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April 30, 2007

Granite Mountain Wilderness

Prescott continues to amaze ... the recreation here is fabulous. This afternoon Rich C took us to the Granite Mountain Wilderness area inside the Prescott National Forest. Like all the great recreation here, this was very close to town.

Prescott Granite Mtn Wilderness.jpg

We went for a short hike, about 3 miles roundtrip, to see some of the great climbing areas. There's also a campground in the National Forest, called Yavapai. The hiking was easy on a trail called only "261", but the granite boulders are extremely rough to the touch and take a heavy toll on the skin of climbers.

Prescott Emma hiking.jpg

Still, we tried a little easy rock climbing after the hike, and Emma seems to be very interested in it, even with the rough granite.

From our campsite, it's an easy scramble up to a section of the Dells where the views are panoramic. Emma has gotten in the habit of going up every evening to take sunset photos. This evening Rich C and I accompanied her.

Prescott Emma dells.jpg

It's an incredible thing to just walk out our door and into this amazing granite playground. None of us want to leave, so I think we will extend yet another day.

April 29, 2007

I remember weather

This morning Brent and Tiffany packed up their Airstream to head back home, but we decided to stay on for a couple more days. Prescott is full of great recreation (hiking, cycling, boating), the camping is cheap, and the weather is beautiful this time of year.

Prescott Safaris.jpg
Two Airstream Safari 30 bunkhouses side-by-side

Just around the corner from our campground is an abandoned rail line that has been turned into a multi-use trail. It's the former Santa Fe, Phoenix & Prescott line, which served mines from Crown King (54 miles from here) down to Phoenix. Rich C led us on a trip up the trail, past Lake Watson.

Prescott trail ride.jpg

Emma's legs were a little sore from all the rock scrambling of yesterday, so she and Eleanor bailed out after about two miles, but Rich C and I checked out about six miles of the trail. So far that's all that you can ride, but the trail will eventually go much further.

Prescott trail lake view.jpg

The views as the trail works through the granite dells are absolutely fantastic. The granite has eroded into magnificent spires, balls, crevices and grikes. Looking at them is like studying clouds, with an endlessly changing arrangement of imaginary things floating by.

Rich C and I went out for lunch at the historic Hotel St Michael in downtown Prescott. It's rare to find a downtown early 20th century hotel still in operation. Most seem to be victims of urban renewal, blight, or lack of parking. This one appears to still have a lively lodging business, restaurant, and a small mall.

Prescott St Michael.jpg

Being down in southern Arizona I've forgotten the variety of weather that most other parts of the country enjoy. But up here in Prescott (elevation 5300) anything can happen. This afternoon we abruptly went from sunny, dry and upper 70s to rumbling thunder and spitting rain.

It doesn't rain a lot here but the thunderstorms can be dramatic. Now it's in the 50s and dropping while the trees sway in the gusty wind. It's a neat change to see a little weather again. But having had a taste, I won't mind returning to the scorching dry desert next week.

April 28, 2007

From IKEA to the Prescott Dells

I missed a blog entry last night. I can only plead distraction -- Friday was a very busy day. We pulled out of Picacho Peak State Park around 10 a.m. and made our first stop at the new IKEA store in Tempe. Being future homeowners, we are thinking about the things we'll need to buy to outfit the house. So we parked the Airstream in a corner of the parking lot and spent a couple of hours making notes inside the store.

Tempe IKEA.jpg

While we were inside, browsing and then having lunch (Emma had the Swedish meatballs), the temperature outside once again soared into the upper 90s. The inside of the trailer was 100 degrees when we came back to it, but fortunately I had remembered to turn on the refrigerator boost fans and so the fridge was comfortable at about 42 degrees.

Plowing through Phoenix-area traffic on I-17 is not much fun, but we had little choice of an alternate route since our next stop was a restaurant a few miles further north, where we had planned to meet a friend. Normally we don't have the trailer behind us when we are doing errands around town, so at all times the consideration of where we could go with our 50-foot parade was paramount. This makes for tricky logistics but we have a lot of experience at this game so it worked out just fine.

From Prescott we headed north up I-17 and then west to Prescott. Prescott is an absolutely beautiful place dotted with eroded granite outcrops called the "Prescott Dells", buttes, and rocky mountains. Being about 5,300 feet in elevation, it's also much cooler than down in Phoenix and Tucson, so this was the time to come up here.

We've joined up with our friend Rich C (gadget) and our new friends Brent, Tiffany, and their two children, who also have an Airstream Safari 30 bunkhouse just like ours.

Prescott Dells kids.jpg

I can't begin to convey the natural beauty of the area we are camped in, so I've uploaded a few pictures from our hike this morning with Rich C and the kids. You can find them on our Flickr album. The pinkish-orange granite dells surrounding us are magnificent to hike and climb on. They are very similar to the exposed granite of Acadia National Park, in Maine.

Even the campground is absolutely amazing, with most campsites surrounded by giant rock walls. I am sure that this area will be a favorite spot for us to return to, once we are established in Arizona. It's a cool respite from desert heat, and a great jumping-off point for other beautiful spots such as Sedona.

April 26, 2007

Hiking Picacho Peak

The early start I had envisioned didn't happen. I was up at 6 a.m. with the sun while the temperature was still a lovely 68 degrees, but Emma didn't wake up until after 9 a.m, and then with some slight work emergencies and puttering around it was nearly 11 before we found ourselves at the trailhead.

It was also 88 degrees by then, so we were expecting a challenging hike. The Hunter Trail is 2.1 miles to the peak, and climbs 1,500 feet in that short distance. The trail is also rocky and difficult, with numerous switchbacks and several steep sections that require scrambling over sharp eroded lava.

Picacho hike1.jpg

Emma discovered some scat along the trail and asked me if it was indeed animal poop. I teased her by suggesting she pick it up and sniff it. Her response: "I'm not Bert!" (Sorry, Bert, but I think you've gained a reputation as a scatologist.)

About 2/3 of the way, the trail doubles back and crosses over the range at a saddle. At this point we had gained about 1200 feet of elevation in about 1.4 miles, and it took about 90 minutes. At this elevation (close to 3,000 feet) it was beautifully cool and the view was stunning. We stopped for lunch and a rest in the shade.

Picacho saddle.jpg

The trail beyond the saddle drops steeply before climbing again, and is not recommended for children under 10 or inexperienced hikers, so we decide to turn around there. Emma was disappointed in this decision. Along the way up, she was telling other hikers of her conquest at Glacier National Park ("12 miles!") and so bailing out on a difficult hike after only a mile and a half and 1200 feet of vertical ascent was, to her mind, just plain weenie.

Still, coming back down was no picnic, and we were consuming water at a high rate. I drank about 36 ounces of water during the hike and more afterward. Reaching the bottom we found 92 degrees waiting for us.

The good news is that the little roadside village at the interstate highway includes a Dairy Queen ... and DQ means Blizzards, which are concoctions of ice cream and ground-up candy bars. That, and a quick cold shower for everyone brought us back to life for the rest of the afternoon while we waited for the heat to abate.

Boondocking report: We used 58 amp-hours yesterday and overnight, mostly to run the laptops, lights in the evening, the refrigerator boost fans, and all three Fantastic Vents. Normally we'd regain all of that in a sunny day (this time of year). But today, with a few hours of laptop time and fans running constantly, we were only able to pick up a net of 23 amp-hours over what we used. So we're about 35 amp-hours below our total capacity of 300 amp-hours.

That's not a problem, but it does show that in very hot weather we use more power than we can regenerate. If we had tilting solar panels on the roof we'd probably generate much more power, but I haven't yet seen the solar panel mount that would work for our situation. Since we can't readily access our roof, such a system would need to be tiltable from the ground, using a pole or something.

