Visiting America’s National Parks—lecture and book

I’m putting distance between myself and Jackson Center now, heading toward new and exciting adventures. At the moment the Airstream is parked near Cleveland at the home of the same dear friends who have offered post-palooza decompression services for ten years. Eleanor will be flying back to Tucson tomorrow and that will end our time in the Airstream together. I’m continuing on to upstate New York and Vermont for a few weeks.

I was able to obtain video of the talk I gave during Alumapalooza on “America’s National Parks.” The talk is nearly an hour long even though I was talking quickly. If you have the time to kill you can find it on YouTube here.

APZ10 Rich National Parks talk

Upon reviewing the video I was mortified to see how difficult conditions are for presenters at Alumapalooza. We are on the grounds of a working factory, so the audio is occasionally marred by the sounds of trucks going past the tent and beeping sounds from the factory. Dogs are always in the tent and often they will bark their opinions, and this time somebody brought a bird to the presentation which you can hear squawking a few times. At one point somebody cut through the tent and walked right in front of the camera. When it rains hard the noise on the tent can be deafening.

In addition to all the audio challenges, the slides tend to be washed out by the bright light (we can’t get the tent dark enough without also trapping in heat and humidity). Alumapalooza is a tough venue. I should have a talk with the bums who organized this.

And in this presentation I was talking way too fast for anyone not born in the northeast USA to understand, and saying “ummm” far too much. So fair warning: it’s amateur hour in this video. I’m going to have to up my game if I want to get tapped for a TED Talk …  (just kidding)

If my lecture didn’t put you to sleep and you want more inspiration for travels to national parks, check out my new book “EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks With Your RV” on the Airstream Life Store (free shipping) and on Amazon.com. Do me a favor and post a review if you have a copy. Thanks!

The home stretch

For me, there are several key stages to Alumapalooza. Because it’s nearly a two-week endurance trial, it’s helpful to break it up with milestones. First is the pre-event stage, where all the staff are organizing, I’m collecting shipments, and Super Terry comes to do trailer maintenance.

Then there’s the “Hump Day” milestone, which is Wednesday of the event. By then, all the attendees have arrived, registration is done, and we’ve managed to sort out the parking of 200+ rigs. This year parking was the toughest job because of all the rain that softened the ground before we got here. On Hump Day everyone starts to relax and suddenly all the little quibbles & questions that were pervasive on Tuesday magically vanish.

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Brett and Eleanor prepping for her second culinary demonstration, “Small Plates, Big Finish”.
APZ10 Eleanor culinary seminar
We auctioned off rights to eat what Eleanor made in her culinary demo (for charity). JJ and Sandy Johnjulio, and Dave and Anne-Marie McKeever enjoyed 7 courses with wine pairings.

And the final milestone is today, Saturday, when all of the seminars are done and there’s not much to think about except the Swap Meet and a day of entertainment. This year we have three musical acts performing and one mentalist/magician, plus a car show, a police K-9 demo, and catered dinner. So this is a definite day to chill, even for those who are working in orange shirts. This is the home stretch.

APZ10 Airstream Life pop-up store staff
Rich, Suzie, and friend guarding the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store.
APZ10 pop-up store
A few of the items in the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store. Wood sink cover/cutting boards were a popular item.
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Airstream announced its new online store, “Airstream Supply Company”

For me, this is a particularly significant “home stretch”, because it’s my last one. I’ve organized Alumapalooza for ten years. I’ve also run two Vintage Trailer Jams in NY, two Palm Springs Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows, two Tucson Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Shows, four Alumafandangos (CO, OR, CA), three Alumafiestas (AZ), and three Alumaflamingos (FL). That’s 26 major events in 12 years.

So it may not be a surprise to you that I’m stepping back from organizing more events. I need to switch to a new path before I become a bobble-head. I’ve got other things that I want to do, new projects (like books to write) and new adventures, in different places. I want to sit in the gazebo in the early morning and listen to the birds cooing, and let my brain wander for a few months. Having a little time off over next winter—when I would normally be organizing the next Palooza—will make that possible.

