All the little things

If you’re looking for lots of travel excitement or Alumapalooza news, you might want to come back on Tuesday, because right now we’re still in the lead-up to the event. These last few days are dedicated to setting the stage (literally and figuratively) so that we’re ready to host 450 people for most of a week. It’s a lot of work.

APZ10 setting chairsAPZ10 parking trailer

Lisa and Beth were busy getting all the registration materials set up on Thursday, Matt and his parking crew were figuring out how to park early arrivals without losing them in soft clay starting on Friday, Brett has been everywhere with his walkie-talkie dealing with a thousand details, a bunch of us pitched in to set tables and chairs for 400 people, I have been working out hassles related to shipments for the new Airstream Life Pop-Up Store and checking on important little things back in Tucson, and Eleanor has been prepping for a lot of cooking. In addition to her two culinary seminars and Dirty Orange laundry duties, she also committed to making dinner for the Pop-Up Store staff (mostly Suzie and me) nightly.

APZ10 Super Terry water pump

Traditionally on the Sunday before Alumapalooza, Super Terry and I take care of a list of maintenance items on the Airstream. We do this mostly because Sunday is a relatively quiet day before the event gets going, and because it’s the first full day Super Terry can be on site. It might seem easier to just schedule a maintenance appointment with Airstream’s Service Center but as an organizer it’s a huge problem to lose my trailer for a day during the event, so I haven’t tried that since 2010.

APZ10 free toiletThis year my list was fairly benign: replace the toilet (for a leaking seal & general wear), flush the disc brake fluid, adjust one window, replace the water pump, replace a worn-out lift arm on a Fantastic Vent. Nothing major. As always, Super Terry is so competent that I was basically redundant, just there to answer questions and fetch things, and even with a trip to the hardware store it was all done in a couple of hours. The Airstream is back to 100% operational status, which is a relief since I’ll be logging some serious miles and a lot of nights in the next 90 days.

There has been a lot of noise on Facebook about the wet conditions here in Jackson Center. I can only assume people who are raising the issue have not been to Alumapalooza before. It’s usually wet in the weeks before the event, and thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence. It seems that every year someone raises the alarm and starts a rumor that the event is going to be cancelled, or that everyone will get stuck in the mud. Trust me, we’ve never left an Airstream behind and we’ve never cancelled. It always works out.

In the first year of Alumapalooza it rained every day and by Saturday we’d had enough with the mud and damp, so we downloaded Jimi Hendrix playing his twisted version of the National Anthem during the rain at Woodstock, turned the speakers up to 11 and blasted the field in the early morning. It was a good “what the hell” moment, and it worked. People popped out of their trailers like gophers, looked for the source of the sound, and then generally gave us a big thumbs up. Half of them were probably at Woodstock originally, so they got it.

APZ10 Coleman happy hour

Of course the early arrivals see little of this. They are here to chill, and they are experts at it. By Saturday night little gatherings and happy hours were popping up all over the field. My friend Rhonda Coleman, who drove out from Oregon in her new Interstate motorhome, is a bit of a party animal and immediately hosted a mai tai party. Rhonda knows how to socialize, and everyone who knows her knows her Airstream is the first place to stop.

In a way, this is the best time to relax at Alumapalooza. Nothing’s happening right now. On Tuesday the factory will re-open and the roads will be flowing with trucks, tractors, and forklifts. The giant air-cleaning system for the wood shop will get fired up (and it runs two shifts so you’d better get used to the roar of it day and night). All the Airstreamers will be here and the local restaurants and stores will be maxed out. You won’t be able to go 50 feet without running into someone you know, or someone who wants to get to know you.

And the schedule! I spend a lot of time each winter working on the program. You can download a copy of the 2010 Survival Guide here. I try to keep it as full as possible. This year we have seminars, music, and workshops happening all day in two tents for five days, plus outdoor stuff like bike rides and Dutch Oven cooking. So once the event gets going, there’s little downtime. By Tuesday night I’ll be thinking fondly of this quiet period.

