Lake Kegonsha State Park, Stoughton WI

dsc_0457.jpgThe final 159 miles of our 2,100 miles trek from Tucson were the way you’d want them to be: smooth, scenic, and uneventful.   We spent the morning touring a Frank Lloyd Wright home in Quasqueton IA (a name so difficult to pronounce that the locals simply call it “QWAH-key”).   The Usonian design of “Cedar Rock” was as interesting as all other FLW houses we’ve seen, and this example was particularly interesting because it was furnished almost exactly as Wright intended when it was built in the late 1940s.

Not many people know that Wright not only designed the houses, but the furniture as well.   He even chose the items on the shelves.   Owners were expected to bring in their clothes and food, and not much else.   Few could resist the urge to customize their own houses eventually, which is why this particular example is so interesting to see.   The tour, by the way, is free with only a $3 donation requested.

From Independence to Dubuque on Rt 20, and then through Wisconsin on Rt 151, it was bucolic and green all the way.   The scenery is settling to the nerves, while the concrete roadway undulates gently and makes a quiet “thump-thump” that can put you to sleep if you’re not careful.   I listened for the engine and the hitch, but both were nearly silent.   So our major activity was watching for cheese-related billboards, of which there were many.

We have rendezvoused with Brett in Lake Kegonsha State Park, about 15 miles south of Madison WI.   We’ll be staying here for several days, commuting as needed up to the WBCCI International Rally in Madison.   While I like staying on site at Internationals, this time we are only going to be visiting for a couple of days, and the cost of the International with 30-amp electricity is far too high for two days (over $400 for a family of three).   Lake Kegonsha is $19 per night, plus either day-use passes of $10, or $35 for the year.

The 3,000 acre lake features a boat ramp and a swimming area, but it’s pretty mucky with algae and seaweed in the shallows, so I doubt we’ll be doing much any swimming.   There are quiet roads for cycling and walking paths everywhere.   We’ll explore more of the paths later, despite the annoying flies that dive-bomb our heads the moment we step out of the Airstream.   Down the campground loop, some neighbors in a tent have hung a sign that says, “BUGFEST”.   Fortunately, the bugs are more annoying than biting.   A hat is helpful for keeping them away.   This is part of the northern state park experience, and I expected it.

Most of our time will be spent elsewhere, anyway.   The campground is   mostly a place to sleep.   Since I’m finalizing articles and layouts for the Fall 2009 issue of Airstream Life magazine, I need to make regular trips to wifi hotspots to upload large files.   The five Panera Bread locations in Madison with free wifi will be my haunts.   It’s also time to catch up on housekeeping: post office, laundry, fuel, etc.   And I’ve got scheduled meetings at the International rally site.   So we’ll do some sightseeing in the next few days but mostly we’re here to handle business, and that will keep us well away from the buggy campground.

2009 Mercedes Benz GL320

The long days on the road are coming to a close, thankfully.   Our drive from Columbia MO to Independence IA (300 miles) ended with a boom, literally.   Less than 30 minutes after we arrived at the small city-run RV park here, a wave of intense thunderstorms passed through and terrorized us for a couple of hours.   The clouds above were forming counter-clockwise swirls — a very bad sign — and the winds were strong enough to rock the trailer even with the stabilizers down.   As always, when caught in bad weather, we began looking for an emergency exit, which in this case would have been a nearby brick shower house.

Fortunately, the storms passed over us without causing any damage, and eventually left us with a gorgeous red and blue sunset, and fewer dead bugs plastered to the exterior skin of the Airstream.

dsc_0014.jpgI am still talking to the manufacturer about the hitch problem we encountered recently, but since I’m getting “outed” left and right by my friends, I will go ahead and start acknowledging the new tow vehicle.   It’s a 2009 Mercedes Benz GL320 with “Bluetec” engine.   We chose this because it is a diesel 7-passenger SUV which meets our needs.   We expect to use it for many years of towing.   Sadly, with American and Japanese manufacturers pulling back on their promised diesel vehicles, the only diesel SUVs available new are coming out of Europe.   VW, BMW, Audi, and MB all offer them today, while Nissan, Toyota, Chrysler, GM, and Honda have all announced light diesel programs and then canceled them.

I know this will kick off a firestorm of questions and controversy, because I’ve chosen a non-traditional tow vehicle.   I’ll try to answer the FAQs here:

Fuel consumption:   So far, with the engine still breaking in, we are getting 14.0 MPG towing at 60 MPH, flat to moderately rolling terrain, no wind.   Going to 65 MPH costs us 1 MPG. I am told that the economy will improve as the engine breaks in.   Still, that’s a solid 30% increase over the Armada.

