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Alpine adventures in the San Juans

Our hosts Mike and Tracy have wanted to take us out on some 4WD adventures around Silverton.   It’s not hard to find good 4WD roads here, in fact almost all the roads outside of the town center require 4WD.   The old mining access roads that criss-cross the mountains have been claimed by the County, and are “maintained” to a relatively primitive standard for tourists and modern-day prospectors to use.

No matter where you go, you will see old stamp mills (for refining ore) or their foundations, hanging onto steep hills.   There are also literally hundreds of abandoned mines and shafts. Some have been sealed by the Bureau of Mine Safety, others haven’t.   (Don’t go in old mines under any circumstances.)   There are also ghost towns high up in the mountains, and the remains of mining camps.

silverton-pika.jpgAnd, thankfully, there are pikas.   Pikas are cute little rabbit-like creatures that inhabit high altitudes.   They can’t survive in warm climates, so they are an indicator species of global warming.   When temperatures go up, so do the pikas, until they can’t go up any further, and then they disappear.

It turns out that pikas thrive in areas near old mines.   The piles of rock and tailings give them housing and protection, and the nearby meadows provide their food.   In a one-acre area near a mine at 10,500 feet, I spotted a dozen or so pikas and heard many more chirping to each other.   I also spotted a few marmots, which are just fun to watch.


Paused at California Pass, alt 12,930.   Note the Isuzu at center.

The 4WD roads can be intimidating.   There are lots of places where the road has a steep hairpin bend and the drop-off is a thousand feet or more. I can’t count the number of times I was gripping a handhold in the Isuzu in complete terror.   Fortunately, Mike is an extremely careful driver with a lot of experience in driving these roads.   We wound up to a peak of 12,900 feet where the views were spectacular, and then looped around the mountains to come back to Silverton by a different approach.

You can’t really see this area without a 4WD vehicle.   We could have taken the Armada, but it is too large for some of the turns.   The Isuzu Trooper was a fine choice because of its small size and nimbleness, and a Jeep would have been as well.   You can rent Jeeps in downtown Silverton.


View from California Pass.

silverton-california-pass.jpgAt each ghost town or abandoned mine, we’d park the car and look around for a while.   It’s amazing that over a century ago men somehow got up to these places above 10,000 feet, built roads and railways and trams, and managed to mine metals from hard rock mountains, all with a steam-engine-and-burro level of technology.   Just walking around at these altitudes will tire you.   These folks were up there living year-round in crude cabins, where snowfall is routinely dozens of feet.   Just the existence of the roads is absolutely amazing when you’re up there driving on them.

By the way, Silverton is an excellent place to camp in relative seclusion if you are willing to pull your RV over a few bumpy dirt roads. Free camping is widely available on public land (as well as at three commercial campgrounds in town).   “Make local inquiries,” as they say, before wandering off the beaten path.

Well, we’ve seen a fair bit of the Silverton area but there is much more.   We’ll be back again.   I don’t know when, but we will be back, someday.

Journey to the Negev and beyond

This blog entry has nothing to do with our travels, but instead someone else’s travels.   I received word yesterday that our friend Herschel Shosteck succumbed to cancer.

Long-time blog readers may remember that Herschel has popped up in the blog a couple of times.   I worked for Herschel from 1994 through 2003, and we traveled together on many business trips, including several trips to England, Italy, and Israel.   It was a privilege to work for him, and fun to travel with him.   He was highly respected in the field, and a natural teacher.   The experience I gained while working in The Shosteck Group was absolutely priceless, and has served me well ever since.   But by 2003, I felt burned out, and I left his firm.   A few months later, I started Airstream Life and an entirely new career.

It was tough for me to leave The Shosteck Group, and I think it was hard on Herschel and Jane (his business partner) as well.   We had worked closely together in an often-intense environment for nearly a decade.   While there were many times when we battled, and debated in loud voices, and annoyed each other, we ultimately had become good friends.   My departure was a shock for all of us, and it wasn’t on the best terms.

