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Archive for January, 2007

Whole Foods II

Last February when we were in Austin we visited the Whole Foods Market at 6th and Lamar. That’s just a few blocks from our location. It was such a fun time we decided to do it again. It’s a tradition now. Plus, we like to browse interesting food.

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“Yes, we have some bananas”

In keeping with the local slogan, “Keep Austin Weird”, we picked out a smorgasbord of various odd items to sample and brought the whole pile home to spread out on the dinette. I was in a seafood mood so you’ll notice that influence on the choices.

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From top center going clock-wise: marinated seafood salad; ciabatta bread; crab, artichoke & parmesan bisque; grapes, “Pink Lady” apples, Concorde pears; Cowgirl “Red Hawk”, “Oregonzola”, Parrano, and Shropshire cheeses; roasted nuts; roasted edamame salad; smoked rainbow trout, pepper-smoked mackerel, smoked Chubb, Yukon Salmon “candy”; emerald kale and sesame grilled tofu; more soup; grilled asparagus salad.

And not for tonight, we bought bacon cheese and mushroom sausage; Italian sausage with romano; and Buffalo chicken and blue cheese sausage; Cajun-rubbed catfish.

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For dessert: Italian cream cake, chocolate mousse cake, and chocolate truffle marquise. But who had room? There will be enough for lunch tomorrow and another day.

Pecan Grove RV Park, Austin TX

We decided to take a few days in Austin, because we liked it here so much last time. Part of the fun is Pecan Grove RV Park, a funky oasis in the middle of Austin. This is an old-time park that the city grew around over the years, and one of the last RV parks where you can camp just blocks from downtown of a major city. It has a mix of permanent residents and transients like us, plus a few eccentric millionaires. Right down the row, Matthew McConaughey keeps his Airstream, but he’s not here at the moment — he’s in Australia shooting a movie.

Another feature of this park is an abundance of Airstreams. For whatever reason, Airstreamers are attracted to this place, and there are at least a dozen parked here, accounting for a sizeable fraction of all the trailers in the park. The drive over from Blanco on wet roads left our Airstream looking grim with streaks of dirt, so we’re currently the shabbiest looking unit here. If we don’t get some rain tonight I may sneak out and do a little washing.

This park, and the one next to it are endangered. Once at the outskirts of Austin, they are now sitting in the midst of prime real estate and hungry condo developers are making offers. In a few years I would expect them to be gone, so enjoy them while you can! Many others are, and the parks are full much of the year. We got the last spot this week.

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Gunny and Eleanor at Rudy’s

This evening Gunny came over and we headed out for dinner at a local chain called Rudy’s for barbecue. Rudy’s is sort of unusual. You pick up everything a la carte and make your own meal from the pieces. Free samples of everything except meat on the bone (ribs). If you want a sandwich, you get some bread and whatever you want in it. No waitstaff either, and you bus your own table. All the seating is family-style with folding chairs. It has no frills, but there’s good food and a fun atmosphere.

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Rudy’s slogan: The Worst Bar-B-Q In Texas

Once we were seated one of the staff dropped by with three free cookies for dessert. He told Gunny that his was the best jacket they’d seen all evening. Gunny’s jacket says “US Marine Corps” on it.

We’ll stay in Austin for a few days. There’s work to be done and more friends to be seen, plus I want to get over to Lamar Street at night to photograph some of the great neon signs over there.

Blanco, TX

This blog is for my friend Dr. C (but you can read it too).

Dear Doc:

Everyone tells us that Blanco is a neat little town, but when we drive through it looks like a small patch of not much. The Court House building, an ornate cube sitting primly in the middle of the green, has a sign in front of it that says you can rent it for events. The block of buildings across the street are the sort of half-rotted stone and wood construction you see everywhere in the old western towns, vacant of stores. I am reminded of your phrase about your hometown of Patagonia, that it is “a landfill in waiting.”

