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May 31, 2007

Surprises in Grand Canyon

Our walkabout on Wednesday turned out perfectly. The Grand Canyon is far from being just a “big ditch” as I’ve heard people cynically describe it. It has been a place of surprises and learning for us. Our route has been the Rim Trail, an easy paved walk that offers spectacular canyon views every step of the way. We picked it up where we left off on Tuesday afternoon and moseyed our way westward, stopping often.

Everything along the Rim Trail is worth investigating. The Grand Canyon is one of those older western parks that is developed with man-made overlooks, lodges, and restaurants, so the paved portion of the Rim Trail is not a place for quiet solitude, but it is accessible to just about anyone. Tired? Sit on a bench or catch the next shuttle bus. Hungry? Drop in on one of the many restaurants. Overloaded with scenery? Hit one of the four or five shops. It’s as easy as Disney World.

Fortunately, there’s still a lot of Grand Canyon that isn’t highly developed. And for those who don’t go to national parks for the eating and shopping, the historic architecture along the Rim Trail is fascinating. The Hopi House, El Tovar (lodge), Kolb Studio, and others are examples of the innovative architectural styles explored in the western national parks in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. They reflect a mix of Adirondack style, western style, Fred Harvey, and Victorian style all at once.

Grand Canyon Bright Angel .jpg
Bright Angel Lodge

The Adirondack/Victorian mix, called “Parkitecture”, is particularly well demonstrated by El Tovar. It’s the classic brown wood style that is associated with state and national parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. We’ll have an article on how Parkitecture came about in the Fall 2007 issue of Airstream Life magazine, coming out in August.

Near the Bright Angel Lodge (circa 1880s and still in use today), we began to spot California Condors soaring over the canyon. It turned out that a dead Bighorn Sheep was down in the canyon and the condors, being scavengers, were showing up in big numbers.

Grand Canyon Condor 1.jpg

These massive birds with their nine-foot wingspans are ancient relics. They survived mass extinctions on the planet over two hundred million years ago when thousands of other species died, but today they are a highly endangered species. Lead poisoning, attacks by humans, and collecting of eggs by scientists contributed to their decline.

All of the California Condors alive today are tagged and known because the entire remaining wild population (22 pairs) was taken into captivity in 1987 in a last-ditch attempt to save the species. They did well in captivity and now over 200 are roaming California and Arizona. A lot of them are here at the Grand Canyon right now according to the guy who tracks their radio tags, and the best place to spot them is from the patio at the Artist’s Studio, just west of Bright Angel Lodge.

Grand Canyon bird photogs.jpg

That’s where I ran into half a dozen other photographers, including one fellow who is writing a book on them. He’s snapped photos of all but ten of them. I surveyed the photographers and most were using fast 70-200 Canon zoom lenses, some with multipliers for effective lengths up to 320, and some with image stabilization. I was using my slower 55-200 Nikkor zoom, with no multiplier or image stabilization and finding it difficult to get good shots, but I did manage a few OK ones.

The condors kept us entranced for over an hour, and then we caught a Ranger talk on condors, and then Ranger walk on fossils. Emma loves fossils, and she spotted numerous brachiopods (shells), as well as coral and sponges. Grand Canyon isn’t a major place for fossils but there is a spot right off the Rim Trail to find thousands of them.

Emma’s Junior Ranger book is just about full. She has completed two ranger programs and one campfire program, hiked, spotted all kinds of plants and wildlife (including an elk that wandered by our camp last night), written a haiku, and written her impressions of the park (“I feel amazed and relaxed. The air smells sweet.” Etc.) We’ll drop it by the Visitor Center at some point today to get her badge.

With all of the stops we made, our total hiking distance yesterday day was less than three miles, but it was a very full day and both Emma and I returned with full memory cards in our digital cameras. Today we will do the same, walking the less-developed and unpaved section of the Rim Trail toward Hermit’s Rest, to see how else the Grand Canyon’s rim can surprise us.

May 30, 2007

Grand Canyon National Park

It is amazing to come to a national park after having seen so many incredible national parks, and being blown away once again. That's the amazing thing about America's national parks. They are all worth a visit. We just can't get enough of them.

Grand Canyon tiny people.jpg

Grand Canyon is, as we expected, spectacular and inspiring. I really want to go for a hike down into the canyon to the Colorado River, and camp for a night or two at the bottom, but that's not possible in this short visit. Also, I've been told that you need to make reservations months in advance for the mule-camping trips. We'll get the lay of the land on this three-night stay and plan another long trip for next year.

We've gotten a small taste of the south rim so far, by hiking part of the Rim Trail, riding the shuttle bus around, attending a campfire program, and starting Emma's latest Junior Ranger program. Today our plan is to browse the rest of the Rim Trail, drop in on everything along the way, and attend a Ranger Talk. No rush, just a leisurely walkabout.

The altitude here means a few adaptations. We're at 7000 feet and so it cools off quickly at night. Last night it dropped into the 40s. Also, we all felt a little tired at first, which is a result of the thinner air. Based on our experiences last summer at high altitude in Colorado, we should adjust quickly.

The "Trailer Village" (the only place in the park with hookups for campers) is not particularly attractive, but it is very convenient and has all the amenities (store, full hookups, even cable TV!) We're not spending much time at the Airstream, however. It's easy to hop on the LNG-powered bus and get anywhere in the park in just a few minutes.

Our reputation seems to precede us. Only a few minutes after arriving, one of the park volunteers drove by and said, "You're that Airstream Life guy!" Turns out she knows David Tidmore of Roger Williams Airstream and has followed the blog. Another "small Airstream world" story.

Grand Canyon Mather.jpg

(As with most pictures on the blog, you can click these to see a larger version.)

This blog entry comes to you courtesy of someone in the campground with a satellite connection and an open wi-fi signal. Thank you, "WhitewaterVideo". When we are camped in a remote spot and our Verizon cellular Internet system works, I always leave my wifi open for others to share, and it's nice that someone has returned the favor.

May 29, 2007

Heading into the abyss

We're parked for a quick mid-day errand in Flagstaff AZ, but in about two hours we'll be at the south rim of the Grand Canyon for the next three nights. We may not be able to get online while there, so if the blog doesn't get updated for a day or two, don't think we fell into the Colorado River or something. We'll just be in the cellular abyss.

Truck parking.jpg

This weekend we will be buying a used satellite Internet system for backup. We currently get online using a Verizon card, and it works pretty well near populated areas -- the same places your cell phone works. But it doesn't work in the more remote national parks where cell coverage is missing, or any part of Canada and Mexico. Since we have some thoughts about traveling out of the country later this year, I decided to snag the used system while it was available. We'll activate it later, when we are about cross the border again ... although there may be moments when I am tempted to de-activate it and go into vacation mode.

May 28, 2007

Cliff Castle Casino, Camp Verde, AZ

Casino parking is popular among the RV crowd, almost as popular as Wal-Mart. Out west it seems hard to be more than 50 miles from an Indian casino these days, but we've never taken advantage of the many casinos that are RV friendly. The only other time was at Sam's Town Las Vegas, where they have an RV Park.

Cliff Castle parking.jpg

It's not that we don't like casinos, but mostly we've found better alternatives, such as quiet parks or scenic areas. In this case there were plenty of commercial campgrounds but since we are just parking, Cliff Castle Casino seemed suitable. The parking turned out to be fine and friendly. I sent in a report to Casino Camper so they could update their website about it.

Our Google Earth location.

We knew about this spot from our visit a year ago. You have to drive right past Cliff Castle Casino to get to Montezuma Castle National Monument. I wonder if the Indian frybread stand is still here?

Rich C is staying only about half an hour away from here, so he dropped by with his friend Sadie for a final visit before we head east. Sadie and Eleanor hit it off right away, finding common interests in a theory that (as far as I can tell) involves eating mass quantities of chocolate and red wine to prevent cancer. They even got online for a few minutes to study the molecular structure of some elements found in chocolate.

