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.)

Why I became a DIY mechanic

We’ve had our Mercedes GL320 for nearly eight years now, and it has accumulated about 130,000 miles to date. For the most part it has been a good choice for us but as it ages I am faced with a harsh decision.  That decision is whether to continue paying Mercedes repair shops exorbitant amounts of money to keep the GL320 on the road, or to start the ownership process over again with something new.

Anza Borrego GL 2014-01

I’m not really crazy about the idea of buying a new tow vehicle. The GL is in excellent shape overall (thanks to lots of new parts and meticulous maintenance), and let’s face it, tow vehicles are expensive.

But neither am I crazy about our tours of America becoming tours of Mercedes service centers.  This summer we were forced to visit dealership service centers in Pennsylvania, Washington, Oregon, and California, and that’s a reminder to me that the trusty steed is no longer a youngster.

For now I’m choosing a third option: Do-It-Yourself (DIY). It’s impractical for me to do large repairs on the road but while we are parked at home base over the winter I have the opportunity to do routine maintenance and certain repairs in the driveway. The Mercedes “Service B” interval costs about $500-700 when done at a dealership; last winter I did it myself for about $150.  In October I replaced the rear brakes for about $220 in parts and supplies, which was about 1/3 what the dealer would charge.

Not only is DIY a big savings but it is an interesting opportunity for personal growth. For most of my life I would have described myself as “not mechanically inclined.” That was my father’s special ability, not mine. But entering the world of Airstreaming gradually forced me to pay attention to how things worked, and ask questions, and acquire tools & skills.

It has been frustrating at times. There have been many times when I would never have persevered without the support and advice of friends like Nick, Colin, Brett, and Super Terry. When a vital part slipped from my fingers and disappeared, when I accidentally cross-threaded a bolt in the engine block, when I mis-wired something and blew up part of a circuit board, when the wheels literally came off the Airstream … all those times when it seemed there was absolutely no hope and I was about to drown in self-doubt or confusion, my friends have been there to help me get perspective.

One of the places where I buy parts, Mercedessource.com, provides a single Lemonhead candy in many of their parts kits. This is so you can “seek the wisdom of the Lemonhead” when things get difficult. In other words, step away from the problem for a while. In those moments of frustration when things seem bleakest it’s extraordinarily helpful to simply stop working and let your emotional chemicals subside. I usually go seek advice from friends or reliable documentation for a while. Eventually the path forward becomes clear—and the problem that seemed so utterly impossible before gets resolved.

Over the past ten years this learning process has been so empowering for me that it has literally changed my life. I’m still cautious about tackling new mechanical or electrical things (because the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know) but the knowledge and confidence I have gained has led me to things like:

I look back on those accomplishments with amazement, because ten years ago I would never have seen myself doing any of those things. If you’re thinking the same about yourself, well, don’t sell yourself short.  You can learn anything.

And it feels great to have more self-sufficiency.  Most of us are constant victims of our modern “disposable” consumer products system.  The system says that more durable items (appliances, vehicles) must be serviced only by a qualified technician, and like our semi-broken healthcare system, you aren’t allowed to question the cost.

Well, that’s baloney. Sure, I can’t DIY every car repair. I don’t have all the tools or all of the abilities. The dealership service centers are still collecting their toll from me every year. But we can all push back on the system a little, empower ourselves, reduce inconvenience, and avoid being chumps if we bother to understand how things work and take some time to do what we can by ourselves.

I almost lost my resolve over the latest car issue.  The “Check Engine” light had popped on again, this time indicating a failure in the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) treatment system.  The dealer quoted $2,400 to fix this problem and (on top of several other expensive repairs earlier in the year) that was enough to make me seriously consider pitching the car in a river and signing up for a new car loan.

A technical aside here: DEF is a fluid that gets injected into the exhaust stream to combine with nitrogen oxides chemically to produce much cleaner exhaust.  The output turns into water vapor and free nitrogen. Mercedes calls DEF “Adblue” when they are feeling romantic (e.g., selling cars) and they call it “reductant” when they are feeling technical.  Whatever, it’s all the same thing: a mixture of dionized water and 32.5% urea.

