous method, at least when we don’t have time to do it a more relaxed way.

Still, we managed to do a lot of the things we like.  I keep a trip tally of places visited and anticipated, on our white board in the Airstream.  This trip we hit seven state parks: Darien Lake (NY), Maumee Bay (OH), Fox Ridge (IL), Sangchris Lake (IL), Pershing (MO), John Martin Reservoir (CO), Fool Hollow Lake (AZ),  plus one Canadian Provincial park (Pinery in Ontario).  That’s a win right there, because the camping experience in every one of those parks was nicer than almost any of the commercial parks we’ve ever visited. The state parks may have gotten more expensive since the Great Recession, but they are still a bargain if you like being out in the country.

We had no trouble at all getting into state parks in Illinois, Missouri, and even eastern Colorado with no reservations.  Most of them were nearly deserted, at least during the week.  I had expected we might have to spend a night at a Wal-Mart or similar because it should have been peak season in those states.  Strangely, once we got west of I-25 into Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, everything was full. Admittedly the weather was fantastic, but it was a surprise to pull into a tiny place like Eagle Nest, NM and find no availability at either of the two state parks and most of the commercial sites—on a Thursday. But it always worked out, as it always does. (I often remind people that you always know where you’ll be sleeping when you have a travel trailer, so why get anxious about it?)

During the trip we managed to add to our list of national park sites, which is getting harder these days since we’ve visited nearly a third of the entire NP system. Kansas may not have a leading reputation as a tourist state but we certainly enjoyed Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site and Ft Larned NHS, and Bent’s Old Fort NHS in Colorado, and Apache Ruins Nat’l Monument in New Mexico. Anyone who is going to the WBCCI International Rally next June in Farmington NM should plan a half day at Apache Ruins, as well as a full day at Mesa Verde National Park.

Emma picked up a Junior Ranger badge at Apache Ruins. She didn’t have time to complete the programs at the other sites, which was another symptom that the cadence of the trip wasn’t right for us. By the time we got to New Mexico I had recognized the mistake and we started to slow down a little, taking three days to get through New Mexico along Rt 64 (spectacular) and Arizona.  That means stopping and checking out things by the roadside like the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, a picnic stop at 10,500 feet on Rt 64, views in the Salt River Canyon in Arizona (Rt 60/77), etc.  Can you see our Airstream parked along the roadside in the photo below (way at the back)?

Our last stop was Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low, AZ.  It’s very popular and for good reasons; the sites are beautiful. We only go on weekdays because there’s no chance of getting a walk-up site on a weekend.  This time we ended up in the midst of what appeared to be an Airstream gathering.  To our left were two Airstreams parked together (a few tandem sites exist at Fool Hollow), to our right was a 1970s-era Argosy, and further down the loop we spotted two more late model Airstreams. It’s unusual to see this many clustered together, but it was just happenstance.  Our neighbors to the left were playing classic 78-RPM records on a portable Victor record player, and told us they were planning to come to Alumafiesta in Tucson next January.

I mentioned in the previous blog that the GL was due for maintenance.  It did a strange thing to us while climbing out of the Salt River Canyon area in Arizona.  The computer decided to limit engine power for no apparent reason. It will do this if the transmission or engine temperature get high, but that wasn’t happening, and in any case it should restore full engine power when things cool off.  This time it stayed at low power, which meant even on a flat road I couldn’t get past 48 MPH and it took forever to get there.

Even stranger, we didn’t get any sort of malfunction indicator.  This car has something like 48 separate computers and dozens of sensors that measure absolutely everything, so even something small will set off dire warnings on the instrument cluster. This time, all seemed normal except for having no power.

We were not going to be able to get home like that, at least not while towing a trailer up hills, so I called the dealership for advice. They suggested just turning the car off and then on again–essentially, rebooting it.  This worked and the problem hasn’t recurred since. Perhaps the GL was feeling a touch of “road malaise” too?

Still, I’m glad it is going in this week for a major maintenance interval so they can review any stored malfunction codes. At 97,000 miles the car is at an age where a few problems can be expected, but my standard is 100% reliability while on the road, so if anything seems amiss it will get fixed now.

Now that we are home, it’s time to unload the Airstream and get it ready for the next trip. We were drastically over-packed this year and the only solution is to get everything out and review what we are carrying. It’s really inefficient when you’ve got to move six items to get to the one you need. Any trips we do this winter will be more local, so we should be able to travel much lighter—without motorcycle gear, tenting gear, sewing machine, Wii, food for weeks, clothes for three seasons, homeschooling supplies, Aluma-event gear and costumes, etc.

This Saturday I am taking off (by airplane) to Oregon to attend Alumafandango.  It would be nice to have the Airstream but I would be risking another case of road malaise if I tried to tow it 1,200 miles up and back in September.  It doesn’t matter; I’ll be surrounded by aluminum all week anyway, thanks to the new trailer display by George M Sutton RV and the 85 or so Airstreams registered to attend. I’m looking forward to that!

Hot sauce

I’m sure there’s some great saying to be quoted that ties together travel and adversity, but I’m going to skip the Internet search for clever quotes and just draw my own conclusions. After all, it’s our own voyage and our own adversity to deal with.

Not that this has been a bad trip!  On the contrary, we have overall had a very nice few days of Airstream travel. But even on the nice days there is usually some small aggravation or diversion from the plan that has to be dealt with. Perfection, in travel and all other things, is hard to come by.

On our first day we were quite lucky in many ways: we had a pleasant and uneventful drive through the Adirondacks of New York state, west along the Thruway to the Buffalo area, and ended up snagging one of the three remaining sites at Darien Lakes State Park on a Thursday night.

