California road trip

I have trouble staying in one place for more than a month.   The southwest is delightful this time of year, with dry and warm days and crisp evenings filled with stars.   Tucson has been just fine in all respects, but with the Airstream sitting in the carport, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity to explore a little more.

Early on Thursday morning I pulled the Airstream out of the carport and headed west.   Eleanor and Emma stayed home to take care of other things, so I was alone to think and observe as the desert scenery drifted by.   Even though our hiatus has not been long, it was a strange feeling being back on the road, both invigorating and yet uncertain.   I’m so used to traveling with my two companions that towing the Airstream alone is always a little uncomfortable.   Why am I doing this?   Where am I going?   But the little things in the desert soon steal my attention, and then I’m looking at every ordinary thing (tractors, dead motels, billboards, farms, dusty roads) and wondering what story lies behind it.   Each thing invites exploration, so the road is never dull even though I’ve traveled it before.

The iPod played a nice medley of music, and each song reminded me of a different place.   I hear Barenaked Ladies and I think of a week we spent in Victor, ID with our friend Rich C.   I hear Squeeze and I’m thinking of humid nights driving across I-10 through the swamps between Baton Rouge and Lafayette.   I hear Blink182 and I’m thinking of a particular week in Tampa.   Some songs lead me to Vermont, others to Mexico, and one particular album always reminds me of a dark early morning when we went to catch a snorkel boat in Maui.   I like having music that reminds me of these places, it’s like an alternate form of memory.

The reason I’m on the road is to get the Airstream a pair of new axles.   It has been sagging a little lately, and that has made it hard to hitch up properly.   A heavy trailer like ours needs to distribute its tongue weight across both axles of the tow vehicle (in this case, our Nissan Armada), and lately that weight distribution hasn’t been what it should be.  I can tell by the way the Armada is starting to sag in the rear.  When the axles on the trailer sag, it messes up the geometry that makes weight distribution work.   It also means the trailer is getting a rougher ride, which is bad for longevity.

In Corona, CA, 458 miles from our home, a business called Inland RV specializes in Airstream axles.   I could have gotten the axles replaced locally, but Inland RV really knows the axle business and they support the magazine with their advertising dollars, which means a lot to me in this economy.   Besides, our two good friends Terry and Marie have recently relocated to work at Inland and I wanted to see them as well.   Terry is a super mechanic and I wanted him to see the condition of all the trailer’s running gear (bearings, brakes, tires, axles) and check for other problems.

We had a mystery squeak coming from the brakes and I wanted him to take a look at that too.   Terry correctly diagnosed the squeak problem before I even arrived, just from the description.   It was caused by a prior service center not peening over little tabs on the outer brake pads, and easily fixed.   Stuff like that makes me crazy — why can’t the first guys do it right?   I’ll drive my Airstream hundreds of miles to find someone who can do the job right the first time, and often I have to.

The service work went well on Friday, but I hung around for another night to visit a little more.   The shop has extended me the courtesy of parking in the service bay, which is a peculiar experience.   We did this once before, at Roger Williams Airstream in Weatherford, TX.   Being indoors means that “day” and “night” lose meaning.   It is sunset when the shop closes, the doors lock, and the big fluorescent shop lights are switched off.   There is no dawn until someone comes in.   I awoke in the pitch black wondering what time it was.   It was like a winter morning in the far north, when the sun doesn’t rise for hours after the people do, except that the temperature never changed regardless of what was going on outside.

A trip like this has to include at least a little tourism, so we took Saturday to check out the March Field Air Museum.   It’s like Tucson’s Pima Air & Space Museum, but smaller.

Eleanor packed the Airstream with enough food for me to live for a week, and it has hardly been touched because everyone else keeps feeding me.   I’m well-stocked to wander around southern California for a long time.   There’s some temptation to do that, but it’s not the same when I know E&E are waiting for me to return to Tucson.   Aimless wandering is best done as a family.   I’ll go home on Sunday, and instead plan the next big trip, which I suspect will happen — based on prior history — in just a few weeks.

The secret to successfully staying home

 Adam and Susan have been visiting Tucson in their Airstream for the past week.   They are becoming, with our constant encouragement, full-timers in spirit.   They arrived here without a rigid schedule and have been just taking every day as it comes.     That’s the right frame of mind — just “be” in the moment and don’t worry about tomorrow.