But if you look more closely, Blanco has surprises and small treasures. You have to stop and talk to people to get the real picture of this place. Last night at dinner with Jim, we met the mother of the owner of Riley’s Restaurant. She was a charming old lady, sitting in her chair by the entrance and chatting us up without guile or reserve. Today at the post office, “Chief” (of police? of the fire department — I wasn’t sure) came in to pick up a package and started a friendly round of ribbing and joking that everyone waiting in line joined in on. Everywhere we go, people are exceptionally calm and friendly. Those are the attributes of people who live in a low-stress region of the world, and who are comfortable with their places in life.

I took to asking people why they recommended we come to Blanco. The real estate agent in Wimberley, our friend John in Austin, the folks at the store …. all said that Blanco is the kind of small place that feels like the town they remember from their childhood: friendly, sweet, uncomplicated.

They’re right about that. Blanco even has institutions that haven’t been seen in other parts of the country in decades. The most-often mentioned local restaurant is a simple cafe carved out of the front of the local bowling alley. It’s a place where you can still get a decent dinner for $5.95, with two sides. The bowling alley itself is a throwback: 9 pin bowling with manual pin setters. They hire kids to set the pins up between frames. If you want to bowl, you need to reserve a week in advance and your reservation is “dependent on availability of pin setters.”

And if you look closely, or talk to anyone in town, you’ll find out that the block of decaying storefronts is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation. The daughter of a car dealer, so the gossip goes, was given a pile of money to spend and she chose to spend it renovating Blanco’s one-block downtown. Makes you think maybe Blanco has an upswing coming.

I’d hate to see it become too much of a success. Fredericksburg, 40 miles to the west, is a tourist mecca with all the trappings and high real estate prices. Blanco is still a real town, with real (nice) people, and while it’s not an exciting place, it is a place worth visiting.

I worked in the trailer most of the day, but the tedium of work was broken up by two unexpected visits. Warren K is parked just a few sites away from us in his shiny new Airstream Classic 25. He’s a nice guy who has a rough medical history, out full-timing on his own and trying to enjoy life as best he can. When I meet people like Warren I’m always impressed with the healing power of travel. It doesn’t cure problems, and you can’t escape them, but it does provide perspective, new friends, and opportunities for reflection. That’s got to help.

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Luc and Jane

Jane and Luc dropped by too — they’re 20-somethings (I think) roaming the country in a 1969 B-van with no particular plan except to see what there is to see. They knocked on our door just because we have Vermont plates and Luc is a Vermonter too. You don’t see too many people from Vermont in Texas, I guess. They brought over some brownies and we compared notes about places we’d been before Jane had to head off to her temporary job up in Johnson City. Once they have some money saved up, they’ll move east, but they were so nice that I hope we can cross paths again.

So goes a day in our life. Blanco ain’t Disneyworld but sometimes that’s better. Now I’m reminded of what you like about Patagonia. See you there, in a few weeks.

What to bring

Our hunt for a winter home has officially begun. Everything west of Austin TX to Borrego Springs CA is in our search area. So we spent the day touring and considering the merits of small towns in the Texas hill country, that area west of Austin and San Antonio where rolling hills and cedars and cattle make up the landscape. Amazingly I forgot my camera and so I have no photos for you today — sorry about that.

This evening, our friend and blog reader Jim Whitworth showed up at the trailer to take us out to dinner, which was a really nice surprise. Jim has offered a lot of useful advice about real estate in this area, and we’ll probably go to his house in a few days to learn more.

Rita, a blog reader from Portugal, recently wrote to us to ask some basic questions about the things we bring along for our full-time travel. Since we get asked this a lot, I thought I’d share Rita’s questions and our answers:

Rita: how do you know how many clothes to bring and how many pairs of shoes?…

We packed only what we need, which means not “something for every occasion.” We have clothes for dry and wet weather, cold weather as low as 30 degrees (with layering), and warm weather. We have enough clothes to last for at least two weeks in average weather, without doing laundry. We left about 3/4 of our clothing behind in storage and periodically return there to pick up new things and drop off clothes we are bored with.

