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Tornado warning

We had two near-misses today.

We stopped at the Wal-Mart in Morehead City, NC, because our ferry reservation from Cedar Key to Ocracoke is for 2:00 pm on Monday.     Nothing to do for a few hours but hang out, which I was really looking forward to after driving about 280 miles from Santee SC today.

One thing I had wanted to do for a while was install the Doran 360RV tire pressure monitoring system we obtained last week in Florida.   Yes, after all those tire failures and flats, we are finally doing something about it.   While I can’t stop the nails and screws from puncturing our tires, at least I can know we’ve got one before a tire blows out.

The 360RV consists of four pressure sensors which screw onto the tire stems (with locking collars so they don’t come off), and a monitor for the truck.   John Irwin had emailed me a few days ago to say he, too, had gotten a Doran unit, and today he wrote that the installation was “absolutely child’s play.”   That was enough to encourage me to open the box and put the sensors on.

The first sensor I installed, on the left rear wheel, immediately caused the monitor to start beeping an alarm.   It showed 32 psi in the tire, which is painfully low.   I thought, “Darned thing … already giving me bad information,” and then I noticed the tire did look low.     So I checked it with my digital gauge.   Yep, 32 psi when it should have been at least 60 psi.

So I started my relationship with the Doran 360RV by owing it an apology.   It was right to be alarmed about the state of that tire.

“Bob,” a motorhome owner who was parked next to us, lent me his air compressor and a power connection to his generator. (I do have a 12v compressor but it is rather slow.)   I pumped all the tires up to exactly 65 psi, and then checked the suspicious one for what I knew had to be there.

And there it was: a screw, deeply embedded in the tread, right on the edge of the sidewall where it can’t be patched.   Another $150 tire gone.   That’s the fifth tire this year, and it’s only May.

So let me just get this off my chest now.   ALL YOU PEOPLE WITH SCREWS: PLEASE KEEP THEM OFF THE ROADS!

This was the first near-miss.   I say that because if I hadn’t been installing the Doran 360RV, I probably would not have noticed that tire until later, and it could have shredded on the road.   Did I need further evidence that we needed a tire pressure monitor?

A few minutes later, Eleanor came out to say there was a tornado warning for the area.   I watched the radar loop on TV and the weatherman was talking about three “hook echoes” in the radar.   Hook echoes are the signature of tornados.   Tornados make RVs and virtually everything else go flying.   Plus, the storms had the potential for 65 MPH winds and nickel-sized hail.   I wanted to drive away, but trapped between a line of heavy thunderstorms and the coast, we had no place to go.

So I came to the conclusion that we needed to evacuate the Airstream for the safety of the concrete block Wal-Mart.   We packed up the dinner we were about to eat, grabbed our rain jackets, and went inside. I also took the precaution of shutting off the propane at the tanks, in case the worst-case scenario happened.

Now, if I had thought about it some more, I would have taken a couple of other things, too.   Our walkie-talkies would have been handy if we were separated. Our cell phones worked but the cell phone tower was right next to the Airstream, so if one went, the other probably would too.   I also would have grabbed a flashlight, in case the power went out in the Wal-Mart.

This was our second near-miss.   For about 20 minutes, we had just rain and a spectacular lightning show.   Eleanor wandered into the store to ask about tires, and then suddenly, “it” hit.   The parking lot disappeared in black rain, the windows began to shake, and I heard a rumble like a freight train.   I remembered that people often describe the arrival of a tornado sounding like that.   I grabbed Emma by the jacket and we went to a spot I’d previously picked out inside the store, where two cinder-block walls formed an L and where there were tables to duck under.

I have to admit that it was terrifying for a minute or two. People were starting to panic, while others were obliviously trying to exit the store into the vortex.   We heard several loud bangs, and then the sliding doors in front of the store blew outward.   The managers secured the doors and locked them while we hung back in our safe spot wondering if it was time to duck under the table yet.