Don’t worry about Alumapalooza. Brett is going to carry on the tradition, with other people helping him. I’ll still have some input and offer help where I can but it won’t be my event in the future. Airstream Life magazine will continue to be an official sponsor, and we may have another pop-up store next year (I’m not sure yet). If I’m at Alumapalooza 11, you might even see me on stage with Brett at Happy Hour doing our usual goofball routine.

I’m glad to be wrapping up on a high note. This year was challenging because of weather but in all other ways a huge success. At 220+ rigs it was easily the largest event we’ve ever run. Everyone seems to be having a great time (as always) and already they are eagerly signing up for next year. It’s a great feeling to have originated Alumapalooza with Brett ten years ago, to have worked with him in close partnership to make it a cornerstone of the Airstream community, and to leave it in his extremely capable hands to continue for the future. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome.

APZ10 sunset window view

The Big Bad Wolf comes to Jackson Center

He huffed and puffed …

At the risk of having this blog turn into an ongoing weather report, I will tell you a story about a storm again. Here in central Ohio at this time of year there is always some challenging weather, usually in the form of thunderstorms that march in solid red lines across Illinois and Indiana and give us “exciting” (chaotic) times. Everyone who has attended Alumapalooza or has been Airstreaming for more than a few years has experienced this.

In small doses a little chaos can be fun but it’s not great as a lifestyle, especially when one is living in an Airstream as I and 400+ other people are currently doing here. The past few days rain has been particularly abundant and it’s making me appreciate the  calm and astonishingly cool weather I’m missing right now in southern Arizona.

We call the ordinary thunderstorms “dust control” or “leak checks”. They’re generally harmless to Airstreams, which after all float down the highway in a 70 MPH wind every day without incident. If the three little piggies had built their houses of aerodynamically-shaped aluminum there wouldn’t be a fable to tell. A bit of wind-driven rain may test the waterproofing of your Airstream trailer but it’s not going to blow it over.

On those rare occasions when there’s the threat of a tornado we just generally just duck and cover, because there’s not much else that can be done. Last night some folks thought we were in danger and took shelter in the factory, which is the correct procedure when there’s a tornado sighted. But most of the attendees rode it out in their Airstreams. Personally, I was busy writing an email and hardly noticed anything else. I guess I’m jaded by a decade of going through this.

Apparently a tornado did hit about 25 miles from here, and there was some damage in Dayton too (70 miles south). Here in Jackson Center we got the usual rain, lightning and thunder. It was nothing like the actual tornado we experienced back in 2008. Colin Hyde didn’t even take in his vintage-style rope-and-pole awning, and it was still upright and undamaged in the morning.

Apparently the posts on social media last night were far noisier than the thunder. So if, based on those reports, you are wondering if we survived the drama, now you know.

APZ10 Lambert cat

FA09 cover smallWhile the bad weather gets all the press, in reality most of the time it has been pretty nice here. There has been enough sunshine to get a few members of our parking crew pretty solid sunburns, and the mornings have been gorgeous. On Monday I had time to go around and visit friends before the Memorial Day cookout, including this old kitty who lives with Michael and Tina Lambert.

(Michael is the lead of The Excella Tones, who will be performing on Saturday at Alumapalooza. He’s also a talented artist whose work adorned the Fall 2009 issue of Airstream Life. You can see the original print on his wall in the photo above.)

Other than the rain at night, Monday passed by pleasantly. The pre-event cookout was a big success and gave the early arrivals a chance to meet each other. Suzie (Airstream Life Store Manager) and I did a trial setup of our pop-up store and ended up having a few customers in the afternoon. Just in talking to people I could sense them relaxing and settling into the groove of Alumapalooza, which is always great. It’s really what this event is all about.

APZ10 Memorial Day cookout

In contrast, Tuesday is always the toughest day for the staff and this year proved it again. The overnight rains made a difficult parking situation even harder, which put the parking staff to a test like they’ve never had before. Some sites are still infeasible due to soft ground, and to avoid turning the nice grassy field into muddy ruts we’ve had to go to a slower parking protocol: drivers unhitch and a tractor moves the trailers to their site. Some of them will be un-parked the same way on Sunday but as I keep reminding people, we have never left an Airstream behind. So there’s no need to get panicky about “getting out” later.

