Farewell to the Interstate

After that epic hike to the Keet Seel cliff dwelling in Navajo National Monument, our little Airstream Interstate adventure was more than half over.  We had one last thing to do: visit the WBCCI International Rally in Farmington NM, about 2.5 hours drive east.

For those who don’t know the International Rally was for many years “the” big thing to do in the Airstream world.  Back in the heyday a few decades ago, these rallies would attract over 3,000 Airstreams—essentially creating entire temporary towns, like Burning Man does today. Lately, with the general decline in clubs, the International Rally has brought in about 300-400 Airstreams, which still makes it the largest Airstream event in the world.  (By comparison, Alumapalooza brings in about 125-180 Airstreams, and Alumaflamingo in Sarasota was the second largest Airstream event in 2014 with 250 trailers.)

The day of the giant RV rallies is past.  I think everyone has realized that it’s not about sheer volume anymore, it’s about quality of experience. The WBCCI International Rally is an important event for the club members whether it brings in 100 or 100,000. People go to conduct club business, meet their old friends, and maybe trade in their Airstream for a new one.

That’s why we were there. Our mission was to show off the Interstate Grand Tour and hopefully find someone who wanted to buy it, because Airstream didn’t need it as a “media loaner” any longer.  Brett put on his best sales attitude and within 36 hours of arriving he had found a couple who really wanted it.  Mission accomplished.

Petrified Forest ranger horse Airstream

After the weekend we had to get the Interstate back to Arizona so it could be made ready for sale.  Monday morning we saddled up for the final drive, 400 or so miles back to Phoenix where Brett would catch a jet home.

But hey—why just drive straight home?  Northern Arizona is loaded with cool places to visit, and we had a $152,000 motorhome to play with for one more day.  So we detoured through a few spots …

Petrified Forest Airstream Interstate

… like Petrified Forest National Park, off I-40 in northern Arizona.

Holbrook AZ wigwam Airstream Interstate

… and one of the famous wigwam motels, this one in Holbrook, AZ right on “Historic Route 66.”

Airstream Interstate reflection milk truck

… and finally down in elevation from the cool piney Mogollon Rim (75 degrees with light showers), along the twisting Disney ride they call the Beeline Highway, and into the scorching heat of the Phoenix metroplex (111 degrees).

We picked a small RV park in Mesa mostly because it was the close to the airport and the only amenity we wanted was 30-amp power to keep the air conditioner cranking. There was a swimming pool but even a splash in the water doesn’t seem terribly inviting when it’s that hot. That night we walked one block to dinner (a very poor choice of restaurant despite high ratings—curse you, Yelp) and then walked straight back to the air conditioning in the Interstate before we melted into the pavement.

Hmmm…what to do now? Trapped by the scorching heat outside, there seemed only one option, and that was to break out a “guy movie” (e.g., one with science fiction, action, violence, and a bare minimum of romance or gentle emotion) and settle in for Movie Night. The only problem is that the noise of the air conditioner blowing on High made it difficult to hear the audio. Fortunately, being frequent travelers, we both had our Bose noise-reducing headsets handy. We plugged them into the back of the bedroom TV using a splitter, put on the movie, and the background noise of the air conditioner vanished as we reclined on our individual twin beds. It seemed like we were watching in a private theater, with ice cream bars handy in the freezer and comfortable pillows under our heads.

I highly recommend the noise-reducing headset solution to other RV’ers who hate the noise of the air conditioner—or, you can trade in your current RV for a new Airstream with ducted air.  I’m sure my friends at Airstream wouldn’t mind that.

The next morning I dropped Brett off at Sky Harbor and zipped down I-10 to Tucson to get away from the rapidly-building heat of the day.  In Tucson it was a mild 88 degrees, not bad for unloading all the stuff into the house.  I discovered that the Interstate, despite being tall, fits into my carport just barely so it could be kept in the shade and plugged into 30-amp. I think all the signs are telling me that I should have one of these things.  Perhaps I should launch a GoFundMe campaign to see if everyone wants to chip in to get me one?  (Just kidding.)

Now I’m Interstate-less (Under-stated?) and I don’t have a tow vehicle for the Caravel, so it’s time to switch gears for a few weeks.  I’ll dig the TBM gear out of the closet and start exploring Tucson’s hidden gems, when I have time away from work.

