Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area, IL

You know we’re on a serious mileage-conquering roadtrip when we drive until 9 p.m. and spend the night at a Cracker Barrel.  That was yesterday.  It’s not as bad as it sounds, since our drive was pretty pleasant and the night was reasonably quiet, but still it’s not an experience I care to repeat any time soon.

We’ve been lucky this year because the weather has been extremely nice as we have descended slowly from the altitudes of Colorado and into the plains and river valleys.  Even tonight, east of the Mississippi, the humidity is low and it hasn’t been scorching hot, so we can boondock without the dramatic suffering of years past, if we care to.  The forecast for Jackson Center OH (the home of Airstream and Alumapalooza) is surprisingly good too, without a lot of thunderstorm action predicted. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The story of today is high winds.  It started off as a light breeze but by 11 a.m. it was a nasty crosswind out of the south and it just wouldn’t let up.  White box trailers were dancing around in their lanes and it made me extra cautious even though our Airstream was handling very well.  By 3 p.m. the wind was a solid 30 MPH with gusts, and by 4 p.m. the gusts got to 40-45 MPH (according to the weather service).  We were trying to make it to Starved Rock State Park in Illinois but around 4 I decided to cut the drive short and look for some other place to spend the night.

I did this not because the Airstream couldn’t handle the weather, but simply to maintain my safety margin.  I’ve done a lot of high-risk activities (ultralight flying, diving, motorcycling) and I know that safety does not come from any single choice, but from multiple layers of good choices.  I’m talking about things like good skills, driver fitness, appropriate speed, safety equipment, and situational awareness.  Make all the right choices and you’ve got a padding to help keep you out of trouble—or resolve it successfully.

When layers of that safety padding start to fall apart, it’s time to end the trip.  This time I saw extreme high winds, driver fatigue, and increasingly rough roads with heavy truck traffic as we approached the Chicago area.  Three bad factors are my limit, so even though I have high confidence in our tow rig and high confidence in my own abilities as the driver, we looked for somewhere to call it a night.

This turned out to be a fortuitous move.  We discovered a park we’d never heard of before, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Illinois.  It’s a very nice park set inside a pine and oak forest, only 6 miles off I-80.  The campground is a large circle of widely-spaced sites surrounding a tranquil grassy center.  We got an electric site for $20 and the Airstream is pointed into the wind so, although the wind is howling, we aren’t rocking on the stabilizers.

Stopping an hour early has given me some time to catch up on some work, and Eleanor has time to make us all a nice dinner. We’ll have to get started a little earlier tomorrow in order to make up the lost time, but otherwise this was a nice tradeoff.  I don’t envy the folks who are still on I-80 in Iowa or Illinois this evening.


A drive I’ve already forgotten

I woke up this morning knowing that it would be a long day.  Yesterday I realized I’d made a mistake in our trip planning by not allowing enough time to drive from Denver to Jackson Center.  As I mentioned in the previous blog, it is about 1,250 miles and we wanted to be located on Airstream property no later than Saturday morning, which meant we needed to cover an average of just under 400 miles each day on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

That’s far more than we usually travel (as a family) in a day, but there was nothing to be done about it now except get going.  But first, I needed to get a mail delivery from the local post office.  Our mail forwarding service had sent a Priority Mail envelope on Thursday and it was supposed to be in Aurora by Monday but when Eleanor went to check, it wasn’t there.  So I had to battle morning rush traffic to try again this morning at 7:30 a.m.

I was told the package still wasn’t there, but then I got the Delivery Confirmation from the mail forwarders which proved it had actually been delivered on Monday.  After a second wait in line, when presented with the irrefutable evidence of delivery the clerk took another look and found the envelope.  With drive time, this episode took about an hour, so my hope of an early departure was already dashed.

E&E were still packing up anyway.  Our Airstream friends Forrest & Patrice, who had shown up in the site next to ours on Sunday, dropped by to say goodbye, and the owners of another Airstream pulled up to ask a few questions, and then the volunteer camp hosts dropped by to wish us a good trip (they’ve seen us there every year for at least four years), so it became a leisurely departure.  I also got a call from a local paper in Shelby County Ohio, wanting details about Alumapalooza. In between all the chatting, I took the time to lube up the Hensley hitch, fill the water tank, and charge the cordless drill batteries.  We finally got going around 10 a.m.