Cliff Castle E S.jpg

I picked this spot for the overnight stop because it was convenient to our route and the casino has family stuff, including bowling, which Emma loves. There's also a Johnny Rockets restaurant, which is the sort of place we only go as a treat when we are on the road. It helps break up the day of driving and put everyone in the right mood.

Cliff Castle Johnny Rocket.jpg

At only 3000 feet we haven't yet escaped the heat. It was in the low 90s all afternoon. But tomorrow will be a different story. Only about 40 miles up the road is Flagstaff, elevation 7000 -- an entirely different climate zone. Even though daytime highs will be in the low 80s at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the forecast is for near-freezing temperatures at night. We'll have to start carrying sweatshirts in the car again.

May 27, 2007

Close enough to done

Two weeks of nearly straight-out renovation and many thousands of dollars later, we are at a good point to break away. And it is absolutely needed. The relentless joys of renovation are wearing us out.

We could certainly stay here long if we cared to. There have been snags which we could correct, given time. The big one was a shortage of grout. Being a good general contractor, I have been inventorying supplies each night and estimating what we might need the next day. But we did run unexpectedly short of grout, and by the time we saw the problem, it was Sunday of the holiday weekend and there was no hope of getting more. Nobody except the tile store seemed to carry the color we are using, and they were closed.

Oh well. The floor is 95% done. All the slates are laid, and most of the floor is grouted. The rest will have to get done later. We are leaving on schedule, Monday morning. We have reservations at the Grand Canyon which I am NOT going to cancel.

So the "lock-and-leave" house is ready for its first test. The neighbors are alerted, everyone has our contact info, there will be a house watcher coming by, and we've verified all the plumbing and electric. The air conditioning is off, the water heater is on "vacation" setting, smoke detectors are working, and a dozen other details have been taken care of. The house can await our return in a few months. No hurry. We'll be back when the time is right.

May 26, 2007

Concert in the park

With another full day of house work behind us, we were looking for something relaxing to do this evening. Our neighbor Carol must have read our minds, because she popped over late in the afternoon to invite us to join her at the park for a Saturday night concert. For a few weeks in the late spring the Arizona Symphonic Winds provide free open air concerts in Morris K Udall Park, and that seemed the perfect thing to do on a balmy Tucson evening.

Tucson Udall concert.jpg

We stopped off at Nico's for a few of their huge burritos to go. It's hard to go far wrong with Mexican food in Tucson, and Nico's excells at making dinner burritos for short money. With those, a Thermos of ice water, and a few cookies, we had an instant picnic.

Tucson Udall concert 2.jpg

The concert venue is a grassy amphitheater surrounded by trees. With the warm breeze in the evening I could easily imagine us at a summer concert back in New England. Only the mountains and the lack of mosquitoes are different. We munched our burritos from folding chairs and watched the bats circle overhead while the orchestra played.

Tucson Lazlo Veres.jpg
Conductor László Veres

Tomorrow is our last day in Tucson. We've got a long punch list of things to complete on the house, but if we get an early start (before the heat builds) it should all get done. By tomorrow night, the Airstream will be packed and we'll be ready to hitch up and go Monday morning. See you on the road!

May 25, 2007

Two Standard Comments

As the warm weather approaches in Tucson, people all over town are compelled to let me in on a little secret: "It gets hot here."

This past two weeks, we have had only one day where the temperature did not reach 90 (it was only 89 on Tuesday). Since it is only May, some would call that a clue. The local weather forecasters say the average first day of 100 degrees arrives about May 11 on average (which coincidentally is the average last freeze back in Vermont and thus marks a safe date to plant your vegetables).

Hardly a day goes by without someone spotting our green Vermont license plates and making one of the Two Standard Comments:

1) "You're a long way from home."
2) "Ever been here in the summer?"

The latter comment is said with a knowing smile. If we take the bait, the followup is, "It gets hot here." At first we took this seriously, and would attempt to explain that we've been here for a while, and yes, we are aware that it gets hot. But we've come to realize that both of the Two Standard Comments are like pickup lines in a bar; They're just intended to foster conversation.

Sure, a lot of people probably wish we hadn't considered the possibility that it gets really hot in the desert southwest in the summer. Imagine the fun watching our jaws drop as they explain the realities of 110 degree days -- every day -- for weeks on end. We might even drop whatever we're carrying and run screaming to the nearest airport in search of a flight to anywhere other than this scorching land. What fun that would be to watch!

I expect we've disappointed a few people. We have explained a dozen times in the past two weeks that we don't expect to spend any summers here at all. After all, we are Avis Niva, snowbirds (non-retired variety). I've stopped mentioning that, too, because it seems to kill the conversation. I think it's a bit like running away to Florida from New England. You're expected to stay and do penance with the everyone else. Nobody wants to hear about your winter in the sunshine, and here in Tucson nobody wants to hear about the cool green summers of Vermont.

When we are away from our car, we can generally escape the Two Standard Comments and their variations. But I did get zinged by a guy at Lowe's last week. I asked a store employee where I could find thermometers. He immediately began leading me to Aisle 37, and along the way, he said, "So when did you move here?"

"Just bought a house last week," I said. "How did you know?"

He grinned at me. "Nobody here buys thermometers. We don't want to know how hot it is."

But just in case you didn't know, it gets hot here.

May 24, 2007

Fun with plumbing

This morning the lead tile installer told me he expected to complete our job on Saturday. Looking at the floor, I think that's possible, so I booked us the very last site available at the south rim of the Grand Canyon for next week. On Monday at the latest, we will check out of this carport we've got the Airstream parked in, and haul up I-17 to the cool higher altitudes of central Arizona.

It's about time. The house should be ready for an extended absence. All of the neighbors will be watching, some will be parking in our carport while we are gone, and we've also got a house watching service to go in every two weeks to take care of things inside. The roof is now rain-tight for monsoon season, the exterior is painted, and the plumbing and electrical issues have been resolved.

But not before I had my own little "Three Stooges" episode. It started when I decided to replace the flushing mechanism of the toilet. Yesterday Jerry the handyman replaced three water valves in the house that either didn't shut off completely, or which leaked. They all seem to be original 1971 vintage. So today I felt I would complete the task by fixing what I thought was the last item. The toilet sometimes runs endlessly after being flushed, and that's unconscionable here in the desert. Fortunately, it's an easy fix.

For those of you who aren't as handy as I am, here's how I did it. Step 1: Turn off the water to the toilet. Notice that the shut-off valve seems to be a little sticky. Scratch head, then proceed.

Step 2: Empty the toilet tank of water and disconnect the existing flushing mechanism. Note a sudden rush of water on the floor. This is because the shut-off valve, doesn't.

Step 3: Attempt to shut the valve again. When that fails, go look for a pan as water continues to flood the bathroom.

Step 4: Since there are no pans in the house, find a stack of empty 5-gallon paint buckets outside. Try to separate one from the stack. When that fails, call for help.

Step 5: With an assistant, pull apart the buckets. You'll discover that one has an inch of white paint in it, which will be dispersed around the area as the buckets suddenly fly apart.

Step 6: Call for help from wife. Ask her to clean up the paint before it dries while you deal with the impending flood.

Step 7: Realizing that the buckets won't fit under the source of the flowing water in the bathroom, try to shut off water to the entire house. You'll note that the house shutoff works, but when the valve is closed, large quantities of water come spewing out of the shutoff valve.

Step 8: At this point the cell phone will begin to ring. Tell the caller, "I'm having a toilet emergency!" and hang up, leaving him to wonder exactly what you mean.

Step 9: Call handyman. Tell him, "Get over here and replace every !@#$* valve in this house now!"

Step 10: Talk to tiler, who at this point needs several gallons of water to make more mortar, but can't because the water to the house is turned off.

Step 11: Write a check to the handyman.

Step 12: Make a note for tomorrow: "Replace toilet flush mechanism." Rinse and repeat.