Loading:   Yes, we are under the vehicle weight ratings.   That includes Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), and Gross Axle Weight Ratings (GAWR).   The factory hitch is rated to 7500 lbs and 600 lbs of tongue, but we’ve substantially reinforced it, as readers of this blog know.   I regard the factory hitch as inadequate for even the rated 600 lbs of tongue weight, so beware.

Performance: The ride and handling are excellent, once hitched up properly.   The interior is as quiet as you’d expect.   Power is excellent, thanks to the diesel engine that puts out 398 ft-lbs of torque.   It’s unbelievably quiet when running, to the point that many people don’t know it is a diesel.   The 7-speed automatic keeps the engine in the ideal power band all the time.   I think that once other manufacturers get their acts together, engine/transmission combinations like this will be the future of recreational towing.

What I like compared to the Armada:   Better fuel economy (22/28 MPG not towing), much nicer to drive especially when not towing, better towing handling at highway speed, high ground clearance when off-roading, extensive safety and security features, cheaper insurance, less propensity to roll over, much more powerful air conditioning, slightly more torque, diesel reliability and durability, 7-speed transmission, less frequent oil changes, longer cruising range, full-time AWD.

What I don’t like compared to the Armada:   Expensive to buy, slightly more expensive to maintain, no spare tire, less interior space, slightly less carrying capacity, too much tricky electronics, smaller sideview mirrors, limited third-row access, no aftermarket hitches, no low range, fewer service centers, expensive tires.

Recommendation?:   Most people travel with a ton of “stuff.”   Most people never weigh their rig, either.   For best value, largest cargo area, and less concern about overloading, go with a pickup truck.   Seriously.   For most people, that’s the right choice.   Many of the SUVs require you to think carefully about what you carry, to avoid overloading the rear axle.

Also, Mercedes is not particularly oriented to towing.   The 2009 GL’s have a driver’s side knee airbag, which makes placement of the brake controller more challenging.   The 2009 models also have a urea tank (part of the “clean diesel” exhaust system) where the spare normally goes, so there’s no spare tire.   (It uses run-flat tires, and I carry a tire plug kit, but there is no substitute for a spare.   This is the major flaw of the design.)

The hitch design is inadequate, as I’ve already mentioned. There are no aftermarket hitches that fit this car, so you must buy the factory hitch — and even when you do get that option, you have to buy some wiring for the brake controller and there’s an additional charge to reprogram one of the computers so that the car will send signals to the brake controller.   For me the icing on the cake was that the computer is so “smart” it won’t recognize a trailer with LED lights, so you have to go through some hoops to fix that issue as well.

So with all those issues and limitations, you might wonder why I bothered with it.   Why not buy a 2009 Dodge RAM 2500 4×4 with Cummins diesel with Megacab, for $56k?   Well, some people like driving trucks, and some people don’t.     As part of this exercise I have talked to quite a number of people who are currently towing with Mercedes (mostly the less expensive and smaller ML-class), and they all love them.   I’ve also talked to many people who tow with big pickups and love them.   To each their own, I say.   Be safe, and have fun.

I’ll report further on the performance of the Mercedes as we accumulate miles.   The real proof of its appropriateness for the task will come only after many miles and (at least) several years of towing.

Today we are going to check out a Frank Lloyd Wright house here in Independence, and then scoot up to Madison.   There will be no escape from the heat, however.     The “Airstream effect” has already begun.   Whenever hundreds of Airstreams gather for the International Rally, the local area always experiences record high temperatures.   The poor people of Madison WI have no idea what is coming, I fear.   If we don’t hit 100 degrees during the rally week, it will be the first time in many years.

Oppressive humidity

We do make strange choices.   Somewhere along the way yesterday we decided that our primary goal was to get a few hundred miles behind us, and so we launched from Hot Springs through the winding roads of the Ozarks, up to Missouri and northward to settle in Columbia, at the intersection of I-70 and Route 63.

We neglected to put much thought to where we would stay. By design, our trip “plan” was simply to drive until I waved a white flag of surrender, and then park the Airstream in some convenient spot until the next day.   This fits our “no reservations” style, and we have enough experience on the road to have no fear of winging it.

Often in these situations we’ll subconsciously trade off one expense for another, being notorious cheapskates.   In this situation we’ll occasionally decide to drive later than usual, and reward everyone in the car with dinner at a restaurant so that we can get a change of scene after the long day.   Our cheapskate budget for dinner for three is about $30, which comes to the average price of a commercial campground, so if we skip the campground and just park somewhere, dinner is easily justified.