For while we didn’t speak to each other, and then in 2006 Jane reached out and reconnected us all, when Herschel was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.   I’m glad she did.   We had the opportunity to re-start our friendships.   Herschel, being a kind soul, unconditionally forgave and forgot whatever unkind things I might have said.   Over the next year, I had many wonderful conversations with Herschel (now retired) as he simultaneously worked on a book and battled the cancer that he knew could not be beaten.herschel-and-emma.jpg

Being a fellow writer, I was able to review drafts of Herschel’s book about his journeys through Israel’s Negev Desert. This gave us a basis for our new relationship, and switched the roles we had traditionally had when I worked for him.   Now he was the writer, and I was the editor.   He very kindly incorporated all of my suggestions into his re-drafts, which is the highest form of praise an editor can get.

When we saw Herschel in 2007 for Thanksgiving dinner, he was looking superb.   The cancer seemed to be at bay, at least temporarily. He was feeling reasonably energetic, enjoying a new relationship, and traveling to Europe and Israel.   We talked about his travels and I encouraged him to do as much as he could.   But he told me that those traveling days were soon to end.   He would certainly be gone in less than three years.

Knowing that time was short, I asked for a new draft of his book, and he sent it immediately.   It was greatly improved, and nearly ready for publication.   I began to look forward to seeing it in print.

Shortly after, he wrote to encourage me to get on with my book:

Several hundred pages of raw materials [the blog] are a great foundation for a book.   I might add to that emails as well.   Every now and then people trade meaningful correspondence through the Internet — as they did during the height of the world postal systems.

I agree that editing is no less daunting than writing — in some cases even more so.   Given the material you have, would it be worthwhile to extract an/some outline(s) from it?   It seems that developing your theme will be the next step.   What engrossing story can you pull out of the blog entries — realizing a life dream, evolving a life adventure, searching for (and hopefully finding) part of your soul, educating your daughter?

In January 2008, he wrote again:

I’m now in Silver Spring catching up on back email (note that I have only a week to go), reading, and preparing for a final edit of the manuscript.   I’m also in the midst of a massive cleanup/clean-out (1-2 feet of closet or shelf space per day), in the hopes of trashing cartons of junk or transferring some of the better stuff to a community thrift shop.

My oncologist has taken me off of chemo; and with that my energy has increased to 3/4 of what it was before this mess, thus I’m able to undertake such projects.   I’m almost ready to get into the last revision of my manuscript (Rev. 6.0).

But only a few weeks later, the cancer struck again, this time in his brain, and the final long decline began.   I don’t know if he made any progress on Rev 6.0; all I have is Rev 5.1.   The cancer stole his quality of life and eventually his intellectual mind, and the book never saw publication in print.

A version of the book is now online at, posted by a family member.   It’s not the finished version Herschel intended.   (The “contact” information on the website is pointless, since it shows the postal and email addresses of a man who is now gone.   Unless they’ve managed to connect Heaven to the Internet, he won’t be replying.)   But if you are interested in a very intellectual tale of exploration, you might download the chapters and read it.   It’s not an easy read but it is a fascinating one, both for the religious and personal revelations that he discovered in his Negev journeys.

I’m not going to point out morals to this story.   I’ll just say that a good friend is gone, and I’ll miss him. You can draw your own conclusions as to what all this means to you.

Regroup and recover

We’re back in a favorite spot, Cherry Creek State Park in Aurora, CO, with all eight wheels parked on the pink concrete. I’ve spent the day digging through work tasks that fell by the wayside last week, and slurping down all kinds of fluids to fight the cold. Recovery is not far away, thankfully.


Emma enjoys a movie on the laptop, in our bed, on a rainy Sunday morning in Goodland KS  

There was a cold rain in Goodland KS when we left, and it continued occasionally along I-70 through Colorado, leading me to wonder if we would ever escape the rain. These are dry areas, normally. But it was just a reminder of the weather we have finally left behind. Today Aurora has bloomed into sunshine and 82 degrees, without a trace of precipitation in the week’s forecast.