The new dual refrigerator boost fans are working well. Our refrigerator has maintained 40-42 degrees all day, which is a huge improvement over its prior performance in hot weather. We run the fans all day and turn them off at bedtime, when the ambient temperature is below 80 degrees.

There are other little attractions in this area, including an ostrich farm ($5 to feed the birds if you care to), the "Arizona Nut House", and two more of the ubiquitous tourist souvenir shops operated by Bowlin's. I think we've captured the best of the Picacho Peak area already, so while we might stop in at the nut shop on our way out tomorrow, we'll pass on the rest of the stuff. Our plan is to head up through Phoenix and into Prescott, where the elevation is much higher and the temperatures are perfect right now.

April 25, 2007

Picacho Peak State Park, AZ

Only 60 miles up I-10 from our spot in Tucson is a beautiful patch of open desert with a stark jagged peak standing up. This is Picacho Peak, centerpiece of Picacho Peak State Park, our home for the next two nights.

Picacho campsite.jpg

I am impressed with the beauty of this park. It sits on a small rise above the desert floor, so that almost everywhere you go the view is magnificent. Because it's a low altitude park (and thus already getting warm this time of year) this is the off-season and there are few people here. We had our pick of spots.

Picacho train.jpg
The interstate highway and a freight line run down below the park, but we can hardly hear them.

We chose the non-electric loop just for fun. We've had full hookups for months now, and it feels like time to do a little boondocking again. There's so much sun now that it's hardly a challenge, at least from an electricity standpoint.

Picacho cactus flower.jpg

Photographically this park is wonderful. As the sun moves, every view changes right up to the last second of light on the horizon. There are all kinds of plants and creatures living on this tiny island in the desert, and right now a few of the cactus are flowering. In just an hour hiking around I managed several nice photos, which I've posted on Flickr.

The heat has arrived. Today it was 90 and so we spent the afternoon with the fans running, some cold drinks, and a book for everyone. By 5 pm it was cool enough to go for a short hike and do some scouting for a big hike tomorrow. Since it will be hot again tomorrow, we'll try to get an early start and hike all the way up to the peak.

Google Earth location of our campsite at Picacho Peak State Park.

April 24, 2007

Summer 2007 magazine covers

Today was a rare bust. We were planning to leave Tucson and head northwest, but suddenly a pile of work issues popped up and the next thing I knew it was 11 a.m., check-out time, and I was still in my pajamas in front of the laptop.

So we paid for another day and I spent the rest of the day tapping the keys. We'll hit the road tomorrow instead.

One reason I was so busy is that a few last-minute touches needed to be made on the Summer magazine. I finished editing it six weeks ago, but there's still work to be done as the layouts are completed, and when it goes to the printer there are still more tasks.

SU_07_cover test 1.jpg

Since we've completed the bulk of the work and it's now mostly in the hands of the printer, I can take a moment to share with you a peek into the process. Long-time readers of this blog know that we test alternate covers before choosing the final cover of the magazine. The image above is one such test (headlines are taken from the previous issue).

SU_07_cover test 2.jpg

Here are two other tests we did for the Summer issue (above, and below). We also considered several other photos. None of them made the final cut. You'll have to wait for the issue to appear in print, later in May, to see the image we ultimately selected!

SU_07_cover test 3.jpg

Starting with the Fall issue, Airstream Life will have two covers: one for subscribers, and another for book stores. The photos will be the same, but the headlines will be different. Subscribers will see only the three small headlines above the magazine's title, which we've always put on the cover. Copies intended for book store distribution will have more headlines (called "sell lines" in the industry). So a benefit of subscribing will be to get the cleaner-looking cover (and at a better price).

April 23, 2007

Random thoughts

I'm going off the track a bit here tonight, for two reasons: First, we haven't done a single thing today worth blogging. Really. Second, it's my blog and I can write about whatever the heck I want, right?

OK, now that we're all clear on that, I'm going to do a little housekeeping and mention a few utterly unrelated tidbits that I need to get off my chest.

Item 1: Generators are not efficient at charging batteries. All the time I get inquiries from people asking if we tote a generator around. I got one such query this morning. You can skim the old blog entries using the Search box to the left to pull up our history with the generator, including why we got rid of it.

But here's the short version: generators are great for powering electrical appliances that use a lot of AC power, such as a microwave, air conditioner, hair dryer, toaster, etc. But when you plug your RV into one and wait for it to re-charge the batteries, you're fighting an uphill battle. A partially-charged battery can only accept a certain rate of charge, which declines as it gets fuller.

It doesn't matter how big your generator is. If the battery is more than half full, it probably won't take even 1/10th of the power the generator is putting out, which means you're making noise and smoke for not much return. Battery charging happens slowly. That's why we don't carry a generator. Solar has proved much better for our style of camping.

Item 2: Airstream Life is coming to a bookstore near you. Well, it is if you live in one of the 19 states which have Books-A-Million stores. All 155 Books-A-Million stores will have copies of the Summer 2007 magazine, which should be on sale by May 22. Find a Books-A-Million store near you.

Of course, you already subscribe to Airstream Life magazine, don't you? (You don't have to own an Airstream to enjoy it.) So tell your wanna-bee friends to look for it at Books-A-Million stores and buy a copy at the newsstand price of just $4.99 per copy.

Item 3: Yogurt should not have pectin in it. (Hey, didn't I warn you this was random?) For some reason, most yogurt brands sold in the United States have either pectin or gelatin, or both, added to them. I find this annoying. It changes the texture of the yogurt, makes it slimy, in my opinion.

Why do manufacturers do this? I'll bet if asked they'd say the American consumer prefers it this way, but I think they have other reasons having to do with manufacturing cost. They also seem to load up with pectin on the fat-free and low-fat varieties, probably to make up some mouthfeel lost when using low-fat milk.

Attention yogurt makers: yogurt should contain MILK and CULTURES. Period. No gelatin, modified food starch, artificial sweeteners, etc.

Brown Cow is my current favorite brand. I eat plain yogurt, a habit I developed as a youth making my own in a Salton Yogurt Maker. Brown Cow's has a delicious taste, and nothing added. But it's hard to find. We've visited grocery stores all over the country and I can only find it once in a long while. So I welcome nominations of other brands that are pectin-free, gelatin-free, and free of everything else except milk and beneficial active cultures.

Tucson birthday 7 pie.jpg

Item 4: Rhubarb pie. We were too full for birthday pie yesterday so we didn't cut into it until this evening, but it was great. Just in case you were wondering...

April 22, 2007

Emma's birthday

Our daughter is 7 today, and she had a very happy birthday, thank you. She got some very nice presents (lightweight and small, too, which makes Daddy happy), went to the Pima County Fair, and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Later tonight or tomorrow, we'll break out the rhubarb pie that Eleanor made (from fresh rhubarb purchased at Beatty's a couple of days ago), and that will be the "birthday cake".

Pima Cty mirrors.jpg
Lost in the hall of mirrors, Pima County Fair

Emma has been living the Airstream Life since she was three, and has celebrated two birthdays while full-timing, so she's a travel expert now. At this point she is in no hurry to stop living in the trailer or traveling, but I doubt she will celebrate another birthday on the road. This phase of her life is coming to an end, to be replaced by a more traditional existence in a stationary house, conventional schooling, and fewer opportunities to explore the world.

As you might imagine, we have mixed feelings about this, but it was always part of the plan. Change isn't bad, it's just different. We started this trip with a 5-year-old and now we have a 7-year-old, and that's pretty cool.

Google Earth location of the Pima County Fair.

