Taking stock

I remember back in our full-timing days that we used to tell people we had chosen lifestyle over money. In other words, our apparently footloose life was a compromise balanced against career advancement, possessions, community, and the sense of security that a stationary house provides. But this was just a convenient explanation for people who couldn’t understand why we’d sell our house and most of our stuff to go “out on the road.”

In reality, we didn’t give up much at all. I was able to grow Airstream Life slowly while we were traveling, and we had all the possessions we needed (and gained a new understanding of what’s really important), we discovered an entirely new traveling community, and we felt just as as secure in our Airstream as in any home we’ve ever owned. Few people who hadn’t tried the lifestyle would believe that.

However, there was one painful truth. When the business got to a certain point, it became less convenient for me to be traveling around full-time, and I found much greater productivity when I was able to stay home and sit at a desk with reliable high-speed Internet. I’m not saying that I couldn’t continue to travel, but once placed at home, things sort of blossomed, work-wise.

Now, five and a half years after we stopped full-timing, I find that I’ve managed to fill in all those hours that I formerly spent towing the Airstream and exploring national parks, and suddenly the work has taken over. It all came to a head on this trip, as I was trying to tow the Airstream east from Tucson to Sarasota, then run a week-long event, and then tow back to Tucson. There just wasn’t enough time in each day to take care of everything and it was getting frustrating to try.

So after Alumaflamingo, we stopped to take stock of everything. We dropped out of sight for a days, Internet- and phone-free, and spent some time in the driveway of our friends Bill & Wendimere. Think of it as a sort of personal retreat. Time to contemplate toes and get a fresh perspective.

The outcome is that, given all considerations, we should lean back a little toward lifestyle over money. For one thing, that means bringing on more staff to do things that I (and Brett) have been doing for both Airstream Life and R&B Events. It also means looking at everything else we do as a business and as a family, to decide what needs to be pared down so that we can start traveling with less pressure and more spontaneity.

These choices aren’t easy. It’s very much like moving out of a large house and into an Airstream: you have to be decisive and committed to the path or you’ll fail. In the case of downsizing one’s possessions (which we’ve done once before), success is indicated by the amount of “stuff” you stick in storage. If you put a lot of stuff in storage, you haven’t really pared down, you’ve just postponed the decision till later. It’s the same with lifestyle choices. If I offload work but continue to micromanage, I’ll be reminded of the folly of that strategy next year when a lengthy trip is interrupted and made stressful by numerous problems from the office.

It will all work out in the long run, but I also know that none of this can take effect soon enough to help me on the drive home. It’s over 2,000 miles back to home and my “to do” list is embarrassingly lengthy. My goal is to be closer to the footloose mode of travel by next year, albeit perhaps a little bit poorer financially. It’s worth it.

For the return run to Tucson there wasn’t much to do but to put on a smile and drive like a lunatic. The longer we take to get home, the more work piles up. The quicker I get home, the sooner I can start training people to do jobs that lighten my load. So while we aren’t going to get home quite as fast as we left for “Aluma-Zooma” we are going to be back no later than March 16.

Let’s see … what have we done so far? Wednesday March 5, we left the driveway near Kissimmee and headed toward the panhandle. After an uninteresting roadside stop overnight, we pulled into Henderson Beach State Park in Destin, FL and had a couple of days at the beach. We watched the seabirds and walked the white sandy beach. This visit set a pace that I liked: two days of zoom, two days of chill.

So we headed to Austin, TX next. Despite the fact that South by Southwest is going this week, we managed to snag two nights at Pecan Grove (near the epicenter of SXSW). I had a meeting downtown on Sunday night, which turned out to be an adventure in itself thanks to the colorful array of humanity attending SXSW, and another meeting on Monday at a barbecue place. To me, that’s a double-dip because Texas barbecue is pretty good stuff.

We logged a lot more miles on this trip than I had anticipated, so I also spent half of Monday at the local Benz dealership getting routine service done. Good thing the dealers all have fast wifi—it was just as productive a morning as I would have gotten at home, with the added benefit of free pastries and a comfy couch. The GL320, by the way, has 87,000 miles on it now.