Fortunately, as my friend Adam noted, the good part of this episode is that we have now replaced nearly every water valve in the house. It will be nice to start off ownership with known good parts, so we can be sure that when we shut something off, it will stay off. Our goal was to button up the house and we've done that. The rest can get done when we get back from a summer of travel in the Airstream.

May 23, 2007

Escape plan

We are getting closer to escape! Today we had the floor tile team arriving at 6 a.m., the handyman at 9 a.m., the painter at 10 a.m., the gas plumber at 2:30 p.m., and the drywall guys at 4:30 p.m. Three projects completed, two estimates received. An average day lately.

We got lucky again with the painter. He was recommended by our neighbor across the street, and turned out to be a great find. He had a free man today, and after we accepted his price for repainting the trim on the back of the house and the concrete block wall that borders our back yard, we had a painter working on site in less than an hour.

Tucson block wall painting.jpg

The block wall wasn't on our "to do" list but it was quick and relatively inexpensive to get done. The cement-gray wall made our back yard look like a prison yard. We picked a friendly green and in 30 minutes it was done. Later, when we put some cacti and bushes in front of it, it will hopefully be less of an eyesore.

While I was in the back yard digging out buried drainage holes in the block wall, a neighbor came running over to announce that a rather large snake was roaming near our front yard. It turned out to be a Bull Snake, about four feet long and very pretty.

Tucson bull snake.jpg

This snake likes to mimic the Diamondback Rattlesnake. The markings are vaguely like a Diamondback, and he demonstrated his ability to shake his tale to make a rattler-like sound (although he doesn't actually have rattles). When confronted, the snake also hissed quite a bit, and coiled up like a rattler.

The snake wandered over to our neighbor Carol's house and eventually found a nice hiding spot by sliding under her utility room door, which didn't make her too happy. Carol says she's never seen a snake in the neighborhood in many years of living here, so it was just lucky we saw this one. She called the Fire Department and Animal Control to see if they'd remove it. They will do that with venomous snakes, but the Bull Snake is harmless.

Fortunately the housepainter is a fan of reptiles and he captured it easily with a trash-picking tool and a 5-gallon paint bucket. He, another neighbor, and Eleanor relocated it to a more appropriate spot without harm done.

Tucson kitchen tile install.jpg

The tile team made a lot of progress too. The tile is, as we expected, making the existing white walls look like hell. We'll deal with that this fall, by adding some color to the interior walls.

I estimate about 70% of the square footage is already down. But the more time-consuming tile cutting and grouting are still to be done. We are looking good for tile completion by Sunday, which means we can head out on Monday.

That's if we don't collapse first. The workload has been incredible for Eleanor and I, between logistics, problem solving, juggling contractors, and managing our usual duties (the magazine and Emma). We fall into bed at 9 p.m. every night and wake up at 6 a.m. (I never thought we'd do that. Are we that old?)

On Thursday I hope to be free enough from overseeing contractors to develop our "escape plan". It's getting into high season for the national parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah, so there are a few logistical considerations. With an hour or two to consider and browse the park websites, I should be able to work out the plan.

No matter what we do, I think our first few days on the road will be very mellow, because we're going to be in recovery mode. Fortunately, the Airstream is the perfect vehicle for that. Can't wait!

May 22, 2007

General Contractor

Today was the confluence of contractors, and I was in the dead center as the General Contractor. The day started at 7 a.m. with verification of our flooring shipment. At 7:15 the roofers showed up with two large trucks and a dozen men. In 15 minutes they had our roof mostly stripped.

Tucson roof stripped.jpg

While they were working, I went to pick up a 24 foot diesel truck rental. Then I trucked over to the warehouse and watched 5,500 pounds of slate plus a thinset (mortar) and grout get loaded on the truck via forklift.

By the time I got back, the flooring crew had arrived and finished stripping the remains of the old floor. I backed the truck up to our front door and we started unloading. It takes a while to move eight pallets of slate with just a dolly. Meanwhile, the roofing crew covered the Airstream in a tarp to protect it from dripping tar, and the mess really got started.

Tucson AS tarpe.jpg

If you've ever hired a general contractor and wondered what he did to deserve his fee, try standing in his tar-covered shoes for a day. I was running back and forth all day, directing traffic, driving the truck, unloading, answering questions, making snap decisions, authorizing expenditures, quality-checking the slates, and solving problems.

There were minor conflicts between the flooring crew and the roofing crew. There were unexpected tar leakages into the living room. We needed an electrician, and a plumber on short notice. We needed to find a pair of drywall finishers. We had to schedule additional work for later this week and even next week after we will be gone. There were deadlines to return the truck and get the trash to the dump, and at the end of the day a line of people waiting for their checks.

Tucson laundry tile.jpg

But at the end of the day, we managed to solve every problem, clean up the site, get everyone paid, and work up a schedule for the rest of the tasks to be done. It was a success and tomorrow we get to do it all again, with the electrician, plumber, drywallers and flooring team on site, and me on the phone trying to find a painter and gutter company to show up by Friday.

Note to happy full-time RV'ers: You've got it perfect already. DON'T BUY A HOUSE!

May 21, 2007

The Lock and Leave House, Part II

Since we are stuck immobile for another few days, I've been pondering ways to keep the blog relevant to the topic of full-time Airstream travel. While I know watching us renovate a house doesn't seem exciting, it is really part of the travel experience. We need a home base that we can leave behind easily, without maintenance obligations piling up behind us every time we hit the road.

So, our process of making our house "road worthy" is absolutely a part of what we need to do. If we do it right, we'll still have the freedom to travel. The trick is to keep the house low maintenance and affordable. That's why we are making this investment of time and money now.

It hasn't been much fun. In the last week, we had an electrician, a handyman, a tree trimmer, a landscaper, and a chimney sweep come to visit and provide services for the house. This week we'll have a a roofing team, flooring team, a plumber, a pair of drywall finishers, a painter, and gutter service. To get all this to happen, I've spent hours on the telephone and collecting estimates. Then I wonder if they'll show up, or even return my call.

I'm beginning to think that the appeal of being "on the road" is really more about not having the hassle and expense of a house behind you. But why kid ourselves? Owning a house is a substantial complication and we knew that going in. The interesting part will be discovering whether we can get the house to fade into the background and no longer occupy such a large slice of our energy and time.

It's hard to be optimistic about that after the week we've had, but in a few days or a week, things will look better. In any case, the countdown to departure is looking better. If everyone performs as promised we can leave as early as Saturday. That means we'll have time to go visit some national parks in northern Arizona or Utah.

I mentioned this to the roofer today. I said, "We live here now -- we can always go see the Grand Canyon later." He coughed and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "Bull---!" (Have to admit, I was surprised at his audacity, considering he was there to give me a quote. All the other contractors tried to agree with everything I said.)

But he was right. When you live somewhere, it's easy to overlook the great things to do right in your backyard. There are many people here who have never been to the Grand Canyon despite having lived here for decades. It's always a place to go "someday". That's a trap we could fall into as well. I'll have to watch for that. So if we can possibly swing it, we will lock the door and leave early, and get back to the business of seeing America one day at a time.

May 20, 2007

Demolition day II

Take a couple of prybars, hammers, a ladder, and a few heavy-duty plastic bags ... add one room decked out in the height of 1971 dark wood paneling ... and have fun.

Tucson br before demo.jpg
Before the fun family day...

We always knew that this room would take some extra effort. It has fantastic potential but basically all the cosmetics are wrong: bad windows, peeling fake-parquet vinyl floor, outdated paneling, and a distinctly dusty odor. When we're done it should be the nicest room in the house.

Last Thursday the laborers stripped the floor, and today we got in there to pull the paneling. Eleanor and I did the heavy work, while Emma collected the nails from the floor and assisted with sweeping.

Behind the paneling there was drywall, and behind the drywall there were furring strips nailed to burnt adobe block ... and about a pound of fossilized mouse droppings and other fun things.

Tucson mystery eggs.jpg
Mystery eggs?