This is a particularly good result considering that the Airstream has sat in Vermont for a couple of months, under trees which rain down an acidic combination of dead leaves, blooms, and branches (mixed with a little bird dropping for extra toxicity). It has been neglected and taken for granted all summer, and then—after a roof wash and a quick inspection—put back into service and expected to operate flawlessly for 360 miles on the first day out.

Since storage kills Airstreams quicker than use, I was pleased to find that all of the critical systems survived and we had no major problems, other than a few mice that Eleanor successfully trapped out in the two weeks before departure.

(You might ask why storage is more deadly than use, and the short answer is that during use the Airstream is maintained and problems are caught early; whereas in storage problems tend to fester and cause damage while your back is turned.)

The plan was to clear Canadian customs the next morning and drive to London, Ontario, to meet Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.  Andy writes the Towing column for the magazine, and we are talking about putting together a very interesting new event with him for 2015. But our travel schedule was tight, allowing us only four hours to get to London, and I was feeling the pressure all morning, probably because I was aware that we really didn’t have a lot of leeway if something went wrong.

Something did go wrong. In Brantford ON we got mired in a traffic jam on the freeway, which eventually ground to a complete halt. We sat there for over 30 minutes, parked among the semi-trailers, reading books while the more agile cars broke loose and took an entrance ramp ahead (going the wrong way) to escape. This was not an option for the trucks and us, being too long to make the 300-degree right turn necessary to get on the entrance ramp. Eventually, all the cars were gone and I realized we now had room to make a three point turn on the highway, drive in the wrong direction down the breakdown lane, and then up another entrance ramp further back in the direction we had come from.

This might seem nerve-wracking but it felt like great fun to me.  How often do you get to drive backwards down the freeway—with a travel trailer? Coming up the curved entrance ramp in the wrong direction was a little odd, especially when I came to the police car with lights flashing that was blocking the ramp, but amazingly there was just enough room to squeeze the Airstream through, across two lanes of heavy traffic, and once again into a legal travel configuration.

Eleanor got a really fun part of this. While we were parked on the highway she had gone into the trailer to make sandwiches.  A few minutes later I got the opportunity to escape the highway and warned her that we might start moving at any moment, with her inside.  I half expected to find her later looking like Lucille Ball in “The Long Long Trailer,” covered with ingredients and bruises from being tossed around inside the Airstream, but when I finally found a parking lot a few miles later and pulled over, she was ready inside the Airstream with three sandwiches neatly bagged up and ready to serve. It turns out that it’s a pretty smooth ride in there.

After our detour and a quick nosh on those sandwiches we were a solid hour behind schedule. We raced up to London, grabbed Andy, and headed onward together to Grand Bend to do some scouting.

Grand Bend is a nice little beach town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, just about an hour from the Sarnia ON-Pt Huron MI crossing. I’ll talk more about what we found there in a later blog entry, but suffice to say now that it’s a very nice spot and after just a couple of hours of scouting we decided that we definitely are going to launch a new event there for July 2015. I promise that it will be absolutely unique, and if you travel anywhere within 1,000 miles of Michigan next summer you should plan to go.

Andy had to head back home but we spent the night at the Pinery Provincial Park (the equivalent of a US state park).  Pinery is a very nice place, quite massive, which feels a lot like an overgrown Florida State Park. There are about 1,000 campsites, all tucked under tall pine trees on sandy spots in a forest. People reserve it a year in advance to get a summer weekend, which is why we could only get Thursday night.

I wasn’t really unhappy about having to leave after one night.  The park was too big for my taste, too crowded (even though it covered hundreds of aces and the entrance road was over 4 km), and the campground loop was too tight. We had to do some careful planning to find a route out of our campground loop that would allow the Airstream out without hitting a tree or scraping an overhead branch. In all the hundreds of campgrounds we’ve visited, this one ranked above all others in sheer difficulty to navigate with a 30-foot trailer.

I was also a bit peeved that we had reserved an electric site, paid a total of CAN$56 in fees, and got Dunes site #25 which is marked on the Pinery map as having electric—but did not have electricity anywhere that we could find. If we’d had more time I would have taken it up with the staff but we were again on a tight schedule and in the end it just wasn’t worth the hassle. We had more scouting work to do on Friday before the 2 pm checkout time, so I decided to just focus on work and then head to some place that was less popular.

In our travels we’ve usually had the best times at quiet places, but it’s hard to find campground that is both pleasant and unpopular on a summer weekend in the north.  At this point we had no idea where we were going to spend the night.  The good part was that we also had no itinerary for the weekend.  My next scheduled stop was at Airstream and there was no point in getting there until Monday, and it was only 264 miles away, which meant we could go anywhere we wanted in the meantime.

So after heading southwest from Grand Bend we stopped at Point Edward park under the famous Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia, ON.  This is a sweet little spot for a break, where you can watch the gorgeous blue-green water flow by in the river, walk the grassy park, marvel at the enormous bridges overhead, and ogle your first view of America just across the river in Pt Huron MI. We spent the afternoon.

The traffic on the Blue Water bridge is so bad there’s an app you can download to watch the traffic and figure the best time to try to make it through.  It’s bad because US Customs is right on the other side, which causes traffic to back up over the bridge and often a mile or two back into Sarnia. At 5 pm we launched into it; at 6:30 pm we finally cleared customs, having traveled a mere two miles or so. It was a frustrating end to the day, but if you look at the bright side, we had a nice long view from the top of the bridge…

So was our trip good, or bad?  I say it’s a matter of how you view things.  I think (being an optimist most of the time) that it was very good. Eleanor agrees. It wasn’t perfect but here we are, still standing, still traveling, still together, and more adventures lie ahead. My conclusion: a little adversity is the “hot sauce” that makes travel all that much more interesting.