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August 31, 2007

Lagrange, OH

I believe this is the third or fourth time we've stopped to visit with Lou and Larry in Ohio. We always park in the side driveway, wheels close to the grass, where we can connect to the house power and pick up their wifi signal. Everytime we have visited, they make us dinner and in the evening their daughter comes over with two clever dogs who end up as the center of attention.

Lagrange parking.jpg

It has been like this ever since Lou wrote to me out of the blue, as many people do, and invited us to stop in on our way to Jackson Center. Every time we have accepted such an offer, we have made new friends, and many of them have ended up being people we see again and again. For this reason I am already regretting that we won't be able to accept several invitations to stop in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Those are lost opportunities of a very significant sort -- friends we won't be able to make this time through.

Lagrange stamping.jpg

As soon as we arrived today, Emma and Eleanor were immediately enticed into Lou's basement rubber-stamping headquarters, where they all became absorbed in the task of making some cute greeting cards. Larry and I were left to go fetch fresh sweet corn for dinner and discuss all types of Airstream-related topics until the cards were, finally, all done and dinner could be served.

Another Airstreamer has appeared this evening, too. Dan lives nearby in Ohio and is parked in another driveway (Lou and Larry have access to several driveways on this street). Another Airstream or two will arrive tomorrow, along with about a dozen Airstream owners who are coming without their trailers, for a mini-rally and potluck dinner Saturday night. We've never been part of a "driveway rally" before. It should be a great weekend.

August 30, 2007

Letchworth State Park, Perry NY

After a somewhat delayed start this morning, we managed to get our little parade (truck, Airstream, car) on the rural roads of east-central New York again. We make a rather conspicuous caravan, with bright shiny Airstream leading the way and the vivid orange Honda trailing close behind like a whale calf. Woe to those who get in between Eleanor and I on the road -- the Airstream is difficult to pass on rural roads, and the Honda Fit is so nimble that Eleanor can trap or intercept any vehicle that dares to separate us.

As we were heading north toward the New York State Thruway, we encountered a downhill grade along Rt 28 heading toward Mohawk, with ominous signs warning of the danger. A mandatory pull-out for "cars towing trailers" brought me to a stop and a large billboard that explained the workings of the runaway truck ramp. It was sort of like a pre-flight safety briefing, except without the flight attendant. I've never encountered such an elaborate program before, and yet after all that the downhill grade was only about two miles and seemed relatively mild compared to many western grades we've traversed. Still, every time I encounter a steep downgrade I shift down and give thanks for the Kodiak disc brake upgrade.

I thought traveling as a pair of vehicles would be an enormous pain, but it has actually been very nice and convenient. Eleanor has no trouble staying with me, and with walkie-talkies we are able to stay in touch easily. I have the GPS and lead the way with the Airstream, so navigation is simple and there's no risk of Eleanor turning somewhere that I can't with the big rig.

The campgrounds have so far been very accommodating about the second vehicle. Tonight's stop is Letchworth State Park in western NY. There's a vehicle day-use fee of $6 here, so it does cost us a little more but nobody blinks an eye at our request for a second vehicle pass at the campsite. And for an overnight stop it's great to leave the trailer hitched up and hop in the Fit for a look around.

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Lower Falls at Letchworth State Park

This park is called "The Grand Canyon of the East" for the long deep gorge that runs through the center for about ten miles. Tomorrow it will fill up for the Labor Day weekend, but today it is half empty. We encountered hardly anyone when we hiked the trail to the Lower Falls, one of three major falls in the park.

Letchworth SP bridge.jpg
Bridge over gorge narrows, near Lower Falls

This park has the look of a great summer destination. There's swimming in several spots, plenty of trails to hike, a great campground, scenic overlooks, a restaurant, an historic mansion, visitor center, etc. The weather has been gray and damp this evening, giving the park a muted tone. Outside our screen door insects and frogs are making a musical racket, and while there's a faint whiff of sweet wood smoke, there are few other signs of neighbors. We may have hit it just right by arriving a day before the big rush. Tomorrow, we will press on to Ohio.

August 29, 2007

Limestone Mansion

Our host arranged for a little tour of the nearby Limestone Mansion Bed & Breakfast inn next door. This very impressive Victorian house looms just outside the back yard of our courtesy parking spot, and I was immediately intrigued by the Italianate style. It reminded me of an 1855 Italianate style Victorian we used to own many years ago.

Cherry Valley Limestone Mansion.jpg

But this house is much bigger and beautifully restored. It's also obviously made of limestone, chosen specifically because the first house burned down. Since this is the end of the season and only one guest was in residence, we were able to walk through all but one of the fourteen bedrooms, plus the kitchen, pantry, basement, and common areas. It is a spectacular structure, with ornate details everywhere, from marvelous painted ceiling medallions and gumwood railings inside, to quoyne blocks and scalloped slate Mansard roof outside. So as fans of Victorian style, every room was fascinating to Eleanor and I.

Cherry Valley Limestone Mansion interior.jpg

The Limestone Mansion is a relative latecomer to Cherry Valley. Many of the residences in the historic center are from the Colonial era, including the house we are parked beside. The town was lucky to be an important stop on a turnpike from Albany, then fortunate again to be completely bypassed, thus preserving much of the town's architecture. First the Erie Canal stole traffic away from the Cherry Valley Turnpike, and then the NY Central Railroad did the same, and finally Route 20 and the NY State Thruway (I-90) left Cherry Valley as virtually a time capsule.

But unlike so many other New England towns that have been bypassed, Cherry Valley avoided becoming a run-down fragment of itself. Importantly, its architecture and downtown survived, giving it a small-town appeal with an attractive walkable center. The town is again thriving as a tourist stop and a place for visitors to nearby Cooperstown to find a choice of quiet B&B's. Students of New Urbanism could take lessons from Cherry Valley.

Cherry Valley cafe.jpg

Late this afternoon the UPS truck arrived bearing replacement parts for our hitch. With the help of our host (who really did most of the work), the parts were installed in about 20 minutes, the hitch was re-assembled, and re-greased. We're ready to go again. I've posted some photos of the broken parts at Airforums if you are interested in the forensic details.

By 4:30 I had the grease cleaned off my hands, but it was too late to go anywhere, so we're spending another lovely night in Cherry Valley. Tomorrow we'll start heading west in earnest, toward Labor Day weekend with friends in Ohio.

August 28, 2007

Cherry Valley party

The day didn't turn out as expected, but it turned out better. This afternoon blog reader and fellow Airstreamers Bruce and his wife Lena dropped by for a visit, and then Eleanor came back to cook dinner for our hosts and it turned into a party.

Cherry Valley Bruce Lina.jpg
Lena, Bruce, and Sprocket

Eleanor did some serious shopping about fifteen miles from here for this dinner event. I was in charge of grilling and Emma was in charge of food delivery from the Airstream to the poolside cabana. I grilled steak, salmon, portabella mushrooms, onions, and eggplant. Eleanor also made couscous, two different green salads, and a favorite appetizer of fresh fig with goat cheese.

Wendy and her parents came bearing wine, along with Wendy's roommate, the three of us, Bruce and Lena, for a total of nine people at a long table set up poolside.

Cherry Valley pool.jpg

With work and the change in plans, we never did get to roam Cherry Valley. But we'll try again tomorrow, while waiting for UPS to deliver the hitch part we need. It looks like we may need to stay another night, which would be fine, but we won't know until tomorrow. It depends on work and when the UPS truck arrives. We have three invitations for courtesy parking tomorrow night, counting here, so we won't be hurting for a place to stay no matter what.

August 27, 2007

Hitch damage

Our tow over from East Berne NY to our current courtesy parking spot in Cherry Valley NY was only about 50 miles. That turned out to be a very good thing, since in the last four or five miles a part of our hitch broke.

Eleanor was following the Airstream in the Honda Fit. I heard a noise and felt a lurch, and then she called on the walkie-talkie, "Did you hit that piece of metal in the road?" My response was clueless: "Wow, I didn't even see a piece of metal in the road" and I went on my merry way.

Upon arriving a few minutes later at the home of our hosts, I went to unhitch and found a shocking sight: the right-side weight-distribution bar was completely gone. A U-bracket which held it on had apparently snapped from metal fatigue. The sound I had heard, and the metal Eleanor had seen, was our weight distribution bar spinning away on the road surface.

Cherry Valley broken bracket.jpg
The remains of the broken U-bracket (bottom part missing)

We immediately went back to the scene and found the bar still lying in the road, a bit scraped on one side but otherwise in good shape. The bolts that held the bracket were still in place, as was the bottom side of the U-bracket that had failed.

Cherry Valley broken bar.jpg
The weight distribution bar with the rest of the U-bracket still bolted on

I called David Tidmore at Roger Williams Airstream for advice since he sold us the hitch initially, and then spoke to tech support at Hensley. The broken bracket will be replaced under warranty, but I volunteered to pay for overnight shipment ($33) for a pair of them so we could have it fixed by Wednesday. The tech support guy said that this sort of failure seems to be related to inadequate greasing of the hitch head. Apparently, lack of grease will put extra stress on the bracket, and since the bracket is the weak link, it breaks first.

I have lately been scrupulous about greasing our hitch every 500 miles as recommended, but I have to admit I was not as good about it in the first several thousand miles, and so this may have contributed to the problem. In any case, given the number of miles we put on the trailer, I think replacing both of these brackets annually may become part of our service routine. That should pre-empt any future failures as a result of metal fatigue.

