Sleepless ferret time

I left off in the last blog about halfway through my 10 day trip in the Airstream Interstate. … and then, silence. That’s because I got back from the trip and immediately launched into a couple projects atop my day job of being the Airstream Life magazine Editor & Publisher, not the least of which was to write a guidebook about the Airstream Interstate.

Writing a guidebook is not really such a bad job, unless you, for reasons that cannot be fully explained here, have a deadline to complete the entire thing in three weeks. Then it’s an exercise to see how long you can stand to (in the words of Hunter S Thompson) work like a sleepless ferret, and still produce readable prose.

Not only readable, but accurate. These days, in the era of e-books, anyone can be a publisher, and sadly there are a lot of guidebooks available now that lack reliability and comprehensiveness. So I spent the last three weeks gorging on information and attempting to become expert on the intricacies of the Interstate motorhome, while typing out pages as quickly as I could.

So my blog stories of the Interstate trip suffered, but the good news is that I finished the first draft of the book last night. It’s off to my illustrator, and then I’ll run it past a few folks at Airstream and Airstream dealerships for fact-checking.  With luck, the ebook can be out in September. It will probably run about 80 pages long in the final version. I’m just glad it’s off my desk and out of my head, so I can think like a normal person for a while.

I owe you a conclusion to the blog series I started.  After I finished coastal Route 1 I headed up to spent a couple of nights in friendly driveways in the Silicon Valley area. I have a few friends up there, and one of them had a nice long fenced-in driveway in Los Altos that was just perfect.

After that I took the inland (101) route back to the Murphy Auto Museum Oxnard and spent the Fourth of July having dinner in Malibu with a friend.  I’ve never been to Malibu before, but now that I’ve had a chance to see some of the spectacle there (lots of elaborate parties going on, and the people-watching was fantastic) it’s possible we’ll make another visit as a family someday.

On Saturday the fifth I took the Airstream down the coast to San Pedro (where the cruise ships depart Los Angeles) to meet some other folks. I got there a little early, so I found a spot in a Home Depot parking lot where a Mexican food truck was making quesadillas, and had a casual lunch in the Interstate under the shade of some trees. At this point I was feeling completely at ease with the motorhome; we were a team of urban explorers willing to go anywhere.

Tom M, a friend and blog reader, wrote in to ask:

- Was there anyplace that it was too big to park?

Well, yes, you can’t fit a 25-foot motorhome just anywhere. Some friends I wanted to visit in Sunnyvale CA had a driveway that was less than 25 feet long, and HOA rules about “oversized vehicles” being parked overnight on the street, so I stayed in Los Altos and they picked me up. But in Veterans Memorial Park in Monterey CA, there was a rule supposedly prohibiting vehicles over 23 feet or so.  Half a dozen white box “Cruise America” rental motorhomes were camped there, all much longer than the limit, so I found a campsite that fit the Interstate and spent a peaceful night. Otherwise, I took it just about everywhere I wanted.

- Was it a hassle to pack-everything-up when you wanted to take day trips from the campsite?

Not for me, but then I was traveling light & solo. You can’t really spread out a lot in a B-van, so getting ready to break camp was mostly a matter of doing the dishes and tossing a few things into cabinets. I was usually ready to go in less than 10 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

The portability of the machine was its best feature, at least to a guy who has spent the last nine years in a rig 53 feet long. I took every opportunity to park it in places I’d never go with our 30-foot trailer, including parallel-parking on the street in Santa Barbara, pull-outs along California Route 1 and Tucson’s Catalina Highway (pictured below), grocery store parking lots, and undersized campsites.

 

Perhaps my favorite stop was on the coast north of Malibu at Point Mugu. I would have spent the day there if I didn’t have an appointment later that day…

After finishing business in Los Angeles, it was time to head toward home. My conundrum was where to stay.  All week I’d been wrestling with this: toward the coast it was pleasantly cool but the holiday travelers had everything booked up in advance, while inland I’d find plenty of uncrowded places to stay–all of which would be scorching hot. So leaving Los Angeles was bittersweet.