Since I was between issues of the magazine without a lot else going on, I took a few days to go hiking with them.   I’m trying to retain some of the lessons I learned while full-timing, and one of them is to take the vacation opportunities whenever you can.   We hiked the Sabino Canyon Trail up to Hutch’s Pond (8 miles roundtrip), a little of the Mt Lemmon Trail at the height of the Santa Catalina Mountains (about two miles), and a little of the Romero Canyon Trail from Catalina State Park (about three miles).

Our choice of trails wasn’t random; I’ve been scouting various route ends in the Santa Catalina mountains so that we can put together a long day hike from the peak of Mt Lemmon at 8600 feet to Tucson’s base elevation of about 2400 feet.   The total hike will be about 14.5 miles, all downhill.

There’s a hidden goal in this hike.   We are planning a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike with Adam and Susan next fall.   Starting from the north rim, we’ll hike from about 8200 feet elevation to the canyon floor, and then back up the south rim.   It just happens that hiking down from Mt Lemmon to Tucson almost exactly duplicates the weather conditions, distance, and geography of a hike down from the Grand Canyon’s north rim.   Then we’ll hike up another trail (on another day) to simulate the steep hike back up the south rim.   This will help us test our gear, stamina, and mental gumption before we get to the real thing.

emma-wizard.jpgWe’re also thinking about other roadtrips.   We are definitely going out to California after Christmas, and the only question is how long we’ll be out.   Eleanor is already talking about “a month or so.”   She wants to visit Death Valley, and I’ve already scheduled four stops in southern California.   I can also see stops in Las Vegas and Quartzsite. We clearly aren’t ready to just “settle down” and stay home.

I don’t know why, exactly.   Life at home has been very pleasant.   The “fall” weather in Tucson is amazingly nice.   The house is comfortable, and Tucson has provided us with all the diversions you can expect from a mid-sized city.   We’ve met people.   Halloween was a great success (30-odd kids at the door, good trick-or-treating for Emma in her wizard costume).   But undeniably we still like life with a regular mix of new scenery.

Adam and Susan have left for California and won’t be back for a few weeks.   In the meantime, I may haul the Airstream off to the Los Angeles area to have an axle issue dealt with.   It’s a good excuse to check out a few spots in California that I’ve been meaning to visit. And being recent “homebodies,” any excuse to travel is a good one.

Planning trips is part of the same pathology.   I hate not having a trip in mind, even if it is only a rough plan.   So without even meaning to, I’ve sketched out the next year of travel, much like I have sketched out the next year of Airstream Life magazine.   Most of it is entirely speculative, but it’s fun to consider nonetheless.

The Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike is logistically challenging.   Our hike will be about 24 miles, but the drive from one rim to the other is about 250 miles.   That means we need overnight lodging at both ends of the hike, as well as tenting in the middle while we are in the canyon.   The temperatures will range from near-freezing at the north rim when we start hiking, to mid-90s at the bottom of the canyon in the afternoon.   Reservations are needed far in advance for lodges, campground, the hiker shuttle from one rim to the other, a backcountry camping permit, meals at Phantom Ranch, and “duffle service” (mules can be hired to haul your pack up the south rim).

We’re also working on getting our gear in order, like new hiking boots for everyone.   They’ve got to be well broken-in before we hike 24 miles, so there’s another reason to find some local hikes.   It all works, and it makes the little things we do to fill the time into really meaningful things.   I like the complexity of the rim-to-rim plan because it keeps me occupied when we are not traveling.   Everything we do now helps get us closer to the big event.   So it turns out that the secret to successfully staying home may be in the planning and preparation we do in anticipation of the next time we go away.

Ready to go

The Airstream still feels like home to us, even though it is sitting in the carport with half of our possessions taken out of it.   But it isn’t home anymore, and so we have been systematically reducing its contents to only what we envision we’ll need for specific trips.   It’s an awkward process, full of questions and uncertainties.   Everything has to be re-examined.   The key criterion is simply whether we will need it if we’re out for a month or two.

Before we were full-timers, we did what most people did.   We kept a minimum complement of equipment and supplies in the trailer during the summer season, and reloaded many other things in the days leading up to departure.   Now I’d like to keep this trailer ready for immediate travel without a lot of reloading.   That means duplication of many things that we use in both the house and trailer.

Most of it is easy: toothbrushes, shampoo, dishes, bedding, some clothes.   Anything in the house that is needed on the road and is reasonably cheap will have a permanent counterpart in the trailer.   We have enough clothes to leave a four-season supply in the trailer and still have what we need in the house.   Toys that we only use during travel will stay in the Airstream too, like our snorkel gear and wetsuits.   A few things like my office equipment (laptop, printer, cellular router) and Eleanor’s perishable spices will have to be loaded at the last minute.