We were lucky that the weight distribution bar didn't do any damage as it exited the hitch. Apparently it slid under the trailer neatly. I slid underneath and inspected carefully, but could not find any visible damage to belly pan, gas lines, tires, or any other component. It could have been a much more expensive problem if that 20 pound steel bar had whacked anything as it went spinning away at 50 MPH. I've told Eleanor that if anything else shows up in the road she should let me know. I'll stop next time to check!

The episode shows that the trailer is towable even with one bar missing, which is nice to know. I noticed no change in handling as a result of the loss of one weight distribution bar, although I certainly would not recommend doing this deliberately. With uneven weight distribution the tow vehicle could become dangerously unstable, and so we won't be going any further until the new part is installed.

Cherry Valley good bar.jpg
The way it's supposed to look!

Fortunately, we're not in a hurry and our courtesy parking spot is really sweet. Wendy, a blog reader, set us up at her parent's house next door in this quiet and cute little central NY town. There's a heated swimming pool, barbecue grill, and cabana available for our use. Wendy's dad is sharing his wi-fi with me, and the weather is just beautiful. They may have trouble getting rid of us.

I'll blog about the historic downtown of Cherry Valley tomorrow, after we've had a chance to explore further.

August 26, 2007

Clarksville Cave

This morning Emma was recruited over to Rick and Sandi's trailer to help make breakfast. Rick likes to put together a big breakfast on weekends away, and since today was the day to go crawling around in a cold wet cave, he didn't hold back.

E Berne breakfast.jpg

After a leisurely breakfast, we headed over to the hamlet of Clarksville to visit the cave. It's long been informally open to the public but in the past few years the cave has been purchased by the Northeast Cave Conservancy and is now managed. Access is still governed by the loose policy of not identifying the exact cave location. If you want to visit, it's best to go with someone who knows the place.

Clarksville Cave family.jpg

It's also good to go with someone who knows the basics about caving in the northeast. Caves here usually run in the mid-40s all the time, and are damp. This cave requires wading through knee-deep and occasionally waist-deep water which is about 55 degrees, and there are numerous low crawls and plenty of mud. So you need to be prepared, with three sources of light per person, clothes that stay warm when wet, kneepads, helmets, a map, snacks, and at least half a brain. Hypothermia, and injuries from falls do kill people in caves who don't pay attention to safety.

Eleanor and I have visited this cave many times but not in several years. This visit we were disappointed to find a lot of trash and some graffiti in the cave. Apparently people have come in here to drink beer and dump their empties and used glow sticks all over the place. We gathered a bag of trash on our way out, but there's plenty more in there. (And look what somebody else left in a cave!)

Clarksville Emma.jpg

Emma's first "wild" caving trip was a huge success, for all of us. Emma loved it, even the cold, wet, and muddy parts -- which was pretty much all of it. She and Eleanor left through the main entrance after about two hours, but Rick, Sandi, and I continued to explore another arm of the cave for another hour and finally exited through a different entrance.

Thacher overlook.jpg

Just up the road is John Boyd Thacher State Park, which sits atop a limestone escarpment and thus offers a spectacular view of the land below. We took this route back to our campground so Rick and Sandi could take in the view, and enjoy some open space and sunshine after our hours in the cave.

The little state campground we are camped at (not a "state park" for some reason) seems to be dominated by seasonal residents, who have set up little tent cities on their sites. Across the way from us the residents have hung a carved wood sign declaring themselves "The Governor of Thompson Lake", and our neighbors (not to be outdone) have a similar sign calling themselves "The Mayor of Thompson Lake". It's a friendly place where most people seem to know each other, but it also feels more like a residential park because of all the settlement.

Rick and Sandi hung around into the early evening, but finally had to go back home so they could be at work on Monday. I don't have to go anywhere but I will also be back at work on Monday, alas, trying to finalize the Winter magazine. We've got a few days of courtesy parking planned just a short distance west of here.

August 25, 2007

Thompson Lake State Campground, E Berne NY

We have departed Vermont after our two month stay, much to the relief (I think) of many blog readers who were getting tired of me ranting about yogurt and wakeboards to fill the days when we didn't go anywhere. But believe it or not, most full-timers settle into a place for weeks at a time. It's fairly typical and even an essential part of full-timing. It's part of the balancing act that makes this lifestyle work.

Not that it was easy to go. Not only did we have to leave family and friends behind, but we had one big task left on Friday: loading the moving truck. Eleanor and I arrived at our storage unit at 10 a.m., but the driver was late and ended up arriving at 4 p.m. Not only that, but the temperature soared well into the upper 80s (a strange occurrence this late in the season in northern Vermont) and the humidity rose too.

So it was not a cheery event for us, loading a late truck on a sweaty Friday afternoon when we had many other things to do. But Eleanor and I managed to do the job in about two hours and still get back to the beach by 7:30 to attend a small gathering of friends and family who had come to say goodbye. We picked up the newly-cleaned and detailed Armada at 9:30 and crashed into bed with lists of preparations still to be done first thing in the morning.

We are, finally, completely free of the storage units we had in Vermont. That's a financial and mental relief. (Of course our house in Arizona could be considered a very expensive storage unit since we don't yet live in it.) Our personal possessions have been culled down to a manageable pile, and should become even fewer after we take another look at them this winter. Now the challenge will be to keep the pile from overtaking us again in the next house.

Our first night "on the road" in a while is in a state campground not far from Albany NY. Fellow Airstreamers Rick and Sandi are here as well, to join us tomorrow morning on a caving expedition. Right now thunder is rumbling overhead and there is some rain, but earlier it was a nice -- if humid -- late summer day. Thompson Lake State Campground has a sandy beach and a roped-off swimming area, where we spent most of the afternoon standing in the water while catching up with Rick and Sandi.

E Berne Sandi Emma.jpg

Rick made us a hearty stew for dinner and Sandi broke out a toy ball made of glow sticks for after-dinner entertainment. This was a huge hit with Emma. I was playing with a new wide angle lens of Rick's (Nikkor 12-24 zoom) which is ideal for interior photography of Airstreams, and with a steady hand I managed to capture some time exposures of the ball bouncing around.

E Berne tossing glow.jpg

August 23, 2007

Mobile office

According to the blurb on the cover, I get Fortune Small Business magazine because I am an American Express Business Cardmember. Usually I find most of the magazine's content to be irrelevant to the type of business I run (small, virtual, mobile) but in the Sept 2007 issue I was amused to find a piece entitled, "Business in a Backpack".

In it, the author, Michelle Labrosse, describes how she is able to run a $9 million company with 30 employees and 40 contractors from her backpack. (You can read the article here.) In the magazine, a photo of the backpack's contents was provided, which is pictured below since it doesn't seem to appear in the online version.

Mobile office2.jpg
Click for larger

I've often written about how I run my business from the road, including my strategies of digitizing all paper, using online software tools, and using mobile technology for voice and Internet. A lot of how I do things is echoed in the FSB article. It was encouraging to see that the solutions I -- and many other mobile small businesspeople -- have worked out have finally started to get acknowledged by the business media.

The author keeps a lot more tech in her bag than I do. She's got a Blackberry, a Bluetooth headset, a GPS locator beacon, a noise-canceling headset and a lot more cords. Plus she carries emergency food for long airplane rides. All that stuff makes her bag about 15 pounds heavier than mine. But then, I don't fly very much these days, and I definitely don't ride bush planes in Alaska, so the GPS locator and noise-canceling headset aren't necessary for me.

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Contents of my mobile office bag. Click for larger

My bag contains many of the same items: laptop, wireless card, iPod, sunglasses, and cell phone. I also carry an external Lacie hard drive, a blank CD-R with mailer, an Ethernet cable, and a portfolio containing notepad, pens, and paperwork that I'm currently dealing with. I also carry a few small bits not pictured above: a thumbdrive (also known as a USB key) for exchanging files, a cable that connects my laptop to a presentation projector, and a flash card reader. (I don't put things like money and keys in my bag. Those usually ride in my pockets.)

My goal is to keep the bag as light as possible, so I try to avoid excess technology. My laptop does almost everything for me. Since it is a Mac Powerbook it conveniently goes to sleep in about 2 seconds and wakes up equally fast, which means it is readily available to answer my questions at any time. The iPod and cell phone both carry copies of my Contact list, and I find it sufficient to get my email in one place (the laptop) so I don't feel the need for a separate PDA, organizer, or Blackberry. Consolidating the tech means fewer chargers and cords to deal with.

There are some "outside the bag" pieces of tech that I use occasionally, but don't usually carry around when I'm working at remote locations. These include the flatbed scanner that I use to convert paper into PDFs, my camera bag, and a backup hard drive. I also have other stuff in the Airstream for specific tasks, like a printer, FedEx envelopes, spare magazines, an Airport Express, etc. But for grab-and-go office work, my backpack works just like Ms. Labrosse's backpack.

Slowly the business world is catching on to the idea that people can work very efficiently with less, and that offices are not about banks of file cabinets anymore. In the meantime, the low cost and high efficiency of this format is working for a lot of RV'ers and traveling entrepreneurs.

August 22, 2007

Final tasks before departing

I'm still not going to call it a nip in the air but this is the fourth night in a row that we've had to run the furnace at night. (As far as I'm concerned, a "nip in the air" requires frost on the ground in the morning.) But it is getting chilly. Last night the lake finally calmed down and we got some good boarding in until sunset, but I was shivering all through dinner as I dried off. Normally I don't even bother with a towel, but eating on the outdoor deck with the temperatures plummeting was tough. Everyone broke out their fleeces and sweatshirts. If we get out on the water again this week I'll probably have to wear my wetsuit.