But we didn’t consider one factor yesterday: what the weathermen call “oppressive” humidity.   As I write this, at 3 a.m., it is still 82 degrees and the relative humidity is 84%.   Or to put it another way, it’s disgustingly sticky.   I’m wide awake at 3 a.m. because it’s impossible to sleep.   The air is so thick that I am aware of every heavy breath.   The air drapes around me like a steam blanket that I can’t remove, and there is no possible escape without a 30-amp plug to power our air conditioner.

Now, we’ve camped in some pretty awful conditions before.   A pair of nights in Death Valley in June come to mind right away.   We camped in a powerless campground, and at night it didn’t drop below 100 degrees until well after midnight.   Camping in Death Valley in summer naturally yields some bragging rights — “Yeah, it was hot, but nothing we couldn’t handle.”   But Death Valley in June can’t hold a candle to   Missouri in June.   This is much worse.   It’s just that bragging about spending a night in Missouri doesn’t really impress anyone.

Now you know a secret to travel writing:   It’s not that the experiences are always that exotic; it’s simply a matter of being located somewhere different.   Death Valley heat is not particularly special, it’s just interesting because it’s Death Valley.   If you are living in Arkansas or Missouri this particular week in June, just turn off your air conditioner for a day and a night, and you too can experience the joy of the professional travel writer.   As an exercise, try writing an 800-word essay about your adventure that makes it sound much more interesting than it is.

Eleanor’s concern, when she wakes up from her sticky and disturbed rest, will be that I didn’t get enough sleep to safely tow us up to Iowa.   Well, you’ve got to take what life hands you.   I’ll be fine for a half-day drive.   My plan is to leave very early, perhaps before dawn, and drive until midday, then settle into a campground with the one convenience that we care about (power), and nap the afternoon away in dry air conditioned comfort.   Emma won’t be fond of this plan, but she can sleep in the car.   Once we reach Iowa, we will be within a short drive of our goal in Wisconsin, and we can slow down enough to start smelling the roses along the roadway.

Hot hot hot Springs National Park, AR

dsc_0423-1.jpgI take it back — I can see why we had no trouble getting a campsite at Gulpha Gorge this weekend.   The peak season was probably a few weeks ago, when the heat/humidity combination hadn’t yet hit.   But there’s a nice little creek running past the campground that, while shallow, seems worthy of a dip on hot days such as we have been having.

Being Sunday, the campground cleared out and now we are sitting mostly alone, which feels more comfortable for us. We’ve typically traveled in the off-seasons and are used to mostly vacant campgrounds. I like the extra peacefulness of empty campgrounds.

We decided to take it easy all day, since we’re facing several more days of intense driving.   The first stop was The Pancake Shop, a popular downtown restaurant.   Of course, we all had omelettes.   I’ll warn you that the cheese omelette   does not mislead in its description.   I think I ate enough cheese that I’m now well prepped for a couple of weeks among the Wisconsin cheese-heads — a useful acclimation, since we are indeed headed to Wisconsin this week.

dsc_0389.jpgdsc_0408.jpgThe historic district of Hot Springs does have lots of little attractions, including an Arkansas Walk of Fame, several water-jug filling stations, the Grand Promenade, some tiny parks, outdoor sculpture exhibits, and (as I mentioned before) quite a variety of architecture.   A fair warning to those who are seeking a cool drink:   the water fountains produce cool-ish water, but the filling stations come right from the springs and are hot.   We wandered around, sipped the water, and saw it all, and then dropped back into the blissfully air-conditioned interior of the National Park Visitor Center for the Junior Ranger Program.

dsc_0419.jpgThis has to be one of the easiest badges to get.   Today’s program was simply to make an insect out of colored pipe cleaners.   They don’t seem to go in for heavy history lessons here.   Emma chose the most difficult insect to make, a praying mantis, and the result was pretty good.   The Hot Springs park also offers the best arrangement of kid swag I can recall: a badge, a button, a patch, and a certificate for every Junior Ranger.   There’s no relationship between the difficult of the program and the quality of the goodies at national parks, but I suppose that teaches a life lesson of sorts: Life is like a box of chocolates.   Or something like that.

Today promises to be rather dull.   We have nothing on the agenda except to cover a lot of miles.   I don’t know how far we’ll get but we aren’t off to a promising start since it is already 9 a.m. and the trailer isn’t ready for towing.   We will drive until it seems like it’s time to stop, and there we’ll be.   This is why we usually take a month or two to get from coast to coast.   The fun is in getting there, but only if you’ve got time to stop.   I’m very much looking forward to arriving in Wisconsin, when we will finally be back on the original schedule and able to hang out for about 10 days.

