Mt Pleasant, TX

dsc_0289.jpgMore signs that the bad luck spell is changing: we got our service completed at Roger Williams Airstream in record time.   Denver had the Hensley hitch off the trailer and disassembled by 9 a.m., and the tire that had been stabbed with a furniture foot was sent next door to the dealership’s tire shop.   The tire was patchable, fortunately.

I am glad to have the routine maintenance on the Hensley done.   It was functioning perfectly, but some items needed attention.   The inner spring-loaded nubs on the grease zerks often wear off, and one of ours was broken.   The bushings that hold the weight distribution bars were definitely a bit stretched (oval rather than round), and the bracket that holds the bushings together had broken.   None of these things are emergencies.   There wasn’t time for a really good strip-down of all the old paint and rust, but Denver managed to get it lightly sanded and repainted anyway.   It looks a lot better and there’s a feeling of confidence in knowing that the entire thing has been inspected.

Everything was back in and set up by 2 p.m. or so, leaving us plenty of time to navigate the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex traffic. Driving through this area is no fun with a trailer, and we are careful to avoid it at rush hour. Since it takes over an hour to get from Weatherford to the east side of Dallas, we were pushing it a bit to depart as late as we did.   We encountered two places where traffic inexplicably screeched to a stop for no apparent reason, and several slowdowns.   That’s not bad by D/FW standards.

Along the way I happened to observe a Honda Pilot ahead of us.   The rear wheels were obviously bowing outward, from being seriously overloaded.   I pointed it out to Eleanor as a cautionary example.   People think that if the vehicle seats 8 people, it can take 8.   But that’s not always true.   When we owned a 2003 Pilot I remember being mildly impressed by the 1100 lb carrying capacity. But divide by 8 and you’ve got 137.5 lbs per person.   How many adults do you know that weigh 137 lbs?

We caught up to the Pilot a few minutes later, and sure enough it was filled with six or seven people, all of whom were large.   I estimated that the Pilot was carrying something on the order of 1,400 to 1,600 lbs of human cargo, plus whatever personal belongings they had.   I’m sure the people inside had no idea how badly they were overloading their vehicle, but they must have noticed the horrible wallowing handling, and eventually they’ll find other “unexplained” problems like abnormal tire wear.

Worse, the high center of gravity of most SUVs gets even higher as you add more people.   People in the towing world become cognizant of loading issues (if they want to stay alive), but the average SUV owner probably never thinks about it.   For comparison, our vehicle while loaded with the three of us, our belongings, a full tank of fuel, and towing a 30-foot Airstream requires about 90% of the available carrying capacity, while that poor Honda Pilot was easily 40% over its carrying capacity.   Most people would guess we have the heavier load, but appearances can be deceiving, which is why we go to truck scales to be sure what we are carrying.

I think I mention this because I always get grief about my tow vehicle, no matter what I use.   When we towed with a 2003 Honda Pilot (then pulling a 17-foot Airstream Caravel, and later a 24-foot Argosy), I was roundly abused by people who told me how unsafe I was.   When we switched to the Nissan Armada and the 30-foot Airstream Safari, it was the subject of long-winded discussions by many people who were sure that we were a rolling death trap.   Four years and 80,000 trouble-free miles later, I think the choice proved itself.

But I expect no less commentary from the current tow vehicle.   People will talk. Personally, I don’t engage in tow vehicle debates.   I will only say that I do the numbers and the research, and satisfy myself that we are safe.   Also, my choice is not for everyone.   You can probably guess from this that we are not towing with a large American pickup truck.   That should narrow it down for those who are dying of curiosity about the new tow vehicle.

We left Weatherford early because we could get a jump on the drive to our next destination, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.   Midway along I-30 there is not a lot of excitement, but in the little towns along the road we had an opportunity to stop for Texas barbecue.   You can’t get real Texas barbecue in Arizona, any more than you can get an authentic New Orleans muffaletta in New Jersey, or a Maryland crab cake in California.   You have to go to the source.

Our overnight stop has been in Mt Pleasant, home of Bodacious Barbecue.   It wasn’t the type of dry-rub Texas barbecue I was hoping for (Bodacious goes in for sauce, which is a point of differentiation between barbecue enthusiasts), but it was just fine.   And we had another sweltering humid night boondocking in a parking lot, because we arrived too late to make a campground stop appealing.   The overnight temperature never dropped below 80 degrees.   We’re getting used to it, slowly, and using all the techniques for keeping cool that we used in Death Valley the one time we camped there in June.   But tonight we shall have electricity again.   I don’t think I am ready for several days in the humidity of east Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri without air conditioning just yet.

