In the Q

A couple of days of walking the Strip isn’t the same as hiking the trails of Death Valley, but it amounted to decent exercise anyway. It was about two miles from our campsites at the KOA Las Vegas to the Bellagio, and I made that roundtrip trip three times on foot. With all the detours that one has to make (via overpasses and storefronts), the trip seems more like ten miles.

The Las Vegas visit was really entirely business.   I didn’t get a chance to play poker with Brian and Leigh, and none of us spent a dime in the casinos. Airstream’s president was in town for KOA’s introduction of rental Airstreams, as well as numerous people from the KOA management team and Airstream’s PR agency.   Brett and I met with everyone, took hundreds of photos, and did all those things you do to solidify relationships between business partners.   Having accomplished all that, I dropped Brett, Adam and Susan at the airport, and on Saturday the Airstream was rolling again south to our next stop.

In the most recent issue of Airstream Life I wrote an article about Quartzsite, which is a town that has become the center of an annual winter RV phenomenon in the midst of the desert.   Being a convenient stopover between Las Vegas and Tucson, and having the bonus that some friends were there, we aimed our ship thataway.

It’s about 200 miles south of Las Vegas down Route 95, or about 150 miles west of Phoenix.   The scenery occasionally gets a tad dull, so we brought along two episodes of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on the iPod and Emma read books.   But after the second episode was done, Eleanor began to feel sick to her stomach.   Pretty soon we realized she had picked up something viral from one of the many coughing-sneezing northern visitors that we passed on the street.

fao-schwartz-piano.jpgThus she has proven that it’s not true that “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” It has come with us to Quartzsite. Two days ago Eleanor was dancing on the piano at FAO Schwartz, and now she is confined to the trailer, where there are a bed and a bathroom within 20 feet of her at all times.

There are several options for camping in Quartzsite.   You can stay at any one of about 70+ campgrounds, with varying levels of service and amenities.   You can camp in Bureau of Land Management “Long Term Visitor Areas” for $40 (two weeks) or $180 (6 months), with dump station and trash dumpsters.   You can camp in BLM free areas without any amenities at all (not even water).   Or you can go to private boondocking areas for $7 per night.

We chose the latter, because we didn’t expect to stay for long, and also because the El Camino Real Unit of WBCCI was holding a rally there.  Our friend Tommy G (ukulele aficionado who we met during our San Diego visit) is part of that group, as well as other uke players.  Each night of the rally they had a uke jam/sing-along and by arriving on Saturday I was able to join them for the final night.

Several other friends are here too.  Daisy and Don (who we recently met in Campo CA at the railway museum), Patti and Tom (“vintage Airstream” friends who we see at all the western vintage events),   Yank and Rickie (who we originally met at Crater Lake in July 2006 and keep running into), Mike & Tracy from Silverton CO, and Jim Breitinger (the Airstreaming meteorite dealer, who was also camping in Quartzsite with me last year).

All of the El Camino Real folks bailed out on Sunday, and Jim took off to Phoenix to fly to a funeral, but Daisy and Don are still here to keep Emma and me company while Eleanor recovers.   Mike & Tracy and a few other friends are around as well, but parked a few miles off in one of the LTVAs, so we don’t see them as much.  It is a good thing we traveled from Las Vegas in our usual “ready for anything” mode (full water, empty black/gray tanks, plenty of propane and groceries) because we’re going to have to stay longer than we had planned.

The major activity here is browsing the shows.  “Show” is code for flea-market-style vendors clustered by the side of the main drags, selling everything from Indian frybread to Chinese jade phalluses.   No kidding.   The emphasis varies according to which show is current, but it includes lots of tools, rocks, carvings, RV supplies, hats, county-fair food, and used “stuff” of every possible description.  With Daisy and Don, Emma and I wandered the aisles for a few hours and boosted the economy by purchasing exactly one egg slicer and a few tacos.

Eleanor may not see any of Quartzsite, but fortunately we have no schedule this week. We are just going to take it one day at a time and see how her recovery goes.   At $7 per day we can afford to stay as long as we like, and there’s plenty of sun to power our solar panels.   Hiking in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is definitely out, but with luck she’ll be feeling well enough to walk around this afternoon.   Being sick is never fun, but at least we are “home” in the Airstream, and not in a hotel room.