The drive ahead was nothing we wanted to contemplate.  We’ve done this run too many times: I-76 from Denver to I-80 in Nebraska, and then the long straight drive through ranchlands and grasslands as far as possible.  Like last year, the winds came down the prairie from the north and gave us a strong & steady crosswind all day, which eventually eroded our fuel economy to a fairly poor 11.8 average for the day. Of course, the fact that we were towing at 70 MPH might have had something to do with that too.  It takes a lot of discipline to tow at 60 or 65 when you know that 400 more miles of Nebraska lie ahead.

520 miles later, just past sunset, we landed in Lincoln NE and parked the Airstream for the night.  We get to do this again tomorrow, thanks to my error in planning.  You’d think that after doing this a few times, I’d know that 2,000 miles is a helluva long way to drive, but for some reason I’m always struck by the magnitude of the trip.  Emma has been a good sport about it, although having an impressive array of diversions in the backseat is probably the key there.  She’s either reading, playing a game, studying dog breeds, or corresponding via email to one of her friends.  I am grateful that we don’t have to entertain her any more on these long car trips.

For those who are interested, the car seems to be operating perfectly, with no further Check Engine lights.  Our local dealer has agreed to credit us $132 against a future service, for the mistake, which is fine with me.  Driving across the windy plains today I was reminded that when you’re out on a long trip your satisfaction is very much tied to how you feel about your tow vehicle.  A purring car or truck is like a faithful friend, and a balky or unreliable vehicle is just a nightmare.

The Airstream is equally happy.  We’ve had to chase quite a few moths out of the trailer over the past couple of days (not sure how they got in) but other than that there have been no issues.  The only concern is that the interior is looking quite tired.  The 6+ years of heavy use are really starting to show.  Mechanically the Airstream is in great shape, but the curtains are splattered with stains, the vinyl floor has a couple of rips and is turning permanently gray, the countertops are riddled with scratches and knife cuts, the dinette foam is going flat, and the front bedroom carpet needed replacing a couple of years ago.  Eleanor and I had a discussion about this and are considering a DIY makeover in our carport this fall.  We’d outsource the floor covering installation and upholstery, but do everything else ourselves.  This would also give me a chance to do some electronic upgrades I’ve been wanting, like a permanently-installed inverter.  We’ll keep thinking about it.

The rest of the Alumapalooza advance team will be hitting Jackson Center starting Friday.  Tomorrow we’ll decide if we are going to get to J.C. on Friday or Saturday, but either way we’ve got to keep hustling if we are to make it on time.  Alumapalooza is just around the corner.

Something stupid under the hood

In the last blog our trip through Colorado was just beginning.  Colorado is always interesting for the many mountain passes that offer spectacular views, dramatic climate changes, and occasionally an exploded bag of chips in the closet.  Altitude changes everything, especially in a rolling house.  For example, we’ve learned over the years to be very careful when opening toothpaste after a tow up to higher altitude, as an air bubble in the container can result in you ending up with a lot more toothpaste than you needed at the moment.

This trip was uneventful except for a strange loss of power when climbing, and another Check Engine light on the car as we approached the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70.  We were at 11,000 feet, but since the car is a turbodiesel the altitude should not have affected the power quite as much as it did.  This called for an appointment at the Denver Mercedes dealer, but I also called Super Terry for a consultation once we were settled into our campground.

Super Terry suggested I look for “something stupid” under the hood, so I did and immediately discovered that one of the two cold-air intakes to the engine was disconnected.  Our home dealership had just serviced the engine last week, touching this very intake hose.  This seemed like a proverbial smoking gun, but S.T. advised having the Denver dealer check it out anyway, just to make sure the problem wasn’t something more serious.  The diagnosis turned out as I expected: the Check Engine light was caused by the disconnected air intake, which allowed hot engine air to get in where cold air was expected.  The bill for this diagnosis was $132, which I have passed on to the dealer that disconnected the line, for their careful consideration. Ahem.  [Update: they agreed to credit us the full amount against a future service.]

There was supposed to be an annular solar eclipse on Sunday evening, but clouds in Denver prevented us from seeing most of it.  A shame, as there won’t be another one in North America for many years.  We had even built a cereal-box viewer for the occasion.

But our evening was not entirely dull, as we had an unexpected visit from the Zimmer family, local owners of a 1963 Airstream Safari.  They were passing through the park and spotted our Airstream, and ended up coming in for a tour and visit.

