Oh yeah, I’m “living the dream”

There’s always a certain temptation among travel bloggers to present an idealized version of travel. They skip over the mundane and the disappointing, and sensationalize those brief moments of peak beauty. The YouTube vloggers are particularly guilty of this and of course I understand why: scenic beauty and an idealized narrative always gets more clicks.

I’ve tried to avoid doing that, in all my blogs since 2004. We’re all grownups and we know life isn’t always ideal, so I’ve written about roadside breakdowns and unsavory dump station accidents. I feel this gives more validity to the great days and fulfilling adventures, since here you always get the good with the bad. And besides, I don’t care about clicks. There are no ads on this blog.

Austin Rich and pupToday was one of those days that people don’t blog about. It started with a feeling of waking up in a swamp thanks to the incredible humidity in Austin. The dewpoint was 72 and the temperature was 74, which means I was close to having fog inside the Airstream. The condensation was getting out of control despite all the fans.

This kind of humidity is not good for the long-term health of an Airstream (or any other brand). It seeps into everything, saturates the insulation, and encourages mold in corners and inaccessible places. Given time and lack of ventilation, the trailer can start to smell like wet dog. Wood can delaminate as glues begin to fail. Even with air circulation all of the paper starts to wrinkle (including toilet paper, laser printer paper, and even cardboard boxes).  I hate humidity, which is a big part of why I live in a desert.

Austin HumidThe best solution would be to turn around and go back to the desert, but given the impractical nature of that idea, the next best move would be to find a campsite with an electrical hookup that can support the air conditioner—and leave it running continuously.

The problem for me is that I have to actually make forward progress. So the only option for me was to press onward. Before leaving I did a load of laundry in my hosts’ house just to try to get the dampness out of the sheets and towels. After baking my clothes and sheets dry, I hitched up the Airstream and headed out of town in the faint hope of a less humid future. Given that I was heading to Louisiana, this was not highly realistic. But at least there was the prospect of spending a few hours in an air conditioned car.

… and that brings up the next challenge of the day. I needed to move forward but not so far that I end up in a massive storm. If I’d pushed hard I could have made New Orleans by nightfall, but NOLA was getting hammered with heavy rain. The compromise ended up being near Lake Charles, 330 miles from Austin, where the rain was intermittent and winding down.

… and that brings up the next choice. I’m here early and there’s not much of interest in the area (plus I don’t want to unhitch for just one night). I’m just going to do some work, have dinner, sleep, and hit the road early.  So: pay for a campsite that I really don’t need and deal with a tedious campground check-in process just to get 30-amp power and run the air conditioner, or park somewhere free & convenient & uncomfortable and make a quick getaway?

I think most people would cough up the $35 or so and get a campsite, but (Rationalization #1) I enjoy taking on a bit of adversity now and then. It makes for better blogs (even though I still insist I’m not a click-whore) and I subscribe to the theory that one should face one’s fears and dislikes. Also (Rationalization #2) I’m traveling in Bachelor Mode, so I can do whatever I want. If I had a chica sharing the damp sheets with me I’d probably be encouraged to look at things differently. And Rationalization #3 is that when I park in odd places “interesting” things occasionally happen: a fire, a tornado, a late-night eviction …

Uh, wait a second, maybe I should get a campground.

Whether east or northeast

Every year when I make this trip from Arizona to Ohio, there’s the risk of some sort of challenging weather. It’s just the nature of crossing the Rockies or Plains states in early summer. One year it was a late May snow in Colorado. Another time it was lightning strikes that came too close for comfort. And nearly every year there’s a line of nasty thunderstorms that can contain hail or a tornado. So I pay attention to the weather reports and keep a weather radar app on the iPad.

IMG_0452The picture above shows the radar on Saturday afternoon. I’m still in Austin, visiting friends, and it’s darned lucky I chose this route because I managed to duck the worst of the weather that’s plowing east right now.