What happens in Vegas …

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We’re having a great time in Las Vegas.   It turns out that everyone here reads Airstream Life magazine!

Last night we caught up with our friends Brian and Leigh (former Airstream travelers who spent two years on the road), Adam and Susan (defrosting from New England), and Brett (flown in fresh from Tampa, like a crate of oranges).   Here’s a photo from Leigh’s iPhone:

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Brett, and Adam & Susan, are staying in the brand-new Airstreams that the KOA Circus Circus has imported.   The KOA will be renting these Airstreams for $49/night (introductory price) here in Las Vegas, so at long last, you can actually try an Airstream before you buy one.   They’ll also be available at other locations across the country, including Sugarloaf Key Florida, and Bar Harbor Maine.

Getting a bunch of Airstreams together is a great way to have a reunion or party, we’ve discovered.   It’s like a rally but you don’t need your own Airstream.   They even come furnished with linens, towels, dishes, pots & pans, etc.   I think they will prove a very popular option.

We’re going to spend two more nights in Las Vegas, and then head down to Quartzsite …

Farewell, Death Valley

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I finally got some photos up on Flickr from our week in Death Valley.   The Internet connections available at Furnace Creek are very welcome but not particularly robust, and uploading to Flickr was one of those things that I just couldn’t do.   Now that we are out of the park and spending a night in nearby Pahrump NV, we’re back in the cell phone and Internet zone.

Bert and Janie also came to Pahrump, to spend the day watching the presidential inauguration on TV.   They’re parked right next to us.   Bert has posted a blog about our travels in Death Valley over the past five days, so you can check his blog for a different perspective (or if you wonder if I’m really just making all this up).

We’ve been to Death Valley twice before, and I am struck by how different each visit has been.   The first time was about 15 years ago, when Eleanor and flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and pitched a tent.   We came out of the desert a few days later, covered in dust and filled with incredible experiences.   The second time was with Emma, in June 2006, and we felt the tormenting heat that Death Valley is famed for.

This third trip has brought us to a new appreciation of the park.   Bert and Janie showed us spots we didn’t know existed, and even the places we have seen before are different in the balmy January weather.   Without a doubt, the through-hike from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon must rate as one of the most beautiful we’ve ever done, with the sun lighting up the canyons nearby and the snow-covered Panamint Range in the distance. The banded marble of Mosaic Canyon, the opulent swimming pool of the spring-fed Furnace Creek Inn, the slippery pumice slopes of Ubehebe Crater, the salty “chemical desert” of Badwater Basin … all of these are faces of Death Valley that we explored and enjoyed.   It is a great place, and five days is just not enough.

I am reminded of the fabled way Death Valley got its name.   Emigrants crossing it suffered terrible losses, and when they finally emerged, one looked back and said in relief, “Farewell, Death Valley.”   The name stuck.   Now we are saying farewell, but with a different sense.   We’re looking forward to returning.

It’s time to clean up the desert dust in the trailer, get some supplies, and then head to Las Vegas.   We’ve got work to do.   For the first time, we’ll be staying on the famed Strip, at the Circus Circus KOA.   It should be another very interesting week.

Life in Death Valley

We left Riverside County along I-15 under the threat of the Santa Ana winds.   A red flag warning was in effect, and out on the freeway the larger trucks were skittering across the painted lines when particularly heavy gusts struck them.   The Airstream was better behaved, but I was still glad to climb up and out of the valley toward Barstow.

At Baker we exited the interstate and headed north to Death Valley.   It’s a longish drive, and by the time we arrived at Furnace Creek (196 feet below sea level), it was dark. We missed the turn to Sunset Campground and had to wander around for a few minutes before we found it again.   The moon, while nearly full, had not yet risen over the Funeral Mountains, and without it, Death Valley can be a very dark place.

