Classification: kittens for sale

A friend called Eleanor the other day and noted that the blog was quiet.  When that happens, she said, either Rich is working on projects he can’t talk about (yet) or there’s not much happening.  Turns out that it’s a little bit of both lately.

Home life has been quiet … so quiet in fact that our major form of entertainment has been the foster kittens. They have kept us entertained day and night, even at times when we’d prefer they were sleeping.  They arrived here underweight and left today, three weeks later, each nearly a pound heavier and in peak form to be adopted.

It’s a shame to let them go back to the Humane Society when they are so darned adorable, but they need homes.  We’ve done what we can to bring out their natural irresistible cuteness, and make them completely comfortable with people and typical household life.  As I told them at today’s graduation ceremony, “Boys, the rest is up to you.”  They seemed prepared for the task.  We’ll get a new kitten or two shortly, and begin the process anew.

Meanwhile I have fulfilled my pledge to do something about the spare tire issue.  This turned out to be fairly easy.  I ordered a fifth tire from Discount Tire to match the four new Bridgestones that are on the car, and they mounted it up last week.  The only catch was that the tires for the Mercedes are a lot bigger than the ones for the Airstream, so it wouldn’t fit in the spare carrier on the Airstream without some modification.  The Merc tire is about two inches wider and 2-3 inches larger in diameter.

So the first step was to do some careful measuring to confirm that the larger tire would fit in the Airstream’s belly recess.  It seemed like there was plenty of room in there, almost as if Airstream had foreseen this situation.

The spare carrier comes off easily, with just two bolts toward the rear holding it in place.  A 3/4″ socket and a short extension on a ratchet wrench are all you need.  Well, that plus a little elbow grease.  Once it was off, I loaded it up along with both the Airstream and Mercedes wheels, and took the whole pile to my favorite welding shop.

The modification was fairly simple.  The two bolt attachments needed to be extended by about two inches so that the entire carrier would hang lower.  This would allow the bigger spare to fit and yet still be pressed tightly up against the belly of the Airstream so it wouldn’t move.

I also asked the welding shop to figure a way that I could go back to carrying the smaller Airstream spare if I wanted to.  You can see their solution above.  They simply bolted on a pair of height extensions, welded on new outboard “arms” to accommodate the larger diameter, and fabricated a new latch with two holes.

If I wanted to go back to the Airstream spare, it would be just a matter of unbolting the two extensions, and using the lower hole on the latch for the locking pin.  The tension of the tire pressed up against the belly of the trailer will keep the tire from shifting much.

The new spare was a tighter fit than I had expected. While there was plenty of room in the recess, I had failed to consider the process of getting the tire under the Airstream.  The struts of the Hensley partially block the path, and there’s not quite enough clearance to slide the tire atop the carrier and beneath the battery box.  To get it in, I have to wind the Hensley strut jacks up into towing position (not a problem since that’s where they’d be anyway), and I have to use the trailer’s power hitch to lift the nose about 2-3 inches.  It’s also a much heavier wheel to deal with, so pulling this thing out on a rainy day by the side of a muddy highway will not be much fun.

Once it’s in place, there’s plenty of ground clearance.  The tire still hangs above the height of the hitch weight transfer bars.

This amounts to a very expensive spare tire.  I bought the Mercedes 20″ rim from a guy in California for $300 (new ones cost about $900!), the tire was about $250, and the fabrication work ended up at $125, for a grand total of $675.  But it will get used, because we need to do a five-wheel tire rotation every 10,000 miles (to keep all five tires evenly worn), so I’ll get my value out of the tire at least.

And it’s nice to know we have it.  Now if we have a tire failure on the tow vehicle, we can still drive. If we have a tire failure on the Airstream, we can tow on three wheels or unhitch to go get a replacement Airstream tire.  We have better options.  If we ever decide to go to Alaska or Newfoundland, we can still throw the (smaller) Airstream spare into the back of the car for added insurance.