But if you crave reading about travel adventures, don’t lose faith. Later in July I’ll be heading to Oshkosh WI for the amazing EAA Fly-In, staying on-site for a week in an Airstream motorhome. That should be a very interesting week if you (like me) want to see lots of cool airplanes.

A Grand Tour

I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time—and wondering if we could really pull it off.

It started on Saturday, when I was in Vermont after the 6-day motorcycle trip to the Adirondacks. I only had a couple of days to catch up on work and re-pack for a trip out west. From Sunday morning on, I had the singular experience of waking up somewhere and knowing that I would be going to bed somewhere entirely different that night.

In the Airstream, this is fun. You can roam where you want, knowing that each night you will end up in your comfortable rolling home and familiar bed. But when the travel involves airlines and hotel rooms, the charm tends to slip away quickly.

It began on Saturday night when Eleanor and I relocated to an airport motel, so that on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m. she could take me to catch a flight from Vermont to New York City, and onward to Sacramento CA.  I met Brett at the airport in Sacramento, to drive around California’s beautiful countryside. (We were scouting a site for Alumafandango 2016, and things went very well. We’ll have an announcement about that in July.) That night we split a room at some nondescript motel off Rt 49, in an area of California that was once known for gold mining, and now is known for wineries. That was our 27-hour Day One.

Monday morning we scouted some more, visited the state capitol, and caught a late flight to Tucson, getting in around midnight. We settled into my house for the night. That was Day Two.

Tuesday morning we picked up a shiny new Airstream Interstate Grand Tour on loan from Airstream, at the local dealership (Lazydays), loaded it up with about 100 pounds of gear and food (much of which Eleanor had set out for us a month ago) and launched immediately toward Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. We spent that night at Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low.  Day Three.

Now I have to say that the Airstream Interstate was a fantastic relief after jet planes and motel rooms. Not only could we slow down our pace of travel, but it meant that for a while we could sleep in a bed more than once. The Airstream, stocked with our food and gear, could be our home.

Airstream Interstate in AZ

And what a glamorous home it is.  The new Grand Tour floorplan of the Interstate is a big improvement for those who want more of a traditional RV. Bigger kitchen, double the fridge/freezer space, much more storage, permanent beds, a nice little desk, and many other small pleasantries make it really usable. If you read my blogs from last summer when I tried out a regular Interstate, you know I liked driving it, and the Grand Tour retains that fine handling and ride (and an incredible list of safety features).

Airstream Interstate Salt River canyonWhen Brett and travel together there’s always a little bit of a battle over who gets to drive, and with the Interstate there was no question we both wanted the wheel as much as possible. I had picked the most scenic route I could on our northward journey, from Tucson to Globe, and then up to the beautiful Salt River Canyon, and finally up the Mogollon Rim to Show Low where the pine trees are tall and the summer air is much cooler than the low desert below. Even when we were gaping at the scenery deep in the Salt River Canyon, Brett wanted to keep the driver’s seat rather than give it up to get a better view.

We averaged about 15.5 MPG on that trip, which is pretty impressive for a 25-foot long motorhome on a hilly climb that eventually ended well over 6,000 ft. Or at least we thought that was good until the next day when we averaged 18 MPG on more level terrain through the Navajo nation in northern Arizona.

The goal for this leg was Navajo National Monument, a less-visited national park near Kayenta AZ.  We first visited as a family on 2008, and hiked 5 miles roundtrip to the impressive Betatakin cliff dwelling. Ever since that trip, I’ve wanted to go back to visit the even-more-impressive Keet Seel cliff dwellings, and this trip was finally my chance.

You don’t just pop in and hike to Keet Seel. The trip requires a permit from the park, a mandatory orientation by a ranger, good gear, and some stamina. It’s an 18 mile round-trip on foot if you do it right, and considerably longer if you miss a turn in the canyons. (More on that later.) So you can see that getting to this point was the product of planning we’d done months in advance.

The Interstate turned out to be an ideal base camp for this trip.  We parked in a canyon view site (in the Navajo Nat’l Monument campground, which is free, no hookups), and spent the evening checking our gear and eating dinner outside with a spectacular view of the sunset on the red Navajo Sandstone. One nice thing about the Interstate is that it fits in places a travel trailer couldn’t go, and there’s virtually no setup after arriving. We just pushed the electric awning button and slid open the big side door.