I finally opted for heat, but with a compromise.  North of Palm Springs is the Morongo Casino, which offers free overnight RV parking. Being a little higher in altitude and not quite as far into the Coachella Valley it was not terribly hot (by my standards) which meant a night around 80 degrees. It wasn’t practical to run the generator all night for air conditioning, so I just lived with it.

The next day was my torture test for the Interstate. Seven hours of driving through 100+ degree temperatures, at 75 MPH most of the way, including a 1000 ft climb where the road signs say to turn off the air conditioning or risk overheating.  The Interstate was impressive, and I got 16.0 MPG despite the fast drive. It was too hot in the back, where the dash A/C couldn’t reach, so at one point I ran the generator and the ceiling air just to see what would happen. (It worked fairly well.)

I spent one night at home in Tucson, then took a day to drive up to the peak of the Santa Catalina Mountains to get caught in a thunderstorm, then drove the Interstate to a meeting in town (again no trouble parking) and finally spent the night in Casa Grande AZ before dropping the motorhome off in Scottsdale in the morning. Total: 1,600 miles of driving in ten days.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  This was a fun trip. People who drive these things really have an interesting range of opportunities available to them. Obviously you give up a lot in terms of space, but on the other hand you get a lot of flexibility.

In fact, I’m hoping to get another shot at it later. Airstream is bringing out a new B-van in September, to be called “Grand Tour,” and it is supposed to be more camper-ish (less seating, more space for living).  I want to get my hands on it. That’s going to be difficult for a while, since production will probably be limited and I expect demand to be high.

Now that the Interstate trip is over, and the book is mostly done, what’s next? Tomorrow I fly back to Vermont to be reunited with my family, and in a week or so we’ll start the next adventure, our 3,000 mile trip back to Arizona, via Ontario.

 

An ideal TBM vehicle

Traveling in the Airstream Interstate turned out to be a good TBM*  adventure. I recommend it.

(* = Temporary Bachelor Man)

As a solo travel vehicle, it’s pretty roomy.  I didn’t need all the nine seating positions, but during the course of the trip I managed to try all of them out anyway.  In the evening I could watch a movie on the Blu-Ray player from one of the seats in the second row, or from the bedroom/rear couch in the back.  Sometimes I’d swivel the front passenger seat around and use it as my workstation with the dining table.  Other times, like when I was parked at the beach, I’d put my feet up on one seat in the back (don’t tell Airstream I did this with their loaner) while sitting on the opposite seat, to read a book.  When the bed was set up, I had the equivalent of a King all to myself.

Being TBM my plan was to move fast and travel light, if you can call having five tons of vehicle “light”.  What I mean is that I stocked the fridge with only a few essentials, slept in a sleeping bag rather than setting up the bed nightly with sheets, and moved every day.  I wasn’t going to be living in the Interstate like a full-timer, but I intended to use every system on the rig that I could, because there were four major goals to the trip:

1. Learn how the Interstate works, for a book I’m working on.

2. Gather information and photos for an article for The Star, the Mercedes-Benz Club of America (which will appear in the Sept/Oct issue).

3. Build up a stock photo library for future Airstream Life articles.

4.  Cover a lot of miles to get plenty of driving experience.

But driving around aimlessly is no fun, so I set a goal to get up to the Silicon Valley area to see some friends, taking the scenic coastal Route 1 highway to get there. This turned out to be a great decision.  The last time we did that highway was with the 30-foot Safari in tow, and it was one of the most memorable drives we’ve ever done. With a 25-foot motorhome, it was even easier.

Grant me a moment for a minor car review here:  The Mercedes Sprinter is an awesome basis for a motorhome.  Considering its bulk, it handles remarkably well, accelerates and brakes well, gets good fuel economy (on diesel), and is really easy to drive.  Anyone with decent driving skills would have no trouble taking it on a curvy, hilly, occasionally intimidating road like California Route 1.  And I really liked the fact that I could pull over in any of the small dirt spaces alongside the highway to stop and take pictures.  So I did that a lot.

The weather along this road is pretty changeable, thanks to fog banks that reside just offshore.  When the fog was away, it was generally about 80 degrees.  When the fog crept in, suddenly it would be as low as 55 degrees.  I liked that.  In one day I got dozens of shots for my photo library, with radically different scenery.

