Travels this fall

I’m in my last week as TBM.  This weekend I’ll be riding a Boeing back to New England, and then driving up to Vermont to regroup with the family.

This year my TBM experience has been a bit of a bomb.  I lost too much time to illness, work, Alumafandango, and obligations at the house.  I had great plans to go for a tent camping roadtrip, which clearly is not going to happen now.  But don’t feel too sorry for me, because in September the entire family will be back in the Airstream and towing west, with a full month to burn if we want to.  It will be our last chance for a long leisurely family roadtrip for several months, if not a year, so we are planning to make the most of it.

For the last few weeks Eleanor and I have been thinking about the trip plan, and neither of us has come up with much.  Usually we are overcome with ideas of things we want to see and do on a cross-country trip, but after having made this trek something like 10 or 12 times, we are running out of major attractions.  (For us, a “major attraction” is not a theme park, but rather a national park, or perhaps a gathering of Airstreams.)

I never thought that would happen.  Are we getting too jaded, too experienced, or are we just not trying hard enough to broaden our horizons?  I think it may be the latter, so I am re-doubling my efforts to seek out the little things instead of the big ones.  To that end, Eleanor and I are planning to follow a pattern we used when full-timing: have a long term destination (like home base) in mind, and then take the trip day by day.  This leaves lots of opportunities for the unexpected, and often that’s when the most interesting adventures occur.

The process has already started in a sense.  In the past week I have been contacted by three Airstream friends, each of whom—completely coincidentally—is likely to cross our path as we head southwest.  Just spending a day or two with each of them is likely to result in some new experiences.  Think of it as Airstream cross-pollination.  We get a taste of their style, and they get a taste of ours, and together we discover things that individually we might miss.  It’s always a good thing.

So when we head out, our route will be affected by the routes of other Airstreamers, and we’ll go places we might have skipped.  This is tough on fuel budgets, but to be on the safe side I’m planning for about 3,300 miles of towing, which means a fuel budget of about $1100.  Seems like a lot but for a month of roaming I think it’s a bargain.

Eleanor is already thinking about getting the Airstream in shape for the trip.  She’ll be cleaning the interior and stocking up on supplies; I’ll be checking all the systems and cleaning the exterior once I’m there. Everything should be in good shape, but after a summer of sitting still amongst the trees and insect life of Vermont, you’d be surprised what little problems can crop up.  I’ve learned to start checking at least a week before any major trip, just in case I find a problem that requires a parts order or a trip to the local RV service center.

The Safari, by the way, will celebrate its eighth year on the road with us in October.  I have lost track of the miles it has traveled, but it is certainly above 100,000. I can’t think of any other purchase we have ever made that has given us such a great return, in terms of life experiences and pleasure. When it’s not our home on the road, it’s a great guest house. People talk about houses as “investments,” and RVs are just “depreciating assets” but I have to disagree. Our house is worth about 2/3 of what we paid for it (not counting the cash dumped into fixing it up), and it costs many times more to keep running than our Airstream.  It’s a nice house, but in the end it’s just a house.  Our Airstream is probably worth about half of what we paid for it, but it has changed our lives and enriched us in ways we can hardly enumerate.

So by my accounting, the Airstream is the bigger bargain by far, and we will once again prove that in our month-long saga with our recently-minted teenager.  She still wants to spend time with her parents, and I think some of the credit for that can be given to the Airstream as well.  Going out this fall will remind us all of those precious years (2005-2008) that we spent full-timing with Emma, and I bet we’ll all want to recreate a little of that magic as we roam westward.  I hope so.

Thinking of it that way, I realize it doesn’t really matter where we stop along the way.  The memorable moments will happen.  We just have to get out there and let them come to us, with our Airstream to keep us comfortable along the way.

 

A Mixmaster, a Mercedes, and a zombie

When I’m TBM I must admit that I don’t eat as well as during the rest of the year, when Eleanor is here to cook.  But it’s an opportunity to eat like a bachelor, and believe it or not that’s not entirely bad.  It inspires independent thinking, for one thing.

