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May 31, 2006

Mammoth Lakes, CA

Our visit to Death Valley has been too short, but unfortunately work intrudes. Cell phone service is limited to spotty analog coverage, and I’ve had seven dropped calls this morning in an attempt to accomplish one short task. Forget about Internet service. We will mark Death Valley as a spot to return to again, perhaps next winter.

Before we left, Emma completed her Junior Ranger activities and we went to the Visitor Center to get reviewed by the rangers there. Emma managed to complete more activities in the book than are required for her age group,

DV ranger badge.jpg

The drive west out of the park is a tough one for any car, which is why the park service spots tanks of “radiator water” alongside the road. A sign says “Prevent overheating – turn off A/C next 20 miles”. The road climbs over the Panamint Range to 5000 feet, and even though we got on the road by 10:30, it was already 95 degrees.

The Nissan did very well for a truck hauling an 8000 lb trailer up 5000 feet vertically. As the road steepened, we did need to downshift to keep the engine RPM high. Higher RPM helps the engine and transmission cooling. Eventually, we needed to slow to about 25 MPH in first gear. There was plenty of power, but trying to go faster we would risk overheating.

Another tip I would give any Airstreamer coming out of Death Valley is to be sure to have plenty of fuel. Climbing up these hills, you won’t get the usual fuel economy. We chewed up a half tank in no time at all, and were forced to stop at one of the tiny outposts on the way west for fuel at a painful $3.76 per gallon. I bought five gallons, and was reminded of the last time I was in Italy, paying about the same rate.

Eventually Rt 190 meets Rt 395 at Lone Pine, and 395 heads north through the Owens Valley. This is an amazingly scenic drive. The sharp and snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas loom to the west. The valley is green and quiet, and to the east are the dusty brown desert foothills of the Inyo Mountains. This is wonderful country, magnificently isolated by the walls of rock to the west, and the hundreds of miles of scorching desert to the east.

Sierra Nevada mountains.jpg

Traveling north we passed through a series of small towns (Independence, Big Pine, Bishop), slowly climbing up the tilted valley floor. To our left we passed the east entrances of King’s Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks, but one glance at the steep winding roads told us we would have a tough time entering through those back doors. In fact, the roads to Yosemite and Devil’s Postpile National Monument are still closed for snow. The snow in the mountains that looked so far away from yesterday’s hike at Dante’s View got closer and closer. It was hard to believe we were heading toward it, with the memory of 100 degree temperatures and scorching hot beds still fresh.

In fact, the latent heat of Death Valley is still with us. We’re now around 7,000 feet in the town of Mammoth Lakes, where we are parked in the National Forest campground ($15, no hookups). When we arrived, the outside air was a mild 61 degrees, but when I opened a storage compartment in the back of the Airstream, I was surprised by a blast of heat. Every closet and cubby is the same way: storing the dry hot air of Death Valley. The interior of the trailer was 82 at 9 pm this evening. It may take most of the night to cool the trailer off, but at least we will have a much more comfortable night’s sleep.

May 30, 2006

Death Valley heat

It has been a fantastic day in Death Valley, despite a slow start. I had hoped to get some hikes in the valley early in the morning, but Emma slept until 8:30 and by then it was already 85 degrees. I found out that the optimistic forecasts I was seeing from Las Vegas were actually for Las Vegas rather than Death Valley. Today’s forecast temperature was for 101 degrees and it eventually exceeded even that, hitting 103 by mid-afternoon.

So we changed plans, and did just one valley hike, in Golden Canyon. The canyon is actually an alluvial fan (basically a lot of debris washed down from the mountains over millions of years), which was later cut by floodwater to create a canyon that is about 50-100 feet deep. It’s a 2.5 mile hike, roundtrip, all uphill for the first 1.25 miles.

DV golden canyon.jpg

It was a challenge indeed to keep Emma entertained and motivated on this tough hot hike, but eventually she got into it, and with plenty of water breaks in the few spots of shade, we all made it up alive.

Let me tell you about water intake in the desert. Don’t take chances. Even standing still in the desert at 80 degrees, you will need a lot more water than you usually consume, just from the dry air. Imagine hiking uphill in 90-95 degrees in full sun. We took over a gallon of water with us on this short hike, and drank it all before we reached the end. For a day, the Park Service recommends at least one gallon per person, but frankly I consider that minimal. We started drinking water in large quantities from the moment we woke up and didn’t stop until bedtime. We kept several gallons (in individual 16-oz bottles) in the fridge at all times, and were constantly replenishing the supply.

Back at the trailer at 2:30, it was 101 degrees inside with both vents running on high, and the awning out. Relatively speaking, this was OK, since it was 103 outside. But our refrigerator couldn’t keep up. It got to 56 degrees inside, and our milk started to spoil. I have known that most RVs don’t have adequate refrigerator ventilation, and have intended to install a small fan to help with that issue, but never got around to it. I may be talking to one of the next dealers we visit (Mountain Family RV in Reno NV, or George M Sutton in Eugene OR) about it soon.

I can’t be too hard on the refrigerator, though. Everything in the trailer was hot to the touch. We ate lunch (with lots of drinks), stripped down to underwear, and then took a short siesta on the hot beds.

I woke up at 3:30 absolutely roasting alive, and thirsty again, and decided that it was time to throw everyone in the shower. We didn’t need the water heater. We found that running the coldest water we had, the bathroom filled with steam. It was the heat of our bodies that did it – the water was actually steaming off our hot skins!

We let ourselves drip dry instead of toweling off, and stood under the fans for maximum chilling effect. Wet towels on the floor helped cool the lower part of the trailer by evaporation, and we used the melted ice water from our drink cooler to chill our feet. We also soaked hand towels in the ice water and draped them around our necks.

It sounds funny, but all these tricks worked great. We were completely comfortable when we were done playing with the water. But we knew it wouldn’t last, so we piled in the car and headed for Dante’s View, 5000 feet above the valley floor.

DV Dantes View large.jpg
Dante's View. Click for larger

Higher altitudes are where you want to spend your time in Death Valley this season. Dante’s View was clear, gorgeous, and beautifully cool at about 78 degrees. On our short hike up there, we spotted a horned lizard and zebra-striped lizard, which were useful for Emma’s Junior Ranger workbook.

In the picture above, you can see the dried salt creeks snaking across the valley floor. Death Valley has no natural outlet, so minerals washed down from the mountains collect permanently, leaving a “chemical valley” of borax, salts, and various other chemicals that can pickle any creature that is unfortunate enough to die there.

DV mine.jpg

After Dante’s View, we dropped in on Zabriskie Point, and 20 Mule Team Canyon. The latter is a 4WD road which passes some of the many abandoned mines in the park. It’s worth the short loop if you have a high-clearance vehicle. We didn’t need to engage 4WD to do the drive.

DV 20mulecanyon.jpg
4WD road: 20 Mule Team Canyon

Then it was off to Artist’s Drive, another one-way loop road, accessible to all vehicles under 25 feet long. This is a fun rollercoaster ride past some pretty colored layers in the valley walls.

DV artists palette.jpg

Solar note: Our system of parking for afternoon shade seems to be working. Even with one panel blocked in the late afternoon, we are generating more power through the solar panels than we can use, even with the two Fantastic Vents running 24 hours a day. We will have no shortage of power on this trip. Yesterday Rita (blog reader) asked if there was a way that solar could power an air conditioner. Unfortunately not. We knew going in that we would be reliant on fans.

We’ve noticed that the park seems dominated by Europeans this time of year: German, French, British, and eastern European (Czech? Poland?) I’m not sure why they want to come to this hard part of the world in the hot season, but they are undeniably here in significant numbers, renting Class C RVs and even pitching tents in the scorching heat.

Eleanor and I have tent camped in Death Valley before, but not in this heat. It would be a tough slog. The campground offers no showers, only a low water spigot. I have seen the young foreign students on holiday soaking themselves at this spigot. At 8 pm last night it was still in the upper 90s and I was grateful we had the distractions of a movie (“Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”), a good grilled dinner, and cool showers before bedtime. It made the fierce conditions more bearable.

May 29, 2006

Death Valley National Park

From Las Vegas it's about 100-150 miles to Death Valley, depending on which way you go. But regardless, it's a long lonely road through hills and desert, with only a few outposts along the way. We tanked up in Las Vegas before we left at the best price around, $3.05 per gallon, because it certainly wasn't going to get cheaper as we went into the desert. We stopped again later for a 10 gallon top-off at $3.19 per gallon ... and I was glad because as we arrived in Death Valley, the only gas station had somewhat higher prices...

