Heading west, part 2: Flaming Gorge, Utah

Driving 400 miles a day is not my idea of ideal Airstream travel. It’s more like being a long-haul truck driver, with “gas and go” stops along the endless concrete, and few opportunities to stop and explore. We only do it when we have to trade off one part of the country for another, and that’s why we chose to rush through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The reward, we decided, would be Utah.

Utah’s a great state. It’s under-appreciated in my opinion. Not only does Utah have an amazing constellation of national parks (Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, and some smaller units of the National Park Service), and dinosaurs being dug up regularly, but it is also just beautiful nearly everywhere. I love the rocky red and yellow outcrops, the hoodoos and pine forests, and the ever-changing roads. So we traded a few states we’ve visited many times for a week to explore Utah a little more.

We arrived with a souvenir from Nebraska. Near Grand Island the Tesla caught a rock in the windshield which put a nice long crack right in the driver’s field of view. Being a relatively new car made by a nascent manufacturer, spare parts are hard to get, and so after a few phone calls from the roadside we realized we had no choice but to press on and ignore the crack. A replacement windshield wasn’t going to be available for two weeks. Although the crack continued to grow from 7″ to about 24″ over the next day, the laminated glass would not shatter or fail and so it was just a matter of learning to ignore it.

The windshield crack was a low point in the trip. We had been on the road for days of uninspiring highway driving and we were still at least a day and a half away from our goal, and then our new car had gotten damaged in the middle of Nebraska. It felt like bad karma, but there was nothing to do except keep plowing west against the headwinds and crossing our fingers that nothing else would go wrong.

I started feeling better when we hit Cheyenne WY. For some reason being in the dry and wide-open west, especially at high altitude, always invigorates me. We spent the night boondocked in a parking lot. Although normally we never leave the Airstream in an “overnight parking” situation, in this case we felt safe to leave the Airstream and Mercedes hitched up and take the Tesla to get a steak dinner at a suitably western restaurant. Eating out at a place where guys would be wearing their best cowboy hats and jeans felt like the right thing to do in Wyoming. Even though I was exhausted that night and not much of a conversationalist, it felt recuperative.

From Cheyenne it was still nearly a full day of driving to Flaming Gorge, but everything seemed like it was getting better. Wyoming along I-80 is stark, open, and occasionally harsh, but also beautiful as the light filters through clouds to make the yellow hills glow. Despite constant winds and tough uphill climbs, I enjoyed the drive much more than I had any of the previous three days.

Flaming Gorge-2

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in Utah is an amazingly beautiful area surrounding a reservoir. The reservoir is the result of a 1950s dam project along the Green River (part of the series of dams that include Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell, and Hoover Dam at Lake Mead). It’s relatively quiet, dominated mostly by fishermen and other boaters on the reservoir, and it’s not hard to find your own little piece of paradise along the lake or on a trail. Plenty of camping opportunities too—although there’s only one campground with hookups. You’ll find that in the little town of Dutch John, which was the town created for the original dam workers.

Flaming Gorge-1

Most non-boaters seem to take the dam tour, hit the visitor center at Red Canyon, and move on. But there’s a lot more to do here if you take the time, such as horseback rides and excellent hikes along the riverbanks. If you don’t have a boat there are lots of fishing guides ready to take you out for a day. We spent a day exploring the river downstream of the dam, where the current runs strong and clear and cold, and watched birds from a flat rock. Occasionally fishermen would float by, but mostly we were alone.Flaming Gorge downstream fishermen

Getting in and out of Flaming Gorge is fun with an RV, since there are unavoidable steep grades no matter how you arrive. 8-10% is not really a big deal with proper technique—it’s more of a psychological challenge, especially when the road is winding and there are steep drop-offs. But if you go, be sure you know the right way to control your rig’s speed when descending a steep hill so that you don’t smoke your brakes. This even applies to cars: we smelled a few sets of hot brakes on the way in.

Utah Airstream near Flaming Gorge

Now that we had slowed down, we had time to think about where we would go next. We had over a week of time left, and I saw no reason to get home early, so after a bit of thinking I proposed we go to Salt Lake City. In all of our travels to 49 states we had never made it to Salt Lake City, and for years our friend Jim Breitinger had been telling us to come visit him there. Since Jim had long ago courtesy-parked his Airstream in our driveway, he wanted to repay the favor. So we packed up after three nights and started pulling the Airstream northwest …

 

Heading west with an Airstream and a Tesla

In the last blog I alluded to the fact that for the first time, Eleanor and I aren’t traveling with Emma in the Airstream. I wrote that just as we headed back out on the road in August, anticipating that things would be very different for us without our little traveling companion.

I was right: driving back was a little strange. Eleanor was following me in a car for the 3,800 mile trip, so for most of the day I was alone in the Airstream with my thoughts and a few podcasts.  The familiar chatter of E&e was gone, and I realized that even their silent physical presence (as they read books during the long drive) was something I missed.

