Heading west, part 2: Flaming Gorge, Utah

Driving 400 miles a day is not my idea of ideal Airstream travel. It’s more like being a long-haul truck driver, with “gas and go” stops along the endless concrete, and few opportunities to stop and explore. We only do it when we have to trade off one part of the country for another, and that’s why we chose to rush through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The reward, we decided, would be Utah.

Utah’s a great state. It’s under-appreciated in my opinion. Not only does Utah have an amazing constellation of national parks (Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, and some smaller units of the National Park Service), and dinosaurs being dug up regularly, but it is also just beautiful nearly everywhere. I love the rocky red and yellow outcrops, the hoodoos and pine forests, and the ever-changing roads. So we traded a few states we’ve visited many times for a week to explore Utah a little more.

We arrived with a souvenir from Nebraska. Near Grand Island the Tesla caught a rock in the windshield which put a nice long crack right in the driver’s field of view. Being a relatively new car made by a nascent manufacturer, spare parts are hard to get, and so after a few phone calls from the roadside we realized we had no choice but to press on and ignore the crack. A replacement windshield wasn’t going to be available for two weeks. Although the crack continued to grow from 7″ to about 24″ over the next day, the laminated glass would not shatter or fail and so it was just a matter of learning to ignore it.

The windshield crack was a low point in the trip. We had been on the road for days of uninspiring highway driving and we were still at least a day and a half away from our goal, and then our new car had gotten damaged in the middle of Nebraska. It felt like bad karma, but there was nothing to do except keep plowing west against the headwinds and crossing our fingers that nothing else would go wrong.

I started feeling better when we hit Cheyenne WY. For some reason being in the dry and wide-open west, especially at high altitude, always invigorates me. We spent the night boondocked in a parking lot. Although normally we never leave the Airstream in an “overnight parking” situation, in this case we felt safe to leave the Airstream and Mercedes hitched up and take the Tesla to get a steak dinner at a suitably western restaurant. Eating out at a place where guys would be wearing their best cowboy hats and jeans felt like the right thing to do in Wyoming. Even though I was exhausted that night and not much of a conversationalist, it felt recuperative.

From Cheyenne it was still nearly a full day of driving to Flaming Gorge, but everything seemed like it was getting better. Wyoming along I-80 is stark, open, and occasionally harsh, but also beautiful as the light filters through clouds to make the yellow hills glow. Despite constant winds and tough uphill climbs, I enjoyed the drive much more than I had any of the previous three days.

Flaming Gorge-2

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Utah is an amazingly beautiful area surrounding a reservoir. The reservoir is the result of a 1950s dam project along the Green River (part of the series of dams that include Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell, and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead). It’s relatively quiet, dominated mostly by fishermen and other boaters on the reservoir, and it’s not hard to find your own little piece of paradise along the lake or on a trail. Plenty of camping opportunities too—although there’s only one campground with hookups. You’ll find that in the little town of Dutch John, which was the town created for the original dam workers.

Flaming Gorge-1

Most non-boaters seem to take the dam tour, hit the visitor center at Red Canyon, and move on. But there’s a lot more to do here if you take the time, such as horseback rides and excellent hikes along the riverbanks. If you don’t have a boat there are lots of fishing guides ready to take you out for a day. We spent a day exploring the river downstream of the dam, where the current runs strong and clear and cold, and watched birds from a flat rock. Occasionally fishermen would float by, but mostly we were alone.Flaming Gorge downstream fishermen

Getting in and out of Flaming Gorge is fun with an RV, since there are unavoidable steep grades no matter how you arrive. 8-10% is not really a big deal with proper technique—it’s more of a psychological challenge, especially when the road is winding and there are steep drop-offs. But if you go, be sure you know the right way to control your rig’s speed when descending a steep hill so that you don’t smoke your brakes. This even applies to cars: we smelled a few sets of hot brakes on the way in.

Utah Airstream near Flaming Gorge

Now that we had slowed down, we had time to think about where we would go next. We had over a week of time left, and I saw no reason to get home early, so after a bit of thinking I proposed we go to Salt Lake City. In all of our travels to 49 states we had never made it to Salt Lake City, and for years our friend Jim Breitinger had been telling us to come visit him there. Since Jim had long ago courtesy-parked his Airstream in our driveway, he wanted to repay the favor. So we packed up after three nights and started pulling the Airstream northwest …

 

Heading west with an Airstream and a Tesla

In the last blog I alluded to the fact that for the first time, Eleanor and I aren’t traveling with Emma in the Airstream. I wrote that just as we headed back out on the road in August, anticipating that things would be very different for us without our little traveling companion.