We found Bert Gildart riding around on a bicycle in the campground, chasing us.   He and Janie had seen us roving around, looking for the campground entrance, and Bert decided to attempt to guide us in.   They arrived earlier in the day after a narrow escape from Montana snowstorms, and were now settled in for a few days of bone-warming.

Sunset Campground is one of three in Furnace Creek area.   It’s enormous and so there are lots of spaces available.   $12, no hookups, water, bathrooms, and dump station on-site.   We are parked close enough to the water and dump that we can conveniently stay as long as we like.

About half the people here are using generators   for their electrical power, but we and the Gildarts have solar panels.  Bert augments his solar collection with a small generator, since his panels have about half the capacity of ours.  We are doing fine on solar alone, despite the low sun angle this time of year.  Using the catalytic heater instead of the furnace helps.

Since we are relying on solar, the first task of the next morning was to clean the panels.  Mine were filthy with caked-on dirt, which drastically impedes their ability to generate power.   Using Bert’s truck as a ladder, I climbed onto the roof and washed them off, and then Bert did the same on his Airstream.  He needed to see me walking around on the roof to be confident that you really can get on the roof of an Airstream (as long as you are careful).

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We all came here with no agenda.   The Gildarts have been here many times, and in fact have written a book on Death Valley, so there’s nothing in this park they haven’t seen before.   They are here simply to warm up after weeks of 20-below temperatures in northern Montana.   We are here to see them and get some exercise on the trails of Death Valley in the comfortable winter season.

It is not hot.   The weather this week is pleasantly monotonous: highs in the 70s, lows in the upper 40s, and not a speck of cloud expected.   Chance of rain: 0%.   The hot weather for which Death Valley is famous arrives in April, when the average high is 90 degrees, and peaks in July when the average high is 115 degrees.   We were once here in June in the Airstream and survived three days with no air conditioning, but it was challenging.   This time of year the only challenge is the early sunset, which tends to curtail our activities, so we are getting up with the sun and returning to camp around 5 p.m.

This is also a very safe place to be, despite its reputation, especially this time of year.   The snakes and other creatures are largely inactive, and the number one cause of death here is the single-car rollover.   Because the roads are so wide open (speed limit 55-65 in many places) and there is no traffic, people tend to drive way too fast in their SUVs and Jeeps.   Then a curve comes up suddenly and — whoops! — off the road you go.   I think the early emigrants who passed through here and lost their lives due to harsh terrain, high heat, and lack of water would find it unbelievable that people are still killing themselves here simply by driving too fast.

Cell phones do not work here, and that makes it one of the last major western national parks in that category.   We don’t hear cute ringtones going off as we walk the trails.   There are usable cell phone signals at Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce, and many other “remote” parks, but not here.   There is an enforced silence in that regard.   I wonder how long the park can hold out.

There is wifi, which is how this blog is reaching you.   The Visitor Center offers it (oddly enough, only from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and it is also found at the nearby Death Valley Ranch, both for free.   In the mornings a small circle of laptop users forms near the General Store, lately wearing warm clothes and hats against the 50-degree chill that persists until 10 a.m. or so.

Our travels in the park have so far been to Badwater, Zabriskie Point, Mosaic Canyon, Stovepipe, and the sand dunes.   Traveling with Bert, an accomplished photographer, we tend to go places in the late afternoon when the sun is low and details of the desert begin to pop out.   Tiny tracks (kitfox, beetle, lizard, sidewinder), ripples in the dunes, colors on the surrounding mountains — all reach their peak of visibility when the sun is low.   I will post an album from Death Valley on Flickr as soon as possible, since the photos I am sharing here are only a tiny fraction of what we are seeing.

Coastal California

Coastal California in January is not half bad.   It’s not exactly beach weather every day, but it has been the past few days, and so that’s where we headed.   Up in Oceanside, 30 miles or so north of San Diego, there’s a county park called Guajome, and it is conveniently just a few miles east of the Oceanside beach and pier.  We pulled the Airstream up there and settled in for a couple of days.

On the way we dropped in on the newest Airstream dealer, Holland Motorhomes.   They are replacing the previous dealer, which went out of business recently.   They’ve got a few Airstreams on the lot, but they aren’t ready to provide service yet.   I think they were surprised to hear from us.

