Happier when delayed

One of the nicest things about traveling by trailer is that you aren’t locked to a fixed schedule, most of the time.  Last night, when it was obvious that Eleanor and Emma were going to be completely stressed trying to hit our target departure time, I bowed to reality and suggested we simply delay our launch long enough to allow everyone to complete their final tasks in a relaxed fashion.

It was actually a pretty easy call.  Had we continued to aim for the 10 a.m. Thursday departure, Eleanor would have been up until 1 a.m., Emma would have been anxious about forgetting something, and neither of them would get a good night’s sleep.  We’ve been in this situation before, and it has worked out only because I do the driving and the two of them can collapse into the car and doze for a few hours on the first day.

But this time Eleanor is following in the Miata, and so she needs to be alert and feeling good.  So it made sense to offer a 24-hour extension last night to which, after considering, Eleanor reluctantly agreed.  She had really wanted to hit the target — a phenomenon that you’ve heard me mention before called “get-there-itis.”  It can be dangerous to let your desire to make a deadline overcome your good sense and survival instinct, and it’s hard to see that you’re getting into the get-there-itis trap, so it was my role to look at the situation from a more distant perspective and make the suggestion.

If we’d been traveling by any other method, it would have been expensive or impossible to make such a wholesale change in our plans.  Just imagine the frantic calls to hotels and airlines, not to mention the brutal cancellation or change fees we would have paid.  Traveling by Airstream means we don’t need to have a plan.  We have a rough idea of the route we will take to get to Ohio (with several approximated stops along the way), but we have no reservations, no obligations for the next week, and no need to make apologies.

The route has gotten a little more convoluted than I had first thought.  In a desperate attempt to avoid covering the same asphalt that we’ve run many times before, I have mapped a route through the lonely grasslands, crisscrossing old Route 66 at times, and largely off the Interstate highways.  It may or may not be interesting, but it will certainly be different.  The first part of the route will actually cut our total route miles a little, which is nice considering current fuel prices, but we will negate any savings later by meandering north to Chicago and (after Alumapalooza) up into Canada for a while.  Fortunately, I’ve got a fuel card and I’m not afraid to use it.

I’m also not afraid to just toss the routing and find another way.  Why limit ourselves?  As long as we get to Indiana by Friday the 27th (for dinner with friends), we’re fine.  I really hope we’ll spot something along the way, or think of something, that makes us detour to a completely unexpected and wonderful new experience.  That’s the best part of roadtrips.  There’s a lot of stuff between here and there — let’s go find some of it, when our trailer and our brains are ready for travel, tomorrow.

Go ahead, sweat the small stuff

After a long pause at home base, you can’t just assume that the trailer is completely ready to go, especially when the next trip is an expedition.  We aren’t just going camping for the weekend, we’re going out for what will probably be an 8,000 mile trip and a total of 100-120 days of occupancy in the Airstream.  For the average Airstreamer, that’s several years worth of use.  So I look at the car and the trailer in that light, and try to consider what might go wrong with them in the next few months.

Being only about two years old and well maintained, the car is pretty easy.  I had it serviced in December and I know it will need a maintenance stop again about the time I return to Tucson, so I’ll get that done when I’m back.  The Airstream, however, is much more complex.  Checking it over before a major trip takes the better part of a day, but I usually spread it out over a week or so, just in case I run into something that requires parts.

I start with the easy stuff, by simply using all of the systems in the trailer and verifying that they work as expected.  Eleanor wanted to practice her demonstration meal in the Airstream last night, so that gave us a chance to run the hot water, stove and oven, air conditioning and vents, and lights.  Everything in the kitchen was fine.  Separately I checked the shower, bathroom plumbing, windows, doors.

You might think it’s unlikely that something like plumbing would go bad while the trailer is just sitting, but actually that’s exactly the type of thing I suspect the most.  In the past I’ve found that the toilet seal has begun to leak during storage (which lets sewer gas into the trailer, not a pleasant thing), or that a water pump has died over the winter.  It’s obviously much nicer to discover these things a week before launch, rather than letting it be the first memory of your vacation.  Fortunately, this time the inspection turned up nothing awry.

Even seemingly maintenance-free things like doors and windows often need a little help after storage.  Usually it’s a matter of the hinges getting squeaky, or the seals beginning to stick — things that are easily remedied with a little cleaning and lubrication. There’s a good feeling that goes with checking all the systems and tuning up the small stuff, so it’s a practice that’s beneficial for your mental state as well as the Airstream.  The guy who wrote, “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” wasn’t talking about travel trailers.