I was worried about Bob and his wife, parked out there by our Airstream, but in the midst of this, I saw Bob fire up his motorhome and drive over to Lowes. He parked under their pick-up area’s awning, safe from hail and mostly in the lee of the wind.

When it was over, I surveyed the parking lot.   A lot of carts got loose and damaged cars, but the worst happened to a different motorhome parked about 300 yards from   our Airstream.   It was blown over, and slid down a shallow embankment to come to rest in the Lowes parking lot.   When I got there the police were already on the scene and the occupants had exited by breaking through the windshield.

I’m pretty sure they got hit by at least a strong downburst, if not a bit of tornadic activity.   The motorhome was facing into the prevailing wind, whereas the Airstream got it directly broadside.   The Airstream survived just fine (as far as I can tell in the dark), but the motorhome took it hard.   Was it the aerodynamic advantage of the Airstream, or just luck?

Tomorrow we will recover from all of this. I’ll go shopping for a tire and install it on the trailer, and inspect the Airstream for damage on the windward side.   With luck it will be a bright sunny day and this little nightmare will be behind us.   But two near-misses in one day … it makes me think.

Healthy inspirations

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Our Airstream parked next to Wendy & Bill’s, in their driveway.

Tonight I’m going to stay brief because a better blog is coming to you from Emma. She dictated a blog to Wendimere and it appears on her “Health Chic” blog site.

haines-city-salad.jpgEleanor has been making interesting meals today. She created a really fabulous salad with very complex tastes in it with one of her homemade dressings, for lunch. She told me, “I like cooking around Wendy because she doesn’t think what I’m making is weird.” That really means she’s mixing flavors non-traditionally and that usually means something great is coming.

Emma’s blog entry describes her contribution to lunch as well (also inspired by Wendy), a drink she called “Spear-Refresh.” It’s really delicious. That’s a glass of it in the photo at right. I’ve been drinking it with every meal since yesterday.

Wendy has also had Emma helping with the plants in the garden, painting rain barrels, and playing Scrabble. Having Emma in the Health Chic world has been a great example of “stealth schooling,” which is when Emma learns all kinds of things but doesn’t realize she’s in school.

This evening we got a surprise call from Brett, who was unexpectedly in Orlando for business. So we invited him over for dinner and an evening Scrabble championship: boys versus girls. The guys won, mostly because we managed to use all 7 tiles to spell “DETOURED” and got 50 bonus points.

One maintenance note: the 30-amp power cord supplied with all late-model Airstreams tends to pull loose of its “strain relief” at the male end of the cord. This exposes the insulated wires and will eventually lead to the failure of the electrical connection. The manufacturer of that cord — whoever it is — needs to beef up the way the plug end is attached to the main cable. I’ve seen many of them falling apart, mine included.

So on his way over here, I asked Brett to stop at Camping World and buy a Power Grip replacement plug. He installed it for me in about five minutes, using just a wire stripper and screwdriver. It’s an easy fix and the replacement plug connection is much sturdier than the one it replaces.

Unexpected expenses

When we stop in urban areas for a few days, it’s usually to catch up on errands, maintenance, and practical things like work. Tampa has been a favorite stopping point for us over the years because we have so many friends here, including my associate Brett (I like calling him “associate” because it seems mysterious, like he’s mobbed up). Our friends help us get things done in a hurry so we can get back on the road, kind of like having a pit crew.

This time the major task was to get the “new” old Honda ready for a 1500-mile trek up to its retirement life in Vermont. I thought it was all set today but we got zapped by bad luck. I took it into a tire shop to get two new tires put on the rear axle, and once the car was on the hydraulic life they discovered that the right front wheel bearing was very loose and needed immediate replacement.

Not being born yesterday, I took the car back and did some research of my own, but it soon became clear that they were giving me the straight poop, so back it went to a different shop for the wheel bearing replacement. Once the car was disassembled, they discovered why the bearings were bad: a prior owner had replaced the right axle (half-shaft) with a new one that was slightly too long. They forced it to “fit”, which bent parts of it, and caused the bearings to fail. The cheap car got a lot less cheap today.