Hot Springs National Park, AR

At long last, we are back in a National Park, Hot Springs in Arkansas.   I really feel like these are the places we belong.   They are all different, yet every one feels like home.

To get here we had a relatively mild drive along I-30 through quiet parts of east Texas, then a winding scenic drive of about 30 miles through the hills and lush green forests of Arkansas.   I’m still on edge about the mechanical things, so the slightest lurch or squeak got my attention, and when we exited the highway for the back roads we began to hear strange clunks and thumps from the hitch.   The noises had no particular pattern except that the only occurred when we were turning, and then the sound varied from a light thump to a series of clunks.   It sounded as if stress was building up in some part of the Hensley hitch and then being released unevenly.   Naturally, my first thought was that somehow our newly-reinforced receiver had developed yet another crack, but upon inspection in the campground (with a flashlight), all of the welds appeared perfect.   My presumption at this point is that the Hensley is making a bit more noise than usual because we’ve got the strut jacks tighter than we did with the Armada.   I’m going to try a little silicone spray on the stinger and upper connections to the strut jacks to see if this quiets the hitch.

That niggling issue aside, everything else is great.   The campground at Hot Springs (called Gulpha Gorge), is shady and attractive, nestled in a river gorge with newly renovated full-hookup sites.   There are only about 30 sites, and 1/3 of them are still undergoing renovations, yet we had no trouble getting one on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. on Father’s Day weekend.   I can’t understand why it’s not more popular.   For anyone visiting historic Hot Springs in an RV or travel trailer, this is a great place to stay.

dsc_0320.jpgdsc_0356.jpgOn the other hand, Hot Springs is filled with historic hotels and bathhouses, and the variety of architecture in and near downtown is fantastic.   We dropped into the Arlington Hotel just for a look.   It would be fun to spend a night in it or one of the other hotels in town.   The buildings seem to fall into three general styles:   late Victorian, Art Deco, and 60’s modern.   On the fringes of the downtown area a lot of the architecture is in disrepair, and I get the sense that this area is just aching for a massive preservation movement and revitalization.   As it is, the Central Street area is pretty lively, thanks largely to the historic hotels that are still active and the presence of the national park service.

dsc_0336.jpgdsc_0362.jpgThere is of course the usual tourist stuff (amphibious boat tours, wax museum, various “gift” shops), but it is easily ignored if you don’t care about that stuff.   Take a walk on the brick-paved Grand Promenade walking path instead, just above downtown and behind the regal bathhouses that line the north side of the street.   There are thousands of hot springs on the Hot Springs mountain, and you’ll see them all capped by green boxes (to preserve the water source), but a couple of them are left open for viewing purposes so you can imagine how the mountain looked when all the springs ran wild.   You’ll only see this if you get off the shopping trail and up on the elegant walking path.

dsc_0342.jpgFrom the campground it is about three or four miles by car to downtown,   or you can hike up and over the Hot Springs Mountain in about 2 miles.   But even though we love hiking, there’s no chance of that this weekend.   It’s too hot and humid for enjoyable hiking, even in the early morning.   The humidity helps keep the heat in place, and so it never seems to cool off here.   We wake up in the morning and it’s still 80 degrees with humidity that slaps you like a hot wet blanket.   The next time I hear a Tucsonian complain about how hot it is in the summer, I’m going to buy them a one-way ticket to Arkansas or Missouri.   Tucson is much nicer this time of year.   At least it is dry, and it cools off overnight so that we have refreshing early mornings.

I will give this area credit for not having hordes of mosquitoes.   I don’t know why, but I have yet to see a biting insect since we arrived in the Land of the Humid a couple of days ago.     Being from the northeast I fully expect to be riddled with bug bites whenever I’m near a forest this time of year.   I won’t question it — just roll with it.   I’ll donate blood to somebody’s larvae later this summer anyway.

Since we are on a schedule (groan) and still hustling to make up for two weeks of delay, we can’t stay long.   But since this is the first time since we began our trip that we are spending two nights in the same location, we’ll relax today.   Emma will do the Junior Ranger program at the NPS Visitor Center, we’ll walk in town a bit, and drop in on some place for a leisurely lunch.   I doubt we’ll do much more than that.   After 1,200 miles of driving in four days, we all feel the need to decompress a bit, and in my case (since it’s Father’s Day) I expect that may call for an afternoon of reading with the air conditioning turned down to 72 degrees.