The problem with this stuff is that it freezes when it gets below 12 degrees F, and it crystallizes if exposed to the open air. So to comply with Federal emissions requirements which say that the system must work under all conditions, Bosch designed a fancy system that keeps the DEF warm and sealed. Then they sold this system to a bunch of car manufacturers.

While I’m all for clean air, the DEF system has been a hassle. We’ve had nearly a dozen incidences of “Check Engine” lights attributable to this system over the past eight years, requiring numerous overnight stays at the dealership while the engineers back in Germany huddled together to figure out yet another software update or component upgrade. The frequency of these problems has not decreased with time.  In fact, this summer we had to stop in Pennsylvania to replace a failing NOx (nitrogen oxides) sensor for $600, so this the second emissions-related Check Engine light this year.

When the Mercedes service center said it would be $2,400 for a new DEF tank heater, I began to weaken. It seemed to be too complex a job for me to tackle. Perhaps it would be a good idea to start over with a new car warranty (and massive new car payment).  My doubt began to grow. Then I did a little research and was reminded:

  • trade-in or resale value of our existing car would be ridiculously low.  I wouldn’t sell it for the going rate of about $13,000—it’s still a nice car!
  • the new diesel I’d want is temporarily off the market thanks to fallout from the VW/Audi scandal.  All the manufacturers are being very cautious right now.
  • if I could get a few more years out of the GL, there might be interesting electric vehicle options.  The electric car industry is rocketing forward and it’s not unrealistic to expect major developments in the next 5 years. Then I’d be free of these nightmarish emission-control systems and “Check Engine” lights.

With that bit of Lemonhead perspective, I dug in to the expensive repair I’d been told was needed.  It turns out that the service center solution for a failing DEF tank heater is to replace the entire tank, pump, heater, and temperature sensor as a single unit. The heater is not offered as a single replacement part.

I can see why they do that. Removing the whole thing is a pretty easy job, taking about 60-90 minutes.  Drain the tank, remove eight bolts, disconnect a few wires and a hose, then pull the tank out and swap in a new one.  A dealership technician can do that quickly and not worry about the customer coming back for another problem in the same system, since everything has been replaced. And happy-happy-joy-joy, the dealer makes a pile of money charging $1,800 for the tank and about $600 for labor and supplies.

Adblue tank connections

On the other hand, replacing the heater alone is cheaper but requires some additional work for disassembly, a few more tools, soldering, etc.  That’s the kind of thing I can do myself if it saves a pile of money. I found a company that sells an upgraded version of the tank heater for $300, and with some help from Nick, installed it in a few hours. Eleanor helped me re-assemble the car afterward. Bottom line: The “Check Engine” light is off and all is well.

It’s funny how the elimination of that little fault indicator can suddenly make the car seem like new again. Having the satisfaction of fixing it myself (and saving a pile of cash) makes it even better. I took the GL out for a test drive and everything is humming along just as it should.  Now I’m perfectly happy with the GL—why was I ever considering selling it for a pittance and taking on a massive debt load?

Anza Borrego GL and Caravel 2014-01

In the next week or so I’m going to tackle a major Airstream electrical upgrade with my friend Nate. It’s the kind of thing that an electrician could do for $500 or so, but by doing it myself I know it will be done exactly the way I want—and once again I’ll probably learn a few things (from Nate) in the process.  You can read about it here soon.

An existential crisis for the Mercedes GL

When I bought the Mercedes GL320 in 2009 to be our new tow vehicle, I knew I was taking a big risk.  At $66,000 (out the door, tax included), it was almost double the price of the most expensive vehicle we’d ever purchased.  Mercedes has a reputation for expensive repairs and maintenance, and their dealer service network is small compared to just about any other brand.

