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Archive for December, 2006

Back to Tampa

I heard from a few people that yesterday’s blog entry was “”dark” and “depressing”. I think that means it was a success.

I have been discussing with a few trusted friends the nature of the book I should write about this trip, and at this point the thinking is that the book should be very honest about our feelings and observations — not just a travelogue. This past week’s blog entries have been an attempt to discover what sort of observations are honest enough to ring true, and if everyone found my discourse on Lake Champlain to be a bit dark, well, that’s perfect because it means you got the point. But don’t worry, it won’t be like that all the time.

BTV Jet Blue.jpg

We are back in Tampa. At 517 miles per hour, taking a jet is the best way to see nothing from airport to airport. Only when we walked off the jetway at Tampa International could I smell the sweet humid air of Florida, and suddenly it was like we never left. Except that now we have an abundance of sweets with us, and a few more memories.

We are considering staying a little bit longer. Our next engagement is Dec 26 in Alabama, and between now and then we just want to relax a bit. Things have been hectic, and a little quiet time might be good for everyone. Also, we need to do some thinking about our plans for Texas in January. It looks like we may be there longer than we had originally thought — and why rush? Our only real deadline is our next set of airline tickets, set for mid-February from Tucson.

A tourist in my own hometown

When we lived here, I tried not to look at Lake Champlain this time of year, because the sight of the churning gray water contributed to my cabin fever. I never liked the winters, and certain gloomy sights made me anxious. As I post this in the mid-afternoon, the sun is setting and it will be set entirely by 4:14 pm, leaving the lake only a dark mystery outside the window.

But since we are here for only a week — leaving tomorrow — I am trying to embrace this season, and look more closely at the familiar things. As a tourist in my own hometown, I can afford to take chances with my experiences and responses. If I don’t like what I feel, it’s no problem. In a day, everything will be different.

Lake Champlain has changed character since the summer. The lake surface this time of year is forbidding. It seems exclusively composed of gray-green waves topped with icy whitecaps, each wave having a solidity to it that transcends mere water. When I look at them I get a sense of the deepness of this lake (300-400 feet), the darkness at the bottom, the cold embodied in each wave that can suck the life out of a person in 30 minutes. The lake, which seemed so friendly and inviting when the waves were blue, now lies there like a giant alligator waiting for someone to stumble into its path.

Lake Champlain Christmas.jpg

This time of year everyone treats the lake with respect. There are no boats on the water, other than the year-round ferries and the occasional Coast Guard ship. Fall storms can sink boats at their moorings, so most of the summer boaters have long since stored their craft. Even a full drysuit is not enough to dive the lake for more than a few minutes this time of year.

Last week when I rode the ferry coming back across the lake from Plattsburgh I was struck by the intensity of the lake, especially at night. With clouds in the sky and a light wind, it is absolutely pitch-black and no aids to navigation can be seen until the red and green lights on ferry dock appear. The ferry is very safe, yet sitting there in the dark and listening to the thrum of the diesel engines, I had the sense that I was riding only inches from disaster in the cold cold depths.

If temperatures are cold enough, the lake will freeze in February, at least in the inlets and harbors. The broad lake (3-5 miles across) only freezes in very cold years, but when it does the lake becomes transformed — usually overnight — into an amazing world of thick dark ice interspersed with snow patches and ice heaves that can reach 10 feet tall. Ironically, although the frozen lake can be extremely treacherous, it seems so miraculous and enticing that it’s hard to resist walking out for an exploration.

As kids, we would bring a narrow brass pole to tap holes in the ice (to check thickness), and long sticks held horizontally like tightrope walkers. If the ice broke, the stick was there to keep us from going all the way in, and give a tool for getting back out. I took a few icy plunges …

Springtime, however, is when most people get into trouble. In December the lake is so grim that only fools and rescue personnel venture out in small craft. But in the spring, everyone has the fever to get outside, and there are always those who want to extend the ice-fishing season a bit further than they should.

On some sunny Saturday next spring there will be news of the folks whose truck vanished through the ice, or the truly unfortunate who ended up on a drifting and disintegrating ice floe that seemed well-attached to the rest of the ice when they walked onto it. The latter folks have one of two fates: They end up humiliated on local TV after their rescue, or they end up in the “missing presumed dead” category.

With all this, it is little wonder that Vermonters (and New Yorkers, and Quebecers) flock to the lake in the brief months of summer. We know we have hardly any time to enjoy it, and once the season ends, it will be at least several gray cold months before a few weeks of solid ice. I never had the ability to endure that. Long before the season ended, I would be enveloped in a gray of my own, and it would become impossible for me to see anything other than my desire to flee to a sunny climate.