Airstream Interstate Navajo National Monument

And that was Day Four.  Funny how the days seemed to be much more filled with adventure and camaraderie now that we were traveling at about 50 MPH instead of 500.

The next morning we hoisted our packs, loaded with about 30 pounds of gear and water each, and walked right from the door of the Airstream down a dusty road and began our descent into the canyons …

Keet Seel deserves its own blog entry, so I’ll write more about that in the next day. Stay tuned.

Six nights in the Adirondacks, no #EscapedPrisoners

I’ve been looking forward to this summer for a long time. I was overloaded with work and projects from January through May, so once everything (including Alumapalooza) was done, I intended to switch back to the activity I like best: traveling. After picking up E&E in Cleveland, we had our usual decompression session in Ohio, including some game playing with our Woodruff/St Peter friends and a nice visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright “Welztheimer-Johnson House” in Oberlin.

FLW Weltzheimer-Johnson house Oberlin
Photo credit: Larry Woodruff

Then we zipped across New York to settle the Airstream in Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain. The Airstream will stay here until early October, while we use it as a summer camp and base of operations.

The first major adventure on the schedule was a motorcycling trip with my brother Steve and our friend Eric, much like last year’s exploration of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. It seems that taking the BMWs out for a rough road trip is becoming an annual tradition, since we’ve been doing it every summer since 2012.

This year we scaled back a little compared to the Gaspé trip, planning just six days in New York’s Adirondack State Park.  Six days might seem to be a lot for a state park if you aren’t familiar with the Adirondack region, so keep in mind that the “park” is actually about 1/3 of the entire state of New York. By backtracking and wandering down every dirt road we could find, we managed to accumulate over 1,000 miles of travel.

Wilmington NY tent camping motorcycle

Traveling like this is not what you’d call comfortable, but that’s part of the point. We are out to explore, and for me it’s a chance to explore in ways that we wouldn’t normally do with the Airstream. These motorcycle trips are conducted with minimal gear, only what we can carry on the back of the bike: tent, sleeping bag, pad, some clothes, a few tools, snacks, and not much else. We spend every night in the tent unless it’s pouring rain when we have to set up or tear down. This year we managed five nights out of six in the tents despite massive rains on several nights.

The Adirondacks are known for their beautiful mountains and rugged wilderness, rustic lodges and camps that are relics of the Golden Age, quaint towns, and biting insects. All of these things are present in abundance, but there are also many reminders of their industrial origins: abandoned factories and paper mills, dozens of dams, long-closed mines and flooded quarries, decaying brick buildings, grassy old rail lines, and logging roads. People forget that the Adirondack infrastructure was first developed not for tourists or sportsmen, but for miners of lead and iron, loggers of trees, and railroads to carry all the plunder and materials to away to cities in the 19th century.

Iron mine abandoned trainWhile many rail lines have become snowmobile trails and many dams have been converted to produce clean hydroelectric power, there’s still plenty of evidence of the past, and that’s what Steve and Eric like to explore. They are sort of “Rural Explorers,” hunting up mines, rails, dams, factories, mills, roads, and airports that have been left to slowly decay.  While my fellow travelers do respect the law (at least in moderation) and don’t go past locked gates, they do have a tendency to go in places that—while not technically trespassing—the general public would not be welcome.

This puts me in my “discomfort zone,” since I’m the sort of person who feels awkward occupying a Handicapped Parking spot for 5 seconds to drop someone off, or standing on the wrong side of the moving walkway at the airport. Riding a motorcycle through an open gate and down a dirt road to wander around an old iron mine, or peeking into a crumbling paper mill is not my preferred activity. The sites interest me, but there’s always that sense of “what if we get caught?”

Too big puddle BMW motorcycleBut I suppose it’s good for me to test my own boundaries and even stretch them a little. What’s the worst that could happen?  Hmm …. we could get arrested, yelled at, injured, lost, or encounter a group of zombies. So lots of things could happen. Nothing spectacular actually did.

