America’s scariest tows

I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with towing a trailer.   My wife is among them.   I have stopped trying to convince them that they can tow, because I’m not sure if everyone really can.   Towing successfully takes a certain amount of skill, confidence, and perhaps natural ability.   Just as it is true that not everyone can drive a race car well, I think it may be true that not everyone is cut out to pull a trailer.

For me it has been an enjoyable challenge to learn the skills.   I actually like piloting my big trailer around, and things like backing up and maneuvering on narrow roads are sort of fun, most of the time.

So I was amused to see Forbes Magazine publish a list of “America’s Scariest Drives.”   There are eleven listed. In my opinion, several of them aren’t particularly scary except perhaps in the mind of a travel writer.   Not only have we driven many of them, we’ve towed our 30-foot Airstream down three of them (I-15 in Los Angeles, Rt 50 in Nevada, and coastal Rt 1 in California), and didn’t find the experiences particularly frightening.

Let me tell you, there are much scarier roads if you are towing a trailer.   Most of them are in Colorado, where steep mountain passes are almost unavoidable.   Imagine a 8% grade winding up to 10,000 feet for miles, while the thin air robs your engine of power and the temperature gauges on your transmission and engine slowly creep up toward the redline.   This is usually followed by a similar descent, shock-cooling the engine while the brakes heat up and begin to fade.

We’ve done several of these roads in Colorado, including the notorious Slumgullion Pass on Rt 149, but by far the worst one (psychologically) was Rt 550 between Durango and Silverton.   It includes three tough passes and miles of twisting roads atop terrifying precipices. You can’t help but think, “One slip and we’re going to fall a thousand feet.”   Often, there’s no guardrail.   We did it in the fog and a light rain, too.

Steeper than those is the Teton Pass between Jackson Hole WY and Victor ID.   It runs at 10% grade for five miles up and five miles down.   Climbing this hill with the trailer on a warm day was the only time we ever managed to overheat our engine, in three years of full-time towing. On the way down, you’d better have good trailer brakes.

For sheer heat, however, nothing beats Rt 190 from Death Valley to Owens Lake in the summer.   We drove it in late May once, and we were lucky that it was a slightly cooler-than-average day.   The road climbs 5000 feet, and ambient temperatures can easily exceed 110 degrees.   No matter how tough you think your turbodiesel truck is, this is a road to respect in the summertime.

Traffic terror is mostly found in the northeast.   Sure, I-15 in Los Angeles can be hairy, but it’s got nothing on I-95 in southern Connecticut during rush hour.   Imagine fifty miles of S-curving highway crammed with maniac commuters, riddled with potholes and steel plates, rife with exits and entrances, and about as smooth as a New York-style pizza.   You can’t go slower than traffic no matter how bad the road conditions, so expect to find things askew inside the trailer later, and keep your foot ready for a panic stop at all times.

Frankly, compared to any of those experiences, I would look forward   to a quiet uncrowded drive on Rt 50 in Nevada.   It’s a pleasure by comparison, and (honestly) it’s not nearly as lonely as the tourism folks would have you think.   And coastal Route 1 in California? Gorgeous and worth the effort.

I think I’m going to save the Forbes article for future trip planning.   Some of those “scary” roads look pretty interesting.   We bypassed the Moki Dugway on our September trip through Indian Country, but I’d like to give it a try.   What some people regard as scary might just be the highlight of the drive.

The Quintessential New Orleanian

It seems that I spend too much time lately writing obituaries for good friends who have left too soon.

img_0921.jpgYesterday I got the bad news about Vince Saltaformaggio.  He died suddenly of a heart attack early Tuesday morning.  Most people reading this blog won’t know Vince, but anyone who has encountered him for just a minute will never forget him.  He was the big guy with the big smile and the New Orleans accent, trying to feed anyone who walked within 50 feet of his Airstream motorhome. He was always there, the organizer of parties and rallies, the leader of festivities, and the Head Chef at all times.