That means we’re organizing the house to suit the trailer. All of my office gear stays in one cabinet in the house. All of Eleanor’s key spices are in a simple plastic bin in the kitchen.   When it’s time to go, we grab the contents of the office cabinet and the spice box and we’re ready.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but the goal is to be able to take off on impromptu trips without agonizing over packing.   I hate the question, “Did we remember to pack the ______?”   With a well-designed system, I hope we can get the Airstream ready to go for a week-long trip in less than an hour.

It’s also nice to have the Airstream ready for habitation in the unlikely event of a natural disaster or other event that might require evacuation.   That’s unlikely here in Tucson, where the chance of forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunami, mudslides, and floods are minimal.   All we get are severe thunderstorms during summer and the occasional dust storm. But maybe someday they’ll have a problem at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.   I think with a little more prep, we could get out of here in 10 minutes and not miss anything important for weeks.

For a lot of people, the amount of travel we still plan to do is formidable.   We’ll be gone much of the year, including all the summer months.   I was talking to a neighbor today about our plans and I could see his startled reaction as I said, “Well, of course we’ll be gone all summer.”   I have to remind myself that while it seems like nothing to us to be living in the Airstream for a few months, it’s a very big deal to most people.   So we will still carry things that weekenders wouldn’t bother with.   We’ve got extensive laundry and cleaning supplies, extra tools, spare parts, reference books, dishware for guests, and a lot of food.

The next major trip is scheduled for after Christmas, although we are likely to go out for a few days here and there in November.   The post-Christmas trip has no definite end planned to it; we may be out for as little as eight days or as much as a month.

I’ve never thought much before about what it takes to store the trailer for long periods.   It needs a certain amount of TLC to stay ready for the road.   For example, the water system needs sanitizing.   Bleach is the usual method, mixed with a full tank of water and run through all the faucets.   A measured amount in the system for a few hours will kill all the bugs.   I’ve put a smaller amount of bleach in the system for storage, to keep it from growing bacterial slime while the trailer sits.

The tires slowly lose air (about one pound per month), too.   Desert dust accumulates inside because we have the windows open for ventilation.   We’re trying to combat such things by treating the Airstream as if we were still living in i, so I’ll be out there next week doing some cleaning and checking tire pressures.   We’ve left the refrigerator on, with a few basics still in it, so there’s less to reload later.   (As a side benefit, I can grab a cold drink out of it when I’m in there working.)

Mostly, this is compensation for not traveling as much.   I like the idea of the Airstream staying “live” and ready, just like it was during our full-timing days.   We are living as homeowners now, and it’s a big change, but the shock is mitigated a little by the knowledge that our escape pod is right there, ready to go.   We may do just fine in suburbia and not need it, but it’s nice to have.

Good news from the economic downturn

There were many reasons we decided to settle into a house without wheels for a while, but one was to get serious about my small business.   For the past three years I’ve juggled work and travel, and it has worked, but I often felt that if I spent more time concentrating on the business, I’d be able to come up with ways to make it run better.   Parking ourselves in a house would yield bonus time that was formerly spent driving and dealing with other overhead associated with travel.

The economic recession has only spurred the need for me to really concentrate on the business.   Niche magazine publishing is not a great way to get wealthy even in the best of times.   With a worldwide economic crisis coupled with a recession in the RV industry, my little magazine is in the crosshairs.

We’ve already been pummeled a bit in 2007.   While people keep subscribing to Airstream Life at the same rate as the previous year, several advertisers have abandoned most or all of their advertising program.   (Talk about a self-defeating strategy.   People are still traveling and using their Airstreams — check any state park or campground for proof.)   Panic is never pretty, and it’s never the right choice.

I’m writing very frankly about this because I think there need to be a few voices to counter the constant negative bombardment in the popular media.   People are getting too caught up in what happened on Wall Street this morning, and forgetting to see the bigger picture.   There are opportunities in a downturn.   In times of war, promotions happen fast.   You can sit on the sidelines and wait for it all to be over or you can get in the game.   However you say it, adopting a position of passive fear or active retrenchment is not going to advance your cause.

The RV industry slowdown has been apparent since the beginning of 2007, so we’ve been working to mitigate the damage all year.   To get the message out, Brett has posted some essays about the value of advertising in a downturn, and privately he’s been counseling our advertisers on ways to intelligently respond to market conditions.   A few have listened, and they seem to be surviving very well.   The companies that understand the value of marketing intelligently when others are running scared will have long-term advantage over their competitors.