After the systems check, I start running through the routine tasks.  This includes filling the fresh water tank, dumping the holding tanks, getting a propane re-fill, lubricating the hitch, charging the cordless drill batteries, plugging in the TPMS (to check the tire pressure), and putting the tools back in place.

That last item bears explanation.  Do you have in the trailer the tools and parts you’d need to:

  • remove a flat tire and install the spare?  (Does the spare have air in it?)
  • temporarily or permanently fix a dragging belly pan  (rivets, drill, rivet tool, washers)
  • replace a burned out clearance, brake, or tail light  (screwdriver, spare bulbs)
  • clean corrosion off the main ground wire, or the metal tabs of the 7-way connector?

I find that the tools tend to migrate away from the Airstream during periods of storage, and need to be put back before a big trip.  So I never take anything for granted until I’ve located the part/tool and verified it’s where it should be in the trailer.

At each step of the routine tasks I have a chance to see if anything has come loose, begun to leak, gotten rusty, or been misplaced.  If insects have made nests in the furnace or water heater, or if packrats have chewed the electrical wires, this is the time to catch those problems.  I also check all the critical and consumable supplies like grease, silicone spray, and maple cookies to see if they are running low.

This time while I was puttering around I spotted the fire extinguisher in the Airstream and wondered if it was still functional.  It’s the original equipment, installed in 2005, and it has been through probably 100,000 miles of travel, which I’ve heard will eventually pack the dry powder to the point that it might not work.  A pair of replacement extinguishers (better ones, in fact) were just $30 at Costco, so I bought them and put one in the house kitchen, too.

While kneeling at the front wheel to fiddle with the TPMS, I took the opportunity to scan the underbelly of the trailer, and spotted a loose aluminum plate.  I’m not yet sure what this plate does (center of image), but regardless I’ll be under there later today with the drill and rivet tool to put it back in place.

Riveting up loose parts or areas of the belly pan is an easy job once you get into your working clothes. I recommend keeping the cordless drill, an assortment of small drill bits (1/8″ – 5/16″), and some buttonhead pop rivets and/or washers in your tool kit, because belly pan rivets have a habit of letting loose at inconvenient times.  (It’s caused by dissimilar metal corrosion — the aluminum rivets are drilled into the steel frame.)

Another problem I found was that the sewer hose was getting a bit elderly, and my cardinal rule of Airstreaming is “Never trust an old sewer hose.” They’re like the brakes on your car, you replace ’em before they break.

I wrote up a bunch of “springtime de-winterizing” tips in my book about Airstreaming (see page 74) and believe it or not I do actually take my own advice once in while, so I have checked the 9-volt batteries in the smoke detectors and inspected the hitch receiver on the Mercedes.  This time the smoke detectors were fine but the digital clock was blinking.  Replacing its batteries reminded me: did we have a bunch of AA and AAA batteries in the trailer? Yes, we did.  More “small stuff,” but all good stuff.

OK, at this point I’ve checked all the systems, verified that the tools and parts are in place, checked for items that may have failed or been damaged during storage, serviced the items that are due, and replaced all the maintenance consumables.  Meanwhile, Eleanor has been packing the household items, which is an even bigger task.  On Wednesday we’ll cross-check each other as we get to the home stretch, and deal with prepping the house itself for its vacation from us.  There’s much more ahead …

Behind the scenes: trip prep

It seems that every year about this time I end up writing the same “gearing up” sort of blog entry.  It’s a little disconcerting to me that we are becoming predictable, but here we are in May once again packing up the Airstream for the summer of travel, exactly as we have done for the past two or three years.  Of course, it’s wonderful that we are about to launch the Airstream again, and our summer plans look very exciting, so I shouldn’t complain.

Even though the general goal is the same, our process and specific tasks are always a little different.  With a growing kid and growing businesses, we have to re-pack and re-think almost every choice as we gradually stock the Airstream.  We have very detailed “pre-departure” checklists that we carry over from year to year, which cover the basics, and we modify those lists as circumstances change.  The lists cover everything:  what we need to pack, preparing the house and cars for storage, notifications, medical reminders, Airstream maintenance, etc., but they can’t account for the changes that happen in our lives over the course of a year, so the lists are constantly mutating.

Eleanor admires the view from 7,000 feet

This year we have several factors adding complexity to the process.  For example, we bought a car to take with us to Vermont, a 1999 Mazda Miata.  Eleanor will follow the Airstream all the way to Vermont in the Miata (stopping every 200 miles to refill the tiny gas tank).  The plan is that she will have the car to use while she is in Vermont for most of three months, and then she’ll sell it as an “Arizona rust-free car” to a northerner who is desperate for an older sports car not riddled with rust.