Sure, the blueberry/chocolate smoothie wasn’t my biggest success (nor the caramel/bacon smoothie).  And my annual survey of Tucson’s Sonoran hot dog stands (ongoing at the moment) is a health fanatic’s nightmare.  It doesn’t matter.  The essence of TBM is trying new things, following sudden inspirations, and taking small risks to uncover the answers to questions nobody cares to ask.

This can encompass culinary topics as well as almost anything else.  For example, which is the best zombie movie of the past few decades?  The only to be sure is to watch as many of them as you can. I personally favor old-school classics like “Omega Man” with Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe, but I recognize I may be in the minority with that choice.  More recently “Shaun of The Dead” with Simon Pegg & Nick Frost could be a contender for its relative originality, and I think “I Am Legend” with Will Smith deserves a vote.

As you might be able to tell, I’m not a huge fan of the straight horror-style zombie flicks filled with shuffling idiots.  I like the ones with something new to push the theme forward, while respecting the genre.  To keep my research complete, Rob and I went out to see a late showing of “World War Z” last week.  I thought it failed to have a good plot climax, but it was good to see that the movie industry is still revisiting this tried-and-true theme.  Zombie movies are sort of self-mocking, since the movies themselves are often “undead” versions of those that came before.

Another aspect of TBM has been the traditional buying of an unnecessary car.  I haven’t blogged all the cars I’ve bought over the past few years, but basically I seem to find one every year or so, and then sell them a year or two later after sorting them out.  The green Mercedes 300D was only bought last fall and I am planning to keep it for a long time, so I told Eleanor I would not break with tradition and not buy a car this summer—and then promptly discovered a flashy red Miata at an estate sale and put a bid in on it.  To be fair, I called her first and she encouraged this irresponsibility, because she wants it for herself!  (I lowballed the bid so we probably won’t get it anyway.)

At the same sale I found a Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 12 (made from 1957-1967) in fairly good condition.  Eleanor already has a Mixmaster Model 9 (late 1940s) that was handed down through her family, which she still uses regularly.  We thought the Model 12’s beaters might be interchangeable with the Model 9 beaters, but as it turns out the Model 12 won’t release the beaters at all. I’m going to have to take it apart to fix that problem, and while I’m in there I’ll clean up the gears and motor parts, and re-lube it with new food-grade synthetic grease.

Two Mixmasters is really more than we can use, so I’m not sure what we will do with the Model 12 after I’ve fixed it up.  Right now I’m admiring it as a great example of durable American mid-century mechanical design.  It just looks good sitting there, and it’s amazing to me that these old machines still work as well as they do after fifty or sixty years in the kitchen.  It’s also neat that they are still so inexpensive and easy to find, despite being antiques.  I paid $22 for this one complete with beaters and two original milk-white glass bowls, all in good condition.

Sunbeam Mixmasters model 12 and 9These Mixmasters are analogous to my Mercedes W123: built in abundance, well-designed, long-lasting and hence beloved.  In a way they represent a pinnacle of engineering, because they achieved everything that could be hoped for at the time.  I wonder if the builders knew that they’d created things that would not be surpassed for durability by anything to follow.

I really like things like that, machines that are timeless in both design and function.  I’m not a fan of disposable industrial design.  “Disposable” is for Kleenex.  This bias is probably most of the reason why we have Airstreams, too.  Of all the things we own, the mid-century products are the ones I respect the most.

The machine that makes my smoothies is another antique, a Sunbeam Vista blender from the 1960s. When it just keeps working for decades, why replace it?  In that vein, we recently acquired the final bits we need to install a NuTone Food Center in the Airstream Safari.  The NuTones are highly sought by some RV owners because they are designed to be mounted in the countertop (thus saving valuable space when not in use).

We had one in our 1977 Argosy 24 known as “Vintage Thunder,” and kept most of the accessories that we’d collected for it.  The NuTone motor is permanently mounted under the counter, and you just pop whatever appliance you want on the power head at the countertop:  blender, coffee grinder, juicer, mixer, food processor/slicer, knife sharpener, etc.  Collecting the accessories is easy on eBay but the prices tend to be high these days because they’re out of production.  Our final piece was the motor base, and we got one of those from David Winick at Alumapalooza.  I plan to install it over the next winter, when I’ve got to get under the kitchen countertop to re-fasten it anyway.

