Lakeside Amusement Park, Denver, CO

The leisure of the past few weeks is over; now it’s time to get hustling.  The next month or two will involve a lot of travel, primarily by Airstream of course, but also a few unavoidable airline flights and at least one good road trip next week.  Today it’s Denver, a quick and easy hop from Tucson by air, where I am visiting a client, Timeless Travel Trailers, with Brett.

In the best mode of business, we concluded all the serious stuff in a matter of a few hours and then got on with the good stuff, which in this case was a late dinner at some local Italian place and an evening at Lakeside Amusement Park.  The park is one of those historical time capsules, begun in 1908, massively remodeled in 1934, and owned by the same family for decades.

I like the place.  It’s the kind of old park that hardly exists these days, right off off I-70 despite the pressure of development in the surrounding area.  It’s a tad rough around the corners and a few of the original buildings are in disrepair & closed, but we met the owners of the park (it’s small)  and found that they are extremely dedicated to the place. They are actively investing in refurbishing old rides, bringing in new ones, improving the landscaping, etc.  The lakeside setting is very nice, lit up with the reflections of neon signs from the classic rides and circumscribed by a narrow-gauge steam (or diesel) railroad that brings you far out and back in 13 minutes.

At night the park comes to life with the lights and crowds that fill the parking lot, even mid-week.  Admission is just $2.50 and all-you-can-ride bracelets were $17.75, although the price varies a little depending on day of the week and special promotions.   The park was packed last night with families seeking fun on a warm summer evening, even well past 11 p.m, when we were still bouncing from the bumper cars (“Autoskooter”) to the Ferris wheel to the ultimate ride in the park, the Cyclone roller coaster.  (Brett captured the picture of me exiting the Autoskooter.)

No question, the Cyclone is just plain awesome.  It’s one of those great rickety all-wood coasters from the golden era of amusement parks that you can ride again and again.  It starts with a dark curving tunnel, then the inevitable steep ascent where you get a good look at the peeling paint and wonder “is this thing safe?” –but you don’t get much time to think about it because in a few seconds you’re barreling through impossible turns and holding on for dear life.  About two and a half minutes later it’s over, depending on how fast the Cyclone is running that night.  (The speed varies with temperature.) We got a fast ride according to experienced folks who knew it well.

I particularly liked the little architectural surprises that are everywhere in the park.  One advantage of being old and not modernized is that the rides like the Wild Chipmunk, the Spider, Scrambler, Tilt-A-Whirl, and Hurricane have terrific mid-century design ticket booths, all different.  In other parts of the part you’ll see great Art Deco, both inside and out.  Curious and quirky features abound, right up to the giant neon exit sign that says simply, “R E D I T” (Latin for “to return”).

Closing hours vary but we were there until nearly midnight and the rides were still open.  I saw the last couple of riders puttering by on their blue Skoota Boats at 11:30, and there were still people dropping in at the snack bar for a cotton candy, Icee, or popcorn.  I have a feeling we’ll be here again, perhaps on our trip coming back east from Vermont in September.


Tucson neon hunt

Last night Carlos and I went back out on the prowl for neon and other historic signs.  We’ve been documenting the signs for over a year now, on and off.  Now we’re nearly done, with over 80 separate sites documented by my camera so far.

We picked up another five sites last night — a big night — in about two and a half hours of zipping from one location to another, rapid shooting with the Nikon, and then leaping into the car to race to the next spot before the light faded, like a pair of crazed scavenger hunters.  We’re getting pretty good at it now.  Carlos figures out a plan to hit the unlit signs in the “golden hour” before dark, works in some of the signs that combine neon and paint for twilight, and finally a route to all the neon signs that are still working in the darkness.  I drive and take pictures.

Tucson got aggressive about eliminating obnoxious signage after Life magazine printed a picture of one of our main boulevards and deemed it “the ugliest street in America.  Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung the opposite way.  Our historic buildings are nearly all gone, the dramatic neon signage that helped define the city is a mere shadow of its former glory, and that boulevard that was once the ugliest street in America has been promoted to being as ugly and generic as any other street overrun with retail chains.  Progress has its price.

