Driving to Big Bend National Park

For most of its distance, Texas Route 90 from Del Rio to Marathon is not a drive you would rave about, unless you are into vast empty spaces.  The towns along this route were all former watering stops for the railroad and without steam trains passing through they haven’t had much reason to exist.

Many don’t, and now only the fly-speck of Dryden and the slightly-larger towns of Sanderson and Marathon offer any services at all.  They’re spaced about 50 miles apart, so it’s important to pay attention to your fuel level. Remember, everything’s bigger in Texas.

Big Bend towing AirstreamAt Marathon the signs indicate that it’s not that far to Big Bend National Park, but “not that far” in west Texas terms is 39 miles—and that’s just to the Persimmon Gap Entrance Station.  From there it’s another 26 miles to the center of the park, Panther Junction, and the speed limit drops from the “west Texas sensible speed” of 75 MPH to 45 MPH, so this trip seems endless.  Fortunately the scenery gradually gets more interesting with the craggy Chisos Mountains in the distance and colorful outcrops of rock that are beautifully illuminated by the setting sun.

… which is good, since the sun was setting fast on us at this point.  From Panther Junction to the Cottonwood Campground is about 40 miles and I was somewhat concerned about getting in before it was too dark. We finally dragged in at about 6 pm and there was still enough light in the sky for us to find a nice campsite that wasn’t shaded by cottonwood trees so we could gather solar energy during our stay.

The next morning, we awoke to this:

Big Bend Cottonwood Airstream campsite

Picking a campground at Big Bend is a strategic choice because of the size of the park.  Normally we stay at the Rio Grande Village end of Big Bend because we have a lot of favorite hikes and activities in that area.  This year we wanted to re-visit and show Emma some hikes and spots near Castollon that we haven’t seen since our first visit in 1997.  The driving distance between Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village is about 60 miles.

No matter where you stay in Big Bend there’s a sort of “end of the road” feel.  Unless you are in the Chisos Mountains (and most Airstreamers aren’t because trailers over 20 feet aren’t allowed on the entrance road), you’re probably just a couple hundred feet from the Rio Grande River and Mexico.  There’s no further south that you can drive from here. This is a wonderfully remote park.

We particularly like Cottonwood because it’s a no-hookup campground that doesn’t allow generators or campfires. So it’s blissfully quiet and we can open all the windows at night to let in fresh desert air without being choked by someone’s smoldering mess of an amateur “fire” (usually just a plume of smoke). Instead, we smell sage, creosote bush and desert flowers, and we hear chirping birds and the faint breeze passing through the cottonwood leaves.

No hookups, no dump station, and only a limited amount of potable water means that most campers don’t stay long.  But we love it here, the weather is perfect, and our Airstream is boondock-ready so we opted for three nights.  That’s plenty of time to hike nearby Santa Elena Canyon, the Burro Mesa Pour-Off trail, Tuff Canyon, and visit a few of the historic house ruins.

Galveston TX

Nothing has broken today.  So that’s good.  Maybe our luck is turning.

Since we had reached the Gulf Coast last week and need to head back to home base in Tucson this month, there was little choice other than to go west.  I toyed with the idea of taking Rt 90 from New Orleans through Morgan City and New Iberia, since it’s a more interesting route than I-10, but ultimately decided to make some fast progress on the Interstate so that we could spend more time in Texas this time.

We’re now in Galveston, for no particular reason other than we’ve never been here before.  Actually I have but it was in the 1980s, long before storms remodeled the place, and it seems entirely different now.  We’ve been roaming around the town freely in the absence of summer crowds.  No hassles for parking, all the businesses seem laid-back, the campgrounds all have available sites, beaches are empty, and the fall weather is fine.

Galveston SP floodingThe only downside is that there has been a lot of rain over the past two weeks and this has led to pools of flooding, which has in turn led to a massive hatching of mosquitoes.  In town they are barely noticeable but at the state park a few miles west they are, frankly, apocalyptic.  We can’t even go from the Airstream to the car without a mad dash and then a few minutes of swatting the dozen or so that seem to slip in. For any activity outside that lasts more than a minute I wear DEET, or come back with welts all over.