I was right: driving back was a little strange. Eleanor was following me in a car for the 3,800 mile trip, so for most of the day I was alone in the Airstream with my thoughts and a few podcasts.  The familiar chatter of E&e was gone, and I realized that even their silent physical presence (as they read books during the long drive) was something I missed.

For a while we were just hustling to cover the miles, until we could get to something that was of particular interest. We breezed through New York with just a short stop at the Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park (plenty of room in the parking lot for RVs), dropped in on our friends in Ohio for a couple of nights, and then zipped up to the Detroit area to finally hit a place that had been on my list for a while: The Henry Ford Museum and Dearborn Village.

Dearborn Village flowers house

Those were great and I highly recommend both. That’s part of Dearborn Village above, at a place where we stopped to try the High Tea. It took us two days to see all of Dearborn Village and the Henry Ford (plus a couple of hours to do the Ford Rouge Plant tour), so if you go, I wouldn’t skimp on the time.

The visit was made better because we camped at Camp Dearborn in Milford MI.  It’s a nice place—about 30-40 minutes drive to Detroit—and the Tin Can Tourists go there annually so the staff is accustomed to seeing all kinds of cool vintage trailers. But best of all they have a nice discount ticket deal with The Henry Ford Museum, and you’ll definitely see all kinds of cool stuff there.

Henry Ford Museum cool car

Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion house by Rich Luhr

The photo above is the interior of a Dymaxion aluminum house, invented by Buckminster Fuller. (We talked about it in the Spring 2005 issue of Airstream Life, if you still have that issue in your collection.) Being made of aluminum, the Dymaxion house is beloved by many Airstreamers.

2018 travel route west

From Detroit heading west we had no planned stops at all, so for a while I was somewhat at a loss for what to do and where to go. That’s odd, since as the family navigator I usually have at least a rough idea of where we are headed. Here’s another place where Emma’s influence was critical: normally I’d be looking for educational opportunities for her. I wasn’t used to having to figure a route for two adults in their 50s. Where do childless people stop in Iowa and Kansas?

Airstream & Tesla plugged in

Finally we decided to just plow west against the headwinds on I-80 and try to get as far as we could in the next three days. It was an uninteresting part of the trip, so this is probably a good time to mention that the car Eleanor was driving was a new Tesla Model 3, an electric car.

For those who know me, it’s no surprise that I’m a big believer that electric cars will be huge in the next few years, nor will anyone be surprised that I waited to get this car for over two years. I am looking forward to the day when I can buy a Tesla pickup truck and finally get free of the dreaded “CHECK ENGINE” light and all the other hassles associated with internal combustion engines and transmissions.

The car is relevant particularly along this leg of the trip because I know there’s a lot of confusion about electric cars, and one thing people often seem to believe is that you can’t drive them very far.

That’s ancient history. Even against a typical Plains State headwind, Eleanor stopped for a quick recharge about the same number of times I stopped to buy diesel fuel, and her cost was about $5-10 versus the $65-80 I was dropping on diesel.  A few times we charged the car for free on campground 50-amp connections. In the end, it cost $99 in electricity to drive the Tesla 3,800 miles (2.6 cents per mile). I’ve paid more than that for a single fill-up of our tow vehicle.

Wyoming Sierra Trading Post AirstreamOn those nights in Iowa and Kansas where we were just parking overnight in a lot it was no problem to find a place to stash the car. In fact it was kind of handy because we could go out for dinner without unhitching, as we did in Cheyenne WY the night we parked at Sierra Trading Post.

The rest of the time we were lucky enough to get campsites with room to squeeze in the car, or at least park it nearby. If we could each the power pedestal it was a bonus, but we didn’t worry about it. Tesla’s Superchargers are conveniently spaced along the highways and the car can go over 300 miles on a charge, so we never really had any concern about where we’d charge up next—even when we got into some remote parts of Utah.

Part 2 of this trip starts there. I’ll continue the story in a few days.

 

The GL is dead, long live the GL

A lot has happened since the last blog. That’s the curse, when things are interesting there’s often no enough time to write, and when I have time it’s usually because nothing is happening.

So here I sit in a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Pennsylvania, snarfing up the speedy wifi and catching up on work & blog … with a lot of stories to tell from the past two weeks.  (I’ll get to Alumapalooza later, this blog is about our tow vehicle.)