I first met Vince and his longtime companion Lonnie Carver  when I was working on an article for the Spring 2006 issue of Airstream Life (see excerpt).  I was looking for people who had escaped Hurricane Katrina in their Airstreams, and they had a doozy of a story to tell.  Vince suffered the loss of his home, and after the hurricane, he and Lonnie moved into an Airstream Class A motorhome on the Irish Bayou near New Orleans, and lived there ever since.

vince-s-spring-2006.jpgAt one point I described Vince as “the quintessential New Orleanian,” for his jovial attitude toward life, his ability to make friends almost instantly, and his amazing talent for cooking.   He liked that, and it stuck. Almost every time I saw him after that, he reminded me of the moniker I’d given him — and then he offered me something to eat.

At every rally, Vince and Lonnie were the center of the party.  There’d be a giant cast-iron double burner running day and night, heavy with stew pots and fry pans, and no matter when you came by there would be something terrific to eat.  There was usually a glass of something near Vince’s right hand, and his beloved pug dog would be nearby as well. I learned to seek out Vince at every rally, because I knew I’d be welcomed with a giant bear hug and the smile of someone who is genuinely glad to see you.

It seems to sell him short by remembering Vince primarily for his cooking, because he was such a generous and amiable person.  But his cooking was so wonderful and honest that it was an emblem of his entire personality. Eating Vince’s food was like being invited to Paul Prudhomme’s home kitchen.  It was spectacular.  Although professionally he was a photographer, I (and doubtless many others) told him he should really start a second career.  But he cooked just for fun.  Vince knew how to speak to people through his cooking.  Every dish was great warm hug, a taste of comfort from The Big Easy, and a reminder that even amidst strife life is worth living.

Certainly Vince lived well.  He and Lonnie were on the road often, attending rallies all over the southeast with their massive outdoor kitchen setup.  They were always happy when I saw them, just enjoying life and their many friends.  Two years ago we met Vince, Lonnie, and a group of their friends who go by the names “Dixie Camperz” in Ft Morgan, AL.  They literally spent day and night cooking and feeding the group in what seemed at time to just be one continuous meal.   No matter what was going on, there was Vince in the background, sometimes wearing chef’s whites and a coonskin cap, cooking, cooking, cooking.

I did something foolish at that event.  Despite the incredible meals we were being served, I let slip that I was surprised there hadn’t been any crawfish boil.  After all, I reasoned, we’re in the south and that’s a traditional meal — and I hadn’t had it in years.  Vince said, “Oh, so you like crawfish eh?”  The next day $200 worth of crawfish arrived for a massive boil-up.

I was simultaneously flattered and mortified.  That was far too much money to spend on my whim, and neither Vince nor Lonnie would accept any contribution to the food budget.  But oh, was it good.  Emma had her first taste of crawfish there, and that night we were inducted into the Dixie Camperz in a hilarious ceremony featuring nose glasses.  I still have the embroidered t-shirt in my collection of momentos from our years on the road.


In the Airstream community, Vince is also remembered for his love of vintage trailers.  He owned a 1959 Airstream Tradewind that he had lovingly restored and polished.  He also owned various other Airstreams, and had started a new restoration project recently.  But as much as he polished his ’59, the trailer was always outshined by his extraordinary personality.  Vince Saltaformaggio was one of those rare ambassadors of Airstreaming who exemplify exactly why we go to rallies, why we travel, why it’s so much fun.  We need more guys like him, but they aren’t made every day.  To say Vince will be missed is barely enough.

Vincent Charles Saltaformaggio


I’m back from the Florida State Rally.   It was a good trip, primarily because I was able to visit Floridian friends who I haven’t seen in many months. As the weekend approached, more friends showed up.   Most of the people I hang with have jobs or businesses of their own, and so they took advantage of the new weekend rate offered by the rally to come for just a couple of nights.

One person who dropped in was Forrest Bone, organizer of the Tin Can Tourists.   Their vintage rally is this week, in nearby Bradenton FL, and it’s always a fun event.   We used to go in years past with our 1968 Airstream Caravel, but I haven’t been able to make it lately.   I’m seriously considering whether we can get over to Florida next year to attend that.   (Speaking of vintage rallies, we have 20 trailers signed up for the Vintage Trailer Jam 2009, with 5 – 1/2 months to go. Looks like we’ll have a full house in Saratoga Springs, NY.)

I made a new friend as well, an author from the United Kingdom who happens to be a fan of Airstreams, and who happened to be visiting Florida.   She came up for a few hours to tour the Vintage Open House on Saturday, and then we browsed the new Airstream display.