The Airstream, of course, is always ready for a change in weather. I only need to get one of the propane tanks topped off before we go, because we'll be in the north for a few more months, although not in Vermont. Eleanor was talking about how she'd left most of her warm clothes in Tucson and was now regretting it. We do have a basic supply of cold-weather clothing in the trailer, so it's not a crisis. We'll have to dig it up from the deepest recesses of our storage bins and rotate out most of the summery shorts-and-polos that are on the top of the clothes pile now.

"Indian summer" will probably come around soon enough. Even here in Vermont the forecast calls for a brief period of upper 80s this weekend. September is a great month to be traveling New England, because the weather is moderate and crowds are gone. Even though we're heading west, I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from coming here and enjoying the late-summer weather. If we had more time we'd stay another month in New England for sure, as we did last year.

Panton Jim Breitinger.jpg

Last night we had a visit from fellow Airstreamer Jim Breitinger. I met him in Perry at the International Rally, where he was selling meteorites and stones at a booth. Jim has a 1973 Airstream that is getting serviced at GSM Vehicles in Plattsburgh NY right now. On his way up to GSM to check on progress, he stopped in here and joined us for dinner and an overnight in our Airstream Safari.

It's easy hosting fellow RV'ers in the Airstream, since they already know how things work. No need to explain the operation of the toilet, or warn about the six-gallon hot water capacity. Experienced RV'ers know when to duck, when to sit down and get out of the way, and generally how to co-exist in a small space. So Jim was an easy guest to have. We'll see him again in January 2008, at Quartzite.

Meanwhile the rush to get ready continues. So far, so good. Our stuff in the storage unit is 98% ready to load on the truck. On Thursday the Airstream will get a thorough interior cleaning (which doesn't take long since the space is so compact), we'll take care of a few errands, and we should be just about ready.

I have decided on a minor luxury. The Nissan Armada has not been well cleaned in two years, and the interior is frankly a mess. The rugs are impregnated with desert dust, beach sand, cookie crumbs, and dried clay. The seats are splotched with souvenirs of everything Emma has eaten in the past two years. The vinyl surfaces are mottled with black from grease-stained fingers, and there are numerous light scratches in the paint's clearcoat. For the first time in my life, I will take a car to a detailer for a thorough cleaning, including shampooing of all the carpets and fabrics. The car really needs it, and being two years old, it has a lot of life ahead. Time for a little cosmetic maintenance.

The cleanup will be one of our last maintenance items until we arrive in Jackson Center, OH at the Airstream factory. I've got a list of items for the factory service techs to deal with when we get there, but nothing major.

August 21, 2007

Pie social

One of the famous old traditions of Vermont is the pie social. They still pop up once in a while, at the nearby Rokeby Museum, and in town greens on summer evenings.

A pie social is sort of a casual garden party these days, with some live music, and occasionally crafts or exhibits. Last night I was driving back to the Airstream past the Vergennes city green and saw an orchestra in the bandstand and tables set out with an incredible assortment of pies. Naturally, I had to stop.

Vergennes band concert.jpg

The band was playing Sousa marches while people lounged on the grass in the cool evening air, or stood leaning against the old trees, talking to friends and neighbors. Kids were running around in the back, playing tag and throwing balls. I bought a slice of pie for later and wandered around to see who was there that I knew. After all, it is a "pie social" ... you can't complete the experience without socializing.

Little moments like that are getting scarcer for us. We are now in full-blown departure mode, with every minute of each day scheduled tightly. I have already begun the trailer and vehicle prep, Eleanor is doing the last load of laundry at my parent's house, and we are rushing to get the last few boxes packed for shipment on Friday. In between these efforts are a few medical appointments, work on the Winter 2008 magazine, and some final visits with friends.

We could let the schedule slip a week, but I'm sure that would mean only a rush of preparation next week. Besides, there's a schedule of things we want to do this fall, printed in blue ink on our dry-erase board. Time is the limiting factor. We all have only a fixed amount of time in our lives, and that means choices must be made. Considering everything, this Saturday looks like the day to hitch up and move on.

August 20, 2007

All a-board!

This wakeboarding thing has really gotten my attention, along with Steve and Caroline. Since are sort of competing against each other (in a friendly way), we are all motivated to keep trying new things on the board.

Last week the conditions on Lake Champlain were tough. We had consistently wavy evenings and the wind just wouldn't die down. I had to pull the awning in on Thursday, even though it was tied down with a "Hold Awn" system. It did indeed Hold Awn but the wind was getting a little past my comfort level.

Lake Champlain Rich wakeboard1.jpg

The wind meant waves, but wakeboarders like calm water, especially for tricks. The glossy photos you see in the magazines of people doing stupendous tricks usually also show dead calm water. We don't get calm water often up here, so we've decided to adapt the sport to local conditions. We're developing a technique for rough-water boarding in waves up to three feet. It's more like surfing, really.

Lake Champlain Steve wakeboard.jpg

These photos were taken on a pretty decent day, but last night was brutal. The waves were running in three-foot swells from the north, and once the boat was out of the bay, wakeboarding was mostly a matter of survival. Just getting up on the board was tough because I kept getting swamped by rogue waves, and I couldn't even see the boat over the swells until I was up. Once underway, the ride was wild and unpredictable, bouncing over the white-capped tops and crashing down into spiky green valleys. That's Lake Champlain boarding!

This will be my last chance to enjoy the lake for a while. We're gearing up for the next few months of travel in addition to our relocation, and this week will be very busy. There's the usual trip prep (checking all the running gear of the trailer, pumping up the tires, cleaning, etc), and also last-minute medical appointments, vehicle inspections, re-packing for the upcoming Fall/Winter season, and of course loading the moving truck.

Charlotte garden.jpg

Emma has a collection of tropical fish that live permanently in an aquarium in her grandparent's house. The fish seem to die off one at a time rather consistently, and this week Hazy's number was up. Emma and Eleanor demonstrated a little recycling by burying Hazy in the vegetable garden, and then we talked about how the Pilgrims learned to grow corn in poor soil from the Native Americans, who told them to bury an alewife with each hill of corn.

Charlotte cardinal.jpg

Finally, for no other reason than that it is a different sort of picture, here's a fuzzy shot of a cardinal browsing the feeder. The picture was shot in low light and had to be pumped up, and the result was a sort of impressionist view of the bird feeder at sunset.

August 19, 2007

Contemplating the end of full-time travel

Our standard joke is that summer in Vermont really ends on my birthday, in mid-August. Right on schedule, the weather has turned much cooler in the past week and we are starting to feel the fall air coming. It's too early to call it "a nip in the air" but this morning the temperature is 49 degrees and the sky is scudded with fast-moving gray clouds. That's a sure sign of the weather beginning to change.

Today is only a warning. Summer still has control, and today it will probably bounce back up to 70 degrees, the clouds will yield, and we will go to the lake. The water in Lake Champlain is still warm (by local standards, meaning 68-70 degrees). With a shorty wetsuit it will probably be a fine day on the water.

Friday evening the lake was churning with 2-3 feet waves and little whitecaps blown along the tops, under brilliant sunshine. It wasn't great weather for the boat, snorkeling, or swimming, but it turned out to be great for the sea kayaks. I've never used the sea kayaks in anything but calm water, so this gave me a taste for what they can do. Although the lake was probably only as rough as one of the Great Lakes on a nice day, I was impressed by the ease with which they cut through the waves and stayed stable even when riding broadside against the crests. Steve and I paddled hard directly into the wind to a point of land north of our beach, and then spun around to surf the waves rapidly back.

Vermont still has some spectacular days coming in September and October, but we will miss them. In the previous two years we have gone to Maine's coast for a couple of weeks in September, which is a superb time to go, but this year we have decided to head west. Our exact route is still unsettled, and I expect it will remain so, but generally our goal is the west coast by November 1. That will get us into a safe climate for November and December.

This may be the last hurrah for us, and so it is ironic that we will be (at least partially) retracing our first route in fall 2005. We still don't know when we will cease full-timing, but right now we are anticipating the end by Christmas. That could change depending on personal factors, but we have decided to treat every moment as if it were our last and visit a few places we've always wanted to go. For Eleanor, the very top choice is Banff, in Alberta, Canada, and that is part of what drives us west.

But once that final tour is complete, what will we do? Settling into a wholly conventional life of hearth and home is not for me, and both Eleanor and Emma has said that they don't want to stop traveling. It's time to think about the post-full-timing life.

The only real obstacle to continuing to travel full-time is Emma's school. Many people have written to me to suggest we keep homeschooling. Certainly this possibility has occurred to us, but upon weighing all the personal factors, we have decided we will probably cease full-time homeschooling in the next year. It has been a superb experience and we have not regretted it, but there are other things we want to explore.

I will state emphatically that this decision has nothing to do with the ridiculous "socialization" myth that we hear constantly. Without getting into too many specifics that would embarrass people we've met, let me just say that we have zero socialization issues and I think the theory should go the other way: we are constantly running into public-schooled children with disturbing socialization problems, while all of the homeschooled children we meet are very well-adjusted and have lots of friends. Homeschooling is great and I can highly recommend it to those who are willing to make the effort.