Today, Tuesday, we started the trek across west Texas. There isn’t much to be said for the run along I-10 after Fredericksburg, so we made a point of stopping for lunch in Fredericksburg at one of the German restaurants, as a sort of last hurrah before plunging into the nothingness. Fredericksburg was a mob scene, as all the state parks are, because this week is also Spring Break in Texas. We had plans to hit a bunch of state parks on the way home, but that plan got quashed when we tried to camp at South Lllano River tonight and were told “all full”. Ah well, sometimes the footloose life isn’t easy. May we live in interesting times.

Pineapple season

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a sigmoidoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Time to fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The smarter Airstream

Last week Elon Musk (of Tesla and Space-X) released his vision for the Hyperloop, a sort of Jetsons/Futurama-style pneumatic tube system for shooting people up the California coast at incredible speeds.  I’d sooner squeeze myself into a hamster’s Habitrail than that claustrophobic nightmare, but I do admire the spirit of Musk’s proposal. Knowing he wouldn’t personally be able to execute on the concept, he released his plans to the world in the hopes that someone else would take it forward.

In keeping with that spirit, I am going to tell you about the next big idea in travel trailers.  Before I begin, I should acknowledge that this is not my original idea (neither was Musk’s; it was an advancement on an old idea).  My good Airstream friend Brian first suggested this, and then I pushed it forward in conversations with Tom (an automotive expert and Airstreamer), and then I realized two things:

  • I’m no Elon Musk
  • It’s a pretty wild idea

But I like it, and I hope you will too.  Here’s the elevator pitch: Imagine an Airstream that is impervious to sway or loss-of-control issues, can park itself in a campsite, has huge electrical power capacity, and actually improves your fuel economy when you tow it.

It’s possible.  The giant 85 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery used by Tesla for its ground-breaking electric cars is the key.  It’s patented technology but it is based on readily available lithium-ion battery cells that are getting cheaper all the time.  The battery pack is heavy and flat, so it fits in the bottom of the Tesla and lowers the center of gravity.  Having a low center of gravity is a big part of the reason why the car handles extremely well and doesn’t want to roll over.

Let’s fit one under an Airstream frame (OK, some frame mods would be required for this), and also instead of the basic trailer axle, we fit in the electric motor and regenerative brakes of the Tesla too.  (See image below of a Tesla Model S electric motor, brakes, and battery platform.)

Up front, we have a very clever ball coupler that replaces the standard one.  This coupler senses the pressure of the tow ball so it can inform a microprocessor whether the trailer is being pulled by the tow vehicle, is coasting, or (going downhill) is pushing the tow vehicle. It’s kind of like a smart surge brake.  Sensors at the wheels also provide information about the direction of travel, by measuring the difference in wheel rotation.

All of this 21st century cleverness means that when the Airstream is being towed in a straight line, and the tow vehicle is pulling hard, the Airstream can contribute some power.  Not enough to push itself out of control, mind you, but just enough to help compensate for the natural aerodynamic resistance of the Airstream, and thus restore some MPGs to the tow vehicle.  So perhaps your 20 MPG truck gets 20 MPG even when towing, instead of 10 MPG.  That would be nice.

When turning, backing, or coasting, the Airstream would act like an ordinary trailer, just spinning its wheels. When slowing or stopping, the regenerative brakes would put a little power back into the big battery.  Those brakes would be plenty strong and much more reliable than standard trailer electric drum brakes.

Now, a “smart trailer” like this would know if it was swaying or otherwise misbehaving, and it would be independently capable of correcting it.  Say goodbye to sway problems forever.  Likewise, it would be able to stop itself very smoothly if the coupling came loose, or the breakaway switch were activated.

When you get to camp, there’s another really nice perk.  Disconnect the trailer at a convenient spot and then use a handheld remote control to self-drive the Airstream right into your campsite, or a parking space.  This may seem science fiction, but in fact this technology is already in use in Europe with the Reich Move Control (start watching the video at 5:16 to see an Airstream doing this).  No more need to stress out over backing up the trailer into a tight spot.

