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.

Eleanor earns her paycheck in AZ

Homolovi State Park, Winslow AZ

It’s always nice when the first day out goes well. We are trying something new: Eleanor is driving. For the past 11 years I’ve done all of the towing because she just wasn’t psyched. That was OK with me, because I like driving and I’ve taken some pride in wrangling the big Airstream into and out of tight spots.

The past few years I’ve been getting a little bored with the long drives, where we are just logging miles across the Plains or in a hurry to get somewhere, and with the prospect of 10,000 miles of towing ahead this summer, Eleanor stepped up and volunteered to learn the mechanics of towing a 30-foot trailer. That will make my life much easier, especially on those days that work is blowing up and I need to be responsive on email and phone to my associates.

Since she has prior experience with our 17 foot Caravel and she’s a pretty good driver anyway, the transition hasn’t been too hard.  Yesterday she did over 250 miles up I-10 and I-17 to Flagstaff, and then east in I-40 to our overnight stop in Winslow AZ.

The real trick to learning to tow a big trailer is not the technique of getting it around a corner or backing in (although those are real skills). The hardest part is the psychological challenge. It all seems fine on a flat Interstate, but then there’s that moment with the construction zone, Jersey barriers and rough pavement on an 8% downhill grade—and that’s when the driver earns his/her paycheck. The sensation of a heavy trailer pushing you down a hill as you fear losing control from braking too hard, with your family’s lives depending on what you do next, separates the timid from the brave.

Eleanor got a good taste of all that yesterday and it scared her as much as it should have, but she also gained confidence from the experience and you can’t put a price on that. In fact she seems to have doubled down on the whole towing commitment, so when we arrived at Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow AZ she insisted on backing in to the campsite. That took a few attempts but when things looked bleakest and I offered to take over, she decided to tough it out. She got the trailer into the space after two more passes, and I was impressed. She has definitely acquired the right mindset to succeed at towing. That’s going to make this trip a lot easier for me.

The Airstream has performed perfectly, which was expected but still nice to confirm. Super Terry has been asking what service we might need to do on the trailer when we meet in Ohio but so far all I can come up with is a little bit of touch up on some sealant and possibly replacement of the Hensley hitch bushings. Otherwise, all systems are go.

Last night at Homolovi we decided to take advantage of the new battery and inverter we installed in January, and get a non-electric site for $7 less. It’s still a geeky thrill to be able to run the TV, coffee pot and microwave oven using just the battery. The price for such extravagance (plus some furnace time—it’s 6,000 feet elevation here) was that our battery got down to 61% after the coffee was made, so we broke out the folding solar panels to augment our roof panels and watched as the combination pumped 16 amps into the battery all morning.  Awesome.

By the way, I’ve written a review of those folding solar panels with much more detail about how they work and what you might want to consider. That review will appear in a future issue of Outside Interests, so keep an eye open for that in the next few weeks.  If you aren’t subscribed to Outside Interests, check it out—it’s free.

Today we plan to take a fairly leisurely drive up through the Navajo Nationa and perhaps end up somewhere near Moab.  Not sure yet, but in this region of the country you can’t go wrong.  Virtually every route is beautiful and relaxing, so I am looking forward to the drive—especially if Eleanor drives.

Why I launch slowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning for spontaneity

I’ve posted many times about our preference for loosely-planned trips. We like to set up for as many possibilities as we can, then launch the Airstream and see what happens on a day-to-day basis. This means we rarely make reservations and change our trip route often.

4 corners areaOther people love to plan every detail of their trips, and I get that. For one thing, they probably feel better knowing what’s going to happen.  Reducing the element of chance makes some people comfortable, and allows them to focus on other things that perhaps they value more than spontaneity.

Looking at the map and calendar this week, Eleanor and I have come to realize two things:

  • We’ve driven almost every possible route through the Four Corners region to head northwest
  • We don’t really care which way we go this time

It’s not that we are jaded. We don’t have a case of “been there, done that” or “this place doesn’t have anything more to show us.” That would be foolish. What’s happening here is more subtle. We’ve hit almost every major attraction that we know about, and now we’re going to have to find the things we don’t know about.