DV Chevron.jpg

Since our last visit to Death Valley in 1997, the park service has cut a deal with the local Native American tribe, the Timbisha Shoshone. They now have a private area in the heart of the valley near Furnace Creek, nearly 200 feet below sea level. It's a tough place to live; not much water, and excruciating heat all summer.

We were lucky to get relatively mild temperatures. When we arrived it was in the low 90s, but we knew it would get hotter the next day, so we picked out a campsite in the Furnace Creek campground that was partially shaded. The idea is to have a spot where both solar panels would get full sun most of the day, but the tamarisk trees would shade half the trailer in the late afternoon.

DV solar.jpg

You're probably thinking, "Hang on -- no hookups in that campground?" Yes. That means no air conditioning. So we expect that our two Fantastic Vents and plenty of solar power will be the keys to survival. The forecast for tomorrow is 100 degrees. Even tonight it's not going to cool much. At 10 pm, as I write this, it is still well into the 80s. Death Valley doesn't cool off at night much. The surrounding mountains trap the warm air. That's one of the reasons it is so hot here.

But it is beautiful. The views and wildlife are everywhere. During the afternoon we spotted a coyote wandering by. At sunset we were able to walk around and spot dozens of bats catching their dinners in the red dusk of sunset. I am sure, despite the heat, we will have a good time.

LV coyote.jpg

Exiting Las Vegas

Last night was busy enough for me to miss posting ... something I hope will be an increasingly rare event. Brett and I went out in the morning to find him a new cell phone since his never recovered from jetskiing. But we spent most of the day working. Yes, it was a beautiful holiday weekend but we spent Sunday at our laptops. That's how it goes in the self-employed/traveling mode. We had to pay for playing golf on Friday and jetskiing on Saturday.

But no trip to Las Vegas is complete without losing some money, so while we had lunch at Sam's Town, we bought a Keno ticket for $10 (2 games). Guess what happened?

Keno ticket.jpg
We lost

I dropped Brett off at the airport and picked up Eleanor and Emma two hours later. Then it was back to work while Eleanor unpacked and settled back in. This morning we are prepping for continued travel --laundry, more work, cleaning, culling out stuff we don't need, packing in a few new things picked up recently.

The plan is to head to Death Valley for a couple of nights. It should not be horribly hot according to the weather forecast -- in fact, today the high is projected only in the 80s, which is less than we had in Zion and here in Las Vegas last week.

We may not be able to get online while we are there. If so, I'll put up some further entries ASAP. Hope you had a good long weekend!

May 27, 2006

Jetskiing Lake Mead

As promised, Brett and I went jetskiing on Lake Mead today. We learned a lot: what not to pack, how not to dock the boat, how not to protect one's cell phone, and what size waves one should not attempt to fly over at 35 MPH. It was a very educational session.

The basis for most of our education was high wind. It was blowing between 20 and 30 knots on Lake Mead, with gusts up to 54. This meant waves up to 4 feet in the middle of the lake. It was also mostly cloudy and the air temperature never got above the 70s, amazingly enough.

So while this kept the lake free of competing boat traffic, it also meant a rough ride on the open water. The spray from our boats either outran us, or flew back into our faces like little needles, depending on which way we were heading.

The pounding of the waves caused our can of Pringles chips to become Pringles mulch. One bottle of cranberry juice flew out and is now resting at the bottom of Lake Mead. The plastic baggie containing our cell phones shredded, and the red Gatorade leaked onto everything. Brett is eating ibuprofen for dinner and I look like I've got a horrible skin disease from the dried minerals on my arms and legs.

Lake Mead.jpg
Arrow indicates approximate location of cranberry juice

Still, it was fun. The protected coves gave us plenty of room to play around, and we were able to boat within a few hundred yards of Hoover Dam. The canyons and inlets are gorgeous and fun to explore. We logged about four hours on each boat (not counting snack breaks), and with our shorty wetsuits we were reasonably warm despite the strong wind. We're already talking about going again next year.

LV Brett jetski.jpg
Brett on the wet side of Boulder Dam

After returning the rental boats, we headed back to the Airstream for a change of clothes and then to Hoover Dam. About this time my cell phone dried out and began to work again. Brett's phone got wetter and it seems to be non-functional, unfortunately. So while it was drying out on the dashboard, we checked out the incredible Hoover Dam, built from 1931-1935 on the Colorado River about 300 miles southwest of the Glen Canyon Dam we visited just a couple of weeks ago.

Hoover penstock.jpg

The dam tour is worth doing, at $11 for adults. Not only do you get to go down inside the dam, but the new exhibit building (the copper-colored structure in the right of the photo below) is very good. And the views are tremendous in every direction.

Hoover dam visitor center.jpg

I was also impressed with the town of Boulder City, which is the home of the Hoover Dam. It has a vibrant downtown, lots of culture and activity, is not too touristy, and sits in a scenic spot just 20 minutes from Las Vegas. We may check it out further when Eleanor and Emma get back, if there's some time on Monday.

Here's a Sign Of The Week for you, as found in Boulder City.

Dead cows.jpg

May 26, 2006

Golf day

I don't golf. So it was with great trepidation that I accepted Airstream's invitation to play in a golf scramble this morning. Brett insisted that I play, so we got up early to do some work before catching the 7:30 bus to our 8:30 start at the Angel Fire golf course.

Now, cruising around on an electric cart, through a beautiful golf course in the desert on a gorgeous May day is not such a bad thing. Our early game kept us out of the highest temperatures (it was about 100 again today). But otherwise, my golf game was 18 holes of humiliation. I redeemed myself slightly with one lucky chip shot and a few halfway decent putts, but otherwise the other members of my team carried the weight. Fortunately, we were playing "best ball".

LV golf swing.jpg

By the end, I was a lot more appreciative of how 18 holes can wear a person out, and our team was 6 under par. We came in third of about ten teams. I think before I attempt to play again, I'm going to need some lessons in how to swing the club and actually hit the ball in a useful direction.

Back at Caesar's, we dropped by the pool to talk to Airstream people a bit in the afternoon (lots of interesting people-watching poolside). Then we picked up our bags and departed via taxi to pick up the Nissan. I'm pleased to report that after the transmission fluid re-fill, it drives like normal again. No charge since it was under warranty.

LV Sams town.jpg

Next job was to catch up on work for a few hours. We headed back to the Airstream, and started our working day at about 4 pm. This has been a successful week but it has also left us with a lot of work to do. Both Brett and I are beat. We only got five hours sleep last night and it has been a complicated few days. We plan to decompress tomorrow by jetskiing on Lake Mead. I'll have photos of that by Saturday night.

May 25, 2006

Las Vegas dealer meeting

I have to admit that there's not much news I can talk about today. Eleanor and Emma are doing their stuff in Vermont but I've been so wrapped up in the Airstream dealer meeting that I have hardly had time to even call them. Brett and I are running around trying to get dealers to advertise in the magazine all day.

But Emma doesn't want to talk to me anyway. She's having too much fun with her grandparents. When I called yesterday she was washing the car with her grandmother and wouldn't break away to talk to her old Dad ...

I can show you an advance pic of a new Airstream that was shown here at the Dealer Meeting. There are some very cool new floorplans coming out, including a 27-foot FB (rear-door) model, and in smaller length they have introduced the "Ocean Breeze" trim package shown below. It's a derivation of the popular Quiksilver trailer.

LV trailer1.jpg

Sorry for the poor quality images. I had to borrow a camera since I left mine back at the trailer.

LV trailer2.jpg

The new rigs coming out are pretty cool. They've updated the Classic into a 27-foot Classic Limited that is quite nice. The 19-foot Custom Bambi by David Winick is here, and that is beautiful. They've also added to the International line and added some new colors. And the Base Camps are finally here, looking very slick with tons of neat accessory racks and options.

May 24, 2006

Preventative maintenance


I was a bit worried these past couple of days. On our way into Las Vegas on Monday, I noticed the transmission acting strangely. What had been a silky-smooth tranny was now occasionally slipping and shuddering in first gear. Did we toast the transmission from too much towing?

I didn't want to say anything about it on the blog until I knew what was happening. This morning I took it in to the local Nissan dealer here in Las Vegas. United Nissan provided me with superb customer service and I felt the truck was in good hands, but I was pretty spooked by the possibility of major transmission repair.

Fortunately, it was not a serious problem. United Nissan called back today to say the problem was merely a leaking line to the transmission cooler. Apparently the fluid level got low enough to cause the symptoms. The Armada does not have a dipstick on the transmission that is user-accessible. Like some other manufacturers, they are moving toward a sealed transmission that is never opened until the recommended service interval. So I haven't been checking the fluid level regularly, nor does the Owner's Manual advise us to do so.

