Saved by the Terra Port

It’s our second day of a marathon trek back to Arizona.  Back at home daytime temperatures run up to about 100 degrees, but we knew when we started off this day that it would feel hotter in Ohio.  The curse of the Three H’s (hazy, hot, humid) has finally caught up to us and that meant we had to come up with a plan for tonight’s destination.  A night of boondocking along some highway with no air conditioning was not going to make for happy travelers.

The forecast called for about 100 degrees, and indeed that’s what we saw all day from western NY to central OH.  The problem was that being a holiday weekend our chances of getting a decent campsite conveniently along our route were poor.  Eleanor suggested we detour slightly to visit Airstream in Jackson Center, OH, and at first I was reluctant, but then realized it was a brilliant solution.  The company always closes for the entire first week of July, and so who would be parked in the Terra Port?

Lou & Larry gave us pause however, with an invitation to stop at their place and take advantage of their 30-amp driveway power, but it would have been a short drive from Buffalo and we can’t afford that at this point.  Continuing to Airstream meant nearly 400 miles of driving (again), but we’ve decided that given the weather we’d just as soon knock off a lot of miles in the comfort of an air conditioned car and make our stops later in the trip.

Each time we stopped the Airstream (for lunch, a rest stop, groceries) it was hotter inside.  By the time we got to central Ohio the Airstream was 99 degrees inside, and I knew it would take hours to cool back down even with the new 15K BTU air conditioner cranking away.  Everything inside is heat-soaked, so cooling the air is only the beginning.  Fortunately, we got an early start today and managed to pull into the Terra Port by 5 p.m.  As expected, there are only a few other cheapskates like us parked here; a total of four trailers counting us.

Normally it doesn’t take long after you pull into the Terra Port before someone comes walking by to say Hello and find out who you are.  This time: doors and windows closed, every trailer sealed up like a tomb.  Nobody is going to be walking around outside as long as the sun is up.  It’s just too darned hot and humid.  Ten minutes outside hooking up the hoses and power cords, and my shirt began to stick to me.  I will gladly go back to Tucson heat in a week.

The trick now will be to find stops later in the trip where it isn’t scorching hot.  Altitude will be our ally on this one.  I’m proposing we keep driving like maniacs until we get to New Mexico, and then stretch out somewhere above 7,000 feet.  Or maybe Utah, or northern Arizona.  Any of them would be great, as long as we can work around the peak weekend days and find places that aren’t closed for forest fires or bear attacks.  Right now all six of the campgrounds in the Tonto National Forest are closed because of a series of bear attacks, for example.

So I’ll be scouting carefully using the Internet tools available, which are considerable.  For National Park sites, I use  For National Forest campgrounds, I look up the regional forest name and then navigate to the official site for updates.  The key is to always check the official sites so you know about closures or length limits.

For commercial campgrounds, RVParkReviews works well.  Every state park has a website of course, and while we are traveling we find the app “AllStays Camp & RV” to be very useful.  Add all that to a good old fashioned Rand-McNally road atlas and you’re pretty well set.

Tonight we have a few hours in the Terra Port and since we aren’t going out, I’ll get started on the research.  We have 1,885 miles to go and somewhere in there, something interesting WILL happen.

Departure day

Departure day is always a little bit sad, as we wave goodbye to the Vermont summer scene and begin our annual migration back to the southwest.  It was even more so this year because we are leaving much earlier than usual, in early July rather than late August or September.

I’ve explained why we are leaving early in previous blogs, so I won’t repeat that here. However, the timing of this trip has caused us to face unusual choices, both because we are obligated to tow the Airstream back to Tucson (2,700 miles at a minimum) in less than 12 days, and because we normally would swing through the southeast for visits to friends along the way and perhaps a little Gulf Coast beach time.  The prospect of Florida in July is not particularly appealing so we are obligated to consider alternate routes, but we don’t have time to really do the northern tier well.  Catch-22.

That leaves us with a route that isn’t making any of us jump for joy: lots of Interstates, a diagonal through the muggy climates of Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri (or alternately Ohio, Kentucky, and Arkansas), and hardly any opportunities for exploratory detours.  Well, you can’t win them all.  We will have to make up for this with some fresh travel at high altitudes out west, in August.

Per our usual style, we’ve made few solid plans for this route back.  We’ve just set some general goals and researched a few possibilities for fun along the way.  This bodes uncertainty, which makes many people uncomfortable.  I find it to be a break from the otherwise-certain monotony of the Interstate, especially Interstate highways that we’ve traveled many times before.