Courtesy of Jason Holm

But don't get me started on that ... I was talking about what to do when Emma is in school and trapped by her schedule. Suddenly we'll be in the same boat as all other parents, and the prospects for taking a few weeks to go up to Banff will be very bleak indeed.

Still, there are weekends, and the occasional holiday, and of course summer vacation. None of the school holidays give us enough time to roam long distances, but that shouldn't matter. No matter where you are in this country, there is always something interesting to do within a day's drive. In Arizona, we are particularly blessed with year-round activities, from the Sonora Mexico to the national parks of northern Arizona and Utah.

One idea is to find a remote base where we can stash the Airstream for a month or two, and revisit on weekends. This will save gas money and time. Our friend Rich C has really sold us on the town of Prescott, with its funky granite dells and lively downtown, and we also like certain places near the Huachuca mountain range and west into California. Having the Airstream is like having a vacation cottage, except better because we can relocate the cottage as often as we like. That may be our mode of travel for a while.

But all of this is just me thinking out loud. We've got a few months yet to go, and many adventures still to have. No point in worrying about the end. We started this experience thinking we'd be on the road for six or seven months, and we will have gotten closer to two and a half years out of it. It has been a bonus any way we look at it.

August 17, 2007

Thank goodness camping isn't a sport

For my birthday last week, my brother gave me a few magazines. That's a great gift for a full-time RV'er, since magazines are fun and consumable. I like to see what other magazines are doing, for professional reasons, and yet I rarely go to the bookstore and buy them myself.

One of them was a wakeboarding enthusiast magazine. It was the sort of typical pumped-up "extreme sports" angle that you see on all kinds of sports, with macho and jargon-filled ads, articles about pushing oneself "to the limit", and plenty of photos of buff young guys doing amazing tricks.

Now, I like to see the photos of guys showing the possibilities of wakeboarding. It's inspirational in a way, even though I know I'll probably never practice enough to do the things they do. But I was irritated by intimations by the editors that people who don't do the sport they way they think it should be done, aren't really wakeboard riders, but rather poseurs. They even went as far as to claim that a certain trick isn't up to their standards, and therefore people shouldn't do it. And of course there are plenty of hints that if you don't have the expensive equipment (board, boat, etc) you're not a legitimate practitioner of the sport and probably should just stay home.

That sort of attitude is something I work to keep out of Airstream Life. We don't run articles with titles like "Monster Tow Vehicles -- Whose Is the Baddest?" and "Why Triple Axles Rule the Roads!" and "Extreme Marshmallow Roasts!" and "Camping the Proper Way." It's not my business to tell people that their camping style or equipment doesn't meet some arbitrary standard. Unless you're using your RV as a meth lab, my rule is that if you're having fun, you must be doing something right.

Of course, Airstream Life doesn't feature a lot of photos of buff 20-something guys with their shirts off, busy making a campfire or hitching up their trailer. (Perhaps we should, we might sell more copies on the newsstand.) RV'ing is not the exclusive domain of retirees anymore, but the reality is that a lot of us guys don't have the 6-pack abs anymore (if we ever did!) and we tend to keep our shirts on while we're camping.

Thankfully RV'ing isn't likely to become an "extreme sport". It's more of an equal-opportunity recreation, friendly to the young & old, fit and not-so-fit alike. It gives us Baby Boomers something to do when the knees don't allow us to go skiing anymore.

And therein lies the beauty of it. You can do it in any way that works for you, without fear of crossing some rules ordained by a puffed-up National Association or popular magazine with delusions of majesty. I have written about our form of travel and adventure for a long time, but I'll be the first to acknowledge that what works for us may have no relevance at all to how you'll do it. That's fine. All I want to do is give you ideas and inspiration. If your style is totally different from ours, that won't be any impediment to us becoming friends when we meet on the road.

There are few rules to traveling or camping in an RV, and the arbiters of etiquette are relatively moderate. Just have drive safely, and have a nice time. Your experience will not be mine, your tow vehicle and RV probably aren't the same as mine, but that doesn't matter in the slightest. I'll share the road, some tips, and perhaps a nice campground with you all the same.

August 16, 2007

Vintage Trailer Supply

I got a call from Colin Hyde on Tuesday. He runs GSM Vehicles, an Airstream restoration shop in Plattsburgh NY. He was running down to the Boston area to pick up his latest eBay purchase -- a 1962 Tradewind in "project trailer" condition -- and invited me to join him at Vintage Trailer Supply in Montpelier VT on his way back.

Steve Hingtgen is the owner of Vintage Trailer Supply, and he and Colin are both good friends. The three of us have worked together for years in various ways. We're all customers of each other and suppliers to each other. Both Steve and Colin advertise in Airstream Life magazine, and I have bought vintage parts from Steve for our 1968 Airstream Caravel, and Colin has done the restoration work. Likewise, Steve has a trailer at Colin's shop undergoing restoration, and Colin fabricates certain parts for the Vintage Trailer Supply catalog. So we interact quite a bit, but we only seem to get together as a group about once a year.

Vintage Trailer Supply.jpg

The shop is a fascinating place for vintage trailer nuts. Steve has been relentless in his search for obsolete parts, "New Old Stock" parts, and fabricators to make parts that simply wouldn't exist otherwise. He's got an incredible assortment of goodies there -- enough to make a vintage trailer nut salivate. I scored a couple of original-style hubcaps for the Caravel, and Colin came out with a pile of stuff for the trailers currently undergoing restoration in his shop.

Montpelier Colin trailer.jpg

Colin's latest trailer is above (like he needs another project). This diamond-in-the-rough will sit on his lot in Plattsburgh until a customer comes through who wants a 1960s 24-foot trailer. It's a good floorplan and will be a nice trailer after a total makeover, just like my 1953 Flying Cloud that's still sitting up there. (Someday I might even get around to refurbishing that trailer, if somebody doesn't buy it first.)

August 15, 2007

Scenes of home

A lot of people think it is peculiar that we don't appear to have a "home". Of course, the Airstream is home, and we have always had a "home base" of sorts in Vermont (where family members live), but it is hard for non-RV'ers to get their heads around the concept of a wheeled object being home.

For us, the Airstream became home pretty quickly. It was easy to adapt to the idea that this was where we lived, simply by the act of living. The harder part has been reconciling ownership of property that we would return to from time to time. Having more than one home is harder for me to accept than having just one that happens to be mobile.

Now, with a house waiting in the desert, we have a future home. Sitting in Vermont -- our former home -- I find the sensation a bit confusing. Where is home? The state we are in, the trailer I'm in, or the city we are moving to in a few months?

This confusion shows up on my computer. I have a pair of (Mac) Dashboard Widgets that instantly show me the weather for where I am, including forecasts, radar, and current weather patterns. But I find I am often interested in the weather "back home", which can be one of the places I'm currently not, so I'll reset them frequently to different areas of the country. "Home" can be be where I am, and where I'm not simultaneously. It's fun to look at Vermont in January and chortle over the bitter cold from a safe distance, and likewise it's fascinating to look at Arizona in July and marvel at the flash floods.

Tucson view 2007-08-15
Santa Catalina Mountains from Univ of Arizona, Aug 15 2007

For a more granular look at "home base", I can check the view anytime from the University of Arizona's webcam. The sky and Santa Catalina mountains are so beautiful and ever-changing that I never get tired of seeing them. The view is updated every minute.

The changing view is a surprise to people who think the desert looks the same all the time. Check out this album of photos from the U of A webcam. That mountain view is very similar to the one we have from our house, so I like to see the diversity of it. It reminds me of ... "home" ... well, one of them.

Checking the local news once in a while can be interesting, although it always seems a million miles away when we are on the road. I check Arizona's news when we're in Vermont, and Vermont's when we're in Arizona. Mostly I'm interested in evolutionary changes to the landscape, environment, and culture, not so much the day-to-day politics and weather, so it's fine to just check in once in a while. Local newspapers and TV stations are all online these days, so I keep my favorites from each state bookmarked & handy.

I'm also interested in learning more about our upcoming home base in Tucson, so I have quick links to things that teach me about the area and keep me updated on what's going on. For example, there's a Yahoo! Group called "Vanishing Tucson" that I joined just to learn about the past few decades of the town and how it is changing. From that list, I've gotten tips on great books to read about Tucson and the southwest, which fascinate me.

Oddly enough, I found a copy of Arizona Highways in the doctor's waiting room yesterday. (I dropped off a copy of Airstream Life so they'd have something new in there.) It turned out to be a pretty decent magazine so I may subscribe once we get settled in the area.

This morning Eleanor and I both woke up thinking about our Arizona house. I had a dream in which we got back and found the new slate floor had been removed and replaced with patterned ceramic tile. She was thinking about furniture choices. It's coming to the top of our minds because we are nearly done with our tasks here. Soon we'll be completely moved out of Vermont (well, at least the physical stuff, but not the personal connections) and eventually we'll have to get back to Arizona and start the task of making it into home.

But for the interim few months, I think the Airstream will remain our home and the other places will be just favorite stops. I'll keep peeking in on them from time to time, but try to go no further. No need to get involved in local politics or fret about road construction or flooding. We've only got a little time left to enjoy full-timing, and I want to do it without undue worry about the future home base, so that we can enjoy the moments that are left.

August 14, 2007

Moving solutions

We have resolved our moving problems. A blog reader (who we met last year in Utah) suggested the moving company they used. Their company is a freight hauler that has a "household move" division. You load and unload the truck, they just haul it. Since our stuff is already fully packed, that's a perfect solution for us and it saves us about $2000. We're meeting the truck next week to load it up and we'll hire people at the other end to unload it and put it in the empty house.