APZ10 field ruts

Other than the parking challenge, it has been a good day. I was busy most of the day in the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store but managed to break away long enough to check out the vendor area, Eleanor’s first food seminar (cheese and chocolate pairings), and a few other things. (Credit for bike group photo: Adam Grillot)

APZ10 bicycle ride

Happy Hour is the usual turning point of the first day because at last most people are parked and can settle in to enjoy the experience. Brett and I hand out a bunch of door prizes, ad lib some lame jokes, and serve free beer & wine. Not surprisingly, everyone has a good time. From here, everything just gets easier and more fun.

Tomorrow we’ll start early. Suzie and I will set up the store around 7:30. I’ve got two workshops to present with Brett at 8:30 and 9:00 and then I’ll run back to the store to help Suzie. At 9:30 Mike Benson of TST will be talking about tire pressure monitoring systems so we’ll get swamped at the store right after that.

At 3:00 I’ll be presenting a seminar about traveling to National Parks, and autographing books. Then right over to Happy Hour to do the Brett & Rich show again. If I’m still awake after all that I can catch a local band in the main tent, but I suspect it will be dinner and emails and bedtime again. Maybe this time with a bit less lightning?

Landing at The Mothership … again!

At long last, I’m in Jackson Center, Ohio. After 2,000+ miles of driving and seven stops, I’m parked next to what Airstreamers call “The Mothership”, the factory where all Airstreams have been birthed since 1969.

This is a near-mythical place for Airstream fans. Located in the middle of soybean and corn farms and far from any significant population centers, it’s not a destination you’d seek out for any reason other than to visit Airstream. The factory is here because Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, needed an east coast production facility and he got a deal on a disused WWII-era bazooka factory in the middle of nowhere (the place you’d probably want to locate a bazooka factory). Some of the old factory buildings are still here, still in use, but mostly Airstream has grown into a massive campus on both sides of the main street, and they are adding another 700,000 square feet right now.

The biggest reason to come here, in my biased opinion, is Alumapalooza, which Brett and I hold once a year in the week after Memorial Day. We’ve been doing it for ten years. It’s a 5-day camping event that lasts for 10 days (because most of the attendees show up early).

The other big reason is the factory tour. It’s an old-school tour where you walk right down the production line, meet the people who are building Airstreams, and get sawdust and aluminum shavings in your shoes. No “virtual tour” here, and no “Exit through the Gift Shop”.

Sonora KY overnight parking

Being here at last always make the tribulations of the long drive seem worth it, and this time there were plenty of tribulations. I spent the last night on the road next to a noisy highway in Sonora KY, woke at 3:10 a.m. and decided to hit the road around 5:45 to get an early start on what I expected would be a long day.

In four hours of driving I encountered rush-hour traffic in Cincinnati studded with commuters who clearly wanted to be crushed by 7 tons of Mercedes and Airstream, construction delays, and thunderstorms. Then I picked up Eleanor in Dayton and we began to do the mandatory errands (groceries, photocopies, various other supplies) that lead up to our final arrival at Airstream.

When we landed in the Terra Port and freed the Airstream from its harness, a dozen or more friends were already on hand and eager to say Hi. As I walk through the Service Center and around the campus I see dozens of familiar faces from Airstream, all smiling and welcoming us back. Each visit feels like a homecoming. Even the newbies are not strangers for long; Airstreamers are tremendously gregarious.

Alumapalooza is a big deal here. It’s a chance for Airstream employees to meet the people who buy their product, and there’s a lot of feedback that goes into product improvement. Relatively speaking our group of 450 is also a tidal wave of humanity for the tiny Village of Jackson Center (pop. 1500). The local restaurants like Heidi’s “Heidout” have to anticipate us.

Alumapalooza has been the only event held at the Airstream factory since 2010, when we started it up. Back then I didn’t think about how long we’d be doing it and I guess I never expected it to last this long, but a decade later here we are and the event is the biggest it has ever been. We’re expecting something like 225 Airstreams.

Alumapalooza 10 staff meeting

To pull off an event of this size is a big logistical challenge. We do it with a volunteer staff of just 22 people (having a meeting above) and some help from Airstream.  The trick is to have really good people. Most of our volunteers have been helping run the event for years and they are smart folks who hold (or held) positions of significant responsibility in their real life. Here they wear orange shirts and work hard in the Ohio humidity, hence the nickname “the Dirty Oranges”. They sweat, and sometimes melt like coconut butter in the heat, and for this they are the heroes of the event. We provide them with lots of cold water, clean shirts, and not much else, and yet they keep coming back.

