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.

Down the UP, to Door County WI

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Wisconsin always remind me of Vermont.  There are no mountains here, but the abundant scenic byways, small towns, and long stands of forest are comforting. Except for a few minutes of highway construction in Green Bay, the drive from De Tour Village MI to Sturgeon Bay WI was easy and quiet.

Escanaba WI Dobbers PastiesAlong the way we stopped in Escanaba to snag a few pasties for lunch, and before we could get out of the car we were visited by two enthusiastic Airstreamers-to-be, who exclaimed “We’ve been following you for an hour!”  At first I thought this might set a record for aluminum stalking but really they were just heading the same direction along Rt 41.  By the time we all pulled into the parking lot at Dobber’s Pasties they had figured out who we were, and we had a nice chat before going inside to get lunch.

Pasty, by the way, does not rhyme with “tasty” although it should.  They’re like calzones on the outside, but without tomato sauce on the inside. Instead they’re filled with diced potatoes, meats, cheese—all kinds of things depending on which type of pasty you choose.  Unfairly, the name rhymes with “nasty,” but let’s overlook that.

They’ve been beloved by Yoopers for generations. We get them whenever we are up here, and clearly from the sign (above) Dobber’s knows it.

The trip plan I posted in yesterday’s blog shows that this dip down to the Door County peninsula is a pretty big detour. We’re doing it for our kid. These days there’s a lot of fear about the perverts and weirdos who kids might meet online, but our experience has been different. Emma has been videochatting online with some pretty cool kids for a couple of years now, and we vowed that we’d make the necessary side trips so she could meet them in person. We met Hannah in Indianapolis on our way to Alumapalooza, and now we’re here to meet Emily from Sturgeon Bay. Both visits have been spectacular successes.

The parents are always a little skeptical at first, which is natural considering what they’re faced with.  A strange family that lives in a trailer and wanders the country like gypsies is going to drop in for a visit?  Imagine what would go through your head.  Lock the doors, keep an eye on their hands, and make sure the ammo is dry, I expect. But all the parents have been great, quickly seeing that we’re only a little weird, and the girls always have a great time.

Door County Fair rabbits


This time we met them at the Door County Fair and spent a couple of hours on the classic fair rides, and checking out the 4-H exhibits of poultry, rabbits, horses, and an amazing array of baked goods (which inspired me to get back to bread baking when we get home).

While the girls were hanging out, Eleanor and I had a chance to roam up the peninsula to Egg Harbor and walk the town and marina.  We were surprised to see the population listed at merely 201 people.

It’s a small town, kind of like an outpost on Martha’s Vineyard. Tourists outnumber the locals by a fair amount. I was expecting something bigger and more touristy. It’s actually nice to see that much of Door County is quieter and smaller than I expected.

Egg Harbor Marina

OK, having seen more of the countryside I can see that it’s definitely different from Vermont in a lot of ways (we don’t have cherry orchards, for example), but there’s still a nice country vibe.  My one suggestion to Door County:  get rid of the billboards before they take over, like Vermont did in 1968.

We like Door County enough that we have decided to spend another day here, roaming around and picnicking at one of the sandy beaches, before resuming our northern trek through the national parks.  Tomorrow we’ll head back up and spend the next five or six days around Lake Superior.

Up and over the Great Lakes

It’s August, and for us the summer travel adventure has finally begun.  It has been a great summer in New England, but the Airstream has been stationary since early June.  It’s time to put all thirty feet of aluminum to full use, back on the road.

As always, we have an ambitious plan and not as much time as we’d like.  There will be compromises and missed opportunities, but we can’t dwell on that. The trick to pulling off a really massive trip in a time crunch without regret is to make the tough choices and focus on the good stuff that’s left.

Summer 2016 trip part 1

Our first “leg”, if you can call it that, is from Vermont to Seattle WA, which will be 3000+ miles. I have charted a route that hits about six national park sites along the way, plus visits with friends and detours for varied reasons. There would be no way to accomplish everything we have planned in just six weeks without cutting a few corners, so we elected to blast through the first 800 miles by taking the shortcut from northern New York through Ottawa and the province of Ontario, and over to Sault Ste Marie, MI.

IMG_6484This cuts off a lot of territory that we’ve traveled many times (NY, PA, OH) in favor of a quick and scenic drive through Ontario.  Not much to regret there, except that Eleanor was kind of eyeing a stop at Niagara Falls this year (we’ve been there before and we’ll hit it another time).