United Nissan believes that the problem was caught in time and no transmission damage occurred. The replacement line was in stock and now we're back in business. I'll pick the truck up Friday after my meetings.

This episode reminded me of how dearly we rely on our truck. Naturally, we're a one-car family, and if our truck is not 100% reliable we could be stranded with a big trailer somewhere that we'd rather not be. So if you've noticed that we seem to stop in for service a lot, you're right. Preventative maintenance and dealing with issues before they become problems are very important. Plus, since 90% of our miles are towing, we maintain to the "severe service" intervals, which means more frequent service than normal. It's worth the small extra cost to be sure we keep cruising the roads trouble-free.

Next major maintenance item will be probably tires. I think we'll be buying a new set around 30-35k miles, based on the current rate of wear. Our tires are loaded to near the Armada's maximum axle weight ratings most of the time, and that means they wear more quickly. At our current rate, we'll need them this fall.

May 23, 2006

Working on The Strip

Eleanor and Emma flew back to Vermont today, for a round of routine doctor and dentist appointments. Eleanor is going to have some allergy testing done to see if she is a candidate for desensitizing injections, or other treatments. Emma is going to go get spoiled by her grandparents, and get her teeth checked.

Note to prospective full-timers. Always remember to remove the bikes from the roof before you go to the airport! Otherwise, you have to park in the "Economy" lot far far away ...

I am staying back in Las Vegas to do some work. This week I've got meetings at Caesar's Palace. Brett has flown in to help out, and he's crashing in the trailer with me tonight, then we are moving to Caesar's for the next two nights. Since we won't need the truck, I'm taking the opportunity to drop off the Armada at the Nissan dealer to have the transmission fluid changed tomorrow morning.

So it will not be a wild week of fun, but it's all part of the adventure in a way. The working life is part of the traveling life, for us.

May 22, 2006

Las Vegas, NV

Sadly we have left Zion National Park, but not before one more long play session between Emma and Hope (Doug & Trish's daughter), and a big gabfest for me as well. Here's a photo from last night, when Emma and Hope were playing on Emma's bed and the bunk above it.

Zion Hope Emma.jpg

Our trailer boasts a small souvenir of our Zion visit. This pretty much sums up our philosophy these past few days...

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Now we are in Las Vegas, 150 miles away from Zion. It's not particularly glamorous here in this asphalt parking lot of a campground, but it is convenient for the business I need to do this week. And it's cheap to camp in Las Vegas. Full hookups here, with the Good Sam discount, are about $22, and there are even cheaper places to be had.

Las Vegas Sams Town.jpg

Eleanor and Emma are flying home tomorrow. I'll be busy with work for a few days, and then this weekend there will be time to play. I'll tell you about that later. For now, here's a quick Sign of The Week, as seen along the road from Zion somewhere in Utah. I don't know what it's referring to ... and I don't think I want to know!

Monkey suckers.jpg

May 21, 2006

Emerald Pools at Zion

It is decided: Zion is a favorite spot of ours. We'll be back. Terrific desert weather, greenery, wildlife, beautiful scenery, peace and quiet thanks to the shuttle bus system, and thanks to good cell phone coverage, I can work from here too!

Zion vista 2.jpg

Today we decided to hike the Emerald Pool trails: Lower, Upper, and Middle, in that order. The total hiking distance was about 4 miles, which is average for us and well below Emma's tolerance level of about six miles. Fabulous hikes! Scenery that you just can't believe. The photos don't do justice to the beauty of this place.

Zion upper pool.jpg

The Upper Emerald pool is not emerald-colored at all, but it is a tranquil and lovely spot at the end of a hot hike. Technically, no swimming is allowed, but the sign didn't say "no wading," so we did and cooled off nicely.

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The Middle Emerald trail offers fantastic views and crosses over the top of the Lower Emerald Trail. Water from the sandstone drips down constantly to make small waterfalls.

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Zion horses.jpg

There's a lot to do in Zion besides hiking. For example, you can rent horses for trail rides, which seems like a fine idea. I think they organize these from the Zion Inn, which is midway up the canyon. The Inn looks like a fine place to spend a few days if you don't have an Airstream. ;-)

Zion Inn.jpg

Bicycling is possible on the riverside Pah'rus Trail for a few miles, and there's a museum right up from the campground too. In the town of Springdale, just outside the park gates, there is a giant screen movie theater and the usual artsy shopping, restaurants, and outfitters to browse too.

We got back around 3:30 and took the shuttle into Springdale to try the local pizza joint. We've been guzzling huge amounts of fluids due to the dry air and high temperatures (well into the 90s again today), so it was nice that the pizza place has a free refill policy. After some browsing in town and at the Visitor Center, we headed back home to the Airstream to shower and settle in .... and then a knock came on the door from surprise visitors Trish and Doug!

Turns out Doug has been following our blog for months, and since they live in nearby Kanab, they decided to look us up while camping in Zion for a couple of nights. They have a Casita 17-footer, which is very similar to the Airstream Caravel we started with two years ago, and they have a lovely 7-year-old daughter named Hope. Emma and Hope took off on their bicycles, and played checkers, and the adults spent the evening talking about everything, until 10:30. What a nice bonus!

Meeting people like Trish and Doug is a big part of the reason we travel like this. They're wonderful people, full of ideas and enthusiasm, and we're glad to know them. They're not the only people we've met this weekend, either. Yesterday we met a couple from Essex NY (near our home town) who winter in Tucson AZ, and we plan to look them up later this summer when we are back east. You meet the most interesting people in National Parks. This has been the most enjoyable weekend we've had in a while.

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May 20, 2006

Hiking Zion, slowly

Zion is one of those rare places that is magnificent in many ways, everywhere you turn. This morning we walked from our campsite along the paved bike/hike Pa'rus trail and within a hundred feet spotted some of the wild turkeys that have been reintroduced to the park. Towering red cliffs of red Navajo sandstone surrounded us as we walked through a beautiful field to catch the shuttle bus.

Zion pahrus trail.jpg

Last night in the ranger talk we learned about how the many arches here (and in Arches National Park, where we were last October), are formed. The red sandstone is porous, and absorbs billions of gallons of rainwater and snowmelt. The water percolates down through the sandstone very slowly, taking centuries to reach a layer of impermeable shale or a fault. There, it emerges from the sandstone, and at that point freeze-thaw cycles cause the sandstone to collapse, leaving arch formations.

Zion arch formation.jpg

The photo above is an embyronic arch being formed along the Riverside Walk trail. Note the water forming a pool at the bottom. If this cliff were thinner, we might have a walk-through arch in a few thousand years, but this is the base of a mountain of sandstone.

Zion squirrel.jpg

Despite pleas from the rangers, warning signs, and the threat of $100 fines, people still feed the animals and the result is that the squirrels will come right up to you and beg for food. This happens with mule deer too, and eventually they bite people and have to be shot. Even our six-year-old knows better than to feed the "cute animals". I wish more people would pay attention.

Zion climbers.jpg

The vertical relief in the canyon is just mind-boggling. Like the California redwoods, this is a challenging place to photograph. Above you can see some climbers working their way up a fissure. They were about 500-600 feet up when I took this photo, and only halfway to their goal!

Zion painter.jpg

"Weeping rock" is another example of water being squeezed out of the sandstone by an impermeable rock layer. People come up here to stand under a natural alcove where it drips water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Spots like this were cool oases in the park as we hiked. The outside temperature was in the 90s, but dipped into the 70s in the shady and damp spots.

Zion lizard.jpg

Wildlife is everywhere if you look. We noticed most people never slow down long enough to see. We spotted the wild turkeys, lizards, a Western Red Start (a red-bellied bird, I might have the name wrong), a hummingbird (tried to get nectar from one of the graphics on our trailer!), butterflies, canyon wrens, caterpillars, and of course begging squirrels. They have mountain lions here, in theory, but of course we didn't see any.

The plan was to resume hiking after lunch but nobody seemed to have the energy. We got back at 2:30 and wilted in the heat. The Virgin River, which flows through this canyon, is running about 52 degrees and too fast for swimming. I fell asleep on the bed after lunch, reading an escapist novel by Tom Clancy and when I awoke at 4:30 nobody seemed to want to go anywhere.

It's been a nice easy day. We've been playing checkers and now Emma is helping Eleanor cook dinner. I've promised to make popcorn for the movie later tonight. We're going to skip the ranger talk because the topic looks a bit dull.

Solar report: we were down 44 amps when we woke up this morning, but generated 30 amps by 2:30, and eventually got back all but 10 amps. Not bad, especially considering we also recharged both laptops and camera batteries. If we didn't have solar, we'd be killing our batteries by tomorrow night. As is, we can stay indefinitely. I like the fact that now everything electrical that we use (cameras, laptops, lights, pumps, Internet box, cell phones, etc) is powered by the sun.