Speaking of Airstreams kitchens, the Caravel’s new dinette table has been cut.  The dimensions are identical to the current table, but by using solid poplar instead of plywood/ash/Marmoleum, it is 8.1 pounds lighter (23.1 lbs).  That may not seem like a lot, but it makes a huge difference.  We’ve trimmed the weight by 26%, enough to allow one person to heave it out of the wall mounting bracket and convert it to a bed without help.  And it looks better already.  Neither Eleanor nor I were crazy about chunky look of the previous table.

I’ve got to let the wood settle for a few days before I proceed with sanding, shaping, finish, and hardware, so for now it’s just resting flat on the floor of the living room.  It may also require a little bracing underneath to ensure that the table never warps.  I’ll get to that over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to contemplate why it matters to me to fine-tune the Caravel, a trailer that we hardly ever use and are seriously over-invested in.  It’s really for the same reason that I’ll take two hours to disassemble an old kitchen mixer that we really don’t need, and carefully clean & lube it so that it can work as designed for another few decades.

You could look on it as a form of recycling, but it’s more than that.  The 1948 Sunbeam Mixmaster Model 9, the 1968 Caravel, the 1971 General Electric P7 oven, the 1984 Mercedes 300D, and the 1970s era NuTone could all be replaced by modern equivalents, but none would be as durable, or as inspirational to me.  These things seem to deserve attention and respect and repair.

They were made to last, in part because they were built in a time when “value” meant more than lowest price.  More importantly, they have lasted, proving their designer’s principles were correct. If you want to make a product today that will last for ages, you don’t need to guess the future—you only need to respect good design.  Not to get too romantic about it, but those few antique machines we still use and value prove that great principles endure.

Just like zombie movies.

Smoothies in the night

It’s quiet here in Tucson.  This is the time of year that sane people flee the heat if they can.  Snowbirds have flown to their summer nests in the cool shady north, college students are on vacation, and local Airstreamers are taking trips up to higher elevations or the California coastline.  The result is that Tucson’s traffic (which is never really bad) has declined to Sunday-morning levels most days, there are no lines anywhere, and large-scale outdoor events are rare.  When there is something organized, it’s usually at night.

I would be one of those Airstreamers on the road somewhere if I had a tow vehicle here.  Every year it’s a temptation to find something used & cheap just for this purpose (and many vehicles are capable of pulling the Caravel, so I’d have a wide range of choices), but I never buy anything because I really don’t have a place to store it.  So the Caravel sits all summer, a “hangar queen” that consumes resources but rarely works for its keep.

With everyone hibernating during the day, I’ve followed suit for the most part and have been seeking evening entertainment.  Last week of course there were fireworks all over the city.  I took the Stuttgart Taxi up the Catalina Highway, which winds up the Santa Catalina mountain range just north of our home, to get a birds-eye view of the fireworks.  It turned out I was not the only person with this idea.  Hundreds of people were parked along the roadside to get a glimpse, even though the fireworks were easily ten miles away.  The distance meant that this wasn’t the most dramatic vantage point for fireworks, but it was neat to see them popping up like magic colored bubbles over the yellow sodium lights of the streets, and we could watch fireworks from three different venues all at once.

IMG_2432I also encountered a group which walks up Sabino Canyon every Friday night around 6-7 p.m., and joined them for an evening. The walk is up a paved road, about seven miles roundtrip through the canyon and following a perennial stream.  Following a thunderstorm last Friday night the air was reasonably cool, but most of the walks this time of year are in the upper 90s or even low 100s even after dark, so you still have to bring water and face some heat.  The desert creatures are out too, and the regular hikers report seeing wildlife routinely: lots of birds, bats, rattlesnakes, gila monsters (quite rare), bobcats, and occasionally even a mountain lion.  They hike in groups, stay away from the edge of the road in snake season, and carry flashlights.

Back at the TBM Cave, I’ve begun a challenge to myself to “take back the Smoothie.”  You see, ever since “Rocky” came out and popularized the idea of drinking shakes full of raw egg and sprouts, the classic, decadent, fat-laden, and wonderfully unhealthy smoothie of old has been largely overrun by quasi-health-nuts who feel the only good smoothie is something green with chunks in it or at least the potential to transmit salmonella.  OK, to each their own, but I’m just not a fan of calling blended kale and wheatgrass a drink.  I mean, you could blend almost anything and call it a smoothie (as Dan Aykroyd aptly demonstrated in 1976 with the Bass-O-Matic), but that doesn’t make it a treat.