We've also decided to take the Honda Fit with us, at least as far as Ohio. We'll leave it with friends there, and either fly back and drive it home another time, or have it shipped. Driving it to Ohio gets it about 700 miles closer to Tucson (thus reducing cost if we pay to ship it), and it's easier to fly to Ohio cities from Tucson than to Vermont. We decided against taking the Fit all the way west with the Airstream since splitting up our team over two separate vehicles will be inconvenient for much of the travel we intend to do.

So when we leave Vermont, we won't be leaving a lot of things behind to deal with later. I'm glad to have that finally resolved. But it seems we are not alone. I have heard from a lot of people about the plight of storing and moving stuff. They have come to the same conclusions: acquire less "stuff" and don't let your possessions possess you. It's a false economy to hold on to a lot of things that you might need someday, if you are likely to move or attempt to go RV'ing full-time in the future.

One blog reader put it well, writing:

"I have moved the same boxes out to Vegas, through several storage units, a condo, a house and now a second house. Add to that grandma's and aunties gifts, the stuff our parents no longer want to store for us and you have a continued burden that we 'promise we'll go through and downsize someday, when we have the time'. HA!

Here's the secret... READ IT AGAIN ALOUD, before making non-consumable purchases. Ask: do I really need this? Will it make my life better? Will the same money, invested in a 401k allow me the comfort cushion I need to retire earlier? I saw a neat billboard a while back from a retirement investment firm. It showed a Rolex watch. The caption simply read, 'Cost: $6500, Cost at retirement: $28,500'. It all adds up.

It may not seem like it now, but you are richer for the experience and your burden lighter. I couldn't believe what you were doing originally. I thought sure, sell it now only to buy it when you have another home. Ridiculous...but now I've put the numbers to it, you're right.

My buddy in Vegas had an unimaginable way of upgrading his belongings. You see, for me, I can never throw out or even give away something that still has use. This must be the depression era parenting I've had. He on the other hand will buy a shirt and give one away. Buy a new set of golf clubs or artwork? Sell the ones they replace. He doesn't have a basement or a storage unit. Never has. That's what I have to do.

I looked up some of my 'prized possessions' on eBay. You know, the stuff I'll never use but placed too much value on to part with? It's all worth less than the cost of one move, say nothing of the three I've been through. It's not worth the mental, physical and psychological burden it places on us. You should have seen me the past few week-ends, trudging up and down stairs in godawful heat, then wear and tear on a vehicle and missing the selling season for our home. That's truly ridiculous.

And don't get me started on furniture that is more valuable un-refinished but which looks so awful to me that I won't have it smelling up my living space. Antiques road show can have all of it!"


Now the question is whether we will be able to resist the urge to fill up the new house with stuff. It is so easy, so tempting, so comforting to buy the things you see because "I'd like to have that," or "Wouldn't that look cool?" It is so insidious to accept gifts and keepsakes from relatives and friends because they are free and given with the good intentions. It is so hard to divest yourself from things that are perfectly good but unneeded.

Our "acquisition test" will have to be strict. We will have to remind ourselves that we got along just fine for two years in an Airstream without anything more than what we possess today. Plus, we have several thousand pounds of additional stuff left over from the last house, including tools, china, spare clothes, some furniture, and specialty things like a pasta maker. It's already more than we need in most departments. If we are buying something for the house, we need to ask why.

It's like going on a lifetime diet. In this society, as sated as we are with food and consumer products, it's the exception to be thin or have an empty garage. You actually have to work at not having too much. But this is a nice problem to have. Living lean is less expensive, which means more money for freedom and perhaps even earlier retirement. Rather than being a painful experience of "doing without", it is relief from a silent burden. I am looking forward to continuing the simplicity of full-time RV living even when we eventually move into a traditional house for 3/4 of the year.

August 13, 2007

Water sports II

Being the only person in the family with a summer birthday, I tend to get an all-day celebration of sorts. It's not so much that people want to spend the full day with me, but that the weather is usually nice and everyone appreciates an excuse to be outside and play by the lake.

The lake settled down to calm water and that made perfect conditions for wakeboarding. Steve downloaded a guide with various accomplishments for us and point scores. For example, simply riding the board for 5 seconds earns 20 points for a beginner. One-handed riding is another 20 points. Crossing the wake is 80 points, etc. Three of us tried it and eventually racked up between 775 and 1025 points each. We've managed to complete all of the Beginner tasks except for catching air off the wake, the "Bunny Hop", and the "Surface 360". I almost got the Surface 360 but need to work on my arm position a bit more.

We also went power snorkeling. This is something most people have never heard of, but it's a blast. We use a device called a dive plane towed behind the boat. The snorkeler holds onto the dive plane after fifty feet behind the boat, and the boat trolls at about 2.8 MPH.

With this rig, a snorkeler can easily cover vast areas with little effort. There's no need for fins or kicking. A twist of the dive plane will send you flying down to the bottom for a closer look anytime you want, and since you aren't really working much, you can hold your breath for long times while exploring the bottom. A twist of the board upward, and you'll pop right back up to the surface. It's like flying underwater -- the closest thing to being a penguin.

Snorkelers who attempt this need to be able to equalize their ears while holding their breath, know how to clear their snorkel without touching it, know how to clear their mask without surfacing, and should know how to swim. I wear a shorty wetsuit for comfort since you can easily get cold because you aren't kicking.

Lake Champlain snorkeling S&E short.jpg

Emma's too inexperienced for power snorkeling, but Steve took her out for a little paddling around. She's getting better all the time. We're still working on her tendency to pop to the surface every 30 seconds to exclaim something, but that's just part of being an excited kid. Every fish is cause for celebration.

Lake Champlain snorkel S&E long.jpg

Eleanor had started work on the special birthday cake on Saturday, loosely based on my suggestions. On Sunday she was still unable to do much outdoor stuff due to her broken toe, but she had plenty to do in the kitchen. The cake was made up of three layers of chocolate ganache and chocolate-hazelnut cake, with hazelnut buttercream frosting and coated on the sides with toasted crushed hazelnuts. Dinner was Shrimp and Grits, a Charleston specialty we picked up last year during our visit. It was well received by all, and made a wonderful final touch on a great birthday at the lake.

Charlotte Eleanor birthday cake.jpg

We're doing so much on the water that it may seem monotonous, but to us it is simply a reflection of our travel philosophy to do what is available. Every region, every state, every little town has its own flavor and activity, and it makes sense to us to embrace those things as they are presented. Here, in summer, the best things to do are outdoors, so we've been hiking and enjoying the water, but we've also been visiting the small-town events that make Vermont special.

As a travel philosophy, you can view this two ways. You can go where your interests take you, or you can go everywhere and see what interests you locally. I think either approach is valid, and we try to do a little of both. It makes for a very fulfilling trip, because you can seek out new interests while simultaneously expanding your knowledge of your own interests.

August 12, 2007

Route 100

The Region 1 Rally that I attended was fairly quiet and I had only planned to go for an overnight, so after breakfast with my hosts Rick & Sandi, and catching up withe some other friends, I packed up the tent and headed homeward. I could certainly have stayed longer and chatted more, but the sky was brilliantly blue and the air was crisp and the trees were green ... and the Route 100 was calling.

Bondville Chuck.jpg
My friend Chuck, surrounded by aluminum

Route 100 runs down the spine of Vermont, and it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and fun roads to drive in this nation. It's not fast, but that's not the point. It is particularly scenic, passing through little villages and over small rivers, up and down hills, and past antique houses. There is a bit of every sort of Vermont life set alongside Route 100, and as you travel along it you can be a voyeur of small-town life, and even drop in for a moment on a whim.

With the right vehicle, the driving is fun too, which is why I saw motorcycle and ragtops and a bevy of Corvettes all running down the road, probably going nowhere in particular. The Honda Fit may be an econobox but it is fun to drive, so it was a great "fit" for the road too. I didn't feel the slightest bit jealous of the Corvettes as I swung around curves and through tall stands of trees and over narrow old bridges on my way home.

This time of year along Route 100 you'll see Farmer's Markets, town fairs & festivals, sidewalk sales at the art galleries and antique shops, and people doing their ordinary business at farms, in their gardens, and at the tiny general stories that are the centerpiece of almost every town. In a few weeks, the drive will be even more colorful, as the fall foliage begins to strike the upper elevations around late September. It would be worth doing the drive again -- just to do it -- but we'll have to be on our way west by then if we want to see anything in Montana before the snow threatens.

If Eleanor had been with me on this ride, I would have stuck with Route 100 all the way north to Waitsfield, and then cut over the mountains to our parking spot. We don't often go for drives just for driving's sake, but Route 100 in the summer is an exception.

Of course, it helps to be driving a fun car that gets 40+ MPG on the open road. That way the trip isn't tainted by the knowledge that we're burning $50 worth of gasoline. My trip to and from Bondville, 200 miles in total, cost me just $15. I'll miss that when we have to say goodbye to the little car in two weeks. However, if I can plan things properly, it will be waiting for us in the driveway in Tucson when we finally arrive there in 2-3 months.