There was another Airstream owner parked just across from us in Guajome, but we were barely at the park long enough to socialize.   We chatted a bit and then headed out to do some shopping at a couple of local ethnic markets (Mexican and Phillipino).   Eleanor and Brett have been cooking up all kinds of different dinners lately. I’m just sitting back and eating whatever they make, so far with excellent results.   The only questionable item was a brutally hot but delicious guacamole they found in one of the markets.   It was painful to eat but we couldn’t stop because it was so good on fresh-from-the-bakery tortillas.

In downtown Oceanside there is a long beach and a long pier, ideal for photo practice.   Brett has a new Nikon D90 (the camera I want but haven’t yet bought) and so we decided to spend the day shooting pictures of the beach area and the surfers.   I’ll set up a photo album on Flickr with the best shots later.   Emma spent her time on the beach looking for shells, and rounded rocks to paint.   With wandering around town and hiking the beach, we ended up being out until sunset, and getting back to the Airstream just in time for another massive ethnic food-fest.

Lately I haven’t been talking about maintenance, but it has been on my mind.   A strange squeal started in the trailer brakes a few days ago, only when they are hot.   On the tow north from Oceanside on Sunday, we got a high-pressure alarm from the tire monitor, and pulled over in Temecula. (The tire monitor is set to alarm at 10 psi above the cold pressure.)   We felt the wheel and it was definitely hotter than the others, which usually means either a dragging brake or bad wheel bearings.   Given that our wheel bearings were re-packed only 1,000 miles earlier, and that this wheel’s entire brake assembly was recently replaced by an Airstream dealer —who shall not be named —at great expense, I suspected a brake problem.

So we walked the Old Town of  Temecula, to see what has changed in the 15 years since we were last here, and waited for the wheel to cool down. I can’t say much for the improvement of the Old Town.   I remember a quiet historic district mostly occupied by antique stores, but we found a typical tourist district filled with stuff and restaurants, motorcycles rumbling down the main street, all about retail.

I’ll spare the details, but the high-temperature tire did indeed turn out to be caused by a brake problem.   Somebody re-assembled the brake and failed to lubricate the caliper guide pin.   It was completely dry.  That meant the brake caliper wouldn’t release properly, which meant the disc brake pads would drag and generate heat.  Which it was doing for the past thousand miles or so … Fortunately, we caught it before the pad burned up and took the rotor with it.

Since were doing maintenance, we also took the opportunity to install a new vent fan in the forward location.   I’ve had a vent up there that has not been working out well for various reasons, and recently obtained a new Maxxair “Maxxfan 6200“.   So Brett climbed up on the roof, removed the old fan, and popped in the replacement.   It’s pretty cool.   Not only can we run it in the rain, but it has a very slick remote control, stainless steel hardware, a much faster open/close speed, and a better designed roof flange that seems less likely to develop leaks over time.   This is the first Maxxair I’ve owned but I’m fast becoming a, uh, fan of them.   We put a strip of adhesive velcro on the back of the remote and now it’s conveniently hanging on the bedroom wall.

Our next stop is Death Valley.   Before we head into a remote spot like that we try to get everything in order, so we’ve parked in Riverside County for a couple of days   We searched for and (hopefully) have fixed a small rain leak around the kitchen vent fan.   We also lubricated the stabilizers to eliminate an annoying squeak in them.   I took the Nissan into the local dealer for replacement of some worn-out bushings on the air bag compressor (part of the Nissan’s auto-leveling system).   Eleanor topped up our groceries, and I filled both propane tanks.

Our friends Terry and Marie have been visiting with us, so last night we piled everyone in the Airstream for dinner and movie night.   I took the opportunity to experiment further with the new ultra-wide-angle lens I bought in San Diego last week.   There are definitely a few tricks to getting good photos with it, and I am having fun learning how.   The photo below shows the incredible views it can reveal — just what I needed for shooting Airstream interiors.   It will come in handy in the next two weeks, when I will be shooting both Death Valley landscapes and new Airstreams in Las Vegas.

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