Time to fix

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Walking tour of Tucson

Although these days we’re focused on getting ready to launch the Airstream, it can’t be all work all the time.  To get a break from the long list of “to do” items and a little exercise, I planned a day out to explore downtown Tucson’s historic sites.  We’ve been living here for four years, on and off, and I am still constantly surprised by the many hidden corners of Tucson that I’ve never seen.  It has quirky neighborhoods everywhere, oddball homes, tons of cultural artifacts, great museums, surprising restaurants, and historic buildings.  For a small city, it has a surprising amount to offer.

We used the map provided by the Tucson Presidio Trust for Historic Preservation for our tour.  The entire walk they recommend is about 2.5 miles, which is pretty mild by our street hiking standards especially since downtown is mostly flat.  The catch, however, is that this is mid-May, and so daytime temperatures are pretty consistently in the upper 90s or low 100s.  I tried to get Emma out early with dire warnings about hiking in the heat, but ultimately she decided that snoozing on a Sunday morning was more important than avoiding the heat.  With the 30 minute drive to downtown, our hike didn’t get started until about 10 a.m., and the air was already well into the 90s by then.

Oh well.  We’re used to it.  I know to a northerner the idea of walking around on asphalt in 100-degree heat would be horrendous, but of course it was the famous Arizona “dry heat”.  You put on light colored clothes, apply sunscreen, wear a big hat, and carry a water bottle or two.  With all that prep, my only problem was a burning sensation through the soles of my sneakers …

The first stop on the tour is the best.  Right in downtown there’s a recreated presidio, which is a sort of fortification from the Spanish Colonial era.  Spaniards needed to migrate from Mexico to California through some pretty tough country inhabited by the Apaches, and they were not on good terms.  So Spain established a line of 17 presidios, of which Tucson’s was the largest (11 acres) and and last.  Almost nothing of the original presidio still exists, but on part of the original site a very good recreation has been installed, and it’s well worth a visit.  Being a hot Sunday, we found ourselves the only visitors and so got a private guided tour from the volunteer who was on duty.  Fascinating and free.

The tour ultimately passes 22 sites, including statues commemorating the Mormon Battalion, Pancho Villa, and a Spanish “soldado de cuera” (leather jacket soldier, wearing a sort of armor made from deerskins), two footbridges, historic houses, cathedrals, parks, gardens, a historic hotel, a shrine, and even an elementary school from 1930.

We particularly liked the little shrine called El Tiradito (“The Castaway”), a.k.a. “The Wishing Shrine,” which is said to be the only shrine in the US dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.  It’s obvious that many people still visit this shrine regularly to light candles and leave notes for those who have departed.  It’s hard not to be struck by the poignancy of this site and the offerings.

(There’s also a public water fountain nearby, which was great for us since we had already used up most of our supply.  In 2.5 miles of 100 degree+ heat we drank about 24 ounces of water each.)

I was most impressed by the fact that walking the streets of Tucson, we encountered no “bad neighborhoods” and discovered several areas that I never knew existed.  There’s really nothing like walking or bicycling a city to get to know it.  I was also pleased to connect the dots between several old neon signs that I’ve documented over the past couple of years.  Some are gone, others have been restored as a result of the new Historic Sign Amendment, including the famous “diving girl” sign.  (She used to advertise the Pueblo Hotel, but now the building houses a law firm.  Thanks to Piccaretta Davis for investing the money in having her restored.)

Of course, being a hot Sunday in downtown, we also encountered very few people until we got to the Congress Street district where retail is concentrated.   It seems few are interested in street hiking when it is over 100 degrees — go figure.


Toward the end of the tour we found ourselves on familiar ground at the Hotel Congress, famous for being the place that John Dillinger and his gang were caught in 1936.  The Hotel Congress has managed to survive by adapting, still offering hotel rooms that hark back to the 1930s, but also offering a nice little restaurant downstairs, a bar, and live music regularly.  We have so few historic hotels left in Tucson that we treasure those that remain. It’s a huge neon sign on the roof that I’ve photographed several times.

Besides the tip of carrying water and dressing correctly, there’s one other thing you must do if you are to street hike here in the summer:  find covered parking for the car.  On Sunday most of the lots were free, so we chose the main Public Library’s underground garage and were glad we did.  Parked underground, the car was only about 102 degrees inside, whereas parked in the sun it would have been unbearable for a while.  The Honda Fit is a great car but its dinky AC really can’t handle desert heat.

What do you do when you’ve conquered downtown on a day that even the lizards are seeking shade?  You go to one of our many cheap and wonderful Mexican restaurants, in this case El Guero Canelo (“the blonde guy”) and you get a Mexican Jarritos fruit soda and a burrito. At least that’s what we did.  Your mileage may vary.