For a while we were just hustling to cover the miles, until we could get to something that was of particular interest. We breezed through New York with just a short stop at the Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park (plenty of room in the parking lot for RVs), dropped in on our friends in Ohio for a couple of nights, and then zipped up to the Detroit area to finally hit a place that had been on my list for a while: The Henry Ford Museum and Dearborn Village.

Dearborn Village flowers house

Those were great and I highly recommend both. That’s part of Dearborn Village above, at a place where we stopped to try the High Tea. It took us two days to see all of Dearborn Village and the Henry Ford (plus a couple of hours to do the Ford Rouge Plant tour), so if you go, I wouldn’t skimp on the time.

The visit was made better because we camped at Camp Dearborn in Milford MI.  It’s a nice place—about 30-40 minutes drive to Detroit—and the Tin Can Tourists go there annually so the staff is accustomed to seeing all kinds of cool vintage trailers. But best of all they have a nice discount ticket deal with The Henry Ford Museum, and you’ll definitely see all kinds of cool stuff there.

Henry Ford Museum cool car

Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion house by Rich Luhr

The photo above is the interior of a Dymaxion aluminum house, invented by Buckminster Fuller. (We talked about it in the Spring 2005 issue of Airstream Life, if you still have that issue in your collection.) Being made of aluminum, the Dymaxion house is beloved by many Airstreamers.

2018 travel route west

From Detroit heading west we had no planned stops at all, so for a while I was somewhat at a loss for what to do and where to go. That’s odd, since as the family navigator I usually have at least a rough idea of where we are headed. Here’s another place where Emma’s influence was critical: normally I’d be looking for educational opportunities for her. I wasn’t used to having to figure a route for two adults in their 50s. Where do childless people stop in Iowa and Kansas?

Airstream & Tesla plugged in

Finally we decided to just plow west against the headwinds on I-80 and try to get as far as we could in the next three days. It was an uninteresting part of the trip, so this is probably a good time to mention that the car Eleanor was driving was a new Tesla Model 3, an electric car.

For those who know me, it’s no surprise that I’m a big believer that electric cars will be huge in the next few years, nor will anyone be surprised that I waited to get this car for over two years. I am looking forward to the day when I can buy a Tesla pickup truck and finally get free of the dreaded “CHECK ENGINE” light and all the other hassles associated with internal combustion engines and transmissions.

The car is relevant particularly along this leg of the trip because I know there’s a lot of confusion about electric cars, and one thing people often seem to believe is that you can’t drive them very far.

That’s ancient history. Even against a typical Plains State headwind, Eleanor stopped for a quick recharge about the same number of times I stopped to buy diesel fuel, and her cost was about $5-10 versus the $65-80 I was dropping on diesel.  A few times we charged the car for free on campground 50-amp connections. In the end, it cost $99 in electricity to drive the Tesla 3,800 miles (2.6 cents per mile). I’ve paid more than that for a single fill-up of our tow vehicle.

Wyoming Sierra Trading Post AirstreamOn those nights in Iowa and Kansas where we were just parking overnight in a lot it was no problem to find a place to stash the car. In fact it was kind of handy because we could go out for dinner without unhitching, as we did in Cheyenne WY the night we parked at Sierra Trading Post.

The rest of the time we were lucky enough to get campsites with room to squeeze in the car, or at least park it nearby. If we could each the power pedestal it was a bonus, but we didn’t worry about it. Tesla’s Superchargers are conveniently spaced along the highways and the car can go over 300 miles on a charge, so we never really had any concern about where we’d charge up next—even when we got into some remote parts of Utah.

Part 2 of this trip starts there. I’ll continue the story in a few days.

 

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.

Stops along the way from Chicago to Tucson

From Chicago to Tucson could have been a blur of interstate concrete, and to be honest most of it was, but we did manage to make a few pleasant stops along the way.

Ideally this would have been at least a week-long trip. Unfortunately I had to get back to Tucson to supervise a major move: the Airstream Life Store was at long last scheduled to escape our broom closet-sized office. Going from about 300 square feet to 1,350 square feet was something the staff and I have been looking forward to doing for quite a while, and I wasn’t going to miss the big moment.

Iowa Rock Creek SP

This meant a mad dash of 1,870 miles the way we went, across Iowa and Nebraska, to Golden, Colorado and down Route 285 to Santa Fe. The days were spent covering miles, but each night we tried to find somewhere interesting to stay. The first night was a big hit at Rock Creek State Park in Iowa (conveniently located just off I-80, pictured above). After our four nights in a truck lot in Chicago it was genuine luxury to have access to a dump station, fresh water, and 30-amp power.

Nebraska Great Platte River Archway Airstream

The second night was kind of fun, at the Great Platte River Archway. The parking lot is noisy but you can’t beat the price or convenience as an overnight stop, and there’s a pleasant multi-use trail nearby that I got to ride early in the morning before we hit the road again.

Great Platte River Archway Nebraska

From there we plowed ahead to Golden CO, climbing to the higher elevations to escape the heat since we’d be boondocking again. Picking up I-25 would have been quicker but not nearly as scenic as the beautiful Route 285, which brought us winding through the mountains and along rivers in cool air between 7,000 and 10,000 feet all day.