The other reason to get home soon was because the lake was perfect: calm, crystal clear, and reasonably warm. I wanted to get out on the boat again. Steve towed me around on the wakeboard and since I was feeling confident I pushed a bit and tried some new basic moves. It's easier than I thought and a lot of fun. I was able to reliably cross the wake in either direction, ride the wake, make S-turns, ride out bumps (caused by crossing our own wake), and even do a fakie several times. Of course, there were plenty of crashes too, but I've even learned to crash comfortably, so except for water up the nose it was a great time. We'll try again today.

Our forward Fantastic Vent (of the three we have installed) has suffered from a strange defect since we installed it last year. It's a 14-speed wireless remote model, and it would occasionally exhibit a "surging" behavior at certain fan speeds. The fan would speed up and then slow down to nothing, then repeat multiple times and eventually shut down altogether. I talked to Fantastic Vent's representative at the International in Perry about this, and she recognized the problem as an issue that struck some of the early units.

She called me last week to follow up. I told her the problem was still happening and she promised to immediately contact the factory about it. Two days later, a brand new vent "upgrade kit" arrived via UPS. This kit replaces the circuit board and gives me a new remote control.

Talk about GREAT SERVICE! The Fantastic Vent people have always run a top-notch organization, but this level of care and responsiveness really shows their dedication. They are one of the few truly "customer-focused" organizations out there. I'm not basing this just on my experience, but on the reports of many people I know who use their products and have also had great customer experiences.

I'm thinking now of making a minor change to our itinerary and crossing west through Ontario to Michigan. This will bring us right past Imlay City, MI, where Fantastic Vent is located, and in which case perhaps we can arrange a factory tour. I love factory tours, and I'd like to take a look inside their organization to see how they have created their culture of customer service.

August 11, 2007

Region 1 Rally, Bondville VT

I took the little Honda Fit down to Bondville Vermont on Friday to drop in on the WBCCI Region 1 Rally. It's about 100 miles from where we are parked. Since we are so settled and busy where we are, it made more sense for me to just drive down for one night with the economy car rather than towing down the trailer. I brought the tent again.

Bondville, the location of the rally, is one of 254 towns in Vermont. I lived in Vermont most of my life and had never heard of it. For the past two weeks I've had fun asking long-time Vermonters where Bondville is (near Stratton Mountain Ski Resort in southern Vermont). It's a rare person who knows where it is.

Bondville R1R.jpg

We're about 1800 feet elevation here, a fact I had overlooked when I packed. I only brought shorts, no pants. Fortunately I had a fleece. Already around here the cooler temperatures have arrived and yesterday was only about 70 degrees, with 40's and plenty of dampness at night. Last night's campfire was essential.

Bondville R1R hippies.jpg

The theme at Happy Hour was something to do with hippies. At least, that's what they told me. Maybe some of these people just dress like this all the time.

Bondville R1R Interstate.jpg

This Airstream Interstate B-van is driven by a happy new owner. He says he gets 22-23 MPG on diesel fuel and he just returned from an Airstream B-van rally organized in Ohio which was apparently a big success. These vans are small inside but really practical for fast, lightweight, and low-cost travel.

Tenting overnight was fun but I've been reminded of the condensation issue that plagues tenters. Last night the humidity was high and as soon as the sun went down the grass was soaked, the tent was beaded with shiny drops of water, and anything left on the ground inside the tent got damp. I still had fun tenting, but an Airstream is certainly easier.

Part of my reason to be here is to meet with friends who I otherwise wouldn't see this year. A lot of them we last saw in October 2006 at a fall rally in Townsend VT, but I correspond with several via email. That's one of the best things about this community. We can miss each other for a year or two, but when we do finally meet again it's like the time lapse never happened. Everyone understands that we all travel and have busy lives, and they're happy to see the faces again and recount events and travels and ideas whenever we do have a chance to get together.

August 10, 2007

Moving blues

And once again ... Eleanor and I went to our storage unit in the afternoon to get ready for moving. It's like a never-ending story. But now we've moved beyond the sorting phase and have been just re-packing boxes to survive a long-distance move. That means the end of this arduous task is near.

The problem is the mammoth cost of moving. This is not a corporate move -- we have to pay for it. Initially I got a quote from a mover who estimated we still have 6,000 lbs of stuff (which I think is high) and she figured a cost of $3,600 to get it to Tucson. (The new car came in at another $1,500, which is ridiculous. We'll probably find someone trustworthy to drive it southwest instead, at a fraction of the cost.)

Then, the mover's quote changed. Apparently the rep calculated the mileage incorrectly, and suddenly our estimate was $4,500 for the stuff (plus $1,500 for the car). Let me tell you, we don't have $4,500 worth of stuff left in storage. I'd rather set fire to the entire pile than pay that. It would be cheaper in the long run.

U-Haul, et al, are not much better. A truck with a dolly for the car would cost about $2,400. Add in fuel, a one-way air ticket, and motels along the route, and it's about $3,600. That's a lot better than the mover, but still I look at what we are moving and wonder if a match and a gas can would be a better choice. Plus, I'd have to do the driving of the truck for a week.

Perhaps the mover's estimate overstated our weight. We got rid of a lot of heavy stuff already. We will only pay for the actual weight of the shipment, so it could be much less than the estimate, but we won't know that until we've committed to the move. Risky.

The cost of storage and moving are not topics we'd put a lot of thought to, when we decided to go full-time and eventually relocate. If I knew what I know now, I would have sold/trashed/donated 90% of what we had in our house at the outset of this. For what it has cost us to store it for two years, then give most of it away, then move the remainder, the bonfire would have been a financially much smarter move. Next time -- if there is a next time -- we'll do it differently.

August 09, 2007

Places to stay

We bought our Airstreams so we could explore. It turned out that ownership also offered a lot of other benefits we hadn't expected, such as making a lot of new friends, saving money, and an entirely new lifestyle -- but the desire to explore is still a main motivation.

In the first few months of owning our little 1968 Airstream Caravel (which we still have), I was intrigued by the idea of parking it in exotic places. I came to realize that the Caravel gave us the ability to spend nights where we otherwise couldn't stay, and I began to seek out those spots.

One night in New Hampshire, we stopped at little city-owned marina on a river and made dinner in the parking area next to the water. There was a light fog and the lot was silent. A few boats were tied up and glowing under the streetlights, and there was a perfect spot for our little combination to park.

It was early in our experience and so we were all a little nervous about staying somewhere that wasn't clearly a campground, although there were no signs that overnight parking would be disallowed. Boaters had left their boats and trailers parked overnight, and I felt we probably could stay too, if we were stealthy, but we chickened out and moved on. We didn't know enough to judge the hints, or how to check with locals. Today I would have casually walked up to the police cruiser going by and struck up a friendly conversation.

Another time we were tipped off to a lovely parking area at a beach in Connecticut where we could stay if we could prove we were fully self-contained and promised not to leave anything behind. There were no hookups or facilities or any type. All night long we heard the sea breeze and the waves, and smelled the cool salty air coming in our windows. Since then I've been constantly on the lookout for other isolated seaside spots like that, whether in backyards, state parks, bridges, or parking lots. There are plenty of seaside commercial campgrounds, and some of them are nice, but it's a big win when we can find a quiet spot more or less to ourselves.

A sampling of seaside campgrounds we've visited:

St Augustine FL (first stay | second stay)
Ft Myers FL
Bahia Honda FL
Beaufort SC
Destin FL
Ft Morgan AL
Crescent City CA
Carpinteria CA
Huntington Beach CA
Virginia Beach VA
Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico

The fever for exotic locales goes beyond beaches. It's equally satisfying to take the Airstream to a very remote location, or near terrific hiking, or in a private spot of beauty. I like camping at marinas, near boats and listening to the hooting of a distant lighthouse. I like an occasional night where the wind rocks the trailer and reminds us we're on a mesa in the desert. I like being far from everything once in a while, and near natural beauty.

Most of these locations require some small compromise in lifestyle. They don't usually have hookups, or even dump stations. I don't care, in fact I appreciate that because it keeps a lot of people away. The Airstream doesn't need hookups. The point is to experience things we won't otherwise feel or see, and that means getting out of the campground once in a while. The real challenge is in finding these places, because they are rare and becoming rarer.

There are still a lot of spots we have never tried, but which were common overnight stops in the 1950s. We've never spent the night in a random farmer's field, behind a church, in the heart of a city, or at a ferry dock. But we have spent the night parked behind a gas station, at a marina, at a casino, on a fishing pier, in the open desert, at a beach, high up in the mountains, and below a dam.

With our last few months of full-time travel ahead, I want to try even harder to find interesting and unusual spots to camp. I am starting to feel like every night spent in a generic campground -- campsite, laundry room, dump station -- is a lost opportunity to experience something really special. We'll be looking for interesting opportunities to stay at the less-visited spots, to courtesy park, to boondock, to stay in places we'd never be able to visit without our trailer. If you have any suggestions along our western route to Montana, let us know.

August 08, 2007

County Fair

Our local fair is Addison County Fair and Field Days. As fairs go, it's pretty small, but it has all the key elements of a county fair: forbidden food, a Fairway with colorfully lit rides, farm animals, 4H exhibits, a parade, and all kinds of vendors.

You can walk from one end of the fair to the other in a couple of minutes, but if you've lived in Addison County for more than a few years you're likely to encounter half a dozen people you know along the way. There are some people we only see at the fair, so it's important to go every year just to stay in touch. It's an August routine, waving at people with a smoked turkey leg or maple milk in your hand.

County fairs seem to be everywhere, but I've noticed in our travels that each region reveals its culinary traditions at the fair. Here in Vermont, maple syrup is king, so we are blessed with delights such as maple bread, maple milk, maple shakes, maple doughnuts, and maple cotton candy.