Eleanor says you should pack your absolutely favorite clothes. That way you’ll enjoy what you’re wearing every day. She made the mistake of bringing “camping clothes” the first few months. When she realized the difference between camping and full-timing, she swapped all the clothes out for things she likes to wear and was much happier with her choices.

Each of us has three pairs of shoes, which is plenty for a wide variety of situations if you are thoughtful about what you bring. I have a pair of hiking boots, a pair of casual everyday shoes, and sandals. Since we don’t go to formal events, I was able to leave the wingtips at home. ;-) Emma has sandals, sneakers, and puddle boots. Eleanor has two pairs of sandals (one for hiking, one for dress), sneakers, and casual shoes. We all have a pair of slippers as well.

Rita: how about books and magazines?…do you buy them? after you read them do you keep them?…

Well, as a magazine publisher and avid reader, yes, I buy books and magazines all the time. But I don’t keep them. Books either get left at campground “book swaps”, mailed to friends, or shipped home for storage. All magazines get recycled with friends or thrown out — except of course AIRSTREAM LIFE! It’s a crime to throw out Airstream Life.

Rita: do you buy souvenirs?

Yes, but only very small ones. We each have things we collect. I collect stamps in our National Parks Passport. I also take digital photos — 12,000 at last count, of which I’ve retained about 5,000. These take no space and they are free, but very memorable. Emma collects small rocks (no larger than 1″ diameter) in a fishing tackle box. When the box gets full, some rocks get shipped back home. Eleanor collects National Park pins.

We do buy other things to decorate the trailer, but anything large gets shipped back to storage. That’s rare. We try to only buy things that are truly memorable and interesting — which doesn’t include t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other typical tourist stuff. For example, we bought a hand-made sotol walking stick in Big Bend National Park. This was very meaningful to us because it was made by a fellow we met from the Mexican town of Boquillas, who I interviewed and later featured in the magazine. We kept it in the trailer for a few months and then dropped it off in Vermont at our storage unit. Later it will be a treasured artifact in our next house.

Rita: how do you manage to keep the things on your airstream streamlined so that you are not overflowing in “stuff”, since we all know how “stuff” is so easy to accumulate? did the three of you make a rule on how to keep it light?

Yes, and the rule is simple: bring only what you need and for everything optional that comes in later, something else has to go. Even with this rule, we have managed to accumulate more stuff than we should have. So it’s important to periodically go through the entire trailer and look at everything with a critical eye: Do I need this? Have I used it in the past three months? Will I definitely use it in the next three months? If the answer is “no”, it goes away.

It’s amazing how much stuff we brought that we thought we “might need someday” and which has never been used. In fact, we are currently making another pass through our possessions, because the trailer is starting to get too close to our maximum weight for my comfort. So far we’ve filled two 14x14x14″ boxes with stuff to send home.

The bottom line is that you can’t bring it all with you. Nor should you. If you find you need something that you don’t have, you can usually get it readily enough. And a great lesson from this form of travel is learning what you really need — and that’s a lot less than you might think.

Flying helicopters!

OK, this entry was supposed to be entitled “Maintenance Day 3″ but it got eclipsed by other events…

That’s not to say the guys at Roger Williams Airstream didn’t do great work yesterday. They did. They re-assembled the Hensley hitch with the new parts, and it looks great. Note it is now metallic pewter rather than orange.

Weatherford fresh painted hitch.jpg

They also installed a pair of SilenX computer fans in the refrigerator vent. These will help greatly with the refrigerator cooling when we get back into warm weather. Last summer we had several days when, in temperatures over 90 degrees, our refrigerator was unable to stay at proper temperature. In Death Valley, the interior of the compartment went up to 58 degrees and we lost all the perishables.