Flooding has also made access to the beach, bathrooms, and other campsites a slog. This morning I saw the park staff pumping water in an attempt to restore access to the bathrooms but this effort was unsuccessful. They’re just going to have to wait until it dries up naturally.

Galveston ferry

Don’t get the idea that this isn’t a good place to go, because the state park is actually very nice. We just caught it at a rough time. And Galveston has been very nice to us. We took advantage of the fine weather to walk the famous Seawall and some of the older parts of town, as well as ride the free ferry from Galveston to Port Bolivar (highly recommended; look for dolphins and lots of huge ships at sea), and check out a few spots like Seawolf Park, Hotel Galvez, Pleasure Pier, and The Strand.  Emma got a roadschooling lesson today about the conditions our WW II vets experiences aboard a submarine and destroyer escort ship.

Galveston seawolf park

The refrigerator remains on life support, or more accurately dry ice support.  With a little help from the -109 degree temperature of dry ice all is well, but that costs $20 a pop and I’m getting tired of having to buy the stuff.  I did manage to get Arcticold on the phone Tuesday (they didn’t return the call but I have the cell phone # of somebody and I’m not afraid to use it) and after hearing the anemic temperatures of the exterior coils during our two-day “hotwire” test he finally agreed that a warranty replacement was in order.

That situation is far from resolved.  The next step is an email from someone else in the organization, to confirm the shipping arrangements, and I haven’t seen that yet.  In any case there’s no chance of getting a new cooling unit until after we get home, so hopefully it will be in Tucson this month and I’ll have a chance to make the swap before our next trip at Thanksgiving.

Galveston Airstream sunset

We’re now debating our next few stops. As of this morning we are the owners of a $70 Texas state parks pass, which deletes the onerous daily per-person cost that all Texas state parks have these days.  In our case the pass is worth about $15 per day in savings, which adds up fast. And since we have it, we’ll probably hit a few more state parks along the route just to get our money’s worth, so their clever pricing ploy worked on us.

Texas has some pretty good parks, but they’re spread out across a lot of territory and connecting the dots involves quite a lot of driving. So far we’ve decided only to aim for Pedernales Falls tomorrow, and continue to take the trip day by day. We’ve got about nine days to get home and we want to keep the spontaneity level high as long as possible.  (Except that we’d appreciate it if nothing else spontaneously broke.)

Fighting entropy

Technology kept collapsing around us last week, despite my hopes for a turnaround in luck. The refrigerator dropped back to its prior level of weak performance, managing to keep the interior only about 46 degrees on electric and about 50 degrees on propane. In addition to everything else that went wonky, the rear-view cam on the Airstream went dark as we left Destin FL, and so it made sense to drop in on our friends at Airstream of Mississippi (Gulfport, MS, right off I-10) for a little help.

Jesse bent stabilizerAS of MS (also known as Foley RV) has a small but capable service department.  Jesse (pictured here) swapped out the bent stabilizer in a few minutes, which I appreciated particularly because it meant I didn’t have to lie on my back and wrestle it off with my own wrenches.  The service guys were kind enough to take a good stabilizer off a used Airstream, since they didn’t currently have a new stabilizer in inventory. That’s good service!

They also took a look at the mysterious failure of the rear-view cam and figured out in a few minutes that the problem was in the flexible cable that carries the signal from the Airstream to the car. A little tweaking and that problem was solved too.  I was starting to have hope.

Airstream of Mississippi Foley RVI should pause here to say that Rick Foley and his team are really great—making Airstream of Mississippi one of my favorite dealerships to visit. Rick is a “real Airstreamer.” He actually became an Airstream dealer after being a vintage Airstream owner and falling in love with the lifestyle.  That’s good motivation by my standards.  Rick has a nice Argosy motorhome these days, which is looking sweet thanks to a recent repaint in the neighboring bodyshop.

At that point we still thought the refrigerator was working, so I didn’t ask about that, but later that day when we pulled into Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego LA (across the river from New Orleans), it was obvious that we still had a cooling problem.

