Little Rock AR-Louisville KY

Now remember why some people don’t like roadtrips.  Driving all day just to crash, exhausted, at some hotel with strange disinfectant smells, and then having to hunt up some restaurant in an unfamiliar neighborhood, just isn’t fun.  It’s work.  You might as well be a long-haul trucker and get paid for it.

Which is what I am right now.  This is no pleasure cruise, this is a mission.  I’m going up to Michigan in December for the only possible thing that could get me to drive voluntarily to the north in wintertime: our beloved vintage Airstream.  This week I am a long-haul trucker, and thank goodness, I’ve completed nearly the deadhead portion of my trip.  In a couple of days comes the payload.

There is nothing I can say about today’s drive that would be of interest to anyone.  Perhaps later I’ll feel differently, but my overwhelming sense at this moment is that I’ll never get those three days back.  I should have been listening to my Spanish lessons on the iPod so that at least I’d be getting something out of the time, instead of listening to 300+ songs and seven podcasts.  Although I have to admit, Season 2 of The Red Panda is pretty good.

What did we do on long roadtrips before the iPod?  Oh, I remember, we would either flick around for tolerable radio stations every ten minutes, or bring a bunch of cassette tapes.  In college I had a bag loaded with about 20 BASF Chrome cassettes, each one holding a recording of a vinyl album (approximately, since the tapes were 45 minutes per side and sometimes that wasn’t enough to fit both sides of the LP).

[Editor’s note: Anyone born after 1980, please consult with an older person for translation of the terms “LP,”  “vinyl record,” and “chrome cassette.”]

The cassette tape solution was good for the times, but not good enough.  During a trip to the Florida panhandle for Spring Break I discovered that my collection of Pink Floyd tapes did not suit my college compatriots, and ended up listening to AC-DC’s “Back in Black”about seven or eight times.  I haven’t been able to listen to that band since.  My iPod carries about 2,000 songs at present, enough to carry me to the great wet north and back.

One thing I noticed today is that thanks to the Interstate highway system, it is possible to cross this great country not only without seeing anything, but without speaking to anyone.  The iPod provides entertainment.  Automated fuel pumps eliminate the need to speak to gas station attendants.  Pointing and grunting will get you through most fast-food places.  On Sunday I didn’t utter a single word to anyone except myself and my wife (via phone) until the moment I checked into the hotel and found myself trying to find my voice for the desk clerk.  (No, I didn’t grunt to order lunch … I skipped it on Sunday.)  Too many days of that and I’d probably start to lose contact with humanity.  I’ll make up for it in the next two days as I contact a whole convention center full of humanity.

So here I am in the final hotel of the trip, facing the same questions I’ve faced the past two nights.  Where to get dinner?  Why does the room smell like deodorizer?  What did it smell like before the deodorizer?

Down the street is a Denny’s and a Cracker Barrel.  It is often said that the prevalence of chain restaurants and hotels make all American cities homogeneous, but I’m not fooled. I know I’m not at home in Tucson.  (For one thing, I don’t stay in hotels and eat at Cracker Barrel when I’m home.)  Identical services across the country are a blessing and a curse.  It’s of little comfort to me to know exactly how boring the room will be before I get to it.  It’s of no interest to eat the same stuff I could get at a thousand other chain restaurant locations.  I’m in Louisville — I want to taste it, smell it, feel it.

But not tonight. Today I have driven 522 miles, watched a whole lot of pine trees and concrete go by, and I can’t stand to drive another inch in search of somewhere more interesting to have dinner, especially not now during Louisville rush hour in the winter dark.  I guess that’s what keeps the chains alive. They are convenient, and that’s the blessing.

Tonight I have to go out again, to pick up Brett at the airport.   We’ll run down our action plan for the show, and then hit the convention center floor early tomorrow.  I will bring my camera, so if there’s something interesting by Airstream on display, you’ll see it here first.

Nuggets of wisdom

The drive across Texas is the source of many comments from those who’ve done it.  Mostly people say they can’t believe how long it takes.  I think there would be more humorous comments if the drive did not cause one’s brain to turn to mush.  That may be what happened to mine, somewhere in the vast vagueness that is I-20 from Midland to Dallas.  In any case, I survived but I remember very little about the day other than the fact that it was LONG.