Weatherford, TX

I can now remember why I blogged every day when we were on the road before.   There’s often too much going on to summarize in a less-frequent post.   Life moves at higher speed (figuratively and literally) in this mode, even when we’re not really accomplishing much.

We spent a warm and sticky night in Odessa without air conditioning.   We’ve gotten used to the dry air of the desert and it was a small shock to the system to suddenly be smothered in heavy air.   We slept on top of the sheets, silently wishing for a small whisper of cool air to slip in the windows.   That never happened, even with three vent fans running all night, but somehow we managed to eke out a few hours of sleep.

At 7:15 Eleanor poked me awake and I leapt out of bed to be the first in line at the Wal-Mart Tire Center, only to find out that the tire guys wouldn’t show up until 10 a.m.   Apparently they were only doing oil changes at 7 a.m.   I put the Airstream’s spare tire on, and we headed to Weatherford, 280 miles away, for our planned service appointment at Roger William Airstream.   It was bliss to get into the comfortably air-conditioned car after a night of Odessa heat.

dsc_0282.jpgRoger Williams Airstream is not currently a dealer, but a dedicated service center.   We’ve often come here for the service and the comaradery of Robert H (manager) and Denver (technician), as well as friends who live in the area. Since our last visit, huge canopies have   been installed that cover the parking lot.   These were mandated by the insurance company as a hedge against future hail damage, but they make life in the parking lot rather plush.   We’ve got a water and electric hookup, and shade from the canopy, all of which make the 95+ degree temperatures and high humidity bearable.

june-09-weatherford-tx-small.jpgOnly a few minutes after we arrived, we received our first visitors.   The Hughes family on a three-week trip from Illinois, spotted the Airstreams from the road and dropped in.   Sandra read the old “Tour of America” blog and knew all about us.   (We’ve gotten used to people we don’t know showing up and telling us all about our lives.)   They turned out to be a charming family and we hope to see them again on the road someday, perhaps when they swing through the southwest next year.

Our good friends the Mayeux invited up to their place for dinner, about 30 miles north of Weatherford.   Roaming Airstreamer/artist   Michael Depraida was there as well, being currently courtesy-parked in their yard.   This was our first chance to meet Michael, which is long overdue since he has been contributing to the magazine in little ways for over a year.   His art is very popular among the Airstream community, and I plan to feature more of it in upcoming issues.   We talked about that as well as the story of how he became a full-time Airstreamer.   He’s been on the road since 2000.

It was well past 11 p.m. when we finally got back to the Airstream, and I was exhausted.   We’ve been driving too much, sleeping too little, and were in danger of getting run down before our trip really got going.   It was a real pleasure to get back to the Airstream, with the air conditioning set to a comfortable 74 degrees, and our beds awaiting us.   The Airstream has once again accomplished its mission: I feel revived and relaxed this morning, ready to take on whatever today throws at us.

Administrative note:   I’ve been getting tons of comments and private emails from folks since I started blogging this trip, so clearly I need to write more often as we travel.   I plan to post every day or two until we get to Vermont, which should be in about three weeks.

Karma on the rise

If luck, karma, biorhythms, or psychic energy go in cycles, then mine is finally on the rise again.   After weeks of disappointments related to the new tow vehicle, and having to cancel two weeks of road trip plans, things have begun to go my way.   On Tuesday I got the long-awaited receiver hitch repair, and it is not only only cured of the failed welds, it is amazingly fortified.   From the street there is no sign of alteration, but beneath the car it is a hidden dragon, replete with gussets and plates that strengthen it. Looking at it, I feel like I could ram a M-1 tank and come out the victor.

We probably went a little overboard in reinforcing the receiver, but I didn’t want a chance of a repeat occurrence.   If by some chance a weld does break, there’s enough redundancy in the design that the hitch should not fail catastrophically (e.g., come off in pieces).   I’ll be checking it regularly from here on it, too.

With the hitch done, I was able to take the Airstream out for a 45-mile spin around Tucson, and back to the truck scale for a re-weigh.   It handles beautifully.   So we re-packed the Airstream, cleaned up the house, and made it out the door by 8 a.m. this morning.

Being so drastically behind schedule, we were obligated to violate one of our most sacred rules: Thou Shalt Not Tow More Than 300 Miles Per Day.   We usually choose to travel more slowly so that we can stop and enjoy things along the way.   But now we’ve got commitments in Texas, Wisconsin, Ontario, and Vermont that just won’t wait.   Knowing this, we planned a brutal frontal assault on the travel plan, and towed the Airstream 600 miles today, ending up in Odessa, TX at the …. (wait for it) ….. Wal-Mart.   Oh yeah, we’re back in the saddle again.

