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Archive for November, 2007

Los Olivos and Solvang CA

We seem to be really scoring with the kids these days. Two years ago when we were roaming California for the first time (in December), we went through a long spell of seeing hardly families, and we were wondering if this was going to be the pattern during the school year.

This year the situation has been much better. First we met up with 8-year-old Allison at Halloween, then again in Yellowstone. Here in Los Olivos we are lucky to find 7-year-old Madison, and this weekend we’ll see another 7-year-old down in Ventura. Emma has been having a great time, and luckily we’ve enjoyed the company of all the parents as well.


Last night we backed the Airstream into the driveway of our hosts Dennis and Cindy just before sunset. I’ve got to be constantly aware of the short days now, because if we had arrived just 30 minutes later the moderately tricky backing job past trees and around corners would have been escalated to a bona fide “ordeal”. Even in this part of southern California sunset is arriving before 5 p.m., which makes our driving days very short.

Last night Cindy made a great dinner for us all, and so tonight Eleanor is going to reciprocate with an Indian meal. I complain that the Airstream’s cabinets contain too many ingredients and not enough food, and for non-cook like myself that is true. But on nights like this the value becomes clear. Eleanor is able to whip up an amazing ethnic dinner (Indian, Japanese, etc) right out of the masses of diverse ingredients in the cabinets. Since I love foreign food of all types, I can only sit back and admire as she creates something worthy of a genuine Indian restaurant in the space of an Airstream kitchen. Even outdoors in a 20-foot radius around the trailer you can smell the wonderful odors of rogan josh, curry, dal makhani, and palek paneer.

Los Olivos is in horse country, and it seems that nearly every house in the rural areas (which is most of it) has a horse paddock or a small farm growing nuts or berries. Just a short distance from our parking spot is a tiny downtown, which is filled with art galleries and wine tasting rooms. It’s nice, pedestrian-friendly, and pleasantly uncrowded — at least this time of year. I went there today to mail a few boxes of books back to Tucson for storage (we’re trying to lighten the trailer and make some room).

A tip for those of you who are on the road for long periods: look for the Priority Mail “Flat-Rate” boxes at the post office when shipping heavy items like books. You can stuff as much as you want in those boxes regardless of weight (for about $9) but you have to be sure to get the box that says “Flat Rate” on it. We divested ourselves of about 20 lbs of stuff, but more importantly freed up some valuable storage space.


The other neat town near here is Solvang, a “Danish village” according to the billboards. The entire town is themed with Danish and psuedo-Danish architecture, much like Frankenmuth MI but quite a bit larger. Even the Mexican restaurant is clad in a Danish exterior. The overall effect is quaint to a fault, to the point that it begins to resemble EPCOT at DisneyWorld.

The stores are mostly one of these categories: wine shops, gift shops, restaurants, bakeries and inns, so it gets a little redundant after a while. Fortunately, Solvang has managed to keep out the homogenization of chain retail shops, and except for an IZOD Outlet most of the stores seem to be local and unique. That makes it much more interesting. If the outlets take over, Solvang will look like Freeport, Maine in drag.


The bakeries and restaurants are my favorite part of Solvang, only because I like to eat anything that doesn’t move quickly. We decided to be totally decadent today and have a pastry lunch at “Mortensen’s Danish Bakery”, and is our practice we all ordered something different: a butter cream-and-raspberry-filled puff pastry for Emma, a raspberry Danish for me, and some sort of almond cake with mocha butter cream for Eleanor. We haven’t been so bad about lunch in a year, when we did the same thing at a little French pastry shop in St Augustine FL. It’s good to be bad once in a while.

Vanishing resource: Oceano Dunes

Normally I’m an advocate of preserving our natural resources for future generations. This means protecting wilderness areas from undue encroachment, and setting in place reasonable policies for use and management of natural spaces. It turns out that here at Oceano Dunes a battle is ongoing for domination of the sand, with off-highway vehicle users and campers (like us) on one side, facing off against beachfront property owners.

I can’t jump into the middle of the battle without knowing better what the issues are. So far I’ve heard only from one side. But I can say that an experience like camping overnight on the sand at Oceano Dunes is almost unique in this country, and that opportunity is itself a form of vanishing resource.