I have not put up a Sign of the Week lately. I'd like to say that's because I've been busy, because it sounds better than "I got lazy." Whatever the cause, there were plenty of good sign opportunities at the Fair. Here's an example:

Pima Cty deep fried.jpg
How do you deep-fry a Coke?

April 21, 2007

Electric charges

For the past three days it has been breezy here. Our campsite is on an exposed plateau with no natural windbreaks for miles in any direction, and it's springtime, the season of fair weather breezes. Occasionally a gust will come up and rock the trailer slightly, which is actually kind of fun. We're in no danger of tipping over until the winds get to hurricane force, and even then they'd have to hit us broadside.

But last night the wind really came up and it has remained strong into this morning. Storms from California are coming through, which for us desert-dwellers means wind, occasional cloudiness, and a slight chance of scattered showers. This is a nice change. The rapidly-moving clouds give the desert a dappled appearance, and the rain showers and virga by the mountains are beautiful to watch.

Yesterday we headed over to Ramsey Canyon again for a quick browse through the bookstore. On the way up the road we nearly ran over a rather larger gopher snake. It was about three feet long and very thick in the cross-section. So the first books we checked out were all about identifying reptiles of Arizona, but ultimately we settled on a book about western birds.

Ramsey Canyon bookstore.jpg
Buying books at the Ramsey Canyon bookstore

The clouds today cut into our ability to make power through the solar panels. Even though our current campground offers a full hookup, they charge separately for electricity, so we were considering just leaving the power off and living off solar alone. This got me thinking ...

Metered electric for daily stays is something we've never encountered outside Arizona. It's common for monthly stays, but most places doon't bother for short-term visitors. The reason they do here is simply that some people will flagrantly waste the electric if they think it's "free". Here in air conditioning country, the campground owners are forced to encourage conservation or lose money. I can see why. In the past month I've walked past many an empty trailer or motorhome with the roof air running all day long, even on comfortable days in the 70s.

For our three days in Huachuca City, temperatures have been ideal, so we haven't needed air conditioning. But since the campground provided an easy-to-read meter right at our site, I thought it would be interesting to see how much power we actually used. It turns out that we used 19 kilowatt hours in three days, or about 6 kilowatt-hours per day. That's a lot more than we consume when boondocking, and much more than our solar panels can generate.

Why the discrepancy? Well, when we plug into AC power, a lot of new power loads get introduced. Our refrigerator automatically switches to AC, which draws up to 2.7 AC amps, or 324 watts. I am not clear on whether the electric element in the refrigerator cycles on and off or runs continuously, but if it ran continuously, that would be a potential 7.7 kwH per day all by itself. In any case, the refrigerator uses more power when running on AC than the combined output of both our solar panels. That's why, when we are unplugged, energy for the refrigerator is provided by propane instead.

Another load is the power converter. It takes AC power and converts it to DC to maintain the batteries, with some efficiency loss. You can actually hear that loss when the electric cooling fan in the converter cycles on. What it's telling you is that it is blowing some of that wasted power away in the form of heat.

Finally, human nature takes hold, and we tend to use more lights, and leave them on longer, than we would if were thinking about conserving battery power. Other electric toys get used, too. Eleanor breaks out the electric coffee pot and the toaster for breakfast. We all use the microwave to heat things quickly. We also are able to run our big TV, so a two-hour family movie costs us about 0.2 kwH. All of this luxury boosts our power consumption from a meager 1 kwH per day to just over 6 kwH per day.

For this lesson, I was happy to pay the campground $2.47 for three days of electricity right before we departed Huachuca City. We've towed the Airstream back up to Tucson and will remain here three nights. We've got mail to pick up at General Delivery, there's the County Fair, and we've got a bit of homework to do for Emma's future school. Then the plan is to migrate northward and explore some of central Arizona.

April 20, 2007

Hunting hummers

If you haven't guessed by the previous few blog entries, this is the top place in the United States to see hummingbirds. Fourteen species live here in the summer, and people come from great distances to get a spot near the feeders and photograph the birds.

Hereford hummers.jpg

I'm not actually a birder, but I like the photographic challenge of capturing a hummingbird in flight. It has been an exercise to hone my skills -- an exercise which I haven't yet mastered. That keeps it interesting.

From Sierra Vista, you can take Miller Canyon Road up into the Huachuca Mountains to visit Beatty's Guest Ranch and Orchards. The rough dirt road winds up the canyon through the Coronado National Forest lands, and at first we had the impression we were on the wrong track. A mile or so up, there's a trailhead and a few acres of privately owned land -- Beatty's.

Beattys guest ranch.jpg

Beatty's is a mecca for hummingbird watchers. In addition to selling honey, apples, rhubarb, eggs, and renting out some very private guest accommodations, they have a bank of hummingbird feeders. This time of year the hummers are consuming 6 quarts of sugar water a day, and by this summer Beatty's will be serving many times that amount. So it's a superb place to view the birds. For a fee, they have some exclusive areas for particularly nice viewing.

Allens hummingbird.jpg
A female Allen's Hummingbird

Google Earth location of Beatty's Guest Ranch and Orchard

Now what I really need to get better photos is a longer, faster, image-stabilized lens ... I got myself a lens for my last birthday, perhaps it's time for another?

April 19, 2007

Fairbank and Bisbee, AZ

Just down the road from our campsite is one of the better-preserved ghost towns of southern Arizona, a town called Fairbank. It was a stop along the railroad line, complete with school, hotel, miner's homes, a post office, and more.

Fairbank ghost town.jpg

The rail line has long been abandoned, and now Fairbank is just a patch along the San Pedro river. The schoolhouse remains, converted into a one-room museum, and a couple of other buildings in decrepit shape. Some interpretive signs are there, along with trails to the river, the old stamp mill, and Fairbank cemetery.

Fairbank cemetary.jpg

The cemetery is a half-mile walk from town. An old story is told which claims that bodies bound for the cemetery would be floated down the San Pedro River, but it's probably not true. We took the hike to check it out, and it turned out to be a hilltop with a panoramic view, strewn with rock-covered graves. Few of the graves are marked, but they can be easily identified by the piles of stones and an occasional wood cross. Only a couple have elaborate metal surrounds, like the one above.

The cemetery was surprisingly eery. I think it was the closely-spaced, unmarked graves. Each one gives the impression of someone resting only inches below the surface, and the entire place is sort of lonely. We've been in many graveyards in New England that are much older than this one (dating from the late 1800s through about 1920), but this one definitely wins the prize for the spookiness. I've posted more photos on our Flickr photo album.

Google Earth location of Fairbank Cemetery

Twenty or thirty miles down the road, past Tombstone, is the old copper mining town of Bisbee. The copper is all played out, and now the town is known as an artists community. Bisbee is known to us for two reasons: It's Eleanor's favorite place to buy beads, and it's the home of The Shady Dell RV Park. The Shady Dell is a sort of trailer motel where you can rent a 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s vintage trailer by the night. We stopped in to check it out and talk to Ken, who runs the place.

Shady Dell Ken.jpg
Ken leaning against a "Flxible" bus

The Shady Dell is for sale, if you want to own a very funky trailer park with a collection of restored trailers. Ken would like to stay on and continue to manage it, so it's a great opportunity for a vintage trailer nut who wants to be an absentee owner. Hmmm... wish I had the money.

Google Earth location of The Shady Dell

April 18, 2007

Ramsey Canyon

One of the reasons we are here was to explore Ramsey Canyon, a Nature Conservancy site near Sierra Vista. It's part of a "sky island" formed by the Huachuca Mountains. Sky islands are biologically diverse high altitude areas found in the southwest, primarily Arizona and New Mexico.