May 19, 2006

Zion National Park, Springdale UT

This morning Emma was pleased to find that her homeschool project of growing some herbs has yielded seedlings, and she insisted I take a picture of them. The desert sun and some nice soil donated by friends in Texas has caused her cilantro and chive to pop up.

Emmas plants.jpg

The drive from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to Zion National Park is all scenic. Along the way, we got glimpses of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Vermillion Cliffs, and passed through the little town of Kanab. The scenery ranges from dunes to "painted desert" to scrubby evergreen forests and finally to red sandstone.

We had heard from friends over the years that Zion was marvelous, but nothing prepared us for how incredible it is. We came in the east entrance, which brings you along an incredible and impossibly winding road and through two tunnels blasted out of the sandstone.

Zion tunnel.jpg

The second tunnel is narrow and for the past decade the park service has required "large vehicles" including all RVs to pay a fee of $15 to go through it. They have rangers stationed at either end who stop traffic so that RVs can go right down the middle. Basically, for the $15 you get to rent the entire tunnel for your private use for a few minutes. We made the most of it, cruising the long (nearly a mile!) and dark tunnel (no lighting at all) at a leisurely 20 MPH.

Zion vista1.jpg

Once arrived in Zion Canyon, you can't help but be absolutely amazed. Every direction is an incredible scenic view of towering sandstone walls, over 1000 feet high. Even though there is only one road leading north-south through the canyon, there is very little traffic because the Park Service instituted a shuttle system back in 2000. It works great. Just hop on the shuttle that runs every 7-10 minutes and you've got a free guided tour of the canyon with stops just about everywhere.

Zion Emma fire.jpg

The weather is superb. It was well into the 90s today but only 36% humidity and it felt much cooler than it was. Our campsite is partially shaded but I expect we will have enough sun to recharge our batteries again. Amazingly, there is cell phone service here, and so we can keep the blog updated every night. So we've got everything we need plus some ... and three nights to enjoy this great park.

Tonight it has dropped into the low 70s, so we can sleep with the windows open, and tomorrow the forecast is for 99 degrees. We plan to spend most of the day hiking some of the park's signature trails in the shady parts of the canyon, near waterfalls and pools.

May 18, 2006

Sedona to Glen Canyon

Our campground last night, Rancho Sedona, distinguished itself in two ways today. First, it became only the second campground advertising wireless Internet which had a signal strong enough to penetrate our Airstream’s aluminum skin. Second, the sewer drain didn’t. So when I pulled that black handle … well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

Turns out they have what they euphemistically refer to as “a delicate septic system.” Apparently when somebody downstream flushes the wrong thing, everybody upstream has a bad day. The service guy came over and did what you do at home: he plunged their drain line. He told me that the last time he was called out, it was a screwdriver in the line. People flush weird things.

We took the southern route out of Sedona to see more of the great scenery and to visit Montezuma’s Castle National Monument as well. The monument is small, basically consisting of ancient Native American cliff dwellings, and a good Visitor’s Center. The temperatures were flirting with 100 while we were there. I leaned against a brown metal railing and burned my elbow.

Montezumas castle.jpg

Just outside the Monument is one of the ubiquitous Native American casinos that dot the western landscape, and an open parking lot where we found a family selling frycakes and handmade jewelry. We’ve been seeing these frycake stands often since we entered New Mexico and Arizona, and since it was lunchtime I proposed we stop and try a few.

Frybread stand.jpg

They’re a little like the fried dough you get at county fairs, but lighter, crispier, and not nearly as nauseating afterward. I buried mine in honey, Emma chose cinnamon sugar, and Eleanor mixed powdered sugar and salt for a kettle-corn sort of flavor. They were all great.


Then it was northward. I-17 rises as it approached Flagstaff, which is nothing like what I expected. Being up around 6000 and 7000 feet, the area is green with pine trees. The centerpiece is a peak 12,000 ft tall with snow at the top. Then Route 89 floats gently down to 5000 feet as it goes through National Forests and tribal reservations, including the large Navajo Nation.

AZ gas.jpg

The route to Page, AZ is beautifully scenic and often rather lonely. The Echo Cliffs parallel the road on the eastern side, and little villages populated by Native Americans are the only breaks in over 100 miles. Coming into Page, a town founded as recently as 1957, you are rewarded with stunning views of red rock formations and eventually Lake Powell.

Glen Canyon bridge.jpg

Lake Powell was formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, which you can walk across for a dizzying but gorgeous view of the canyon and lake below. There’s a Visitor Center but we arrived after it was closed.

Glen Canyon dam.jpg

Just a mile down the road, we turned off for the Wahweap Marina area, which is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Our National Parks pass with Eagle hologram got us in for free, saving $15. (That paid for the Eagle hologram right there.) Down the road are wonderful views of Lake Powell, the marina filled with houseboats, and Navajo Mountain.

Wawheap marina.jpg

I was hoping for a free campsite somewhere, but even boondocking in this campground costs $19. For what, I’m not sure. Oh well, it’s lovely and quiet. Since this is a warm night, still 84 degrees at 11 pm, and we’ll have to sleep with the windows open, it should beat the noisy Wal-Mart Supercenter up the road, where we saw at least six $100k+ Class A motorhomes parked for free.

May 17, 2006

Sedona, AZ

Last night was beautiful and peaceful, camping under a sky filled with bright stars in the clear desert sky. The two gift shops at the south end of Petrified Forest National Park (just outside the gate) allow overnight parking, and their location is so far from anything that it is quiet all night.

We tested our solar system by using as much as battery power as we wanted last night. By flagrantly using lights, running the laptops off the house batteries, running the water pump a lot (three showers), and running the furnace at night, we managed to consume 55 DC amp-hours of power. This is about the most we'd ever use in a single evening.

This morning, the desert sun began shining early and by 6 a.m. we were generating 3 amps of power. By 8 a.m. we were generating about 8 amps. By noon we hit 12 amps, and by 2 pm, we'd recouped most of the 55 amp-hours we used. (The last 10% or so goes in very slowly because the batteries can't charge quickly when they are nearing full, regardless of how much power you put in. This is why it's a waste of gas to try to get your batteries to 100% using a generator.)

PRNP ranger work.jpg

We were so excited about working on Emma's "Junior Ranger" booklet that we all went outside in our pajamas at 7 a.m. to examine the huge chunks of petrified wood that were scattered all around us in the parking lot of the gift shop.

Next stop was the Visitor's Center at the south end of the park and a short hike through the "Giant Logs" area right behind the Visitor's Center. While we were there, a couple of friendly lizards posed for us atop the petrified wood.

PFNP lizard.jpg

The next hike was a few miles up the road at Crystal Forest. It was, like all of Petrified Forest National Park, a fascinating site, but Emma was tiring of looking at fossilized trees and so we decided to return to the Airstream for lunch and some cold drinks. Emma completed work for her Junior Ranger badge and shortly thereafter was duly sworn in by Tyra the Ranger. This is her third Junior Ranger badge.

PFNP jr ranger.jpg

Our goal is still Zion National Park by the weekend, but we decided to make a small detour to Sedona AZ to meet up with Fred and Renee. You might recall we last saw them in Myrtle Beach SC and Charleston SC. They're on the same westward trek as we are, heading to Oregon for late June. We found them after a harrowing switchback descent from 7000 feet, in the overly-quaint town of Sedona.

Sedona's main feature, as far as I can tell, is the abundance of towering red rocks which surround the town and the adjacent National Forest. Fred and Renee took us up a rugged dirt road five miles in their Jeep, to see the sunset views.

Sedona jeep.jpg

The views are spectacular, but difficult to capture. I should learn how to make panoramas, for places like this.

Sedona view.jpg
Click for larger

We've had ice cream and looked at the 180 photos I shot today, and now we're sacking out. Arizona is a huge and wonderful state with incredible variety, and it seems like every day we spend here completely wears us out from the sheer magnitude of it.

May 16, 2006

Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

Petrified Forest National Park is a lonely exit off I-40 in eastern Arizona. A single road about 25 miles long leads from the north entrance to the south. We came here expecting to see lots of petrified wood, but were surprised how much more there is to be found.

PFNP badlands.jpg

Right off the bat there are incredible views of badlands, and an historic Harvey House restaurant called the Painted Desert Inn. People used to get off the train about 20 miles south and travel by car to stay at this rustic adobe inn at the edge of the cliff overlooking the badlands.

PFNP milk snake.jpg

Then we found a Native American pueblo dating from 600-800 years ago, with wonderful petroglyphs. While looking at those, a gorgeous milk snake came by (not venomous). We met a researcher in the parking lot who was studying snakes, so we took him over to the spot we last saw the snake. He already had a western diamondback rattlesnake in the car ...