In Monterey I found a public parking lot with dedicated RV spaces for “RVs up to 25 feet”. Well guess what, mine was 25 feet, so I plunked myself down next to the harbor for a day just to listen to the water sounds while catching up on some work.  Monterey even provided free public wifi, and a short walk away at Fisherman’s Wharf I was able to get a nice salmon sandwich for lunch and listen to the sea lions bellowing for a while.  If they hadn’t had a “no overnight sleeping” ordinance I probably would have never left.

This was where the size of the Interstate really worked for me.  Not only was it easy to navigate downtown Monterey, but I was able to squeeze into a little city park at the top of a hill for the night.  The park is too small for most travel trailers and it didn’t take reservations, so by just showing up I actually scored a nice campsite for a night despite the masses of holiday campers elsewhere.

The next day I didn’t have as much luck.  I made sure to dump and fill before leaving the campground because I knew I might not get another campground for a while.  Sure enough, I finished the coastal drive as far as Big Sur, but every campground along the route was full.  Eventually I ended up at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which also had a “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign.  From prior experience I knew that despite the sign it pays to ask, and sure enough they had an overflow area where I was allowed to stay for the night.  It wasn’t a deal, since I had to pay the same rate as a campsite ($35) for what amounted to a parking space in a neglect asphalt lot, but given that it was July 1 in Big Sur, it was lucky to get anything at all.

No problem, this gave me another chance to experience boondocking in the Interstate.  I was getting to know this machine pretty well, and even starting to feel a little pride of ownership (except that it would only be mine for a few more days).  At this point I’d figured out all the key stuff: the efficient way to take a shower using the hand-held showerhead in the wet bath; where things fit best in the refrigerator; how to convert from seats to bed in less than a minute; how to change lanes in traffic without crushing somebody in a Mini; which outlets were powered by the inverter, etc.  But I never did figure out what that hammer was for …

Cool day in a cool van

My goal for the Interstate was to try to find its natural place in the world, in other words to see what it was best at doing.  Having pulled a 30-foot Airstream travel trailer all over southern California, I had the opportunity to compare experiences and go where the big trailer couldn’t.

There was a problem with this great plan, however.  June 28, my first day, was also the first day of a holiday week.  In my part of the world people don’t begin celebrating July 4 until at least July 2, but the Californians apparently feel differently.  They crowded every available campsite from San Diego to San Francisco for the entire week and I discovered my chances of getting a nice spot anywhere near the ocean were virtually nil.

Had I not had several years of experience at finding alternative overnight stops, I might have given up right then and headed inland to the scorching desert.  No problem getting campsites in places where the temperature is running 110 degrees or so. But I wanted to experience the coast, so it was time to call on every resource I had.

My Saturday night stop was easy.  I just stayed parked at the Murphy Auto Museum overnight.  I hadn’t planned to spend the first night without hookups, but it seemed like a good chance to test all the Interstate’s systems.  Sunday morning I took a drive up to Ojai, then wandered down to Santa Barbara on country roads past orchards and ranches, staying off Hwy 101 for as long as possible.  That’s one of the nice things about the Interstate compared to a travel trailer.  I didn’t have any hesitation about trying narrow, winding road that might eventually force me to make a U-turn.  Twenty-five feet of motorhome isn’t exactly compact, but it’s a breeze to turn around compared to 53 feet of truck and trailer.

In Santa Barbara I got my first tank of diesel.  Turns out the Interstate has the same fuel capacity and slightly better fuel economy than my GL320, so it was a familiar experience, and not nearly as traumatic as I had feared it might be.  At the fuel station I got the first of many inquiries about the Interstate.  This is not a stealthy vehicle. People can’t help but notice it, and quite a lot of them will ask questions or even hint for an interior tour.  I ended up giving 15-20 tours over the course of ten days.  People want to know what it costs and what fuel economy it gets, and then they are often amazed to find that it has a full bathroom with shower.

A little further up the road I saw a sign for El Capitan Beach State Park and decided to drop in there, just to park in the day-use area for a while.