Yet there is a sort of rugged beauty in the lake this time of year. I can see it this week. It is like looking at an erupting volcano, deadly if you get too close, and fascinating with the proper distance and perspective. Having had some time to think about it, I believe my proper distance is still at least a couple hundred miles, but I wish I did have the internal perspective others seem to have, which allows them to see things like this up-close without risk of being consumed by them.

Balancing travel and “fixed” life

I’ve taken time off from the blog to concentrate on other things this week, including family and personal obligations. We’ve been doing the low-key things that comprised our life before we became wanderers: casual dinners with family and friends, attending a charity event, walking down the road with the dog, decorating the Christmas tree, seeing a movie.

Ferrisburg dinner.jpg
Dinner with Christine

Since we aren’t having fabulous Airstreaming adventures, my attention has gone to the more subtle aspects of this full-timing lifestyle. Although taking off in a travel trailer is popularly viewed as the adult equivalent of running away with the circus, in reality we are as connected to our home base as we ever were. We haven’t fled our obligations, we’ve only relocated them.

This week, for example, we had our dentist appointments. A mundane thing, until you consider that for us dental and primary medical care are usually hundreds or thousands of miles away. I found that while I’d been away my regular dentist had retired and his practice had been taken over by a much younger guy, the very affable Dr Congelton. I also discovered I’d lost a small filling, but there’s no time to get it replaced before we fly back to Tampa. Fortunately, the doc and his staff were enthusiastic about our trip and happy to offer advice on the best way to deal with the situation.

This is the sort of cooperation that makes the trip work. Behind the scenes there is our support network: a Postmistress who handles our mail forwarding via email; a dentist and doctor who help us figure out how to maintain our health with no fixed address; a tax guy; friends who store our “spare” Airstreams, and other friends who provide logistical and emotional support; the storage unit; and the all-important family who give us a place to come back to. You can’t really run away with the circus and leave all your obligations behind without also losing important things, but you can pretend.

We’ve also been lucky. Sure, the hard drive/ GPS/ cell phone failed, a wheel came off, and Eleanor had a vicious five-day migraine, etc., but ““ at the risk of sounding like an old fart ““ we’ve still got our health. Emma’s doing great. We’re all still happy. I don’t worry about where my next meal is coming from (although it won’t be the Grand Degustation at Charlie Trotter’s), and considering that a large percentage of this world still does, that’s something to be thankful for. When things look gloomy, I try to remember that.

Coming back from Vermont we will mentally start another leg of our travels, this time traveling slowly across the south toward California. We have huge plans, including visiting many friends, looking for property in the southwest, attending several events, and working hard to grow the magazine. Most important will be a careful exploration of small towns that we might want to settle in next winter. Our list of places to check includes towns such as Fredericksburg, Marfa, and Ft Davis TX, Silver City NM, and Ojai CA.

We’ve already been doing this for a while, in the background. We’ve scoped out Eureka, Julian, Borrego Springs and Nevada City in CA. Also, Alamagordo NM, Patagonia, Sedona, and Bisbee AZ, St George UT, Boulder City NV, and dozens of others. Some we can quickly identify as not for us based on real estate prices or lack of local culture, and others (like Nevada City and Silver City) deserve a second look.

Eventually the trip will bring us to a culmination where we find a second home base for winters, and gradually we’ll settle into a “working snowbird” existence. But the extended trips in the Airstream will never end, I hope. This experience has brought too much value (friends, learning, personal growth) to our lives to put it behind us. The quiet weeks like this one remind me that we need to find a way to balance the opportunities of travel with the values of a fixed location.

More Christmas gift ideas for Airstreamers

Now that we are in Vermont for a week, Christmas has suddenly loomed much closer. Not only are we having our family Christmas this weekend, but Vermont itself is a place where the holiday seems almost palpable.

Last week in Key Largo we dropped in on the local Public grocery to look for Key Lime Pie and found the fire lane outside jammed with locals buying balsam fir Christmas trees off a truck. The air, normally smelling of salt air and mangrove marsh, was rich with the scent of fir, an incongruous scent indeed among the swaying palm trees. I remember being surprised. Without having the climatological cues of Vermont, I had completely forgotten what time of year it was.