Really long. The car computer says I logged over 650 miles today driving to Little Rock, Arkansas.  (For comparison to yesterday, average speed 66 MPH,  fuel economy 27.7 MPG.)  All I know is that I’m glad it’s over.  The day started rough.  The hotel room was hot and the air conditioner was ferociously noisy.  The discomfort woke me up at 12:30, 2:00 and 4:00.  I finally gave up about 5:15 a.m., had breakfast, showered, and hit the road by 6:40 a.m.  I figured if I couldn’t get a full night of sleep, at least I could start early.  I was on I-20 in the pre-dawn dark, watching the sky lighten to a streaky gray with occasional light showers.

By 9 a.m. I was already flagging and had to break out the emergency can of caffeinated Pepsi.  I normally avoid caffeine, since it affects me rather dramatically, completely preventing sleep for up to six hours, but in this case it was exactly what I needed. It took me 90 minutes to finish the can, and it kept me startlingly awake until late in the afternoon. But the downside is that when it wears off, all the accumulated sleep deficit hits.  For me, that was somewhere between Texarkana and Arkadelphia, and I had really wanted to make it to Little Rock so I’d have a shorter day tomorrow (522 miles).

I’m lucky to have a good support network. I got Eleanor on the speakerphone and she checked hotels out for me on her computer while I drove up I-30.  By Arkadelphia, we decided I could make it to Little Rock and she got me a nice room online at a sweet rate.  I made my once-a-day stop for diesel fuel outside Little Rock (25.1 gallons to across most of Texas and big chunk of Arkansas, not bad!) and found the hotel just before the sky went dark and a line of thunderstorms swept through. It’s nice to have concierge service, and nice to have someone to talk to once or twice in a ten hour day of highway solitude.

chicken-nugget.jpgEver since we went through the Thanksgiving leftover cycle I’ve been craving some Chinese food, so as soon as I had checked in I asked the front desk clerk for the closest Chinese take-out restaurant.  It turned out to have changed names (twice!) since the front desk menu was printed, and three times since the GPS database was updated. I finally gave up on looking for it and pulled into the parking lot of another nearby Chinese restaurant, which turned out to be the one I was looking for, two generations of owners later.

I can see why it keeps going out of business.  Even for a Sunday night in downtown Little Rock, this place was dead.  When I see a staff of three in a big empty restaurant, I always wonder how places like that manage to pay just the electric bill.  Certainly the $9 they charged me for “Ginger Chicken” wasn’t going to keep the doors open for long.  The Ginger Chicken turned out to be more like nuggets of theoretically chicken-related parts, in meatball form, slathered in a generic brownish sauce with sliced onions.  It could have been the mushed-up brains of other people who just drove I-20, for all I knew.  The rice was good, and I was hungry enough to eat anything, so it didn’t matter much until I got to the end and started to wonder what the heck it was I just ate.  Road food is rarely good for you.

I MUST get some sleep tonight. On Eleanor’s advice, I checked the air conditioner as soon as I checked in, to verify that it won’t make the horrific monster-trapped-in-the-dungeon noises of the other one, so I’m clear on that issue.  I don’t need to leave before dawn to make it to Louisville on schedule tomorrow, so I may take a couple of hours to lounge around the room or go for a walk.  (Other than walking to the bathroom at rest stops, I don’t think I’ve used my legs since Friday.) I should probably arrive in Louisville looking and feeling somewhat human, since the two days there at RVIA will be a health-sapping whirlwind of bad food and hyperactivity.

blue_hand_2.jpgSpeaking of human appearance, the pecan stain from last week has faded completely except for three of my fingernails.  I will have to trim them very short because the black stain simply will not come out.  I’ll do that at the last possible moment on Tuesday, and hope that I can remove all the grim reminders of my pecan-shucking folly. Or, I can just wear blue gloves and get Brett to do it too.  (The geeks in the crowd know what I’m talking about.)

One more day …

I-10 from Tucson AZ to Midland TX

I woke up at 4 a.m.  Without looking at a clock I knew it was far too early to be getting up for the big drive today.  The Great Horned Owl was still shrieking in the back yard, warning off his potential rivals in between soft hoots.  His warning call is like the screech of a frightened small child, and it always wakes us up.  But he never does it in the morning, so I knew I had to get back to sleep if I was to be ready for ten hours of driving.  I rolled over and tried not to think about what lay ahead.

The strange thing is that we go on roadtrips all the time, and I don’t have this sort of nervous anticipation normally.  Something felt different about this one, but why should I be surprised?  Traveling without E&E, hotels instead of Airstream, and a rigid 600-mile per day schedule.  Everything was different.