Considering the ambitiousness of our first day out (with a new tow vehicle and a new receiver hitch), it was remarkable that absolutely nothing happened along the way to delay us.   That is, until we pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot.   I did my usual post-drive walk-around, during which I routinely inspect the tires, hitch, and underside of the trailer.   There it was: a fresh reminder of our uncanny ability to attract pointy metal objects.   We had picked up a nail through one of the trailer tires.

OK, so my karmic score is somewhat less than 100%.   It’s still better than it has been the past couple of weeks.

The offending object is actually one of those plastic buttons that go on the bottom of a piece of furniture.   The nail that should be securing this plastic to a couch is instead securing it to our tire, and holding air quite nicely.   Nonetheless, it has to go.   Fortunately, this particular Wal-Mart is a Supercenter and includes a “Tire Express.”   We’re parked right next to it, and at 7 a.m. when they open I expect to be standing there with a trailer wheel.   If I’m lucky (uh-oh) we can be on our way with a patch in 30 minutes or so.   If I’m not lucky … we might be losing a couple of hours scouting for a new trailer tire.

Since Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, we managed to cross two time zones in one day, and we arrived at 9 p.m. local time.   This is not to our advantage.   I’ll have to be up at 4 a.m. Arizona time in order to be the early bird at the tire shop.   But that’s a small price to pay.   I’m so accustomed to getting nails and screws in our tires that it hardly even fazes me anymore.   It’s just part of the routine.

Our roadtrip marathon is far from over.   We have to go 1,400 miles in the next 7 days, with a couple of non-driving days in there for appointments.   Keep your fingers crossed for us.   And if you happen to be going to the International Rally in Madison WI next week, we’ll hope to see you there.

The rest of the story

It has been quite some time since I wrote that we were “almost ready to roll,” and yet here we are still in Tucson.   I had hoped not to have to explain the delay, but since we will be almost two weeks late there seems to be no avoiding it.

I made the mistake of purchasing a new tow vehicle about two weeks before our projected departure date.   The Nissan Armada has treated us well over the years, but at 80,000 miles (mostly towing) it was beginning to give small hints that it wouldn’t be long before it needed retirement from the towing biz.   Certainly I could have gotten another 20,000 miles out of it, and I seriously considered doing that, but at the end I’d be left with a truck with 100,000 strenuous miles and no more extended warranty.   The resale value would be hideously bad at that point, but at the present it still had some value.

Against that consideration I placed the opportunity to buy a new vehicle with ridiculously huge factory rebates and/or incredibly cheap financing.   It is, as they say, “the time to buy.”   Also, I’ve been wanting to tow with diesel power ever since we first started full-timing in 2005.   We plan to keep publishing Airstream Life for a long time, and we don’t want to downsize from our two-bedroom Safari 30 just yet, so it made sense to buy an engine that would really last for the long haul.     I advertised the Armada on Craigslist, and 48 hours later a nice couple from Tucson paid cash for it, which cemented the decision.   I paid off the loan and went shopping.

Typically before towing a heavy load it’s a good idea to get 500 to 1,000 miles on the engine and transmission.   So I spent the next two weeks driving everywhere, inventing errands on the other side of town and making unnecessary trips to places like Tombstone and Nogales just to rack up the miles.   In the meantime, I ordered a replacement stinger from Hensley under their lifetime free “swap program,” to accommodate the different receiver height.   Once all was in order, I hitched up the Airstream and spent an hour or so trying to get the weight distribution worked out.

If you know about towing, you know that any heavy trailer needs a weight distributing hitch.   This spreads the “tongue weight” of the trailer over the front and rear axles of the tow vehicle, which is an important part of towing dynamics.     Without proper weight on both axles, the tow vehicle is likely to be lighter in the front than when it is not towing, which will cause bad handling, understeer, fast wear on the rear suspension/brakes, and a potential loss-of-control accident.

But with the new vehicle I couldn’t seem to get the weight distribution the way it needed to be.   I took the whole rig down to the truck scales and confirmed what the handling was telling me:   the front axle was way too light.   I’m talking 500 lbs too light, which is serious.

Once I got home, I discovered the source of the problem.   The factory-supplied receiver had broken a weld.   That allowed the receiver to bend under load, which meant that it couldn’t distribute weight to the front axle properly.