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The problem was that the refrigerator cooling depends on a draft of air rising up the chimney and out a roof vent. The chimney is partially obstructed by design, and in very warm temperatures the draft is weak. So the two fans, which are on a switch, were mounted at the top to pull air up and out of the roof vent. In the picture, the vent cap has been removed to allow installation of the two fans. They are mounted on silicone feet to reduce vibration.

But the big event of the day was an invitation by fellow Airstreamer and blog reader Dwight to come see his workplace. Dwight happens to be a helicopter flight instructor at FlightSafety in Hurst TX. They are the factory-authorized Bell helicopter training facility. Dwight — realizing I have a fixed-wing pilot’s license — emailed me to offer me a tour of the facility and some time in one of their simulators.

Now, if you’re not a pilot or interested in aviation, this may not mean much to you, but for me it was like being invited to Willy Wonka’s factory and given a lifetime supply of chocolate. FlightSafety is the premiere flight training company. If you want a professional pilot to be very well trained, that’s where you send ‘em. Transition classes to get an existing helicopter pilot into a new Bell turbine helicopter run about $20,000 — and that includes about six hours in a really incredible simulator like this one.

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The Bell 430 flight simulator

So obviously I dropped everything and drove 40 miles over to Hurst to fly the big sim. I had zero helicopter experience, but Dwight made it easy. With his touch-screen instructor’s panel, he can put the simulator at any airport in the world, in any weather, and it all seems perfectly real, full motion and sound included.

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The instructor’s control panel

What can I tell you … it was amazing. Everything from the initial engine-start procedures right through the landing is exactly like the real thing. We took a Bell 430, which is a beautiful aircraft that can carry up to 10 people, around the countryside. At one point I crashed it, which was interesting. The jolt you get when hitting the “ground” is pretty considerable.

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The Bell 212 helicopter simulator by FlightSafety

Then we switched to another room with the Bell 212 sim and flew it around New York City. I orbited the Chrysler building, flew down the Hudson River, and then came around to the Wall Street heliport. Dwight demonstrated a couple of wingovers, which were serious fun too. The things you can do with a helicopter are just amazing. I could really get into flying one for real.

It was interesting to fly both simulators, since the Bell 430 has FADEC controls and the 212 doesn’t. What a sweet ride in both, though!

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Wall of patches of pilots who have trained at FlightSafety

Upon my departure Dwight awarded me a certificate from FlightSafety International, which reads “future aviator Rich Luhr piloted the Bell model 430 simulator as sole manipulator of all flight controls.” That’s a souvenir I’ll treasure.

We spent last night inside the service bay, which is always a peculiar experience. When we wanted the “sun” to set last night, we had to step out into the shop and snap off the overhead lights. Then this morning, we woke up in pitch black thinking it was still early morning … until David and Bret came in and turned the lights back on.

(In case you are wondering, while we are in the enclosed shop we don’t run the propane appliances, for safety.)

Today we are pulling out of Roger Williams Airstream and heading south to the hill country west of Austin. We’ll be there for at least a few days.

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Sign of the week!

Maintenance day #2

So far the maintenance stop is working out fine. We’ve found some problems and fixed them. The latest little bug found was on the front. Some small diagonal cracks have started in the aluminum near both of the bottom corners of the front compartment.

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Since the cracks are minor and a complete fix would be extensive, we decided to try stop-drilling the cracks and sealing them against rain with caulk. They aren’t structural cracks. We’ll keep an eye on them to see if they go further.

The guys also did some tweaking on the front compartment door to eliminate the persistent leak we’ve had there when towing in the rain. The gasket wasn’t sealing well on the left side, and with some “persuading” of the interior frame they seem to have gotten the gasket to seal evenly all around.

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The hitch parts were completely sanded down and repainted, with primer and multiple top coats. I expect the new paint job will last longer than the original.