The justification for taking this risk is complicated, but the major factor was the diesel powertrain.  At the time, only the European brands (Audi/VW, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover) offered diesel SUVs, and they rack up impressive performance stats.  In 2009 when we made this purchase, we were planning on many more years of Airstream travel, so it made some sense to invest for the long term. I felt confident the Mercedes 3.0 liter turbodiesel could last for hundreds of thousands of miles while carting as many as 7 people in comfort and delivering fuel economy (not towing) in the upper 30s.

airstream-mercedes-mountain-pass

In the past decade the European diesels have also been impressive for their emissions improvements and quietness. I can start my diesel dead cold in the morning at a campground and hardly anyone will even notice the sound, while the exhaust is scarcely more offensive than baby’s breath.

north-cascades-np-towing-airstream

That’s all very nice, but there is one thing that a tow vehicle must be able to do to justify its existence: tow.  Our GL320, despite having 127,500 miles on it, has done as good a job of that as it ever has—until this week. One tiny problem this week managed to cripple it, rendering the GL entirely worthless as a tow vehicle.

We had a gentle rain on our last night at Beachside State Park on the Oregon coast.  Over a period of hours, a drop or two of water managed to work past the gasket on the right rear taillight, wick through some insulation on the inside, and drip down to a black plastic cover below.  This cover has thin vent slits in it because it houses a very expensive electronic device called a “Signal Acquisition Module” (SAM).

The water dripped through the vent slits and down to the exposed circuit board inside.  When the SAM gets wet, it behaves like any other electronic device when wet: it malfunctions spectacularly.  This SAM happens to control most of the functions in the rear of the vehicle, including trailer lights and brakes. Just one tiny drop of water in the right spot means no trailer lights or brakes.

This has been a recurring problem.  It first cropped up in February 2015 at Alumafiesta after a heavy rain, with the symptoms being taillights that didn’t work for a few hours. I didn’t find the cause until May 2015 at Alumapalooza when it happened again.  I dried the computer with a hair dryer and took it to a northestern Mercedes dealer in June.  The dealer service tech glopped everything up with black sealant and pronounced it fixed, which it wasn’t.

Water hit the SAM again in January 2016, so I dried it again and took the car to another Mercedes dealer (this time in the southwest) and they replaced the right taillight, noting this the leak was a known problem. They said the magic words that they say every time I have to buy an expensive replacement part: “This is an upgraded design, so it won’t have that problem again.”

That was a nice warm and fuzzy thought, but three weeks later the SAM decided it had suffered enough from the prior repeated water intrusions, and it died without warning—while towing in downtown Castro Valley, CA.  Imagine the fun: suddenly, no brakes and no lights on a 7,500 pound trailer in heavy traffic.

This time the hair dryer trick wasn’t going to work.  I had to tow the Airstream through city traffic for a mile with no brakes, signals, or lights to a Walgreen’s parking lot large enough to dump it.  Then I had to convince the manager of the pharmacy to let me leave the Airstream overnight.  Then I had to find a Mercedes dealer and pray that they had the part I needed—on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately Mercedes Benz of Pleasanton had the part and installed it the same day, for $1,300.

All was well until last week, when mysteriously the upgraded taillight assembly let in just a couple of drips during an Oregon sprinkle, and our expensive new SAM got wet for the first time.  You can imagine my reaction when I got into the car and the dash lit up with five warning messages—and of course, no trailer brakes.

After I ranted for a while, Eleanor and I got to work.  About 45 minutes of the hair dryer treatment got everything working except the left turn signal and taillight.  We decided to start towing toward Eugene OR (nearest dealer location).  Two hours later the left turn signal began working again.

In Eugene I had a friendly chat with the service tech, in which I explained that intermittent lack of brakes and lights means the car can’t tow. That triggers what I would call an existential crisis for the Mercedes GL320.  If it can’t tow reliably after a light rain, I can’t use it. He understood the conundrum, but had little to offer other than tearing apart the interior of the car to look for other possible leak points—at $140 per hour, my expense.