Since we’d already reduced our perishables to a bare minimum, the weakness of the refrigerator wasn’t as much of a crisis as before.  We left it running in hopes it might recover, and spent a day in New Orleans with our good friends Lexie and Charon, visiting a few old favorite places.  I had to get a really good muffaletta, for one thing, and so we had lunch at a place I’ve been visiting for muffalettas since 1983.

New Orleans Cafe Du Monde sugar lipsIn my college years I visited Cafe Du Monde many times, but never before midnight. It was something of a ritual back then, topping off an evening of wandering and listening to jazz leaking out of the cafes and restaurants, with an order of 3 beignets and coffee.

Being a tad older these days, we hit it in the mid-afternoon this time. It was exactly as it always is: simple, crowded, and fun. Wearing powdered sugar from the beignets is de rigeur.  I had left a few white smudges on my green Airstream Life baseball cap as a souvenir until the heavy rains over the weekend washed them off.

We had only one good weather day out of three this visit, so we made the most of it, walking all around the French Quarter and riding the St Charles streetcar its full length at sunset.  Everyone was out in their Halloween costumes a day early because of the strong forecast of rain on Halloween, and this made the people-watching just fantastic.  New Orleans is a city of drama and costume already, so when you mix in Halloween and massive  parties along St Charles and Carrollton, it’s a virtual show.

Bayou Segnette awning

The next day I tackled what technical problems I could, with Lexie’s help.  I’d had several packages sent to the park, so at this point I was able to replace the dead Wilson cellular booster, replace the failing showerhead and flexible hose with an Oxygenics model, and replace the TPMS with the latest version with user-replaceable batteries (this is the same one I sell in the Airstream Life Store).  I also lubed the awning arms with silicone spray since they were sticking.  I felt like I was making progress against entropy.

Dometic refrigerator pressure testThe big project was the fridge. First, I wanted to make sure that the propane gas pressure was set correctly at the regulator.  Low pressure can cause the refrigerator to fail when running on gas.

Lexie had an old-fashioned blood pressure manometer that read millimeters (mm) of mercury (HG).  In the photo at right you can see our almost steampunk-appearing test rig. We bought a few pieces of brass at the local hardware store to screw into the test port on the refrigerator (1/8″ FIP by the way) and connected the rubber hose from the blood pressure gauge to that.

Since the optimal gas pressure is 11 inches of water column, I just had to find an online converter to figure out what that was in mm/HG.  The answer is 20.5, and sure enough, the gas regulator was set too low.  We quickly adjusted that, but I knew it wasn’t the whole story since the refrigerator wasn’t working properly on gas or electric.  (Also, the regulator seems to be at its adjustment limit, so it may need replacement soon too if I can’t find the correct spring.)

I decided to do the test that Arcticold requested.  This involved disconnecting the 120 volt wires to the refrigerator’s circuit board, and cutting/splicing them to connect the electric heating element directly.  Essentially this “hotwires” the heater so it runs full bore even if the refrigerator is turned off.  This test eliminates any possibility of failure caused by a faulty circuit board, thermistor, or gas burner.

After 24 hours of running like this it was clear the cooling unit wasn’t performing.  The fridge stayed in the upper 40s.  We let it run like this for another 12 hours, taking temperatures of the exterior tubing periodically with an infrared thermometer so I could report to Arcticold.  On Sunday I re-wired it back to original–with one exception.  Now it has a set of “quick disconnect” plugs so that I can easily repeat this test without cutting anything.

I gave Arcticold a call this morning and got voicemail again, which I expected.  They didn’t call back today, so it looks like this could be a long slog.  Meanwhile, we’re back to putting dry ice in the freezer to protect the few things remaining in there.

Eleanor making shrimp & grits

Despite not having reliable refrigeration, Eleanor is still managing to cook well.  In the photo above she’s making a spectacular meal of South Carolina’s famous “Shrimp & Grits” with a few crabcakes on the side.  She has adopted a philosophy of buying fresh stuff daily as we need it, and using the refrigerator mostly as a moderately cool place to store less perishable things like canned drinks and butter.