For the next ten days the Dirty Oranges will be handling the bulk of the work. I’ll be like Marlon Perkins, back in the safety of the RV while others tackle the Komodo dragons. Once the event officially starts on Tuesday my job will mostly be to run the Airstream Life Pop-Up Store, host Happy Hour daily with Brett (the funnest part of my day), troubleshoot as needed, and do a few presentations. Eleanor is on tap to make dinner nightly for the Store staff, and she also does the Dirty Orange laundry, in addition to doing two fairly complex culinary presentations.

So we’ll all be busy. And it has begun …

Alumapalooza 8

I’m overdue to report on Alumapalooza, and part of the reason is that I don’t want to be repetitive. Every year we do it, the event seems to become bigger and better—and this year it was just fantastic.

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“Boondocker” the dog, who travels with Jim & Lynda Polk

I know, it seems like I’m just blowing my own horn. After all, nothing is that great, and things always go wrong.  That’s true: we had a case of heat exhaustion on the staff, we had to cancel one of the contests due to equipment failure, and the caterer performed below expectations.

But those problems were overshadowed by absolutely flawless weather (far better than we’ve ever had in eight years of running this event), a really happy crowd, a solid program of education and entertainment that kept everyone engaged, our superb volunteer staff, and a first-class effort by the Airstream people to make us all welcome despite being flat-out busy.

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Drone photo by Randy Miller

It was so successful overall that I was joking to people we should just call it quits this year, getting out on top. But we’ve already registered 36 sites for next year’s Alumapalooza 9, so I guess we’re committed now.  (Public registration is now open; just call Marie at 813-200-8877 and leave a message if she doesn’t answer. She’ll call you back.  We’ll have online registration open in a week or two.)

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The program was pretty packed so I won’t go over everything that happened, just a few highlights. Let’s see, we had about 45 early arrivals over Memorial Day weekend so the Monday cookout was well attended. Eleanor did a foodie seminar again, this time on “plate presentation”.

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Eleanor’s “plate presentation” seminar

Colin Hyde’s trailer was the site of nightly “trailer jams”, although I have to admit I was in bed too early to attend any of them. As is traditional, he taped an episode of The VAP from Alumapalooza.

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We gave away two Pedego electric bicycles, valued at $2,950 each.  The winners both decided to donate the bikes back, so we auctioned them off for charity. Between those auctions, the Gong Show, the chicken barbecue lunch, and other things I think something over $8,000 was raised for charities. Most of it went to the local food bank, and the rest went to cancer research and Habitat for Humanity.

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The musical performances were great. Myles and Tim Thompson were talented and well-received, the Open Mic night was a success as always, and then the Thompsons backed up Antsy for the final show on Saturday.

Antsy McClain APZ8
Antsy McClain

I feel like Alumapalooza has matured. It’s got a momentum now, a vibe that people expect, and lots of people who support it. I feel like it can continue for years. The only trick these days is finding space.  Airstream is expanding so quickly that we are never sure if we’ll have room to park. This year we had room for about 140 rigs.  Next year, who knows?  We’re looking for more space in the area but can’t make promises yet, so if you want to go to APZ9 in 2018 I strongly recommend you register early.

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Lisa and Beth at one of the factory entrances

At the end we were all happy, tired, and officially in summer mode.  I even picked up a moderate tan, despite trying to avoid the sun. I think this is an omen of a nice long traveling summer ahead.

Our next event will be APZ9 in 2018 since we’ve already done two events this year (Alumaflamingo in Florida was the other). That means we’ve got a break to relax. Our personal plan is to stay in Vermont through July, and then head to Newfoundland in August. That plan could change depending on other circumstances, so we’re not making reservations for the ferry or anything else yet.

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Once we finish up in August it will be a long sprint back to Arizona for arrival in late September. But we’ll think about that later. Right now it’s only June and there’s quite a bit of ice cream and sunsets and boat rides to be had. The Airstream is parked at its summer base and all is well.