A few miles further down, we finally began to see the remains of forests of large trees, fossilized and slowly emerging from the eroding cliffs. Emma spotted two jackrabbits, a hawk, a cottontail rabbit, and other creatures for her Junior Ranger project, to be turned in tomorrow.

PFNP trailer.jpg

We're boondocked just outside the park's south entrance tonight. We ran out of time this evening, so we'll head back about eight miles north to see the rest and do some hikes, before heading west to Sedona to meet up with Renee and Fred again.

Hyde Park Memorial State Park, Santa FE NM

This park is way up above Santa Fe, which is itself a pretty high-altitude town. The park is at 8700 feet, nestled in a cleft between mountains and surrounded by evergreen trees. The entire park has hardly any level ground. The few RV sites that it has are oriented so you have to back into them, up a steep slope. We found that you only get one shot at it. Backing a trailer up a hill is hard work for the transmission. The approach to the campsites is so steep that if you don’t get in your space the first time, you have to sit and wait for the transmission to cool off before trying again!

Now that we are parked, it’s a beautiful and peaceful spot. But since Rich C and I both need to get to work, we can’t stay here. (This working stuff is a nuisance.) Our cell phones report “NO SERVICE” and of course that means our mobile Internet doesn’t work either.

Knowing that we would be offline for the day, we stopped in Santa Fe about seven miles from the campground at a convenient roadside spot. I got online and made a few phone calls, and just as we were getting ready to leave, a local Airstreamer stopped by, attracted by the colorful graphics all over our trailer. Her name was Mary Jane and she was amazed that she’d never heard of Airstream Life magazine. So we gave her a magazine and had a nice conversation, and she offered to give us tips on what to do in town. This is the type of local contact that is worth more than gold.

I am reminded that out west the climate is dictated by altitude rather than latitude. At 8700 feet in the campground it was gray, windy, and wet, so we went into town where it was clearing, much drier, and at least 10 degrees warmer.

Santa Fe statue.jpg

Santa Fe has a downtown that seems mostly composed of adobe buildings, but many of them are modern reproductions made of concrete. Still, it has a historic air and there is plenty to see. We just parked the car and walked the downtown for several hours, ducking into the various shops and markets. We finally got a southwestern-style rug for our Airstream, and I bought a leather hat which I plan to waterproof for rainy days. Emma likes it too.

Santa Fe hat.jpg

As interesting as Santa Fe is, we are going to move on after just one night. We have only a week to get to Las Vegas and want to spend as much time in Zion National Park as we can, on the way. The state park, as pretty as it is, also lacks a few things besides being isolated from radio signals: the dump station is closed and sites don’t have water. It’s rather cold up here too. So basically we’re paying $14 per night for a parking space with electric. I’d rather be boondocking in the hot desert and using our solar system instead.

This is where we are going to split from Rich C. He has a minor problem with his truck that he wants to get resolved, and needs to wait until Wednesday for a part to arrive. By then, we’ll be 500 or more miles ahead of him, and he doesn’t want to rush. So he’s going to move to the KOA south of town, and we’re making plans to meet again in northern California for a few weeks before heading to the International Rally in Oregon.

This posting is coming to you from a lonely pullout somewhere between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Our solar panels are finally getting tested, since I am running the laptop and our Internet box. We're generating 11 amps at 11 a.m. local time in full sun, which is great. Our daily usage is about 20-30 amp hours, so with just a few hours of sun we can easily replenish what we need when boondocking. In the gray light of yesterday, we were generating 1-2 amps, which would still be enough to extend our batteries for several days. It's encouraging.

May 15, 2006

Santa Rosa Lake State Park, Santa Rosa NM

Our route has once again intersected historic Route 66, "the mother road." It's easy to tell because the main drag through Santa Rosa is lined with old motels with neon signs, and all manner of businesses harping on the Route 66 mystique.

"Garminita", our GPS with the British nanny voice, led us badly astray on the way to the state park. For some reason the database does not include the only road that leads to the park entrance, and so she sent us down a one-lane dirt road called "CR-1a" which intersects no other roads and essentially goes nowhere for about a hundred miles. We realized we were seriously off-route a few miles in, but couldn't turn around.

A local came by in a pickup truck and we flagged him down. Apparently we were in the middle of an enormous ranch, over a million acres, and if we stayed on CR-1a we would eventually come to Las Vegas NM, which was quite a way north. We continued bumping down the dusty trail for another mile to a spot where it seemed we might be able to turn around, and executed a complex 7-point turning maneuver which involved considerable engine power, and liberal use of 4WD. The trailer is caked with red dust now.

Santa Rosa NM.jpg

Santa Rosa State Park is beautiful, set high above an emerald-green lake formed by the damming of the Pecos River. Unfortunately, rain set in and the temperature dropped, so we didn't spend a lot of time outside. The rain broke only for a few minutes but it was long enough to get some great rainbow pictures at sunset. (See our new windows?)

Santa Rosa NM rainbow.jpg

This area has been in a drought, but it seems to be breaking today. It rained all last night and has been steady all day today. We changed our plans to head up to Santa Fe for a couple of days. We'll be staying in Hyde Memorial State Park tonight, but right now we are roadside to get email. Rich C is already parked at the state park and says as usual there's hardly any cell phone coverage and no Internet.

I'm looking forward to some good southwestern chow tonight. Since it's raining, we may go out for dinner in town. With luck, the weather will improve tonight and we'll get some good photos tomorrow. Santa Fe is beautiful.

May 14, 2006

Caprock Canyon SP, Quitaque TX

Our last few hours at Roger Williams Airstream were productive. Rich bailed out at his usual crack of dawn time, but as predicted, we just rolled over and kept on sleeping. David showed up around 8 a.m. and proceeded to install some bonus items: new stainless steel covers for the water heater and furnace.

The standard covers are fairly ugly steel painted a battleship gray color, which fades in the sunlight. Check out these before-and-after pics.

RWA furnace before.jpg
The ugly old cover

RWA furnace after.jpg
New stainless steel cover

If you want to get some of these covers for your trailer, check with David Tidmore at 817-596-0050. He's had a bunch of them fabricated locally, and as far as I know, nobody else offers them. I think the pair (water heater and furnace) is less than $80.

David also helped us clean up some spots in the carpet (using an interesting product called "Dealersol", but I'm not sure if you can buy it at retail), and the stainless steel parts in our trailer using a product called "ZEP" which you can apparently buy at Home Depot. (The stoneguards, refrigerator front, and stove front are stainless steel in our trailer.)

Finally, we took the rig around the block a few times to work in the disc brakes and adjust the brake controller. They start off braking poorly until the pads and rotors get worn a bit. After just a few miles the difference was amazing. It really STOPS.

With all this, we didn't get on the road until about 11. It was nearly 300 miles to Caprock Canyon, so we arrived way after Rich C, but he had a spot picked out for us, and had already scoped out the good stuff to see. There was still time to check out some great canyon views after dinner.

Caprock view.jpg

Now we're trucking through New Mexico on our way to another state park tonight. Rich C is already there, and he reports that there is no Internet service (via cellular) in the park, so again I'll have to post from the road tomorrow.

So far today we have covered a couple hundred miles and the disc brakes are now perfectly broken in. The difference is night and day, as I've been told. I'm really impressed. I can make a slow stop or slam on the brakes, and the effect is just remarkable -- this 8000 lb trailer just smoothly comes to a halt without pushing us, or even letting us know it is there. I feel like it is a big safety improvement. Woo-hoo!

NM reststop.jpg

Stopping at a rest area off I-40, we met up with these folks pulling a 1972 Airstream Safari (single-axle) with a Nissan Titan. Very friendly ... and it turns out they were just at Mystic Springs Airstream Park near Pensacola a couple of weeks ago, so we were able to talk about folks we both know down there. Their Safari is dented and rough on the outside, but very usable and they are having fun with it. That's the whole idea!

May 12, 2006

Solar Panels!

It has been a long day at Roger Williams Airstream but a rewarding one. I am more impressed than ever with these guys. David and Denver work hard and do great stuff.

RWA Vista hole.jpg

Yesterday afternoon they weren't able to install a solar panel, but the hard work on the Vista View window was done and it was a real pleasure to wake up to all the cheery morning light coming in through it. Because we need to get going on Saturday, I asked them to get on the solar panel install rather than doing the second Vista View.