The short version is that I condemned our 2009 Mercedes GL320, because it was getting about as reliable as an incontinent cat. At only 134,000 miles it had only about half the miles I had hoped to accumulate, but still with a respectable eight years of service.

After the wet-computer episode in Kansas, I had to take stock of the car to decide if it made sense to keep it on the road.

By the time we got to Ohio I was fairly certain the best economic outcome would be to replace the car ASAP despite the fact that this would put us into a car payment again.  Beyond that, we can’t really tolerate an unreliable vehicle, with all the long-distance and frequently remote travel we do.

As I’ve mentioned a few times here, I really like towing with diesel. Until an electric tow vehicle enters the market with reasonable range, there’s no powerplant available that performs like diesel for towing—and yields astonishingly good fuel economy when not towing. Unfortunately, all the V-6 passenger car diesels in North America have been suspended due to continuing fallout from the VW/Audi “dieselgate” mess.  We tried, but we just couldn’t wrap our heads around a pickup truck (and there’s only one light-duty diesel truck left since the Dodge RAM Ecodiesel was suspended).

2015 Mercedes GL350 diesel

My friend Chris, who just happens to be the General Manager of a Mercedes Benz dealership, found me a 2015 Mercedes GL350 diesel with Certified Pre-Owned Warranty. I wasn’t going to go back to Mercedes after all the reliability issues of the previous GL, but the CPO Warranty swayed me. See, it has something that’s worth a lot to me: an UNLIMITED MILEAGE Mercedes-Benz warranty. So whatever happens between now and August 2021 is on their dime, not mine.  We’ll probably accumulate 70-100k miles in that time.

Now, if switching tow vehicles in the middle of a trip seems like a hassle, try it in the middle of Alumapalooza. This deal would never have come off if not for the supreme efforts of Chris and Super Terry. Chris bought the car at a dealer auction, got it certified quickly, and arranged for a driver to bring it halfway from Pennsylvania.  Super Terry jumped in our old GL and drove four hours to meet the other driver, swapped cars and paperwork, then turned around and brought it back to Ohio. Both of those guys are heroes to me.

Switching from one GL to another simplified one aspect: we didn’t have to mess with hitch ball height or anything else. We just moved our stuff and installed a wireless brake controller. Bam! Done. Super Terry even installed the brake control module on the trailer for me.

[By the way, I’m now a fan of the Tekonsha Prodigy Wireless Brake Controller. It works well just like our previous Prodigy but without any wiring on the tow vehicle. You just plug the remote into a cigarette lighter outlet, which means I can move it from one vehicle to another in seconds and I won’t have to worry about the car’s computer deciding to shut it off because it got wet & grumpy.]

The new car has been great so far.  After Alumapalooza we towed over to Ohiopyle PA and I was shocked at how much better the 2015 drove compared to the 2009. A bit more power, much quieter, smoother acceleration, lighter steering, lots of interesting tech, etc. It’s really almost a decadent experience to be towing with it.

The Mercedes receiver hitch is considerably better in the 2015 than the 2009, so we’ve been able to just drop the Airstream on it without a problem but we do plan to get a reinforcement installed this summer, once we are settled in the northeast and have time to breathe. I plan to make this car work for its living, just like the last one, and I don’t ever want to have a hitch issue crop up.

Right now we’re stopped at the dealership to get a few minor niggles handled (nothing serious) and tomorrow we’ll be on our way north. I’ll backfill the blog over the next few days with posts about our 12 days in Jackson Center for Alumapalooza, and our stop in the lovely little town of Ohiopyle.

The last tour of the GL?

After plodding through the mushy wet snow for a couple of days it was a welcome change to have the sun come out in Fort Collins and watch it all melt. The two pictures below were taken two days apart:

Fort Collins Airstream slushFort Collins Airstream campsite sun

And that changed the mood of the entire rally. No longer was everyone hunkered down inside with the furnace blowing, peering out through fogged windows in the hope of seeing sunshine. Suddenly people were outside, walking around and talking to their fellow rally-goers. Emma and I went for rides, Eleanor and I went for walks. It all turned out very nicely.

Saturday night the weather was so fine that people were grilling outdoors and I offered test rides to anyone who wanted to try our electric kick scooter. About ten people hopped on and zipped away—and they all came back with a big smile.  This guy even popped a wheelie.

Fort Collins scooter wheelie

Fort Collins was nearly our halfway point to Alumapalooza, which meant we still had 1,100 miles to go.  After the rally there was no avoiding that we were going to make our 31st crossing of the American Great Plains, so we braced ourselves and began to log some miles.