It’s time to regroup a bit. We’ve got more meetings this week before Brett flies home to Florida (to see if his home is still standing after Hurricane Fay). But mostly I’ve got to put things in order, on the business and personal side. For this reason, and to recover comfortably from the cold, I set up the Official World Headquarters of Airstream Life magazine on the queen bed, and parked myself for the day.

One task is to figure out where we are going next. The firm plan only extends to this weekend; after that it’s just a series of vague ideas. Generally speaking we were going to head to southern Colorado and visit some national parks, ending up at Mesa Verde and then moving into Utah. This still sounds good, but work has begun to intrude. I’m starting some new projects (in addition to working on the Winter 2008 magazine), which requires me to spend a lot of time where I have reliable cell phone and Internet access. The timing isn’t good to go wandering around remote parts of Utah.

But I hate to cut the trip short. We are 15 hours drive from home base, and if we head back now it will be a while before we are ready to make the trip back up the Utah. Tough call. I’ll be looking for some compromise plan this week. We might pick just one major national park in Utah, but which one? They’re all great.

Happy Birthday to Rich

jc-birthday-cake.jpgYou’ll never guess what today is. But if you do, for bonus credit you can guess how old I am. There are subtle clues contained in this blog entry.

Eleanor made a very fine cake in the trailer, which we enjoyed last night ( a day early). Making a cake in the Airstream’s tiny oven is a significant feat in itself. First of all, it’s a small space, and RV ovens are not known for their BTU power or temperature accuracy. Also, you have to be sure the oven is perfectly level, in order to have an even cake. That may not coincide exactly with leveling the rest of the trailer. Eleanor is a master at this now and so her cake came out fine. We shared slices with some of the managers at Airstream today, which made us fairly popular.


Things in the trailer have been busy each day as we work around each other in the small space. Outside the trailer things have been even busier, with meetings and such things going on all over the factory campus. We’re going to have to extend our visit into mid-day Thursday.

One of the projects took up half the day today. Brett and I were allowed into the archive room, where an absolute treasure trove of Airstream photography, films, and documents are stored. Some of this stuff hasn’t seen the light of day since it was originally produced decades ago. I was specifically looking for archive photos of the NASA astronaut transporter (the “Astro Van”) and the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) used to isolate astronauts returning from Gemini and Apollo missions. We found plenty of those, and then dug into a lot of other great history.

cornelius-v-w-dorsey-connors.jpgOne find was a whole file folder containing prints of Cornelius Vanderbilt posing in front of his Airstream at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. This photo shows Cornelius with Dorsey Conners, a Chicago TV personality and daughter of a famous organized crime boss. I like the photo for the character, but also for the style of the times. It was probably a big deal for Cornelius Vanderbilt to come to the Ambassador in his Airstream, and even a bigger deal for the local celebrities and business heavies to get to pose with him. Cornelius had definite ideas about what “Airstreaming” meant in the 1950s, and he did a lot of it, from devastated post-war Europe to the parking lot of a Chicago hotel.

While we are here, we embarked on a project to lighten the trailer and clear up some clutter that we picked up in Vermont. We boxed a lot of books, magazines, fabric, and miscellany (like my old laser printer) to ship to Tucson via UPS. All told, we shipped 98 lbs of stuff in three boxes. It’s nice to see the unneeded weight depart, but even nicer to have the space back. Some of those items had nowhere to be in the trailer, and were starting to take over floor space.


Emma has been relocated from her bedroom at the back of the trailer to the dinette, which she finds novel. Brett has her bed while he’s visiting. That means every night we have three bedrooms set up. Walking down the hallway I feel like I am in a Pullman coach, with every berth filled with somebody reading a book before bedtime. Rather than feeling crowded, it feels exciting. It will probably be even more exciting when we get moving along I-70 tomorrow afternoon, heading to our next stops in Missouri and Kansas.

Uke jammed

I know that some of you are alarmed at the thought that I may have put away my ukulele. Fear not. I broke it out (briefly) to torture entertain friends at the Vintage Trailer Jam, and I still practice often. I hope to get to a point where people will actually invite me to come play it, as opposed to being politely tolerant when I force it on them.