We’re also making a few substitutions like buying UHT milk. It turns out that refrigeration is overrated, and by the end of this trip we may have figured out that we don’t need it at all.  After all, Wally Byam toured Europe in 1948 without a refrigerator. I think we can get across Texas and the desert southwest.

Weather changes

Through September I kept saying, “We’ve got to get out of Vermont by mid month or things are going to get tricky.” It wasn’t really news. After living in Vermont for years we all knew precisely what was coming, and when. The campgrounds shut down, water hoses freeze, and in an RV the daily propane burn becomes enormous.

The benefit of waiting was beautiful foliage everywhere.  My brother and I took a last ride on the BMWs just to tour some of the dirt backroads of central Vermont and see it at peak.

VT BMW bikes and foliage

Departing this late is always a dangerous game, as sudden weather changes are to be expected in fall this far north. We picked Friday Oct 16 as our departure date and it seemed like a good bet until we got to western Pennsylvania along the shore of Lake Ontario on I-90. Then we hit a sudden storm of sleet and ice pellets.

Ohio sleet Airstream 2015-10Eleanor and I watched in horror as the temperature plummeted from 47 degrees to 33 degrees in less than five minutes.  Heavy sleet was pelting the car and the front of the Airstream, and covering the road in a rough sheet of treachery.

When that happens you have to start looking for options to bail out. There is no point in plowing forward with a trailer in tow when conditions are that bad.  We got off at the next exit and filled up with fuel (where I took this photo).

Ten minutes later the storm had passed. It was just a little reminder of how things can change quickly in the north in October, especially along the shore of a Great Lake that produces its own special weather.

Sleet in October?  I wouldn’t have been surprised up in northern Vermont, but down in Pennsylvania I felt fairly immune. I won’t make that mistake again.

For the rest of the drive along the lake and past Cleveland we were in and out of storms. We pulled over a second time at a rest area to consider options again, and decided that we’d make a choice at the split of I-90 and I-271. If the weather continued as it had, we’d spend the night boondocking at one of the usual commercial establishments known to allow overnight parking and we’d call our friends to tell them we weren’t going to make it to their house that night.

Far better to disappoint your friends by saying you’ll be arriving the next day, than to call them to say you won’t be arriving at all because you slid off the road. “Get-there-itis” is often fatal.

By the way, this experience is a very good reason to travel with both propane cylinders as full as possible during the late fall and winter season. You can easily find yourself spending an unexpected night along the road with only your propane supply to keep you warm, and on a freezing night the furnace will burn a lot of it.

Ohio sunset Airstream 2015-10

In this case we were lucky.  The weather got better as we turned south away from the lake, and we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset, and we made it to our friends’ home with no problems.  Here’s one shot of us towing happily to the west, near the end of the sunset and a safe trip.

Now, two days later, we are in Jackson Center at Airstream. It’s not any warmer here. Last night I had to disconnect the water hose because it would have frozen solid. I’ve got a day of prep work to do for Alumapalooza 7, and then we will make a rapid exit to the south with the beaches of the Florida panhandle on our minds.  We are definitely “chasing 72 degrees,” as many full-timers do.

Numbers games

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I am in the business of publishing stuff about Airstreams primarily because it allows us to travel frequently as a family. It’s a fun job and I meet a lot of interesting people, but the big benefit is lifestyle. With the Airstream we can go out for long trips and it’s not expensive. “Will work for cheap travel,” might have been my motto in the early days.

Every time we are forced to travel without the Airstream I am shocked at the cost and reminded why most families travel rarely. At the moment I have an uncomfortable sensation of impending poverty as a result of traveling without the Airstream. We are in Europe, and it’s lovely, broadening, and expensive.  The apartment we’ve rented in Milan is very nice, but there’s no denying that our cost per night is strikingly high compared to staying in the Airstream.