Of course, when you sell ads to people, those ads had better work.   So we’ve offered free ad re-designs to our clients, to improve the results they get from their ads.   Those who have taken advantage of that service are reporting great results.   We’ve also been seeking out small businesses with relatively recession-proof business models, as new clients, and we opened up a new — inexpensive — advertising section just for them. We’ve also offered creative ways for our advertisers to be able to afford their ads, including accepting credit cards and product or service trades.

But in the last few weeks, it has become obvious to everyone (even the Commander-in-Chief, the Secretary of the Treasury, and Alan Greenspan, apparently the last three people to figure it out) that the financial crisis is deeper and will last longer than at first expected.   That means my efforts have to go far beyond just shoring up the current clients and seeking new ones.   It’s time to look for efficiencies and cuts that can help sustain us for a long time.

Now, all this might seem enormously depressing.   I admit that at first I was dismayed as well, but then I realized that finding efficiencies in my business could actually be fun.   Like selling, it’s a task that can be a rewarding game. The trick to stretching a recipe is to make the end result taste the same, and that requires creativity, which is the fun part.

So every few days I try to come up with another idea to either save money or increase revenue.   The ideas can range anywhere from sweeping changes to little tiny ones.   It doesn’t matter how big the savings are, just that I keep coming up with new ideas.   I figure that if I keep up the challenge long enough, eventually I’ll find ways to secure Airstream Life against the storm.

For example, a week ago I talked to the guys at the Verizon store and discovered that by combining our two cellular phones (one on Sprint, the other on Verizon) into a single “Family Share” plan, I could cut monthly expense by $50.   That’s a no-brainer, so we did it.   Two weeks ago, we finalized two new products that we can sell through our online web store for the holiday shopping season, so they are on order and should be available by Nov 1.     (We’ll have a cute little Airstream model and some improved aluminum tumblers.)

Other ideas:   We’re reducing complimentary copies sent to advertisers, to cut waste.   We’re using a slightly lighter paper on the magazine cover.   I switched my Amex card from a Gold card with $100 annual fee, to a no-fee card that gives 5% back on fuel purchases.   We’re offering discounts to advertisers who pay for their ads early.   I’m cutting back on travel mileage and rallies (but still planning at least five months of travel in 2009). We’re promoting back issue sales a little more aggressively.   It all helps.

Some ideas actually increase our expenses but will pay off in the long run.   For example, we switched web hosting providers.   The new web host costs $500 per year (compared to $99 per year for the old one).   But the magazine will save money and time overall, because the new host is much more reliable and I won’t have to pay a tech $1,000 per year to fix the problems caused by the cheap-o service we used to use.

I’ve also looked at the long term, and used the “what-if” scenarios to develop strategies to ensure that we’ll be a survivor no matter what happens.   That means having a plan for emergencies, building up savings, reviewing and sometimes renegotiating contracts, etc.   That’s good too.

In the past few months of thinking about this, I’ve come up with literally dozens of small changes that have made the business more profitable.   Some of them are big ideas that will take months or even years to implement.   A lot of them are penny-ante things.   But even if they don’t add up to a lot of financial difference, it has been worth the exercise simply for the improvement in efficiency.   Because I’ve been forced by economic conditions to re-evaluate everything, the business has been improved — tempered by fire, in a sense.

So I am glad for the challenge.   The slump, downturn, recession, or whatever you care to call it, has been a good thing. Once in a while a little bump is good to shake you out of your complacency. Our advertisers will get better service from us, the business will be stronger, and you’ll keep getting Airstream Life magazine.

So never mind what’s happening on Wall Street this week.   Don’t get paranoid and start stocking up on beans, Band-Aids, and bullets.   Plan to thrive on the downturn and you’ll be one of the first folks to smile when things turn around.

The “Grass Solutions Tour”

The hardest thing in the world, apparently, is getting rid of a lawn.

This is something I cannot fathom.   I have known many a lawn-lover to moan over the large brown patches that afflict his treasured grass, caused by grubs or drought or incorrect pH balance or some other such thing.   A lawn seems a delicate thing when you want it to be just right, and it drives owners to outdoor centers to buy enormous bags of fertilizers and pesticides.   Green perfection is expensive and time-consuming.

And yet, when you decide you’ve had enough of grass, just try to kill the stuff.   It’s impossible.   The roots, say landscape professionals, go down deep. Grass has amazing ability to go dormant, survive frosts and droughts, and shrug off even brutal chemical assaults of glyphosate. Or so I’m told.