I was surprised to find a clutch of what appeared to be eggshells. They were very thin, white, round, and delicate. Each one was broken open, and there were no other clues indicating what they might have hatched. Any ideas?

Tucson demolition.jpg
... and almost done!

We're very pleased with the change in this room. It is lighter, warmer, and more authentic. Already it is showing its potential. Once the floor is in, we'll shoot a comprehensive photo essay of the entire house and figure out what else it needs.

We'll have a lot of things to consider this summer while we are away. I just wonder if it will continue to command our attention, or if our ardor for the house project will wane when we get a few hundred miles away.

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Dinnertime view of the Santa Catalinas from the patio

May 19, 2007

600 entries

This is my 600th blog entry. Since October 2005 I've been reporting nearly daily from the road as we've crossed the country five times from coast to coast. In June, it will be two years since we sold our house and moved into a rolling home. And now I can see the end coming.

When we started this trip, it was with the plan that we'd be on the road for just six months, and then return to home base to build a new home. But something happened along the way. After just two or three months, we began to sense the approaching end of the trip, and it didn't feel like enough. The travel experience, the lightness of being mobile, the educational opportunities and all the other things I've written about in the past 600 blog entries became our lifestyle and we didn't want to give it up so quickly.

I've often warned other people who are considering long RV trips about this. There's never enough time. The world -- even the bit of it accessible to motorized vehicles on the North American continent -- is too big. There are too many interesting people and places, too many amazing experiences, to even scratch the surface of it in a few months. We know full-time RV'ers who have been on the road for fifteen years and they still crave more. So no matter how much time you plan to spend, it may not be enough.

But we now own a house. Things are changing. Emma is going to start a regular school soon, and when that happens we will no longer be free to roam. This summer we have a few short months and then ...

So I am looking at the next three months like the first three months. We have a small window in which to do so much, and hard choices have to be made. Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon? Wind Cave or Mt Rushmore? Maine or Nova Scotia? Each decision feels more momentous because, like most other people, we now have very limited time.

We started this trip somewhat naive, looking only a few months down the road, and having only a foggy idea of where the road would lead. Six hundred memos from the road later, our crystal ball is no more clear than it was, but we do have a rich experience behind us and a feeling of confidence about the future.

So we don't regret a moment of this, not by any measure, especially not dollars. If anything, we've learned that time is far more valuable than money. Anyone can make money, but nobody can make time. Use what you've got as best you can. That's our plan for the last few months of our full-time travel experience.

May 18, 2007

Reality TV makeover

Well, first the bad news. I've had a couple of requests from people to get on with traveling again as soon as possible. With various contractor issues, it looks like we'll be house-bound for another week. I wish I could "take requests" like a disc jockey, but this is real life, not a TV show, so all I can say is "stay tuned". If we get all the house work done on schedule, we'll still have time to visit the Grand Canyon before we head to Lake Mead and Las Vegas.

Tucson house floor strip.jpg

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ... we got awoken again by contractors, this time the flooring crew. Today was demolition day (part I). They scraped up all the peeling vinyl flooring and the stained blue carpet, and now our house looks even more like a disaster than ever before. Only the kitchen cabinets and bathrooms remain, and those are coming out on Tuesday. Our "light cosmetic update" has turned into a full-blown makeover. Perhaps our life is a TV show after all, because right now it looks like one of those house makeover programs on cable.

Tucson linoleum.jpg
A scrap of the original 1971 linoleum, found beneath the carpeting.

Despite total havoc inside the house, I am somehow managing to get some work done each day, and we even had our first dinner guest this evening. Our neighbor Carol, an adventuresome soul, popped by and accepted a spontaneous invitation to dinner. Since we have no furniture and the house is virtually gutted, we built a table from sawhorses and a spare door, brought out our folding chairs, and grilled up dinner on the back patio, which included s'mores for dessert. Life is good, even though we are temporarily stationary.

Tucson house smores.jpg

May 17, 2007

Airstream karma

Our new neighbor Tom appeared at the door today. He'd been talking with the former owner of our home, who had driven by and spotted our Airstream in the driveway.

Tucson AS parking 1.jpg

The former owner was excited to see the Airstream, because she and her husband had also owned one and parked it in this very carport. In fact, they came down from Chicago in 1971 in the Airstream, to relocate into their new home. They informed the builder that they'd have the Airstream in the driveway and he arranged for them to have custom enhancements: an extra-tall carport, and an extra water and sewer inlet in the carport.

Is it coincidence that we happened to find and buy this particular house? After all, we saw dozens of houses and few were Airstream-friendly, and none had hookups under covered parking. And this one was built specifically to house an Airstream! I think it's Airstream karma ...

Tucson AS Jerry.jpg

So today we brought Jerry the handyman back to adjust the carport. The last ten feet were blocked off by a wall, forming a storage area. We asked Jerry to remove half of this space so the full length of the garage would be available for parking the Airstream. Three hours later, the deed was done, and our rolling home had a home of its own.

Tucson AS parking 2.jpg

Today we faced the stained concrete experiment and decided it wasn't what we were looking for. I'm not against stained concrete, because it can be beautiful, but in this case we are going in a different direction. I'll tell you about that in a few days.

We also had a landscaper come by for an estimate on some backyard plans. The bad news was the existing lawn. Even though it is dead on top, and we've deliberately neglected it, we've been told the grass will spring back to life when it gets some water during monsoon season. We need it dead dead dead down to the roots, so it won't come back later and ruin our xeriscaping.

The proposal is to fertilize and water the grass until it greens up a little, then spray it with Roundup (which travels to the roots and kills it), then very expensively remove the top few inches and truck it away. No kidding. All this is estimated to cost $2,200. So needless to say, we're looking for alternatives. It seems ridiculous to pay such money to get rid of grass, especially in the desert where the darned stuff shouldn't be growing anyway.

And keeping in the spirit of demolition and destructions, tomorrow morning a crew is going to show up and remove all the flooring in the house, plus all the kitchen cabinets and one of the two bathrooms. It should be total havoc, exciting and terrifying all at once. This is the ugly phase of renovation, but soon enough we'll turn the corner to making things nicer.

May 16, 2007

A haircut for the palm and other adventures in suburbia

This time of year, in southern Arizona, early rising isn't just a virtue, it's an imperative if you want to get work done outside. So Jesus, the palm tree trimmer, showed up at 6:15 to get started on the single palm tree we own.

It's strange that a week ago we didn't own much of anything, and now we can claim a palm tree and a house to go with it. Stranger still, I hardly even know this palm tree and here I am paying someone to give it a haircut. It now sports a sort of palm tree fade, short on the sides and shaggy on the top.

Tucson palm trim.jpg

In Anza Borrego the fan palms have never been trimmed and they look very nice in their shagginess. But our tree has been trimmed in the past and so we decided to stick with the clean-shaved look that is more common to suburban areas. Besides, falling palm fronds are heavy, even dangerous sometimes. I don't know enough about palms to be sure if ours will fall or hang on.

The first phase of the concrete floor test has been completed. Toby finished the floor today, but we had a snag. A last-minute addition of turquoise stain didn't fully dry, and when he put the sealant on it created undesirable whitish rings. You can see a big one at upper left. That will have to be sanded out and repaired later. Still, we have enough of a sample to base further decisions on.

Tucson concrete floor.jpg

This photo does not do the floor justice. It looks better than this, but I had a tough time capturing it without glare. The colors are rich and varied, but in the photo it looks muddy.

Eleanor loves it. Personally, my take is that the floor is too dark. That's an easy change. I'd also like to keep the deep brown and reds to minimal streaks rather than large patches. We both like the turqoise patches (lower left) and the little variations in pattern and texture that you may not be able to see in the photo.

The area by the door wasn't sealed, so you can see how the color pops out in the final stage of the process. Until then, it's very hard to visualize how the product will appear. Now that we can see it, we will take some time to consider it, before we commit to the rest of the house.

