Old fashioned movie night

We were towing the Airstream on Rt 101 through Coos Bay OR, when the we spotted something we don’t see much anymore: a downtown single-screen movie theater.

I love those old theaters. They remind me of days past when as a poor student I would go see a cheap matinee for a dollar or two on a hot afternoon, and sit in the coolness of a vast (mostly empty) theater on a worn velvet seat, and marvel at the elaborate Art Deco decorations surrounding me.

I especially like the balconies for what they symbolize.  To me they speak of a different age, when one title playing at the theater was all we needed to have an excuse to go out for the evening.  We could have little care for what was playing—it would still beat whatever was on TV that night.  These days most old movie theaters with balconies have been converted into second-story mini-theaters, if they still exist at all. The bulk of them are gone forever, victims of the suburban multiplex cinema.

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In Coos Bay we spotted the Egyptian Theater, and even though it was daytime as we drove by, it was the tall neon sign that caught my attention first. Fantastic design and theme, the type you rarely see these days in a world of corporately-divined “theme” restaurants and entertainment.  I’m a fan of old neon too, so an elaborate sign like this one always draws me in.

Amazingly, the Egyptian is still operating and nearly intact inside, with even the balcony lately released from mini-theater bondage.  The theater was only showing movies on weekends, so we were lucky to find that on the day we arrived a 7:00 pm showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was scheduled.  We had to go back and see it.

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Emma, being 16, had not seen nor heard of Psycho, and Eleanor and I hadn’t seen it in many years.  I couldn’t imagine a better way to have the experience of seeing this classic 1960 movie than in the type of theater it was originally shown.

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egyptian-theater-coos-bay-1So we dropped the Airstream at Bullards Beach State Park (20 minutes south), then turned around to walk the historic lower harbor of Coos Bay and then into the Egyptian.  I was immediately a fan. How can you not be, when there’s interior decor like King Tut flanking the stairs to the balcony?

Inside it was everything I had hoped for:  stained glass “EXIT” signs, dim and dramatic interior, all sorts of structurally unnecessary but fantastically moody interior design elements and even a “mighty” Wurlitzer Orchestra Theater Organ hidden behind a grand facade high above … but sadly, very few people.

In one sense I like having the place empty and serene, with just a dozen or so avid vintage-movie lovers enjoying glorious black-and-white on the big screen.  Emma was certainly entranced.  Watching the drama of Psycho unfold slowly, and Anthony Perkins’ wonderfully understated portrayal of Norman Bates in a real theater is much more immersive an experience than on your home TV, no matter how big your screen is.

But I was sorry to see how few other people were there with us.  I worry about the few old-time theaters like the Egyptian that still survive.  The Egyptian is a remarkable example of the Egyptian style of theater that was popularized back in the 1920s, and lives now by the grace of donors and members of the Egyptian Theater Preservation Association. This place is a treasure—a museum of movie history, in a way—that you can still use the way it was nearly a hundred years ago.

In case you are worried about Emma, she had a great time.  The slow burn of Psycho (which I regard as near the peak of Hitchcock’s art) grabbed her like no YouTube video or manga comic ever could; a good broadening experience for a young writer/artist.  Popcorn, a classic b/w movie, a great theater, and nice people. It was a night to remember.  I hope someday we can go back.

No flight plan in Utah

There are always certain risks when you travel without a firm plan, and we’re well aware of them.  Spontaneity is fun, except when Plan A, B, and C all fall through and you find yourself having to improvise to find a place to park overnight. Then it becomes a challenge.

We left Winslow AZ yesterday around noon, after taking some time to explore the ruins at Homolovi Ruins State Park. (It’s an interesting site, without much interpretation but literally piles of colorful potsherds and bits of half-buried pueblo walls to inspire the imagination.) Thunderstorms were building all around, which lent a certain drama to the vast open skies of this part of Arizona, but also reminded me that we didn’t know exactly what we were driving into.

Our route north took us through the Navajo Nation, which is huge and mostly open, up through the towns of Chinle and Many Farms, and then up Rt 191 into Utah. This is a fabulously scenic drive, and Eleanor kept saying that more people should have the opportunity to see this gorgeous part of the country.  Photos can’t capture fully the panorama that keeps emerging around each turn. You need to get on your motorcycle or in your car and drive it yourself.

Our plan was to drive for six to seven hours. There is little cell service in this area, so on-the-road planning with the iPad wasn’t practical. I resorted to the way we did it in our first days of full-timing, consulting a dog-eared Road Atlas and guessing where we might feel like stopping for the night.