The ukulele scene, as everyone knows, originates from Hawaii (where it was imported by Portuguese immigrants, believe it or not). On the west coast there are many active ukulele clubs and festivals, but as you head east the number of enthusiasts drops off rapidly, reaching a nadir somewhere around DeTour, MI. Even in Tucson we are on the eastern fringe of the ukulele action.

So you can understand that here in Vermont, where until recently pizza was considered “ethnic food,” ukuleles are hard to find and uke enthusiasts are even rarer. Thus I was extremely excited when Eleanor discovered that the father of one of our friends was a member of the honorable-sounding Vermont Ukulele Society, an organization I’d never heard of.

… with good reason. The VUS is a relatively recent gathering of six people, including a grade-school music teacher and leader, who meet every couple of weeks in a private home up in the tiny town of Lincoln VT. With me joining them on Monday night, we had seven people ranging from rank beginner to fairly advanced. Skill-wise, I was somewhere in the middle.

The whole point of the extravagantly-named VUS, as far as I can tell, is to have fun playing uke. Thus standards for admission to the group are reasonable: you must want to try to play ukulele. Knowledge of actual chords is optional at first; members will teach you as you go. If you don’t have a uke, you might be able to borrow one from a group member.

Obviously we’re not talking about really high standards for admission. The idea is to encourage new members, or as we in the Vermont Ukulele Society say, “bring in new converts.” (I think it was admirable that the founders named it a society rather than a cult. It shows some restraint.)

My induction was rather simple. We tuned up, handed out music, and sat down to play in the dining room. No dues, no rules, no member handbook, and no snacks. I was pleased to find that all of the songs were within my range, and thanks to assiduous home study, I knew nearly all the chords. It was a great experience, and a nice break from the endless slog of work and rain lately.

Having played adequately through exactly one rehearsal session, I was invited to join the Society for their second-ever “gig,” which is today. We are playing at a local restaurant at noon, to lighten up a local group’s annual lunch. Our public repertoire consists of playing and singing two songs in quick succession, after which we will sit down and hopefully not be asked for an encore. Not everyone in the group is entirely ready for this, but as our leader sensibly pointed out, “Nobody is expecting perfection. They’ll be amazed there even is a Ukulele Society.”

So there you have it: my first official public performance. I’d invite all of you but this is a private function. I’ll let you know when our album is available on iTunes.

Mills-Norrie State Park, NY

Our trek northward continues, but as we get closer to our destination, our rate of travel seems to be slowing. I don’t think this is because we don’t want to arrive, it’s just that we keep finding things to do. And since Emma is now up in Vermont with her grandparents, there is much less pressure for us to arrive. Let’s face it, everyone wants to see Emma, and we are just the follow-up act.

… which is actually nice for us, because this way Eleanor and I are getting some time alone together in the Airstream (a rarity). We have lots of time to talk, but also plenty of long quiet pauses to gather our thoughts. There are many things to think about: our plans for the summer, our trip west, things to do on the house when we get back. By the time we get to Vermont we’ll have a lot of stuff worked out.

nissan-hitch-bolts.jpgThe hitch people solved the problem that baffled the Nissan dealer, and did it in about an hour. The little squeak that started all this is gone. The hitch is now well attached with two new bolts up front, and they even gave me the old bolts back. As we deduced, the nuts that were originally attached to the frame had broken free, and once the bolt worked loose, there was no way to tighten it. I would recommend that anyone who has a Nissan Titan or Armada used for a lot of towing should check the bolt torque periodically to avoid this problem.

With that resolved, it was time to pull out of Colonial Airstream’s lot and get moving north. I was dreading the trip up the Garden State Parkway, but it turned out to be a light traffic day and so I didn’t have to do the usual suburban beltway dodge-em. We moved about 160 miles north to Mills-Norrie State Park in New York, near Hyde Park.

As state park campgrounds go, this one is pretty rough. The roads in the park are riddled with huge potholes, and the camp sites are just rough clearings in the forest. It is perhaps a typical old New England state park campground, but we’ve gotten used to the better ones in other parts of the country, with niceties like level gravel pads.