Without local friends this process would have taken a lot longer, been much more worrisome, and probably cost me more than it did. Full-timing doesn’t really mean you’re utterly independent of everything and everyone; on the contrary, you’re more dependent than ever, or at least more aware of your dependence. We do get by on the kindness of strangers and friends sometimes.

That, and credit cards. Our expenses are usually moderate, but when problems crop up, there’s nothing like a high-limit credit card and a zero starting balance to smooth out the bumps. I have known a few people who went out on the road without first resolving their financials, and they’ve all discovered that it is a serious mistake. You want plenty of credit handy and as little debt as possible when you drive out the driveway, because like anything else, you need a safety margin.

The unusually high expenses we’ve had lately (tires, car repairs, higher fuel costs) are definitely hurting our budget. When that happens, our answer is to slow down, or pause for a while in an inexpensive place. We can reduce our traveling budget dramatically when we want to. We aren’t forced to drive around at 41 cents per mile.

Still, we have promised to get to Vermont by June. Since we have three weeks to do it, we have some options which will cut our budget painlessly. First, we can look for courtesy parking opportunities along our route, and stay for 1-3 days at each one. Courtesy parking each night is like getting a half-tank of gas free (or at least it used to be, now it’s more like 1/3 of a tank).

Second, we can drive more slowly. At 60 MPH we can cut our fuel budget by 10% or more. I talked about this a few days ago.

Third, we can get to Vermont earlier and start courtesy parking there. If we drive with the minimum number of stops along the way, we can cut a week or two out of the travel plan, potentially saving hundreds of dollars. Eleanor and I will be talking about this over the next few days to develop a strategy.

We could even go nuts and cut out a splurge from our trip plan. The obvious thing here is our upcoming stop at Disney World. But instead of deleting too much fun, we’ll probably take one of the less painful options. Courtesy parking with new friends is always fun. And driving slower is hardly a big sacrifice when riding around in a big comfortable car with the iPod playing and the scenery of America going by.

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Trip update: Today Susan and Adam broke off to get to Disney World a couple of nights early. They haven’t been there in ten years and were really looking forward to going. We had taken them to Tarpon Springs a few nights earlier (above), and last night had a big group dinner with all our local friends, so they had some fun in the Tampa area before they left. We’ll catch up with them on Thursday.

I’ve just been working (and wrestling with car #3) for the past few days, so we’ve had minimal adventures. Emma has been working on school stuff with Eleanor cracking the whip periodically. We’re all trying to get things done so we can feel very justified in completely dropping everything for a few days at Disney.

Pizza on the grill

I am always encouraged when I hear someone say, “My parents read your blog every day.” I hear this comment all the time from friends that we’ve either camped with or who have given us courtesy parking.   I don’t know why this tickles me, but it does.   Today Susan told me her mother reads the blog because it gives her a sense of what’s up with Susan and Adam while they are traveling with us.   Welcome aboard, Mrs. W!   My parents read the blog, too.

We are in Tampa for a few days of urban recreation.   Our recent travels through state parks (in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida) have rubbed off on Adam and Susan, and now they want to spend more time in state parks and eschew the commercial campgrounds they used to frequent.   So now that we’ve arrived at a very comfortable Tampa RV resort, they are   anxious to   get back into Florida’s state park system.   I have to admit that Florida state parks are among the best in the nation, and we’re only slightly blasé about being in them because we’ve visited so many over the years.

But instead of rushing off to another state park, we are taking in those things that are uniquely suburban Florida, and one of those things is the ubiquitous Florida Flea Market.   These things are all over the state, and many are huge.   Just down the road from our campsite in the town of Oldsmar is one of the biggest.