I talked with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV about possible replacement vehicles. Andy has been a very reliable source of information over the years, despite his tendency to terrify Americans with his non-truck towing suggestions. He listed the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and the new Durango (based on the Mercedes platform) as possible replacements, but pointed out that my GL has relatively little trade-in value.

Worse, there are no suitable new diesel SUVs available.  VW screwed us all on that one. Friends at Mercedes dealerships have told me that Mercedes has quietly suspended shipments of new diesel SUVs to the US. Audi and VW of course are out of the question, and BMW’s X5 might be available but it’s too small for us.

So we’ve taken the path of least resistance. The taillight assembly has been replaced again but I’ll never trust it.  We are going to rig up a plastic shield over the SAM to block the water droplets. It’s a low tech, easy fix that will probably work just fine for the life of the car.

And, despite my momentary lapse of confidence, I think we’ll stick with the GL.  Hopefully the SAM will survive this one episode of water intrusion. To be sure I’ll test it a week or two before every trip. I still want to see the odometer turn over 200,000 miles before we re-consider getting rid of it, and more miles would be nice.

On balance the car has been everything I hoped it would be: a comfortable, confident driving, capable tow vehicle. It’s amazing to me how something so small—a drop of water— can entirely destroy the practical value of the car.

[Nerd Alert]  I’m reminded of that scene in “The Fifth Element” when the evil Zorg chokes on a cherry and Father Vito Cornelius says, “There, you see how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing now, how your entire empire can come crashing down because of one little cherry.” [/Nerd Alert]  We live by a tenuous thread all the time, and little moments like this make that thread briefly visible.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to keep on towin’. We’re heading to the California redwoods next.

Our tow vehicle repair budget, 2014-2015

People ask me all the time about our experience with the Mercedes GL320 as a tow vehicle.  I think half the people who ask truly want to know if they should consider it for themselves, and the other half are hoping I’ll admit that I really can’t tow my Airstream with anything less than a 3/4 ton truck.  I probably disappoint a lot of people, because I tell the first group the brutal truth about the cost of Mercedes parts and service, and I tell the other half that it has done just fine towing “that big Airstream” for over six years.

It’s time for an update.  The Mercedes now has 107,000 miles.  Probably 80% of those miles were traveled with our 30-foot Airstream Safari in tow, so we’ve certainly worked the Merc as much as we can.

When I bought this car back in 2009 I said it had better give me 250,000 miles of service or I’ve made a big mistake.  To date, I’m encouraged. It hasn’t been amazingly more or less reliable than our previous Nissan Armada, but overall it hasn’t been terrible. There were far too many instances of “Check Engine” lights a few years ago, but all the bugs seem to have been worked out and lately our visits to the dealer have been either routine maintenance or other repairs that are associated with high mileage or age.

The warranty is long gone now, as is the extended warranty.  I pay for all the repairs, so I’m watching the expenses carefully. Here’s what it has consumed (other than routine maintenance like tires and battery) since 2013:

June 2014: Blower motor (for climate control fan) wouldn’t shut off. It was corroded and had shorted out. Replaced at a cost of $539.  Mercedes parts ain’t cheap.

July 2014: The air conditioner had been intermittently failing for years.  It finally got bad enough to replace the compressor, at a cost of $1,289.  Ouch.

October 2014: I tried a shadetree mechanic to save a few bucks on replacing the rear shocks (worn out), right front lower control arm and engine mounts. He screwed it up by failing to tighten a nut on the wheel hub, resulting in a destroyed hub bearing assembly. He also couldn’t get the left engine mount in, so he handed me the part and said, “It’s OK, the right one usually wears out first anyway.” Later I discovered he’d left a wrench under the third row seats, which jammed them until one day the wrench rolled out.

The car ended up at the dealership to finish/correct the work.  Between the hack mechanic and the dealer, the total cost for this debacle was about $3,500 in parts and labor. That included a lot of parts, but still, double ouch. I kept the wrench.