We’ve got a few more days of heat and then we’ll saddle up the Airstream for points north and higher altitude.  By Saturday, the Airstream will be up around 7,000 feet and we’ll be looking for our long sleeved shirts again.

Spreading out

We’re still not in the Airstream but life at home has been just fine.  There’s snow up in the Santa Catalina mountains, which has afforded Emma the chance to use her Hammerhead sled with friends at 7,000 feet elevation, and down here in the valley we’re been having days warm enough to have the windows open every afternoon.  I like the dichotomy of snow up above and palm trees swaying in the breeze down below this time of year.

The Airstream is slowly getting unpacked, as we pull out things that we would have used during our 10-day trip.  Every day we go “shopping” in the Airstream for whatever we need:  clothes, frozen food, a movie, some tools, etc.  Mostly we’ve been taking out food since Eleanor had a program of meals planned for the entire trip.

The Dutch Oven has been fun for both of us, even though our second attempt at cooking was disastrous.  We tried apple crisp, a favorite of mine (traditional up in Vermont, where I grew up), but naively followed the recipe in the “Dutch Oven Cooking 101″ booklet.  We should have followed our instincts instead.  The recipe called for way too much nutmeg and not enough brown sugar.  It smelled fantastic as it was cooking out in the back yard, and we were drooling with anticipation, but when we sampled it after dinner the taste was repulsive.  Nobody could even finish their serving.

It was a complete loss, and things got worse the next morning.  Disappointed with the outcome, I left that terrible apple crisp in the Dutch oven overnight rather than transferring it immediately to the compost bin.  When I scooped it out in the morning the bottom of the crisp had an absolutely incredible skunk smell that nearly drove us out of the kitchen.  Some sort of chemical reaction occurred, a final insult in the apple debacle.  Fortunately, after cleaning the oven didn’t retain the smell.

Cooking-wise, the oven has done a good job.  I stacked up some leftover flagstone to make a temporary windscreen, with an aluminum turkey pan for the coals, and it worked so well at retaining the heat from the oven that it may become a semi-permanent feature of our back yard.  (Someday I’d like to build a permanent brick & stone oven that we can also use for pizzas, but that’s way down the home improvement plan.)

Even though the potato recipe we tried earlier did work fairly well, it was a bit on the greasy side and there was more bacon in it than we would have preferred.  So based on that and the apple crisp we’ve learned that the booklet recipes are really just starting points.  From now on, we are going to modify the recipes as we go, using Eleanor’s culinary experience and training as our guide.  Tomorrow the plan is to make “Chisolm Trail Blueberry French Toast Cobbler” from a different recipe book as a special Saturday morning breakfast.

We’re also going to break out one of Eleanor’s Christmas gifts, a deep fryer.  Now, some of you are probably thinking, “You got your wife a deep fryer as a gift?  What’s next, a vacuum cleaner and a scrub mop?”  But don’t worry, Eleanor loves cooking tools.  I once bought her a second refrigerator as a Christmas gift and it was probably the best received thing I’ve ever given her.  She’d rather have a new oven than a diamond ring (and the oven she wants costs about the same as a 1-carat diamond).

All of this cooking is a way of maximizing the value of our staycation.  We would have used the Dutch oven once, maybe twice, and the deep fryer not at all if we were in the Airstream.  The fryer is just too big for our style of travel, especially with the gallons of oil it requires.  Dear old Vince Saltaformaggio would have brought it all—and more—but we don’t have a separate trailer just for the cooking gear, as he did.  So we’re taking full advantage of being at home by spreading out and getting into messy projects.

Until Tuesday, things were nice and quiet.  With the New Year everyone has come out of the woodwork.  Suddenly I’m getting calls about Modernism Week and Alumapalooza again, I’m getting article pitches from PR agencies and freelance writers, advertisers with shiny new budgets are looking to spend money (yahoo!) and people I call are actually answering their phones again.  This has impacted the vacation aspect of this week but I can’t complain because stuff is getting done.

Even Carlos called, wanting to shoot some neon this week.  In the past two years we’ve documented just about every historic sign in Tucson, and certainly all of the “live” ones (those that are still operable).  These days we are just picking up the remaining “dead” signs, like this one.  The upholstery shop is moving and the long-dead neon sign will likely be torn down, so this photo shoot was slightly urgent.  This particular sign doesn’t look like much because the neon is broken and the background was repainted.  In its original form it looked like a ribbon and was undoubtedly considerably more attractive. We’re trying to locate a historic shot that shows the original design, for inclusion in the book.