Here, blustery winds and cold dry air, the sky studded with gray clouds, the trees barren of leaves — all seem to be setting the stage for a big snowstorm to drop in at the last moment and decorate everything for the holiday. I doubt we will have any substantial snow this early, but in Vermont you never know. That’s what everyone would like, for sure. Without snow, this is just a cold windy place, but with snow it’s magical, and suddenly everyone is thinking red & green, Robert Frost poems, egg nog and hot cider, and hearing Christmas carols everwhere.

Speaking of Christmas carols, if you are ever in Vermont, drop by the Porter Music Box Company in Randolph. You can also hear one of their magical boxes playing Christmas music from a giant copper disc at Kennedy Brothers in Vergennes, during the holidays. The sound is absolutely enchanting and is guaranteed to put you in the holiday spirit. (You can also hear a brief sample and order a CD of the Porter Music Box songs on their website.)

This reminds me of other Christmas gift ideas for trailer owners that I should have mentioned in my previous blog. (Disclaimer: some of these are advertisers in Airstream Life magazine, but I mention them because I like their products.)

Charlotte Hammerhead.jpg

The Hammerhead sled is a really unique thing. It’s expensive but super fun. My brother runs the company. You can get them from the company website, or EMS, LL Bean, REI, Hammacher Schlemmer, and other outlets. We’re going to go sledding this weekend on a pair of Hammerheads, so I’ll post some pictures of that later.

For someone who tows a trailer, Dura-Flap makes a really nice product. I’ve seen their mudflaps and they are super tough. I plan to get a set for the Armada soon. They should keep us from getting any more major rock dings, like we did in Oregon.

Another idea is a Torqstik. The whole set is expensive, but you can buy just one Torqstik for $20 directly from the manufacturer. An Airstreamer who owns his own air wrench could certainly use one of these, and even if you don’t have an air wrench it would be nice to have one onboard to hand to the tire shop guy so he doesn’t cause a problem like we had last summer.

Terry Torqstik.jpg
Terry installed our tire using the “Red” (50-lb) Torqstik, and then finalized it with his torque wrench.

Just order the particular Torqstik appropriate for your trailer’s wheels (check the Owners Manual for info on what torque you should be using). For example, our trailer wheels should be torqued to 100-110 ft-lbs, and we have 3/4″ lug nuts. So the “Gray” stick, part #PAT-19100 would be my choice.

Have fun shopping for your favorite Airstreamer!

Colin Hyde’s shop

Everytime I’m in the northeast I have to drop in on Colin’s restoration shop to see what’s up. We have several things going on over there. Our last project trailer, “Vintage Thunder”, is there. It is now owned by our friends Don and Amanda. They’ve asked Colin to do a few tweaks on it. Both Colin and I were impressed at how well the paint job is holding up. The trailer still looks like new.

Another trailer we used to own is there as well. I’m talking about Matthew McConaughey’s trailer “Vintage Lightning” (a 1952 Cruiser). It’s still being restored but already it looks great. I’m writing up an article about the progress of that project for the Spring 2007 issue of Airstream Life.

Plattsburgh Vintage Thunder.jpg

There are a few trailers that we still own, sitting there: a 1968 Caravel, a 1963 Serro Scotty, and the newest member of the family, the 1953 Flying Cloud we found in Virginia. So of the 33 vintage trailers on Colin’s lot at the moment, five of them either belonged to us formerly or still do!

Plattsburgh trailer lot.jpg

Colin and I cleaned out the 53 Flying Cloud today. The previous owner was a packrat, so we had a couple of cubic yards of various “treasures” to toss into the dumpster. We also cleaned out the usual mouse nests, fossilized mice, dust and tattered curtains.

In the process we discovered some paperwork that helped establish the history of this trailer. It was owned by a man named Dell, who registered it in Florida in the 1960s. He was a WBCCI member and his number was on some of the old folding chairs in the trailer. It was sold to another person in New York, and later to Jack in New Jersey, who parked it a decade ago and finally sold it to us. All of this was determined by slips of paper we found: an old Florida title, some sales receipts, and correspondence.

Now that we can actually see the interior, it’s clear the potential this trailer has to be a very nice restored unit (with the application of appropriate $$). All the vintage appliances are there, the cabinetry is in good shape, and the body will look very cool when cleaned up and polished. If someone comes by Colin’s shop and wants to have him restore it, I’ll sell it, but otherwise I’ll hold onto it for “someday”.

Christmas gifts for Airstreamers

Since we spent the entire day doing nothing interesting except working and packing, I’ll take this moment to offer some suggestions to those of you shopping for loved ones who travel in their RV a lot.