OK, enough about that.  I hope to not need to write about tires again for quite a long time.  I want to talk about another project, the new Airstream Life Classifieds section.

Places to list your Airstream for sale are everywhere on the Internet.  I used to maintain a list of them that ran to about thirty different sites, all free.  But once in a while I get a call from someone who has a special, rare, or high-value trailer, and they want to see that ad in print, in Airstream Life.  We’ve never been able to accommodate this, but I’ve finally set up a site where you can post your ad online and have it appear in the next issue of the magazine.

So it’s in a trial mode right now.  (I’m sorry, that’s not cool enough for the Internet.  I’d better say it’s “in beta” instead.)  You can try it out right now at classified.airstreamlife.com.  Online-only ads are free, and print ads cost $75.  But here’s the sweetener: since this is the first run, you can actually get a print ad for free.  When you fill out the ad form, at the bottom of the page will be an option box that says “Ad Package”. Choose the “Print ad in Airstream Life magazine” option and just below that, enter the coupon code FREE_ASL_AD and your ad will appear in the Winter 2012 issue for free!

 

Now, I do have to put in a few limitations.  Only one free ad per customer, and all ads must be submitted no later than October 5 to receive this deal.  If I don’t get enough ads to launch the section, this offer will be void (but your ad will still run online for free).

I’m interested in your feedback.  If you’ve tried it out and have some comments that might help improve it, let me know with a comment on this blog post.  If it works and people find it valuable, I’ll make it a formal part of the magazine going forward.  It’s up to the community.  Personally, I think that even in an era of Internet everywhere, there’s a certain credibility that you can only get from print, so I’m hoping that we get some interesting Airstreams in this section.

Tired again

Yesterday, (Sunday of Labor Day weekend) we were 550 miles from home and needed to get a jump on our southward trek in order to make appointments set for Tuesday in Tucson.  But before we headed out this morning we took another crack at the Slickrock Foot trail because we’d been shut out the day before by thunderstorms.

We managed to cover the entire 2.4 mile trail in about 90 minutes, and it was well worth the effort.  We got some of the best views yet of the Needles rock formations that give this district of Canyonlands its name, and several dramatic overlooks into canyons near the Green River. Still, when we got back to the campsite we discovered we were late to depart, since checkout time for Squaw Flat is quite early at 10 a.m. Usually checkout is at noon.  Hustling everything together, we managed to clear out and be on the road about 15 minutes after getting back to the site.

On the way in or out of the Needles you will pass the Newspaper Rock State Historic Site.  There are actually several “newspaper rocks” in the southwest, including one at Canyon de Chelly that we’ve visited before.  They are simply large flat areas of sandstone covered with centuries of desert varnish and riddled with dozens of petroglyphs.  We’ve seen a lot of petroglyphs but these were still remarkable for their clarity and descriptiveness.  In some cases it’s anyone’s guess what a petroglyph means, while others are perfectly understandable as drawings of commonplace animals, events, and humans.  Take a closer look at the photo and decide for yourself what centuries of rock artists were trying to convey.

Other than that, our drive for the rest of the day was uneventful, the way you want things to be when you are hauling a trailer long distances.  We made a quick stop in Blanding to dump the tanks and refill the fresh water, and encountered some thunderstorms as we drove through the vast Navajo Nation in northwestern Arizona.  It was still raining when we pulled into the Bonito (Coconino National Forest) campground next to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument just north of Flagstaff AZ that evening.

This was to be our last night on the road, so we had let some supplies dwindle away, including milk and most fresh vegetables. Eleanor made a salad of what was left, and spaghetti with meatballs, and we settled in for the evening while the temperatures outside dropped into the low 50s.  I was thinking how novel it would be to need blankets on the bed at night for this one night, before returning to the desert heat on Monday.  And it was indeed a pleasantly chilly night.

