Time to fix

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Mogollon to McDowell Mountain

When the weather is hot in the low desert, it’s always hard to come down off the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona.  This rim is the dividing line between the high elevation north and the gradually increasing heat of the south.  There’s a point just before AZ Rt 260 begins to descend where you can stop at the Mogollon Rim Visitor Center (a small log cabin) and stand on a deck at the edge of the rim to look over the broad view of green pines and valleys one last time.  We always stop there.

Mogollon Rim-1From this lofty overlook at 7,500 ft elevation, the air is nearly always cool and redolent with the scents of Ponderosa Pine and small blooming flowers. Just down the General Crook dirt road you will find a few nice places to have a picnic lunch while taking in the view (your Airstream can remain safely in the paved parking lot at the Visitor Center.)

Mogollon Rim-2Proceeding from this point is difficult because we know that the next time we step out of the car we are likely to be at least 3,000 to 4,000 feet lower, and thus back in the heat.

Indeed, in our case we continued on to one of the southern Arizona desert’s low spots, the Phoenix area, and got out of the car at 1,600 feet elevation in 93 degree temperatures.  The higher they camp, the harder they fall, I guess.

Well, as they say, it’s a dry heat, and that really does mean something.  If you aren’t in the direct sunshine 93 degrees can actually feel reasonable thanks to the low humidity.  The park we’ve chosen, McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, AZ (near Scottsdale) has 30 amp power but we decided to just run fans because it wasn’t terribly hot as the sun began to set, and Eleanor was planning to bake a pie.

The pie is a response to our disappointment at Pie Town, a sort of consolation prize to fill that gap in the alimentary psyche.  Using the oven in the Airstream (which hardly anyone ever does) has a particular downfall:  the oven produces much more heat than the air conditioner can remove, so baking results in a net heat gain and it builds up inside the trailer very quickly.  The only way to deal with it is to crank all the fans up to their highest setting, open all the windows, and convince yourself that 93 degrees is a good thing.  Or at least convince yourself that raspberry pie is worth it.

McDowell Mtn Airstream 2Being late summer, the park is nearly deserted.  Nobody wants to camp in the dry low desert at this time of year, when you could be up in the sweet-smelling pine trees surrounded by greenery.  In a few months that situation will reverse, but for now we are left alone with a few other hardy (or foolhardy) campers in a vast desert park, visited only by lizards, birds, and the occasional Sheriff’s patrol.

Through the past few weeks I’ve been accumulating a “squawk list” on the Airstream’s white board.  I thought I would have nothing to fix after this trip since I did so much work last spring, but that was overly optimistic.  The squawk list is ten items long at this point, none of which are huge problems.

Usually I fix things as we travel, a habit of being full-timers, because that way things don’t snowball.  There was a little of that on this trip:  I replaced the propane tank lid in Airstream’s Terra Port, and while parked on grass at Stevyn & Troy’s home I replaced two belly pan rivets and re-sealed a gas line entrance in the belly pan with butyl tape that Troy gave me.  But I have to admit that I’ve just not been motivated to tackle the other items, with all the traveling we’ve been doing.  It’s hard to keep up with maintenance when you are moving every day or every second day.

Two of the list items require me to get on the roof.  The bathroom vent fan is starting to fail (clogged with dust after eight years of heavy use) and the handle broke last week.  I expected that one, but was surprised when the MaxxFan in the bedroom also suffered a failure.  I turned it on last week and it rattled, then spat out two acorn nuts and a washer.  The entire motor/fan assembly has come loose, and it has to be accessed from the top (I can see loose nuts resting atop the fan but I can’t reach them), so between the two fans I’ll be on the roof for a couple of hours.

We’ll be home in a few hours.  To prolong the trip just a tiny bit more, we plan to make a stop or two in the Phoenix.  And just so we don’t have to think that the Airstream will be parked until January, we’ve already planned a little 3-day weekend in October.  I’ll get my squawk list items addressed by then.  The Airstream is returning to base … but not for long

Which way to go?