Folks like us live in small spaces, and need to travel light. So the ideal gift is very useful, lightweight, small, and requires no maintenance. Even better are consumable gifts. Here are a few things your traveling friends might love:

— gift cards to places that RV’ers frequent: Camping World, Cracker Barrel, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. Or, if you prefer, get a gift card for services RV’ers commonly use: fuel, cell phone, campgrounds
— entertainment: CDs, DVDs, Netflix gift subscriptions, or for that digitally-savvy traveler an iTunes gift card
— a National Parks Pass, or for someone with children, an ASTC museum Passport. Both are great money-savers and valid nationwide.
— if you have an in-person visit, consider a nice rosemary bush as a miniature Christmas tree.
— food. You just can’t go wrong there unless you ship them a giant crate of pineapples. Food is great because it doesn’t take up space for long. Homemade goodies are especially appreciated, at least by us. Or if you want something themed, you could get Silver Joe’s coffee, or Happy Camper wine.
— photos. Most RV’s I see have photos mounted on the walls somewhere to remind them of the people they plan to visit.
— a cool Airstream shirt, sweatshirt, hat, poster, book, or set of travel decals from the Airstream Life store (shameless plug #1)
— a subscription to Airstream Life. (Shameless plug #2) If you don’t like them that much, get them a subscription to Trailer Life instead.
— cute Airstream Christmas lights. These look great hung on the awning at night.
— a useful book that might inspire something, like Traveler’s Guide to Mexican Camping.

On the other hand, if price is no object:

Birdy folding bicycle ($1,250 and up). Airstream branding is available.
— highly portable digital camera with movie mode ($200-400)
— Kodiak disc brake upgrade (>$2k for a tandem axle trailer)
— Verizon Broadband National Access PC card and 24 months service (about $1,500)
— a Hensley hitch (under $3,000)

Today we are flying northward for a week.

Pit stop

On the way back from the Everglades we stopped in to see fellow Airstreamers Terry and Marie in Cape Coral. Terry had noted that our streetside tires were getting a little thin, which is not surprising given the 30,000+ miles of towing they have experienced. (The curbside tires are nearly new, since both were replaced during our various debacles this summer.)

So Terry arranged for a pair of new Goodyear Marathons to be waiting for us in Cape Coral on Saturday, and he opened the repair shop where he works, just for us. I figured this would be a quick 30 minute trip in and out, but when Terry took off the wheels he immediately spotted worn outer brake pads. We were very close to having no pads at all, so replacement was mandatory.

Cape Coral brake pad.jpg
A cracked and worn disc brake pad

The Kodiak disc brakes we have use a GM pad, which fits a Buick Cutlass or the equivalent Chevy. Primed by Terry, I walked into the local auto parts store and requested two sets for “a 1986 Chevy Celebrity without heavy-duty brakes,” and after trying three or four stores, we found them in stock and Terry popped them on.

I called David Tidmore at Roger Williams Airstream, where the brakes were installed last May (roughly 15,000 miles ago), to double-check on the pad choice. He agreed with the brake pads and noted that Kodiak has gone to ceramic brake pads for better wear life. We couldn’t find ceramics in stock anywhere, but next time I’m going to order them. We seem to find ourselves going down a lot of steep grades out west …

Cape Coral jumprope.jpg
Emma, Eleanor, and Marie found ways to entertain themselves.

Cape Coral torquestiks.jpg

Terry, being an Airstreamer and a mechanic of many years, did it right. He uses Torqstiks on his air wrench to control the amount of torque it can apply to the nuts, and then finishes the job with a very cool digital torque wrench. The Torqstiks are calibrated to twist just the right amount to prevent over-torquing the nuts. I checked the nuts three times on the way home with my torque wrench, and so we managed to get back to Tampa with all four wheels still attached.

Cape Coral old tire.jpg
The old tire with worn tread

A few stats for our maintenance-minded folks: the tires we took off had >30,000 miles on them. The rear tire showed about 6/32″ tread remaining, which is marginal, and the front tire showed 7/32″. We’ve noted the rear tires do wear a little faster. We could have left the tires on a few thousand more miles if we cared to push it. The new tires, for comparison, come with 10/32″ tread. The ones on the curbside, which were installed about 5,000 miles ago, show 9/32″.

The trailer is now parked in its storage location for the next week. We’re packing bags for a trip to Vermont. The next week of our blog will be reports from the cold, windy, rainy northeast, but I do plan to get over to Plattsburgh NY to see some interesting trailer activity going on at Colin Hyde’s shop.

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