IMG_2431Oh, I know I’m going to horrify several good friends with this, but we can still be friends.  I like smoothies that are cold, thick, delicious, and not pretending to be anything but pure indulgence.  In the interest of finding middle ground I’ll temper my fiendish love of Torani flavored syrups, coffee, chocolate, hazelnut, and even Torani Bacon syrup, by basing all my recipes on plain non-fat yogurt. I’m going wild with experiments in the kitchen this week, working alternately with fruit smooth concoctions (my favorite so far:  mango V-8 and raspberry), dessert smoothies (top pick: mocha/caramel), and occasionally a completely whacked mixture.  Two nights ago I whipped up a peanut butter & bacon smoothie that was pretty good.  Mike came over and refused to even consider trying it.

This is the sort of thing that happens when I’m left to my own devices, which I think is good. A little childish play of any type helps reboot the mental processes that lead to creativity.  And the results are delicious … mostly.

The other exciting news of the day:  I received an email telling me that I have won the Microsoft email lottery.  My prize is €1,000,000 “and a Toshiba laptop.”  I like how they threw the laptop in, as if I wouldn’t be able to afford one of my own after winning a million Euros.  It’s the little touches that make me love the spam.

Hmm… that makes me think.  Spam smoothies?

Temporary Bachelor Man, 2013 edition

Yes, he’s back!  TBM is re-installed in Tucson and prepping for a month or two of adventure … and work.  (Mostly work, actually.  But let’s not dwell on that.)

I flew back to Tucson on Tuesday in my everyday guise of mild-mannered magazine editor, and then once back in the Man Cave (formerly known as family residence) I pulled out the full TBM suit complete with fake pecs and flaming torch.  It turned out there was not much need for a flaming torch, since this time of year southern Arizona has one up in the sky which has been frying eggs on sidewalks and melting shoe adhesive for several weeks now.

The first order of business is always to re-boot the Man Cave.  After six weeks of abandonment, there are always a few Manly Tasks to be handled, such was washing the desert dust off the cars, firing up the central cooling (it took nine hours to get the house cooled to 78 degrees), collecting mis-addressed junk mail, and sweeping up the detritus of desert life that tends to accumulate in and around the Cave.

IMG_2428Eleanor received a particularly charming offer while we were gone (see photo).  It wasn’t clear from the letter inside whether this offer was for her personal use, or an offer she could use to dispose of someone else’s body if needed. As generous as it sounded, this letter among many others ended up in the recycle bin.

While the central A/C was fighting to expensively pump BTUs out of the Man Cave, I took the official TBM-mobile out for a quick wash and a run to the store for supplies.  Also known as the 1984 Mercedes 300D or “the Stuttgart Taxi,” the car impressed me immediately because after six weeks of sitting unattended it had absolutely no oil drips at all, the vacuum system still had full pressure (or perhaps I should say full lack of pressure), and it fired up like a new car.  All that work we did last October has paid off.

I must say that the temptation to put a trailer hitch on the TBM-mobile is very strong.  With that, I’d be able to tow the Caravel somewhere for a little trip —as long as I avoided hills.  But I’m afraid that the ancient transmission might not like the added stress of towing, and even if it did I might encounter some challenges towing a 3000-lb parachute with an old diesel that was rated for 120 horsepower when it was new.

Yesterday was an excellent start on TBM-type stuff.  I cleaned up a lot of the emails and minor tasks that had accumulated while we were in Europe, took care of some overdue errands, got my hair trimmed into TBM style, and then Rob called with an invitation to the monthly guys-only card game.  You can’t ask for a better TBM activity than a card game with the guys.  The other saps in the game (all married guys with kids) started whining about needing to go home around 10 p.m., and I just waved my flaming torch at them and told them the night was young.  Sadly, none of them seemed willing to break their shackles, and the game broke up not long after.  It’s lonely being TBM sometimes.