Ramsay Canyon.jpg

Ramsey Canyon sits at the confluence of two mountain ranges (Rockies and Sierra Madres) and two deserts (Chihuahuan and Sonoran). Thus, it has bird, plant and animal life from all four of those areas, making it a unique place for naturalists and the curious travelers like us.

It's also a great spot to experience the variations Arizona can offer. Hiking in Ramsey Canyon was just like a hike in the Green Mountains of Vermont, or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, except without mosquitoes & black flies. A burbling brook tumbled down the canyon, just parallel to the trail. Deciduous trees and butterflies surrounded us. The major clues that we weren't in the northeast were the occasional yucca and trees we weren't familiar with such as the Arizona black walnut.

Ramsey Canyon naturalist.jpg

The canyon is well worth the short drive from Sierra Vista and the $5 admission charge. There's a small nature center, and naturalist volunteers are standing by to help interpret the park and identify creatures. We spotted a screech owl nesting in sycamore tree, several hummingbirds, numerous butterflies, the endangered Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog (no kidding), and the hiking was excellent. In fact, we plan to go again and do a longer hike. The admission receipt is good for a week.

If you go, I'd recommend good birding binoculars and plenty of water. The trail is all uphill, but not very challenging until you're about 1/2 mile from the nature center.

Google Earth location of Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon owl.jpg
You'll have to look very closely to spot this well-camouflaged screech owl!

April 17, 2007

Huachuca City, AZ

Nice to have a change of scene. Even though we are only about 60 miles from our last spot, and the view is still mountains and desert, it looks and feels completely different. Our spot today is situated on a rise of land overlooking Tombstone ("the town too tough to die"), 10 miles away, and the Dragoon Mountains to the northeast.

Huachuca City campsite.jpg

We're told that the Dragoon Mountains turn gold in the sunset, which is about to occur as I type this. In a minute I'll head out and see if there are some good photos to be taken. Earlier, Emma and I went for a walk around the campground and practiced taking photos of the hummingbirds.

I have found that I need to use the flash and a high ISO even in daylight, if I want to get a good blur-free image. Today's shots were not very successful, but I feel prepped for the next few days. We will undoubtedly see a lot of them as we check out Sierra Vista and the surrounding area.

Huachuca City hummers.jpg

Part of our departure checklist is to clean the trailer's interior. This means putting everything away, dusting the counters, making the beds, throwing out the junk, sweeping the floor and vacuuming the carpet (if we have an electrical hookup). Since we haven't moved in a while, we had more cleaning than usual, but because it's a small space the trailer cleaned up quickly. It's a nice ritual because it means we pull into our new space with a home that looks neat & new, like we just moved in.

So here we are in a town that is new to us, a view that is new, and the Airstream looking and feeling new again too. It's a really enjoyable sensation, sort of like going to a nice hotel on vacation. All the detritus is left behind, all the dullness is washed away and it feels like an adventure just to go 60 miles. Every new campsite is a reboot on life. No wonder we like it.

Still, the mundane aspects of life continue. We've had a couple of rounds of paperwork related to the house. The roof needs replacement and that meant plenty of documents with signatures and counter-signatures getting faxed back and forth between us and the seller. The seller has agreed to split the cost of a new roof.

In case you are wondering how we handle the paperwork without a fax machine or a regular telephone line ... We carry a laser printer with us, and a flat-bed scanner that is USB-powered. We receive all of our faxes through eFax, which means they arrive in my email box as PDF documents. For documents for our records, I simply save them in a folder and they get included in the next regular disk backup.

If a signature is required, we print it out, sign, then scan as a PDF and email it back, or send it out as a fax through eFax. I also keep a copy of all the documents we've signed on my computer. In the end, nothing stays in paper format -- it's all digital, which is much more convenient, searchable, and safe. We are able to store the equivalent of several file cabinets worth of paper in virtually no space at all. As I've been reminded, buying a house generates a lot of paper!

At this point the house seems to be under control, so we can leave that job behind for the next week. We'll do some adventuring. I've got a little break before the crunch comes for the next magazine, and I plan to use it as well as I can.

April 16, 2007

No reservations, no worries

This has been the longest stopover of our entire trip. We've spent a total of six weeks in Tucson, with a couple of breaks. While I like it here, it's definitely nice to be contemplating our departure tomorrow.

Yesterday we got back into the old mode of things, discussing possible destinations. Eleanor and I made a general plan to head toward Sierra Vista (south of here), based on a suggestion that the hummingbirds are there. We have no idea how long we'll be there, or exactly what we'll do while we are there.

We've made no reservations, either. Part of the fun of our travels has been winging it a lot. Reservations are annoying. We'd rather just pick something out. I know this sounds whacky but really it's fun. We know we'll end up somewhere ... and no matter where we are, we'll be comfy in our Airstream, so why worry?

I got a call from my friend Colin Hyde yesterday. Towing his Airstream back home from the Cherry Blossom Rally in Maryland, he and his five-year-old son found themselves stuck in a big snowstorm on I-88 in New York. They ended up spending the night at a rest area in a foot of snow but they didn't care -- they just settled in with a stack of DVDs and a fridge full of food, and waited out the storm. That's a disaster turned in to an adventure courtesy of an Airstream. So we don't sweat the small stuff, and reservations fall in that category most of the time.

What I'd really like to do is disappear in Sonora (Mexico) for a couple of weeks, but there's too much work to be done. So we'll stay near populated areas where I can get online and my phone works. We've got until about May 7 to roam, and then we need to get back here for the house closing. Time is starting to become very precious with home & family & school obligations looming. We'll try to make the most of it.

April 15, 2007

Green RV'ing

Our friend Doug recently asked if we were going to apply some of the energy and resource-saving principles of our RV'ing to our new house. That made me think. Despite the general perception of RV'ing as a gas-hogging self-indulgent hobby, I believe that RV'ing is actually very "green" -- and the more nights you spend in an RV, the more you save.

This is because the fuel consumption of an RV is only a fraction of the overall resource picture. Yes, most RVs get 8-10 miles per gallon of fuel (sometimes more for diesel-powered vehicles). But when they stop moving, they are exemplary models of conservation.

I've touched on this before but never laid out the details. Thanks mostly to a water-saving toilet, a tiny 6-gallon water heater, and no dishwater, lawn or swimming pool, the daily water consumption of our household is always less than 10 gallons per person per day, even when accounting for our use of external laundry facilities. This compares to a typical household consumption of 150 gallons per day per person.

Our electrical usage is so light that we can power our entire home from a pair of 115 watt solar panels, in the summer. Our power budget on a typical sunny day is about 0.72 kwH. Compare that to 14-25 kwH per day used by an average household. When plugged into 30 amp power and occasionally using the A/C or heat pump, we use more, but still a fraction of an ordinary house because of the small space we heat and cool.

Same for propane. Our furnace, hot water, and stove a supplied by a pair of 7-gallon propane bottles. Our annual propane usage is a mere 100 gallons per year. Our last house had a 500-gallon buried tank and we topped it off several times each year. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Living small means less impact on energy and resources. We even produce less garbage because we buy less stuff.

Nearly any house we might choose would have a greater impact than the life we've led for the past 18 months. RV'ing is inexpensive largely because RV'ers choose to live small. So, for someone who has no other home to feed, I would argue that it is a very "green" option.

My point is not that everyone should sell their house and live in a trailer. Obviously that's ridiculous. But our experience on the road has taught us valuable lessons about the clear economic benefits of consuming less and conserving more. I want to apply those lessons to our next home.

Today we took a small step in that direction. I've been reading articles about CFL (Compact fluorescent) technology. CFLs are way better than they used to be. Unlike the bulbs of a decade ago, they provide attractive light, with color temperatures very close to incandescent bulbs, without flickering. They are much cheaper to run, produce more light (lumens) than comparable incandescents, and they are getting so cheap that the economic benefits of switching to CFLs are indisputable. The only issue left is consumer perception: people still think "fluorescent" means the buzzy, flickering, greenish lights of years ago. That's why manufacturers no longer call use the word "fluorescent" on the packaging.