Our friends Wendimere (“The Health Chic“) and Bill came by late Friday night to spend the weekend and deliver a seminar on Saturday.   Wendimere did an interesting seminar on “cleansing” while I was on display as a human prop.   My job was to sit at the front of the room with my feet in a salt water bath.   At the end of the seminar everyone got to admire the gunk in the water.

On Thursday Brett and I also presented a seminar, entitled “So You Want To Be A Blogger?” which was well received.   On Saturday we ran a double booth at the flea market and sold aluminum tumblers, shirts, hats, back issues, subscriptions, books, stickers, and giant “Airstream” slippers.   The slippers were a huge hit.   We sold our inventory and took orders for several more pairs. From a commercial viewpoint, I was pleasantly surprised to do fairly well.   People still buy stuff, even in a down economy.

It is not well-known, but in Sarasota there is an Amish community, and they have restaurants.   We celebrated our successful day   by skipping the rally dinner and going to Yoder’s.   Good move — it was a seriously good meal at a very reasonable price.   Three of us ate for $38.   I love the cinnamon apple butter that’s on every table.   I ate nothing all day except a little cottage cheese, in preparation for what I knew would be a huge dinner.   I wasn’t disappointed.   I wish we had a place like that in Tucson.

Sunday is traditionally a day when everyone clears out of the rally grounds, but since we were all facing the prospect of work on Monday, no one in our circle was eager to rush home.   Brett fired up his Cobb grill and roasted his marinated salmon steaks, scrambled about a dozen eggs, and set out the toaster with Ezekiel Bread and English muffins.   Bill & Wendimere, David & Becky, Brett & Lori, and I (odd man out) hung out by the motorhome and had a very lively brunch for about an hour while we watched the Airstreams depart.   This turned out to be the most fun we had during the entire rally, so I expect it may become an annual event.
I was probably exceptionally lucky in that my flights both to and from Tampa were uneventful.   But I discovered a new twist on airline flying: Bathroom Bingo.   These days there’s a new regulation that prohibits passengers from forming a line for the forward bathroom during flight.   I got up to use the aft bathroom midway through our five-hour flight to Las Vegas, and found myself in a line of four women at the back.   After 10 minutes of waiting (and the line didn’t seem to be moving), someone said, “Hey, the front bathroom is available,” and pointed to the indicator light.   I scuttled up to the front of the cabin to find the someone in the front of the aircraft beat me to it.

Since I wasn’t allowed to stand up there and wait, I was sent to the back again.   But of course, an opportunistic aft-plane passenger had joined the line, so the wait was longer. At this point, some seated passengers were chuckling at my trips back-and-forth, and a few people even made comments as I went by, which made the whole episode much more amusing (for them).   Once again the front bathroom opened up, and about the time I reached the fifth row a first-row passenger casually stood up and snagged it.   I was beginning to think the passengers up front were toying with me.

The man in the fifth row where I was standing was observing all of this. He said, “I think you’ve got a shot here.”   So I stood in contravention of TSA regulations next to his seat for a few minutes, and eventually — BINGO! — I scored a chance at the coveted front bathroom.   A few minutes after I returned to my seat, there was an announcement from a flight attendant reminding all of us to please not stand up front waiting for the bathroom. “I don’t make these rules,” she explained.   No, somebody on the ground, who didn’t just drink a large bottle of tea, did.

After all the conversation and seminars from The Health Chic, I’ve been paying a bit more attention to what I ate.   Upon arrival in Las Vegas I had a two-hour layover and a serious appetite. Unfortunately, I’d made the critical mistake of not bringing my own lunch.   “Eating healthy” and “airport food” are not concepts that mesh well.

I thought of calling Wendimere and asking, “OK, what’s the least   bad thing I can buy here to eat?” but eventually I chose a “Wolfgang Puck”   turkey remoulade sandwich on my own.   Then I read the Nutrition Facts label.   730 calories.   Total fat 42g, 65% of Recommended Daily Value (DV).     25% of the DV for saturated fats.   I’ve been trying to watch my saturated fats, so that bummed me out.   It also had a whopping 1900 mg of sodium (79% of DV).   I ate half of it and then emailed Wendimere for a consult.   She wrote back, “Airport food is always a challenge, you did pretty good.   I try to always have a few protein bars in my bag when I travel.   Sushi is usually my first choice, which I think you can get in Vegas.” I think she’s got a business there, providing consultations to people on the go.