Southern Arizona summer heat is hated by many who live here.  I can understand that.  Like a northern winter, many activities are off the table.  I can’t go bicycling during the day, for example, and people tend to huddle inside their air conditioned houses except for the hour or so after dawn (when the temps might be “only” 80 degrees).  But we live in an area riddled with “sky islands”, meaning mountains that poke up steeply from the desert to heights of 6000-8000 feet above sea level. So hiking and exploring in the mountains is still possible less than an hour’s from Tucson.  And we live only a few hours drive from the forested Mogollon plateau of northern Arizona, seven hours drive from the relative coolness of the southern California coast, and four hours drive from the beaches of Puerto Peñasco in Sonora, MX.

That may seem a long way to go for coolness, but at least the option exists. When I lived on the east coast during bitterly cold winters, the nearest place to go to escape was Florida, 1,500 miles away. So I regard the heat as just another excuse for a good roadtrip sometime in the next few weeks.

I plan to be here through late August, with a break to attend Alumafandango in Oregon during early August.  (Still got a few spaces left, by the way, if you are thinking about joining us there!)  In the time I’ve got there are many TBM missions to complete.  I’ve got to scout some new locations for next year’s Alumafiesta in Tucson, check a possible location for a new event in the southwest for late 2014, supervise some home improvements, finish the Caravel plumbing project, work on a new book, edit the Winter 2013 issue of Airstream Life (Fall is in layout right now), check out a new sushi restaurant, see lots of family-unfriendly movies, and of course once again try to find the ultimate in Sonoran hot dogs from this year’s crop of roadside food trucks.  If you’ve got a mission to suggest, feel free to pass it along and I’ll see if it can fit into the TBM plan.

LED lights

My short time in my alter-identity of TBM ended with a sputter on Sunday.  The prior two weeks had vanished in a series of indistinguishable work days, in identical 100+ degree temperatures, and the primary variation most days was the choice of evening entertainment.  There were quite a few torn movie stubs on the counter by the end of the period.

I made on last attempt to seek out something worth of a Tucsonian bachelor hero, with a second “annual” Sonoran hot dog test.  Alas, as it turns out Sunday is not a good day for Sonoran dogs in Tucson.  The mobile food trucks which normally can be found on every major boulevard hawking these beloved examples of Tucson’s primary contribution to the culinary arts, were notably absent on Sunday.  I found just one: El Sinaloense, working in a vacant lot along Alvernon between Pima and Speedway.

For $3.50 I got a very nice variation on the classic bacon-wrapped Sonoran dog, with a nicer bun (a little flaky, like a muffin) and a bacon-wrapped pepper on the side, plus a Mexican soda, served in the ultra-casual environment of a plastic chair in a dirt lot.  No pretense here; the “atmosphere” of the restaurant is just plain atmosphere, the kind that we all breathe every day.  I like that because (a) it’s a uniquely southern Arizonan experience to eat a bacon-wrapped hot dog under a tent when it’s 105 degrees, and (b) there are no poseurs just hanging around because it’s a place to be seen by others.  There’s a sort of clarity of purpose in that.  You go for the food.

I did try a second local establishment, whose name I will withhold because despite a decades-long reputation the “famous” chili dog I was served was horribly disappointing.  From a look and taste of the product I would say that the old chili dog has met its superior in the Sonoran dog, and it won’t be long before the chili dog has to step up its game or go extinct in Tucson.

That was it. I sadly packed away my TBM suit with the symbolic ying-yang, wrist protectors, and ever-flaming torch (the latter item quite hard to pack, by the way), closed up the house and boarded an early flight back northeast on Monday.  Time to shift gears again.

This week is all about enjoying a last few days of Vermont summer and prepping the Airstream to hit the road.  Older brother and I took apart the rear of the BMW motorcycle and replaced the chain and sprockets on Tuesday, had lunch on the deck and looked at the beautiful lake & mountains, then we took Emma out on the boat to watch the fireworks from Burlington harbor in the evening.  It’s about a ten mile trip via boat across the deep dark waters of Lake Champlain.  Last night the water was smooth and warm, and twinkling with the red/green nav lights of hundreds of other boats that came up the lake to do the same thing.