The big point of coming to Denver was to conduct a site visit of Lakeside Amusement Park, where we will be holding Alumafandango in August.  I met up with Brett Hall of Timeless Travel Trailers and we walked every inch of the site to consider logistics such as power, parking, entry /exit points, seminar space, sewage, lighting, etc.  There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into prepping for a big event like this, and it’s doubly complicated when you are basically trying to build a campground too.  Still, it looks like we’ll be ready in time.   (By the way, there’s a new Wal-Mart going in next door but it won’t be open until November.)

One of the nice parts about walking Lakeside in the heat yesterday was the informal guided tour we got from Brett Hall.  He has been associated with the park for decades as the Consulting Engineer, and has done a lot of historical research. The place has quite a few interesting stories.  Brett will be leading guided tours of the park during Alumafandango so everyone who comes can hear the tales.

Now that the site visit is done and the car is set, we have one day to do work, household stuff, and school before we head east.  Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday will be roadtrip days either on I-80 through Nebraska or I-70 through Kansas.  That’s a drive of about 1,250 miles.  We don’t have any particular plans or stops worked out along that route, since it’s just going to be a slog if we are going to get to Ohio on schedule. I always feel badly about short-changing NE or KS when we go through in a rush, but long-time blog readers know that we did make many stops in those states back when we were full-timing.

Meanwhile, the phone is ringing like crazy lately, as people with last-minute Alumapalooza questions are popping up.  Like us, many of the attendees are already on the road, and others are packing to leave next weekend.  Everybody seems pumped, which helps us, because as close in on our big week of Alumapalooza, we can feel rising tension and excitement.  Alumapalooza is a great week but also a really tough one for those who work the event.  It feels to me like the days before the opening of a musical.  Despite all the rehearsals and planning, there’s always a fear that something might go wrong … until the moment you open the curtain and realize it’s all going to work out just fine.

Colorado National Monument, Grand Jct CO

As we expected, the cool night in Sunset Crater National Monument’s “Bonita” campground was excellent for sleeping.  The first night in the Airstream is sometimes a little hectic, since we are adjusting to life in 200 square feet again, and we are usually still figuring out where things should go.  That tends to keep us up late, but this time I was so exhausted I collapsed at about 8:45, and E&E were not far behind.

We didn’t have time on this trip to go to the companion park, Wupatki National Monument (connected by about 20 miles of loop road), so we made a note to come again sometime.  Wupatki offers five ancient pueblos and some box canyon dwellings, all of which we’d like to see.  We packed up and headed out at 8:30 with the intention of making some serious miles—but also covering some seriously scenic territory.

The route we planned was sort of a Arizona/Utah dream trip, up Rt 89A and then Rt 160 deep into the Navajo Nation, then up through the incredibly beautiful red cliffs and buttes of Monument Valley, and then up the edge of Utah past some great parks we’ve visited before (Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands), through Moab, and finally into Colorado.

The route goes up and down quite a lot, but I never saw us below 4,400 feet and never much about 7,000.  The important thing is to bring three items:  a camera, a bucket of time so you can stop frequently, and a full tank of fuel.  There are fuel stations but of course prices tend to run high in the more remote areas.  We had the cameras and fuel but not as much time as we would have liked, so for us it was primarily a driving tour (and a fine one).

I am happy to report all systems are functioning well on the Airstream and Mercedes.  The Merc did an odd thing yesterday during a steep climb, giving us a Check Engine light.  It wasn’t overheated and the light cleared itself overnight.  I can’t detect any issues with the car, so I’m not going to sweat it for now.  The car’s computer will store the fault code and we can get it read out later if we want.  The Airstream seems perfect. The fridge is cold, the tires needed no air at all (after five months of storage!), the hitch is silent, etc.  At this point we’ve run up about 700 miles and everything is fine, although I’m noting a few things I’d like to update soon.

We stopped at a rest area south of Moab where there’s a great sandstone arch that you can easily climb to.  If you are in this area and missed Arches National Park, this is a nice consolation prize.   You can also get a nice shot of your Airstream down below in the parking lot if you want (and of course, I did).

We decided to make our overnight stop at Colorado National Monument, in Grand Junction CO.  Faithful blog readers Jay & Cherie suggested we stop at the James Rob Colorado River State Park, which is just off I-70 at the same exit as the National Monument.  We checked it out and it does look very nice, but this we had our hearts set on driving up to the monument.  We’ve been here twice before and never managed to camp in the monument’s Saddlehorn campground, so it was nearly a mandate for us.