Growing older with an Airstream

The other day I found myself having one of those conversations that older people seem to have. You know, the kind of conversation you never think you’ll have when you’re young, like a serious explanation of how your colonoscopy went. In this case I was commiserating with a friend (a Gen-Xer, but still someone in her fifties), about how most consumer products of this century are designed for short lives, and consequently are often rented rather than owned. Phones and cars come to mind, and even most brands of RVs, but not Airstreams.

It has long been a selling point for Airstream that the aluminum trailers last forever, with normal care and maintenance, but I never thought I’d grow old with my Airstream. Honestly, when I bought it during my early 40s I had no thought to keeping it for any particular length of time. It was just an expedient to a full-time family adventure.

But that adventure stretched out for three years, and then became a half-timing experience for the family each summer, and now I find myself still in the Airstream, old enough to stay at “55+” communities and wondering if the trailer will outlive me. It’s a strong possibility; I’ve seen many Airstreams that are old enough to collect Social Security still rolling on the roads and making a splash at vintage rallies. Will my Airstream someday be one of those historic relics, “discovered” resting behind a barn somewhere and restored by a nostalgic member of the Flying Car Generation in 2065?

I kind of hope so. I’d like my Airstream to still be in serviceable condition in 2065, if not actually in use, and beloved by someone who is at this very moment being born. While I’m fantasizing, I’d like this person to have a son or daughter who is in training to join the Mars or Moon Colony program. It would be like having your vintage Corvette purchased by a member of the Apollo space program, a neat juxtaposition of past and future adventure.

Ah, but first the Airstream must take care of me, and so I must take care of it. I’m about to launch for points East in a few days, and that means a careful check of all the systems and supplies. I’ve documented what I check in my book Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance so I won’t repeat it here. A good inspection of the Airstream is not difficult, requires no tools trickier than a flashlight, and doesn’t take all that long. You can bring your Airstream to a service center for inspection but I recommend you start doing it yourself. You know your Airstream better than anyone and are really the best person for the job.

So far my checklist has yielded only a few things that need attention. I had to lube the awning arms with Boeshield T-9 because they were getting hard to slide. One of the Fan-tastic Vents has a wonky gear mechanism that causes it to not close correctly, and the hydraulic disc brake fluid should be replaced just based on the length of time it has been in use. I could take care of those last two items myself, but it’s always more fun to work with Super Terry and neither task is urgent, so they’ll get done when we meet up in the days before Alumapalooza.

Alumapalooza, of course, is high on my list of things to prepare for. This year it’s particularly tricky because I’m going to try something new: an Airstream Life Pop-Up Store. We’ll have a big tent filled with some of the most popular Airstream upgrades that we sell. Every year the Canadian attendees beg me to bring stuff to Alumapalooza so they can avoid the prohibitive cost of shipping across the border, and there are a lot of items that are best shopped in person (like wood cutting boards).

We’ll also have “show pricing” on certain things like TST tire pressure monitors. So in addition to shipping a bunch of stuff to Jackson Center, the back bedroom of the Airstream will be filled with boxes—in addition to my bicycle, two electric unicycles, and other toys for the summer. Maybe it’s a good thing Emma doesn’t come on these trips anymore …

I’m almost done prepping for this trip, which is about right since launch is in three days. The Airstream looks poised and ready to go. Clothes are packed, food is stocked, laundry is done, the interior has been cleaned, and all systems are go. Just a few more errands to run in the next few days, and the Airstream & I will begin the long trek east. We’re both a year older than the last time, but we’re both still game.

Re-start

I’ve often said that it’s easy to wreck an Airstream by neglecting it, but it’s hard to wear out an Airstream by using it. Despite a long hiatus in this blog, our Airstream has seen a fair bit of use over the last ten months. I haven’t been writing about it because I felt, after 12 years of continuous blogging (Vintage Thunder, Tour of America, Man In The Maze) that it was time to take a long break.

The break was not just from blogging, but also from tackling new projects like books and events. We’re just doing Alumapalooza now—instead of Alumafiesta, Alumafandango, Alumaflamingo—which gives us time to attend other events that other people are hosting. That’s kind of a novelty for us. Last February Eleanor and I hit a Greater Los Angeles Airstream Club event in Palm Springs during Modernism Week, and it was refreshing to just float along while someone else sweated the daily details.