This of course means that we’ve had to get a 12-year-old car in shape for a cross-country trip. The last few weeks I’ve been sorting it out, and I think I’ve just about got it ready now.  We’ve been driving the Miata daily for purposes of “debugging” it, which has been fun.  A couple of weekends ago Eleanor and I zipped up the curvy Catalina Highway to about 7,000 feet elevation to escape the Tucson heat.  We just talked in the shade of the tall trees for an hour or so, feeling the blissful cool pine-scented air blowing up the mountainside.  There’s nothing like a convertible for moments like that.

Chef Eleanor will make a gourmet dinner while you watch!

Another major factor in our trip prep has been Alumapalooza.  We have so much gear to bring on site that Brett will be towing a filled U-Haul trailer behind his motorhome from Tampa.  Even with that, I’ve got a bunch of stuff to wedge into the my Airstream for Alumapalooza, including Wally Byam books, Newbies Guides, leftover Alumapalooza t-shirts, and literally dozens of door prizes.

Add to that a bit of extra cooking gear, this year.  Eleanor will be doing a cooking demo at Alumapalooza on Saturday, using an actual Airstream galley (stove/oven/sink) on stage.  Her menu will feature pork medallions in a cherry port sauce, along with sides and dessert.   The interesting part is that she’ll prove that anyone can make such a meal, by producing everything right in front of you and explaining how it’s done.

Alumapalooza is as “locked down” as we can make it right now.  Registration is closed, and the schedule is finalized, but of course little surprises keep popping up to keep our lives interesting.  We did have the usual cluster of last-minute cancellations, but mostly for medical reasons rather than high fuel prices.  While nobody is happy about the current fuel prices, it doesn’t seem to be keeping Alumapalooza attendees away.  We will still have about 200 trailers on the field at Airstream during the event.

Also, Airstream came to us at the last minute with a request for a “Product Feedback Session.”  You won’t see this on the schedule posted online, but it will appear in the final printed program that we’ll hand out at the event.  It should be interesting.  They will run two separate sessions for men and women, one hour each, to hear what people think about the current products.

Of course over the past few weeks we’ve been doing the usual trip prep stuff: mapping out possible routes, looking for interesting stops, contacting friends and acquaintances who might be along the way, and dreaming up crazy ideas of things we might want to do.  Most of the good stuff will have to happen after Alumapalooza, since the initial legs of our trip will be rather rushed.  We should have left a week ago, to allow a really nice meander through Utah and Colorado, but there were just too many things to do here in Tucson first.  So we’ll make a beeline — or at least, what passes for a beeline in our world — to Ohio, with relatively few chances to stop and browse.  We’ll make up for that later.

One of my pre-trip projects has been to upgrade the software that runs all of the Airstream Life websites.  We just completed that task this weekend.  Although not much is different from your perspective, I now have the ability to post and edit blogs from my iPhone (among other improvements) which I hope will make it easier for me to blog daily during the busy times.  As you know, I’ve also set up Twitter so that you can follow quick updates from the road and from Alumapalooza, and if you use Foursquare on a mobile phone you might even find me there, too.

We’ve got three days to go before launch and many things yet to accomplish … but I’ll post again this week as the process continues.



… and the funny part was …

I like to see businesses advertising that they are going to do a promotional trip with an Airstream.  Why wouldn’t I?  It means that I’ve got another article to commission for a future issue of Airstream Life.  That’s my bread and butter.


So I was pleasantly surprised to see in the pages of our local “community living” magazine that the Tucson restaurant called KingFisher is advertising some sort of “Road Trip 2011,” and in the ad appears a little Airstream being towed by a vintage pickup truck.

I wonder what that means?  I could not find details about this promotion on their website, but it sounds intriguing.  It would be great if the road trip actually included an Airstream.  All too often the graphic design folks snag a bit of clip-art featuring an Airstream when the planned promotion involves no trailer or all or (far worse) some sort of “white box” trailer instead.  I’ll try to find out.

kingfisher-tucson.jpgBut if they are towing an Airstream, they’ll need to carefully review their towing setup.  The trailer in the picture has a significant problem — can you spot what it is?  (Click on the image for a better view.)

Yes, it’s being towed backwards.   The first tip-off is that the entry door is on the wrong side of the trailer.  Look more closely and you can see that the little lip on the left end is actually the bumper, not the hitch.