This year the Airstream will be out for roughly 20-22 weeks (not counting the time we are in Europe), at an average cost of about $25 per day including fuel & campgrounds. (It’s a low number because many days we are courtesy-parking in driveways for free.) We can be away from home for about five months on the same budget as a couple of weeks in Europe, even if you don’t count the airfare. In other words, our daily cost is about 10 or 11 times more expensive without the Airstream.

So yeah, I miss the Airstream. Someday I’m going to work out an European Airstream and travel in that.

If we were using an Airstream right now, we probably would have camped at Camping Ca’Savio (a 45 minute ferry ride away) when we wanted to visit Venice. Actually you can camp there right now in an Airstream if you want, because they have six of them set up as permanent rentals right by the beach. Eleanor and I rode a ferry from Venice and walked across the narrow peninsula (stopping for gelato along the way, as is mandatory in Italy) to check it out.

Camping Ca'Savio Airstreams

Even though we can’t roam as much as we would with the Airstream, it has been a good trip. I find it useful to take some time to reflect on everything from a distance. The past few years have been heavy with obligations and challenges, and now I think we have the chance to get back to the sort of life we have enjoyed in the past.

That means working less frantically, leaving more time our daily schedule for ourselves, and taking more time on trips. For example, it has been about five years since we attended a good old fashioned weekend rally that we weren’t hosting ourselves.  I miss the simplicity of just showing up and hanging out with friends and fellow ‘streamers without any obligations at all. I guess you could say that my goal for the next few years is to “see more, live more, do less.

This is part of the reason why there will be fewer Aluma-events next year and in 2017. It was a lot of work to run around the country to host five-day events in Oregon, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona (all the while doing advance work for new events in California and Ontario). So in 2016 Brett & I will be hosting Alumapalooza and Alumafandango only.  Alumapalooza will continue as an annual event because it’s the “homecoming” event at the factory.

Other events, such as Alumafandango and Alumaflamingo will show up perhaps every other year. Alumafiesta in Tucson is gone forever*. So if you want to go to an “Aluma-event”, don’t wait for “next year”—there may not be one.

 * The brilliant campground management decided they could make more money by refusing rallies during “peak season”, AKA the only time anyone wants to be there. They offered that we could hold Alumafiesta in May. Let’s have a show of hands: who wants to go to Tucson in May?

Cutting back the events has given me time to work on other projects, which is why I finally managed to complete my Airstream Maintenance book this summer. If you don’t have a copy, check it out. Initial reviews have been great on Amazon, Airforums, and blogs.)

And that brings me to a minor rant. This has nothing to do with Airstreams and probably few people other than me care about this issue, but I have to say publicly that Amazon has done a serious disservice to niche publishers with their Kindle royalty scheme. You see, Amazon says that if you publish your book on Kindle with a retail price between $2.99 and $9.99, they’ll give you a fair 70% of the revenue.  That makes sense. After all, the author/publisher does the heavy lifting in this equation and takes on most of the risk, including research, writing, editing, design, and marketing.

But if you set a price above $9.99, Amazon cuts the royalty to 35%. This is their way of discouraging “expensive” Kindle books (since when is $10 expensive for a book?) In other words, Kindle authors gets less money for books priced at $19.00 than for books priced at $9.99. Amazon snarfs up the rest, even though their work is the same regardless of the retail price.

This sucks for a niche publisher like me.  I can’t justify spending years writing lengthy niche books (219 pages in this case) which only a few thousand people will buy, and letting Amazon take 65% of the revenue. Basically, their Kindle pricing penalizes people who publish specialized information.

So I won’t sell my maintenance book on Kindle.  Sorry, Kindle owners. But the good news is that Apple is more reasonable, and so you will find Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” in the Apple iBookstore at $24.99.  You’ll even save a few bucks compared to the print edition, if you like e-books. I hope you’ll give it a look either way.

We’ll be back in the Airstream in October. In keeping with the “see more, live more, do less” philosophy, we have no particular agenda for the trip back west from Vermont to Arizona, but we will take some time to allow things to happen along the way. After all, taking extra days in the Airstream is easy and affordable.  That’s a place where the numbers always work.