Recharging is no problem at all.  If the campground has electricity, plug into the 50-amp connection and the battery should regain about 30 miles of range for every hour you are camped.  One overnight stay, and you’re charged up for another day of power-assisted towing.

Or, if you haven’t used up the battery pack during towing, it’s a huge house battery.  The standard pair of wet-cell batteries in an Airstream provide less than a kilowatt-hour of usable power.  The Tesla battery holds 85 times as much!

This system could even enable a sort of “Holy Grail” for people who really want to make RV’ing “green.”  You could potentially tow a self-powered Airstream a couple hundred miles using an electric vehicle such as the upcoming Tesla Model X.  Zero petroleum, zero emissions, and a free recharge at night while you camp.  On a typical 200-mile tow that’s a cash savings of about $60-85, more than enough to pay for a really nice campsite.

Of course, the campgrounds might get wise to this someday, and charge an electric surcharge.  I wouldn’t be surprised, but still it’s much cheaper to “fuel” an electric vehicle than any fossil-fueled vehicle.

This idea is definitely half-baked.  There are huge cost issues here, no question.  The battery pack alone would be in the $10-20k range.  Right now nobody in the RV industry is going to explore this because they know that nobody will buy it.

Also, there could be drastic regulatory issues.  Does a trailer change classifications with the Dept of Transportation once it is self-powered?  What sort of regulatory barriers might exist? I haven’t looked into any of that.

So I humbly present this idea to you, solely to spur your thinking.  Realize that the way we do things today will change.  Someday our practice of driving fume-belching trucks pulling “dumb” trailers will be as much a part of our past as steam locomotives. Somebody is going to reinvent the RV’ing industry, when the time is right, and I just hope I’m here to see it.

In fact, I want to be part of that future, so if anyone is planning to do some work with this idea, please bring me in as a consultant.  I want to be the first guy to go on an all electric camping trip, 200 miles from home with my “smart” Airstream trailer.  Don’t you?

Tesla dreams

I spent yesterday in the carport with Nick, working on both of our cars.  Nick is my local “Mercedes buddy,” a fellow enthusiast who owns a 1980s era Mercedes 300D like mine.  Neither of us are accomplished mechanics but we both enjoy learning and so periodically we get together to tackle car repairs together.  So far we’ve had good luck and no major disasters.

Yesterday’s jobs were to replace the front door seals on my car and the speedometer cable, and on Nick’s car we replaced the engine mounts, replaced the fuel primer pump, and changed the oil.  My carport is the preferred location for this because it has a nice smooth concrete floor and is fully shaded.  With the Airstream Safari summering in Vermont, there’s plenty of room for both cars. Unfortunately, Tucson hit 108 degrees yesterday so even though we started early in the morning, it was a brutally hot and dirty experience.

I say “dirty” because these cars are relics of the petroleum-burning era, producing copious amounts of soot and nitrogen oxides with minimal emissions controls.  They are about as far from “earth friendly” as you can get, and a fact revealed on every greasy carbon-coated engine part.  We wear gloves while working on them but still get our arms and faces smeared with black very quickly.  It’s hard not to think about where all that mess comes from, and realize that the car is really an obsolete rolling polluter.

The clunky old diesel engines do a particular job very well, namely motivating 3,000 pounds of steel for up to half a million miles. For this reason they are coveted by people who see them as the pinnacle of automotive engineering: user-repairable, computer-free, and incredibly durable.  I look at the mechanical engineering that went into it and I have to really respect it.  The thought and effort that went into every part to design it perfectly for the task is just amazing.