We were working against a few factors:  No cell service, widely spread out camping options, a popular time of year in the Four Corners, the threat of severe weather, and a late start. We passed a delightful looking spot along a river near Bluff UT only because there are no cell service and I thought I might need to do some work in the evening.  That turned out to be a mistake, because the place we eventually ended up also had no service.

By dinner time we had roamed up through Moab (which is getting a bit touristy in the center), turned right onto Rt 128, and began hunting for a spot amongst the tall red rock sandstone canyons that wind along the Colorado river for about 25 miles.  From a prior trip we knew there is a string of small no-hookup National Recreation Area campgrounds here, and we figured that being a Tuesday it would be no problem to find a spot we could tuck into for a night.

Alas, not so.  We checked out ten different campgrounds, each filled with tents and kayakers.  Most of the sites were sized only for tents, so even if they had been empty we couldn’t have stayed. The sun got low and we started thinking about our options, which weren’t good: turn back to Moab (now nearly 30 miles of twisting road behind us) or proceed to Fuita CO (at least an hour away).  And it was now 8:00 pm with official sunset descending at 8:26.

This is when your resolve to fly without a plan gets tested.  This is when people get grumpy. Fortunately we’ve been in this situation many times and know better than to panic or start the “I told you so” sort of discussion.  It’s important to remember that nothing really bad is going to happen.  The worst case is that you have to drive further than planned and compromise your campsite ideals for a night, staying somewhere that you might not have chosen but which is still suitable and safe.

We got lucky. The very last campground along Rt 128 is Dewey Bridge, a tiny 7-site spot with (like all the others along this route) no amenities.  We snagged the last available space, just ten minutes before official sunset (and long after shadows in the deep canyons had covered us).  $15 per night for nothing but a spot by the river, but we were glad to get it.

I feel almost embarrassed to relate this tale of sheer luck to you, since by all rights we should have been forced to our penance somewhere along I-70 in Colorado instead of landing a bucolic site in a canyon along a scenic river. It might have been a more cautionary tale in that case.  But it’s the same point either way: “spontaneous” can be good or bad. 

The Plains states turn out to be less plain

I have to admit that while we were in Jackson Center I was feeling a little dismay at the prospects for the rest of our trip toward home base in Arizona. We’ve covered this route so many times, heading both northeast and southwest, that it seems that there is little left for us to see. As blog stalker “insightout” commented, “How many times can you do it before you go insane?”

It is true that we have visited most of the major tourist stops along the way, but it’s perhaps a conceit to think that we have seen it all. Of course we haven’t. Nobody has seen everything in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, even people who live there.

The real trick for most people seems to be the flattish plains states, which form an unavoidable barrier from North Dakota through West Texas. Kansas and Nebraska particularly have a reputation for dull driving, but really they are all exercises in patience and opportunities for creative distraction. The latter is probably why Kansas boasts many things reputed to be the largest in the world, including a ball of twine, sunflower, and hand dug well. (Not to be outdone, Missouri has the largest golf tee and wind chimes.)

Our solution has been to wander a little off course and seek out state parks that we haven’t previously visited, which usually leads to a local attraction or other sort of tourist site. This idea led us off I-70 to Illinois’ Fox Ridge State Park, which is conveniently near the Lincoln Cabin State Historic Site, which is itself a fine destination for a few hours thanks to an excellent visitors center and a living history farm. I picked up a little knowledge about Dutch Oven cooking from talking to the historical re-enactors there. (It was particularly interesting to me because I’m currently reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is a great biography of Lincoln and his cabinet.)

From there we decided to wander further off the beaten path and meander through soybean farms up toward Springfield. There is a lot more “Lincoln” stuff to be seen in that region (reminds me of the Anne of Green Gables obsession in Prince Edward Island, but at least Lincoln is real). Our goal for the day wasn’t Lincoln but Wright—Frank Lloyd Wright, specifically his masterpiece Dana-Thomas House in downtown Springfield. If you are an FLW fan, this is definitely one to see.

Our camp in that area was Sangchris Lake State Park, about 30 minutes out of town. Like many state parks and Army Corps parks, the one was formed the damming of a river, and then development of a green and tranquil campground and other public facilities. We often are far from the action when we go to places like this, and cellular connectivity is a problem even with the booster and external antenna, but it’s worth the minor inconvenience for a quiet and scenic place to stay.