Today we are going to see the 4th of July parade with some friends up in the small town of Bristol, and this afternoon Emma will go sailing, and maybe Steve & I will take a little motorcycle tour under the green trees that line the rural roads.  Everything we’re doing feels like a very northeastern summer thing to do, so despite the very short visit up here I think I’m getting a full dose of the necessary vaccination against the hot southwestern summer that still lies ahead for us.

As part of our Airstream prep I installed a bunch of new LED replacements for the standard bulbs that came with our 2005 Airstream.  I have wanted to do this a long time, since lights are huge power consumers in our trailer and we’re always operating in dim light to save power when we are camped without hookups.  This trailer has 27 individual lights in it (not counting the refrigerator or stove light, or any of the compartment lights), each one either incandescent or halogen, and if we turned them all on at once they would consume something like 40 amps of power, which is huge.  Even our large Lifeline GPL-4D battery with 210 amp-hour capacity would be drained in an evening if we dared turn on all the lights.  So most of the time we restrict ourselves to just a few crucial lights, and so the trailer tends to look like a cave in these situations.

I have been slowly experimenting with different LED solutions over the past two years, installing various LED “pads” and bulb replacements in different color temperatures to try to find the best for our situation.  Quite a few of them were disappointing, either for poor light output or inconsistent color (some looked greenish or bluish).  A few were defective, and I returned them.  None were particularly impressive.

Recently I bought a bunch of newer bulb replacements from LED4RV, which is run by a guy named Dan Brown.  These were different from the ones I’d tried before. Instead of individual LED bulbs mounted on a single pad or cylinder, the new models used Surface Mount Device (SMD) type LEDs, which appear as small yellow squares when the light is off.  The SMDs put out more light with fewer LEDs, so don’t just buy the bulb that has the most LEDs and assume it’s the brightest.  Dan provides a little chart to compare the lumen output of each bulb.

After some experimenting, the choice was clear.  For the big double light fixtures that are mounted on our ceiling, Dan’s “1156 Bright White 18 SMD LED cluster bulb” is perfect.  The color temperature is just slightly cooler than the incandescent bulbs it replaced, so no weird blue/green color like a fluorescent.  A pair of these use 12% of the electricity of the hot incandescent bulbs and put out nearly the same amount of light.

For the swiveling halogen reading lamps, we used the “12 LED Warm White Reading Spot” (G4 style).  In these light fixtures the lens is clearer than the overhead lights, so a bit of warmness in the color temperature helped.  These lights were incredibly bright and really output more of a flood than a spot of light.  They’re great in the dining area but by the bed they’re really almost too bright and I may replace those later with the 9 LED version.

The power savings is incredible.  The draw of these lights has been reduced from amps to milliamps, as measured by the Tri-Metric amp-hour meter installed in our Airstream. We can use twenty of our new lights on roughly the same power budget as three of the incandescent bulbs.

The only catch is the high cost of LEDs.  These lights were about 15 bucks each, which really adds up when you’re trying to replace 27 lights.  To economize, we focused on the lights we use the most, and in some cases we only replaced one side of a two-bulb fixture.  When trying to conserve power we can turn on only the side that holds the LED bulb.

Even considering the cost of LEDs, they are a relatively cheap solution to the power problem.  You can do very well simply by adding battery capacity and swapping out your lights for LEDs.  With those choices you can reduce the power demand of your lights by nearly 90% and perhaps double your power supply, which translates to extra days of boondocking capability for a few hundred dollars. That’s less than a quiet generator or solar panels, and it’s a solution that always works regardless of sunshine or fuel supply, so it’s a very sensible option for occasional boondockers.

I should also mention that these days Airstream has, uh, seen the light, and their new trailers come with a lot more LEDs than ever before.  It’s just those of us who own older models that need to make the upgrade.  Based on the success of the lights we have installed so far, I’ll probably go ahead and buy eight or nine more of the bulbs later this year.

That’s not our only Airstream job this week.  Our plan is to launch the Airstream on Friday, which means part of today and all of tomorrow will be dedicated to getting road-worthy again.  Eleanor and I need to glue a patch onto the awning where carpenter ants chewed a hole in it last year, I need to clean the roof again, and there’s plenty of re-packing to do.  Our trip plan is vague but we know we have to get back across the country by July 17, so we’ve got to get moving.