Kansas center of USATo mix things up we always look for a new route. I think we’ve driven every possible major route through the center of the continent but there was a bit of northwestern Kansas we hadn’t seen before so we headed that way. It’s not much different from other parts of Kansas but at least it was new.

The nice thing about taking the quieter roads is that there’s more variety and occasionally an under-appreciated state park in which to spend the night. This time it was Prairie Dog State Park.

A single night in a state park isn’t enough time to get to know it, but clearly it’s a jewel judging by the number of locals who had staked out spots with their RVs and fishing boats.  The park has a nice small lake stocked with fish. (There’s also lots of space for unicycle riders.)

Prairie Dog SP Emma

Rains came in the evening, and despite my efforts to cover the delicate rear computer in the GL, a few drops of water got in again. I woke up at 3 a.m. to see the taillights glowing (a clear sign that the computer was freaking out). Computers and water don’t mix.

I dried it off and covered the computer better but the damage was done: multiple error messages in the console, and the brake controller was ON all the time. That’s because the computer was telling the brake controller that the brakes were applied when they weren’t.  This meant the trailer couldn’t be towed. And of course the nearest Mercedes dealer was 3.5 hours away.

At noon we were still without functioning brakes and we had to leave the campsite, so I disconnected the 7-way cord to the trailer and towed gingerly to another part of the park without brakes or taillights. I pulled fuses in hopes of forcing a reset, to no avail. Finally, on the phone Colin Hyde came up with a temporary solution: cut the wire to the brake controller that receives the braking signal.

I did that and reconnected the 7-way cable. Now we had taillights and manually-operated brakes, so we could proceed. I just had to keep a hand on the manual brake lever and coordinate braking the trailer by hand with braking the car with my foot. It’s not as hard as you might think.

A few hours later I reconnected the cut wire and found the computer had returned to normal. We were back in good operating condition from that point onward. But I wonder how long the circuitry will continue to work, now that it has gotten wet twice. (I also rigged up an elaborate multi-layer water protection system, in the hopes of preventing a third dousing. I can’t stop the actual leak but I have fixed things so any water that gets in will be shunted far away from the computer.)

The rest of the drive was uneventful and uninteresting. Suffice to say we survived KS, MO, IL, and IN without extreme weather or dramatic failures and pulled into Jackson Center OH—center of the Airstream universe—by Wednesday evening. We’re set up at the Terra Port and getting ready for Alumapalooza 8.

I am eyeing a replacement vehicle. The GL’s recent crises involving the water leaks, along with numerous other age-related problems, are starting to drive my repair costs to an unacceptable level.

We’re at eight years and 134,000 miles with this tow vehicle, which is less than I had hoped for when I bought it, but still a respectable amount of use. The choice of what might replace the GL is difficult since our criteria are complex, but I hope to make a decision in the next few weeks: keep or replace, and replace with what?  I’ll talk about that in more detail in another blog.

The electric last mile

For several years I’ve watched fellow Airstreamers to see what they do about our version of “the last mile problem.” That’s the question of how to transport oneself from the campsite to nearby places, without getting in the tow vehicle or motorhome to drive.

Granted, most of the time you’ll want to drive because your destination is too far, or the weather is inclement, or because you need to haul a lot of stuff.  I’m talking about those times when you just want to go a short distance, like to the Visitor Center or to a neighborhood store for a few small items.

This is becoming a big issue in some national parks, because (being Americans) we like to drive everywhere and that’s just not working out very well as the parks become more crowded.  Zion National Park has become a sort of poster child for this problem. Years ago the park went to a shuttle bus system and even that is getting mobbed during peak times. It’s not much better at the south rim of Grand Canyon, either.

FL panhandle Airstream bikes

We used to bring bicycles along with us, when we were full-timing.  At first it was a pair of regular bikes that we carried on the roof.  That was not very successful for us—the bikes got rusty and it was a pain to get them off the tall SUV roof.  We switched to folding bikes, which were great but they took up a lot of our trunk space.  Still, we got a lot of use out of them.  These days there’s a factory-approved rear rack for Airstreams (by Fiamma) which is popular, although it blocks access to rear hatches.

I’ve seen people hauling motorcycles and gas-powered scooters in their pickup beds.  We don’t have a pickup truck so those vehicles were non-starters for us.

On rare occasions I’ve seen Airstreamers with skateboards and kick scooters (like Razor).  Those are cute but I’m no Tony Hawk and pushing a board isn’t appealing to me for longer distances.