I spent a chunk of the winter and spring closing out projects so that when we hit the road in May, I’d be able to focus on traveling across the country with Eleanor and Emma. This might have been the last time we ever do this together, since Emma is now 18 and heading toward all the obligations and opportunities her age implies. We did nothing exceptionally different on this trip compared to any other year, but for me there was a certain tinge of sadness in the background because I knew it could well be the end of a wonderful era of Airstreaming as a family with our daughter as a child.

Emma Four Corners lunch stop
A lunch stop somewhere in the Four Corners region

We spent a couple of days in Moab with our friends Koos & Stefan, a couple of weeks at the Airstream factory doing Alumapalooza, another day or two in Ohio with Loren & Mike, and a few other small stops. Every time we stopped it felt like a farewell tour. Here’s the kid one last time. Enjoy, because the next time you see us she’ll be an adult and we’ll be empty-nesters. Traveling together is all we’ve known since Emma was a toddler. What will we do next?

APZ9 Eleanor seminar
Eleanor’s culinary seminar at APZ9

Rich Eleanor BostonThe summer, mostly spent in Vermont, slipped away like a dream in the morning. There were the traditional activities of a Vermont summer, like Farmer’s Markets on Saturday morning, dinners with friends in the Champlain Valley, fishing and boat rides on the lake, a motorcycle trip for me (to Nova Scotia), trips to the Boston area to see other friends and family, concerts & movies & fireworks … and then before the sweet corn and blueberries were ripe, it was time to fly Emma back home.

 

She’s there now, managing by herself, living on her own. For the first time in her life she’s bound by a school schedule. She’s driving around in her car, looking for a part-time job and prepping for college. Eleanor and I, on the other hand, find ourselves in the northeast with a 30-foot Airstream and a lot fewer obligations than we’ve had in the past two decades. This would seem to be an enviable situation—lots of time and eight wheels ready to roll—but we are both still adjusting to the concept.

Several times we have considered downsizing from the 30 foot Safari Bunkhouse but ultimately we know that this Airstream suits us pretty well even though it is quite a bit bigger than we need. Fourteen years of upgrades and customizations have resulted in a travel trailer that fits us like well-worn leather jacket—and Airstreams really don’t wear out if you take care of them.

And that brings me back to the first sentence of this little essay. After sitting still in Vermont for two months it finally came time to hitch up and head west.  I always have a little sense of unease on the first day because it’s the day that all the little things that have gone wrong during storage become apparent. The first travel day of a long trip is usually the hardest one for me.

The week before we were scheduled to go I began to run through the usual pre-trip prep, like filling the propane and re-organizing our supplies for travel. The night before departure I checked the tire pressure and found that one of them was a few pounds low, so I removed the tire pressure sensor and pumped it up. The next morning, that tire was completely flat.

What happened? When I removed the sensor, a tiny rubber gasket that seals the stem apparently fell out. Without this gasket, the sensor will leak air. (This was easily verified with a few squirts of soapy water solution from my “little things” toolkit.) Unfortunately, I somehow forgot to include the little baggie of spare gaskets that is provided with every TST sensor kit, so I just removed the sensor for now and will replace it later.

By itself that wasn’t a big deal, but it led to the discovery that my 23-year-old air pump was ready to die, and it did so with a pathetic “cough” just as it completed the job. Farewell, old friend. So our first stop of the trip was to buy a replacement, and truth be told I like it a lot better. Since we have a “whole house” inverter on our Airstream, I can now use a powerful 120-volt AC pump instead of that anemic 12-volt pump.

These sorts of bugs really slow down the departure day. You think you’re going to get somewhere and then stuff happens. It was noon before we had everything squared away, which led to us not getting very far. At first this was frustrating but then Eleanor pointed out that we’re not on a tight schedule. We’ve got plenty of time to get to Arizona.

For the next 2-3 weeks of travel across the country Eleanor and I have time to think. This trip is more than just a drive home; it’s a chance to gain perspective on what our future travels will be like. The trailer is bigger and quieter without Emma, but also less energetic and thrilling. Much of what we saw and did over the past 15 years has been channeled through our child, infused with her spirit and freshness, and I’ll miss that.

