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.

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.