Well, I did get a few hours more sleep, and was finally rolling away at 7:50 a.m.  The trip started off with a bad omen: the GPS would not power on.  It worked fine just two days ago.  Why should it suddenly die?  I took it along anyway, thinking that by wiggling some cords or perhaps applying some other form of persuasion I would get it working again along the way. The day’s route was as simple as could be.  Get on I-10, and stay there for 600 miles.  I didn’t think I’d need it for a while.

I did stop at The Thing in Arizona, but the sky was gloomy and my photographer alter ego said to try again on the way back, when I have the Airstream in tow.  I took a few half-hearted snapshots of the exterior and continued on.

Along the road I counted five Airstreams, all headed west.  One of them was a Caravel, just like the one I’m going to pick up, which gave me a pang of wistfulness.  I wished I had it in tow already, and I was heading for Big Bend National Park instead of Louisville.

But for today there was the compensation of just driving the heck out of the car without anything in tow. Mercedes enthusiasts says it is “autobahn ready,” which means theoretically I should be able to go 150 MPH with no trouble.  In reality the car is electronically limited to 130 MPH, and even in Texas that’s a big ticket.  The speed limit was 75 through Arizona and New Mexico, and once I was about 30 miles past El Paso things opened up to a neat 80 MPH, which meant I could at least flirt with what the car could do in those big empty spaces between El Paso and Van Horn.

midland-motel.jpgBy the numbers:  622 miles total driving, average speed 73, fuel economy a startling 26.7 miles per gallon!  I hadn’t expected such good fuel economy at 80 MPH, but speed doesn’t seem to affect the fuel economy on this car very much.  After 622 miles the computer said I could go another 59 miles, but when the orange “low fuel” indicator went on I decided to call it quits.  I was in Midland, where I had planned to stop anyway.  It was just a matter of finding the hotel I had reserved.  And then I remembered: no GPS.

The dead Garmin is still a week inside it’s one-year warranty period, so tomorrow I’ll call for a return authorization, and when it comes back we’ll have a GPS for each car.  In the meantime, I need a functioning one to navigate my way around half a dozen cities on this trip.  Fortunately, all along America’s highways one can find handy superstores, so I stopped at the first one I saw and bought a replacement GPS.

And with that, I found my hotel, grabbed some takeout dinner, unloaded my valuables into the room, and settled in to update you with the millionth re-run of “Caddyshack” playing on the TV in the background.  I think the presence of a cheap room, cheap takeout, and a brainless old movie at the end of the day completes the requirements for this to be an official roadtrip. It has been a long day, and tomorrow another long day lies ahead.

The ghost of Thanksgiving future

For us, Thanksgiving was last weekend.  We’re splitting off into different directions tomorrow, and Eleanor wisely did not want to make a her normal “ginormous” meal and then have nobody around to eat the leftovers, so we did the big feast last Sunday.  Three of us and two guests cut into the delicious goodies Eleanor made, and we barely made a dent.

We’ve been eating leftovers since.  Twice a day, every day, it’s turkey, gravy, roasted vegetables, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, pumpkin soup — probably the same sort of thing that you are salivating over today.  Well, let me tell you, enjoy it while it’s still a novel experience.  Because I’m your future, and I can tell you that in three days, you’ll be begging to be released from leftover jail.


(Image credit: Brad Cornelius)

Emma mutinied this morning.  I was prepared to surrender on Tuesday but after seeing how much was remaining of that 23-lb bird I felt it was my husband-ly duty to persevere, even though my mouth was craving something — anything — different. We managed to wipe out the soup, 90% of the vegetables, the cranberries, 80% of the stuffing, and the gravy, but that darned fowl is still sitting in the refrigerator, taunting us from under a tent of aluminum foil.  When Emma cracked, I lost my willpower as well and we declared the season of Thanksgiving leftovers officially over.

Tonight I want Chinese food with lots of unidentifiable MSG-laden sauce.  Or maybe spaghetti with spicy meatballs and lots of chopped garlic.  Anything that has pungent odors for the palate and alternate textures for the tongue will do.  Just please, no more “white meat or dark meat?” this week.

So without traditional Thanksgiving things to do, we are spending the day packing.  E&E are flying up to Vermont for a visit to the seasonal gloom and wet (just kidding, they’re really going to see family), and that is an adventure that requires much packing, analysis, unpacking and repacking (repeat ad infinitum).  I am leaving for a major roadtrip to Louisville KY and Grand Rapids MI, among other spots.