At this point, however, we are exhausted by home ownership already. Too much, too fast. We'll all be glad when this renovation phase is over, and we can just treat the house as a place to live rather than as a project. It governs our days, our schedule, and our dreams at night. Just a few more contractors and repairs and we'll be free again ...

Tucson clouds palms.jpg

This afternoon we got a tiny taste of the upcoming monsoon season. A back-door front swept down through New Mexico and our temperature dropped (to 85 degrees), the humidity spiked, and thunderstorms rumbled past. By Florida standards it was still a low-humidity day and hardly enough rain to mention, but here it was a real event. We had to run out of the house and get soaked by the fat raindrops, and take pictures of the clouds. How much our perspective has changed since we came to the desert ...

May 15, 2007

Stained concrete

One of the changes we are going to make to the house is to remove all the existing flooring and replace with stained concrete. This is for several reasons. The vinyl flooring is peeling and unattractive, and the carpets are full of dust, which causes allergy problems for Eleanor.

Stained concrete is an economical way to go, but we've never had it before and so we are proceeding with caution. The guy we have chosen to do the job is starting with just the laundry room. If we don't like it, it will be easy to cover up again, and if we do like it he'll do the rest of the house when we return this fall.

Tucson concrete 1.jpg
Stripping the vinyl off.

Since our floors were previously covered with glue for the vinyl, they need some prep before they can be stained. Toby has covered the concrete with a thin skim of an acrylic concrete compound to give a fresh surface. This took a few passes and overnight to dry.

Tucson concrete 2.jpg
Applying a fresh surface.

The next step is to apply stain. This is the artful part. After a couple of conferences, we decided on a mixture of a tea-colored stain with an orange stain, with touches of turquoise, red, and tiny veins of eggplant. I know, it sounds like a bad salad, but we think it will come out nice. We won't really know until the clear sealant is on, because that's when the color pops out.

If everything goes well, Toby will have the floor done on Wednesday and I'll have pictures to post. In the meantime, a parade of tradesmen continues through the house. Today, we had the chimney sweep install a spark arrestor and barrier against animals. The palm tree trimmer came by to give an estimate, and I talked to two landscapers, who will be coming by this week to offer estimates on our disastrous back yard.

Another bit of neighborhood color emerged today. Apparently the "famous mobster" I mentioned in yesterday's blog was Joseph Bonanno, a.k.a. "Joey Bananas". He's one of the few old-time Mafia guys who managed to live to old age and not spend a long time behind bars. His career was the stuff of legend, starting with his rise to power as a boss at the age of just 27 years.

He died in Tucson in 2002 at the age of 97, having survived three assassination attempts while he lived here. Since he owned several houses in the city I doubt he lived in this neighborhood toward the end. He probably bought in during the neighborhood's heydey in the 1960s and 70s. Still, it's a great little bit of notoriety to think about during our evening walks. I'm sure someone here knows which house he owned.

May 14, 2007

1970s houses

I will admit a dirty little secret: I like 1960s and 70s ranch houses. Not all of them, but those few that have a certain style. I like those with low sloping rooflines and big glass windows, simple construction, funky lights and sliding doors, exposed brick fireplaces and single-level floorplans.

That's what we bought. Ours is not the height of 1970s style but it's pretty reasonable. If it had a vaulted living room with shallow angle ceiling and a few more deep overhangs I'd like it even better. To me, these houses, with their little backyards, are just begging for a charcoal grill and a few neighbors to come over in the evening.

As with all small peculiarities and kinks, I'm not alone. So many people are interested in the funky potential of these ranches that a niche quarterly has sprung up (much like Airstream Life magazine), called "Atomic Ranch." People are finding ranches made in the high style and fixing them up to a level of class that they never had originally.

One nice thing about the ranches is that they are dead simple in their construction. Ours is an example, with slab-on-grade foundation and no attic. Of course, the downsides of the era are numerous: very little insulation, single-pane windows that are difficult to duplicate, cheezy sliding doors, often small bathrooms, and perhaps aluminum wiring.

Our house was built in 1971, in a neighborhood that was once on the outskirts of Tucson and regarded as the cutting-edge in subdivisions at the time. The builder insisted on all the first-class amenities, such as underground utilities, service alleys, a divided boulevard leading in, palm trees everywhere, carports & garages, paved streets, and houses built only of brick, adobe block, stucco, or redwood.

A neighbor popped over today to introduce himself and tell us a little about the area. Reputedly, an heiress to the Zenith fortune lived in the neighborhood. A famous mobster lived here. Peter Fonda used to visit somebody here, and there's a story about him riding a motorcycle on the roof. True? I can't tell but it's great to have some history to bring the place to life for us.

I like 1970s Airstreams too. Our 1977 Argosy was a really wonderful trailer to renovate and own. Perhaps it's my bias as a child of the 1970s, but I see a lot of good in that era that is overlooked. People tend to focus on the green shag rugs and disco as reasons to dismiss the 70s. As a result, vintage objects from the 70s are plentiful and cheap. That includes Airstreams and Argosies, as well as houses. It's an era where you can get a lot of value for your dollar if you shop carefully.

Tucson fruit grill.jpg

Tonight Eleanor insisted on grilling things that nature did not intend to be grilled. Chicken, OK. Asparagus, onions and potatoes, sure. But strawberries, bananas, grapefruit and pineapple? Well, the pineapple and grapefruit came out OK, but bananas and strawberries don't appreciate being grilled. Still, with a dressing, it made for a very interesting salad. We ate it all sitting in the back yard and watching the sunset, while Tucson cooled down into the mid-80s at 8 o'clock.

Tucson sunset palms.jpg

May 13, 2007

Brothers under the skin

A fellow Airstreamer, James, sent me this picture today. It's a 1989 sales brochure for Airstream, showing some of their more radical creations: the Airstream fifth-wheel and the aluminum/fiberglass "squarestream" Land Yacht trailer.


Neither of those inventions worked out for long. The fifth wheel was nicely appointed inside but flopped as a product for Airstream and was gone in about two years. The "squarestreams" lasted a little longer but were the subject of ridicule by traditional aluminum trailer owners.

But they persisted as odd little pieces of Airstream history, and many are still on the road today. Although they don't fit the image of Airstream as perceived by many people, they are legitimate products produced by the company and thus relatives of all other Airstreams ever made. With time, people have come to see them as funky vintage units, even desirable.

I am reminded of a line uttered by the bad guy in one of the Indiana Jones movies: "See this watch? Worthless ... but bury it in the sand for a thousand years, and it becomes priceless. Men will kill for it ..." It is sort of like that with old trailers. After a few decades, the most common products will become vintage, fascinating, retro, nostalgic -- and valuable.

The catch is simple: they have to survive long enough. This is where Airstreams have had a huge advantage. The riveted aluminum shells tended to hang in there longer than other styles of manufacture, and Airstream had the advantage of volume as well. So many were made over the decades that inevitably quite a few survived despite leaks, hailstorms, accidents, and neglect.

Tucson squarestream.jpg
James' Land Yacht "squarestream" in Tucson

There are purists, I suppose, who still resent the squarestreams as red-headed stepchildren that never should have been conceived. But with time, most hard feelings have mellowed and people now tend to view them as fascinating peeks into the RV market of the times. It's hard even for the purists to be threatened by the odd products of Airstream's convoluted past, since they are no longer produced and their numbers continue to dwindle over time.

My take is simply that "It's all good." While the product may vary with time, as long as Airstream preserves the essence of what makes an Airstream an icon, I'll happily embrace the products they make as kin to my own. The new Base Camp is a great example. It's new, experimental, radically different, and yet speaks to the same adventuresome spirit as all the other products.

To me, that's the tie that binds all Airstream owners together. The nameplate is a convenience, but the real bond is a shared love of travel and adventure. It is what marketers call a "psychographic," a common set of interests that defies age, race, religion, politics, or any other characteristic. The "squarestream" trailers aren't historical embarassments, but rather symbols of a lifestyle interest that can't be defined by boundaries of style, shape, or price.