February 2015: The front air struts finally began to leak. This is pretty typical around 100k miles on these cars, sooner if they are driven in the city a lot. Front struts were about $2,000 installed. The rears should be good for a while longer, since they get less stress. We also replaced the battery for the first time.

June 2015: I noticed some weird electrical symptoms following a big rain at Alumapalooza, and went hunting. Sure enough, there was a rain leak around the brake lights that was letting water drip on to one of the very expensive computers that run the car (called a “rear Signal Acquisition Module”). I dried it out and protected the area with a towel until we could get it to the dealership for leak testing and repair.  The tech found two leaks and fixed them at a cost of $247.  Fortunately, the rear SAM survived.

September 2015: During routine service the techs discovered the front propeller shaft (part of the all wheel drive system) had a torn boot and was leaking grease.  There was also an oil leak from the engine.  The oil leak was fixed by replacing two missing screws, but the propeller shaft had to be entirely replaced.  $1,300 for both jobs.

We also finally had to replace the front brakes. They were original brakes!  Normally on a GL most people get about 35,000-45,000 miles, so the Service Advisor did a double-take when he saw we had 107,000 miles on the car. It’s because of the towing, actually.  The Airstream’s excellent disc brakes do most of the work, saving the expensive Mercedes brakes. The dealer price for the front brakes was $551.

OK, so are you falling over with sticker shock or not? The reality of traveling as much as we do and maintaining this car to a high standard is that there’s a definite cost. We spent $5,328 on repairs in 2014, and $4,098 in 2015 (so far), not counting tires, oil changes, battery, etc. That’s over about 17,000 miles of travel, or about $0.55 per mile. It’s a high number but keep in mind we work this machine hard.

Also, the car is paid for, and we like it. Having no monthly payment compensates for a lot of repairs. Realistically, I couldn’t replace the GL320 with anything comparable or more reliable for what we spend on repairs currently*, so economically it makes sense to stick with it.

* For reference, our current repair budget is equivalent to the payment on a $22,000 vehicle financed at 4% for five years.

For me, the key factor is overall reliability. While the car has spent some time in the shop getting replacement parts, those have been planned services. It has never failed us on the road. That’s my personal Rubicon to cross; if the car fails to get us where we are going, I’ll take it out behind the barn and shoot it.  I don’t mind maintenance and replacing worn parts as long as it continues to perform as good as new, but becoming unpredictable and unreliable would put an end to our friendly relationship.

Interestingly, none of the repairs we have had in the first 100,000 miles can be attributed to the “stress of towing.”  A lot of armchair/Internet experts will claim that towing is terribly hard on a vehicle. Our experience has been the opposite. All the highway miles have only lengthened the time certain parts have lasted (front struts and front brakes in particular), and we have had no repairs that can be attributed to towing.

The engine and transmission have yet to show any significant problems at all despite pulling a trailer that typically weighs about 98% of the manufacturer’s suggested tow rating. I have gained a lot of confidence in Mercedes’ design for this V6 Turbodiesel engine. It will probably be the last thing to fail.

I do expect we’ll probably be buying rear air struts and front suspension components in 2016 just due to age and miles, so the budget for annual maintenance will likely stay around $4,000-5,000.  If it gets substantially higher, I’ll start thinking about options for replacement. But for now I’m still aiming to hit 250,000 miles.

A Grand Tour

I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time—and wondering if we could really pull it off.

It started on Saturday, when I was in Vermont after the 6-day motorcycle trip to the Adirondacks. I only had a couple of days to catch up on work and re-pack for a trip out west. From Sunday morning on, I had the singular experience of waking up somewhere and knowing that I would be going to bed somewhere entirely different that night.

In the Airstream, this is fun. You can roam where you want, knowing that each night you will end up in your comfortable rolling home and familiar bed. But when the travel involves airlines and hotel rooms, the charm tends to slip away quickly.