Perhaps the toughest experience was when we rode a few miles around a large flooded quarry and discovered we could not get out because all of the gates (other than the one we entered) were locked or barricaded. This required back-tracking through some fairly technical road conditions including loose sand and rock, large mud puddles, steep hills, and washouts.

The photo at left shows the one mud puddle we decided not to cross during our six-day trip. Puddles are deceptively hard on a motorcycle. You might easily ford such a place with four wheels, but on two wheels it’s easy to get stuck in a muddy bottom, or slip. Either way the result is unpleasant. Slipping in a small puddle last year in the Gaspé gave me a shoulder injury that hurt for seven months.


Lake Luzerne campground motorcylesADK airport motorcycles

The biggest drama of the entire trip was about the escaped prisoners from the prison in Dannemora NY. Everyone in the Adirondacks was talking about it, in every cafe, store, campground, and gas station we visited. We certainly didn’t relish the idea of encountering the two desperados while camped overnight, so each day began and ended with a quick check of the news to see if they’d been caught yet. We finally decided that at least if we found them we’d stand to collect the $100,000 reward (assuming we lived to tell the tale), and the survivors could split it. As you probably know, the escapees are still at large, so we are not any richer but we’re also not dead.

Dannemora prison escape interview

When we got to Dannemora it was quite a scene: 800 law enforcement officers including the State Corrections Emergency Response Team, local and state police, Forest Rangers, and many others.  The media were camped out and hunting for stories, since no news was coming from the search. (In the photo above Steve is being interviewed by the Press-Republican for his theory of where the bad guys had gone.)

Blackhawk helicopters buzzed overhead, and the impact of the $1 million/day cost was evident in every convenience store and restaurant as officers came and went all day long. We were stopped at three checkpoints near Dannemora to be positively identified as someone “not matching the description” before we could proceed.

Rutted roads for BMW motorcyclesOther than intruding into crumbling old structures, the other big joy for Steve is to find the most rugged roads possible so that we can all use our BMW F650 motorcycles for their highest purpose. These are “Dual sport” bikes, meaning that they are equally happy on pavement and washed out dirt roads. The Adirondacks have plenty of both. I am sure that we averaged about 50% dirt because every time Steve spotted a dirt turnoff to nowhere, he’d zip off like a dog chasing a squirrel. Eric and I just followed without question and hoped for the best.

The photo at left shows one of the poorer results (or “better” depending on your point of view). Lots of rain lately has left many of the roads looking like this.  Those roads are posted with big yellow signs that say “Seasonal Use Road — Limited Maintenance,” which is like waving a plate of Buffalo chicken wings in front of my brother’s nose. He will go after it. Fortunately, none of us crashed or dropped a bike during the entire trip.

And truly not knowing what’s around the next corner can be both thrilling and rewarding. Sure, it’s quite possible that if you don’t plan you might miss something, but if you don’t plan you might also find something that the guidebooks won’t tell you about.

Lyonsville hydro station

Rain was the other minor drama of the trip. There is no such thing as a dry week in June in the Adirondacks.  Our first night at Lake Luzerne State Campground was a full-blown thunder-and-lightning experience with heavy rain that left a small lake under my tent. I found a live salamander there while packing up the next morning.

Iron mine lake viewOur second night at Lake Durant State Campground was pleasantly dry, but the next night was forecast to be so dismal that we took refuge at a nice end-of-the-road motel at the edge of the remote Stillwater Reservoir.  The fourth night at Meacham Lake State Campground was technically not rainy but there was enough condensation that it was hard to tell, and in any case we were already soaked because we got caught in a massive storm earlier that morning which forced us to hole up in a small town convenience store for three hours.

The fifth night at Wilmington Notch was dry enough that my boots went from “soaked” to “damp” overnight—about as good at it gets while tent camping—and we had a final day of riding where all the forces of nature aligned to give us perfect weather.

Wilmington lake view

All things considered, we did pretty well.  I don’t expect the comforts of the Airstream on this sort of trip. It’s about different values: exploration, camaraderie, simplicity, challenge. Men and machines, sleeping in tents, slapping away black flies, and eating in 1-star diners. Lots of time to think while the pine trees slip past and the single cylinder of the motorcycle thumps. One mile on a slippery, potholed dirt road can be just as memorable and exciting as anything else we might do in life. I hope we’ll do it again next summer.

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.


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.