The flea markets are riddled with Chinese knock-offs (sunglasses, toys, tools), questionable antiques, bad food, and sleazy DVDs, but they often also feature great used-book stores, fresh fruit stands, and the occasional genuine bargain.   You’ve got to browse the entire thing to find the few diamonds in the dustheap, which is part of the fun.   For me, the other part of the fun is getting some kettle corn or a bag of Florida citrus and eating it as I browse.

Emma is, of course, not particularly interested in flea markets, but it was a good place for her to collect a few ingredients for her magic wand.   The kit she received for her birthday includes a 24-page instruction book with many dire warnings about the risks of making a wand improperly, so she wants to do it right.   The interior of the wand must be filled with a personalized mixture of crushed stones, feathers, sand, glass beads, and other items.   She bought malachite and moonstone for her wand, and collected some pure white sand from the ground.

She takes it so seriously that I am tempted to ask her if she understands it’s all in fun, but I don’t want to ruin it for her.   I think magic wands fall in the same category as Santa Claus.   I’m pretty sure she realized Santa wasn’t real a couple of years ago, but she won’t let on that she knows because it would spoil the fun.   And we pretend she doesn’t know, because we don’t want to end it either.   (Those of you who are adults reading this: If I just disillusioned you, never mind. Santa is real.)

With Adam and Susan we have discovered the joy of making pizza on the grill.   Eleanor bought a bunch of little flatbreads at the supermarket and in the afternoon Adam grilled up a bunch of vegetables (Portabello mushrooms, eggplant, onions, etc) and assembled a variety of ingredients, including fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, tomato sauce, Kalamata olives, olive tapenade,   Gorgonzola cheese, mixed shredded cheese, fresh pears, raspberries, walnuts, dark chocolate, Amaretti cookies, roasted red peppers and roasted green peppers.

This is a lot of fun.   You cover a flatbread with a mix of ingredients and slide it onto the hot grill for a few minutes, then slice it up and let everyone try it.   Since the pizzas are small and the crusts are thin & crispy, you can try a lot of different pizzas before you get full.   We took turns creating new pizza mixtures, finally ending up with a few “dessert pizzas” featuring chocolate bits, pear, cookie bits, and yogurt.   This is a great thing to do with a crowd, since everyone can contribute to the cooking, even kids, and the new pizzas just keep coming out every 2-3 minutes.

As it got dark, I brought out the uke and Adam broke out his bongos, and we experimented briefly with the concept of a uke/bongo combo.   There’s some potential there, but I’ll have to get better at different strumming patterns.   When I say “potential” I mean potential to make some interesting (to us) music, and potential to drive away unwanted neighbors in the campground.   If ukulele is an un-acquirable taste, as my curmudgeonly friend Dr C claims, uke/bongo must certainly fall into the same category as our pear and Gorgonzola pizza: strange-sounding but really delicious if you try it.

St Andrew Bay, Panama City FL

Adam came up with an idea for Emma’s birthday, to rent a pontoon boat and head out on the relatively calm water of St Andrew’s Bay.   I had gotten up early to do some work, so by the time we were ready to head out at about 11 a.m., there was enough work behind me to justify blowing off the rest of the day and hitting the water.

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From the state park you can rent boats for the day and roam around the bay, stopping off at Shell Island and snorkeling in the sandy shallows.   Since we had a reliable captain with us (pictured above) who today has turned eight years old, and the weather was fine, it seemed like an ideal thing to do. So we packed up our gear, some food, and a lot of sunscreen, and took off.

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Shell Island is fairly good for shelling, but not amazing.   The island is an uninhabited   sand barrier facing the Gulf of Mexico, with green water and dazzling white sand on the Gulf side, and yellowish sand on the Bay side.   It’s an easy place to chuck out the anchor and wade to.

A bit further east we found the sandy snorkeling spot that we’d heard about.   (Approximate coordinates:   30 ° 5’14.54″N     85 °39’0.37″W)   No tropical fish here, but plenty of sand dollars, starfish, sea urchins, and a crab or two.   The wind picked up and it got to a one foot wave, but after borrowing her mother’s dry snorkel, Emma did very well.