So today I bought a four-pack of CFLs at Target. It cost $14 (on sale this week). Each bulb puts out more light than a 75-watt incandescent on just 20 watts, and lasts years longer to boot. These will replace four bulbs in the carport and entryway of the house. Once we're inside, I expect to identify at least six other places we can replace the current power-hungry bulbs with CFLs. It's a little thing, but I've learned the little things add up.

Our experience on the road has also reinforced simple practices, like using night air to cool the house and cut our air conditioning needs during the day. Or lowering the temperature on cold nights and using an extra blanket instead of the furnace. And yes, driving less to save fuel. (Believe it or not, we drove fewer miles in the past year on the road than when we had two cars and lived in a house.)

Now our challenge is to maintain the savings we've come to expect, when we come back to the house between trips. Instead of trying to live large, we'll try to continue to live small. Every little saving is its own reward, and the challenge of finding those savings opportunities is fun, like a game. RV'ing taught us the joy of it, and it's one more way that life "on the road" has changed us for the better.

April 14, 2007

Fest in Barrio Hollywood

One good thing about having gone to the home show yesterday is that we don't have to waste a beautiful Saturday indoors. Springtime in Tucson is really marvelous when the wind isn't blowing. Today was typical: sunny & crystal clear, dry, light breeze and about 80 degrees.

We started the day heading to the Tucson Botanical Garden. The gardens are located in town, on the site of an early settler's home, making a green oasis in the midst of urban sprawl. Don't go expecting English formal gardens with neat squares and carefully arranged flowers. The Botanical Garden presents a series of tight little gardens along twisting paths. There's a low-water desert area, a children's garden, herb garden, several nice patios shaded by grapefruit, mesquite, and other desert-loving trees, and much more.

Tucson Botanical 1.jpg

It was very useful for planning things we want to put in the back yard of the house. We'd like to obliterate the existing lawn (a water- and maintenance-hungry monster, utterly inappropriate for the desert) by xeriscaping with gravel and cactus. We were so impressed we bought a family membership, which allows us to visit as much as we want.

Tucson Botanical knee.jpg

Of course during the visit I managed to get my knee into some cactus while snapping a picture of a lizard. I seem to get spines in my leg every couple of weeks doing one thing or another. Although the spines are straight, they still require a good tug to remove.

A month or so ago, our friends Mike & Tracy left a flyer on our doorstep for a local Mexican restaurant on Grande Ave. We went looking for it so we could get lunch, and found the street closed for a street party. Turns out it is part of Barrio Hollywood, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tucson.

Tucson Barrio Hollywood.jpg

This was a huge bonus. Mexican food stands, salsa dancers on stage, a fine band, and plenty of local color. That accordian player might look anglo but let me tell you, that band could crank out some great music.

Tucson Barrio band.jpg

A local insisted we try a small cup of deep-fried tripe with green chiles and salsa, and then we made lunch of a burro, three tacos, strawberry Hawaiian shave ice and some churros for dessert. This festival was a lucky find. Even though we haven't yet gone traveling yet, it feels like today we got back into the swing of it.

Tucson churros.jpg

April 13, 2007

Home show

Oh no ... have we sunk this far? We spent half of the day attending one of the local home shows, talking to vendors of replacement windows and spas and other such home improvements. I came out of there with a dizzy sensation in my head and a sinking feeling.

This is scary. We have been so free without a house all this time. We saved money and never paid real estate taxes. Now people are talking to us about spending thousands on improvements to a house we don't even own yet, and we find ourself nodding sincerely as if this was a very logical and necessary thing to do. Sure, we need a custom closet, an outdoor kitchen, solar film on the windows, and a lifetime set of cookware. Meanwhile a voice in my head is screaming, "RUN!"

Well, we gave the home show a chance. But after four hours the only conclusion we could come to was that we didn't need any of this stuff last week and just because we have a house coming we don't suddenly need it now. We've got to keep the proper perspective -- the house is a base of operations but shouldn't become an obsession that sucks up every penny we have, and thus prevent us from being able to afford the life we really enjoy.

So I'm going to browse through all the brochures and then move on. Yes, that's an impressive $1,100 water treatment system. Those are very lovely $2,500 rain barrels. What a pretty $3,000 murphy bed. Nice $3,879 outdoor kitchen. Wish I could have the $20,000 solar power system. Hmmm, what about a $25,000 pool?

In the end, we'll fix up a few necessary things in the house and resist the urge to spend more improving the house than we spent on the Airstream and a year of travel. The house will get its due, but no more than that. In the big picture, it's just another place to live that doesn't have the advantage of wheels. This full-timing experience has really had a more significant effect on us than I had envisioned. We may never see houses the same way again.

April 12, 2007

Blowing dust

We are having another day of blowing dust. Anytime the wind picks up there's a likelihood that fine dust will be carried along. Having been here a couple of months, we're starting to be able to diffentiate the types of blowing dust, much like a Vermonter knows a dozen types of snow.

Today we are getting the nearly invisible form of dust. The mountains, normally crystal clear and stunning against the azure sky, begin to fade in color, and then gradually succumb to what appears to be a whitish haze. In the east, I would interpret this as humidity, but here it is the fine dust floating evenly in the air.

When the wind really begins to blow, the dust gets into the trailer and within hours we can feel a gritty coating on all horizontal surfaces. That's when the windows get closed. Outside, you can taste the dust if you are foolish enough (as I was) to try.

Some days we'll spot a dark brown cloud whirling off a few miles away -- those are dust storms, and they can be very large. The visibility in a dust storm can drop to zero in moments, and seeing one will give you an appreciation for what Dorothy went through on her way to the Land of Oz. You don't want to run into one on the Interstate highway (video clip).

Our campsite is about 15 miles from the Santa Catalinas, so I use them to judge the air quality. They have yet to disappear, so I can't really complain about the view. In the east it would be common to lose a mountain range behind clouds or even summer haze, but it doesn't seem to happen much here. The view is almost always to the horizon. I think that's part of what makes the west seem so endless.

Hummingbird season is upon us. We're seeing them everywhere now. Southeast of here, near Sierra Vista, are the best places in the USA to spot hummingbirds, and once we get things wrapped up here -- hopefully next week -- we will hitch up and go see them. The Airstream is crying out to get rolling again, and we've got to keep it happy.

April 11, 2007

The two-home strategy

Today was home inspection day.

Tucson inspection day.jpg

The house needs some roof work but overall it passed. So that step is done. With each milestone we get closer to being able to head out on the road again.

I'm beginning to realize that we are getting closer to our ideal. Over the past few days I've been exchanging email with blog reader Mike Young. As he and his wife head transition into retirement, they've come to many of the same conclusions as us.

Mike writes, "As a travel trailer rather than a full-time mobile home, the Airstream is ideally suited to the strategy that you and I have. A fixed home in a nice place during the coldest, wettest, shortest days/months of the year and a mobile home during the summers when outdoor living is attractive in most of the US seems like the ideal solution for those who love to maximize the opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. House + Airstream. Perfect."

Of course, life is rarely that simple, and as you know our life is complicated by the demands of work and family, like most other people's lives. We aren't retired, so this two-home strategy won't be a piece of cake. But it seems worth investing in, even with the inevitable compromises. Our challenges and successes in executing this strategy will be a major theme of this blog going forward.

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Here in our temporary home at the RV resort, the desert is blooming for springtime. The cacti respond well when they've been watered, and the cacti here are well pampered.