For $9 I had this spot for the entire day, and it was a truly beautiful day.  I opened all the windows, broke out a cold drink and a snack and a book, and settled in for a while.  I could hear people walking by and saying, “That’s a cool van!” and similar comments.  With the blackout windows and the day/night shades in “day” position, they couldn’t tell I was in there.

Later, when I felt like company, I slid out the big side door and got a spontaneous visitor about every twenty minutes.  One guy claimed the Interstate cost $300,000.  Another was so excited he went back to get his wife and kids for a second tour.  One woman got in, then gave me a look that said Uh-oh, I just got in a van with a strange man, but stayed for the tour anyway and then got her husband and friends. Lots of people took photos of themselves next to it.

I couldn’t spend the night here, so I wandered further up the coast on the PCH, ending up in Buellton.  There’s a good RV park there that I figured was far enough inland to maybe have a site available, and that turned out to be a good guess.  $63 with taxes reminded me that I was indeed in California.

Well, I needed a chance to hook up and try out all those systems too.  The full hookup site gave me a chance to try the fancy new macerator dump that the Interstate uses (no more stinky slinky) and I was favorably impressed with the neatness of the system.  I found a small water leak coming from the rig but it turned out to be just a dripping P&T valve on the water heater.  That’s an overpressure protection valve, and it’s a common issue that is easily rectified, but I just let it drip because it’s not significant and I didn’t expect to be using the water heater much.

This evening I tested the video system by playing a movie on the Blu-ray DVD and both LCD TVs.  With a Bose active noise-cancellation headset plugged into the headphone jacks (by the second row seats), I couldn’t hear a thing from outside nor the vent fan humming above my head, and I got totally immersed in the movie.  This Interstate experience was starting to feel very decadent, especially compared to the two weeks I just spent on a motorcycle. I was beginning to think that after ten days it might be hard to give the thing back.

BMW tour wrap-up

It’s hard not to make the last day of an epic trip seem anti-climactic.  We wrestle with that every time we come back to home base with the Airstream.  The last day is usually over roads you already know well, and there’s always that sense of being so close to home that you may as well just blast through.  Sometimes in the Airstream we combat this by taking a completely unneeded detour, or spending another night less than 100 miles from home.  This also has the benefit of making our arrival time early in the day so unpacking isn’t done at the end of a long drive.

On the BMWs it was the same sensation, but rather than spend an extra night in the last 100 miles we just packed up our camp without rushing (the tents and ground cloths were particularly damp because of condensation) and then made lots of stops along Rt 2 through New Hampshire and Vermont, like dropping in on Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown St Johnsbury.  (No more Tim Hortons now that we are out of Canada).

I needed the breaks along the route anyway.  It was a colder day than most, and I had skipped the long underwear layer on the assumption that it would warm up later, but that never happened.  Eric bit the bullet and did a quick change outdoors about an hour into our ride, in a location where he’d be inconspicuous to passing traffic.  I wasn’t freezing so I just threw on another top layer, but it wasn’t really enough until the afternoon.

Also, my shoulder was bothering me.  It has gotten better since that accident back near Murdochville, and now I can sleep on that side again without the pain waking me up, but in riding position with my arms extended and the constant vibration of the thumper, and road bumps, it begins to hurt after a while.  Eventually the pain becomes excruciating and I have to take a 10 minute break, which relieves it entirely.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about a particular blog comment by one of my curmudgeonly blog advisors, suggesting that this particular problem may eventually require surgery. I’m thinking it won’t, because it has gotten steadily better.  At least I hope not.  I don’t want that sort of permanent souvenir of this trip.

And the trip has been amazing, almost worth a permanent twinge in the shoulder.  I look back over the last 13 days of it and it’s like three trips in one, with all the stuff we saw and did along the way.  I’m pretty sure I only covered the highlights here, and there are a thousand fascinating details that I’ve already forgotten.

Finally, in the afternoon of June 20, we rolled back into the Champlain Valley on a gorgeous sunny summer day, to our respective garages.  We had covered 2,600 miles on those little BMW bikes—a trip almost equivalent to riding them back to Tucson!  None of us thought we’d do such mileage.  We really didn’t know much of anything for sure, since every day was spontaneous.