Getting lucky is great but it doesn’t happen often enough—so I need to plan ahead. The way things look today, if I took the shortest route to Ohio starting on Sunday (northeast through Dallas and Hot Springs) I would run the risk of catching up to that huge frontal boundary and end up right in the middle of some unpleasant weather. No, thanks.

So I’ve decided to take the New Orleans option, heading 533 miles straight east on I-10. That will take all day Sunday and Monday, and if my luck holds the worst of the front will be lifting northeast and out of my way by Tuesday.

This will add about 200 miles to the trip overall, but it’s well worth it. In addition to avoiding a potentially challenging towing experience, there’s the compensation of spending a pleasant evening in New Orleans and grabbing a little something tasty.

This is one of the many reasons I hate to have a fixed itinerary on a big trip. Stuff happens: weather, repairs, distractions, opportunities. Why have an Airstream that can go on any road, and then limit yourself to a specific route and schedule if you don’t absolutely have to? I’ve had too many trips where I absolutely positively had to get somewhere, and it almost always sucks.

As I mentioned, I’m in Austin to visit friends so this morning I looked up another one, my dear friend Vicki, and we met for a late breakfast at Bouldin Creek Cafe, which is a vegetarian place near downtown. Neither of us are vegetarian but I’m discovering that eating vegetarian (or even vegan, surprise!) can result in some pretty decent meals. And these days when I meet up with my old friends (note: they are older; I don’t seem to age) it’s often a game of comparing what we don’t eat.

Person 1: I’m gluten-free these days, and I’m cutting back on sugar.

Person 2: I’m not eating anything with cholesterol or caffeine.

Person 3: I don’t eat anything with a face, or dairy.

Waitress:  … *sigh* …

IMG_0835After breakfast I did a little shopping at the massive Whole Foods in downtown (a mandatory stop for me), and then hopped on my electric unicycle to tour the downtown as quickly as possible, since the rain was bearing down on Austin. This is why I love having the unicycle on Airstream trips. It was easy to cover several miles of downtown streets and parks in an hour. After that I could see heavy dark gray clouds menacing the city from the west, so I zipped back to the car. Less than 10 minutes later the deluge hit.

I’ve spent much of the afternoon hunkered down in my Airstream haven and listening to the rain pattering on the aluminum roof. In between rain showers I’ve been prepping for the next two days of driving (330 miles on Sunday and 220 on Monday). The GL wanted some diesel fuel and more air in the tires. One of the stabilizer jacks squealed for a spritz of silicone spray. And I’ve got over a dozen books on the shelves that were waiting for a rainy “nothing to do” day like this to be cracked open.

So while it’s uncomfortably humid and warm, it has been a great day nonetheless and it is slipping away too fast. I’ve got less than an hour before my hosts return home and I think we’re going out for dinner again tonight. I would stay another day to look up more old friends, but with a deadline to be in Ohio by Thursday it’s time to move on.  Hopefully my plan to stay south and away from the weather front will work out.

Van Horn TX to Austin

IMG_0802Tucson to Austin in two days is a slog. I don’t think I’ve done a run like this since we did the Aluma-zooma back in 2014, driving from Tucson to Sarasota in seven days. Now I remember why I try to avoid towing days over 400 miles.

But having done it, I’m thrilled to be in Austin. I’m courtesy parked at the home of my Airstream friends Erica and Jef, who I haven’t seen in at least six years. This is a great spot to catch up on some sleep and just chill after the 16-hour marathon drive. The overhanging live oak trees make the setting very park-like. From what they tell me, I’m just 15 minutes from downtown Austin.

As with most courtesy parking, I’ll be on a limited hookup while I’m here, for three nights. Jef ran a heavy-duty power cord out to the Airstream so I won’t need to ration battery power. (The solar panels on the Airstream are in the shade.) The amperage won’t be sufficient to run the air conditioner, which is a shame because it’s humid here—a clear indication that I’ve crossed from West Texas to East Texas—but I really don’t mind. The fans are enough and the skies are forecast to be mostly cloudy for the duration of my stay.

