Woken up with a bang

You really can’t travel through the central states this time of year without encountering some thunderstorms, and this year they are popping up like spring mushrooms.  Last night was our first encounter, starting with an enormous BANG at 3:25 a.m. that woke us all up. It was one of those “way too close for comfort” sort of lightning strikes, and I won’t be surprised if later this morning I discover a shattered tree in the campground.

In these situations an Airstream is a great shelter, being an aluminum shell, so unless there is an imminent threat of tornadoes, we just unplug the laptops from the local power grid and check the Doppler radar to get an idea of the severity of things.  Last night’s line of storms was pretty active and some tornado damage was reported, but from the radar view I could see that we were getting just the southeastern end of the line.  By the time we were awoken by the Big Bang, the worse was over.

We’ll see more rain today on the highway toward South Bend — it’s virtually unavoidable.  Once we are moving I’ll be watching for high winds and suspicious cloud formations.  If it gets funky out there, we’ll pull over and try to park the Airstream in the lee of a large building or under an overpass.  Hail is the most typical cause of severe damage, but you can never find a shelter when you need one, so the primary consideration is just staying alive if the weather really turns nasty.

We’ve had a few close calls in the past.  I remember caravanning north on I-75 through Michigan after Airstream’s Homecoming 2005, and Eleanor watching the weather radar on the laptop as we rolled north.  Ten minutes before a major line of storms blew through, we exited the highway and found a relatively sheltered spot for the Caravel, then watched the drama unfold from the safety of a nearby restaurant, complete with flying tree limbs.  In 2008, we had a tornado blow right past us and had to take shelter in a Wal-Mart.  A Class A motorhome in the same parking lot as our Airstream blew over onto its side in that episode.  We were also threatened by tornadoes at a rally in Myrtle Beach SC once, and spotted a nice little tornado spinning by at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado. Hail has hit us in at least three different states, but never large enough hail to dent the trailer fortunately.

OK, so let’s look on the bright side.  Today will hopefully be much less eventful.  The Airstream has now had the last of the Arizona dust washed off of it, including the solar panels, so I don’t have to climb on the roof to clean them.  We have no leaks, unlike last year at this time.  And the weather forecast in Jackson Center seems to be FINALLY turning to sunshine for all of next week, which will be great for Alumapalooza.  A dry week in Jackson Center would be a very welcome miracle.

Springfield, IL

We’re 1,500 gritty long miles down our voyage.  The Merc is decorated with hundreds of smashed bugs, or at least it was before I ran it through a car wash tonight.  (The Airstream is likewise adorned, but it won’t get cleaned for a while yet.)  We’re camped in an old city park/campground in Springfield IL, the kind of place we never would have found if it weren’t for RVparkreviews.com.

The campground has a fairly crazy layout, with campsite driveways crossing each other at apparently random angles.  Some sites have water, most have electricity, a couple have sewer, but they’re just as unpredictable as the layout.  Our site has sewer and electricity, but no water.  To reach the utilities we have to block access to another site, but there’s nothing we can do about it.  Nobody cares anyway, since the place is only about 1/3 full and the atmosphere is mellow.  Fifteen bucks got us what we wanted, 30-amp power so we could run the air conditioner against the onslaught of increasing humidity and gradually rising temperatures.

Give me Tucson heat any day.  It was only about 86 degrees here, but with humidity and a flock of mosquitoes to greet us, our only thought was to hide in the Airstream.  Problem was, we were stir-crazy from too many days in the car.  Yesterday’s break in the state park wasn’t enough to make up for all the mileage, even though Eleanor and Emma took the afternoon off to walk around the park and then cruise around the almost-town of Cameron MO in the Miata with the top down.

So at today’s stop I broke with our standard policy, and unhitched the car from the Airstream on this one-night stay so that we could meander into town and hoof it around in open spaces for a while.  Once the sun went down, it was a nice night to roll down the windows and open the moonroof, and feel the damp air blowing around inside the car.  Combined with dinner, milkshakes, and a mile or so of walking, we all started to feel normal again.