The roadtrip will be a screamer compared to the way we usually travel.  Being solo, I can roll out of bed, jump in the car, and knock off 800 miles before dinner.  Bathroom stops will be brief & infrequent, lunches can be eaten with one hand at 75 MPH (or during a very short rest area stop), and the route will be 100% high-speed Interstate highway.  My route is easy to remember — I-10, I-20, I-30, and I-40 — but being Interstates, the drive itself should be pretty forgettable.  Thanks to the wide-open spaces of the west, in my entire first day I will pass through only one major metro that could slow me down (El Paso).  The rest of the time the speed limit is 75-80 MPH and there’s not a whole lot to bother stopping for.

Actually, I might detour very slightly in Arizona to drop in on “The Thing.”   I know what The Thing is (but I’m not telling!)  My reason for stopping is to get a few photos for an upcoming article in Airstream Life (Spring 2010) about “America’s Favorite Tourist Traps.”  But other than that, I don’t plan to stop for much until at least Odessa, TX.  That’s 600+ miles from Tucson.   I don’t even expect to stop for fuel, ’cause like the other Mercedes Bluetec diesels, the GL320 can get up to 700 miles out of a tank when there’s no Airstream dragging it down.  That’s a feature I haven’t had a chance to test out yet.  So with a few distractions like these I’ll try to make the trip more interesting for myself.

In case you are wondering, the thing pictured above isn’t The Thing.  But it’s a Thing anyway.  I don’t know what the heck it is, really.  It seems to be the result of Brad working out a nightmare he had.  He’s a brilliant illustrator and that means sometimes odd things come out of his head.  He’s the guy responsible for the Alumapalooza poster design, as well as all the Tin Hut illustrations that have appeared in Airstream Life, and if you come to Alumapalooza next summer you can meet him.

One last thing to do tonight: cut up the remaining turkey and freeze it.  Eleanor says there’s enough left that we can have it for Christmas, and the carcass will become soup.  It seems the ghost of this turkey will be haunting us for some time to come.

The pecan harvest

One things leads to another in a most interesting way, if you care to think of things that way.

Follow me on this, if you can.  It all started a week ago, when I fixed up my old beater bicycle so that I could go for rides around Tucson.  Yesterday I hopped on that bike and took my first substantial bike ride in many years.  Tucson has a very nice multi-use paved trail along the Rillito River, 11 miles in each direction, which I happily rode to the very end.

The trail ends abruptly at railroad tracks.  I stopped to rest and drink water, while watching the long freight trains scream by.  An older man was walking along the tracks with his dog, and we started talking. He’s retired, but volunteers extensively and writes Christian novels.  I heard about the time his dog was bitten by a rattlesnake (a distinctive fang scar still on his snout), and the places they walked together.

He pointed out a grove of pecan trees across the tracks, on the east side of Interstate 10, in which he often walked.  The pecan grove is owned by a local gravel company, but as long as he stayed clear of the gravel pits and helped keep the orchard clean of trash, they let him walk his dog there.  “The pecans are ripe now,” he told me.  “You may as well go pick them before they all rot.”


So this morning Emma and I drove over and found the trees.  We had never been in a pecan grove before, so it was mostly for the novelty of picking pecans that we went.  With Emma on my shoulders, it was easy to pick a partial bag of pecans in fat green husks.  We took just enough to have a small batch to eat, since at the time we weren’t sure of the proper procedure for cleaning or roasting them.

Pecan husks split nicely along a natural segmentation into quarters.  We proudly took our bag home and demonstrated for Eleanor how to husk them. And then we realized something:  pecan husks stain your fingers dark brown.  Permanently.

I have probably the worst-looking fingers in the family because I shucked more pecans than anyone, but all of us have degrees of stained fingers now.  Nothing removes the stain because it penetrates the skin, like a henna tattoo.

Normally I would find this amusing and nothing more, but it just happens that next week I am scheduled to attend a major RV industry conference.  I’m going to shake hands with our current and future clients — or at least, I would if they would want to touch me.  I may have to walk around with my hands behind my back, like Prince Charles, although body language experts say this is viewed as untrustworthy.  Well, is it better to look like I haven’t washed my hands since I mucked out the stalls?

I suppose I could have a t-shirt imprinted that says, “Pecan Farmer.”  Or I could look on the bright side of this:  now I’m less likely to catch a cold while I’m up in the frozen north on the business trip. Or I could wear gloves and pretend I’m afraid of germs — or just unfathomably fashionable.

Apparently abrasive cleaners can have some effect, eventually.  So, having fixed up my bicycle last week means that I’ll be scrubbing the skin off my fingers every day this week.   And that’s how one thing led to another.