For a while I was intrigued by the idea of a Segway, but after some examination it didn’t seem like such a hot idea. Segways cost upwards of $6,000 and even with folding handles they would take up much more space than we have available. Getting three (one for each member of the family) would be a cool $18k.  Not happening.

ninebot-mini-pro-noirThen the self-balancing craze hit.  Suddenly we had hoverboards, electric unicycles, mini-Segways, and one-wheeled skateboards, all of which are electrically powered and rechargeable. I got interested again, and checked them all out.

It turns out that hoverboards are not really practical transportation; they’re slow and can’t handle much terrain.  Mini-Segways (including those made by Ninebot, pictured at right) are much better but not fast enough for me.  Those are kind of like the original Segways but instead of a handle you get a shorter brace that you steer with your knees.  The big advantage is that they’re a tenth of the cost.

pedego-interceptor-electric-bicycleElectric bikes are coming up in popularity too, and I think these have a great future. If you haven’t checked them out lately, you should. The late model e-bikes can be pedaled like regular bicycles, they aren’t particularly heavy, and they can go great distances at speeds up to 20 MPH.  One manufacturer, Pedego, will be at Alumapalooza 8 this year to show their e-bikes. Don DiCostanzo, CEO of the company, will be there in person to talk to everyone and let you test ride one.  That should be fun.

L6-White-ObliqueThe downside of the e-bikes is that they get kind of pricey, running $2,000+ for good ones. Also, unless it’s a folding e-bike you’ll need a bike rack or truck bed carrier.

A much less expensive and more portable “last mile” alternative for Airstreamers is an electric scooter.  These look kind of like the kick-scooters that kids often ride, but they are entirely self-propelled by an electric motor. The good ones are definitely not kid toys; these suckers can propel an adult for up to 25 miles.

At well under $1k the scooters have a lot to offer: plenty of range, speeds up to 15.5 MPH, easy to ride, and they fold down to fit in a small space (so you don’t need a bike rack). You just unfold it, stand on it, and press the button to get going.

I like these scooters so much that I’ve added the best electric scooter I could find to the Airstream Life Store. I’ll be bringing one to Alumapalooza 8 this May for demo rides, and I think people will be surprised at how handy and portable they are.

V5F-RSPersonally, I enjoy an electric unicycle.  I know, it sounds insane, but they really are strangely practical—if you can get past the learning curve. They’re light (about 25-30 pounds) and very portable. Wearing a backpack I can carry around a fair bit of stuff while riding one. Dirt, grass, and bumpy asphalt are no problem for a skilled rider. They’re ideal for short, quick trips or lengthier urban explorations (video). My electric unicycle can carry me over 12 miles at up to 15.5 MPH, which is about as far and fast as I want to go on this mode of transit.

The downside of the electric unicycle (or EUC) is that you can get injured pretty easily by falling off. So it’s not for everyone.  I wear full protective gear like most skateboarders on every ride: helmet, elbow pads, knee pads, and wrist guards. Sometimes I wear a motorcycle hoody that incorporates shoulder and back protection as well.

Of course, this sort of thing is of limited utility if only one member of the family is willing to use it. So I gave Emma a shot at it and being a young person with a highly flexible brain she picked it up very quickly—three lessons—and a few days later she was riding over bumps and around corners with shocking ease.

Eleanor has decided she’s more interested in riding the scooter. That’s great, each of us have our favorite electric “last mile” vehicle and they all fit in the car easily. At the end of a long day of towing we can zip away on short errands instead of having to unhitch. If we are staying just one night in a campsite, I am always grateful to not have to unhitch.

Recognizing that there is no perfect “last mile” solution for everyone, I’m wondering what others will do in the future. Most people will of course continue to drive everywhere, but will any significant number also start to adopt something electrically-powered?

I hope so.  Not only will this help with traffic congestion and air pollution, but electric vehicles also are silent and help keep campgrounds peaceful. Bicycling or unicycling takes you out of your personal aquarium so you can meet more people, smell the flowers, and feel the sunshine. (Of course, walking does too, and it’s completely free.)

I’d like to do an article about this topic in a future issue of Airstream Life magazine. So if you’ve got something to add (photos, personal experiences, ideas, referrals to other people) please let me know.  That would be cool of you.

(Also, if you want to learn to ride an EUC and are coming to Alumapalooza 8, let me know and I’ll try to arrange a couple of lessons for you.)