The night before departure

The Airstream is loaded and we are aiming to depart at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Of course, that won’t happen —it never does, because there’s always 55 last-minute things that need attention, and Emma is groggy if woken before noon, etc.  But at least the intention of leaving at eight means that Eleanor is feeling fairly optimistic about our packing process this year. If we actually get out at 9, it will still be a reasonable start by our lax standards, for a multi-month trip. It means we started early enough on the packing process and weren’t left with a lot of last-minute things to do.

You’ll note I said Eleanor was feeling optimistic.  I emphasize her because she’s really the Chief Packer in our family.  I pack my personal gear and all the stuff I need for business, plus I take care of the Airstream and car.  If I hurry, I can have all of this done in a couple of days, otherwise four or five days.  Eleanor has the harder job: packing her stuff, all the household gear, and (most challenging of all) Emma’s stuff.  This takes at least a week every year.

The major problem is that darned children keep growing and changing.  So the toys, books, crafts, clothes, shoes, sundries, and even foods that were perfectly suited to a kid in 2011 have little to do with what she’ll require in 2012.  And that’s in addition to figuring out a multi-functional, all-weather wardrobe that fits into a couple of plastic bins and four tiny drawers.  Inevitably this means shopping for all kinds of things: clothes that fit, replacement batteries, foods that pack well, new games (lately on the iPad, another sign of change).

I’ve struggled a little this time with packing as well, but not nearly as much.  These days I’m packing for magazine publishing, Alumapalooza, a brief visit in Vermont (possible lake activities), and (Dr C, avert your eyes!) a motorcycle tour through upstate New York.  That translates to roughly 50 pounds of books (Newbies, Tin Hut, Wally Byam), 30 pounds of technological gadgetry such as computers and cameras, a Dutch Oven, quite a bit of bulkiness in the form of apparel that will be for sale, plus one high-visibility armored motorcycle jacket and full-face helmet.  Eleanor is also doing two cooking demonstrations at Alumapalooza, which means she’s toting extra ingredients and tools too.  All of this has to go somewhere in the confined storage of our 216 square foot home.

This is what really makes it tricky.  When faced with this sort of problem, most people either get a bigger RV or a bigger truck, which explains the popularity of massive Class A motorhomes and sky-scraping fifth wheels.  We could make life much easier on ourselves if we traded the Mercedes GL320 for a 3/4 ton pickup truck with a fiberglass bed cap, but that’s not our style, so we instead we spend extra time meticulously deciding what can come with us, and where it will fit.  This forces us to be ruthless about leaving behind things we really don’t need.  Eventually all the important stuff gets in there, even things one might not expect.  Two years ago we made the trip with a four-foot fiberglass greyhound on the bed, destined for a friend in Chicago.

We tend to pack like submariners.  As we depart, the trailer is stuffed to the gills with food and supplies.  As we travel, the space gradually clears out.  I’ll sell the t-shirts and books, we’ll drop off gifts and deliveries to friends along the way, we’ll eat the food, and thereafter we’ll be more careful about what we acquire so that the interior remains liveable.  We try to buy very little that is not consumable, and tend to come home with a freezer full of interesting foods, but not much else in the way of souvenirs.  These are habits that come from years of full-time living, and I see no reason to break them.  We just have never been “weekenders,” and I doubt we ever will be.  So we try to take only what we need.

At times I am a bit jealous of the weekenders, because they only have to pack for a few days and they can bring all kinds of fun stuff.  We often camp with people who have brought their plastic pink flamingos, awning mats, Weber grills, paper lanterns, table decorations, bicycles, even outdoor kitchens.  They make wonderful presentations, even to the point of having holiday-specific decorations.  By comparison, we look rather stingy—we don’t even bring folding chairs!  That’s a part of compromise of traveling for long times.  When others are spreading out their stuff and preparing for a cookout, I am usually rummaging around in the toolkit so I can fix something.

In recognition of the fun displays that people like to put out, we are once again going to give someone at Alumapalooza the coveted Airstream Life “Wally” award for Best Open House Presentation.  I am hoping to see some really great setups while we are parked on the grass at Airstream.  A few people have already made it known that they plan to really go nuts this year.  The only limitations we impose are (a) no ground fires; and (b) no big light displays (since each trailer only gets 3 amps of power).  That leaves a lot of room for creativity.