Now, I’m being very calm here … but you should know that when I saw the broken receiver, I went ballistic for a few minutes.   A broken hitch is serious business.   Even without fully disconnecting from the tow vehicle (which would certainly be catastrophic for the trailer), the sudden loss of proper balance could easily cause a deadly accident.   Receivers shouldn’t break — PERIOD.

But they do, and unfortunately original equipment receivers have a poor track record in this regard.   They seem to be designed for lowest price rather than best capability.   That’s why many people who are doing heavy towing replace their OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) receiver hitches with stronger aftermarket ones.   A lot of GM owners experienced this a few years ago, and you can still read the many posts online (1, 2, 3, 4)   about their troubles, including fatalities.

I’m not naming the manufacturer of my vehicle at this time because I am currently engaged in a dialogue with them about the design and manufacture of their receiver.   It is, in my opinion, completely inadequate.     It would probably be fine for people who tow their 3,000 lb boat to the launch twice a year, but it broke when towing my trailer in less than 20 miles .. and yes, the truck scale proved that my trailer was below the factory rating for this receiver.

The dealership refused to replace the receiver under warranty, alleging that I must have done “something” to break it.   An inspector was called in, and he also felt that the failure was not their fault.   Since time was pressing, I decided to take the receiver to a specialist for repair and reinforcement, and do battle with the manufacturer later.

But my bad luck streak was just beginning.   It turned out that there was another problem with the truck, and it was an issue which made it unsafe to drive.   The solution required a replacement wiring harness, and being a rather unusual part, it wasn’t readily available.   In fact, we waited a week for the part, and when it didn’t arrive, the dealership service guys figured out a temporary fix to get us “back on the road” — an ironic statement since we’ve hardly been anywhere with this new vehicle yet.

At this point I’d been forced to cancel an event I was eagerly anticipating, the Dr Pepper 118th Birthday Celebration in Dublin TX.     A lot of friend were there, and the local newspaper had even written an article saying that Airstream Life would be there.   I also canceled our plans to hike the Guadalupe Mountains in west Texas, our visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings north of Silver City New Mexico, and a visit to the Monahan Sand Hills.

On Thursday afternoon I got the truck back and took it to a competent fabrication shop in Tucson.   Along with help from experts in the Airstream business, we’ve devised a solution to repair and strengthen the receiver to far beyond the capabilities of its original design.   But the shop can’t do the work until Tuesday, which will put us exactly two weeks behind schedule — if all goes well.

I have been mightily punished for abandoning our trusty Nissan.   It was reliable, if not fuel-efficient.   It would have gotten us on our way on schedule.   But I’ve chosen a new tow vehicle and I’m stuck with it now.   I can only hope that this debacle will be the only major sticking point on our trip east, and that the new truck will prove itself over many years of reliable service.   It hasn’t been an auspicious start, but in a few months it may be just a fading memory.

So that’s why we are still in the limbo of “Almost ready to go.”   We were so well packed that when the receiver broke we had to go back to the Airstream to get clothes to wear and food to eat.   Now we exist in an strange half-world between Airstream and house, trying not to fully unpack and yet not feel like we are living out of a suitcase.   Every day I have uttered the phrase, “If all goes well …” and it hasn’t yet, so I’m trying not to say it anymore. I don’t want to make predictions about when we’ll get anywhere, because every time I do I’m proved wrong.   Let’s just say that at some point we expect to be back on the road.   You’ll know … when I know.

(Almost) ready to roll

It is now June, and we are still in southern Arizona.   Considering that we have wheels and places to go, it seems a tiny bit insane to still be here in the 100-degree heat.   We just got our electric bill for May, and the combination of a 5-ton air conditioner and a poorly-insulated house meant that it was triple the amount of the previous month.   I wanted to experience the heat, and I have, so now it’s time to go.

We are in fact very near departure.   I have pulled out the checklist that I’ve been incubating all winter, and about half of the “to do” items necessary for liftoff are already checked off.   The rest will be completed this week, and before you know it we’ll have eight wheels-a-rollin’ down I-10 heading east.   And we have plans — good things awaiting us in New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Ontario, and the northeast states.

The Airstream is mechanically as ready as it will ever be: wheel bearings freshly packed, brakes and tires checked, hitch lubed, propane filled, batteries full, all systems “GO”.   It just needs a little re-packing for the five or six month odyssey we have planned. The real challenge in preparing for a trip is not getting all the systems ready, it’s figuring out what we’ll need.   As full-timers we packed for every contingency, but now I prefer to leave the spare kitchen sink behind and try to bring only what we’ll actually use.