And if you had a reason to travel long distances through Canada this summer you couldn’t ask for a better combination of low fuel prices and favorable dollar exchange rate.  A few years ago we would have paid the equivalent of US$5.00 or more per gallon for diesel; this August it was about US$2.60.

Normally I would want to take a few days to cover 800 miles but this was one of the compromises built into the trip.  By covering this leg quickly we bought time to spend in the Great Lakes and western National Parks.  We ended up in Sault Ste Marie MI on the second night and ran into our friends Leigh & Brian there, which was a bonus.  I posted reviews and photos of the two campsites we used along the way on Campendium.

I’m always suspicious of everything on the Airstream after it has been sitting a while, so I gave it a good inspection before we left Vermont and took some time along the way to check the Hensley hitch and other components that we’ve touched this summer.  Everything has been perfect, except for the annoying mice.  They love the Airstream when it is parked in Vermont, and because they’re very destructive we have to trap and remove them all summer.

This summer Eleanor trapped at least six, and there was still one left when we started towing, which turned out to be a mouse corpse decaying underneath the furnace. We found his remains by the smell and left him resting in peace at a roadside stop somewhere in Ontario. Mice are cute but when it comes to your Airstream a “zero tolerance” policy is best.

MI Airstream courtesy parkingNow that we’re back in the USA we’ve had a chance to settle in for a few days while courtesy parking at the summer home of our friends Charlie and Lynn. This is a half-visit, half-working stop.

Actually, mostly working for me.  From prior visits we know that there’s good cell service here, a 30-amp plug, and I can hear the waves splashing on the shore of Lake Huron just outside my dinette window, so it’s an excellent place to do some work.

There’s no high-concept entertainment in the area, which is just fine. This park of Michigan is quiet, decorated with evergreen forests and farms and very few people. Our big activities have been a trip to the sandy beach with our host family, a church supper, walking the Gogomain Bridge, and talking with our hosts. Tonight we’re going out to Raber Bay for some of the local whitefish.

From here we’ve got a long list of stops: Sturgeon Bay, perhaps Apostle Islands, Grand Portage National Monument, Isle Royale National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and many other places on the way to Seattle.  It’s going to be an interesting trip, culminating in Alumafandango in California on September 20.

DeTour MI beach family


The fall of TBM and the resurrection of the hitch

“What ever happened to TBM?”  I’ve been getting this question a lot lately.  I have hesitated to tell the truth because so many millions of men around the world look up to him —but the awful truth must come out.

TBM was vanquished by work. Yes, that killer of adventure, soiler of fantasy, shroud of exploration … sheer, overloading obligation.  I tried valiantly to break away for a few days of tent camping in the cooler mountain elevations of northern Arizona, and some day trips, but again and again I was restrained at my desk by 1,001 projects that all needed attention.

Well, don’t feel too badly for TBM.  I still ate out at a few favorite restaurants, watched a few guy movies, met some local friends, went to a car show, etc—so it wasn’t all bad.  And to rationalize the situation, I resolved that in exchange for a late summer of Airstream travel (which we have since begun) it was a reasonable tradeoff to spend a few weeks in advance chained to a desk.

I also resolved that this won’t happen again if I can help it, so I’m cutting back on various obligations and hiring some more people to help.  A new Associate Editor is taking off quite a bit of workload on the magazine, and I’m drastically reducing my involvement in events since they take a massive amount of time.  (But don’t panic—Alumapalooza will be back in 2017!)

Hensley hitch refurbishedBack in New York at Colin Hyde’s shop, our Hensley hitch was being refurbished, and boy did that turn out to be an eye-opening experience. You might recall that we disassembled it and found many more worn parts and cracks than expected.

As Colin predicted, Hensley replaced the entire lower unit under the lifetime warranty rather than trying to repair it. When Colin’s shop got the unit back, they scuffed the paint and then repainted everything (top, bottom, bars, etc) with a really good automotive enamel so it will hold up better than the paint Hensley uses.  (The orange in particular is famous for fading quickly and deteriorating.)

All the new parts were installed, and then of course we greased it, installed it, and adjusted it.  It looks better than new now, which is good because the grand total for this job was more than half the price of a new one.