May 12, 2007

30 amp blessings

We have air conditioning in the Airstream at last. The electrician arrived with a helper mid-day and managed to get the 30 amp RV port plug installed by 3 pm, along with half a dozen other electrical projects. We now have GFCI outlets in the right places, four more lights that actually produce light, and some electrical mysteries have been cleared up.

Tucson electrician.jpg

But the big thing is the air conditioning. Today was forecast to reach 103, but it got hotter in places. Eleanor reported that the bank time/temperature sign was reading 113 but the truck's digital thermometer only said 106. In any case it was hot enough that the Airstream would have been marginally inhabitable this evening, so it was good to plug into the new 30 amp outlet and start cooling it down.

By evening the Airstream's interior was back into the upper 70, thanks to the miracle of air conditioning. And now we have a nearly full hookup in our carport -- water, 30 amp electric, and gray water drain -- which means the Airstream will be completely usable as a guest house when we return.

We also interviewed a concrete stain artist today, who we are hiring to re-do the floors. There isn't time to strip the existing vinyl and carpet flooring, prep the surface, stain, and seal, for the entire house before we need to leave. But there will be time to do a single room, so next week the laundry room will become our test case. Stained concrete floors (photos) are becoming popular everywhere, and particularly here where they fit in the southwest motif and feel cool in the summer.

But it can't be all house business while we are here. We don't want to hit the road feeling burned out and thinking of the house only as a burden to return to. So last night I bought a propane grill and tonight we relaxed like true suburbanites on the back patio, watching the sunset turn the clouds pink over swaying palm trees and the rugged faces of the Catalinas.

Dinner on the patio felt a little peculiar after all our time camping, but I'm sure we'll quickly get used to it.
Although just a few days ago it felt like penance to be locked down to a house for two weeks, now our time here is starting to seem very short.

May 11, 2007

The Airstream refuge

We are settling in to homeownership, in our own peculiar way. Our lifestyle this week is the result of conflicting forces, to wit:

a) we do not wish to buy anything in the house that will take up floor space, since the first challenge of the house will be to rip up all the existing floor coverings and install new floors that are more friendly to allergy sufferers.

b) the outside temperature for the next several days will be 100 degrees +, and it's not cooling off much at night.

c) we won't have a 30-amp outlet to run the air conditioning in the Airstream until at least Saturday afternoon.

d) we'll be leaving Tucson in about 10-12 days, thus discouraging us from getting into any major projects at this time.

This limits our options. During the day we occupy the house because it has central air conditioning. We've been fixing small things and making lists of many more things. Each day we have numerous phone calls to make to tradesmen, and each day a couple arrive to review the state of things and write up estimates. We are making a lot of tradesmen happy.

Scheduling appointments could be a full-time job but I already have one, so in between calls and estimates I use the kitchen as World Headquarters of Airstream Life magazine. I stand in front of the computer sitting on the kitchen counter, because there are no chairs. On the bright side, I suppose it may be healthier than sitting in a chair all day.

At night, we re-occupy the Airstream, with all the fans running and windows wide, waiting on cool night air to slip in after midnight. But we are happy to do it anyway. It's still home. I was thinking last night that it would be the only night of heat, but then the electrician arrived today and told me he'd be back on Saturday to do the actual work. So it was another day of heat in the trailer and once it reached 101 inside we tended to avoid it.

There's lots to do but we can only do a few things at the moment. Today we tackled lights. Nearly every light fixture inside or outside the house had an issue: no bulb, dead bulbs, loose wires, or too-large bulb. One bathroom fixture had a 240-watt bulb where there should have been no more than a 75-watt bulb. That left a nice scorch mark. We replaced all of the interior bulbs with the CFLs I bought earlier, and now we have functioning lights, a minor accomplishment but one that feels good.

Tucson house back br.jpg

We also done some exploratory surgery. The ugliest room in the house is the one Eleanor and I would like as our bedroom. It has great light, a beautiful view, and sliders to the back yard. Unfortunately, it is also encumbered by dark 70's wall paneling in decaying condition, the single-pane window glass appears permanently fogged, there's an annoyingly humming ceiling fan, very little closet space, and in the morning the eastern sun comes glaring in at 6 a.m. and heats up the room.

Ripping up a piece of wall was a way for us to get a hint of what lies beneath, but it was a dusty, sweaty, dismaying experience. And after that we went to the hardware stores with our long lists and spent a few hundred dollars on stuff.

So you can see why, at the end of a day, we are not particularly bothered to leave the cool house for the hot Airstream. In our Airstream, we can turn our back on the house projects and camp in the driveway for a few hours. It's a vacation from the obligations of life, and oddly enough for a mobile thing, a stable anchor in which we can recharge for the next day.

May 10, 2007

Home again

In nearly 100-degree heat, we carefully backed the Airstream up to the carport, and with that we were finally "moved in" to our first non-mobile home in two years.

The Airstream is now resting comfortably in its partially-shaded space -- a luxury for a trailer that has been exposed to full Arizona sun these past weeks. Once we've removed a false wall in the rear of the carport, all 30 feet of aluminum tube should be under cover.

Tucson Airstream in carport.jpg

It has been a successful day. Our real estate agent came by with the keys not long after the Airstream was parked. We met a neighbor and she turned out to be a lovely lady who likes birding and hiking. We hit it off immediately. A few minutes later I met the mail carrier as she was doing her route, and so was able to introduce us and ensure we'd start getting mail. (Our mail box had a blue tag inside it saying "VACANT" which led me to believe we'd been blacklisted.)

The house-watching guy showed up on time and turned out to be very reasonable and personable. We made arrangements for him to watch the house while we are gone for the summer. The UPS man showed up with a package around then, too. It was as if we'd been living in the house for years.

For the next couple of weeks we will continue to live in the Airstream, while we get various things done inside the house. We have no furniture, no refrigerator, and only enough dishes and sundries to stock the Airstream. This sort of situation forces us to reconsider the definition of "home". Home, today, is still the Airstream. But tonight a couple of pizzas baked in the house oven, eaten standing up in the kitchen, were enough of a celebration to make us feel like we'd really done something. We bought a house and it looks like it will be a good spot for us to land between trips.

May 09, 2007

The "lock and leave" house

Our adjustment from Airstream ownership to a hybrid Airstream-home ownership seems well under way. By "under way", I mean we are already spending money on care and feeding of the house we bought this week. We're also beginning a two-week period of intense effort to set the house up so we can begin to ignore it and get back to the primary business of traveling in the Airstream.

That probably sounds cynical, but as I've mentioned in the blog before, we're not ready to give up the traveling lifestyle entirely. The house is a strategy to provide a measure of stability during the school season. During the travel season, it needs to be "lock and leave", as our fellow Airstream traveler Doug says. That means we can walk away at a moment's notice without worrying that things will be OK.

Although we don't intend to spend this summer in the house, and it is utterly devoid of furniture or personal possessions of any type, we still need to secure it while we will be gone. Here in Tucson, because there are so many snowbirds, there are a lot of services specifically designed for us. Thus it was easy to find a company that, for $35 per month, will come by and check on things, water the lemon tree, pick up the unsolicited flyers, etc.

In Arizona, there's not a lot that needs to be done for a "summerized" house. Obviously there's no chance of pipes freezing, but the monsoon season does mean some intense thunderstorms will come through, and so it is good to have someone checking for leaks and wind damage. Dust is also a form of precipitation here, so to make the house look lived-in the service will periodically sweep the walks.

In Florida, a friend came back to their winter home and found mildewed underwear in their dressers. They had made the fatal mistake (in Florida) of turning off the air conditioning while they were gone. Here there's actually a chance of things being damaged due to excessive dryness. Some people recommend filling the tub and kitchen sink with water, to humidify the air. This is particularly important if you have antique wood furniture. The house-checking service also runs the taps a little on every visit, just to make sure the P-traps are not dried out (otherwise dangerous sewer gas could enter the house).