We are approaching the point at which we can wind down a little.  We’ve got one more long drive, about 290 miles to South Bend IN, which will include the always-frantic stretch of I-80 from Joliet to the Indiana Toll Road.  Jersey barriers, rough concrete, rabid commuters, and plenty of toll booths are in my future.  It’s an interesting challenge for a trailerite.  Once we survive that, we’ll be able to chill for three nights in South Bend enjoying the company of civilized folk (at least as civilized as our friends get) in the shade of trees.



Wallace State Park, Cameron MO

Many people wrote and called us yesterday to ask if we were OK, so let me get that out of the way first:  We’re fine.  The devastating tornado in Joplin MO and the other thunderstorms were so far east of us that we never even saw a cloud.  It was smooth sailing and clear skies all day as we cruised across Kansas, continuing on Rt 54, and eventually to Kansas City.

But our free pass has ended.  We’re now on the edge of the turbulent weather that is causing the thunderstorms and rain that have plagued the central states for months. There’s no doubt we are going to get the bugs washed off the car soon.

We spent the night in a parking lot in Independence MO last night, so that we could take the Miata in for a check early this morning.  At 7:30 I dropped it off at a local automotive shop for diagnosis of the “Check Engine” light, and it turned out to be a warning that the front catalytic converter wasn’t performing to spec.  Rather than drop $700-900 on a new converter, we reset the code and are waiting to see if it was just a fluke (the washboard road or a tank of funky gas).  Probably the light will come back one, but it won’t hurt the car to fix it later.

We’ve moved about 35 mile north to Wallace State Park in Cameron MO.  It’s a beautiful spot with a little lake and lots of deciduous trees for shade.  We’re nearly alone here, except for one tenter and the landscape staff who are rushing around to get the park ready for Memorial Day weekend.  Peace and quiet, no annoying smoky fires, no mosquitoes (how is that possible?) and Verizon Wireless is pretty solid here.  It’s gotten a bit hotter and more humid, so we sprang for an electric site at $21, and are now set up for work and homeschooling for the day.

We’ll move onward Tuesday, rather cautiously because of the constant threat of severe thunderstorms.  Fortunately, we only need to cover about 540 miles by Thursday, so we can afford to have a slow day or two, and park as needed to avoid heavy weather.  I’ve been using the iPhone and various apps to see the weather as we go, just for geek points.

The constant rain up in the Ohio Valley has been the inspiration for many conferences in the past couple of weeks with the Alumapalooza team.  It’s no surprise that conditions are wet up there, and the weather forecast says we can’t expect much drying before the event date, so we are making alternate plans to ensure that Alumapalooza comes off successfully no matter what.  We’ve secured dozens of parking sites on asphalt both at Airstream and the former Henschen plant, plus we’ve coordinated with Airstream to electrify several dozen alternate sites behind the manufacturing building.  That way we’ll be able to park trailers where conditions are most acceptable, and avoid the really wet spots.  The tent is bigger than last year too — big enough to house all 440 attendees with seating and room for the stage.  So no matter what the weather is doing, we’ll be dry and having fun.

Rt 54 in NM, TX, OK, KS

We made a mistake last night, when we impulsively jumped on the $10 RV park in Carrizozo without checking the Valley of Fire Recreation Area.  After leaving the park in the morning we went the extra four miles to check out Valley of Fire (administered by BLM) and discovered a beautiful campground sitting atop a height of land and surrounded by the exotic and mysterious black lava flow that gives the area its name.

Well-developed trails ran through the lava flow, so access looked easy, and from our experiences at the lava sites in northern New Mexico and Hawaii, I know we would have liked exploring the area.  Best of all, had we stayed here overnight we wouldn’t have heard the trains honking at the grade crossing all night.  It definitely would have been worth it to us to skip cheap full hookups and stay here.

Because of this, Eleanor suggested that we start a list of places we’d like to visit during our return trip in September, which Emma is now keeping on a notebook.  I used to do that sort of thing when we were full-timing, since we kept crisscrossing the country, and it paid off with an abundance of ideas no matter where we were.