In the past few months, Tucson finally passed the Historic Landmark Signs Ordinance, which amends the sign code to allow a narrowly-defined set of old and currently non-conforming signs to be taken down, refurbished, and returned to use.  The idea is to keep the most historic, attractive, and irreplaceable old signs in Tucson, lest the town become just another piece of generic America.

Since we started shooting these signs, we’ve noted that several have since disappeared, been horribly “tagged” by spray-painting vandals, or have been destroyed by neglect.  There’s a sense of urgency to the project, as we can actually see the remnants of Tucson’s 50’s and 60’s era sign architecture vanishing as we work.  It’s like we’re driving a 1960s muscle car with 1/8 of a tank of fuel remaining, and we can watch the fuel needle moving toward “E” as we search for a gas station.  I find the job exciting because we are capturing history, depressing because we are watching it disappear, and inspiring because a lot of civic-minded people are volunteering their time to try to bring it back.

I don’t yet know where this will end up, but we expect it will eventually become a book.  We’d like to raise awareness and appreciation of historic signs, especially neon.  Much work lies ahead: organizing, researching, writing, designing, and probably fund-raising. Right now we’re just having fun documenting and researching.  It may be years before this turns into something publishable, but that’s fine.  It’s a journey and for me a wonderful tutorial on Tucson’s modern history, neighborhoods, and architecture.  Not a bad way to spend a few 100-degree summer evenings.


Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!

(Apologies to the good Doctor Seuss for ripping off his title)

The good part of things being quiet lately is having time to think.  So I strapped on my cap and fired up the thinker, and one of the things I thought about last week was that my office is a disaster area.

I don’t mean where I work at home.  I have a space rental office in town that is primarily a warehouse for old magazines and our store items.  It is a windowless box in an office building that I hardly ever visit.  My capable associates, David and Hannah, drop in a few times each week to fulfill store orders (mostly Newbies books these days) and mail out back issues, and other than that the place is empty.  I go there once a week to pick up checks and mail. The mail is usually a note from a subscriber (enclosed with their renewal check) that tells me how much they love Airstreaming or Airstream Life magazine.

So when I’m feeling a little down from working too much or a rough day, I can drive a few miles to the office and get a little morale boost in the form of something to deposit in the bank and an “atta boy” or two from a fellow Airstreamer.  There have been days that my entire perspective has been changed by just a single $24 check with a nice handwritten note paper-clipped to it.  I do love my subscribers, they’re such positive and fun people.

But lately the office itself has been looking a little shabby.  Since we are all just dropping in for a few minutes, nobody really takes ownership of it.  We handle a lot of paper in there, which means little scraps get all over the carpet, dust accumulates quickly, and flattened cardboard boxes nearly fill the place every few months.  I scheduled Hannah last week for a couple of hours to join me in what will likely be our annual cleaning event.  I brought the vacuum cleaner and cold drinks, Hannah brought the moral fortitude that comes with being in her 20s.

The big problem in the office is that we had an abundance of certain old issues of Airstream Life magazine.  Back in the early days I was required to buy 5,000 copies from the printer as a minimum.  Of course back then I didn’t have anywhere near 5,000 subscribers, and it was a massive financial strain to pay for those copies and then figure out how to sell them.  I donated a lot of copies to rallies to get the word out, distributed them for free to Airstream dealers, and worked hard to sell them as back issues.   For the most part this was successful.  In later years, when we finally exceeded 5,000 subscribers, I was able to order more precisely and so these days we have very few leftovers.

Part of the office cleanup job was to inventory what’s left.  We have no copies of issues published before #6 (Fall 2005), and no more than 200 copies of any other issue (far fewer in most cases).  Out of 29 issues published to date, 20 of them are still available in very limited quantities.

