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Archive for August, 2007

Mobile office

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

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

Mobile office2.jpg
Click for larger

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

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

mobile office contents.jpg
Contents of my mobile office bag. Click for larger

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

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

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

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

Final tasks before departing

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

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

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

Panton Jim Breitinger.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Pie social

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

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

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

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

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

All a-board!

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

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

Lake Champlain Rich wakeboard1.jpg

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

Lake Champlain Steve wakeboard.jpg

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

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

Charlotte garden.jpg

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

Charlotte cardinal.jpg

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

Contemplating the end of full-time travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Jason Holm

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

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

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

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

Thank goodness camping isn’t a sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Trailer Supply

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

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

Vintage Trailer Supply.jpg

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

Montpelier Colin trailer.jpg

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

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