What will the next two decades of travel be like? I think we can only find out by moving forward, rather than bemoaning the inevitability of our little girl growing up. She’ll always be a part of it even if it’s only via picture messages and phone calls. Eleanor and I will hitch up again in the morning, and see what the road brings.

8th Annual Buellton Vintage Trailer Bash

Our good friend David Neel has been organizing a “Vintage Trailer Bash” in Buellton CA for eight years, and each year he very kindly invites us to attend. Normally we’re still traveling somewhere far away from California in September (except last year when we were busy with Alumafandango) so we’ve missed out.

But not this year! Coming back to Arizona in August has its perks, and one of them is being able to hitch up the old Caravel for a 600 mile road trip to the gorgeous Pacific coast for a rally.

The only problem was that the Caravel hasn’t been used much over the past few years, and storage is never kind to a travel trailer. Even though we have kept it out of the sun in a dry desert climate, inevitably things get funky. So I ended up replacing the spare tire, battery, and a few belly pan rivets. The toilet valve was stuck, the entry door lock was stubborn, the bathroom vanity needed a latch re-aligned, some screws and nuts had magically vibrated loose or gone missing, the dump valves had begun to leak (uck) … you get the picture.

Airstreams really prefer to be used rather than stored. Even in ideal storage conditions, stuff happens. In our climate, rubber seals go bad and lubricated parts dry up. I wasn’t surprised we had to do some maintenance, and overall I was pleased that it was as mild as it was. The fundamentals of the trailer were all still good: no weird smells, no rot or leaks, appliances all fine—so with a few days of part-time tweaking and lubricating we were ready to go. The final step was on the second day of travel: we stopped at a car wash in Blythe CA to get the dust off and were feeling pretty good about things.

Marana Airstream Caravel

Of course it wasn’t quite that easy. Something had to happen. See that white blob on the roof (the AC shroud) in the photo above? After a few years the plastic shroud covering an RV air conditioner tends to get brittle and crack, and then come loose.  Apparently, ours suddenly departed the Caravel somewhere along I-10 in California—unbeknownst to us— and so we arrived at the rally with a naked air conditioner. It gave the trailer a bit of a “Mad Max” look on the roof.

(I have since ordered a replacement shroud which will be at our home on Friday. It’s a simple matter of four screws to put on a new one, so not a big deal. I have no idea where the old one is. Upon landing it undoubtedly experienced a RUD.)

Buellton Vintage Rally mod girls

Buellton Vintage Rally mod coupleThe rally, in case you are wondering, was fantastic. David really has found an ideal mix of trailerites and activities, and the result is a fun time with a lot of cool people. In fact, the rally is so popular that it sells out in a matter of days, so David has had to deal with a lot of flack from people who want to attend but couldn’t get in. Success has its drawbacks.

We participated in the vintage fashion show and the vintage scooter parade, among other things.  Eleanor made a 1960s dip (which contained of a lot of stuff you’d never knowingly eat today, but which when combined actually tastes pretty good) for the Vintage Appetizer Party. She and Emma missed no opportunities to dress up, including the 70’s Disco Party and the Tiki Party.

Of course we had to watch the vintage movie by the pool (the 1966 Batman movie, fantastically campy), and who would miss the morning “donut truck” on Sunday before departure? When at a rally, diets are forgotten and there is no shame in being goofy.

 

Buellton Vintage Rally canned hamsBuellton Vintage Rally Pierce ArrowBuellton Vintage Rally canned ham 1

Returning home, I had a mix of feelings about the Caravel. The trip had proved that it is really too small for us, but the trailer is so adorable and relaxing that part of me wanted to keep it. It’s fun to meet up with other vintage trailer owners, and once we sell the Caravel that door will be never be open to us in the same way.

Quartzsite Airstream Caravel 2017-09

This made our final night, parked in the remote BLM land at Quartzsite, somewhat poignant. I took a picture of Emma sleeping in the trailer, in exactly the same position as that little three-year-old we used to travel with, and realized this was the end.  The Buellton bash was an excellent way to experience it just one last time so we’d all remember the Caravel with a fresh fond memory.