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Fishhook barrel cactus with fruiting bodies

Today Emma is feeling much better, although not fully recovered, and it is absolutely beautiful outside with comfortable temperatures, so we took her for a photographic safari around the park.

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Beaver tail cactus

At first glance it seems as though nothing is blooming, until you take a closer look. Desert flowers range from showy to subtle, but most fall in the "subtle" category. You need to slow down and look closely to see the more delicate flowers.

Tucson flowering 4.jpg
Coral Aloe flowers

As frequent travelers, a big part of our house strategy depends on everything being "low care". It's easy to overlook the plantings. I don't want to come back to dead things, and I don't want to have to worry about pruning, watering, fertilizing, etc.

Tucson flowering 5.jpg

Some of the plants here in the park are native, but the most dramatic ones tend to be exotics. Part of our reason for studying them is to decide what sort of things we'd like in our backyard. I think for the most part we'll aim for native plants. They are adapted to the climate and need very little care or water.

Tucson flowering 6.jpg

Just northeast of here is the Ironwood Forest. The town of Oro Valley and Marana sit in the middle of this "forest", which is not like an eastern forest with trees, but rather a dense area of desert plants that has a distinctive look. Saguaro, ocotillo, elephant ear, palo verde, mesquite, agave, and many others grow there. It's very attractive and lush-looking. I'd like to bring some of that look to our backyard.

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Octotillo in bloom (technically not a cactus)

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Hedgehog cactus in bloom

April 10, 2007

Colorado River Water

Emma woke up in the middle of last night with the classic barking cough of croup, and today she has been pretty much knocked flat with a virus. So except for me running out this morning to meet the gas plumbing man at our house-to-be, we've stayed close to the trailer all day, to let her rest.

Even with a full day working on the Fall magazine, this gave me an extra hour or two in the day. Emma was sleeping through the time we'd normally be out at the swimming pool or riding bicycles around the park. I decided to use that time to chase down the rest of the story of water in the southwest. It's more interesting than I had expected, at least to me.

Here's an oversimplified version of the story. California, Arizona, and Nevada don't have enough water, and all three states have overdrawn their natural aquifers in the past century. Southern California in particular is a huge consumer of water, with a large population and huge vegetable farming in the Imperial Valley.

This isn't news. In fact, it was so much of a problem that by 1922 a massive interstate agreement was struck between all of the states that the Colorado River passes through, to divvy up the water. Basically everyone saw that California would suck the river dry if left alone, and so the compact was a way to ensure that didn't happen.

Lake Mead low water.jpg
Low water at Hoover Dam

Fast-forward the 1960's. Arizona has an allocation of water from the river but has no ability to make use of it in the population centers. So Arizona finally gets Congress to agree to a $3 billion canal to take water from Lake Havasu to a spot just south of Tucson. This canal is designed to bring Arizona's share of the Colorado River to where it's needed.

Fast-forward to 1993, when the canal (called the "Central Arizona Project") is finally done. The finished canal is 80 feet wide and 336 miles long, and so expensive it will take 50 years to pay off. Here in Tucson, we pay a surcharge of 4 cents per 784 gallons of water, to help pay for it. CAP can deliver up to 2.2 million acre-feet of water each year, which is most of the 2.8 million acre-feet Arizona is entitled to under the 1922 agreement.

Still, in the early 1990s Arizona wasn't using all the river water it was allocated. It was still consuming more underground water than Colorado River water. In the late 1990s the state started "banking" water by recharging the aquifer, like the Avra Valley project I mentioned yesterday, which has two positive effects. First, it helps slow down the draining the aquifer, and second, it gives Arizona the ability to buy and sell water credits. If another state doesn't use all of its annual water allocation, Arizona can store it underground, and give it back later by forgoing part of its share of the river.

This all sounds peachy, but the fact remains that Arizona still uses more water from the underground aquifer than it is putting back in. The "bank" is operating at a loss. In the financial world, this would lead to bankruptcy, and the result with water won't be much different -- unless something changes.

And things will change. I am optimistic. I know that engineers, politicians, and conservationists are endlessly creative. The solutions developed so far have brought the southwestern states much farther than one would have thought possible just a few decades ago. The ticking deadline keeps getting extended through technology, invention, and compromise, driven by necessity. This is why I am not worried about the sky falling while we own a house in Tucson.

In a couple of days Emma will be well again and we will once again go for a swim in the pool. While we're in there, I know I'll be thinking about the water that fills it, and the challenges that must be faced if we are going to keep it full in the decades to come. In a couple of weeks, when we are at the Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, I'll be reminded of this story again. In the southwest desert, you are never far from the thought of water.

April 09, 2007

Desert water

Since we started looking for property here, I have heard from many people about water issues in the desert. No question, it's a desert and water is precious. Tucson and much of Arizona draw water from a giant underground aquifer which is not naturally refilling nearly as fast as it is being drawn down.

In addition to water use restrictions and financial incentives to conserve, the solution has been to negotiate a share of the overburdened Colorado River. This water is being put in giant basins in the Avra Valley and simply left to soak into the ground, thus recharging the underground aquifer. Tucson has an allocation of 44 billion gallons per year, although it doesn't presently have the ability to make use of it all right now.

That's a good start, but not enough forever. Still, it doesn't appear that Tucson will run short of water anytime in the next few years, despite the many gloomy predictions I have heard.

I also hear a lot of other stories from people about how awful it is here. Come to think of it, I hear those stories everywhere that life is good. My theory is that people come up with such tales to discourage outsiders from moving in. In addition to reports of imminent drought, I've heard about "deadly" scorpions on the ceiling, scorching heat, black widow spiders, rattlesnakes, and killer bees. As with all such stories, there is a grain of truth to each, just enough to be slightly believable.

We've been looking for rattlesnakes on all our hikes in Saguaro National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus, etc. So far no luck. Most people never seen one. Bert, Janie, and I were hiking in Organ Pipe a few weeks ago in a spot that is reputed to have more rattlers than any other place in the USA (200 per square mile), but we couldn't find any.

The scorpions are generally not deadly, except for the bark scorpion which can be deadly in some circumstances. But worrying about it is pointless: hardly anyone has ever been killed by one. Same for the black widow spider.

The water issue is of more interest to us. Our travels by Airstream have changed how we view water. With only a 39-gallon supply that often has to last for several days when we are boondocking, it's important to know how to conserve. Tucson Water says the average usage per person is 177 gallons per day. (That includes water used for all purposes, including irrigation.) In the Airstream, our average use per person can be as low as 3.5 gallons per day when boondocking, and probably runs about 8 gallons per day when we have full hookups.

I've noticed that when we're borrowing a shower in someone's house, I am now compelled to shut off the water between soapings, just as I routinely do in the Airstream. I notice little water-wasting moments: the neighbor sloshing his car with gallons of water in the driveway, or a pool that is left uncovered to evaporate all day in a dry climate. The other day Eleanor spotted someone cleaning the sidewalk with a hose and was outraged. Even a regular flush toilet seems like an extravagance now.

So in our house we want to incorporate some RV economization principles for water (and power, but I'll get to that another day). When we move in, I expect we'll make several changes to cut our water usage, including water-saving appliances, a drip irrigation system, and even a rainwater harvesting system with rain barrels for watering the plants. It should be interesting and fun to try to apply what we've learned to our stationary house.

April 08, 2007

Easter eggs

It's a real relief to have a Sunday with no pressure to go see houses ... and since it's Easter, we've got a few fun things to do.

Tucson egg coloring.jpg

Yesterday, E&E did the egg coloring thing. We all love this ritual for some reason, maybe because it reminds us of happy Easters as children. (I personally love hard boiled eggs but I hardly ever eat them, so this may be my real motivation.)