It seems to do no harm for us to be here. We will pack out everything we bring in and leave no trace of our visit (except tracks in the sand). We won’t destroy dune grasses or harass wildlife, even the sand dollars that are embedded in the flat wet sand below the high tide line. I can think of no one, no living thing, and no local natural resource that we will negatively impact.

But I suppose those people who live near the beach have their reasons for wanting to get rid of us. And they may eventually win the battle, so the opportunity to camp by the sea here at Oceano ““ a unique experience in all of California ““ may be only temporary. It may join a long list of really special travel experiences that your parents or grandparents remember doing, but which are no longer allowed in the name of “property rights”, wildlife protection, or national security.

Some of those changes have been for good reasons, such as no longer feeding bears garbage at Yellowstone and Yosemite. But others have been pushed through for political gain or as part of shallowly-disguised land grabs. Regardless of the reason, we seem to have less freedom and fewer opportunities here year after year. If you want to experience what we’ve done here, I know of only two places left in the US (Oceano Dunes and South Padre Island).   And in general, it’s a good idea to grab the experiences that the world still has to offer before they disappear.


I would like to stay here a week, and next time we are in the area we will absolutely do that. The truck that drives by (several times a day, it turns out) has ice, water ($0.50 per gallon!), and pump-outs for $30. With two full tanks of propane and our solar panels, we can stay here for a long time. Better yet, I can work here, since my cell phone and cellular Internet connection function well. This may have been one of the best days at work I’ve ever enjoyed, with door wide open to admit the ocean breeze, the high tide now only fifty feet from our door, incredible sunshine, and Emma happily making a castle in the sand nearby.

oceano-shaun.jpg Around 10 this morning we had a visit from Shaun Kieran and his associate Nikolai, who work repairing church organs all over southern and central California. They pulled up in a new 20-foot Airstream Safari Special Edition, which they live in while working on jobs. On the weekends, Shaun brings his wife and two small children out in the Airstream for vacations.

These guys were just looking for a spot to take a break in between jobs today and went looking for this beach. They were surprised to see us parked here on the sand, so they stopped and unloaded their surf boards and we got acquainted. The water was too cold for surfing even with their wetsuits, but Shaun will be back next weekend with the family for some camping.


We hung around the beach until 3 p.m., and by then the sun was already dipping low to the southwest. It was time to head off to our next stop, down in Los Olivos with Cindy, Dennis, and Madison. But first, we stopped at the North Beach Campground to use the dump station, and there we had one more surprise. A fellow walked up to us and said, “Hey, you might not remember me, but we were parked with you in Whispering Pines in Vermont!” We love the “small world” moments like that.

Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, Pismo Beach CA

During our stay in Visalia, Roger mentioned a few places to camp in Paso Robles and Pismo Beach. I was considering them all until he mentioned that in Pismo Beach, if we drove past the commercial campgrounds and the state beach campground, we could camp on the beach. That was all it took to make the decision.

We’ve camped at the beach several times, and we always like it. Memorable places include Charlestown State Breachway (RI), the Red Coconut (Ft Myers FL), and Bahia Honda State Park (Florida Keys). We’ve also driven on beaches, including a couple of weeks ago in Oregon and back east in St Augustine FL. But we’ve never camped on the beach before.

It’s a three hour drive across the sunny dry valley on Route 41 to get to Hwy 101 and finally Rt 1 along the coast. But then when you swing through Pismo’s downtown and see the surfboard shops, Chinese restaurants, art galleries and, just beyond, palm trees in sand, suddenly the sun is a welcoming friend and the drive is worth it.


The camping here is just $10 per night, since there are no amenities except trash barrels and chemical toilets. Most of the dozen or so campers here have brought four-wheelers and buggies to ride in the dunes behind us. They’re here for the long haul, so a truck comes by daily selling ice. The truck also pumps out holding tanks. I hope they keep the two operations well separated.


We got here about 4 p.m. but this time of year that means only about 90 minutes until sunset. Now at 6 p.m. it is utterly black outside except for the stars, the crescent moon sitting low over the Pacific, and a glowing line to the north from the town of Pismo Beach.


I have to admit to a little trepidation about the softness of the sand. The lady at the entrance booth who took our $10 told me the times of high and low tide, advised me to be sure to tow the trailer on the wet packed sand but park above the high tide line. The thought had occurred to me already, when I was first contemplating towing an 8000 lb trailer on the beach. The trailer sinks into the sand about half an inch in most places, a little deeper sometimes. To be on the safe side I kept the speed up to the maximum of 15 MPH and the 4WD engaged.