To the west we entered the commercial part of the bay over by Audubon Island and checked out a large ocean-going container ship which was being loaded, as well as a lot of extravagant water-side houses. Six hours on the boat vanished in no time.

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The photo above is of a Laughing Gull that adopted us for a few minutes as we were cruising.   He seemed to want a handout.

Emma has had a great birthday so far, but there’s more to come as I write this.   She and Eleanor are working on a cake now (tip for those who would bake in their RVs: make sure you are absolutely level!), and tonight she has a few presents to open.

Since we were able to extend our stay, we’ll be here for two more nights, which means some time to explore the park tomorrow, at least for everyone except me.   I will have to pay the price for not working a full day today, by making up for it tomorrow.

Potluck camping

Our “no reservations” policy is being sorely tested.   All along our route since we got to east Texas, campgrounds have been hard to get into.   We snagged the last two spots at Pecan Grove in Austin, among the last spots at Bayou Segnette near New Orleans, and today we were skunked at three places in the Florida panhandle: Henderson Beach State Recreation Area, Topsail, and Grayton.

We normally don’t worry about being turned away, for two reasons.   First, we usually avoid popular places during popular times.   Our last trips through the panhandle were in March and December, and we had little trouble staying wherever we wanted, except around Spring Break.

Second, we are not normally concerned with being at a specific campground.   If one is full, we keep on truckin’ in the general direction we were heading and find something else.   This has given us some of our most memorable adventures and encouraged us to try places that we otherwise wouldn’t consider.   That may sound bad, but in most cases it has been very rewarding.

But we are traveling with other people now, and this has forced a change in pattern.   I can’t get our friends to appreciate the irresponsible joy of “potluck camping.” Like most people, they would like to have a plan, and know where they are going.   It’s not comfortable for them to go bare and take what comes at the end of the day.

I can understand that.   People with limited time want to get the most out of that time, and a couple of nights in a grungy campground with no view (or a Wal-Mart, if things really go awry) is disappointing when they were hoping for the beachfront.   We’re more willing to accept the occasional night sleeping behind an industrial building or gas station that most people because we know it all evens out over time … and as full-timers, we have the advantage of time.

Also, I think most people like to have some certainty at their destination.   There’s a comfort that comes from pulling into a campsite at the end of a long day where you have a clearly delineated space that is designated as yours, a gate up front to keep strange events at bay, and a welcoming staff that wants you to be there.

It takes a certain personality to look forward to the challenge of driving into a strange town,   and completely winging it on the campground.   It’s an even rarer personality who, if traditional camping fails, enjoys scouting out the parking lots, churches, and local parking laws, and then picking some spot where you may not be completely welcome.   Most people aren’t up for that possibility when they are tired from a long day of driving, but we’re used to it.

But not when we are two RVs traveling together.   It’s too much to ask that people follow us around town while we hunt for odd little overnight parking spots.   Eleanor and I have a very finely honed process for determining where we will stay, which we know well but have trouble explaining to others.   From where they are, looking at our taillights on the highway, I’m sure it looks like a completely random and confidence-sapping process.

Today, after being told the bad news by the staff at Henderson Beach SRA, we had a moment of group flustration while we considered the options.   The state beach parks are very popular this time of year and reservations are a good idea, but until a couple of days ago we didn’t know for sure when we’d be here.   There were commercial campgrounds with availability, but they were either outrageously expensive “resorts” (one place we tried was $79 per night, not surprisingly it had lots of open spaces), or really lame wrong-side-of-the-highway places.

In the end, it took Adam’s marvelous skill at ingratiating himself with people to get us into St Andrews State Recreation Area, in Panama City FL.   It’s a popular place, and the staff wouldn’t promise us a spot over the phone.   Eleanor called and got no useful information, but Adam called a few minutes later and somehow managed to do considerably better.