We don’t have a traditional last meal before we leave, but it is always something dead simple.  I sometimes have to restrain Eleanor from trying to cook something elaborate, because it’s her nature to feed us well, but this year she has come up with a convenient choice of lobster ravioli from the freezer and sushi from the grocery store.  Usually our last night in the house is a little frantic, as the final tasks end up getting done in the dark of night, so it’s best to have an easy meal.

At this point I’m feeling that we are already well set.  Tonight Eleanor will move over the last of the food from the house refrigerator to the Airstream refrigerator, and pack up the last items that are strewn around the Airstream.  In the morning I’ll dump the water that we used to clean the interior, hitch up, and pull the trailer out of the carport and into the sun for final walk-around.

It will be a great feeling to be driving the big rig again.  There’s always a moment when I feel sad to be leaving the house in Tucson, but in just a matter of hours the Airstream will become our home again and we won’t look back.  We will experience that exhilarating combination of freedom and uncertainty, as we drive on Friday to a destination we haven’t planned.  We’ll know it when we get there.  See you on the road.

Walking tour of Tucson

Although these days we’re focused on getting ready to launch the Airstream, it can’t be all work all the time.  To get a break from the long list of “to do” items and a little exercise, I planned a day out to explore downtown Tucson’s historic sites.  We’ve been living here for four years, on and off, and I am still constantly surprised by the many hidden corners of Tucson that I’ve never seen.  It has quirky neighborhoods everywhere, oddball homes, tons of cultural artifacts, great museums, surprising restaurants, and historic buildings.  For a small city, it has a surprising amount to offer.

We used the map provided by the Tucson Presidio Trust for Historic Preservation for our tour.  The entire walk they recommend is about 2.5 miles, which is pretty mild by our street hiking standards especially since downtown is mostly flat.  The catch, however, is that this is mid-May, and so daytime temperatures are pretty consistently in the upper 90s or low 100s.  I tried to get Emma out early with dire warnings about hiking in the heat, but ultimately she decided that snoozing on a Sunday morning was more important than avoiding the heat.  With the 30 minute drive to downtown, our hike didn’t get started until about 10 a.m., and the air was already well into the 90s by then.

Oh well.  We’re used to it.  I know to a northerner the idea of walking around on asphalt in 100-degree heat would be horrendous, but of course it was the famous Arizona “dry heat”.  You put on light colored clothes, apply sunscreen, wear a big hat, and carry a water bottle or two.  With all that prep, my only problem was a burning sensation through the soles of my sneakers …

The first stop on the tour is the best.  Right in downtown there’s a recreated presidio, which is a sort of fortification from the Spanish Colonial era.  Spaniards needed to migrate from Mexico to California through some pretty tough country inhabited by the Apaches, and they were not on good terms.  So Spain established a line of 17 presidios, of which Tucson’s was the largest (11 acres) and and last.  Almost nothing of the original presidio still exists, but on part of the original site a very good recreation has been installed, and it’s well worth a visit.  Being a hot Sunday, we found ourselves the only visitors and so got a private guided tour from the volunteer who was on duty.  Fascinating and free.

The tour ultimately passes 22 sites, including statues commemorating the Mormon Battalion, Pancho Villa, and a Spanish “soldado de cuera” (leather jacket soldier, wearing a sort of armor made from deerskins), two footbridges, historic houses, cathedrals, parks, gardens, a historic hotel, a shrine, and even an elementary school from 1930.

We particularly liked the little shrine called El Tiradito (“The Castaway”), a.k.a. “The Wishing Shrine,” which is said to be the only shrine in the US dedicated to the soul of a sinner buried in unconsecrated ground.  It’s obvious that many people still visit this shrine regularly to light candles and leave notes for those who have departed.  It’s hard not to be struck by the poignancy of this site and the offerings.

(There’s also a public water fountain nearby, which was great for us since we had already used up most of our supply.  In 2.5 miles of 100 degree+ heat we drank about 24 ounces of water each.)

I was most impressed by the fact that walking the streets of Tucson, we encountered no “bad neighborhoods” and discovered several areas that I never knew existed.  There’s really nothing like walking or bicycling a city to get to know it.  I was also pleased to connect the dots between several old neon signs that I’ve documented over the past couple of years.  Some are gone, others have been restored as a result of the new Historic Sign Amendment, including the famous “diving girl” sign.  (She used to advertise the Pueblo Hotel, but now the building houses a law firm.  Thanks to Piccaretta Davis for investing the money in having her restored.)

Of course, being a hot Sunday in downtown, we also encountered very few people until we got to the Congress Street district where retail is concentrated.   It seems few are interested in street hiking when it is over 100 degrees — go figure.