In case you are wondering how it works, having guys tear up our home while we are living in it, I'll explain the process. Eleanor and I have been getting up around 7 a.m. this week, and getting ourselves ready for the day. When we've finished with showers and dressing, we open the door and let Denver know we are ready to go. They hitch the trailer to their forklift and slowly tow it into the shop. Emma sleeps right through this process and wakes up later to the sound of air tools.

RWA panel lift.jpg

Today the guys got right on the solar panel job, but it took a long time. David likes to fabricate a mounting for each panel that will survive the hurricane-force winds it will encounter during towing. The aluminum mounting frames he made are riveted and screwed, as well as thoroughly caulked. These mountings get the solar panels off the roof for better cooling, which improves their efficiency.

One of the reasons it took all day was that there was a snafu involving the solar pre-wiring installed by Airstream. The wires weren't where we expected them to be (in the refrigerator cabinet). David, Denver, and Bob were tearing out their hair trying to deduce where those wires were, when Eleanor suddenly volunteered that she'd seen them buried in a lower cabinet during one of her periodic searches for more storage space. That saved the day, because we were about to concede defeat and start running new wires, which would have made it impossible to complete the job today.

RWA solar panel.jpg
In the midst of installation

So the solar system is now operational. It was 7:30 by the time we wheeled the trailer back out into the parking lot, too late for good testing, but the system seems to be working. Even with the sun nearly set, it generated 0.4 amps.

For the record, we installed two Evergreen Solar 115 watt panels, each measuring about 63" long. The rear one had to be installed sideways, which looks a bit odd, but it will work just the same. With the Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) Blue Sky controller we installed previously, we are hoping for up to 20 amps of power in ideal conditions. This ties into the four Optima batteries and the Tri-Metric. The next step is to take it out west and test it in a National Park!

RWA Rich window.jpg

Rich C got a bit of service today too. His rear window was leaking, and in between tasks on our solar panels David got over there to replace the seal. Rich also got a power hitch jack and some accessories. He's a happy camper now. We just have to throw a gadget his way every once in a while.

RWA hula hoop.jpg

If you're wondering what Emma does while all this is going on, here's an example.

So we've completed almost everything we came for. The second Vista View will have to wait until we come back again, but otherwise we have completed quite a list: disc brakes, two windows, two solar panels. David will come back to the shop tomorrow to tie up a few loose ends and then we plan to head off to west Texas. We're going to meet Rich C at Caprock Canyon State Park. There won't be any Internet service there -- probably no phone either -- so I may have to catch up on the blog from the highway later.

May 11, 2006

Vista View installation & flagpole holder

We broke for lunch and a break for everyone, after the new window was installed. Emma, Eleanor, David, and I all piled into Rich C's trailer and had a lively discussion about pretty much everything. Then Eleanor, Emma, and Rich played Uno while I caught up on some email.

RWA Uno game.jpg

If yesterday's window installation wasn't enough to curdle my blood, you should have seen me watching the process of installing the Vista View windows. Denver and David believe in "measure twice, cut once" but still it was disconcerting to see Denver finally take an air-powered tool to the pristine skin of our Airstream and slice it open.

In fact, you can see some of my reaction on Rich C's video blog. Click on the "VIDEO MOV" link on Rich's post if you have broadband. Denver pulled away a piece of the aluminum and found he'd sliced right through the TV antenna cable. Rich caught the whole thing on video. Oh well, the antenna cable is fixable.

Right now they are just about done cutting. The first Vista View should be going in shortly. Meanwhile, David is working on the mounts for the solar panels. Hopefully one of them will go up on the roof before the end of the working day.

RWA cutting Vistaview.jpg

Blog reader Mark W asked for a photo of our flagpole holder. It's made of 4" PVC Schedule 40 pipe with female screw-threaded couplings and screw-in caps on each end. It is big enough to hold all three of the 1.5" diameter collapsable flagpoles we carry.

RWA flagpole.jpg

We used plastic "plumbers tape" (vinyl strapping) double-riveted to the frame, to mount it. Since it could wiggle a bit even with the strapping tight, I also bonded it to the belly pan with Sikaflex caulk. Now it does not move at all. If you do this, be sure to clean the belly pan beforehand.

In the photo you can see a hole drilled in the cap. The threads on these plastic caps tend to stick in place, so the hole is there to allow me to insert a tool (the same one I use for the Rotochoks) and get leverage to remove the caps.

This is an easy do-it-yourself project if you have the rivet tools, drill, jack, and materials. My total cost was about $35 for materials (pipe, pipe cement & primer, rivets, misc).

Cool window!

Literally. The guys spent all day yesterday working out the details of how to install the new "International-style" window over our dinette table. As you may know, late-model Airstream Safaris come with Hehr windows that are, shall we say, lacking when it comes to ventilation. We have long planned to replace one or more of them with the far-superior windows that come on Airstream International and Classic models.

RWA locker removal.jpg

To do this particular window, we had to remove the double overhead locker above the dinette, which necessitated disconnecting my Internet In Motion box, so I've been borrowing Rich C's Internet connection ever since.

RWA window fitting.jpg

Then we ran into a snag. Even though the new window is almost exactly the same size as the one it replaced, the corner radiuses are different. This required some careful work to put extra aluminum in behind the existing exterior sheet, in such a way that it would be hidden by the caulk when finished. David and Denver figured it out and their solution is guaranteed watertight.

RWA window comparison.jpg

The new window is frankly AWESOME. It is huge, opens completely, and looks great. Compare it to the weeny vent window to the left that it replaced.

RWA window done.jpg

I didn't post to the blog last night because I left my computer in Rich's trailer, and then we went out to have dinner with Paul and Annie Mayeux at their house. Emma adores their two daughters, having met them at the HOTC campout in Cleburne State Park last February. So while Eleanor and I toured their fascinating self-built home, Emma wore herself out keeping up with a 9 and 12-year-old. By the time we got back to the Airstream, it was 10:30 and Rich had gone to bed.

This morning David and Denver have finalized the window installation and put our overhead bin back together. I was underneath the trailer half the morning mounting up a flagpole carrier made from some PVC pipe -- this will hold the three flagpoles Fred Ettline gave me back in Charleston, instead of having them ride on the bed.

Denver is already working on our first Vista View and I expect to post again tonight with pictures of that. We are going to stay through Saturday morning so there's time to get the solar panels on, too, and hopefully Rich can get some work done on his rig as well before the weekend. Then, we'll head west and try out all the new goodies.

May 09, 2006

Actibrake and Centramatics

HOT hot hot .... over 100 degrees today as Denver valiantly completed the disc brake installation. Eleanor and Emma went off to do laundry and ended up in a non-air conditioned laundromat, which was certainly a mistake. But we had no idea it was going to get this hot.

Even though the trailer was plugged in and the air was running, the best we could do was keep the interior in the low 80s because people were coming in and out all day. I was rushing in to check email and then rushing out to discuss Airstream stuff with Rich C, David Tidmore, Denver, and Paul Mayeux, so it was a sweaty day.

The Kodiak disc brakes were on both sides of the trailer at the end of the day yesterday, so today's task was to install the Actibrake hydraulic actuator, the hydraulic lines, and the electrical connections. We decided to put the Actibrake in my bedroom closet. It was mounted up on the wall in a dead space. This keeps it clean and out of the weather, although the device is totally weatherproof so it doesn't matter much.

The Actibrake is the thing that actually puts pressure in the hydraulic lines to activate the disc brakes. It connects to the brake wire from the tow vehicle just like the old drum brakes did. So we can keep the Prodigy brake controller we have always used. Even though the Prodigy instructions say it is not designed for hydraulic disc systems, the Actibrake people have designed it to work with the Prodigy and a number of other brake controllers.

RWA Tootie.jpg

Just when Denver was wrapping up the installation, Tootie showed up from Centramatic. Centramatic makes a very cool product. They are aluminum discs that balance the wheel/tire/brake assembly of your trailer. See, you can balance the wheels but it doesn't do much good if the brake hub is out of balance. The Centramatic fixes that. You just drop it behind the wheel, and it automatically balances the assembly constantly as it is in motion. So, you never need to balance your wheels again!

RWA Centramatics.jpg

You can see the Centramatic on the left wheel above. It's the big aluminum disc that is blocking the view of our new brakes. A bunch of fine beads in a special lubricant spin around from centrifugal force and automatically compensate for unbalanced wheels. It's so simple. What a great idea.

So now our disc brake installation is done and we're looking forward to tomorrow's upgrades. We'll adjust and test the disc brakes on Thursday or Friday. I can't wait to see how they perform.

Tomorrow, the plan is to start on the solar panels and windows. Tonight, I'll be firing up the grill again for another dinner in the back lot of Roger Williams Airstream. (What strange places we find ourselves living!)