I’ve decided I want to clear out the back issues.  The IKEA “Expedit” storage unit I use in the office is full and it’s time to make space.  So here’s a bit of self-promotion. Airstream Life back issues are going on sale for the first time ever.  Single copies are still $8 apiece.  But if you want every back issue of Airstream Life we have in stock, they are now 40% off when purchased as a set.  In other words, all 20 remaining back issues — the equivalent of five years of Airstream Life — are just $96 plus shipping.  And when they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

I can’t take credit for this idea, because the thinking was really done by David.  I invited him to join me last night for a pizza and he rewarded me with a little brainstorm of ideas, of which this was only one.  (I think that makes dinner tax-deductible, too. I should have paid with the company credit card.) It’s a small thing but I’ve learned that the small things matter in a small business.  Do enough small things right and pretty soon it adds up.  Cleaning the office led to a pizza-fueled discussion, which led to a good idea.  I made things neater, got fed, had a nice chat and now we can sell the last of the back issues.  If every day went that way, I’d be a pretty lucky guy.

Perfect lightning

Living an Airstream you tend to be more attuned to the weather.  Perhaps that’s because you’ve got less “house” surrounding you and therefore feel closer to the elements.  Two inches of fiberglass sandwiched by aluminum sheet is all that protects you from the threat of rain, snow, high winds or hail, and when precipitation comes down it makes a musical racket above your head.  Whatever is happening out there is something you can’t easily ignore.

This freaks people out at first, especially the first time they hear hail nuggets pinging off the aluminum, but eventually (I’ve found) the weather becomes an old friend that visits regularly, and rarely is it something to fear.  I particularly appreciate the sight of far-off lightning in the summer, which in the summer monsoon season of Arizona far outshines Fourth of July fireworks.  Now, out of the Airstream, I still pay more attention to the weather than I used to.

All summer I’ve been waiting for the perfect thunderstorms to come through Tucson.  By my definition, the perfect thunderstorms are those that arrive after sunset and dance around the city about twenty miles away.  They are discrete cells, surrounded by clear air, and often arrayed in a line that slowly marches by.  When this happens, we can see the lightning show but avoid the rain and high wind, and conditions are perfect for nighttime photography.

Eleanor had wanted to be here for such a night with hours of lightning.  There was one lovely evening when we drove up the mountain to an overlook and watched a few distant storms, but I’ve written about that already.  The “perfect” line did not occur before she flew back to Vermont, much to her regret.

Last night I began to see rapid flashes through the closed shades on the windows.  I had to go look from the front step, and sure enough it looked like a line of storms had set up to the south and west of Tucson.  I could see at least three distinct storms, each flashing like fireflies so often that the sky lit up every 15-20 seconds.

Even though I was dressed for bed, I had to grab the tripod and set up the camera.  My usual lightning photography gear is the Nikon D90, tripod, Tamron 10-24 super wide angle lens, and a headlamp (so I can see to adjust camera settings).  In this case, it was augmented by silk pajamas as I stood out on the concrete sidewalk in front of our house and snapped over a hundred time exposures ranging from 12 to 30 seconds.

Unlike my session last summer, I opted to let the exposure run a little longer, so that the sodium lamp glow of Tucson would give the sky an orange-pink cast.  This made a few lightning strikes over-expose, so after a particularly good and distinct bolt I would cover the lens with my hand until the timer ran out.

Lightning photography is fun because you never know what you’ll get and it’s a constant chase game.  The storms move across the sky, some peter out and others gain strength, and all you can do is try to guess where they’re going to hit next, set up an exposure, and hope for good luck.  Southern Arizona monsoon storms help out by providing lots of lightning — much more than we get in the northeast — so even an amateur has hundreds of strikes to work with.

The storms continued all night.  I finally wrapped up my photo session around 11:30 when things seemed to be waning, but in the middle of the night a new set came through and woke me several times with ear-splitting crashes and house-shaking booms.  At dawn another set came through, finally bringing us the first rain of the night.  When I finally dragged myself out of bed, the ground was wet, the sky was gray, and the air felt like a Florida summer morning, ripe with humidity and the smell of things growing.  It will stay like that for half the day, and then things will clear up back to the normal clear blue skies of the desert … until the next time.

More photos from last night on Flickr.

And more from 2010