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.

TBM stalled?

There are two reasons that I came back to Tucson for two weeks, while the rest of the Airstream’s crew is up in Vermont.  Reason #1:  I had a dentist appointment that just couldn’t wait, and couldn’t be done up in Vermont.  Reason #2:  I had an enormous backlog of work as a result of being on the road for a few weeks and being at Alumapalooza.

Now, I can get the work done fairly efficiently up in Vermont because we have friends who will lend me their home offices with fast Internet.  (It’s still not as efficient as being here, because if I’m home alone I’ll work longer hours.)  But the big requirement was the dental appointment; I just couldn’t skip that.

See, these days I’ve got braces on my teeth.  Yes, at age forty-something I went to the orthodontist to finally have my crazy bite and radically misaligned teeth straightened.  They were driving me bonkers whenever I tried to eat. Now both Emma and I have braces, a moment of shared father-daughter experience.  I can’t say that it has been especially bonding, but Emma has been helpful with tips, like how to eat popcorn.

I thought I was pretty old to get braces until I ran in our good friend Petey at Alumapalooza.  She said, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re doing that!  I was very happy that I had braces.”  Her teeth looked perfect.  I asked her, “When did you get braces?” and she replied, “When I was 70.”  So that put me in my place, and now I don’t feel particularly old to have tinsel teeth.

And I’ve been amazed that the things really work as well as advertised (see pics, I apologize to those of you who really didn’t want to see a closeup of my mouth).  Two months into it I’m already seeing quite an improvement.  22 months to go …

Having two members of the family in braces at the same time has been detrimental to our Airstreaming.  This is the first time in several years that E&E haven’t spent eight to twelve weeks in Vermont.  With our mutual dental appointments we just can’t stay away from home base for long, so I will be flying back up to Vermont on Monday and next week we will hitch up the Airstream and haul our traveling circus back the 2,700 miles to Tucson.  We’ll be here for the rest of the season, riding out the heat until it’s time to go to Colorado for Alumafandango.

The trip back from east coast to (nearly) west coast is a mammoth one.  When we were full-timing we would take about a month to go this far, but this time we have a mere twelve days.  That’s 225 miles per day on average, although realistically we’ll do a lot of 400-500 mile days and then stop for a couple to catch our breath.  I would really like to see a few things along the way.  It’s torture to just keep driving past interesting stops, and I’m not crazy about spending $750 in fuel just to see Interstate concrete roll by for 44 hours.  In the end our trip will probably come in at more like 3,000 miles because straight lines and Interstates are boring — and even that represents a serious effort at avoiding distractions.

I’ve discovered that two weeks as TBM doesn’t give me enough time to get into trouble, which is unfortunate.  The backlog of work was so massive that I’ve been locked to the laptop.  So my plans to do a follow-up Sonoran Hot Dog test, go tent camping, and take a roadtrip have all failed.  Instead, I’ve been working on Alumafandango (which is coming together nicely now), next year’s Alumapalooza, and of course that “other job” of publishing a magazine.  (The Fall 2012 issue is now in layout and will be distributed in early August.)

Plus, I’ve been working on two other projects.  One of them is a caravan, and the other is a third Aluma-event.  Brett & I have talked extensively about this and we know we can really only afford the time to do one or the other, and right now it’s not clear which we will pull off.  We are both approaching total saturation and after this we are either going to have to stop launching new projects, or get some help.  (I mean staff help, not psychiatric help, although we may need both.)

We’ll figure that out soon.  In the meantime, Alumafandango is occupying both our minds.  This summer’s heat meant that everyone is anxious about baking while they are in Denver, so we managed to work up twenty “30-amp” campsites (which allow you to run your air conditioner).  We announced them to the current registrants with an upgrade price of $125 and POOF! they were gone in 48 hours.  We now have a waiting list of people who are hoping we can get more, and that’s definitely something we are going to try to do.  So if you were staying away from Alumafandango because we didn’t have 30-amp, now you can go ahead and register and get on the wait list for delicious coolness.

TBM has been stalled this time by tedious practicalities, but I’ve got one weekend left before the TBM flag comes down.  I’ll ponder a few ideas for this weekend and try to get into something that will make you proud.

TBM wraps up

Plot summary:  After the last burst of wonderful road-trip glory, Temporary Bachelor Man (TBM to his friends) finds himself in the sad anti-climax of his adventures.

I knew it would be hard to top the big three-city tour that I did last week, and upon returning to home base I had to face a mixture of painful realities:  (1)  the end of the 2011 TBM season was fast approaching; (2) I would have liked a drop-in visit by my wife/girlfriend (it’s a dual role this time of year) before returning to family life; (3) we had absolutely no plan for where we were going in the Airstream once we resumed travel; (4) I was bored with Tucson.