Since we are in the last week of our trip, we are looking ahead every day to try to figure out how to make the most out of the time we have left.  Yesterday morning at the Datil Well BLM camp we realized we could just stay put another day rather than pressing on (as had been our intention) to Arizona.  As I mentioned, Datil Well is a nice spot, and it satisfied our general attraction to quiet and beautiful places that are off the beaten path.

The alternative was to continue to Fool Hollow Lake Recreation Area in Show Low, AZ, which we knew was a nice place along our general route but also very popular. That might mean a shut-out if the park was full, and we’d be abandoning a place we knew we liked. Also, if we stayed two days at Datil Well, we’d have to sprint from Show Low directly home, which would result in a long drive on our final day.  I hate arriving home after a long drive, because arriving means lots of tasks in order to re-settle into the house. (Sometimes we resolve this by staying in the Airstream another night in our own carport, so we can tackle the job of transferring to the house in the morning.)

We couldn’t decide without a look at the map.  In the Tour of America days these early-morning talks would mean I have to throw on some clothes and grab the atlas from the car.  These days we pull out the iPad and start browsing the map on the AllStays Camp & RV app.  This allows us to see all of our options for camping while we look at possible routes.  (I don’t have a picture of this; you’ll have to imagine Eleanor and I sitting up in bed sharing an iPad.)

NM-AZ routeFrom where we were (green dot on the map), options to get back to Tucson were few.  We could turn around and take NM-12 south to NM-180, eventually ending up in Arizona at Safford.  We’ve driven most of this route, and it’s scenic but slow, and there wasn’t anything along the way we wanted to visit. (The famous Catwalk is along this route, near Glenwood NM, but weather conditions have closed it too.)

That left only one way to go: continue west on NM Rt 60 toward Arizona, our original plan. This would inevitably bring us to Show Low (red dot on the map), since the only alternate route south toward Tucson is the famous “Devil’s Highway” (Rt 191, formerly Rt 666), and trailers over 25 feet aren’t allowed on that road.

Pie Town NMThe good news was that this route would bring us past Pie Town right around lunch time, and Pie Town basically exists because of the shops along Rt 60 that sell … well, you can guess.

The bad news was threatening weather.  Show Low and most of the towns along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona were expecting serious thunderstorms.  When the weather service reports strong thunderstorms, the boilerplate statement usually says something about the “possibility of large hail” and “gusts up to 60 MPH.”  I’m not particularly concerned about gusts to 60 MPH when we are parked, because I know the Airstream can handle that, but “hail” is a word that strikes fear into the heart of any aluminum trailer owner.

So you can see that with all of these factors to consider we needed some time in the morning to figure out what to do.  I can’t think of a better place to have such a conversation that in a warm bed while waiting for the water heater and coffee maker to finish their jobs.

We eventually decided to compromise: we’d stay at Datil Well until checkout time (1 p.m.) and then migrate over to Show Low for a single night, then head south to some place in the desert for our final night and a short drive home the last day.  Pie Town was a bit of a bust since it’s off-season and the famous “Pie-O-Neer” is only open Thurs-Sun this time of year, but we found a decent lunch a little further on in Quemado.

The only weather we encountered was along the final leg of Rt 60 and it amounted to a feeble shower left over from the thunderstorm line that had threatened Show Low earlier in the day.  By the time we landed in Show Low it was sunny and gorgeous again, and of course being Sunday we had no trouble finding a space at Fool Hollow, so it was generally smooth sailing all day.

Emma has pointed out that until we arrived at Fool Hollow, our trip seemed to have an insect theme.  We picked up lots of spiders in Vermont and Ohio, a few houseflies in Missouri and Kansas, ladybugs in Capulin, butterflies in Mountainair, grasshoppers at the VLA, gnats at Valley of Fires, and at Datil Well the campground was nearly covered over in fat black fuzzy caterpillars.  Along the way we have evicted a few bugs from the Airstream, but mostly the damage has been more to the insect population than to us.  The front of the Mercedes and the Airstream look like we’ve been driving through chum, so I was grateful for the little showers we encountered on the road.  Our last stop before going home will be the local truck wash.