But our plan to make Tucson on Monday was foiled.  We left early and were descending down the 6% grade about 50 miles south of Flagstaff when suddenly we began to hear a “thwap-thwap-thwap” noise.  That’s never a good sound.  Neither the trailer’s nor the Mercedes tire monitor reported any loss of air pressure, so I was fairly sure it wasn’t a blowout. Still, it had to be investigated immediately.  Traffic was heavy, but I managed to get the Airstream off to the breakdown lane within a half mile and from there Eleanor and I searched for causes.

We didn’t find anything. The Airstream was secure, the car looked perfect, and yet … upon driving away, the sound returned.  I took the next exit and found a dirt lot where we could search further.  Eventually we found the cause: a 1″ wide strip on the inner edge of the right rear tire of the Mercedes had neatly peeled off. In other words, we had a tread separation.

This is a sadly familiar situation.  We had numerous tread separations when we were running various brands of ST (Special Trailer) tires on the Airstream, but that problem was resolved when we switched to Michelin LTX Light Truck tires.  (They still look like new, by the way, with hardly any visible wear after 21,000 miles!)  But I hadn’t expected to suffer this type of failure on the Mercedes.

We’re running the factory-specified tires on the Merc, which are Goodyear Eagle 275/50 R20 RunOnFlats.  Our first set was replaced at 34,000 miles, which I was told is “pretty good wear” thanks to the highway miles we tend to cover.  The current set has 32,000 miles and I had already made some inquiries about replacements since I figured they had only about 2,000 miles left in them.  All of the tires have tread above the wear bar indicators, have been rotated regularly and kept at proper inflation, and are evenly worn, but the one that failed definitely has a little less tread than the others.  That doesn’t excuse the failure—it simply should not happen with usable tread still on the tires, even with the added load of towing. I’ll be looking for a different brand this time.

So let’s look at our situation:  (1)  Tread separation while towing and we have no spare tire (this car comes with Run Flats and no spare carrier).  (2) It’s Labor Day, so there are no open tire stores.  (3) We’re in a part of northern Arizona where there are few services and no alternate roads to the busy 75-MPH Interstate.  (4) Our car takes an odd size tire so a call to Roadside Assistance probably wouldn’t be helpful.  The tire will have to be ordered.  In short, we found ourselves in the “nightmare scenario” that made me hesitate when I first bought this car.

Although the tire was holding air, there was no way it was going to be safe for another 200 miles at Interstate speeds and in desert heat.  Our conclusion was to find a place to park for a night or two, and wait until a set of proper tires could be ordered in.  So we pulled up the Allstays app on the iPhone and found a nice RV park in nearby Camp Verde AZ, and gingerly towed the Airstream at reduced speeds another 16 miles down the Interstate to our safe haven.

My plan is to call the tire stores first thing tomorrow and order in what we need, with the hope of getting back on the road by Wednesday afternoon.  Prescott AZ is nearby, with plenty of choices, so I’ll be over there tomorrow once someone tells me they can get us five appropriate tires.  I say “five” because I have a spare Mercedes rim back at home, and one tire will be mounted on it.  The spare will go in the Airstream’s tire carrier, replacing the Airstream spare.  Since we switched to Michelin LTX tires on the Airstream two years ago (in other words, real tires instead of that ST-class junk the industry favors), we haven’t had a single puncture or failure, so I don’t mind not carrying a spare for the Airstream.  Besides, the Airstream can be towed on three wheels, and the car can’t.

And so our trip has been involuntarily extended.  Things could be worse.  We’ve got a friend to visit in Prescott.  I’m working on the Winter magazine from here, using the campground wi-fi, and we had a nice swim in the pool, and Eleanor is getting the laundry done.  When we finally do get home, we’ll be caught up on a few things, rather than coming home to a pile of work.  Other than having to reschedule appointments at home, this may turn out to be not a bad diversion.