The brake actuator problem is on its way to resolution.  I have decided to get a Dexter replacement, which is currently on order and should arrive fairly soon.  The replacement unit has a good reputation, takes up about the same space, and requires only four wires.  I’m hoping to install it later this month with Eleanor’s assistance.  As Jim & Debbie pointed out in a comment earlier, installing it ourselves means we’ll know that much more about our Airstream, which is very useful when you are on the road and something goes wrong.

@Alicia Miller:  We hope to be more skilled with our Dutch Oven by Alumapalooza time, but in any case both Eleanor and I hope to attend the DO cooking class this year.  I’m pleased to say that Lodge is going to be a sponsor and so we’ll have a few pieces of their cookware as door prizes too!

Tucson neon hunt

Last night Carlos and I went back out on the prowl for neon and other historic signs.  We’ve been documenting the signs for over a year now, on and off.  Now we’re nearly done, with over 80 separate sites documented by my camera so far.

We picked up another five sites last night — a big night — in about two and a half hours of zipping from one location to another, rapid shooting with the Nikon, and then leaping into the car to race to the next spot before the light faded, like a pair of crazed scavenger hunters.  We’re getting pretty good at it now.  Carlos figures out a plan to hit the unlit signs in the “golden hour” before dark, works in some of the signs that combine neon and paint for twilight, and finally a route to all the neon signs that are still working in the darkness.  I drive and take pictures.

Tucson got aggressive about eliminating obnoxious signage after Life magazine printed a picture of one of our main boulevards and deemed it “the ugliest street in America.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung the opposite way.  Our historic buildings are nearly all gone, the dramatic neon signage that helped define the city is a mere shadow of its former glory, and that boulevard that was once the ugliest street in America has been promoted to being as ugly and generic as any other street overrun with retail chains.  Progress has its price.

In the past few months, Tucson finally passed the Historic Landmark Signs Ordinance, which amends the sign code to allow a narrowly-defined set of old and currently non-conforming signs to be taken down, refurbished, and returned to use.  The idea is to keep the most historic, attractive, and irreplaceable old signs in Tucson, lest the town become just another piece of generic America.

Since we started shooting these signs, we’ve noted that several have since disappeared, been horribly “tagged” by spray-painting vandals, or have been destroyed by neglect.  There’s a sense of urgency to the project, as we can actually see the remnants of Tucson’s 50’s and 60’s era sign architecture vanishing as we work.  It’s like we’re driving a 1960s muscle car with 1/8 of a tank of fuel remaining, and we can watch the fuel needle moving toward “E” as we search for a gas station.  I find the job exciting because we are capturing history, depressing because we are watching it disappear, and inspiring because a lot of civic-minded people are volunteering their time to try to bring it back.

I don’t yet know where this will end up, but we expect it will eventually become a book.  We’d like to raise awareness and appreciation of historic signs, especially neon.  Much work lies ahead: organizing, researching, writing, designing, and probably fund-raising. Right now we’re just having fun documenting and researching.  It may be years before this turns into something publishable, but that’s fine.  It’s a journey and for me a wonderful tutorial on Tucson’s modern history, neighborhoods, and architecture.  Not a bad way to spend a few 100-degree summer evenings.


Road honeymoon in Arizona

A commenter on the blog last week asked if I was Temporary Bachelor Man or Temporary Honeymoon Man.  Yes, I must admit that we are treating this little three-week summer visit as a series of romantic getaways.  Our goal has been to just have as much fun as possible, exploring places and things that we might have skipped with a child in tow.

We began preparations some months ago, collecting ideas for travel and searching out deals on hotels and restaurants so that we could take fullest possible advantage without spending ridiculous amounts of money.  Summer travel in southern Arizona and the desert portions of California, New Mexico, and Texas is a bargain if you take the time to look for the deals.  Our options would have been broader with access to one of the Airstreams, but we’ve managed to do pretty well nonetheless.  For example, Eleanor has completely mastered the intricacies of the Restaurants.com coupon system, to the point that we are eating out at posh restaurants three nights a week for cheap.

Tucson is great for restaurants.  Within a few miles of our house we can find virtually any cuisine, and we never have taken full advantage of that just because when we are home we tend to eat in.  This little “honeymoon” period is different, so now we are exploring restaurants with complete abandon.  Last week we tripped over a fairly unusual find, a real Cajun restaurant (run by folks from a family that settled in Louisiana in the 1600s).  Normally you can’t get good Cajun food outside of Louisiana — I don’t care what those fancy nouveau chefs in major cities think — but this place is the glorious exception.  I’ll be back there for a little jambalaya after Eleanor has left, I’m sure.

Our specialty this past week has been restaurants in the resort hotels.  A few days ago we tried Azul at the Westin La Paloma, which was fine, and this weekend we may go to Primo at the JW Marriott Starr Pass. These are mostly fun because we never go to the local resort hotels, and so we’ve got an excuse to dress up for dinner and check out the elite scene.  (We also went up to the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain but didn’t eat there since we were just dropping off our niece who was in town for a business trip.)