Fool Hollow AZ E E Fool Hollow has turned out to live up to its reputation.  The lake is small but pretty, with canoe and kayak rentals available.  There are nice gravel walking trails around the lake, well-designed camp sites, and even an ice machine and book swap in our loop. The neighbors did of course fire up the mandatory state park “campsmoke” (can’t really call it a fire—I wish more people had Scouting training & could build real fires) which forced us to close up all the windows, but other than that we really enjoyed the place.

Despite the pleasantness of this place, it’s time to get serious about going home.  We could do it in one day if we left early this morning, but since we have a little time our plan today is only to get about 150 miles south and then arrive at base on Wednesday in the early afternoon.


The Very Large Array, New Mexico

For years I’ve driven down I-25 in New Mexico and noticed the sign that says “The Very Large Array,” pointing off to the west. Each time I’ve reluctantly continued on down the highway because time wouldn’t allow the 55-mile detour to go see whatever it was. This time, we made time, and wow— we’re all really glad we did.

It was worthwhile for two reasons. First, Rt 60 through northern New Mexico is a quiet, fast, and scenic drive through the upper elevations. In the afternoon the light makes the yellow grasslands glow, and mountains all around keep the scenery interesting. Second, the Very Large Array (VLA) is abso-freaking-lutely awesome. (That’s a scientific term, the first of many you’ll encounter in this particular blog entry.)

Very Large Array New Mexico-6

You really have to see this thing to believe it. It is a giant radiotelescope, made up of 27 big parabolic dishes, each measuring 25 meters. All of them point to the same place at once, and the radio signals they collect from the heavens are combined (“correlated” in scientific language) using a big supercomputer into a single radio image. The effect is that the array acts like a single gigantic radiotelescope measuring 22 miles in diameter!

The array is placed far up in the New Mexico hinterlands, safely away from the radio signals of cities like Albuquerque, and high up on the plains (7,000 ft elevation) so that the signals have less atmosphere to pass through. Driving west on Rt 60 we could see the array from three miles away. It is so sensitive that visitors are require to turn off cell phones while in the area. I almost forgot to turn off the Airstream’s Internet until Eleanor reminded me. The VLA could detect a cell phone from Jupiter, half a billion miles away.

Very Large Array New Mexico-7Somebody thoughtful added a Visitor Center to this installation, which is easily accessed by RVs. Approaching the VLA, you get the sense that there should be barbed wire and armed guards anywhere, but in our entire visit (starting at about 4:30 p.m.) we didn’t see a single person other than a few other visitors. The staff works 24 hours a day but they are hidden inside buildings with the WIDAR supercomputer.

You just walk right into the Visitor Center, press a button to watch the movie, tour the exhibits, and then take a self-guided walking tour around the facility. The tour brings you right to the base of one of these behemoth dishes, close enough to see it move (which it did without warning, twice, while we were there), and hear the “cryogenic refrigeration compressors” keeping the radio receiver at -427 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Kelvin). That’s not a typo.

Very Large Array New Mexico-4Of course, not the entire installation is open to the public. You can’t walk around to the other antennas, and you wouldn’t want to anyway, since they can be spaced out as far as 21 miles. A rail system is used to transport the dishes as needed, changing their configuration in four different ways according to the needs of the scientists who are using the system. Yep, these 100-ton dishes are portable.

Very Large Array New Mexico-2The magnitude of the array is just astounding. It’s easily visible on satellite imagery if you care to look. But walking around the place is much more fun. I can’t count the number of times Eleanor and I kept mumbling, “COOL!” as we wandered the grounds and Visitor Center. It’s a real geek-fest, but even non-geeks will find this place amazing—and recognize some of the installation from movies like “Terminator: Salvation” and “Contact.”

Very Large Array New Mexico-5Very Large Array New Mexico-3There’s also some interesting bits of geek history, like the pillars that famous scientists have inscribed their names on, and if you look closely you might even spot some interesting insect life. Grasshoppers were practically a plague in the roadway by the grassy fields, flinging themselves out of the way of the Airstream as we slowly towed down the entrance road.