T-minus …. and counting

It’s Tuesday morning and we’re in the final stages before departure.  These days, leaving the house resembles a NASA countdown.  The longer we settle in to the house, the harder it gets to organize everything and launch the ship.  Right now one of the Mission Control officers is running down her final checklists, while I’m about to go clear the launch pad.  Our backseat astronaut is still in Rest Mode.  I’m hoping that departure will be on schedule at about 10 a.m.

Eleanor did a bunch of curtain work in the last few days, which I’ll document later as part of the Airstream renovation.  As planned, she washed the existing curtains, then sewed new fabric over them with extra width so that they’d close more easily. They look much better and give better privacy at night.  She also added some new elastic tabs to some, where the factory had scrimped a little too much.

I probably never mentioned this before, but our Mercedes GL320 gets about 1,500 miles per gallon.  Unfortunately, that’s not the diesel fuel economy, it’s the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) I’m speaking of.  The car was serviced and the DEF tank was topped off right before we left for Alumapalooza in May.  That was about 8,400 miles ago, so the car is due for another service in 1,600 miles.  We’ll actually get back with about 2,200 miles on the car this time, so I’ll run a bit over.

To avoid the risk of running low on the DEF, I added 4.5 gallons yesterday.  The dealer will fill the DEF tank when the car goes in for the 10,000 mile service, but they charge $9 per half-gallon for DEF (which they call AdBlue) plus a service fee, which means it costs about $200 to have them fill the tank.  I buy the DEF myself for a total of about $45 for the entire tank, and pour it in myself.  When I go in for service, I make a point of telling them I already took care it.

Our biggest problem today seems to be that we have far too much refrigerated and frozen food.  Eleanor pre-cooked a lot of stuff so we’d have quick and convenient meals while we are towing and during Alumafandango.  But now she is going to have to get creative in order to get everything packed.  We may resort to temporary refrigeration using a portable cooler and some ice packs, until we’ve managed to eat down our supplies.  So I expect to be well fed for the next couple of weeks.

I plan to blog at least every other day as we are on this trip, including daily blogs from Alumafandango.  But if you are want another perspective, you might want to check out a few other bloggers who are currently on their way to Alumafandango (or will be soon).  These include:

Kyle Bolstad:  WhereIsKyleNow

Dan & Marlene: Mali Mish

Kyle & Mary: Channel Surfing With Gas

Kevin & Laura: Riveted

Deke & Tiffany:  Weaselmouth

Anna:  Glamper

 

 

Something stupid under the hood

In the last blog our trip through Colorado was just beginning.  Colorado is always interesting for the many mountain passes that offer spectacular views, dramatic climate changes, and occasionally an exploded bag of chips in the closet.  Altitude changes everything, especially in a rolling house.  For example, we’ve learned over the years to be very careful when opening toothpaste after a tow up to higher altitude, as an air bubble in the container can result in you ending up with a lot more toothpaste than you needed at the moment.

This trip was uneventful except for a strange loss of power when climbing, and another Check Engine light on the car as we approached the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70.  We were at 11,000 feet, but since the car is a turbodiesel the altitude should not have affected the power quite as much as it did.  This called for an appointment at the Denver Mercedes dealer, but I also called Super Terry for a consultation once we were settled into our campground.

Super Terry suggested I look for “something stupid” under the hood, so I did and immediately discovered that one of the two cold-air intakes to the engine was disconnected.  Our home dealership had just serviced the engine last week, touching this very intake hose.  This seemed like a proverbial smoking gun, but S.T. advised having the Denver dealer check it out anyway, just to make sure the problem wasn’t something more serious.  The diagnosis turned out as I expected: the Check Engine light was caused by the disconnected air intake, which allowed hot engine air to get in where cold air was expected.  The bill for this diagnosis was $132, which I have passed on to the dealer that disconnected the line, for their careful consideration. Ahem.  [Update: they agreed to credit us the full amount against a future service.]