Back at base, after a nice reunion with my family, I slowly unpacked all the gear, laid out the tent and groundcloth to dry in the sun, and made an enormous pile of laundry.  My motorcycle pants and jacket are flecked with asphalt, bugs, and mud.  My boots are unmentionable.  The helmet has a few new dings in the finish, and it’s probably time for me to put on a new, unscratched visor.

The BMW is looking good except for two broken turn signals and a very handsome scuff mark on the front fender.  We’ll fix the turn signals later.  Otherwise the bike has held up very well and I have a new appreciation for why Steve likes them so much.  It’s not nearly as comfortable as traveling by car or by Airstream, but there are definite advantages to the experience.

We had a great “wrap party” with friends on Saturday night, showing a quickly-made video of some of our 500 photos.  If you want to see more, check Flickr.com/airstreamlife for the album.

In a few days I’ll be flying to Los Angeles for another adventure, which will also be posted on this blog and pre-dated.  I’m picking up a new 2015 Airstream Interstate and taking it out for a 9 day adventure up the California coast.  This is a trip I’ve been anticipating for literally years, and it is finally coming together, so I’m very excited about it.  Long-time blog readers note: Since I’ll be traveling solo, I’ll also be hoisting the TBM flag for the month of July.

BMW day 12: Moosehead Lake ME to Mt Washington (NH)

Ever since we crossed back into the US we could all sense that our trip was winding down.  Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are all familiar territory, and I think we had the sense that if we weren’t careful we’d end up re-tracing roads we’d all driven before, and becoming bored with the final days of our trip.

Yet we were still in the midst of some beautiful country.  So despite having Gaspé behind us, we decided to maintain our relatively slow pace and try to find things to do in the upper part of Maine and New Hampshire that we had never done before.

day12 mapWe selected a convoluted path following Route 16 past small towns and summer cabins.  This turned out to be ideal.  While entirely paved, it had the benefit of lots of vistas, sweeping turns, interesting small towns, and not much traffic.  The weather was once again ideal for riding, so we settled in at about 45-50 MPH most of the way and just soaked up the scenery.

Early in the ride we stopped in Abbott, ME for a quick break.  Lately my shoulder has been bothering me more when we ride.  The arm extended position really starts to hurt after a while, so an hour is about all I can go without giving it a rest.

But this was really a great excuse to stop in at the Abbott Village Bakery where, as luck would have it, the donuts are truly awesome.  I got one for the road after eating an enormous I-forgot-what-they-called-it jelly and cream stuffed creation.  I may have forgotten the name but it will take me a long time to forget that donut. I’d go back but it’s almost 300 miles from our base camp in Vermont, and 2,900 miles from our base in Arizona.  Some great things are destined to stay local, and that’s a good reason to keep traveling.

Just down the road we found an ATV shop, too.  Steve had been struggling with chain lube ever since the trip started.  It wasn’t holding up, and he was re-lubricating and adjusting the chains nearly daily on both our bikes.  The solution, he decided, was chain wax, and Victory Motorsports in Maine had one can of the stuff left on their shelves.  We did a quick spray wax on all three bikes and it seemed to last a lot longer.

I was feeling so relaxed that I took very few pictures on this leg of the trip, and I even stopped writing nightly notes on our travels.  Sometimes you just have to experience the travel and not worry about documenting it.  Traveling by motorcycle was becoming as natural as Airstreaming, now that I had the routine down. As we paralleled the Kennebec River in Maine I remembered long-ago whitewater rafting trips done on that same stretch of water. It was all becoming very familiar and easy, even though I hadn’t seen most of the roads before and we didn’t yet have a firm destination for our stop that night.

Our working plan was to ride to Gorham, NH, and check out Mount Washington. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is famous as the location of the “world’s worst weather” and there is a road all the way to the summit which (yet another lucky break) would be open only to motorcycles on this particular day. We figured it was a sign that we were destined to end our day with an epic ride to the 6,000+ ft peak of Mt Washington.