Now that I think of it, perhaps it’s a better idea that they not take an Airstream …

What my stomach knows

It might have been the odd dinner we had last night that had me up this morning at 4 a.m., pacing the house in the predawn darkness. Eleanor was inspired by a few items she found at the grocery, and she was having a green vegetable panic, so dinner was a very delicious stir-fry with side dishes of roasted green beans, seaweed salad, and edamame, with spears of pineapple and leftover birthday cake for dessert.  A strange combination, but all things we love and so we all ate too much of it and went to bed feeling like we might have made a big mistake.

Certainly that’s how it felt at 4 a.m., when I reached the climax of a strange dream (I was being arrested at a checkpoint for a crime I did not commit, and telling the cops in the interrogation room, “If you hadn’t let the media get into a frenzy about capturing me, and you had simply called me, I would have come in to talk to you without all this drama,”) — and I awoke rather suddenly with a belly that felt full of clay.  I had the distinct message from my gastrointestinal tract that something wicked this way comes, and that I would be in for a very long and unpleasant day.  This is how I came to find myself pacing the house in the dark and making that prayer common to death-row inmates and those who have been food-poisoned, to be struck down cleanly and not made to suffer too long.

But in fact it was only a minor episode and within a few minutes I was able to get back in bed — just before the eastern sunrise would begin to flood our bedroom, at this time of year —  and begin a completely different and yet equally bizarre dream. So perhaps the cause of my unease is not the combination of Japanes and Hawaiian cuisine followed by extensive butter-cream frosting, but rather that I’ve finally gotten what I have been wishing for: lots of complications to upset my otherwise very mundane suburban life.

You see, this winter in Tucson was a sort of experiment.  I have mentioned recently that this is the longest stay we’ve had anywhere since early 2003.  We came back to Arizona last October planning to mostly stay put and taste the unfamiliar flavor of suburban life for at least five months. I thought this would be an interesting novelty, but in fact there’s only so much of the routine that I can stand, and even with the diversions available in a city this size, life outside the Airstream has become extraordinarily dull.

I confessed this to Eleanor last week — not that it was a huge revelation for her — and she added the fact that Emma has also been wishing to get back on the road, and jealous of the two trips I’ve taken without her (Palm Springs, and my recent Texas adventure).  Eleanor can operate under almost any circumstances, so she is not as cabin-fevered as the rest of us, but certainly would like to see more, do more, live more as the old Airstream slogan goes.

The complications I allude to are several. First, our plans are set for summer with a ridiculously complex program of flying and driving back-and-forth across the country, with stops all over the place and ambitious destinations in mind.  We will be everywhere, starting with our departure from Arizona about May 19, through our return sometime in September or October.  No simple linear plan for us — we have planned zig-zag destinations in something like 14 states and two or three countries.  It will be planes, trains, and automobiles all summer, or more accurately in our case, Airstreams, tents, houses and hotels.  Sometimes all three of us will be together, sometimes just Eleanor and I, and for a large part of the summer we will find ourselves in different places & operating independently.   It all seemed to make sense when we planned it.

The second complication is that I have been looking for an interesting project to focus on while I’m alone, and I’ve found several.  Each could easily consume the entire summer, so logically I should have picked just one.  But somehow I’ve managed to obligate myself to two highly demanding tasks, with little chance of escape or parole, plus the aforementioned ambitious travel plan, plus numerous smaller projects.  And I haven’t yet found enough editorial staff to completely relieve me of the Airstream Life magazine Editor’s job, so I still have that little task to complete as well.

Ah, but it’s all good, as my friend Adam will say.  I’m no longer bored with suburban life. Now I’m slightly terrorized by the prospect of going out in the Airstream for a month and trying to get all things done on a slowish cellular Internet connection while driving 2,000 miles to Alumapalooza, and then to Toronto, and then Vermont for a week, and then all the way back to Texas where I’ll pick up the Caravel, and proceed back to home base — and then to California.

Later in the summer, I’ll have to do the round trip to Vermont again.  I have no one to blame for this craziness but myself.  It’s my curse; I’d rather be dashing madly across the country than idling.  At least, as I go I will have the chance to look up dear friends all over the country, all of whom inspire me.  And when the idling moments happen, I will relish them.  They will be few and precious.  That’s the way I like them.

This is possibly the key to why we did so well in three years of full-time travel.  It’s much nicer to appreciate the time off when you’ve been busy and stimulated by changing scenery. This summer is another experiment in the making, to see if we can find the magic formula of work and play that makes it all balance in our minds … and in my stomach.