When we arrived at St Andrews, there were at least a dozen open sites, but since it was after hours we were not able to verify if we can have them for more than one night.   In the morning we’ll check in with the office and see if we can stay a bit longer.   Now that we are here, it looks like a nice place to hang out for a few days.   So it worked out.   After all, we wouldn’t have come here if we had made reservations somewhere else.

Our coordinates:   30 ° 8’5.46″N     85 °44’5.94″W

Check’s in the mail, cupcake’s in the Airstream

I mentioned earlier that we are transitioning from our PO Box in Ferrisburg VT to a mail-forwarding service in Florida.   It’s something that we should have done a long time ago, but our local postmaster has been so accommodating about sending our mail to us that we never bothered.

Last week I talked to a budding full-time traveler who was doing the same sort of thing as us, and many others: having someone back home sort through and send the mail.   It always seems like a good idea at first, but then problems tend to crop up.   My advice to part-time or full-time travelers is to just bite the bullet and find a mail forwarding service early on.

The cost is not bad, generally $10-20 per month, but be sure to read the fine print and make sure your magazines will get forwarded too.   The real challenge is getting all your accounts, family, and friends to adopt the new address.   That’s the process we are in now.

For us the problem is worse because we have a house in Arizona now.   Some businesses will insist on sending us mail there, even though we ask them not to.   So to catch those bits of mail, we put in a temporary forwarding order from the Arizona address back to our PO box in Vermont.

Unfortunately, our postmaster in Vermont accidentally sent something to the Arizona address a week after we left.   It was a license plate for an old used car that we recently bought to drive while we are in Vermont.   The plate went from the Vermont DMV to our PO Box, then was forwarded to Arizona, and is now being forwarded again back to the PO Box in Vermont.   Since the car is currently in Florida, we will ask for it to be forwarded again, where it will get installed on the car and driven back to Vermont.   Got all that?

The license plate is like those gnomes that people mail around the world.   It will be well traveled before it ever goes on a vehicle.

I’m not so worried about the plate but unfortunately a pile of mail also got sent from the PO Box to Arizona.   It will eventually be sent to our mail forwarding service in Green Cove Springs FL, and then probably to Tampa, where we expect to be in about 10 days.   Somewhere in this mail are several important checks that I’d like to have sooner.   I wish I could get certain vendors to make electronic payments to the magazine rather than mailing paper, but not everyone is ready for that yet.

Life in Austin has been great.   Every day we get a bike ride.   Today Adam and I rode around the town paths, which are numerous and excellent.   It makes an ideal break during long days at the computer.   Tonight we are expecting guests for dinner again, and in the meantime a constant parade of interesting people come and go around Pecan Grove RV Park.   I’m almost caught up on work, and the weather is fine. Can’t complain.

But we’re out of the west now.   Even though Austin is considered the southwest by some, to us it feels noticeably different.   There is some humidity, and grassy lawns.   Very little cactus.   Austin is well shaded by trees.   All the signs are present, telling us we are about to enter the humid Gulf states.   We’re a little sad about that because we all like the dry open spaces and the clear skies of the west, but there are many compensations where we are going, too.

For one thing, we’ll start to see beaches again — some of the best beaches in the world.   And we’ll be chowing down on some seriously good Cajun food.   Jill Smith-Mott, who is coming over for dinner tonight, wrote an article for the upcoming Summer 2008 issue of Airstream Life magazine which describes a great Cajun culinary tour.   She has inspired us to spend a couple of days in the New Orleans area and chase down some of those edibles, and we’ll do that this weekend.

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Speaking of the magazine, we’ll also have an article about Airstreams used for business, and one of the featured businesses is “Hey Cupcake!” which happens to be parked just about a mile from where we are right now, on South Congress Street.   We saw the trailer last night and tried the cupcakes, which were — as expected — really excellent.   The owners say they are going to launch more Airstream locations around town soon.   Give ‘em a try if you are in town.

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