Our house in Tucson had a lawn, once upon a time.   Being neglected since the death of the prior owner, the lawn has become a mess of weeds that carry thorns and provide cover for critters. Our departure for six months certainly didn’t help things.   Now, instead of a lawn, we have a sort of jungle.

In Tucson, having a backyard lawn is strangely common, despite the high cost of water.   The rate Tucsonians pay for water more than triples after they use 11,220 gallons in a month.   It goes up again (140%) if you hit 22,440 gallons per month.   Plus there’s the widespread knowledge that we are in a desert, and thus flagrant use of water is akin to antisocial behavior.   (We use about 2,000 gallons per month according to our meter, or about 66 gallons per day.   In the Airstream we can make 39 gallons last for four days.   Modern houses are designed to waste water.)

Still, many times when we saw a house during our search,   the realtor would slide open the patio door to the back yard, take a peek, and announce with a sigh, “And yes, there’s a lawn.”   He knew how much I hated to hear that. These “lawns” would typically be little 12×12 patches of carefully tended grass in the midst of a lot of gravel.   They were usually just large enough for the kids to play on, like little putting greens without holes for the golf ball.

When I saw these I always imagined some desperate northerner trying to keep a tiny bit of his home landscape alive in the backyard.   Turns out that in reality they are put in by life-long desert dwellers who think a patch of green grass is a status symbol. That’s like northerners keeping a gila monster in a backyard cage.   It doesn’t make much sense to me but it makes some people happy.

The preferred landscape today — and the one mandated by current codes for multifamily and commercial buildings —   is xeriscape, which means a combination of gravel, rocks, and desert-adapted plants that don’t need much water.   Xeriscaping is also conveniently low-maintenance, perfect for our lifestyle since we will be gone a lot.   So our goal from the minute we agreed to buy this place has been to utterly eliminate the grass and restore the backyard to a more natural desert landscape.

If all we were facing was a 12×12 foot patch of grass, this would be a trivial exercise.   But the previous owner of our house had a full-on, wall-to-wall carpet of grass in the backyard.   From archive images from the satellite photos, it looks like he took care of it with plenty of water.

That means we have about 2,000 square feet of grass to eradicate.   (There is no middle ground.   Grass does not negotiate. It’s kill or be killed.)   You’d think that in the desert it would be easy: just stop watering and watch the grass die.   Unfortunately, we have a fairly well-adapted version of grass that bides its time until the rain comes, and thus survives on the mere 12 inches of rain that Tucson gets annually.

The first landscaper who visited us suggested the most reliable solution: “simply” remove the top four inches of soil and truck it away.   I would “simply” write a check for $2,000 for this service — and then we’d talk about replacing that giant expensive divot with something else.

My problem with that solution is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money to get rid of something as dumb as grass. My whole purpose in getting rid of the grass is to avoid spending money to take care of it, and it seems counter-productive to start the process by spending a big pile of money.

There’s the real challenge.   It’s not that getting rid of the lawn is going to be hard.   It’s just going to be expensive.   Since I’m inherently disinterested in taking care of a lawn (that’s code for “lazy”),   it makes sense that I’m also disinterested in spending money to make it go away.   It’s as if the house came with a rusting World War II tank in the backyard.   “Yes, it’s ugly,” we’d say to each other, “But towing it away would cost too much, and it’s not doing any harm, so let’s just leave it.   Maybe we can paint it.”

I suspect the best way to get rid of the lawn is simply to act as if we care about it.   We could buy a nice riding lawn mower, several bags of chemicals (fertilizer, pre-emergent grub control, dandelion inhibitor), a few manual tools like rakes, an aerator, and some sprinklers.   The grass would detect this and promptly go brown.   But who am I kidding.   The lawn would probably know I was bluffing.

It’s decisions like this that make me wish for a quick escape into the Airstream, where such problems are always somebody else’s to manage.   I always appreciated beautiful green lawns when we lived in the trailer, because I could dip my bare toes into them knowing that I wouldn’t be the one mowing later. It’s a real temptation to just skip the decisions and start planning a getaway instead. And there’s a justification there, too: with some time off to think and recreate, a brilliant solution may come to me.

So it’s settled.   I’ll start planning the “Grass Solutions Tour 2008” as soon as possible.   Folks, this could be a real phenomenon if it works.   Imagine the justifications you can make if it turns out that a simple getaway allows you to solve life’s problems.   Our motto will be this:   “For every problem that comes up, there shall be a trip.”   And the trip length can be a factor of the difficulty of the problem.   For the grass problem alone, we may be on the road again for quite a while.