Today was a fine example.  This morning, departing at a leisurely 11 a.m., we set out sights on Buffalo NY, approximately 400 miles away.  With stops for lunch and dinner, we arrived in the area around 8 p.m. and decided to visit a state park.  We had completely forgotten that this is considered a “holiday weekend” even though July 4 was on Wednesday, and of course it’s peak season for northern state parks, so there was no room for us even in the overflow area.  The one commercial campground in the area that we called held firm to their requirement for a three-night minimum, a foolish request at 8 p.m., but it was their campground to run as they saw fit.  Meanwhile, the state park staff was distraught that we were in such a “bind” but we were more calm about it, pointing out that we knew where we were going to sleep tonight, we simply didn’t know (yet) where we were going to park.

When you look at it that way, there’s really little to get excited about.  We always travel with plenty of supplies (water, propane, food) and parking is always available somewhere.  We settled on a Cracker Barrel near I-90.  There were also a few Wal-Marts and other such places that we could have gone.  We’ll make it worth their while to have parked us overnight by buying some breakfast in the morning.

The only real issue is that it has been hot, and a little humid.  This won’t be our worst night of boondocking by a long shot, but all three fans have been running tonight and a round of quick rinses in the shower were prescribed to cool our bodies down before settling into the sheets.  The interior of the trailer is 82 degrees and the night air outside is 72, so it won’t be long before everything’s reasonably comfortable.

At times like this I am reminded of Wally Byam’s writing about the methods he used to locate free overnight parking all over the world.  The Airstream owners manuals for decades also included a simplified version of his philosophy, saying “You can park anywhere the ground is level and firm.”  This seemingly left quite a lot of terrain for the taking, but in today’s more complicated world it’s a matter of knowing the few spots where overnight parkers are generally welcome and how to take advantage of them without running into hassles.

There are still plenty of places to go, especially if you can take the time to just talk to people and open a few doors for yourself.  Since we didn’t have much time tonight, we just chose a default place, but if we’d had more time I would like to think we would have come up with something interesting.  Perhaps we’ll get another chance, on another night on this voyage.

LED lights

My short time in my alter-identity of TBM ended with a sputter on Sunday.  The prior two weeks had vanished in a series of indistinguishable work days, in identical 100+ degree temperatures, and the primary variation most days was the choice of evening entertainment.  There were quite a few torn movie stubs on the counter by the end of the period.

I made on last attempt to seek out something worth of a Tucsonian bachelor hero, with a second “annual” Sonoran hot dog test.  Alas, as it turns out Sunday is not a good day for Sonoran dogs in Tucson.  The mobile food trucks which normally can be found on every major boulevard hawking these beloved examples of Tucson’s primary contribution to the culinary arts, were notably absent on Sunday.  I found just one: El Sinaloense, working in a vacant lot along Alvernon between Pima and Speedway.

For $3.50 I got a very nice variation on the classic bacon-wrapped Sonoran dog, with a nicer bun (a little flaky, like a muffin) and a bacon-wrapped pepper on the side, plus a Mexican soda, served in the ultra-casual environment of a plastic chair in a dirt lot.  No pretense here; the “atmosphere” of the restaurant is just plain atmosphere, the kind that we all breathe every day.  I like that because (a) it’s a uniquely southern Arizonan experience to eat a bacon-wrapped hot dog under a tent when it’s 105 degrees, and (b) there are no poseurs just hanging around because it’s a place to be seen by others.  There’s a sort of clarity of purpose in that.  You go for the food.

I did try a second local establishment, whose name I will withhold because despite a decades-long reputation the “famous” chili dog I was served was horribly disappointing.  From a look and taste of the product I would say that the old chili dog has met its superior in the Sonoran dog, and it won’t be long before the chili dog has to step up its game or go extinct in Tucson.

That was it. I sadly packed away my TBM suit with the symbolic ying-yang, wrist protectors, and ever-flaming torch (the latter item quite hard to pack, by the way), closed up the house and boarded an early flight back northeast on Monday.  Time to shift gears again.

This week is all about enjoying a last few days of Vermont summer and prepping the Airstream to hit the road.  Older brother and I took apart the rear of the BMW motorcycle and replaced the chain and sprockets on Tuesday, had lunch on the deck and looked at the beautiful lake & mountains, then we took Emma out on the boat to watch the fireworks from Burlington harbor in the evening.  It’s about a ten mile trip via boat across the deep dark waters of Lake Champlain.  Last night the water was smooth and warm, and twinkling with the red/green nav lights of hundreds of other boats that came up the lake to do the same thing.