We made it to Mt Washington around 5 p.m., after having spotted a magnificent moose along the road in northern New Hampshire.  (This was our fourth large mammal of the trip, counting the bear cub early on, the seal in Perce, a second black bear (full grown) along the dirt road to Murdochville, and not counting the numerous deer because I’d rather not see deer.  They like to jump in front of moving vehicles and I didn’t want to find out what happens when one jumps in front of a motorcycle I’m driving.)

It was still early enough to drive up the 8-mile road to the top, have a good look, and start heading back by the mandatory 6:45 departure. It was a very nice day by Mt Washington standards: mostly clear skies, temperatures in the 60s, winds running about 55 MPH.

Yes, I said 55 MPH. When we arrived there were dozens of motorcycles coming down the mountain, all much heavier bikes than ours, 1200 cc hogs and 1100 cc street or touring bikes, everyone wearing black leather & bandannas (New Hampshire has no helmet law), and all looking a tad pinched in the face from the wind chill, perhaps even grateful to be back at low altitude. But with hundreds of motorcycles going up that day, we figured “how bad could it be?”

Pretty bad.  Unlike virtually everyone else, we were on tall, light, high-clearance bikes designed to maneuver around rocks and through potholes. Where we had the advantage on tricky dirt trails, these guys had the advantage on pavement and most importantly, in wind.

BMW Canada-32

I promise not to exaggerate. This was without a doubt the most terrifying experience I have ever had while operating a motorized vehicle. The time that the trailer brakes on the Airstream went out while descending off a bridge to a stoplight in the rain was a relaxing nap compared to our ride up Mt Washington.

After we reached about 5,000 feet of elevation and were above the treeline, the road becomes entirely exposed to the brutal winds that never stop up there.  The gusts that hit us broadside were (we later discovered) reaching 65 MPH, which is still a nice day by Mt Washington standards but nearly impossible conditions for a BMW F650.  It was all we could do just to hang on to the handlebars with a death grip and try to stay upright against the unpredictable gusts.  My bike was being slapped around the road like a hockey puck.  Sometimes I had to lean sharply in the opposite direction of a turn just to counter the huge impact of the wind.  I felt like a Weeble, except that there was the very real possibility that at any point I would fall down or even be blown right off the road and down hundreds of feet down a rocky slope—because of course there are no guardrails on this road.

We got to the top somehow.  The wind was so strong in the parking lot that Steve had to relocate his bike into the lee of a large cliff, otherwise the wind was simply going to blow it over.  We finally had a chance to take off our helmets and talk, and discovered we’d all had the same experience and thoughts on the way up: holy wind gusts, Batman!  A ride like that will teach you to focus very sharply on the task at hand.  And I was already thinking of something horrible:  we had to go back down the road later.  Perhaps there was an Inn we could stay in, for a month or two until there was a small break in the wind?  Maybe we could call a flatbed to haul the bikes back?

20140619 5240IMG_4558

The picture above makes it look so pleasant, but you can’t see any indication of the wind that was howling at every moment.  I recommend Mt Washington in a car, or at least in a much heavier bike on the calmest possible day. Then you can really enjoy the view, the museum, the coffee shop, and the outdoor observation deck without having terror in your heart.

After about half an hour to calm down, we came up with a strategy.  Upward travel would be stopped at 6:00 pm, so we’d wait until about 6:10 to start heading down.  That way we’d likely be the only people on the road and could have the freedom of being blown across two lanes instead of just one.  That sounds ridiculous but it helped quite a lot.  Downhill turned out to be not quite as bad—we got a small break from the wind during the most exposed portion of the road—and when I counted bikes at the bottom there were still three of us.  A bit shaken, perhaps, but intact.

So be careful what you wish for.  We wanted something exciting and new to do on this last leg of the trip, and we got it.

Tonight’s stay is the peaceful Moose Brook State Park in Gorham NH. No bugs here, for some reason, so we got to stay DEET-free.  It’s a short ride to the center of town from the state park, and we found an excellent wood-fired pizza place in town (with a power outlet under the booth for me to charge up my helmet intercom and cell phone).  This night of camping will be our last on this trip.  Tomorrow, we have only a half-day ride back to home.