I arrived with mostly full water and mostly empty holding tanks, so I should be fine in that department for the next few days. Permission has been granted to release gray water here, and refill the water tank from their hose, so I could probably stay for a couple of weeks without a problem. If I accepted their offer to use the house bathroom, I could stay all summer. So I’m not feeling any pressure to be frugal with the Airstream’s resources.


In the picture above you may notice Erica’s 1961 Bambi. She bought that one from Diane Bailey, and if you have ever camped anywhere in the southwest with an Airstream crowd, you’ve probably met Diane. It’s an adorable little trailer.

The best part of this stop is that I have no particular agenda. Other than visiting with Jef, Erica, and their son Dax, I have a few other old friends in the area that I may see, or I may just stay here and chill. Frankly, as much as I like Austin, I’d just as soon not have to deal with Austin traffic right now.

The weather is going to be my big challenge for the next few days. “Major and severe weather” is expected in the midsection of the country, running almost from Canada to Mexico, and there’s no way I’ll be able to avoid it. I was lucky to have chosen the southern route this year because the upper Plains states are likely to see more severe thunderstorms (which means the likelihood of hail, every Airstreamer’s worst nightmare).

At this point my best route may be to continue easterly toward New Orleans, which is not a bad option in my mind. There are things I’d really like to see and do in New Orleans, well worth the detour. I’m not going to decide just yet. I’ve got until Thursday to get to Ohio so it feels like the best course of action is to make no decisions until Sunday. In the meantime, I can try to make a small contribution to keeping Austin weird this weekend.

First day: Tucson, AZ to Van Horn, TX

I always find that there is a one day adjustment period when I get back on the road after a long time. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been hauling around this Airstream for 15 years, or that towing it is like putting on a well-worn glove. Once the Airstream starts rolling, my mental framework gets a little bent and it takes a few hours to get used to the new shape.

In this case I couldn’t get on the road until after noon, which disturbed my routine even more. Normally I’ll start a long summer trip as early as possible, but there were several errands that had to be done on Wednesday morning before I could hitch up. Even after hitching up I had a mandatory stop at the Airstream Life office/warehouse to pick up inventory for the pop-up store.

The back bedroom is now jammed full, as well as the back of the car, the area under the dinette, one side of the bed, and some of the main hallway. There’s hardly a place to put my feet when I sit. I really don’t want to know how much weight I’m pulling, and it’s a good thing I’m traveling solo. Anyone who would want to come with me on this trip would have to be rather petite.

Since I’m heading to Austin, the first two days aren’t going to be full of interesting things. From Tucson to Van Horn is about 470 miles of Interstate 10, a fairly dull drive pockmarked by a few small cities—and El Paso, which for some reason always causes me a small case of indigestion. The traffic is inevitably far crazier than a city of that size should have; it’s like Dallas crammed into a single corridor. Let’s just say that this trip through didn’t alter my expectations, as I avoided various inventive lane-change maneuvers that the locals were demonstrating at sunset.

With Austin about 900 miles away, I had a choice between three 300-mile days or two 450-mile days. Having done this drive many times, I chose to go for the quick run and skip some favorite stopover spots like Balmorhea State Park and Caverns of Sonora. That left me with Van Horn, a town mostly known for being a stopover. It’s sort of the airport hotel of west Texas, with plenty of places to stay but only one reason to be there.

Because Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, I managed to cross two time zones in one day, so after 472 miles of driving I pulled into a forgettable little RV park at 10:00 pm Central Daylight Time. Normally I wouldn’t drive that late but of course for me it was only 8:00. The park features the standards of its ilk: dirt spaces, old but serviceable hookups, plenty of noise from the adjacent Interstate, hand-written notices from the sole proprietor, and anonymity. I was surprised to get the last space. Apparently quite a few people are staying in Van Horn long-term, from the look of the Jeeps and ruts and satellite dishes set up around me.

But I won’t be. The time zones are working against me, so even though I woke up at 4:45 Arizona time to respond to emails and write this, I’ll be hitting the road around 9:00 am local time. That means arriving in Austin by dinner if I don’t take a big break somewhere.