I was starting to get concerned about the amount of time we had been spending in Illinois, since Arizona remained 1,500 miles away and I do have deadlines that will force me back to home base soon. This wandering path was fun but I could hear the clock ticking. At the end of the month I have to have the Winter 2014 issue of the magazine at least mostly in the hands of my Art Director, and also head to Oregon to run Alumafandango. I’ve been working on both as we go, but it’s hard to stay ahead of ahead of the deadlines when you are also constantly on the move.

So after a half day in Springfield we pressed onward along I-72 through Illinois and into Missouri. This road eventually becomes Rt 36, a straight and quiet divided highway that parallels I-70 at a safe distance from major cities and Ferguson riots. We didn’t choose it because we were afraid to drive through St Louis, we were just trying to find a new path across Missouri. Alas, there’s little of interest along this route and most of the way we had very limited data service (Verizon “extended” network) so it wasn’t a huge hit with any of us, until we pulled into Pershing State Park that night.

Pershing, as you might guess, is in the middle of a hometown region of historical sites honoring General Pershing. I will admit I know next to nothing about the man, but we were all filled up with historical information from the Lincoln region and I was still anxious to make up some time, so the general’s legacy was lost on us this trip. Perhaps another time.

We surrendered to another inevitability however, dropping south to the tedium of I-70 through Kansas, just to speed up the trip a little. This brought us through Topeka and past signs for the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. This isn’t nearly as compelling a name as “Sea World,” but in the grand scheme of I-70 it was enough to bring us to a halt. I’m glad we did.

The site interprets the importance of a Supreme Court decision regarding racial equality and also manages to explore some sensitive racial history and issues in this country without being preachy. We found it to be fascinating, and it also counted as a good piece of homeschooling for Emma. We spent an hour there and would have stayed longer if we had the time. The final stop on our self-guided tour was a pair of headphones, through which Emma was introduced to the music of Marvin Gaye, playing “What’s Goin’ On.” I think she liked it.

I think what I’ve learned is that the mid western plains states are actually less boring the more time you spend in them. It’s racing through that causes the fatigue, because then all you see are the billboards and plains. There are plenty of small things to explore if we can take the time, and I’ll be thinking about that next May when we do this trip again.

Aluma-zooma day seven

We all knew that driving from Tucson to Sarasota in a week would be a long slog, but it’s not until we really got into it that we recognized the full impact. Now we are in Archer, FL, courtesy-parked in a quiet place in the woods, trying to recover from this immense odyssey.

It would have been much easier if we didn’t all have colds, and if the weather wasn’t a challenge, and if the water fill hadn’t started leaking … and, and, and … But there are few long voyages without adversity of some sort. Those that are completely without adversity are probably cruises (and even those feature norovirus and seasickness sometimes).

Our “Aluma-zooma” road trip has required our best rapid-travel skills, because there hasn’t been time to waste. We have been sleeping in noisy parking lots near the Interstate because campgrounds take too much time. Every other day we have dumped tanks and picked up water wherever it was convenient (sometimes a rest area, sometimes a truck stop). Meals have mostly been quick and simple, except for one night when Eleanor cooked for everyone.

Everyone has been doing their best to “keep the shiny side up” despite the tedium of the long drive, and I have to say that I really appreciate the endless patience and good humor of our friends Alex & Charon as they traveled with us.

The last couple of days have been the most challenging for me, at least. My cold really started to hit hard, and we were trying to cover 380 miles on Thursday, and then 360 miles on Friday. In the middle of the night I’d wake up because of the cold and be at my computer for an hour or two trying to catch up on work, which didn’t help things.

I reached my limit on Friday, which was obvious to all when I nearly fell asleep during dinner. I was considering declaring myself medically unable to drive for a day. We would have gotten into Sarasota a day late, which wouldn’t have been a catastrophe really.

And then last night I managed to sleep for almost ten hours, which made everything seem much better. So we mounted up again and drove 300 miles to our current spot, and even with some leisurely breaks during the day we got here around 4:30 pm.

We are parked in the woods at the home of a friend who has a small collection of vintage trailers in various states of repair. It is quiet and peaceful here—a real antidote to seven days of Interstate highway. The two Airstreams in our caravan are resting on the sandy circle driveway next to the house and shop, surrounded by pine trees dripping with Spanish Moss.

I wish I could say it’s smooth sailing from here but we have much to do before and after we drive the final 180-mile leg to Sarasota tomorrow. Eleanor spent this evening cooking some things that would otherwise spoil in the refrigerator, thus giving us dinners for the coming event week when time will be short. More groceries are needed, our laundry has piled up, and the Airstream appears to need another on-the-road repair.