It began on Saturday night when Eleanor and I relocated to an airport motel, so that on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m. she could take me to catch a flight from Vermont to New York City, and onward to Sacramento CA.  I met Brett at the airport in Sacramento, to drive around California’s beautiful countryside. (We were scouting a site for Alumafandango 2016, and things went very well. We’ll have an announcement about that in July.) That night we split a room at some nondescript motel off Rt 49, in an area of California that was once known for gold mining, and now is known for wineries. That was our 27-hour Day One.

Monday morning we scouted some more, visited the state capitol, and caught a late flight to Tucson, getting in around midnight. We settled into my house for the night. That was Day Two.

Tuesday morning we picked up a shiny new Airstream Interstate Grand Tour on loan from Airstream, at the local dealership (Lazydays), loaded it up with about 100 pounds of gear and food (much of which Eleanor had set out for us a month ago) and launched immediately toward Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. We spent that night at Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low.  Day Three.

Now I have to say that the Airstream Interstate was a fantastic relief after jet planes and motel rooms. Not only could we slow down our pace of travel, but it meant that for a while we could sleep in a bed more than once. The Airstream, stocked with our food and gear, could be our home.

Airstream Interstate in AZ

And what a glamorous home it is.  The new Grand Tour floorplan of the Interstate is a big improvement for those who want more of a traditional RV. Bigger kitchen, double the fridge/freezer space, much more storage, permanent beds, a nice little desk, and many other small pleasantries make it really usable. If you read my blogs from last summer when I tried out a regular Interstate, you know I liked driving it, and the Grand Tour retains that fine handling and ride (and an incredible list of safety features).

Airstream Interstate Salt River canyonWhen Brett and travel together there’s always a little bit of a battle over who gets to drive, and with the Interstate there was no question we both wanted the wheel as much as possible. I had picked the most scenic route I could on our northward journey, from Tucson to Globe, and then up to the beautiful Salt River Canyon, and finally up the Mogollon Rim to Show Low where the pine trees are tall and the summer air is much cooler than the low desert below. Even when we were gaping at the scenery deep in the Salt River Canyon, Brett wanted to keep the driver’s seat rather than give it up to get a better view.

We averaged about 15.5 MPG on that trip, which is pretty impressive for a 25-foot long motorhome on a hilly climb that eventually ended well over 6,000 ft. Or at least we thought that was good until the next day when we averaged 18 MPG on more level terrain through the Navajo nation in northern Arizona.

The goal for this leg was Navajo National Monument, a less-visited national park near Kayenta AZ.  We first visited as a family on 2008, and hiked 5 miles roundtrip to the impressive Betatakin cliff dwelling. Ever since that trip, I’ve wanted to go back to visit the even-more-impressive Keet Seel cliff dwellings, and this trip was finally my chance.

You don’t just pop in and hike to Keet Seel. The trip requires a permit from the park, a mandatory orientation by a ranger, good gear, and some stamina. It’s an 18 mile round-trip on foot if you do it right, and considerably longer if you miss a turn in the canyons. (More on that later.) So you can see that getting to this point was the product of planning we’d done months in advance.

The Interstate turned out to be an ideal base camp for this trip.  We parked in a canyon view site (in the Navajo Nat’l Monument campground, which is free, no hookups), and spent the evening checking our gear and eating dinner outside with a spectacular view of the sunset on the red Navajo Sandstone. One nice thing about the Interstate is that it fits in places a travel trailer couldn’t go, and there’s virtually no setup after arriving. We just pushed the electric awning button and slid open the big side door.

Airstream Interstate Navajo National Monument

And that was Day Four.  Funny how the days seemed to be much more filled with adventure and camaraderie now that we were traveling at about 50 MPH instead of 500.

The next morning we hoisted our packs, loaded with about 30 pounds of gear and water each, and walked right from the door of the Airstream down a dusty road and began our descent into the canyons …

Keet Seel deserves its own blog entry, so I’ll write more about that in the next day. Stay tuned.