CO Rt 285 Airstream lunch stop

CO North Fork South Platte river Airstream

Tourist brochure hyperbole? Blogger exaggeration? I understand. I’m skeptical of many travel writers who strive to make ordinary experiences seem far more exciting that they were, so check out the two roadside stops we made (lunch and a quick exploration of the North Fork South Platte River) and decide for yourself. You wouldn’t find such attractive spots along I-25.

Route 285 continues all the way down to Santa Fe, and honestly nearly every mile is scenic. We stopped in Santa Fe for two nights to recuperate from too much time sitting in the car, and took advantage of gorgeous weather to ride one of the many city trails into downtown.

Santa Fe trail ride

Even with my self-imposed deadline to get back, it was tempting to linger in Santa Fe. The town has a lot to offer, and it’s kind of like Tucson but with flowing rivers, more greenery, and an amazing art community. Neat place. We’ll probably take more time to explore it on the next trip northward. But this time, there was no choice but to get down to the low desert, back to the late summer heat, and projects waiting.

We spent one more night on the road before getting home, and I’ll write about the final miles in the next blog.

The last tour of the GL?

After plodding through the mushy wet snow for a couple of days it was a welcome change to have the sun come out in Fort Collins and watch it all melt. The two pictures below were taken two days apart:

Fort Collins Airstream slushFort Collins Airstream campsite sun

And that changed the mood of the entire rally. No longer was everyone hunkered down inside with the furnace blowing, peering out through fogged windows in the hope of seeing sunshine. Suddenly people were outside, walking around and talking to their fellow rally-goers. Emma and I went for rides, Eleanor and I went for walks. It all turned out very nicely.

Saturday night the weather was so fine that people were grilling outdoors and I offered test rides to anyone who wanted to try our electric kick scooter. About ten people hopped on and zipped away—and they all came back with a big smile.  This guy even popped a wheelie.

Fort Collins scooter wheelie

Fort Collins was nearly our halfway point to Alumapalooza, which meant we still had 1,100 miles to go.  After the rally there was no avoiding that we were going to make our 31st crossing of the American Great Plains, so we braced ourselves and began to log some miles.

Kansas center of USATo mix things up we always look for a new route. I think we’ve driven every possible major route through the center of the continent but there was a bit of northwestern Kansas we hadn’t seen before so we headed that way. It’s not much different from other parts of Kansas but at least it was new.

The nice thing about taking the quieter roads is that there’s more variety and occasionally an under-appreciated state park in which to spend the night. This time it was Prairie Dog State Park.

A single night in a state park isn’t enough time to get to know it, but clearly it’s a jewel judging by the number of locals who had staked out spots with their RVs and fishing boats.  The park has a nice small lake stocked with fish. (There’s also lots of space for unicycle riders.)

Prairie Dog SP Emma

Rains came in the evening, and despite my efforts to cover the delicate rear computer in the GL, a few drops of water got in again. I woke up at 3 a.m. to see the taillights glowing (a clear sign that the computer was freaking out). Computers and water don’t mix.

I dried it off and covered the computer better but the damage was done: multiple error messages in the console, and the brake controller was ON all the time. That’s because the computer was telling the brake controller that the brakes were applied when they weren’t.  This meant the trailer couldn’t be towed. And of course the nearest Mercedes dealer was 3.5 hours away.

At noon we were still without functioning brakes and we had to leave the campsite, so I disconnected the 7-way cord to the trailer and towed gingerly to another part of the park without brakes or taillights. I pulled fuses in hopes of forcing a reset, to no avail. Finally, on the phone Colin Hyde came up with a temporary solution: cut the wire to the brake controller that receives the braking signal.

I did that and reconnected the 7-way cable. Now we had taillights and manually-operated brakes, so we could proceed. I just had to keep a hand on the manual brake lever and coordinate braking the trailer by hand with braking the car with my foot. It’s not as hard as you might think.

A few hours later I reconnected the cut wire and found the computer had returned to normal. We were back in good operating condition from that point onward. But I wonder how long the circuitry will continue to work, now that it has gotten wet twice. (I also rigged up an elaborate multi-layer water protection system, in the hopes of preventing a third dousing. I can’t stop the actual leak but I have fixed things so any water that gets in will be shunted far away from the computer.)

The rest of the drive was uneventful and uninteresting. Suffice to say we survived KS, MO, IL, and IN without extreme weather or dramatic failures and pulled into Jackson Center OH—center of the Airstream universe—by Wednesday evening. We’re set up at the Terra Port and getting ready for Alumapalooza 8.

I am eyeing a replacement vehicle. The GL’s recent crises involving the water leaks, along with numerous other age-related problems, are starting to drive my repair costs to an unacceptable level.

We’re at eight years and 134,000 miles with this tow vehicle, which is less than I had hoped for when I bought it, but still a respectable amount of use. The choice of what might replace the GL is difficult since our criteria are complex, but I hope to make a decision in the next few weeks: keep or replace, and replace with what?  I’ll talk about that in more detail in another blog.