So our plan, if you can call it that, is to simply head northwest in a meandering way with only the first night’s stop in mind. After that we’ll see what seems interesting along the way. Eventually we’ll end up at our first scheduled stop, in Ft Collins CO at a rally.

This should be fun. We have left some extra time in the schedule to pause at any spot we find interesting.  I know there are interesting towns, beautiful lakes, magnificent mountains, historic sites, tasty treats and western curiosities to discover along the way.  Can’t really go wrong between here and Denver, as long as we respect the vagaries of May weather at higher altitudes.

Further stops are vague, but we do plan to head up to Chicagoland to visit Zip Dee for a factory tour, and of course we’ll end up at Alumapalooza at the Airstream factory on May 31. Between major stops, we’ll pick the ripe fruit along the way.

Getting ready for a trip like this takes some time.  In the springtime as we are getting ready, we clear out things from the Airstream that have ceased to be useful or which have worn out, and we reload with a pile of this season’s necessities. We do have a set of permanent equipment, but that’s really just a base layer.  Most of what we haul changes rapidly as our interests, goals, sizes, obligations, technologies, tastes, and side trips change.

I have a few things I do every year that make this process easier.  First, I have a checklist. The checklist has four divisions:

  1. Before Departure.  This is a list of tasks that take a few weeks to complete, like getting the cars serviced, scanning paper documents, prepping the Airstream (empty holding tanks, full water, full propane, hitch lube, tire pressure), prepping the house, backing up computers, cleaning/clearing, arranging mail forwarding, and many other things.
  2. Day Before Departure.  This is a shorter list of the things I can only do right before we go, such as notifying the insurance company that we’ll have cars in “storage” mode for a while.
  3. Day of Departure.  This is a checklist of things to do as we are going out the door like removing final items from the house refrigerator, connecting the trickle charger to the car that will be stored, setting the thermostat in the house, and checking that everything is locked.
  4. Items to Pack.  This covers everything I need for unlimited time on the road.  Typically we are gone for four to six months (although I often fly back home to assume my guise as Temporary Bachelor Man) and so this list needs to be comprehensive.

Given how much we travel, I’ve found it’s much easier to simply have two of certain items so that I don’t have to unpack the basics from the Airstream.  That means I have an Airstream and a house version of things like: backpack, Dutch Oven, many clothes, charging cables, bathroom sundries, etc.

If you think about it, we don’t haul the Airstream’s microwave oven and refrigerator into the house every time we end a trip, so why should I waste time hauling things like the Verizon Mifi or my socks? Anything that’s inexpensive is duplicated.  This keeps the packing list short.

(The same goes for Eleanor’s kitchen: the Airstream kitchen is fully equipped all the time, with its own cookware—even its own cast iron skillet—plus basic ingredients and dishes. A bonus is that the Airstream is always ready to bug out in the event of a catastrophe.)

Since my personal packing typically only take a couple of hours, I can focus on critical things like Airstream maintenance to prevent breakdowns and delays, and those little things that make the trip more enjoyable. For example, one ritual every year is that I go to the local book swap and pick up 4-6 paperback books for reading on the road. I do this a month or so before we leave, so by the time we’re spending our first night beneath the pine trees of northern Arizona I have forgotten the titles—so it’s kind of a surprise to check my bedside shelf and see what books are waiting there.

There’s one other thing we are adding to the prep routine this year, at Eleanor’s suggestion.  Usually we rush around to get everything done in the last two weeks before we go, and then the day of departure is a little less joyous because there has been so much stress.  This year we are going to take 24 hours after the Airstream is ready, to decompress before we set out. We’ll get up late, eat out at one of our favorite restaurants, maybe take in a movie, and ignore all obligations for a day. Then the next day we’ll get up early and hit the road, refreshed.

As you can see, our trips are really front-loaded.  We do a ton of prep in a very structured way so that we can wing it while we’re traveling. “Planning for spontaneity” seems to work for us.

In a week we’ll hit the road and I’ll be posting along the way. Whatever we see, you’ll get a peek at too.  And I hope to see many of you in Ohio at the Airstream factory later this month!

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.

IMG_5789

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.