Turns in the campground are very tight and in some places impossible for our 30 footer, so we had to get creative to get into our site. After some head-scratching, we pulled around and drove across another site to do a pull-through. Eleanor had to hold back some tree branches, but we finally got in without damage.


Our site is extremely un-level, as are most of the sites in this park. We got the trailer almost level but had to use the full extension of the tongue jack and all of our leveling blocks on one side. I also had to put a rock under the front right stabilizer because it couldn’t reach the ground.

There are no hookups, but we knew that coming in. The surprise was that we are in a forest, so heavily shaded that we will be lucky if our solar panels see the sun for even two hours per day. Fortunately, with four batteries and some reasonable rationing, I think we’ll be fine. The only real issue is the furnace, but with nights running in the upper 40s it should not have to run too much. (I wish we had our catalytic heater installed, but that may not happen until we get to Jackson Center OH in August.)

Despite the hassle of getting parked, now that we are settled in, I can see that the campground is nice and quiet, reasonably scenic, and the mosquitoes are not a problem during the daylight hours. With good friends camped nearby I expect we’ll have a nice time, and those will be provided tomorrow night. We’ve invited our friends from Connecticut, Rick and Sandi, to come out and join us for the weekend. They’re coming with their 23-foot Airstream. We haven’t seen them since we went caving in upstate NY last September.

Our coordinates:   41 °50’17.60″N     73 °56’34.50″W

New Hope, PA

Secluded here on the green lawn behind hedges and shaded by tall trees, with a view to open fields being plowed, it has been easy to forget the world outside.   I nearly forgot it was Memorial Day.   We made no plans other than to walk the downtown of New Hope, and to get prepared for our tow to Colonial Airstream tomorrow.

new-hope-vulture.jpgWe got the Airstream hitched up to our hosts’ 1996 Suburban, and towed it around town a little to get the brake controller dialed in.   We were lucky that the receiver height on the ‘burb was about the same as our Armada, and the brake controller is compatible with our electrically actuated disc brake system as well.

I was beginning to think the vulture who parked himself over our Airstream was a bad omen, but it turns out he was just curious.   We seem to be all set to use Peter’s truck to tow our Airstream for the day. Transitioning to it from the Nissan was a no-brainer.

The plan is this: in the early morning Emma’s grandparents will swoop in and take Emma off to Vermont.   Eleanor will drive the Nissan following me while I drive the Suburban (with Airstream) to Colonial Airstream.   We’ll drop the Airstream there for its service appointment, then drive both trucks to the Nissan dealer nearby where we will drop the Nissan for its service appointment.

Then we’ll return to New Hope (70 miles away) to pick up the Honda, drop off the Suburban, and return once again to Lakewood NJ to the Airstream.   After about six hours of shuttling vehicles around New Jersey, I think we’ll be ready for a break, but our Airstream’s bedroom will probably be gone by then as a result of the nature of the work that is planned. So the plan is to check in at a local hotel for the next two nights. We will catch up with Emma in Vermont in about a week, hopefully with all of our equipment back in perfect order.


We’ve really undershot the potential of this area.   There are interesting things to see and do everywhere, and we’ve missed most of them, in favor of just hanging around.   That’s not like us, but with all of the logistics planning, it was probably the best thing to do.   I got ahead on some Fall 2008 magazine work on Sunday, which will make the complicated week to come somewhat easier.

Still we took a few hours today to walk around downtown New Hope.   It is a lively place with a lot of historic buildings, plenty of shops & restaurants, a canal with bike trail, and a short-line steam train that runs hourly through the day. Judging by the people we saw and the nature of some of the shops, it appears to be a very inclusive place as well.   Across the Delaware River by a long metal bridge is Lambertville, which has additional things to offer. You could definitely spend a day …

We will probably get another chance to explore the towns and surrounding attractions the next time we are forced down I-95. Good stops along that highway are hard to find, so this courtesy parking opportunity will be added to our permanent list.

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