Tucson Childrens Museum.jpg

We headed out to the Children's Museum today for an egg hunt, but it was a bit of a bust. Emma is the sort of child who tries to be polite and follow the rules, and often these habits do not serve her well when other children are involved. The museum staff tried to set up egg hunts in which all the children would be entitled to find two eggs in the courtyard, but a minute or two prior to each hunt's official start, unrestrained children would roam around and hoard all the eggs. Thus, dozens were disappointed, Emma included.

Tucson egg hunt.jpg

Good thing we made our own. It turns out that you can have a darned good egg hunt in and around an Airstream trailer. So good, in fact, that we took turns hiding the eggs and had three hunts. And then, we ate 'em ... with chocolates from the Easter Bunny for dessert.

The campground is clearing out. On April 1st we saw a minor exodus, and again today half a dozen rigs pulled out. It's another sign that the heat is coming. In Arizona, they say good parking spaces aren't determined by distance, but by shade. I'm beginning to see how true that is, since our Armada has enough glass to basically be a giant greenhouse.

But outside of the car, it hasn't actually been all that hot. It's true what they say about dry heat -- it's not nearly as bad as hot & humid. We have yet to turn on the air conditioner, even in the past few days when we've hit 92 degrees. I'd rather go for a swim in the pool anyway.

However, we have been obliged to turn on the new refrigerator fans that we had installed back at Roger Williams Airstream in January. On a 90+ degree day, if we don't run the fans to draw air through the refrigerator vent, our refrigerator warms up into the mid-40s and things spoil much too quickly. With the fans on, it rarely exceeds 39 degrees.

The difference is noticeable in the freezer, too. We forgot to turn on the fans one day and found the ice pops turning to slush. So the fans have already paid off. As it gets warmer, I expect they'll really get tested. In a month or two, we'll probably be enountering 100+ degrees several times as we travel through northern Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

April 07, 2007

Found a house!

It looks like we will indeed be homeowners again. After about eight weeks of looking, the conclusion of the search happened remarkably quickly. Yesterday morning we got the usual daily email from our agent, showing properties newly on the market. He had only one house, and my initial inclination was to skip it because it was near an area we'd ruled out the day before.

But the listing looked good, and so we went over to see it, not expecting much. The house and the neighborhood surprised us -- in a good way -- and a few hours later we were writing up the offer ...

Apparently we encountered that most rare and magical type of seller: a motivated one. This afternoon, they accepted our offer, even though it was below the asking price and the house had undergone two price reductions already.

So now it's real. We are about to become homeowners again. It's not an amazing house by any stretch, but it's perfect for us. The kitchens, baths, and floors are all pretty dated (think 1970's), but structurally and functionally it's all in good shape. The neighborhood is surprisingly nice, dotted with palm trees and neat little ranches from 1967-1972. The house is nice and cool with burnt adobe block walls and a reflective roof, and it has a lovely view of the Santa Catalinas from the back yard.

Tucson house RV port.jpg

It also has something I never dared dream of. The previous owner owned an RV and so the house comes with a carport sized for tall vehicles like Airstreams. No silly HOA restrictions here. The carport also has sewer & water connections. By merely adding a 30-amp plug, we'll have a covered full hookup in our carport! Too cool.

Now I know a few of you are thinking, "Hey, I'd like to come to Tucson next winter with my Airstream." Well, as it turns out, we are most likely going to rent the house out for a while, so there won't be courtesy parking for a while -- and when there is, we may be using it ourselves!

See, we've decided we don't actually want to stop traveling for a while yet. Emma is on a waiting list for her school. While we are waiting we will keep home schooling and getting some more travel in. Soon enough she'll be locked into a school schedule, but until then we don't want to pass up any more opportunities. When the school calls, we'll come back here and live in the Airstream until the tenants' lease is up.

Having done this, we've stepped back into the world of traditional real estate. There will be many calls to make this week, paperwork, and decisions. Having lived in the Airstream all this time, it seems like far too much trouble to have a wheel-less house.

But ironically, having completed this task of finding a house means we will soon be free again. Once our pre-paid month at the campground is up and we've gotten all the inspections of the house done, we plan to hit the road for three weeks. We'll return for the closing and to get the house set up for rental, and then take off again, not to return until next fall at the earliest. It's nice to have a start on a home base, but we're not going to let it take over just yet.

April 06, 2007

Closing in ...

Guess what we did today?

Tucson house hunt.jpg

The search is narrowing. I don't want to jinx it yet by saying too much, but things are looking very good. It's about time too. Our Airstream needs to drop about 100 lbs of miscellany, and clear up some space. I'm beginning to think we need a house just so we have a place to drop off junk we're not using, while we're in the southwest.

If things go well we will blow town around April 17 or 18, and do some traveling before coming back here for a few short days. The Airstream needs a little exercise. Then, in May we'll head out entirely for northern AZ and the Las Vegas area. We're working on plans to meet some other Airstreamers along the way.

Once again Emma is amazing me with her reading. Today we spent an hour in the car and she finished off a "Level 3" reader of about 60 pages. Didn't hear a peep out of her the entire time. Hmmmm... I like this! So we took her to Bookman's, a local used book chain. Great place! I have a feeling we'll be there a lot while we are in Tucson.

April 05, 2007

Learning to read

Although we have had many adventures over the past year, I have to say that watching Emma learn to read is probably the most exciting thing I've seen in a long time. When she was learning to talk as a baby, I was counting the words she knew: 4, 5, 6, 10, 20, 50 and suddenly her vocabulary exploded beyond counting. Reading has been exactly the same. A few months ago we were working with flash cards on "sight words" and now suddenly she's sitting down and reading entire books all by herself.

Tucson Emma reading.jpg
Emma reads a book to her grandmother over the phone

As a writer and editor, it's gratifying to see her absorbing new words and learning the pleasure of reading. At this point I can see that she is running with it, and now our major task is to assist her and give her opportunities. She'll do the rest.

It's also nice to see how this aspect of home schooling has worked. Despite our busy travel schedule, Emma's education hasn't suffered -- in fact, exactly the opposite. We've been able to share with her the words and ideas of every place we've visited, and she's absorbed them.

I can admit to you now our little secret: the first words she learned to read came from billboards on the highway. I remember the first sign she spontaneously read to us: CRACKER BARREL. At the time we were mortified, but now that she's reading books, we don't have to worry about her vocabulary being limited to STEAK'N'SHAKE, EXIT ONE MILE, and PEDRO SAYS VISIT SOUTH OF THE BORDER.

We are facing a decision point soon. If we don't find a house by mid-April, we will run out of time to close a deal before we need to start moving again. We'll have to postpone the search until next fall. That wouldn't be the end of the world, but it does force us to either get serious about making some offers now if we want to make a deal.

We have decided that the school we've selected for Emma is worth waiting for. Right now she's on a waiting list, and it could be a long time before a slot opens up. Having some presence in the local market (a rental, a seasonal RV spot, or a house) will give us the option to come back anytime we want, when the school is ready. So even if we don't buy, we'll do something to establish a base.

If the waiting list means another year in the Airstream, traveling and homeschooling, we can (easily!) live with that. In fact, running down the list of things we want to do, we've already got tentative plans that could keep us busy well into 2009. There's always something interesting to go see & do in this great big country of ours.

April 04, 2007

Something screwy in campgrounds

Long-time blog readers will recall last summer's debacle when a wheel came off the trailer. The whole episiode started in Grand Teton National Park, when we pulled into our campsite and ran over a 2" drywall screw. This caused a flat that resulted in the tire needing replacement, and subsequent disasters caused by a mechanic over-torquing the wheel.