The eye-opening part was discovering all the parts that had failed without our knowledge.  I knew the lower unit had cracked and suspected that the cadmium-plated steel bushings (“binoculars”) were also cracked.  I didn’t know the extent of the cracking—and it was extensive—nor that the steel cylinders where the weight bars are inserted had stretched beyond repair.

The really shocking part was the bearings. There are eight of them in a Hensley, standard automotive-type bearings and races.  You’d think that since they barely turn they wouldn’t wear.  In fact the opposite seems to be true.  Despite being packed with grease, all eight bearings and races were seriously rusted.  It seems that the lack of spinning allows water to settle without being evaporated. The “dust caps” on the top and bottom aren’t waterproof, so water gets in and stays there, particularly on the bottom bearings where the dust caps actually trap water.

Hensley hitch rusty bearings and races

The picture says it all.  Look at the rust on the bearings and the wear marks abraded into the races. These bearings were about six years old. All of them were bad.

The bearings are user-replaceable but the races are not.  Colin’s guys found a way to remove the races, which involved welding little tangs on the races so they could be punched out, but for most people the solution will be to return the unit to Hensley under warranty.  My recommendation to all owners now is to do five-year inspection and/or disassembly to check the state of these bearings, particularly in a wet climate.  When you look at this picture, keep in mind that my trailer spends 8 months of the year in sunny dry Arizona.

BMW motorcycle Quebec ferry

The end of the story is simple. I flew back to Vermont in late July, reunited with my family, cleaned up and prepped the Airstream, installed the hitch, and we got on the road.  (But in the midst of that, I did manage to sneak out two quick days of TBM activity: motorcycling north from the Lake Champlain islands, up the Richelieu River all the way to the St Lawrence through the beautiful French heart of Quebec.)

We’re now in the Airstream on a two month adventure that will take us from east coast to west, at least six national parks, and many interesting stops.  So buckle up: the blog is about to get busy again.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska

[Facebook readers: I don’t post every blog entry on Facebook, so you may have missed a few posts. If you want to catch up our travels from the past week, check out my blogsite at maze.airstreamlife.com]

We have been moving quickly the past few days.  From Fort Collins we headed up to bag a national park site, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, just because we could.  This particular park is small, doesn’t have camping, and is located in a fairly remote area, so it’s tough to visit.

Back in 2007 when we were at Scottsbluff I considered going to Agate but it seemed too remote when I looked at the Nebraska map.  That was silly, since it’s only about 50 miles away.  Turned out to be a pretty nice spot, with a great visitor center (and an awesome collection of Sioux artifacts that by itself was worth the trip).  Despite the name, the park is not really about Agate, but is very strong on fossils.  (Come find out what a daemonelix is.)  Emma snagged a Junior Ranger badge and we hiked one of the trails until the weather turned abruptly blustery and cold.

Agate Fossil Beds Emma Jr Ranger

On the recommendation of one of the park staff, we are not taking the quickest possible route across Nebraska (I-80) because it’s also the most boring.  Instead we headed north to Rt 20, which has turned out to be a much nicer way to go.  Rt 20 has—unlike I-80—actual scenery!  Rolling hills!  Lovely state parks!

It’s enough to make me feel badly about all those things I said in the past regarding the dullness of traversing Nebraska.  It’s still vast and often startlingly empty, but at least not so straight and tedious that you’re tempted to lash the steering wheel with a rope and take a nap.

Ft Robinson SP Airstream

Our stop for the night was Fort Robinson State Park, which is one of the many small treats of traveling this route.  I posted a review on Campendium.

From there we’ve been winging  it across Nebraska’s countryside, stopping in small towns for roadside breaks, and listening to podcasts when there’s little outside to see.  We found a quiet little State Recreation Area near Stanton NE (also on Campendium) and that was a good find too.

The rest of the travel has been, sadly, Interstate highway through Iowa and Illinois.  Right now we are stopped about 90 miles from the Chicago area, heading to an appointment tomorrow with the kind folks from Zip Dee (the people who made your Airstream awning and probably also your chairs).

We’re also going to get the windshield replaced while we are in the Zip Dee parking lot, because something cracked it on Monday night.  Alas, that’s part of the price of doing a lot of highway travel. We have zero-deductible glass insurance for that reason.

But we won’t hang around in the Zip Dee parking lot for long, because by Saturday we need to be in Ohio to help prep for next week’s Alumapalooza.  The excitement is building for that event and it looks like it’s going to be a great time. More on that soon.