Well, often the best part of any trip is coming home, and in this case it was.   I haven’t really had the experience of coming back to a home base after a week and re-joining my family.   There was Emma in her white karate uniform and Eleanor in some new clothes she bought while I was gone, and the house looking like a home instead of a project.   Our Qwest DSL was up and running so I’ve even got my parents available on Skype video calls now.   And later this week we’re expecting more friends to arrive.   It’s been a good week and the next one looks to be good, too.

Florida State Rally

The Florida State Rally is a little bit special for me, perhaps because it was the first place that I publicly announced I was going to start an Airstream magazine, back in 2004.   At that time we were spending the winter in central Florida, and took our 1968 Airstream Caravel over to Sarasota to visit this event, the 2nd largest of all Airstream rallies.   I met a few people at that event who became good friends, one of whom is Brett.

And so, last fall when airfares dropped I booked a cheap ticket from Tucson to Tampa so that I could revisit this rally.   It’s the fourth time I’ve attended it, and it is almost exactly the same each time.   That sameness drives off many people who are bored with it, but my interest in the rally isn’t the presentations or the dinner, but the opportunity to see a lot of Airstream folks who are leaders in the community.   And you can’t really complain about Sarasota in February …

Tuesday I got up in the dry desert darkness at 4:30 a.m., caught a flight at 7 a.m., and by late afternoon Eastern Time I was driving over Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway with the windows rolled down, smelling the sea breeze blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico.

I love Florida.   It’s full of good memories, and good friends.   All I have to do is smell that curious tangy air (a mixture of salt water, humidity, and decay) and I’m transported back to all the great times we’ve spent in Florida.   I like driving by the little waterways and lakes scattered all over.   I like finding bits of “old Florida” along the roadside, remnants of campy tourist attractions and little shacks selling green boiled peanuts.

There’s a sense of things growing incessantly here, life just constantly bursting out of dampness, with flowering bushes and sandy grass and creepy-crawlies everywhere.   You get the sense that if Florida was closed for a couple of years, the living things would take over and by the time Florida re-opened there’d be nothing left of civilization but a few moss-covered heaps.   All of that and more came back the moment I rolled down the window and started on my way from Tampa down to Sarasota.

So now I am installed in Brett’s motorhome at the rally, and all the people I’ve expected to see are here.   Colin & Suzanne are here (with Malcolm), Hunt & Sue, Mel & Glenda, Herb & Sidra, and many others from the Vintage Airstream Club.   More friends will arrive this weekend. The folks from A&W are here doing embroidery as always, and I’ve given them my camera bag to be customized with the Airstream Life logo.   Steve Ruth of P&S Trailers is here, and we talked about him polishing and clearcoating my Caravel this May at his shop up in Ohio.   There are lots of other folks whose names I have forgotten over the years, but who wave to me and ask how Airstream Life is doing, or ask about Eleanor and Emma.   (Inevitably people look disappointed to hear that I flew to the rally without Eleanor and Emma.   For years I’ve known that they are the big attraction wherever we go.   I’ve learned to live with that fact that people regard me as essentially a transportation service for them.)


My primary tasks here are to take photos for future magazine articles and help Brett with advertising sales.   But there’s plenty of time to socialize and explore Sarasota, too.   The Florida State Rally is what you make of it, and so I usually design it to my specifications by organizing or joining ad hoc parties or outings, rather than attending the formal program.   But last night they had the Opening Ceremonies, which are a tradition full of pomp & circumstance, and I got caught up in it.   I went just to take a few photos but then couldn’t leave because of the constant sequence of rituals: an Invocation/prayer, the Canadian National Anthem, the American National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, acknowledgements of all the various officers of the club, etc.   Walking out in the middle might have been construed as disrespectful, so I was forced to stay until the general announcements, about 30 minutes later.