Addison maple cotton candy.jpg

We bought maple cotton candy for Emma and her friend Kati, but it turned out to be so good that soon the adults had their own (and I still pilfered a few pieces from the kids). I also had maple milk (7 oz. whole milk with a healthy shot of Grade B Dark Amber maple syrup, delicious), but I was denied my traditional maple-frosted doughnut -- they were out.

Addison cow.jpg

Like a lot of fairs, Addison County recognizes the agricultural background of the area. Tractor sales dominated the center of the fairground, and in the evening an antique tractor parade rumbled through, with old tractors by Oliver, Case, Allis-Chalmers, and Ford. Squashes and cakes and whole stands of corn were on display with red and blue ribbons. Young future farmers were outside the Cow Palace, carefully and throughly washing their livestock for judging. My daughter rarely gets as well cleaned as some of these cows were.

Addison merry go round.jpg

Of course, the real attraction of the fair for Emma and her buddy is the rides. A 15-dollar bracelet was their ticket to unlimited fun. Tilt-A-Whirl, Dragon Rollercoaster, a couple of slides, and Merry-Go-Round ... all classic amusement park rides. The warm humid evening disappeared in ride after ride until finally the kids were sweaty and exhausted, and it was time to go home and talk about going to the fair again next year.

August 06, 2007

Fridge defrosting and online banking

The hike was too much for Emma yesterday. I'm glad we called it off rather than completing the hike, because she spent the rest of the day lounging and still slept 12 hours last night. She awoke today to find gray drippy skies, cool temperatures, and Mom and Dad firmly parked in the Airstream.

Eleanor is still deep into Harry Potter, feverishly reading Book 4 at this point. As a writer, I feel her speed-reading of the series is an affront to J.K. Rowling. It took a year to write each book and Eleanor is gulping them down like goldfish crackers. If Eleanor continues at this pace, her head will likely explode. She admits to having Harry Potter dreams each night. But she's under a magic spell of sorts and so she spent the morning reading about Harry and Hermione and Ron again.

Being a gloomy Monday, and since I am recharged with a week's worth of sunshine and good times, I felt it was appropriate to get right back to work and deal with some ugly accounting issues that I've been postponing, related to our new bookstore accounts.

New bookstore accounts, you ask? Yes! The Fall 2007 issue of Airstream Life is going to be available in select Barnes & Noble, Borders, Hastings, and Books-A-Million bookstores as of Aug 22, 2007! That's huge news for us, drastically broadening the reach of Airstream Life magazine, but it also means I've got more work to do each quarter, keeping track of the complex bookstore sales-return accounts.

Panton fridge coils.jpg

Eleanor finally put down Harry and got into her long-postponed task too, which was defrosting the refrigerator. Being full-timers, our refrigerator is never turned off. So eventually, it needs defrosting. This time we let it go a little too far. The coils were completely encased in ice (above photo shows them half-cleared), which really limits the ability of the refrigerator to cool itself.

Panton defrost.jpg

It turned out to be an ideal task for the day. The cool weather meant she could put everything in an ice chest for the hour or so it took to do the job, without worry of food spoiling, and with Emma paused by the cold virus, there wasn't much else to do anyway.

I had another task related to full-timing, too. A few months ago I moved our company bank account because the bank we were using had completely inadequate online services. As I've mentioned, I run an entirely virtual business and am dependent on good online services from as many vendors as possible. Our former bank couldn't give me online access to our business line of credit, couldn't manage online transfers between accounts, couldn't supply monthly statements that showed the names of payees (even when I used their bill pay service!), and in general has been about as hip to the Internet as Lawrence Welk. When I sent a payment to the line of credit at their bank using their bill pay service, it took five days to clear, because -- get this -- they cut a paper check and sent it to another branch of their own organization.

Today I went into the local branch to close the old accounts. I felt I needed to look the branch manager who opened the accounts for me several years ago right in the eye and tell him honestly but politely why I was switching. He understood my reasoning and sent me to the teller windows to get the job done. And here's what happened:

1) The teller could not get a payoff amount for the line of credit. She didn't have access to that information, even though I opened the line of credit at that specific branch.

2) The teller called the bank's account closure department and THEY couldn't tell us the payoff. They can only fax the payoff amount "within 24-48 hours". (What if you don't have a fax?)

3) They told me that once I got the payoff amount via fax, I'd need to come into the bank to actually make the payoff (or call it in). Can't do it online, of course.

4) They couldn't close the line of credit account, because I need to send in a "request" via fax referencing the "request number" I was given over the phone when I, uh, made the request. Got that?

5) They couldn't close the checking account because it will take five days to clear the payment I'm making, even though that payment is from their bank to their bank.

So in the end, I got virtually nothing done as a result of my twenty minutes at the bank. I'm not mentioning the name of the bank out of respect for my friends who work there, but I'm sharing this story as an example. Those of you who want to work on the road: My recommendation is to have low tolerance for large businesses who still can't provide decent online tools.

To those of you in the banking industry: Quit spending all your time merging with each other and start competing! My bank has been through half a dozen mergers in the past few years, and each time the changes they institute "to serve you better" haven't done a bit of good. I don't care how many branches you have. In the age of the Internet, for me, bank branch offices are about as useless as travel agent offices. Haven't stepped into a travel agent's office in over ten years... and considering how little I managed to accomplish as a result of my visit to the local bank branch, I suspect it will be a long time before I bother doing that again either.

Surprisingly, I came out of the bank amused rather than aggravated. I can only attribute this to the fact that we've had such a spectacular past week. Or maybe it's just having extra space in the refrigerator ...

August 05, 2007

Precious weekend

A fine weekend is more than just good weather. It's a combination of subtle cues that build up to a happy, relaxed, slightly tired, and memory-filled conclusion. For me, it's also a collaboration of colors (green trees, blue water, pink flowers, brown wood signs, and orange hues of sunset), and sounds of people playing, and smells of plant fragrance and cedar trees. By those measures, it has been a fine weekend.

Charlotte blueberry picking.jpg

On Friday Eleanor met a friend of hers and together they took the kids out for blueberry picking. Of course you can buy pre-picked flat of blueberries in the grocery store for less money than you pay to pick them, but that's not the point at all. If the adults don't get that point, the kids will, but in this case everyone saw that a sunny Friday afternoon was the ideal time to wander among the bushes, and so they did.

On Saturday we drowsed and puttered until late morning, then headed back to the lake for more puttering. In the afternoon we were supposed to head 70 miles south, to attend the birthday party of "Two Ton Tillie", the 1967 Airstream owned by our friend Gail. Tillie is, of course, 40 years old and still looking lovely at her age.

Gail and Tillie.jpg
Gail and Tillie, October 2006

Alas, the beautiful weather seduced us and we never did get around to climbing in the car for the party. Instead, I joined Steve and Carolyn for a boat ride across the lake to Split Rock Point (NY).

Lake Champlain boat.jpg

The lake was disturbed on Saturday by sun, wind, and a cold front. In the bay the waves weren't bad, but crossing the lake we encountered the biggest swells I've ever seen on Lake Champlain. The little Boston Whaler was definitely challenged at times, and we had to proceed carefully.

On the New York side of the lake, iron mining was once a huge industry. South of Split Rock Point you can see big heaps of blasted shale sliding down the steep hills to the lake's edge. (Google Earth location.) At the shore here, a step into the water put you almost instantly in 40-50 feet of water, and not much further out, the bottom drops to 100-200 feet in depth. We tied up the boat here and hiked up the loose rock to find a few abandoned mines and some spectacular views up the lake.

The water is at its peak temperature right now, and there's nothing better than jumping in deep clear warm water right from the rocky edge of the lake to cool off after a hike. We had just finished doing this and were hiking back to the boat when we came across a porcupine. He waddled rather haughtily away from us, and demonstrated his impressive climbing skills up a few boulders. Porcupines like rocky dens, and the loose debris from the mining operation was a bonanza for him.

Sunday morning Emma and I joined Steve and Carolyn for a hike up Mt Abraham (Google Earth location), whichi is part of the Green Mountain range that forms the spine of Vermont. We hiked the Battell Trail up to join the Long Trail and paused at a shelter. Unfortunately, Emma has had a minor cold for the past two days and she wasn't up to the full hike, so we turned back at this point, making our hike about four miles roundtrip. The views from the peak at Mt Abe are supposed to be spectacular, and today was very clear so the viewing would have been superb, but compromises have to be made sometimes. We had a nice time checking out newts and toads along the way.

Eleanor has not been able to join us for hikes and other active things lately. A couple of weeks ago she stubbed her toe severely and may have broken it. She's hobbling around and it seems to be healing slowly, so it's all she can do to get down to the rocky uneven beach once in a while, and she definitely can't walk into the lake right now. It has been frustrating for her to miss out on all that action.

Still, dinner on the deck is something everyone can enjoy, and this time of year that's what we have almost every night. Salmon, mushroom risotto, and green beans were tonight's dinner, which we ate while the sun dipped down into the Adirondack Mountains across the lake.

Already we can feel the end of the season coming here in northern Vermont. After dinner we are starting to pull out sweatshirts once in a while. The county fairs are starting up next week. Small towns are having their annual Fire Department Chicken BBQ's. The blueberries are at their peak of sweetness. Last night we closed the roof vents in the Airstream and needed to pull warm comforters over our beds in the middle of the night. All of these things are subtle clues that Vermont will soon be saying goodbye to summer, and feeling the cool breezes of fall. It's a short season here, which makes ideal weekends like this scarce and precious.