For me, the charm of a place is often inversely proportional to the amount of time I have to spend in it.  I have enjoyed weekends in absolute hell-holes and dull-as-a-butter-knife cities simply because they were novel to me, and I have completely lost my mind after eight days on the action-packed Las Vegas Strip.  It’s the experience of learning, exploring, and being stimulated by new things that makes a place fun for me, which is the same personality characteristic (some would say “flaw”) that causes me to shy away from the routine.  And lately, home base has become a little too predictable: not much happening, always hot, nearly always sunny, and everyone hiding indoors to avoid the weather, like northerners hide in the winter.

With only a few days remaining, I scrambled to find things to do, but at every turn was stymied by forces beyond my control.  There’s always work, of course, but with excess time the Winter 2011 magazine is not only well in hand, but actually — for the first time in years — somewhat ahead of schedule.  The Vintage Trailer Show for Modernism Week 2012 is almost ready to begin accepting trailer-owner applications, and we’ve got the new Alumapalooza 2012 website up, too.   That’s all good, but there’s got to be more to life than work.

More sensible people than I have all fled the desert southwest, of course, so few of my local friends can be found.  (Note for next year: plan more trips up into the cool country; this means FIND A TOW VEHICLE FOR THE CARAVEL, YOU DOPE!)  Over the weeks that I have been in TBM guise, I have satisfied myself with a little checklist of absolutely inane & mostly unnecessary goals, all of which I can accomplish solo:

(1) Eat ice cream at every local place within 2 miles (Baskin Robbins, Culver’s, Dairy Queen, and Frost).

(2) Buy a bunch of used books at Bookman’s for the long trip back in the Airstream and in the process reclaim my “Mayor” status on Foursquare.

(3) See every R-rated movie of interest that I can, either in a theater or via Netflix.  This summer I’ve managed about a dozen, including X-Men, The Trip, Potiche, Rango (OK, it wasn’t R but I’m a sucker for animation), The French Connection, Sucker Punch, The Adjustment Bureau, The Illusionist (another non-R animation but charming), Night and Day, and Inception.  I’m not recommending all these movies, by the way …

(4) Go for at least one hike above 8,000 ft. (accomplished 8/13)

(5) Cook my own dinner at least a dozen times.  This has been accomplished mostly through the miracle of pasta and a very robust sauce Eleanor left in the freezer.  I may not be able to face pasta again for months, however.  The Weber grill is also a TBM friend.

(6) Sell the Miata.  This has been done, although at painful cost.  We never intended to keep the car for longer than this summer, but our impetus to sell it became more urgent when the car began to puke up intermittent “Check Engine” lights.  The suggested repairs (from three different sources) ranged from simply cleaning carbon out of the EGR passage, to a basketful of repairs that would have cost $2,500.  Nobody really knew what the root cause was, and we didn’t have the time or inclination to get into it.  Finally we found a buyer who was willing to take on the car as-is, and so we sold it well below the price I would have liked.  It was a gamble, and ultimately a failed experiment, but in all failures there are lessons to be learned.

So with those momentous accomplishments behind me, I can turn to the final tasks of the week.  Mostly that means buttoning up the house and thinking about where we are going to head once we leave Vermont.  Planning travel would seem to be the really fun part, but I have to justify my miles with business along the way, so the planning gets complicated quickly.  When we were doing the Tour of America I didn’t write about all the business stuff I did along the way because it was not all interesting and some of it had to be kept confidential.  But regardless, nearly every mile had a purpose that related to growing Airstream Life magazine.  Marty says that I need to keep that justification in mind and document it better — daily —  in case I get audited.  In addition to that consideration, I’ve got more projects going on these days, so any time out of reach of cell phone towers is a problem.  It puts a high burden on the planning process.

At this point I can only say that we are planning to head down the eastern seaboard again.  Beyond that, we may be winging it.  If prior experience is any guide, many opportunities will pop up as we go, and the trip will turn out to be much more than we could have foreseen.  Traveling in the Airstream tends to go that way.  So I’m not worried about making the trip work, but rather anticipating interesting opportunities.  If you have any suggestions along the general direction of Vermont-Georgia-Arizona, let me know.

Roadtrip, weather or not.

If you would like the short version of this blog entry, here it is:  500 miles later, I’m back at home base.

But there’s so much more to it than that.  The day started beautifully in the best fashion of southern California, with a light summer fog in the air that was quickly giving way to sunny skies and views of green desert hills.  I opened up the car windows and sped over to meet Uwe for breakfast in Orange at 8 a.m. We talked for over an hour, sitting at one of the outside tables at the Watson Drug & Soda Fountain, watching as very fit-looking men in blue Fire Dept. t-shirts ran around the block a few times.  The second time they came by I felt like getting up and joining them (and I don’t run, that’s how inspiring the morning was), but then I came to my senses and tucked into the waffle I’d ordered.  Extra maple syrup, please, I’m going to have a long day.