The goal of the next two weeks will be to make the house truly turn-key, so we can leave it behind without care. We bought the house with low maintenance in mind, so not much needs to be done. We have no lawn, few plantings that aren't native to the desert, no pets, and a maintenance-free exterior. But still a half-dozen trips to the hardware store are probably going to be required. I keep telling myself that this is an investment in the future, but I can't shake the feeling of being a successful jailbreaker who is now voluntarily walking back inside the stone walls.

Tucson smooch.jpg

Today's photo is courtesy of Emma. Last night we went out for a walk around sunset and Emma posed us for the photo above. It's one of a rare few pictures we have of Eleanor and I together, so it will be treasured even though it's corny. Emma is getting handy with the camera but also a tyrant to pose for. "Closer! Turn toward me! Hold hands! Now kiss! Close your eyes!" Ah, the suffering we must go through for her art.

May 08, 2007

Passing papers, passing time

Owning your own home is the American Dream. Going to the real estate closing is a pivotal moment in the process. Once you've signed all the papers, the house is yours, for good or for ill. And that's what we did today. We passed around sheets of paper until everything was signed and sealed. We'll get keys on Thursday when the deed is recorded.

Yet we have strangely ambivalent feelings about home ownership this time. Our perspective has changed so much. It has been two years (OK, one year and eleven months to be precise) since we sold our last house. In that time, we've been officially "homeless", roaming the country in our Airstream and it has become our primary residence.

With that experience, the fixed-location home feels like a second home ... a vacation place where we might live between extended trips in the Airstream. We're still trying to get our heads around the concept that this brick-and-mortar place is what we are supposed to call "home".

It's very much like going virtual with a business, or paying bills online, or switching from film to digital. Once you get used to the lack of physicality (no office, no paper, no negatives), you quickly get hooked on the advantages and before long you can't look back.

It is exactly like that with our house. Buying a brick-and-mortar house is like going back to paying bills with the checkbook. What's all this paper in my mailbox? I need envelopes? Stamps? How archaic!

Right now we are inclined to not take the house seriously. We bought it so we'd have a home base and Emma would have a place to go to school. But the Airstream still feels like the place we want to be. It's still our magic carpet. School schedules are going to seriously impinge on our travel -- we aren't kidding ourselves -- but the life of travel still calls.

I wonder how long that can last. Can we combine the lightweight, low-overhead existence we've enjoyed these past two years, with the obligations of home ownership? We're winning a few battles but they are small: the house won't have a phone installed, nor cable. When we are there we'll continue to use our cell phones.

But already the house has won a round too. We're stuck here for a couple of weeks while we arrange various services the house needs: roof replacement, electrical upgrades, minor plumbing fixes, etc. We'd rather be on the road exploring some corner of Arizona, but instead the house demands we stay close and give it our attention.

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You'll notice the little ad for Airstream Life magazine above. I've been writing daily entries in this blog for eighteen months, and at this point we have over 600 entries and thousands of photos online. Unfortunately, the web hosting expenses have skyrocketed because of all the traffic we get now. I don't like the idea of putting out a "Donate" button on the blog because I would feel awkward cadging money from my friends who read it regularly.

So instead, once in a while you'll see an ad promoting Airstream Life magazine -- my day job. If you subscribe, thank you!, and if you don't you might give it a try even if you don't own an Airstream. At $16 bucks a year it's very affordable and a lot of fun to read. Click on the image above if you want to learn more.

May 07, 2007

Farewell Catalina, hello Tucson

With house obligations looming, we've moved out of Catalina and back into Tucson for a few days. Our spot in Tucson doesn't have the natural beauty of Catalina State Park but it does have a convenient location for the things we need to do.

Catalina campsite.jpg
Our campsite at Catalina State Park

Since today was a very full work day, I have no adventures to report. But I do have a few photos left over from our hike on Sunday to share. As I mentioned, the desert is still blooming and the temperatures are still mild for this time of year. All the tourists and snowbirds seem to have departed the area, so we're getting the benefit of off-season prices at campgrounds, our pick of campsites, and lots of privacy on the trails.

Catalina cholla flower.jpg

The purple flowers on this cholla cactus were so vivid I couldn't believe they were real at first.

Catalina saguaro.jpg

Everywhere you look around here there's a view of the Santa Catalinas, or the Tucson Mountains, or the Rincon Mountains, or the Tortollitas. They're all fantastic to look at, and they're all a little different. I can't seem to get tired of seeing them. Look at the view above ... is it any wonder we love this place?

Interestingly, the media are finally getting a hold of the fact that it has been a buyer's market for houses in Tucson for several months. But the best buying opportunities have already disappeared, as the good properties with motivated sellers have been snapped up. A lot of the 10,000 properties on the market at the moment are overpriced or less-desirable. (I know, we've seen dozens of them.) Good houses priced fairly are selling fast.

In a year or so they'll be talking about how this was the time to buy. But the popular media are always behind the curve on this sort of thing, because they rely on historical data and public statements by self-interested parties. I'm satisfied that we bought at the right time and at the right price, but of course only time will tell.

May 06, 2007

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley, AZ

The neat thing about Catalina State Park is that it feels completely remote, with amazing views and wonderful hikes, yet is directly adjacent to all the services of Oro Valley and Tucson. Convenient, yet peaceful.

Catalina view.jpg

The real reason we are here has nothing to do with the hiking, however. Once we complete the purchase of our house, Catalina is a park we'll probably never camp in. It's too close to home. So camping here a couple of days before we pass papers for the house is sort of a last-chance opportunity.

Our Google Earth location.

Another last-chance opportunity is hiking in mild weather. This time of year it's not unusual for the weather to be in the 90s and to start breaking into the low 100s. But right now we're having a few cool days, topping out around 78 or 80 degrees, so it's perfect for hiking. By the end of this week, we'll be more inclined to head for the swimming pool.

Catalina hike.jpg

Our hike today was about three miles. We concentrated on butterflies, since they were out in abundance today. It's tough to capture a butterfly in flight, but I got a few blurry shots, enough for Emma to identify a Pipevine Swallowtail, and a Sleepy Orange. A few others escaped without identification, like masked robbers at a 7-11. We'll catch them next time!

Catalina corsage.jpg

The other marvelous thing about the desert this time of year is that the blooms just keep coming. I am amazed at the diversity and intensity of the colors. There are several types of prickly pear cactus that grow here, and their flowers range from peach to rose to bright yellow.

Sometimes you can find all three colors on a single cactus. They are lovely enough in their form and color to be a prom corsage. I wonder if anyone has actually tried that? The spines can be easily trimmed off, much like the thorns of a rose.

A small announcement. Trailer for sale. I have decided to sell the 1953 Airstream Flying Cloud I found last fall in Virginia. I was hoping to take it on as a project later this year but it doesn't look like that will happen, so it's for sale. You can see photos of it as found in our Flickr photo album.

Since the photos were taken, the trailer has been moved to GSM Vehicles in Plattsburgh NY (Google Earth location), cleaned up a bit, and otherwise left alone. It's a very interesting trailer with all original appliances and a great layout for one or two people. But it does need a good restoration. As-is, where-is, $3500 or best offer. Colin Hyde at GSM will be happy to restore it for you, too. Interested? Contact me.

May 05, 2007

Globe, AZ

At the Tucson Gem Shows, Eleanor and Emma have always loved the turquoise displays. A lot of the local turquoise comes from the Sleeping Beauty Mine, in Globe, which happened to be right along our path today.

The mine operates a wholesale ore shipping business in a building near the historic center of Globe. Although they don't actually make anything from their own turquoise, they do re-sell jewelry and other items made by artists from Sleeping Beauty Turquoise, and that brought us in for a look.

If you go, you can park your trailer or motorhome in the big lot next door and walk over. But hang on to your wallet because the shop is loaded with great art & jewelry made from turquoise, sandstone, wood, and clay. Prices run from $25 to $7,000.