As I had expected, following Rt 54 has given us a very different and worthwhile path to follow through New Mexico.  The road rolls and winds through a series of decayed villages and outposts, past mining ghost towns and recreation areas, and tiny slices of humanity clinging to remote homesteads despite the loss of any economic rationale.  There aren’t a lot of people, but for the independent and sharp-eyed traveler the road still has stories to tell.

Part of the story can be gleaned from the dead motel signs, all former neon, advertising places that seem to follow a narrow theme: Sands, Sun & Sand, Desert, Western.  Route 54 joins the famous Rt 66 in Tucumcari, and of course there you’ll find a slew of old road artifacts, but even when Rt 54 travels alone the signs hint of a past when this road was a main byway through the west.

For the most part the road is fairly smooth, but there are a few rough spots.  I hardly notice these in the Mercedes, cushioned by a full air suspension and extensive soundproofing, but poor Eleanor felt every kidney-pounding pothole and pebble thanks to the stiff suspension of the Miata.  That may have accounted for the bathroom breaks every 60-100 miles.

In Oklahoma and Texas the road flattens and straightens as it passes through vast grasslands and mammoth feedlots.  There’s not much to capture your eye except vastness, and the intermittent towns filled with grain silos and businesses that service the farming industry.  Oklahoma has one notable town (name withheld) that seems to be solely populated with single-wides.  The place gives the impression of being one tornado away from returning to grazing land permanently.

In keeping with our plan, we tried to make some mileage today, and ended up going 400 miles to Liberal, KS.  There was no firm plan of where to stay but Eleanor put in one criterium: stay away from the rail line, so she could get a good night’s sleep.  Unfortunately the rail line follows Rt 54 apparently forever.  We immediately rejected the first RV park we spotted along the highway because of the nearby railroad grade crossing.

This led to a minor “find” just a few miles further, the relatively unknown Arkalon Park & Campground, which I believe is run by the city of Liberal.  It’s a mile down a dusty washboard road, across the railroad tracks, and past the house with the Alaskan Husky who will pace your car for several hundred yards.  The campground sits in a shallow river valley, surrounded by tall cottonwood trees.  A railroad trestle is visible perhaps 1/2 mile away, but no crossing, so no horns.  The camp host was glad to see us since most people stop at the first RV park, and take our $15 for an electric site with concrete pad.

The only fault of this park, from my technophile perspective, is that Verizon offers only a weak bit of  “extended” signal here.  That means I have no Internet connectivity and intermittent data services on the iPhone.  I was able to post a tweet from the iPhone last night with some effort, but this blog is being posted from the road after leaving the campground.

We aren’t sure where we are going from here.  It’s still sunny, warm, and dry out in the west, and we know for sure that we will soon cross into the humid and flooded central states.  It’s hard to get psyched to continue plowing east (even though I picked up another obligation yesterday that requires our presence in Elkhart IN by Thursday), so we will probably will find a place to hole up on Monday for purposes of doing some work and malingering.  Also, as we were leaving the washboard road from the campground, the Miata’s “Check Engine” light went on, so we’ll need to look into that sometime (the engine is running fine and there are no other symptoms, so I’m thinking something got jostled loose).  All of those factors define our goal for today: find a halfway decent spot somewhere in eastern Kansas to spend a day or two.

Carrizozo, NM

We’re out of the house box now (and into the tube), traveling northeast.  Even though we left a day later than originally planned, we have plenty of time to get up to our destinations in the swamped central states.  And once we reached the bright sunshine and warm desert sands of New Mexico, I began to wonder if it was such a great idea to zoom-zoom north and away from this fine weather and scenery.

When we reached Alamogordo NM, we paused at the roadside to talk about this.  (Since Eleanor is in the Miata following Emma and me in the Airstream, we have our conferences during rest breaks.)  There was a fierce temptation to pause at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park just south of Alamogordo for a couple of days of hiking.  There are some nice trails in that park that we’ve wanted to explore since our first visit several years ago.