The problem is that in five months we’ll use a lot of stuff.   When you have a lot of interests, you have a lot of gear.   So there’s a balancing act between various hobbies, avocations, and (in my case) professional equipment.   We’ve got everything we need for snorkeling, hiking, backpacking, photography, bicycling, and homeschooling.   We are equipped for sun and rain, sickness and health, warm and cold, east and west.   That takes a lot of space.

So we dig through all the storage and re-evaluate everything we have in an effort to turn up things that can be offloaded.   Digging through the trailer takes time but it yields many surprises (“I didn’t know we still had that!”) and occasionally some interesting memories.   There are tools that remind me of hard-earned lessons, like my TorqueStik and spare wheel studs.   There are a half dozen boxes of tea, which reminds me that (a) my wife is a packrat when it comes to tea and (b) we’ve made a lot of interesting tea-related stops in our previous travels.   Half of those tea boxes will go into the “storage unit” (house) to make room for other things, like the 10,000 exotic spices and ingredients that Eleanor carries at all times.   (This permits her to make dinners based on Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, and French cuisine on a whim.   Which is one of the many reasons why I love her.)

This process is our trailer weight-loss program.   Airstreams are like people; they tend to gain weight over time and it is much harder to lose it than to gain it.   Between trips we do what we can to trim the excess, because it is a drag (literally) pulling four tons up a Colorado mountain pass.   To ensure that we’ve got the trailer down to target towing weight of about 7300 lbs., and ensure that the geometry of our towing setup is optimal, I have weighed the tow vehicle empty at the local truck stop.   Once the trailer re-packing is done, I’ll weigh the entire rig and compare the weight on each axle to ensure that is well distributed.   If not, I’ll redistribute some items and adjust the tension on the weight distributing hitch.   This is an essential technique to “tune” the rig for good handling.   Being diligent about it has paid off for us many times on curvy roads and slippery conditions.

Setting up the Airstream is an interesting exercise, but I’ve been more engaged in business exercises lately.   We have launched a new “Online Edition” of Airstream Life magazine, and it looks like a winner.   It’s basically a mini-version of the printed magazine, about 15-20 pages per issue, which anyone can read for free online.   Developing this was harder than it looks, and I’ve been at it for a few months.   But it was worth the effort because now we’ve got a product for people who are considering joining the Airstream community. About half of the people who have subscribed to the Online Edition (free) don’t yet own an Airstream.   I figure we’ll get a lot of them to subscribe to the print publication eventually, but more importantly the Online Edition gives us a way to talk to people before they buy, and that’s really great for advertisers.

The downside of this is that now I’ve got yet another online responsibility to manage.   Website, this blog, online magazine, photo/video community, and contact form … it adds up to a lot of time tied to the computer.   And that explains why you won’t be seeing me on Facebook or Twitter.   I’m already overexposed, and my irises are starting to bleach from too much time staring at the screen.   The various Airstream Life websites serve hundreds of thousands of pages each month.   My email address is printed 10,000 times a quarter in the magazine.   I don’t think anyone really needs to hear more from me.   I’ve always tried to go for quality over quantity, and I think the social networking websites like those I mentioned tend to go the other way.

Since I’m wandering far afield of my original topic, I may as well cover a few other details.   My trusty Nikon D70 got glitchy on me in the past few months, and it is now in the hands of Nikon for service.   It won’t be back until after we hit the road, so I’m having it shipped to us in Texas.   In the meantime, I am expecting UPS to show up this afternoon with the replacement Nikon D90, a terrific upgrade that I’ve been anticipating for quite a while.   It will wear the Nikkor 18-200mm zoom most of the time.   When it returns, the D70 will be my backup camera, mounted with either the superwide Tamron 10-24mm lens or my sweet new Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens for low-light indoor work.

Now I’ve just got to figure a comfortable way to carry both cameras at once.   A new camera bag will be required soon, I can tell you that.   My photo gear has increased to two bodies, three lenses, a flash, an assortment of filters, cables, chargers, and numerous spare batteries.   Maybe this is why the Airstream is gaining weight…

The blog will continue as we travel this summer.   Anyone who is coming to the International Rally in Madison WI (late June) can meet up with us during the Vintage Open House, and of course we’ll be at the Vintage Trailer Jam in August.     We’ll also be at the 118th Birthday Celebration of Dr Pepper in Dublin TX in a couple of weeks.   So ride along and let’s see what adventures ensue.