After dropping Uwe off at his shop, I automatically headed east on CA-91 toward Riverside, but a few minutes into the trip I realized that I didn’t really want to rush back into the desert heat.  It was still gorgeous where I was, near the coast, and it seemed a shame to have to close up the windows and turn on the air conditioner.  I’ve been doing that all summer.  So I took a right onto the Rt 241 toll road instead, with the vague plan of enjoying a scenic route along the California coast all the way to San Diego.

This turned out to be a bonus.  Being a toll road, Rt 241 is lightly traveled, and it rises up dramatically into the hills on smooth new pavement.  The toll charge of $5.25 was well worth it for this driving experience — at least once — and after about half an hour I was dropped off at I-5 in the traffic south of Irvine.

Nearer the coast, the way became foggy and even cooler, to the point that I eventually rolled up the windows just to stay warm.  Listening to the radio and distracted by scenery (I took a quick stop at San Onofre State Beach), it wasn’t until I was well into the Camp Pendleton area that I realized I hadn’t gotten gas, and now the car was running drastically low.  I exited I-5 at the first opportunity south of Pendleton to fill up and consider exactly what I was doing heading toward San Diego.  This plan wasn’t making a ton of sense.  Here I was, eighty miles from my starting point and still only a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

Well, I had all day, so what the heck.  I don’t get to just wander around aimlessly very often (or at least, not often enough).  Despite appearances, my travel usually has a definite purpose.  Besides, it had warmed up a bit, and that meant I could I roll down the windows again for a few minutes before the upcoming plunge into the desert heat.

Only a few minutes later, I picked up I-805, and then finally I-8 to head eastward for the next 300 miles or so. The road climbs out of the San Diego area, through La Mesa and El Cajon, past the inevitable & lonely Indian casino, and up to 4,000 feet over the portion of I-8 known as the Kumeyaay Freeway. This is a beautiful stony scenic area through the Cleveland National Forest, followed by a long descent right back down to sea level through a series of fantastic twists to the flat desert floor near Ocotillo.  At that point there’s little remaining to see, and the speed limit opens up to 70 MPH.  As I traversed this part I had to fight the urge to hang a left onto Rt 79 and drive the road up toward Julian — there just wasn’t time for that detour.

As I left the San Diego area I was watching the temperatures climb and the landscape grow steadily more arid.  By Ocotillo, it was a rousing 113 degrees and only Mexican stations could be picked up on FM.  I tried to remember that only a couple of hours earlier I was freezing in the cool fog of coastal California, but it seemed to be only an impossible dream.

I-8 runs tightly to the border from here all the way to Yuma, tediously straight most of the way, and there aren’t many places to stop for a cold one.  Fortunately, I had a cooler full of drinks and lots of calls to make.  For a long portion of this road you are south of the Salton Sea and below sea level.  The highway gets pinched between canals (like the one that formed the Salton Sea) and the fences along the US-Mexico border.  Then there’s the Imperial Sand Dunes, and then you’re seeing another Indian casino and the AZ border at Yuma, followed shortly by the welcome increase in speed limit to 75 MPH.

Somehow I managed to completely overlook Dateland (AZ), which is a great place to try a date shake and pick up fuel.  Not much else.  Having missed that opportunity, I paused in Gila Bend instead, where it was still 106 degrees under a cloudy sky.  Thunderstorms were threatening in the distance, and I knew at that point I was going to have an exciting end to my trip whether I wanted it or not.

Five miles later, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and for the rest of I-8 was buffeted by winds and sprinkled by the remnants of thunderstorms.  Lightning was everywhere to the east and south.  By the time I reached the end of I-8 where it merges with I-10 near Eloy, the rain was occasionally torrential, the desert was puddled with water, and kamikaze tumbleweeds were blowing across the road.  I clipped one with the right wheels and saw the tumbleweed explode into a thousand dry match sticks in my rear view mirror.

The weather was getting seriously threatening. I stopped to check weather radar on the iPhone at a gas station, and the gas station turned out to be closed for lack of electricity.  I saw one serious accident with police & rescue on the scene (two cars in the median, heavy damage), then another a few miles later.  Brief sections of the road were flooded a few inches, and the radio was filled with warnings about dust storms and lightning.  I had that feeling again — was it really only an hour or two ago that I was blinking in the burning sun at a rest area and marveling at 113 dessicating degrees?

Finally, Tucson: 72 degrees in light rain, wind blowing, flashes of lightning over the Rincons, carport half flooded.  Whatever.  It didn’t matter if it was snowing, I was home.  Time for laundry, dinner, and a few days of catchup.  It’s nice to be back, but the trip was so great that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t zip out for a roadtrip somewhere again this week.  I have only seven days before my TBM license expires.  Hmm… what next?