Having survived that, I am probably done with the official schedule.   Today’s official schedule included these items: choir practice, line dancing, beginning Joker (a card game), arts & crafts, bridge, and several vendor seminars.   Our actual schedule included breakfast in the motorhome, some general conversation, and then a few hours of work at the laptops, with the balmy Florida breeze blowing through the windows.   If I have to go to work, this is the best way I can think of to do it.   Our afternoon was spent talking to the vendors, browsing the new Airstreams, photographing a refurbished vintage trailer interior, and grocery shopping at some gourmet store in town.


Of course, every day at 4 p.m. there’s the time-honored tradition of Happy Hour.   Every Airstream rally has it.   The vintage section usually has the most lively one, and that’s where I usually go, but little Happy Hours pop up all over the place under various awnings.   Tonight’s theme at the vintage area was “the most memorable experience you’ve had Airstreaming (that you can talk about).”   Mostly people talked about various interesting disasters they’ve had on the road.   Being owners of trailers between 25 and 50 years old, sometimes it’s hard to stop with just one disaster story.

I’ll be here through Sunday, so there will be more reports from Sarasota this week.   Let me know if there’s something in particular you’d like me to check out.

Last stop in Tempe

Our visit to Quartzsite was something of a bust.  With Eleanor sick most of the time, we didn’t get out much, and on the last couple of days when she started to feel better, the temperature plummeted.  With the ever-present breeze, a sunny day in the 50s felt pretty cold.  Being weak from not eating for a few days, Eleanor was not equipped to go hiking in the Kofa Mountains in cold weather.

For my part, having been fairly sedentary for the same amount of time, I wasn’t prepared to sit around a few more days just socializing (which is the major activity in Quartzsite, after browsing the flea markets).  Weighing our options, we decided to move onward to our final stop in Tempe, and perhaps return to Quartzsite another time.

Our stop in Tempe is strictly practical.   We are planning some overnight backpacking trips this year and our equipment needs updating.   Most of it comes from 1992, when Eleanor and started doing a lot of tent camping.   Since this was in the era B.K. (Before Kid) we didn’t have anything for an eight-year-old sidekick, and some of our other items were worn out or had gone missing.   Fortunately, Tempe has a good REI store.  In fact, Tempe seems to have one of everything, retail-wise.

We’ve become bottom-feeders in the retail world, so our reason for hitting REI this week was to see what was left from their January clearance sale.   We scored three very lightweight and packable sleeping bags, some boots for me, and a hydration pack for Eleanor.   The sleeping bags are rated for 30-35 degrees F, which should be ideal for warm-weather camping.

To be sure, we slept in them last night and set the furnace to 50 degrees in the Airstream.   Temperatures went down to the upper 30s outside, so we were at 50 degrees much of the night.   I was comfortable, Eleanor needed socks, and Emma was too warm at first.   I found her under her regular bedcovers in the early morning, but she gamely climbed back into the sleeping bag and decided it was just right for 50 degrees.

We still need a few other things, like boots for Eleanor, and backpacks for Eleanor and Emma, so we’ll finish the shopping at one of Tucson’s local outdoor stores, like Summit Hut.

There are other attractions to urban camping in Tempe.   We have a friend who lives in his Airstream here, one who we like to visit and who also often has useful business advice.   Additionally, there are an enormous number of middle eastern restaurants here.   Periodically I need infusions of rogan josh, hummus, and stuffed grape leaves (for health reasons, of course).   Poor Eleanor wasn’t up to such foods yet, so she missed out.

Tempe has a new light rail line that passes directly in front of this campground and it is very cool.   The sage and pewter-colored trains whisk by quietly every few minutes, heading into downtown Phoenix.   They are modern and sleek, traveling on all-new track laid down the center of Apache Blvd.   I’m told you can ride all day for $2.50.   If we had more time, I would definitely take a ride to Phoenix.

But alas, time has run out on us.   As when we were living in the Airstream, there is never enough time to do everything we want.   Emma has doctor’s appointments and karate classes, I’ve got business travel, and we still have a few renovation details in the house   that never got quite finalized.   A friend is coming for a visit in early February, the giant Tucson gem show will be happening, and then there’s the Florida State Rally, which I plan to fly to.   All of that has trumped the Airstream for a while, but we’ll be back to traveling in it as soon as possible.