May 08, 2006

Disc Brakes

Finally, we're at Roger Williams Airstream in Weatherford, TX, getting our long-awaited upgrades. We pulled in around 11 this morning and it wasn't long before work began.

Pulling off the old drum brakes and replacing them went pretty quickly. We found the cause of some issues we've been having lately, too. Twice in the past week our brake controller intermittently indicated a short in the wiring. It also has been pushing the Armada to the one side when we brake hard, which is an unsafe condition. If we hadn't already been heading to the nearest Airstream dealer for a brake job, I would have immediately begun doing so.

RWA disc brakes.jpg

Sure enough, the front left brake wiring had come loose inside the drum and got pinched. A spot of bare wire was visible, which caused the intermittent short. It also may have caused that brake to work intermittently.

With the new Kodiak disc brakes, wiring failures will be a thing of the past. It's a hydraulic system, like your car. Our friend Paul Mayeux came by today to visit and told us that since he upgraded to discs on his Caravel, he can't imagine having anything else.

I'll have more pics of the installation tomorrow.

Rich Charpentier also caught up with us today. If you follow his blog, you know he's been driving down from Massachusetts to meet us here in Texas. He's in an Airstream Safari 25. We'll be caravanning together, off and on, for the next couple of months. We're all looking forward to heading into the desert as a caravan in a week or so.

Tonight we are both parked behind the dealership. Eleanor bought a disposable barbecue grill and we cooked up some steaks, and now she, Emma, and Rich are playing Uno in Rich's trailer. I have a feeling everyone is going to get along just fine....

May 07, 2006

By Bus and By Plane

This morning I received an email from blog reader Steve, who has a bus conversion in progress. I've always thought a motorhome conversion from a vintage Greyhound bus would be very cool, so we arranged a meeting at the local Home Depot, and Stan came along, too.

Grapevine bus.jpg

The stats on a bus conversion are incredible. These aluminum bodies are built to last three milllion miles, and diesel engines that go hundreds of thousands of miles between overhauls. 179 gallons of diesel means you can buy fuel in Boston and drive to Chicago with 1/3 of a tank left over.

A 39,000 lb. GVWR means enough carrying capacity for a dozen full-grown moose and a German Shephard, should you be so inclined. The basement storage capacity gives Steve enough room for 100-gallon holding tanks, a mountain bike, and practically an entire garage of tools. In other words, no need to travel light.

Grapevine Cessna.jpg

Then we got on with the main event of the day. Stan and I wheeled out his vintage Cessna taildragger and
aimed it down the runway. It was a perfect day for flying... calm wind, warm air, not much turbulence, and surprisingly little air traffic for this busy place. There are bunch of small airports, plus DFW, within a few miles, but it seemed like hardly anyone else was up there with us.

Grapevine flying.jpg

Stan let me fly his Cessna for a while, which was a real pleasure. The plane handles beautifully with a light touch. It reminded me of what I liked about flying my own plane in the 1990s. After four landings, we parked it and headed back to the house and trailer for one last grilled dinner (tilapia, salad, asparagus, and cheesecake) by the pool. Yep, courtesy parking can be really nice.

Tomorrow we need to get over to Roger Williams Airstream for our big service appointment. Let us know if you can drop by! I am looking forward to documenting our disc brake conversion, solar panel installation, and other upgrades.

May 06, 2006

Hanging Out at the Hangar

Last night we kept Stan and Eileen up too late, talking after we'd grilled some steaks by the pool. But nonetheless, Stan knocked on our door this morning to invite us out for a day of exploring Grapevine. It's actually quite an interesting town, with a historic downtown, a lake, and a very nice new city-run campground. Joe Moore, who oversaw the development of the Vineyards Campground, was there to give us a tour of the new facility, which just officially re-opened last week. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking for a nice place to stay conveniently close to DFW Airport and yet in a quiet suburban location.

It's been unseasonably cool, with temps in the 70s and occasional thunderstorms roaming through, so my concern about no A/C at night has turned out to be needless. But next week it will be back in the 80s and 90s -- more like what we'd expect from Texas this time of year. By then, we'll be plugged into 30-amp power at Roger Williams Airstream, so no problem.

Grapevine hangar 1.jpg

After a Texas bbq lunch (can't resist the stuff) we headed over to a local airport hangar where Stan and Eileen keep their airplane and Airstream. It's a lot of riveted aluminum under one roof. The Airstream is a '67 Overlander, and the airplane is a 1946 Cessna 120 taildragger in absolutely cherry condition. I'm dying to get my hands on the yoke. If the thunderstorms are cleared out on Sunday, Stan will take me out for a ride.

Grapevine hangar 2.jpg

While we were talking aluminum, Emma discovered a 4-year old girl on a bicycle and a friendly cat, so she was fully occupied. Turns out that people actually live in some of the airplane hangars. Hmmm... inexpensive and you get to keep your airplane and Airstream right in the living room! I like it.

Tonight's plan is to just mellow out. We're going to watch "The Emperor's New Groove," have a light dinner, and practice Uno and checkers. Rich C is arriving in his Airstream Safari 25 on Monday, and Emma wants to be ready for him. She's getting pretty good at checkers ... watch out Rich!

May 05, 2006

Courtesy Parking Tips

Courtesy parking is great, and we love to do it. It saves money, it's usually fun, and we often get a local tour guide in the package. But if you plan to courtesy park your RV, keep in mind a few things we've learned over the past couple of years.

First off, unless your host has a similar RV to yours (particularly in terms of length), they will probably underestimate the amount of space you need to park. Several times when planning to courtesy park at homes of people who don't own an RV themselves, we've heard "Oh, no problem, we have plenty of space for you." Then we get there and find (a) low overhanging trees that would rip off the roof air conditioner; (b) an impossible turn in the driveway flanked by brick pillars; (c) no turn-around, so we'd have to back in for a long distance; (d) a wildly unlevel spot -- or, (e) all of the above!

It's hard for non-RV'ers to appreciate that a 30-foot trailer and tow vehicle amounts to a train nearly fifty feet long, and turning such a beast requires a LOT of space. You can't expect them to be able to visualize what you need, so the burden is on you to ask specific questions -- and be ready to go to Plan B if you get there and find an unsurmountable obstacle.

We've had people break out the pruning shears to trim back a bush so we could get in. In California we had to have three people to keep the Airstream from falling into a ditch while simultaneously passing under a massive branch with about 1 inch to spare. In Massachusetts we had to dodge old stone walls. In Connecticut, we had to borrow boards and blocks to lift the tongue four feet just to get close to level. In Michigan we had to back up 200 feet of S-turning driveway, in the dark!

My rule now is simple: if it doesn't look good, don't try to get in. After all, nobody's guaranteeing you'll be able to get back out again without damage.

Another thing your hosts may not understand is the need for hookups, if you are staying more than one night. We often courtesy park for several nights, which means we prefer to plug in to electricity and connect to the water, too. Murphy's Law says that most of the time, the garden hose bibb will be on the other side of the house. Your host may not mention that until you arrive. Since it's not a good idea to get your drinking water through their standard green garden hose, you've either got to have a lot of spare white hose with you, or do without a water connection. Best to arrive with a full fresh water tank, just in case.

Electric is easier, since everyone has a garage outlet or an exterior power outlet. Then you just need 50-100 feet of ordinary electric cord. We don't bother with a 30-amp extension cord, since hardly anyone has a 30-amp outlet available.

You're really lucky if your courtesy parking host has a place for you to dispose of graywater. More often, your gray capacity will be the limiting factor to your visit. If our host offers a way to get rid of it, that's great, but we don't like to put them on the spot by asking. The last thing we want to do is have a neighbor complain after we're gone, and ruin the courtesy parking opportunity for everyone.

Speaking of neighbors, one of the first things we ask people who don't own an RV is whether they have zoning or neighborhood deed restrictions that prohibit or restrict RV storage. This is for our protection as well as theirs. Nobody wants to get a call from an authority saying, "You've got to move that thing or be fined."

Good courtesy parking etiquette means that the host is not obligated to provide anything other than a parking space. We don't expect hookups, but we appreciate them when available. Most people will offer right away. Some will even offer dinner, and want to have us visit for a while. This is what we like, but we always stress that our hosts are under no obligation at all. They shouldn't feel like they have houseguests to entertain, feed, or keep company. We don't ask to use the shower, borrow the telephone, or get a ride into town.

On the other hand, when a host offers a nice bonus, like high speed Internet access, we usually accept. If they have wireless Internet in their house, you can often pick up the signal outside without coming in to bother them. I now carry a Linksys WRE54G "wireless extender" that I can plug in outside to repeat the wifi signal -- which means I can pick it up easily from inside the aluminum skin of the trailer.