Before you get concerned about the idea of me dressing up, relax.  This is Tucson, so dressing up only means I wear slacks instead of shorts with cargo pockets, and I pick a silk Hawaiian shirt that has been ironed.  Nobody wears a jacket and tie when it’s over 100 degrees outside, even at night.  I have not worn a tie since sometime in the mid-1990s.  I’m waiting for the ones I bought in 1991 to come back into style …

This time of year the thunderstorms cool things down for a few hours after the rain, but it’s still nice to get away from the heat for an extended period.  Looking at my work schedule I realized I could escape on Thursday and Friday, so on Wednesday we booked a hotel up in Show Low AZ, up in the pine trees above the Mogollon Rim that divides northern and southern Arizona.  It’s about a five hour trip up to there from Tucson, and even longer if you stop and enjoy the fantastic scenery along the way.  The route, pictured above, brought us up and around the Santa Catalina mountain range through Oracle (past Biosphere 2), through lots of rolling desert, past the ASARCO copper mines at Winkelman, and then to the town of Globe — famous for turquoise mining (B on the map).

From there the road starts to get very interesting as it gradually gains altitude and loses it again, three or four times, finally descending through a series of hairpin turns down to the beautiful Salt River Canyon.

This route (between points B and C on the map) is passable with a travel trailer, but you need to be comfortable with long 6% grades (both up and down) and willing to take your time.  There are many overlooks suitable for parking an RV or travel trailer. On Thursday the road was lightly traveled, and we rarely had company at the overlooks.  We stopped at one for a big picnic lunch (our usual crazy leftover smorgasbord) and had the place to ourselves the entire time.

If a teenager holding a can of spray paint can climb it, why can’t I?

Eventually the road climbs for the last time and ends up at 6,300 feet in the town of Show Low.  We had started the day with temperatures of 100-105 but up here it was a beautifully cool 81 degrees with scattered thunderstorms.  We found our hotel and a local Italian eatery, then parked somewhere to watch the lightning bolts in the distance, as the sun set in dramatic clouds of orange and blue.

In the morning we cruised over the Fool Hollow State Park, one that we’ve heard is nice but had never seen ourselves.  The park staff gave us a 30-minute pass (they held a $7 refundable deposit), which gave us time to roll through the entire park.  It’s a fantastic spot, well worth a visit, and so now we are trying to figure a time to drop in this fall.  If you go, book early as it probably sells out far in advance for every weekend in the summer.

Having taken hours to get up here, it seemed like a shame to drop back down the Mogollon Rim into the heat any sooner than we had to, so instead we wandered west on Rt 260 toward Heber-Overgaard, staying above 6,000 feet the entire route.  We made a few stops here and there to explore, and eventually came to the point where Rt 260 begins to descend, at the edge of the Rim.  It’s tough to drive away from the beautiful air up high, so we stopped off and found a secluded place to park near the General George Crook trail, and took in the view for a while.

A tip for you photographers:  doing justice to the expansive views from the Mogollon Rim is difficult without a super-wide angle lens.  I started with my Nikkor 18-200 but couldn’t get the shots I wanted.  I pulled out the Tamron 10-24 and around 12mm I finally started getting a fair perspective. The shot above is at 10mm.

The photo above, of Saguaro Lake, is from the iPhone. Sometimes it does a decent job, especially when there’s a lot of light.  We drove a few hours down the twisting Beeline Highway to near point F on the map and checked out this little lake formed from the impounding of the Lower Salt River.  It’s in the Tonto National Forest, so a “Tonto Pass” is required to use any of the camping areas, overlooks, boat launches, beaches, etc.  (Your $80 annual “America The Beautiful Pass” and/or “Golden Age Pass” doesn’t cover this, despite what you probably thought when you bought it!)

But no pass is required to park at the Marina and take in the view from the upper deck of the restaurant, which is what we did while sipping a couple of cold ice teas.  At this point we were well back into the oven east of Phoenix, but with full shade and the outdoor misting system running at full tilt it was tolerable outside on the deck.

The photo above is another iPhone capture, entering Apache Junction and looking east toward the Superstition Mountains. Lost Dutchman State Park, another one of our list, is not far away.  (Don’t be concerned about the 45 MPH speed limit — in most places the speed limit is a more-appropriate 65 MPH.)

All together, we covered close to 500 miles in two days.  A roadtrip like this would be exhausting or at least boring on the Interstate, but despite lots of long lonely stretches, we rarely felt uninspired.  The back roads of Arizona are vast and dramatic, with variety, color, and life nearly everywhere, and well worth exploring.