August 03, 2007

Water sports

One nice thing about playing on the water is that there is something for everyone. You can swim, wade, ride in the boat, fish, ski, tube, and take photos. This is why everyone seems to be gathering at the lakeside every night while the weather is good.

Our friend Andy has arrived for a few days, and tonight my brother and Caroline popped by to take the boat out. Our Vermont friends Kristi and Zsolt and their three kids came over as well, bearing fresh picked blueberries from the local farm.

With all the people, it was a wild scene at the beach. We hauled down platters of Brie cheese and crackers to the Tiki Bar, the kids were busy chasing each other and collecting stones, and nearly everyone got in the water at some point. The breeze was blowing in from the lake and once we dipped in the water, the air felt absolutely perfect.

Lake Champlain Andy tubing.jpg

Then the games began. Andy was the first, bravely volunteering to be towed around on the ski tube by my brother. I say "bravely" because my brother is known for terrorizing people with this tube. Emma loves the abuse as the tube bounces on the waves and water splashes into her face, but most people find the experience to be challenging, to say the least. Andy survived without injury, which is more than we can say for other newbies. (A few years ago the tube jostled a friend so much that he went home early, exhausted. The next day he was in the hospital with a kidney stone that apparently been dislodged by the fun.)

Lake Champlain Caroline boarding.jpg

Carolyn is the best wakeboarder in the crowd. She's been goading me to keep trying it. But I was a miserable failure the one time I tried snowboarding, and I've never learned to ski downhill, nor waterski. For these reasons, I don't regard myself as the most qualified candidate, but as it turns out wakeboarding is not all that hard. Only three sessions and I'm already getting up on the board reliably and having a reasonably good time. The muscle aches afterward aren't that bad, either.

Lake Champlain Rich boarding.jpg

OK, let all those who say I am never pictured in the blog, be silent! Here I am, sporting a fine "farmer's tan" and attempting a fancy trick that I call "DON'T FALL DOWN". This is about the limit of my abilities on the wakeboard at present, and even this trick fails from time to time. But it's still fun, and I'll probably try again. Maybe with practice I'll be able to do some wakeboarding on Lake Mead (NV) or Roosevelt Lake (AZ) next winter.

You might wonder, with us parked so long this summer, "Is this full-timing?" Why, yes, it is. See, the definition of "Airstreaming" or "full-timing" is up to you. Most full-timers I have met have long ago come to realize that it's not all just travel. Sometimes the best use of the RV is to stop somewhere special, near family or friends, and stay a while. We'll be traveling again in three weeks, but in the meantime I'm glad we are stopped here to enjoy the fruits of Vermont's summer.

August 02, 2007

Peak of summer

We've reached the peak of summer here in Vermont. Today the temperature soared to the mid-90s, which is just about as hot as it ever gets here. For the record, it was warmer here today than it was in Tucson, and certainly more humid.

Vergennes Emma swimming

With this weather there's only one thing to do: head to the water. Even with all three Fantastic Vents running, the interior of the Airstream got warm. Rather than seal it up with the air conditioning running, I joined Eleanor and Emma at the town pool during the "open swim" period in the afternoon. Emma taught me how to dive properly, and then we had a competition with some other kids to see who was the fastest at swimming from one side of the deep end to the other.

I am starting to see that she will soon be a better swimmer than me, so I may drop in for post-swim class lessons from her more often. I'll need to practice to stay up with her.

Lake Champlain Eleanor reading.jpg

Now we are experiencing the full host of summer activities. For example, Eleanor has been sucked into the vortex known as Harry Potter. After watching all five movies and hearing my father and I discussing the events of Book 7, she has finally decided to read the series from start to finish. She started the first book last night and will probably finish it tonight. That's more of a testament to the enjoyable readability of the book than to her reading speed. Clearly, another Harry Potter addict has been created.

I finished Book 7 within 48 hours of receiving it. For a while there I was having fun teasing my father, who was choosing to savor it more slowly, with spoilers that I made up. "I'm just amazed that Snape turned out to be Harry's real father!" "Wow, can you believe that the Weaslys all become Dark wizards?" "McGonagle and Hagrid get married? Didn't see that coming!" That kind of thing. Unfortunately he didn't fall for any of those. But I can try again with Eleanor later ...

Another summer activity: This evening I was cajoled into trying wakeboarding again. The last time I tried, about a week ago, I crashed three times and ingested half a quart of lake water through my nose. Like teasing my Dad about Harry Potter, this is all considered part of the fun. So today I tried again, and did much better. But wow, can I feel it now, in the muscles of my legs, arms, and lower back. My 44th birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and I'm starting to feel like it. Will I have to take Advil every time I want to do something fun from now on?

And finally, we are approaching an annual ritual that defines August to me. I have to make the big decision of what sort of birthday cake I want. I ask for no presents, but Eleanor does always make me whatever dessert I can describe. That's a bonus worth ten presents, and it gives her an interesting challenge. In the past she has made some incredible things, so each year I take some time, flip through a few cookbooks, and have serious long talks with Eleanor about the birthday cake/pie/exotic creation. It's worth thinking about.

One year, long before we started Airstreaming, the birthday dessert was a sort of hazelnut butter cream and raspberry torte that was indescribably good. There were salted and sugar glazed nuts on it, as I recall. It was so good that I would take a minute to slowly let each bite dissolve in my mouth. The best part was that it sounded awful and nobody liked it as much as I, so for once I got leftovers to take home. We froze it and ate pieces of it months later during the dark cold winter. I still remember the butter cream melting in my mouth and it makes me hungry all over again. Now there's a dessert!

August 01, 2007

Portable office

We are often asked the same questions about our life over and over again, which is not a surprise. But it does surprise me that I am asked more often about how we get Netflix on the road than I am asked about how I manage to work. Most people don't want to talk about work in the same conversation as RV'ing, I guess.

I'm actually rather proud of my portable office. After all, I run the operations of a quarterly magazine, in addition to writing, photographing, and editing it, all from a hundred different locations each year. Ordinary "road warriors" no longer impress me -- sure, it sounds glamorous working from a Business Class seat on an airplane or from the comfortable hotel in Tokyo, but try doing it while crouching outside a closed coffee shop at midnight in Las Vegas while skateboard punks roll by. Or on a picnic table in the dark somewhere in Virginia. Or in 103 degree heat in Death Valley. Then you'll be talking my language.

If you saw the movie "RV" with Robin Williams recently, you might recall the scene where he takes his laptop into the campground bathroom to upload some files. Like most of the rest of the movie, it was a fanciful idea. I remember thinking as I watched it, "Come on, Robin! You'll never get a signal inside that concrete blockhouse!" My mobile worker instincts kicked in and I was silently urging him to get outside and perhaps find a picnic table to stand on.

You've got to be flexible to work on the road 365 days a year. I mean that in the literal sense (try balancing a laptop on one knee while typing with the other and trying not to topple over into the mud), and the figurative sense (dealing with constantly changing environments).

Just as importantly, you need to be extremely efficient. I've often talked about my efforts to eliminate paper in order to cut weight and bulk in the trailer. By scrupulously scanning almost everything into Portable Document Format (PDF), I can keep the amount of paper on my "desk" to no more than ten sheets of paper at a time, usually.

So my "desk" is actually a backpack that I picked up at a Florida flea market a year or so ago. It contains a zip-up organizer with room for loose paper, CDs, a pen, and a pad; my laptop, charger, and Verizon aircard in a padded case; and in the outer pockets there are business cards, cables, a mini letter opener, phone charger and a few other odds and ends.

When I think of the desk I left behind two years ago, I am amazed at how things have changed. My old desk was littered with paper, tape, Post-It notes, a stapler, file folders, a multi-line telephone with headset, and fax machine. Beneath it was 50 pounds of paper in two file drawers. In the closet behind me were shelves of office supplies, discs, more files, more cables, and obsolete office equipment of every possible description.

The laptop and the Internet are responsible for most of the change, of course, but a strong desire to be light and fast has been the key. With my blue backpack I can quickly move from trailer to cybercafe to a friend's house -- and even to a concrete bathroom if I need to -- in minutes. On a big day, I'll also tote along the backup hard drive, scanner, and camera, but that's rare.

During the Lewis and Clark expedition, Captain Lewis brought a considerable quantity of something called portable soup along. It was an emergency concentrate of boiled and defatted meats with egg whites, and it apparently didn't appeal to the men of the expedition. When it came down to starving or eating the portable soup, they would take a vote and decide to eat one of their valuable horses instead. I mention this only to point out that sometimes people will choose a self-destructive course rather than change their ways. In talking to people on the road, I've found that portable offices are sometimes viewed with the same distaste as portable soup.

No question, it's a tough concept if you've been in traditional offices for a long time. It's easy to go portable for a day or two, but going longer takes a certain obsession. I've been working from the road for over two years, so I guess I'm one of the obsessed ones. It has become such second nature to me that I will probably never bother to set up a permanent office again. I like the atmosphere of change that comes with getting shoved off the dining room table at dinnertime, and relocated to the bed where I have to sit cross-legged while I type. The constant change of scene reminds me of the excitement of travel, and it forces me to remain as efficient as I can possibly be. Beyond that, being fully portable precludes the possibility that I might have to dust my office someday.