A few months before that, we got a nail in a tire, either in or near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We were able to patch that one. A month after the Grand Tetons, we ran over a nail in a campground in Gunnison Colorado.

My point is that of all the flats we've gotten, all of them have been from debris we ran over in campgrounds. We've never had a blowout or flat on the road. This is because campgrounds are often full of debris left by previous campers, hidden in the gravel. Many people use utility trailers to haul their toys, like ATVs and motorcycles, and those utility trailers are the same ones they use to haul a load of trash to the local dump. So screws and nails end up falling out in the campgrounds.

Here's what I have found in our campsite this past three weeks (click to enlarge):

Tuson debris.jpg

Obviously the items I'm concerned about are the screws. So far I've found two, including once again a drywall screw. It's just a matter of luck that we haven't hit more of them in our travels. They seem to be in every campground, even the state and national park sites.

Campground owners could reduce this problem by periodically cleaning each site with a magnetic sweeper, but I'm sure most of them don't feel they have the time to do this. Too bad. I don't know that there's much we as campers can do about it, but it does underscore the importance of checking your tires for proper inflation every time you leave a campsite.

Tetons nail.jpg

April 03, 2007

3BR, 2BA, ugly kit., nice vu, hi price

We looked at another couple of houses today. It feels like the search is narrowing, but there's no slam-dunk yet. There are 8,000 properties for sale in the Tucson MLS, and yet it seems like every one we see is holding out for a high price based on the frenzied market peak of 2005.

The latest one is owned by one of the hundreds (thousands?) of California investors who helped drive up prices. Now a lot of them are left holding the bag. This one is typical -- bought by starry-eyed speculators with 5% down, lightly made over, and left vacant for two years. Yet they expect a tidy profit of 50% even in a slow market.

It's frustrating for us as buyers, because many of them won't negotiate. Too many people are watching either "Flip This House" or "Flip That House" on cable, and getting the idea that real estate speculation guarantees a big return. Most of them will be disappointed, as this article explains.

Tucson house view.jpg

The last house we saw today has little charm or curb appeal, a crummy kitchen makeover and a hideous backyard ... but the front has a pretty decent view (above). Mostly we're interested in it because it is close to the school we like for Emma, it has space for the Airstream, and it's in a nice quiet spot up near the mountains. We shall see. We've learned not to get our hearts set on anything, since we've already passed on a few other houses with inflexible owners.

April 02, 2007

Mmmm ... toasty

The people here in Tucson have been making ominous comments about the hot weather that is coming. I'm hearing things like, "Yeah, it's beautiful today. Better enjoy it while it lasts." Heat is coming and people are already recoiling from it like northerners do when winter is coming.

Personally I like it. When its in the 80s and above (as it will be all week here), it's perfect weather for the pool. So we are going every day in the late afternoon, when work is done. With a light breeze it's even better: step out of the water dripping and in no time you're dry, thanks to the low humidity.

Tucson saguaros2.jpg

The best thing about the southwestern climate is that you can change it anytime you want. In the east, weather is mostly a matter of latitude, but here weather is determined by altitude. One terrifically hot day we will drive up into the Santa Catalinas and experience the change of temperature just for fun. They're still getting snow up there, just 25 miles from our campsite.

Tucson Santa Catalinas over RVs.jpg

We continue to wrestle with the reasons to settle down. On one hand, I'd like a view of those mountains every day, and this weekend we also found a school for Emma that we really like a lot. On the other hand, we've got major trips in mind for later this year and as far out as 2009. I think I've said this before, but it bears repeating: full-timing can ruin you for normal life. We may spend the next few years trying to recover.

As the saying goes, "Why be normal?" It may be that we are destined to have a hybrid lifestyle forever. We just have to figure out how it's supposed to work. I suppose this is one of those leaps of faith I talked about a few days ago. We'll take a chance with a residence here in Tucson and figure the rest out as we go along ...

But not right away. We'll be leaving this area in a few weeks and resuming travels. With school schedules looming next fall or winter, it seems like we should take the opportunity to visit as many of the national parks in the Four Corners region as we can. The month of May might be our last good chance for a while. This summer is booked with northeastern stuff, and this fall we have a tentative plan for September & October, if all goes well. I'll update you on that when it firms up.

April 01, 2007

Airstream quality & Capetown to Cairo

I was re-reading some entries from the Vintage Thunder blog we used to do, researching a few things, and found an entry from September 11, 2005. The entry had to do with a comment from a friend who wanted to hear about our experiences with a new trailer. At the time we hadn't yet taken delivery of our new 2005 Airstream Safari and I was as curious as he was about how well it would hold up. Both of us had heard all kinds of horror stories about new trailers not having the "quality" of old ones.

In part, I wrote: "I don't expect a perfect product. I do expect a product that works as advertised. I expect Airstream will stand behind it when there is a real problem. And yes, if we need service along the way, I'll blog it and talk about what we had done. You can decide for yourself if Airstream QC and Service up to snuff, based on our experience."

Well, we've been on the road for 18 months, full-time. We've towed this trailer nearly 40,000 miles, crossing the country five times from coast to coast. Every sort of road condition you can imagine, we've driven (except snow). It's been "rode hard and put away wet", pounded by washboard roads and putholes, and yet not a rivet has loosened.

Yes, there have been problems, but they have been mostly minor: a balky water heater, some loose trim, a couple of latches, a bad kitchen faucet, etc. All were fixed under warranty. The leaky front compartment was probably the worst problem we've encountered; It seems to be a design issue specific to the Safari 30 bunkhouse. Overall, I'm favorably impressed.

This probably means more to people who knew us when we traveled in our 1968 Airstream Caravel and 1977 Argosy 24. We were "vintage snobs" then, and didn't trust new trailers because we'd never owned one. The feeling among vintage owners is often that new trailers "aren't built as well," and "could never survive the kind of trips they did in the old days."

Now that we've had a new one, I can honestly say that the rumor of new trailers not being up to snuff is, at least from our experience, not true. Ours has been well-used from Maine to Mexico, from Glacier to the Keys, and shows every indication of being ready to keep on going steady for many years yet. The method of manufacture and materials have changed over the years, but in the final analysis our new Airstream still has that sturdy all-aluminum riveted construction that just keeps going and going ...

So I'm sitting here the trailer trying to figure out why other makes tend to be ready for "trade in" five or so years after they're made. There was an article in Good Sam's magazine a few months back where a pair of RV experts were repeating the common wisdom that after five years you ought to be looking at trading in your rig because at that point they'll start to fall apart and get uneconomic to maintain.

Maybe that's true for other brands. I don't know, I've never owned one. All I can say is, in five years I expect my Airstream to be just about broken in. Heck, our other Airstream is 39 years old, and I'd take that trailer to Africa tomorrow. It's still rock solid.

Speaking of Africa, I heard from Bert Kalet today. He's organizing the Capetown to Cairo caravan in 2009. Bert told me something rather shocking: the WBCCI leadership has refused to approve the caravan. This means it will have to run as a private caravan, without the support of the Airstream club.

On one hand, this is an opportunity. Now anyone who wants to take an Airstream on the trip can go, without having to join the club. Bert says they already have 52 couples signed up for both the north- and south-bound legs. More are welcome. We are even considering it, although I have no idea how I could possibly break away for four months by 2009.

On the other hand, it's a really sad moment for the club. This was the club that, back in the 1950s under the leadership of Wally Byam, caravanned in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central America, and around the world. Now the club is such a timid shadow of itself that a single African caravan is considered too much, and European caravans don't even take Airstreams (they rent other brands locally). They've lost the spirit of adventure that once made the club great.

If you want to have the adventure of a lifetime in Africa, send a note to me via the Contact form on this website and I'll send you the email addresses of the administrators who are organizing it.