We’ll probably stick close to home for the next month or two, but you never know. Perhaps something will come to entice us away for a few days. In the meantime we’re going to be perfecting the Caravel for sale and planning a longer trip for this winter.

Winter options for Airstreams (and their owners)

Even in Arizona it’s winter now, and our Airstream is mostly dormant. Although we boast of having a 365-day camping season, in practice we do relatively little camping in the winter because the Sonoran desert is chilly at night, and the nights are long. Sword swallowing in the desertWe have to plan our days carefully because around 5 pm the dark comes crashing down and the temperatures plummet. You want to be back at camp, all set up and cozy when dusk arrives.  There’s not much natural entertainment after dark except for the songs of the coyotes.

It can, however, be quite interesting to make your own fun on those long dark nights in the desert.

I’ll let you in on a “full timer” secret: The best camping this time of year isn’t in Arizona, it’s in California, particularly near the coast where the temperature swings are more moderate. Last January we took full advantage of that with a two week trip to Death Valley and the coast up to San Francisco. Even with frequent El Niño rains around the Bay Area it was a great time.

If you follow the blogs of various full-time RVers you have probably noticed that they tend to congregate over the winter in a few areas. Most full-timers hate freezing nights—the propane really disappears fast when overnight lows are below freezing—and so unless they have an obligation to be somewhere, Airstreamers head for a few reliably warm spots in the continental US.  Basically that’s southern Florida (below I-4), southern Texas, southern Arizona, southern California, the Pacific coast, and a few warm national park sites like Death Valley, Big Bend, and Padre Island.

This year we skipped our usual post-Christmas or early January trip to California, the first time we’ve done that in a decade or so. Instead, we will take a trip in mid-March.  March is an especially nice month to visit the low desert (anywhere from Texas to California) because it’s springtime and the desert plants will be blooming.

Picacho peak springtime

Desert flowers-1Last year the media and the parks were talking up something called the “Superbloom” and that might lead you to think that other desert springtimes are not worth the trip, but you’d be missing out. Every spring in the desert is wonderful.  The weather is nearly perfect: sunny, warm but rarely hot, and even if the blooms are below average you will still see lots of tiny flowers and green cacti if you just take some time to go for a short hike.

When it’s not out traveling our Airstream is fortunate to have a cozy carport to snooze in, protected from the slow degradation of weather and kept happy with a 30-amp power hookup. We keep it warm and mostly packed so that we can host occasional overnight guests or hitch up for an impromptu trip if some inspiration should overwhelm us.

If you have an Airstream that’s not in use over the winter, my first advice is always to keep it under cover if you can. I don’t mean a tarp, because:

  • tarps flap in the wind and can actually cause damage to the clearcoat from scuffing
  • a tarp will trap moisture rising up from ground and inhibit the Airstream from being able to dry out naturally, which can actually cause more moisture-related problems than it prevents!

Any sort of structure that keeps the rain, snow, and sunshine off your Airstream will help preserve it over the winter. If you use a storage facility, opt for a covered space—it’s worth the premium!  But try to avoid enclosed barns and tents that have earth floors, unless there’s a vapor barrier in the ground. Any corrosive material or damage to the clearcoat will be encouraged to become blooms of white spidery filiform corrosion during winter storage in a humid environment.

Ideally your Airstream should be stored below 60% relative humidity, although obviously that’s not always possible. Given a choice between a humid indoor environment, and a cold winter outdoors with some snow, I’d make sure the roof was leak-free and store it in the snow.  The dry winter air is far better than a damp and somewhat warmer environment.

(There’s a lot more to know about over-winter storage. Check out “The (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” pages 150-163.)

My other piece of advice is to consider taking a long trip to a warmer climate if you can. Lots of Airstreamers take their rig south during the winter, then store it in a covered spot for a return trip later in the season. Seems like a great idea to me: essentially your Airstream becomes a moveable vacation condo!

Whatever you do, stay warm and plan ahead. Even if you can’t get away over the winter a long lovely season for camping is not far away. While your Airstream dreams in its winter bed, you can dream of travel and camping yet to come.