Globe turquoise.jpg

Eleanor was kind to our budget and chose only a pair of earrings. Emma got a few small bits of turquoise and peridot for her collection. I browsed the local newspaper and ended up with a 2-for-1 coupon for buffet lunch at the local casino ... which we hit later.

Oro Valley hawk.jpg
Hawk and Airstream: click for larger.

Our trip ended at Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, a community just northeast of Tucson. It's very pretty here. Grassy level ground and mesquite trees, with an incredible backdrop of the west side of the Santa Catalinas. I went out to get a photos and a Coopers Hawk swooped by at low altitude right past the trailer. I had the Nikon in my hand, ready to shoot, so I managed to capture two shots of it in flight. You can see one of those photos above. Look to the lower left of the photo, by the bumper, and you'll see the bird.

May 04, 2007

Tonto National Monument

We learned a few things today, as we seem to do every day when we are adventuring. This lake we are camped beside is the result of a massive dam-building project from the early 1900s. When it was completed in 1911, the Roosevelt Dam was the largest masonry dam in the world and it caused the largest man-made reservoir to be formed behind it. Teddy Roosevelt himself came down here for the opening ceremonies and to hand out awards to the workers.

The level of the lake fluctuates quite a bit, like other man-made desert lakes. I mentioned to our real estate agent that we were here and he asked, “Is there any water in it?” Yes, we seem to be here at a high point. The lake is about 20 feet down from the apparent high-water mark, but still very full relative to other years.

People occasionally zip by on jet skis or fishing boats. There’s plenty of room, since the lake continues north-south for many miles. About four miles from our campsite is a visitor center for Lake Roosevelt, next to the marina, and it has a good interpretive area with information about the dam, the wildlife of the area, and native American history.

For more on the native Americans, called the “Salado”, you can drive south two more miles to Tonto National Monument. This smallish member of the national parks system protects Salado cliff dwellings high above Lake Roosevelt. The dwellings are found about 350 feet vertically above the visitor center and reached by a half-mile steep hike.

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Visitor Center with dwellings far above

The Lower Cliff Dwellings are mostly gone, victims of erosion and vandalism in the early 20th century, but there’s still enough left to make it worth the hike. At some times of year the rangers will also lead a daily trek to the Upper Cliff Dwellings but we missed that on this visit.

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Another reason to make the hike is the incredible view of the Tonto Basin and the lake. We were lucky to find many of the cacti still blooming, as well as turkey vultures making slow and majestic circles above.

The turkey vultures aren’t the only things flying around. The entire Tonto Basin has a large number of insects this time of year too. Normally we don’t encounter a lot of bugs in the desert, or even the higher elevations such as last week in Prescott. But here there’s plenty of water to encourage breeding and it’s springtime. Nothing seems to bite but a lot of little flies made themselves annoying on our hike, at times when the wind died down.

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Emma picked up the Junior Ranger packet and completed the questions on the way down, thus earning her 17th Junior Ranger badge.

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Last night we took a short walk around the campground and found a messy site. Some slobs left trash all over their site, including plastic bags, empty beer cans in the fire ring, and a quarter-bag of charcoal. I have never understood why people so often leave crushed beer cans in the fire ring. I see it all the time. Do they think aluminum cans burn?

The residents of the campsite were clearly long gone, so Eleanor did her good deed for the day by cleaning up the site and I snagged the charcoal. So we have a surplus of choarcoal and that means tonight we will cook out.

May 03, 2007

Roosevelt Lake, Tonto National Forest, AZ

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s hardly a spot in central Arizona that isn’t scenic. Our drive from Prescott east brought us through hills and valleys, past buttes and wilderness area, and through parts of the three national forests: Prescott, Coconino, and Tonto. Every minute brought another spectacular view, studded with tiny hamlets named Pine, Strawberry, Rye, and Punkin Center.

We wanted to visit Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, but got skunked by a 14% grade on the entrance road. I didn’t remember the website mentioning that … but there was a “trailer drop-off area” and then signs warning of a 14% grade ahead. That exceeds our comfortable maximum of 10%. We could certainly go down a 14% grade using low gear and the disc brakes (on both truck and trailer), but getting back up it would be a challenge that I don’t need.

Tonto Natural Bridge.jpg
Parked for lunch

So we parked in the “drop off area” for lunch, and continued down the road to Payson, where we got our second surprise of the day. The Houston Mesa campground in the National Forest just north of town must be very popular in season, because it charges an exorbitant $18 per night for sites with no hookups.

Yes, boondocking for eighteen bucks. I suppose that seems reasonable to heat-plagued Phoenix residents (Phoenicians?) in the summer, but we decided to pass. So we continued south, descending from 5000 feet to 2200 feet and watching the temperature rise from upper 60s to over 80 degrees.

In the Tonto National Forest, there is the beautiful blue Roosevelt Lake, with about half a dozen nice campgrounds surrounding it. Some are directly on the water, while others have views or are a short distance from the shoreline. To camp here, you stop at a retailer outside the National Forest (for example a grocery or gas station) and buy a “Tonto Pass” for $6 per day. Then you drive down to the lake and pick out a campsite, self-serve.

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Camped at Roosevelt Lake. Click for larger

These campsites don’t have hookups either, but they do have a great setting and at $6 a night they’re a bargain. Where else can you see saguaro cactus beside a lake?

We’ll stay here a couple of nights. My Verizon phone doesn’t work inside the trailer due to weak signal here, but the backup Sprint phone works just fine. Likewise my Internet card doesn’t work, but I’ve found I can get it to connect – slowly -- by sitting outside in a particular spot. (That’s why this blog entry has only two photos.) With limited connectivity, it will be hard to get work done. I guess we’ll have to just call this a three day weekend. What a shame.

May 02, 2007

A hike in the dells

Today Prescott returned to the fine and sunny weather we've become accustomed to, but work trapped me in front of my computer most of the day. I finally broke away in the late afternoon for our second hike over the rounded granite of the Dells.

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It's an incredible playground out there. Everywhere are canyons, cliffs, stairways, and shelters formed of rock. You can wander around and climb in them for days and not see it all. And despite the initially barren look of the place, there are many animals as well. A long Arizona Mountain King Snake crossed our path, along with more common creatures: squirrels, violet-green swallows, hawks, lizards, and even a skink about six inches long.

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The snake is a rough look-alike for the venomous Coral Snake, but I caught the picture above before he slid out of sight and so we were able to positively identify him when we got back to the Airstream.

Once again the Dells proved to be a photographic delight, and so I've uploaded some new images to the Prescott album on Flickr. It was easy to get some nice shots with just a short zoom, a circular polarizer and a flash.

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This is our last day in Prescott. We are going to wander over toward the Mogollon Rim, east of here, and then southward toward Tucson over the weekend. It's hard to leave Prescott but I'm sure we'll be back. Next time, I'm hoping to have a mountain bike and maybe our tent camping gear too.

May 01, 2007

Lightweight chow

We were going to go for a hike in the Dells today but the weather turned uncharacteristically gray with occasional light showers, so instead we've hung close to the Airstream. I've got a lot of editing to do on the Fall magazine anyway, and Emma seems entranced by her "Magic Tree House" books.

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Eleanor took the opportunity to hunt up some groceries and when she returned I noticed how has been buying more dried foods lately. When we started traveling we had a large plastic bin filled with canned foods: soup, pie filling, tomato sauce, refried beans, condensed milk, pineapple slices, etc. You name it, it was in there -- everything a good cook needs. The bin weighed about fifty pounds.

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I was thinking that since she has discovered dehydrated and condensed versions of a lot of the things we like, that bin would get lighter. But it isn't. Eleanor's kitchen never shrinks. I can't complain too much ... I eat well.

We have renewed our site for another two days. We just can't seem to leave Prescott, even though the weather is not nearly as nice as a few days ago. There's a lot to explore. Tomorrow perhaps we'll get that hike in the Dells. But in any case we will definitely leave on Thursday. Our site here is already reserved by someone else and there are many things we want to see on the way back to Tucson.