The repair will probably be replacement of the power converter. Our batteries weren’t charging when the trailer was plugged into shore power. (They are charging on solar.) I noticed the problem this evening, thanks to the Tri-Metric battery monitor. It’s a fairly easy problem to diagnose if you carry a voltmeter. Our main power converter failed the voltage check prescribed by Parallax Power, but then it started to work again after we’d “reset” the unit by disconnecting shore power and re-connecting.

The fix is not particularly difficult, but I’m a little frustrated because I already have a replacement power converter in Tucson. I carried it around in the Airstream for a couple of years (just because I bought it during a long trip and forgot to take it out). Then a few weeks ago I put it in the storage shed, and now of course I need it. The same thing happened with the city water fill that failed: I had two of them in the storage shed.

I’m not sure what is worse: having to buy parts on the road that I already have in storage, or rolling around the country with a rolling parts bin of things I may not need. I think I’m going to stop buying parts until I need them, even if they are “great deals”. So far the great deals I have gotten on spare parts haven’t saved me anything.

Well, all of this will have to fall away in the coming days, because we’ve got work to do. On Tuesday and Wednesday we are expecting about 250 Airstreams to show up in Sarasota, and Job #1 is to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible. Aluma-zooma is just about over. Time to switch gears. In the next two days we’ll get ourselves set, so we can spend the rest of the week taking care of our guests.

A day on the road

Driving the Interstate hundreds of miles can be dull, but it gives me plenty of time to think, and I like that. With the weather cleared and mechanical problems gone, it was a fairly peaceful experience (except for Houston) driving I-10. We covered the concrete from Seguin TX to Lafayette LA, 370 miles, so I got to air out a lot of cobwebs in the brain pan.

The plan was to get up early and hit the road around 8 or 9 a.m., but that hasn’t worked out even once on this trip. Each day we have something that needs doing in the morning (like shopping for a new power cord for the GPS today, or waiting for the frost to melt yesterday), and we also seem to kill a fair bit of time bantering with Alex & Charon in their trailer.

That’s because Alex is recording about 10 minutes of ad hoc discussion each morning, when we talk about the day before. His plan is to edit it down into a short podcast series, so you might be able to hear that on the Internet later. We have a lot of fun doing the recording each day.

We finally got on the road at about 10 a.m., which was not great but still early enough to make it to Lafayette before dark. When you’re traveling as we are, covering lots of miles and boondocking occasionally, you also have to allow time for stops to replenish supplies (mostly diesel, propane and water), and dump the tanks. Even with a big pause at a Love’s truck stop, we made fairly good time.

Propane has been a big thing for us on this trip. The cold weather means lots of furnace use, and we have already stopped twice to fill 30# tanks. Electrically we are doing pretty well. The furnace has chewed up a lot of battery power each night but we are getting enough sun on the solar panels to keep us afloat since we left Sonora TX on Wednesday morning. In the summer we wouldn’t even think about it because we never run out of power when the sun is high and no furnace is needed, but this time of year it’s something that I watch closely.

In addition to the re-supply stops, this trip has reminded me of the necessity of on-the-road maintenance. This is a habit from our full-timing days, but just as relevant now. For example, every 500 miles I have to grease the Hensley hitch. Two days before we left, while camped at Lazydays, I had to replace a worn-out grease fitting on the hitch, too. When you are moving fast there’s always something that needs attention: cleaning, lubing, tightening, adjusting, inspecting, or airing.

Things don’t break in the driveway (usually)—they break on the road, as our city water fill did just two days ago. So you have to be ready with a tool kit and some knowledge, or face the prospect of stopping at a repair shop for every little thing. I don’t like on-the-road breakdowns any more than you do, so I do what I can to maintain everything at home, but I’m realistic: stuff happens.

The other big maintenance item is personal mental health. Driving like this isn’t really fun, and without much exercise day after day, the entire body starts to rebel—at least mine does. A walk at the end of the day is helpful if we have time (even if it’s just a stroll inside the Wal-Mart), and taking time to tell jokes to our caravan-mates (Alex & Charon) on the radio is nice, and decompressing at the end of the day over a movie or dinner is very comforting. We are trying to find the little things in each day that make it less boring to be in the car. There are a lot of such things if you look for them.

We still have 800 miles or so ahead of us, so our pace isn’t going to slow yet, and we won’t be doing a lot of sightseeing. Eleanor and I are noting things to check out on the way back, instead. It’s a sort of small consolation for the tedious nature of our travel eastbound. For now, Florida beckons, and we want to make it to Sarasota by Sunday if we can, in time to help with Alumaflamingo setup.