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Last night we chanced the weather (which remains cold and rainy here) and went out for dinner at our friends Paul and Anne’s home in Paradise. Yes, Paradise is only 30 miles up the road from here. Paul and I grilled a few steaks, and Eleanor made two puff pastries for dessert. One was filled with the peach jam we got in Ruston (superb), and the other was filled with lingonberry jam. In the photo above, Emma is lamenting the fact that Eleanor won’t let her have a second serving of dessert.

Tonight I had a special adventure, but I’ll save that for tomorrow’s blog, along with the accomplishments of today (day #3)…

Maintenance day #1

We’ve been towed into the service bay for our maintenance review. The trailer was covered in snow and icicles, so it immediately began melting, which gave Emma some ideas. She spent the morning playing with the ice and then making snowballs and snowmen outside in the fast-melting snow.

Weatherford Emma icicle.jpg

(See, we really are prepared for cold weather if we find some. It didn’t take much trailer space to include these clothes. I’ll be posting on this subject in greater detail soon.)

I had earlier emailed a list of some of the things I wanted done, but in the morning I reviewed them with Robert and Denver, since David was stuck at home by the snow. Our list includes a safety check of several major systems (propane, electrical, running gear/brakes, hitch), a wheel bearing re-pack, installation of a refrigerator cooling kit, fix the leak in the front compartment, and maybe install an inverter. We’ll also throw in a few upgrades while we’re at it.

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The original plastic vent sitting atop some new stainless ones

The first upgrade was one of David’s new & very cool stainless stove vents. The original vent was gray plastic, and it had two disadvantages. First, it was not a great cosmetic match for the Airstream. Second, it had little plastic tabs on the outside which needed to be secured for every trip, and then removed so the vent could be used. Inevitably we would forget to either lock it or unlock it.

The new vent is all stainless steel, so it matches the upgraded furnace and water heater covers we installed last May when we were here. The stainless flap is heavy enough that it doesn’t need tabs to secure it for travel, and yet it doesn’t come open during towing. Very cool-looking too.

Weatherford new vent.jpg

The next item was a routine wheel bearing re-packing. It has been probably 18,000 miles since our last re-pack in May. No problems were found. While they were at it, the guys cleaned and checked the brakes, which they report look perfect. The new semi-metallic brake pads are wearing reasonably well (they’ve been on for about 2,000 miles) but I’ll still switch to ceramic when these are worn out. These will need to be checked very 5,000 miles, judging from the current wear.

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20,000 miles of towing since install

Now to the Hensley. The hitch has been working perfectly, but I felt it was time to take a look inside and see if there was any wear. At the very least, it needs a repaint.

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Nubs worn off the zerk fittings

Inside we found some significant wear in three places. The zerk (grease) fittings have an inner spring-loaded nub that is supposed to ride in a groove on the weight distribution bars. You can’t see this in normal operation. If the zerks are screwed in too tightly, the nub will wear off, and that seems to be what happened here. Compare the new and old zerk fittings above.

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The internal bushings of the Hensley were worn too. We’ve kept our hitch well lubricated, so I would guess that this is not unusual wear. Another high-mileage owner has told me his bushings wore the same way, and that with wear the weight distribution on the tow vehicle changes. Obviously we’ll be replacing these as well — fairly easy to do.

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Finally, note the stretched metal on the first hole in the picture above. This is a direct result of the struts on the Hensley not being tight. Properly adjusted, the strut bar (not pictured) should be under tension and pressing forward (left in this picture) in the hole. If the strut is loose, it will stretch the metal as has happened here. This probably occurred last summer when for a while I accidentally mis-adjusted the strut bars. When I realized my mistake, I re-adjusted them but the damage was probably already done. Fortunately, this is not a big deal to fix either.

The full Hensley repaint takes a while, so I don’t expect to have the hitch back on until Friday. But it’s a good thing we took it apart to examine it. With the miles we have put on, extra preventative maintenance is really important.

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