Toward the end of the tour we found ourselves on familiar ground at the Hotel Congress, famous for being the place that John Dillinger and his gang were caught in 1936.  The Hotel Congress has managed to survive by adapting, still offering hotel rooms that hark back to the 1930s, but also offering a nice little restaurant downstairs, a bar, and live music regularly.  We have so few historic hotels left in Tucson that we treasure those that remain. It’s a huge neon sign on the roof that I’ve photographed several times.

Besides the tip of carrying water and dressing correctly, there’s one other thing you must do if you are to street hike here in the summer:  find covered parking for the car.  On Sunday most of the lots were free, so we chose the main Public Library’s underground garage and were glad we did.  Parked underground, the car was only about 102 degrees inside, whereas parked in the sun it would have been unbearable for a while.  The Honda Fit is a great car but its dinky AC really can’t handle desert heat.

What do you do when you’ve conquered downtown on a day that even the lizards are seeking shade?  You go to one of our many cheap and wonderful Mexican restaurants, in this case El Guero Canelo (“the blonde guy”) and you get a Mexican Jarritos fruit soda and a burrito. At least that’s what we did.  Your mileage may vary.

We’ve got a few more days of heat and then we’ll saddle up the Airstream for points north and higher altitude.  By Saturday, the Airstream will be up around 7,000 feet and we’ll be looking for our long sleeved shirts again.

Serious trip prep

You can tell we’re serious about a trip when the checklists come out.  Long ago we began compiling checklists to make our packing easier, and each spring we pull those lists out and start checking off items and updating them for current circumstances.  I don’t know how else to do it, since there are way too many things to remember to do when we’re anticipating being away from home base for months.

Our checklists have been in play for a couple of weeks now. In addition to the normal things needed for daily life in an Airstream, Eleanor is going to be doing two cooking demonstrations at Alumapalooza this year, and that means she needs to carry a lot of food ingredients.  She also has to do two separate rehearsals before we depart.

Her first presentation will be about sauces.  She will make ten different and delicious multi-purpose sauces in about 40 minutes, right in front of everyone at Alumapalooza, using an actual Airstream stove & oven.  Afterward, everyone in the audience will get a chance to taste each sauce.  I’ll have the recipes posted on the Alumapalooza website on the days of her presentations.

So we did a run-through last night in our kitchen and worked out a few small issues with the sauces, and today she’ll do another run-through in the Airstream of her second demonstration.  That one will be a full meal featuring salmon and risotto.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to wrap up projects and loose ends so that I can be on the road without too much work pressure.  The Fall issue would normally have an editorial deadline of June 1, but since I’m always at Alumapalooza at that time I ask all the writers to get me their Fall articles by May 15 or sooner.  That helps me get the bulk of the issue in hand before I’m on the road. Most of the writers have been very cooperative with that, which I appreciate.

Once we start traveling, it’s much harder to carve out enough hours to get serious work done.  On driving days I’m lucky to get three useful hours of time in front of the computer, which is sometimes just enough to keep the fires stoked at work, but at that rate I’ll gradually fall behind.  When we were full-timing it was easier; I’d just declare a “destination” and spend a few days in the Airstream getting work done. But now we’re on a schedule to get to Denver and Jackson Center, and I can’t just pull over for a few days when things get busy.

Our route is partially set, at least as far as Denver.  This time, to make the drive more interesting we’ll go up through Arizona to Flagstaff, then cut through the Navajo Nation and possibly stop at Navajo National Monument.  Our next stop is undetermined but will be somewhere between Moab UT and Grand Junction CO, I’d guess.  Our destination for this leg of the trip is Denver CO, where we will inspect the site of this year’s Alumafandango and do a little advance work.  After that we’ll continue on to Jackson Center OH with probably 3-4 short stops along the way.  As is normal for us, we aren’t making any reservations.

I’ll have to return to Tucson fairly soon after Alumapalooza is over.  I’ve got some appointments here, and I’ll need to get back to work in a serious way.  My time in the Airstream will be almost exactly one month, then probably about another month from August to September when we go to Alumafandango. But the Airstream won’t be back to home base for close to four months.