There was supposed to be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday evening, but clouds in Denver prevented us from seeing most of it.  A shame, as there won’t be another one in North America for many years.  We had even built a cereal-box viewer for the occasion.

But our evening was not entirely dull, as we had an unexpected visit from the Zimmer family, local owners of a 1963 Airstream Safari.  They were passing through the park and spotted our Airstream, and ended up coming in for a tour and visit.

The big point of coming to Denver was to conduct a site visit of Lakeside Amusement Park, where we will be holding Alumafandango in August.  I met up with Brett Hall of Timeless Travel Trailers and we walked every inch of the site to consider logistics such as power, parking, entry /exit points, seminar space, sewage, lighting, etc.  There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into prepping for a big event like this, and it’s doubly complicated when you are basically trying to build a campground too.  Still, it looks like we’ll be ready in time.   (By the way, there’s a new Wal-Mart going in next door but it won’t be open until November.)

One of the nice parts about walking Lakeside in the heat yesterday was the informal guided tour we got from Brett Hall.  He has been associated with the park for decades as the Consulting Engineer, and has done a lot of historical research. The place has quite a few interesting stories.  Brett will be leading guided tours of the park during Alumafandango so everyone who comes can hear the tales.

Now that the site visit is done and the car is set, we have one day to do work, household stuff, and school before we head east.  Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday will be roadtrip days either on I-80 through Nebraska or I-70 through Kansas.  That’s a drive of about 1,250 miles.  We don’t have any particular plans or stops worked out along that route, since it’s just going to be a slog if we are going to get to Ohio on schedule. I always feel badly about short-changing NE or KS when we go through in a rush, but long-time blog readers know that we did make many stops in those states back when we were full-timing.

Meanwhile, the phone is ringing like crazy lately, as people with last-minute Alumapalooza questions are popping up.  Like us, many of the attendees are already on the road, and others are packing to leave next weekend.  Everybody seems pumped, which helps us, because as close in on our big week of Alumapalooza, we can feel rising tension and excitement.  Alumapalooza is a great week but also a really tough one for those who work the event.  It feels to me like the days before the opening of a musical.  Despite all the rehearsals and planning, there’s always a fear that something might go wrong … until the moment you open the curtain and realize it’s all going to work out just fine.

Serious trip prep

You can tell we’re serious about a trip when the checklists come out.  Long ago we began compiling checklists to make our packing easier, and each spring we pull those lists out and start checking off items and updating them for current circumstances.  I don’t know how else to do it, since there are way too many things to remember to do when we’re anticipating being away from home base for months.

Our checklists have been in play for a couple of weeks now. In addition to the normal things needed for daily life in an Airstream, Eleanor is going to be doing two cooking demonstrations at Alumapalooza this year, and that means she needs to carry a lot of food ingredients.  She also has to do two separate rehearsals before we depart.

Her first presentation will be about sauces.  She will make ten different and delicious multi-purpose sauces in about 40 minutes, right in front of everyone at Alumapalooza, using an actual Airstream stove & oven.  Afterward, everyone in the audience will get a chance to taste each sauce.  I’ll have the recipes posted on the Alumapalooza website on the days of her presentations.

So we did a run-through last night in our kitchen and worked out a few small issues with the sauces, and today she’ll do another run-through in the Airstream of her second demonstration.  That one will be a full meal featuring salmon and risotto.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to wrap up projects and loose ends so that I can be on the road without too much work pressure.  The Fall issue would normally have an editorial deadline of June 1, but since I’m always at Alumapalooza at that time I ask all the writers to get me their Fall articles by May 15 or sooner.  That helps me get the bulk of the issue in hand before I’m on the road. Most of the writers have been very cooperative with that, which I appreciate.

Once we start traveling, it’s much harder to carve out enough hours to get serious work done.  On driving days I’m lucky to get three useful hours of time in front of the computer, which is sometimes just enough to keep the fires stoked at work, but at that rate I’ll gradually fall behind.  When we were full-timing it was easier; I’d just declare a “destination” and spend a few days in the Airstream getting work done. But now we’re on a schedule to get to Denver and Jackson Center, and I can’t just pull over for a few days when things get busy.