The last tip is to bring little gifts with you. We travel with tiny boxes of chocolates, "nips" of maple syrup, special Vermont cookies, Airstream Life magazines, Macadamia nuts, coffee, and other things to give our hosts. Hosts don't usually expect anything except your company, so they are always pleased to get a little symbol of appreciation. If we stay for a long time, we usually take our host out to dinner, too. The money saved by not getting a campground at $20-30 per night can make for a very nice meal at a local restaurant.

Finally, when you are looking for courtesy parking, the easiest thing to do is just ask people you meet. Many people will say they don't have space, but once in a while you'll score a nice spot to stay and end up seeing things you would never have seen otherwise.

May 04, 2006

Grapevine, TX

Another small world story today: we stopped off in Canton TX to get lunch, and stumbled across this little local taco stand. There was room for the Airstream so of course we pulled in. After lunch, a car drove up to our trailer and a man inside said, " .... Rich?"

Canton taco stand.jpg

It turned out to be blog reader and fellow Airstreamer Fred Richardson, who we had not seen since last year's Homecoming event in Jackson Center. He saw the big silver thing parked by the road, and of course being a good Airstreamer, he made a U-turn to get a better look. Then he noticed the big graphics and realized it was us!

It was great to see Fred, since we owed him thanks for arranging our visit to Taylor, for some of the best barbecue in Texas. We gave him a quick tour of our trailer, talked about disc brakes and Hensley hitches, and then waved goodbye as we headed west on I-20. We'll see him and his wife again someday, I'm sure.

Tonight we are courtesy parking at the home of Stan and Eileen, in Grapevine, which is north of DFW Airport. At the moment we are parked right in front, in the midst of a very neatly trimmed suburban neighborhood of brick homes, but when Eileen gets home we may move to the driveway. It seems a very nice place to be parked for a few days, but our concern is whether the nights will be too hot. At 5 pm, it's still well into the 80s. Stan and Eileen don't have a 30-amp power outlet for us to plug into, which means we can't run the A/C. We'll probably be fine with the Fantastic Vents ... I hope ...

Here's a sign of the week. If you know you are going to Jefferson, turn left. If not, turn right.


May 03, 2006

Caddo Lake State Park, Karnack TX

First of all, I am under orders to acknowledge something that I did not mention in yesterday’s blog: Eleanor towed the trailer! You may not realize that of the 20,000 miles we have driven since last September, 100% of the towing has been done by me. Eleanor has until now refused to even try, but a few lectures from fellow Airstreamers about the need for backup, and a stretch of quiet roadway (Natchez Trace Parkway) finally got her into the driver’s seat. It was even her idea!

So she towed over 50 miles yesterday, and made several tight turns with a 30-foot trailer behind her, and nothing awful happened. The trailer is intact and not even scratched. We’re all hoping she’ll feel brave enough to try again soon.

It was not quite as exciting today wandering through Louisiana as we had hoped. Rt 84 west from Natchez is an historic route but not comparable to the Natchez Trace or old Route 66. I think things hit a low when, to entertain themselves, Emma and Eleanor began dressing up stuffed animals for an in-car beauty contest. After a few hours of not much, we hit boring (but fast) I-49 and zipped up to Shreveport for some groceries.

Texas thunderstorms.jpg

It has been in the upper 80s, and a little more humid, so the inevitable began to happen: thunderstorms. We were lucky and avoided the worst of them, but everywhere in northern Louisiana and Texas along I-20 we could see them building.

Texas Jims catfish.jpg

At exit 635 off I-20, you’ll find this place: Jim’s Bar-B-Q and Catfish. We parked the Airstream in the lane next to their drive-thru and ordered a 10-piece Cajun-fried catfish dinner. It fed two of us with a piece left over. (Emma prefers chicken, poor thing. She doesn’t know the pleasure of Cajun-fried catfish.) It came with hush puppies, pickled green tomatoes (delicious), and cole slaw. All for $11.99. I love a bargain.

Right now, Eleanor and Emma are at the table identifying a large black butterfly we spotted yesterday on the Natchez Trace. According to Emma’s identification book, it is a Pipevine Swallowtail. Later this evening, she’ll be practicing the game of Uno, because we plan to meet a friend who is obsessed with it. Emma plans to give him a good challenge.

Tonight’s stop is Caddo Lake State Park. Nice place, especially if you’ve got a boat. Water and electric for $12 – another bargain! But there’s no Sprint coverage and my Verizon phone is on "extended network", which means both my primary and backup Internet connections are unavailable. (I'm posting this from a rest area on I-20 at noon Thursday and back-dating it.) So, we’ll only spend one night here and then head further west. We have plans for the weekend and friends to meet on Friday near the Dallas/Ft Worth area.

May 02, 2006

Driving Through Two Centuries of Mississippi

Forget what you thought of Mississippi. It's got some really interesting spots in it, and we found two of them today. First stop was the very large, high-tech, and impressive new Nissan assembly plant in Canton. Only opened to tours last month, this place is absolutely monstrous -- and well worth the visit.

Nissan plant 1.jpg

We parked right in front. (The nice thing about visiting auto plants with the trailer is that they always have plenty of parking!) I tried to take a photo of the trailer and the factory, but this place is so huge you need an airplane to see it all at once. You can see the north end of the factory building in the picture above ...

Nissan plant 2.jpg

... and the south end of the building off in the horizon in the second picture. Believe it or not, that is all one giant building.

Of course the Tour trailer got a bit of attention too. While I was on the factory tour, somebody from the plant came out with a notebook and wrote down our URL. (Whoever you are, welcome!)

As with other auto tours, there's no photography allowed inside, so you're going to have to take my word for it that this is one awesome tour for anyone who likes to see stuff built, or who likes cars. Hundreds of industrial robots, sparks flying, giant metal presses five stories tall, and eventually 2,500 individual parts assembled into an American-made Nissan Armada or Titan. I got a nice feeling about our Armada, having seen how carefully it was built, and I got a good look at the innards (chassis, engine, transmission), too. I only wish I could have been there when ours was built!

The price is right: $free. But the tour is booked solid into September, so if you want to check it out, reserve early. And stop in on downtown Canton, just a couple of miles north of the plant on Rt 51. They've got an interesting downtown square with great historic architecture.

After a three-mile tram ride through the factory and two videos, I rejoined Eleanor and Emma back in the trailer where they were doing some homeschooling. I caught up on some work, and then we picked up the Natchez Trace Parkway just south of Canton and spent the afternoon slowly meandering down this very scenic road through 200 years of American history.

The Trace is limited to non-commercial vehicles, and the speed limit is generally 50 MPH, and it doesn't really go anywhere in particular. So for the most part it is quiet and uncrowded, with gentle bends and plenty of historic pull-outs. We stopped about six times, taking one hike, and learning quite a bit about the history of this ancient trail from the interpretive signs. In about four hours we covered only 90 miles but it was some of the most pleasant driving we've done since we were on Route 1 in California. Even Emma liked it.

Our stop tonight is the Natchez Trace State Park, along the southernmost ten miles of the parkway. There's a lot more north of our entry point at Canton, but we won't get to drive it on this trip. We are going to exit at Natchez tomorrow morning. We have some extra time to explore as we head west this week, so our plan is to head into Louisiana and just let things find us.

May 01, 2006

Roosevelt State Park, Morton MS

Another long drive ... but it is going to be worth it. Our overnight stop today is Roosevelt State Park -- a very pretty spot with campsites situated around a pond. I can't believe it's considered off season here, because the weather couldn't be better. Mid-70s, dry, green, quiet ... and yet the camp store and other amenities of the park are shut down until the season starts.

Roosevelt SP pond.jpg

Are they waiting for Mississippi humidity and 90+ degree temperatures to strike? I don't get it, but on the other hand it's fine with us since the park is deserted and peaceful. We have a neighbor, also in an Airstream, but we haven't seen them yet. Otherwise, we are alone with the turtles in the pond.

Roosevelt SP 2.jpg

As pleasant as it is here, this is just a stop along the way for us. Tomorrow we will drive up to the Nissan plant in Canton to take the factory tour. They build our tow vehicle, the Armada, along with the similar Infiniti Q56, so it's a homecoming of sorts. I was lucky to get a tour spot since they are booked up through the summer. Fortunately there was a cancellation.

The factory rules say no kids under 10, no cameras, no cell phones, and there's a dress code too (for safety reasons). So Eleanor and Emma and my camera will stay back in the trailer as they did in Bowling Green when I toured the Corvette plant.

We're playing around with the idea of driving part of the Natchez Trace over the next couple of days, too. We don't need to be in Texas until Friday, so there's a bit of spare time to take the scenic route. We'll decide tomorrow.