The Airstream is nearly ready for its voyage.  Most of our clothes are packed, Eleanor has worked out the food arrangements, and I’ve verified that all of the systems are in good operating condition. I need to check for a possible propane leak around the flexible hose that connects the propane bottles to the regulator (called a pigtail), which I’ll do today with a spray bottle and some soapy water. Those hoses don’t last forever, but replacing one is a simple task if needed.  [Update:  I found the leak and will be replacing both of the pigtail lines today.]  I also need to check the tires.  I’m not expecting any problems from the Michelins just because they’ve been so bulletproof over the past couple of years, so at worst I expect I might need to add a little air.

Our tow vehicle has been getting more attention lately than the Airstream.  I’ve been driving it around town to confirm that the recent repair to the urea injection system has really done the job, and it seems to be fine.  It’ll be due for an oil change and tire rotation in 2,000 miles, which means I’ll have to do it somewhere around Indiana or Ohio. I don’t really want to make that stop because the timing will be inconvenient, so I may just take it in before we leave Tucson.  (The oil change interval is every 10,000 miles on this car.)

My neighbor Mike came over Sunday morning to finally force me to do an exterior detail on the GL320.  It really needed it.  Together we washed the car, then hand-dried it, then used clay bars to pull all the contaminants out of the paint, and finally used Mike’s buffer to wax the body.  The result was fantastic, better than new.  The paint is so glossy and slick that it feels like glass.  In the process I found two dings on the body that I hadn’t noticed before.  Oh well.

The Airstream, on the other hand, is filthy on the outside.  It’s covered with dust from a winter of storage—and we have a lot of dust here.  I’m sure the solar panels won’t be generating much power until I can wash them off, but cleaning will have to wait until I can get the trailer out of the carport and over to a truck wash.  I’ve tried cleaning the trailer by hand with brushes and ladders, and since it’s 30 feet long and 10 feet tall, it takes hours.  Long ago I decided that paying $38 at the Blue Beacon was definitely my choice.

One of the more pleasant tasks of our annual departure is putting things in “vacation mode.”  That’s because it’s a huge money-saving opportunity.  It turns out that a lot of things have some form of vacation mode.  The water heater has one, or we can just shut it off completely ($10/month saved).  The local water/sewer authority allows us to put our sewer bill on vacation mode, which amazes me ($20/month saved). USAA allows us to put our other cars in “storage” while we’re gone, which reduces the insurance coverages we won’t need (about $120 per month saved).  (They even provide a little warning sheet to print out and place on the driver’s seat so that we remember to “un-store” the car before driving it.)  CenturyLink allows us to put our household DSL service on hold too (about $50/month).  Between all of that and turning off the air conditioning (up to $250 per month in the summer), we can save $350-450 per month while we are gone, which of course can go directly to our travel expenses.   If only we could put our real estate taxes on hold too.

I’itoi Ki, the maze of life

I want to take a small diversion from our current efforts of packing and planning for this summer’s Airstream travel, to step back and consider why we do all of this.  Everything we do is part of a journey through life.  Today’s work of planning where we’ll tow the Airstream may not necessarily be consequential in the overall scheme of our life, but in some small way every experience we have and every effort we make adds to the sum total of who we are.

I named this blog “Man In The Maze” out of respect for the local native Americans, the Tohono O’odham (which means “desert people”) and their story of I’itoi, the man in the maze.  The I’itoi Ki pictured here is the sacred symbol of the O’odham.  It describes the path to wellness and wholeness, and symbolizes the spiritual journey of each person as they seek the deeper meaning of life.  I’itoi travels through life as through a maze, experiencing twists and turns while growing stronger and wiser.  He grows larger in respect to his surroundings, representing his increasing understanding of the world and himself.

Each of us follow that maze.  The life-changing twists and turns make us who we are.

Following the white path, we eventually we reach the dark center of the maze, which represents death but also an opportunity for enlightenment.  At the final turn, we can look back at the trail, reflect on our lives, and find acceptance of the last step.

Hopefully we’re all a long way from the center of the maze.  While a perspective on our whole lives will be nice someday, I use the I’itoi Ki to remind me that the twists and turns we are experiencing are a part of life, and every one provides a new chance to learn and grow.  We can’t stop traveling through the maze, so we may as well make the most of it.

Our summer plan is coming together.  Our first major stop will be Denver CO, then Jackson Center OH for Alumapalooza, then Vermont.  I’ll tour New England for a few days with my brother and some friends.  I’ll be Temporary Bachelor Man again in Tucson for a while, then joined by Eleanor and Emma at various points.  We’ll go to Alumafandango in August, Starfest (Mercedes) in September, and a few other places.  The Airstream will cover at least 6,000 miles (probably more).  It should be a good, busy, summer.  More later.