Our route is partially set, at least as far as Denver.  This time, to make the drive more interesting we’ll go up through Arizona to Flagstaff, then cut through the Navajo Nation and possibly stop at Navajo National Monument.  Our next stop is undetermined but will be somewhere between Moab UT and Grand Junction CO, I’d guess.  Our destination for this leg of the trip is Denver CO, where we will inspect the site of this year’s Alumafandango and do a little advance work.  After that we’ll continue on to Jackson Center OH with probably 3-4 short stops along the way.  As is normal for us, we aren’t making any reservations.

I’ll have to return to Tucson fairly soon after Alumapalooza is over.  I’ve got some appointments here, and I’ll need to get back to work in a serious way.  My time in the Airstream will be almost exactly one month, then probably about another month from August to September when we go to Alumafandango. But the Airstream won’t be back to home base for close to four months.

The Airstream is nearly ready for its voyage.  Most of our clothes are packed, Eleanor has worked out the food arrangements, and I’ve verified that all of the systems are in good operating condition. I need to check for a possible propane leak around the flexible hose that connects the propane bottles to the regulator (called a pigtail), which I’ll do today with a spray bottle and some soapy water. Those hoses don’t last forever, but replacing one is a simple task if needed.  [Update:  I found the leak and will be replacing both of the pigtail lines today.]  I also need to check the tires.  I’m not expecting any problems from the Michelins just because they’ve been so bulletproof over the past couple of years, so at worst I expect I might need to add a little air.

Our tow vehicle has been getting more attention lately than the Airstream.  I’ve been driving it around town to confirm that the recent repair to the urea injection system has really done the job, and it seems to be fine.  It’ll be due for an oil change and tire rotation in 2,000 miles, which means I’ll have to do it somewhere around Indiana or Ohio. I don’t really want to make that stop because the timing will be inconvenient, so I may just take it in before we leave Tucson.  (The oil change interval is every 10,000 miles on this car.)

My neighbor Mike came over Sunday morning to finally force me to do an exterior detail on the GL320.  It really needed it.  Together we washed the car, then hand-dried it, then used clay bars to pull all the contaminants out of the paint, and finally used Mike’s buffer to wax the body.  The result was fantastic, better than new.  The paint is so glossy and slick that it feels like glass.  In the process I found two dings on the body that I hadn’t noticed before.  Oh well.

The Airstream, on the other hand, is filthy on the outside.  It’s covered with dust from a winter of storage—and we have a lot of dust here.  I’m sure the solar panels won’t be generating much power until I can wash them off, but cleaning will have to wait until I can get the trailer out of the carport and over to a truck wash.  I’ve tried cleaning the trailer by hand with brushes and ladders, and since it’s 30 feet long and 10 feet tall, it takes hours.  Long ago I decided that paying $38 at the Blue Beacon was definitely my choice.

One of the more pleasant tasks of our annual departure is putting things in “vacation mode.”  That’s because it’s a huge money-saving opportunity.  It turns out that a lot of things have some form of vacation mode.  The water heater has one, or we can just shut it off completely ($10/month saved).  The local water/sewer authority allows us to put our sewer bill on vacation mode, which amazes me ($20/month saved). USAA allows us to put our other cars in “storage” while we’re gone, which reduces the insurance coverages we won’t need (about $120 per month saved).  (They even provide a little warning sheet to print out and place on the driver’s seat so that we remember to “un-store” the car before driving it.)  CenturyLink allows us to put our household DSL service on hold too (about $50/month).  Between all of that and turning off the air conditioning (up to $250 per month in the summer), we can save $350-450 per month while we are gone, which of course can go directly to our travel expenses.   If only we could put our real estate taxes on hold too.