My only regret about the visit is that the tour does not include a peek at the supercomputer. I can understand why, but still I’d love to get into the room with a machine that can do 16 quadrillion processes per second.

Very Large Array New Mexico-1Overnight parking is not allowed, otherwise we might have just parked right there for the evening, since it was six p.m. when we were done. We hauled the Airstream another 15 miles or so up to Datil Well BLM campground, which turned out to be a very nice spot at 7,200 ft amongst juniper trees and rolling mountains.

For $5 a night this spot is really a bargain. The sites have no hookups and they aren’t level, but you get repaid for that in beautiful scenery and quiet. There’s even a tiny cabin that serves as a visitor center with information about the cattle drives that used to come through this area, and unbelievably, free wifi inside the cabin. I don’t know how they’re providing that. My phone reports one bar of Verizon or “No Service” and is unusable for calls. However, our Airstream Internet is working very well thanks to the booster and rooftop antenna, so once again I’m very pleased with the tech upgrade I did last spring.

We had a freezer incident yesterday. Somehow the door did not fully close the night before, and some of our food defrosted, including two of the steaks we bought in Capulin. So last night Eleanor cooked them in a cast-iron pan, and also roasted green beans, onions, mushrooms with red wine & garlic, and white beans with rosemary & garlic. It was a late night dinner followed by the last slices of almond cake with apricot cream that she made to celebrate the Harvest Moon a few nights ago. I imagine people in campsites nearby were wondering what the delicious smells were at 8 p.m., far up here in the New Mexico boonies.

Valley of Fires State Rec Area, NM

As we continue our march toward home from Lake Meade State Park in Kansas (spot “A” on the map), you might notice that we haven’t exactly plunged headlong toward Tucson. KS-NM route map New Mexico is really drawing us in, in a way it has never done before.  The last time we were so enchanted by this state was in early 2000, when Eleanor and I flew in (pre-Airstream) with Emma due to exit the womb in a month or so.  Eleanor was so visibly pregnant that the ranger didn’t want her to climb ladders at Gila Cliff Dwellings, but Eleanor did it anyway (and all other challenges that came her way). Every time we come to New Mexico I think of that trip.

It’s a great place to tour, made even greater by the truly amazing great late-summer weather we’ve had.  Yesterday’s drive took us a mere 80 miles to Carrizozo and an island in the middle of a 40,000 year-old lava flow, upon which a campground has been built.  This is the Valley of Fires State Recreation Area.  (Not to be confused with Valley of Fire State Park near Lake Mead in Nevada.)

Valley of Fires SRA NM-4This campground is unique, in that your campsite sits atop a literal island, surrounded in all directions by tortured black lava rock and a few hardy plants and animals that have managed to colonize it.


Valley of Fires SRA NM-2

The centerpiece of the rec area is a fantastic walking path that winds through the lava field and offers interpretive signs along the way.  You can walk on the lava if you want, but it’s sharp and deeply convoluted, so it’s really more of an effort than you might expect.


Valley of Fires SRA NM-3The only negative we found about this park is the gnats.  Strong winds yesterday kept them at bay but in the morning they were back, and a few snuck into the Airstream as we were getting ready to go.  The park volunteer camp host showed me a bottle of 100% deet and a headnet that we wears when running the weedwacker.

I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from a visit.  You can always come in the winter months if you really can’t stand the thought of bugs. Keep in mind that this spot is at 5,200 feet elevation so it probably gets pretty cold.

Tech report:  Verizon signal was fairly good thanks to the ground elevation of the campground/island above the surrounding lava flow.  Most of the sites have water and electric, too.  Overall, a very nice place and we were glad to have stopped there.  If we were planning to do some serious hiking out on the lava we would have stayed a second night, but alas, our trip is winding down so it was just a one night stand.

Valley of Fires SRA NM-1The trip plan from here is even more vague than before.  We have two more stops in mind, and after that we’re just going to see how we feel about things.  Tonight’s stop is designed to keep us away from populated areas since it’s Saturday night (and popular campgrounds might be full), and that’s perfectly fine with all of us.  Se we have headed to yet another remote part of northern New Mexico.  I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.