There was another reason for coming up the extra few miles to the monument.  We’ve recently acquired a GoPro Hero2 sports video camera for use at Alumapalooza, and I wanted to try it out shooting a video of the Airstream climbing the hairpins and tunnels that lead up to Colorado National Monument.  We shot video looking forward on the way up, and we’ll shoot video looking backward tomorrow morning, on the way down.  I’ll have the video edited and uploaded to YouTube in the next few days, and I’ll post when it is available.  Should be very interesting!


Sunset Crater National Monument, Flagstaff AZ

We’re off … and blogging again.

This time of year the sun comes early into the east window of our bedroom. It may have been the bright light, or just the anticipation of finally taking off in the Airstream that got Eleanor and I up and working on the final prep at 6 a.m. We needed to start that early if only to avoid the heat that quickly builds each morning in Tucson in May. I let the air conditioner run in the carport as long as possible just to offset a little of the heat that the Airstream was destined to absorb today. Around 9:30 a.m. we were ready to go, so I unplugged the trailer, pulled it out into the sun, gave it a quick rinse to get the worst of the storage dust off, and then we were off.

Our drive today brought us west on I-10 to Phoenix, then I-17 north all the way to Flagstaff. I-17 heading north has a couple of tough climbs, the type where signs warn “Turn off air conditioner to avoid overheating”. They mean it. It was about 95 when we hit the first steep grade north of Phoenix. I watched the engine temperature and mostly it was stable, but there was one point at which it started to rise and so we went without a/c for a few minutes.

The GL320 is a good tow vehicle in most circumstances, but its weak spot is climbing steep grades. Anything over 8% with our 7,000 pound trailer in tow means slow going. We usually end up with the 18-wheelers, moaning up the hill at 35 MPH with flashers on, while cars zip by at 65. That’s the result of having 400 ft-lbs of torque, but only 210 horsepower. It’s kind of like having a diesel tractor. We always get there, but we don’t get there fast. I don’t sweat this, because the slow part ends up being five or ten minutes out of an eight-hour drive, which hardly seems worth getting excited about. The rest of the time we can tow at any speed we care to.

After a few hours the brown desert began to give way to the pine forests and cooler temperatures of high altitude. Flagstaff is at about 7,000 feet, only a part-day drive from Tucson but worlds away in terms of climate and geography. We stopped here to pick up 20 gallons of diesel and then headed north on Rt 89 towards Page, with the intention of continuing on to Navajo National Monument, a place we’ve visited and enjoyed before.

And then something great happened. We passed by a sign for Sunset Crater National Monument, and Eleanor said, “Why don’t we stop here instead?” It was only 3:30 in the afternoon and we hadn’t covered the miles I had hoped for. I wanted our first day out to be a big one, so we’d have less pressure in the next two days to get to Denver. But I was feeling tired, and we’d never visited Sunset Crater before, and there was a little blue symbol by the road indicating that it had a campground. We considered the pros and cons, and then turned around and drove a mile back to Sunset Crater.

This turned out to be a good choice. Sunset Crater offered much more than we expected. As you drive in a few miles along the entrance road, there’s a spectacular view of the dormant volcano, and you can immediately see from the red and purple cinders along the crater’s edge how it got its name. It is just beautiful.

The campground is very nice (no hookups, $18), with sites set among tall Ponderosa pines and well spaced. We parked the Airstream in site #13 and headed to the Visitor Center, which was small but well-done. Then we drove a short distance to the one-mile Lava Trail and took a walk to get a better view of the volcano and shake off the hours of travel.

It was a stunningly beautiful afternoon, with temperatures in the 70s, beautiful sunshine, dry air, and a pleasant breeze. You couldn’t ask for a better day to visit this great National Park, and yet the campground was half empty (on a Friday night) and the trails were uncrowded.

We had all changed into long pants and grabbed sweatshirts for the trail, and as the afternoon began to fade we were glad we had them. It seems like the heat of Tucson was weeks ago, but we have a souvenir in the Airstream—it’s 80 degrees inside from the heat accumulated during towing. That will fade quickly. Tonight we are expecting a low of 37 degrees in the campground. Eleanor and I added blankets to our bed and we expect to sleep well and rise early. Our roadtrip is well and truly begun.