But honestly, I am conflicted about my car.  I run 99% biodiesel in it because it reduces emissions and is good for the fuel system, but that’s not going to make it a “clean” or “green” car.  It still emits much more unburned hydrocarbons, NOx, CO2, and soot than a comparable modern car.  If even a quarter of the country drove around in cars like this, the world would be a nasty place.  I’d probably be first in line to have them banned.  The only reason we get away with it is because most people drive newer cars which pollute only a fraction as much.  So as much as I love my 300D, I also know it’s an unsustainable antique.

The future, I’ve come to believe, is electric cars.  A few years ago I would have scoffed at that idea, since “everyone” knew that electric cars were silly toys that couldn’t go more than 80 miles and needed 10 hours to charge.  But Elon Musk and his team at Tesla have changed my mind.  The Tesla “Model S” and the national infrastructure envisioned by Tesla have changed everything—and despite widespread press, I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in to most of the car-driving public.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the changes Tesla has implemented.  The Tesla can easily go 200-300 miles on a single charge, with the option of picking up a 200-mile range boost in 20 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger station or swapping out the entire battery pack for a fully-charged one in 90 seconds.  That’s quicker than filling a gas tank.  With an in-home charger your car is always “full” every day you start to drive it.  And using the Supercharger stations is free.  Tesla even has installed solar panels at each station so that the station generates more power than it uses.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Imagine owning a car that has no engine, no transmission, and no emission or exhaust system. That means you never have to get an oil change, tune-up, belt replacement, radiator service, filters, emissions check, etc.  No more Midas Muffler, or Jiffy Lube.  No more 10,000 mile services at the dealership.  Heck, even the brakes won’t need service because they are regenerative (meaning they put energy back into the battery) and hardly ever wear out.

You can’t get any “greener” than an electric car.  Any traditional car (even a hybrid) burns petroleum.  Ain’t nothing green about that, even with a miniature chemical factory mounted on the car to reduce the emissions, which is what we have to put up with these days.  The electric car has zero emissions and can be powered (indirectly) through electric generation from lots of sources, including solar, hydro, wind, natural gas, nuclear, oil, and coal.  If the source of the power is dirty, at least it comes from one plant where emissions can be controlled more readily than on 100,000 separate vehicles.

I have come to realize that a lot of the negativity about electric cars comes from viewing them from a petroleum-powered perspective.  In other words, we tend to let our preconceptions taint our view.  An example is fear about the giant battery pack.  In eight years to ten years, you’ll have to replace it and that will cost a lot.

Sure, but in eight years of gasoline burning you’ll have to replace belts, hoses, plugs, fluids, filters, gaskets, water pump, battery, muffler, and probably a few other things, in addition to the risk of a major repair to the combustion engine.  Add to that the hard-to-quantify costs like health problems resulting from dirty air.  Then, add to that about $20,000 in petroleum fuel cost over 100,000 miles.  Suddenly that battery pack isn’t looking so bad.  We are so inured to the ongoing cost of maintaining our dirty little petroleum combustion engines that we don’t consider how expensive (and resource-consuming) they really are.

Another common gripe is what the automotive press calls “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of power and not be able to charge up again quickly.  Tesla addressed that one with their Supercharger network, which is being built out right now.  In 2015 you’ll be able to drive almost anywhere in the USA with a free 20-minute Supercharge (or battery swap) available within 200 miles. You can’t say that for hydrogen or natural gas fueled vehicles, and it probably won’t ever be true for those because of the cost of building those complicated infrastructures.  Electricity, on the other hand, is already piped everywhere.

An electric car won’t yet replace our tow vehicle, and I wouldn’t expect such a thing to be available for many years.  For now, we’ll continue to run the “clean diesel” Mercedes GL320 to tow the Airstream around.  Likewise, gasoline cars will continue to be the majority of the market for a long time.  The Tesla is still financially out of reach for most people.  But it shows us what the future will hold.

Every time I look under the sooty hood of my 1984 diesel Mercedes and compare it to the much-cleaner, computerized 2009 diesel I can see the progress of 25 years.  Looking at the elegant engineering of the Tesla S electric car, I see the progress of the next 25 years.  I’ll hold onto the old Mercedes as a reminder of the great engineering of that day, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can drive the future.