But we have only a few days available for play on this voyage. Stopping this early in the trip would force us to do more driving mid-week, when I’ll be needing time off for work.  Not only that, but we would have to do three or four days of driving in a row, which will make us all crazy.  We eventually decided that it would be better to press on and have a break on Monday and Tuesday even though that break will probably be in some dull flat mid-western town where rain will be in the forecast daily.

So we continued on, up Rt 54 through Tularosa and eventually here to the little town of Carrizozo, elev. 5400, pop. 1000.  The drive was beautiful but thankfully uneventful.  Uneventful is what you want when you are trying to cover miles.  The Miata seems to be in fine shape and turned in a remarkable 37 MPG on its first highway tank of fuel.  Eleanor is finding it reasonably comfortable for all-day driving, and she’s cocooned in there with a collection of CDs, snacks, drinks, and even a few leftover Mother’s Day mums in a tiny jar of water.

Part of the Miata’s exceptional fuel economy must have been the mild tail wind we enjoyed all day, since the Airstream/Mercedes combination gave us 14 MPG at a consistent 65 MPH. I’m glad for it, since it means we can coordinate fuel stops from here on in; each of us can easily go 300 miles with plenty of reserve.

There’s a steep climb out of Las Cruces heading west on Rt 70 to  White Sands Missile Range, which reminded me of the only weakness of the Mercedes as a tow vehicle.  It won’t blast up any grade at highway speed.  I don’t know the grade percentage of this particular stretch of road, but it felt like 10%.  Normally we blow past tractor-trailers on grades, but when steeper than >8% we start to lose steam.  In this case we ended up in the “slow lane” at 30 MPH for about half a mile.  The Merc’s 3-liter diesel six is very torquey, so it always gets there, but not always at top speed.

This is less of an issue than you might think, since such grades are rare and there’s always a lane for slower traffic.  My take is that it’s just a chance to observe the scenery in greater detail.  I actually don’t mind this, since our prior tow vehicle (Nissan Armada, 5.6 liter gas V8) wasn’t much faster on hills and either its engine or transmission tended to overheat when stressed.  The Mercedes doesn’t seem to have that issue, and the transmission is smart enough to tell the engine to limit power if it is in danger of overheating.  So while we weren’t tearing up the asphalt on the way up the mountain, I didn’t have to be concerned about damaging the vehicle.

We are getting back into the routine of Airstream living.  It has been nearly 7 months since we last traveled long-term, with only a week-long trip in December to keep our family-coordination-in-a-tiny-space skills in practice.  Each time we do this Emma takes up more space, which requires small adjustments.  Not only is she physically bigger (now 11 years old and 58 inches tall) but she is more of an individual each time with her own ideas.  When she was little she was more like (oh, don’t take this the wrong way) a pet.  Now she’s a third person.  Fortunately she’s an easy-going third person and isn’t yet trying to tell us everything that we are doing wrong.

We had planned to end up somewhere that was nowhere, and we have succeeded.  Carrizozo is not known for much except the large volcanic flow nearby known as either Carrizozo Malpais or more poetically “The Valley of Fire.”  Otherwise the major feature we have noticed is the active Union Pacific railway line directly adjacent to the diminutive motel/RV park where we spent the night.  The $10 full-hookup price is somewhat offset by the passage of fast-moving Ferromex and UP trains, four or so last night, each of which was obliged to give long and loud blasts of the horn because of the grade crossing nearby.  Still, we managed to get a night of sleep. The plan is to swing by the Valley of Fire overlook on our way out this morning a take a few pictures.  That will be the bulk of our touristic activities today.

Our route deliberately bypasses the quicker Interstates for a scenic tour through New Mexico, the tip of Texas, a fraction of Oklahoma, and a whole lot of Kansas, along old Route 54.  This is a very direct route, which promises to take us through grasslands today.  Perhaps not the most fascinating views but we’ve learned to accept that the central portion of the country is relatively featureless whether you travel through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, or South Dakota. You take what you can get, and at least this is different.  I bet we’ll spot a few oddities worth mentioning on the walkie-talkie, like the giant pistachio nut in Alamogordo that looks like “Audrey II” from Little Shop of Horrors.