Today we are going to see the 4th of July parade with some friends up in the small town of Bristol, and this afternoon Emma will go sailing, and maybe Steve & I will take a little motorcycle tour under the green trees that line the rural roads.  Everything we’re doing feels like a very northeastern summer thing to do, so despite the very short visit up here I think I’m getting a full dose of the necessary vaccination against the hot southwestern summer that still lies ahead for us.

As part of our Airstream prep I installed a bunch of new LED replacements for the standard bulbs that came with our 2005 Airstream.  I have wanted to do this a long time, since lights are huge power consumers in our trailer and we’re always operating in dim light to save power when we are camped without hookups.  This trailer has 27 individual lights in it (not counting the refrigerator or stove light, or any of the compartment lights), each one either incandescent or halogen, and if we turned them all on at once they would consume something like 40 amps of power, which is huge.  Even our large Lifeline GPL-4D battery with 210 amp-hour capacity would be drained in an evening if we dared turn on all the lights.  So most of the time we restrict ourselves to just a few crucial lights, and so the trailer tends to look like a cave in these situations.

I have been slowly experimenting with different LED solutions over the past two years, installing various LED “pads” and bulb replacements in different color temperatures to try to find the best for our situation.  Quite a few of them were disappointing, either for poor light output or inconsistent color (some looked greenish or bluish).  A few were defective, and I returned them.  None were particularly impressive.

Recently I bought a bunch of newer bulb replacements from LED4RV, which is run by a guy named Dan Brown.  These were different from the ones I’d tried before. Instead of individual LED bulbs mounted on a single pad or cylinder, the new models used Surface Mount Device (SMD) type LEDs, which appear as small yellow squares when the light is off.  The SMDs put out more light with fewer LEDs, so don’t just buy the bulb that has the most LEDs and assume it’s the brightest.  Dan provides a little chart to compare the lumen output of each bulb.

After some experimenting, the choice was clear.  For the big double light fixtures that are mounted on our ceiling, Dan’s “1156 Bright White 18 SMD LED cluster bulb” is perfect.  The color temperature is just slightly cooler than the incandescent bulbs it replaced, so no weird blue/green color like a fluorescent.  A pair of these use 12% of the electricity of the hot incandescent bulbs and put out nearly the same amount of light.

For the swiveling halogen reading lamps, we used the “12 LED Warm White Reading Spot” (G4 style).  In these light fixtures the lens is clearer than the overhead lights, so a bit of warmness in the color temperature helped.  These lights were incredibly bright and really output more of a flood than a spot of light.  They’re great in the dining area but by the bed they’re really almost too bright and I may replace those later with the 9 LED version.

The power savings is incredible.  The draw of these lights has been reduced from amps to milliamps, as measured by the Tri-Metric amp-hour meter installed in our Airstream. We can use twenty of our new lights on roughly the same power budget as three of the incandescent bulbs.

The only catch is the high cost of LEDs.  These lights were about 15 bucks each, which really adds up when you’re trying to replace 27 lights.  To economize, we focused on the lights we use the most, and in some cases we only replaced one side of a two-bulb fixture.  When trying to conserve power we can turn on only the side that holds the LED bulb.

Even considering the cost of LEDs, they are a relatively cheap solution to the power problem.  You can do very well simply by adding battery capacity and swapping out your lights for LEDs.  With those choices you can reduce the power demand of your lights by nearly 90% and perhaps double your power supply, which translates to extra days of boondocking capability for a few hundred dollars. That’s less than a quiet generator or solar panels, and it’s a solution that always works regardless of sunshine or fuel supply, so it’s a very sensible option for occasional boondockers.

I should also mention that these days Airstream has, uh, seen the light, and their new trailers come with a lot more LEDs than ever before.  It’s just those of us who own older models that need to make the upgrade.  Based on the success of the lights we have installed so far, I’ll probably go ahead and buy eight or nine more of the bulbs later this year.

That’s not our only Airstream job this week.  Our plan is to launch the Airstream on Friday, which means part of today and all of tomorrow will be dedicated to getting road-worthy again.  Eleanor and I need to glue a patch onto the awning where carpenter ants chewed a hole in it last year, I need to clean the roof again, and there’s plenty of re-packing to do.  Our trip plan is vague but we know we have to get back across the country by July 17, so we’ve got to get moving.