Fortunately I’m feeling the towing groove now. I think the changed view outside my window this morning has put my mind at ease. Even though the scene outside while I eat breakfast is merely dirt, desert scrub, and highway, it’s proof that the Airstream is mobile, as it was born to be. Those neurons in my brain that love new stimuli are lighting up with anticipation. So in a few minutes I’ll have this house/cargo carrier back on the asphalt, soaring east on I-10, all eight tires humming and the Mercedes diesel purring. It’s time to get going.

Salt Lake City, UT

In 15 years of extensive Airstream travel, it is amazing that we never managed to get to Salt Lake City, Utah.

It wasn’t for lack of interest. Our Airstream friend Jim had been telling us for years that we needed to come to SLC, but it was never quite on our route. Salt Lake City is an easy stop if you are heading east or west on I-80, but we always took Bugs Bunny’s famous “left turn at Albuquerque” (or Denver or Flagstaff) and missed it. The few times we were headed further west we tended to go north and end up in Washington state.

This time I made it a goal. SLC still wasn’t “on the way” but after all that rushing through the midwest we had earned some slow & meandering travel, so after Flaming Gorge we headed northwest instead of the obvious southbound route home.

Jim had very kindly offered his driveway in central SLC (a 10 minute walk from downtown), which was very appealing. I always treat driveway camping offers with a little healthy skepticism because it’s fairly common for people to not appreciate how difficult it can be to maneuver a 30-foot trailer into a driveway. The homeowner’s car, truck, and boat may get in there easily, but things change when you are in a rig that measures 54 feet long and 8.5 feet wide.

I did my usual vetting of the site, using Google satellite images, and it looked marginal but worth a shot. Unfortunately a satellite image doesn’t tell the whole story: when we arrived there was heavy rush hour traffic even in the residential side streets, and lots of cars parked along the street that reduced our turning area by a crucial 6-7 feet. We took a few stabs at it with Eleanor standing outside holding a walkie-talkie to guide me and stop traffic (massively annoying local commuters in the process) but after a few attempts to back the Airstream in, it became obvious it just wasn’t going to work.  I called it quits after digging some ruts in Jim’s front landscaping and “trimming” a bunch of tall flowers near his mailbox.

I try to always have a backup plan for situations like this, and so we already knew there was a decent KOA near downtown. All we had to do was navigate downtown rush-hour traffic with a big trailer … which can be incredibly stressful but as always we survived and I’m sure the locals that I traumatized while changing lanes in their faces with a giant slab of aluminum will eventually recover.

SLC signsDowntown SLC

Salt Lake City surprised us. It’s actually a pretty interesting town with a good food scene and natural beauty in the surrounding hills. We hoofed it around the downtown for half a day and visited the Natural History Museum of Utah, which is world-class. If you like dinosaurs it’s worth a visit just to see the well-presented collection, but there’s also a lot more worth checking out including a thought-provoking native culture exhibit.

Ut Natural History museum fossil lab

Jim got a behind-the-scenes look at the room where volunteers prepare fossils. It’s painstaking work, done by dedicated people who spend many hours wearing noise-cancelling headphones (the fans and tools can be loud) while they focus on details that most people would never notice. There’s a certain thrill in being close to the fossils as they gradually emerge from the stone that has held them for tens of millions of years.

SLC Jim B and Eleanor_That afternoon we hit a Italian grocery that Jim recommended, and Eleanor stocked up on several interesting cheeses, chocolates, olives, and tiny “champagne” grapes. Together they hatched a plan to have some sort of crazy cheese-and-chocolate pairing session before we had the dinner that Jim made.

I’ve never had cheese and chocolate together but, yes, it works. Especially when you are sitting out on the backyard patio with friends and the sky turning to stars as you eat.

Two night in Salt Lake City weren’t enough, but we made a note to come back for another visit with Jim. SLC won us over, so I’m sure we’ll make another detour.

At this point we still had a few days left and nowhere in particular to go. All we knew at this point was that we should be generally heading south. I took a look at the map and decided we’d visit Glen Canyon National Recreation Area next, near Page AZ.