The trick is that above the high tide line the sand gets soft, so like all the other RVs we are straddling the uppermost line of packed sand and hoping not to get wet. We don’t have floats like Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang. We’ll be watching the tide come up tomorrow at noon.   In the meantime, the pounding of the Pacific surf outside our window is a constant reminder of the sea just outside our aluminum walls.

Airstream hunting

As I travel I’ve been asked by friends to keep my eyes open for certain models of vintage Airstreams that are for sale. Out west I find some of the best Airstream hunting, because around any corner there can be a well-preserved vintage trailer sitting in a low-humidity climate, just waiting for someone to come by. California is not the best spot because prices here tend to be high, and only a little of the state is truly arid, but there are still plenty to be had.

Roger heard about a 1978 Airstream Excella 500, 31 feet long, sitting in a salvage yard not far from Visalia. After dropping off the Nissan for its expensive 60,000 mile service, we drove over to the yard to check out the trailer and document it for anyone who might be interested. Roger posted my photos and his on Flickr.

visalia-excella.jpgThe seller is asking for $7,200 or best offer, which seems a tad high, but the trailer is very well kept. It was clearly loved by someone and maintained. The interior is all original except for fabrics, and it has a good roomy floorplan up front, twin beds amidships, and a spacious rear bath. The body is in good shape with no major dents.

Like a lot of 1970s trailers, it has storage in abundance, tambour doors everywhere, extensive clearcoat peeling, tired axles, fogged Vista-View windows, and lots of potential. I’d expect to drop another $4-5k into it quickly for axles, brakes, tires, leak fixes (I’m sure there are leaks somewhere), new awning fabric, and a bit of floor rot repair near the entry door. A more complete restoration that repaired or replaced the fogged windows, replaced all the fabrics, and included a budget for appliance replacements would probably run $10-20k depending on how nice you wanted it. A full-blown restoration to get it perfect and polished … well, that could cost anything.

The point is that an Airstream can cost almost anything. You can certainly get going on a budget as low as $5k (we did). For a lot of people, the best course is to take an “OK” trailer like this one and upgrade it slowly as you use it. If I were looking for a longer trailer that I could start using right away, I’d consider this one with a working budget of about $10-12k for trailer and initial fixes.

visalia-dodge-880.jpgWhile we were poking around at the salvage yard we also spotted a very tired 1976 Airstream Caravanner 25 (needing a complete restoration and sporting some poorly repaired rear dome segments), and this “so ugly it’s cute” 1962 Dodge 880.

The Dodge is all original. It’s the classic story of the car owned by a little old lady and used only occasionally. 34,000 miles and it shows just a little patina in the form of small rust areas around the corners. It runs and the interior is excellent. I especially like the funky push-button transmission.

I’m intrigued by the idea of using a 1960s car as a tow vehicle for our 1968 Airstream Caravel, but I’m not buying this one yet. The seller wants $6,500 if you’re interested. Photos are also on Roger’s Flickr album.


Tomorrow we are moving off. We have mooched a few very nice nights with Roger & Roxy, gotten our errands done, eaten coconut cream pie, and caught up mostly with business. It’s been fun and relaxing being here.

Now we’re heading to the coast to meet up with some Airstream folks who flagged us down a few days ago on our way out of Yosemite: Cynthia, Dennis, and 7-year-old Madison. They’ll courtesy park us at their house, so this is a a great low-cost week, but that’s not the reason we’re going there. It just looks like fun. Good enough reason.

Getting things done

We are so comfortable here in Roger & Roxy’s courtesy parking spot that we have decided to stay a third night. For a “small” California city, Visalia seems to have everything we need for now. Yesterday we knocked off a lot of our to-do list: propane re-fill, a very short haircut for me, a new external hard drive for the Mac, a huge pile of laundry, groceries, and I got a new cell phone.

OK, explanations: The haircut keeps getting shorter because I find life to be easier with short hair. It’s easier to wash when boondocking on short water supplies, and I can let it grow for a few weeks between haircuts (although this last time I waited a bit too long and ended up with a permanent case of the “bed-head” look.) This one is the shortest yet, approaching a crew cut. Anyone who has known me in the past 40 years may be a bit shocked.


Hard drive: I have need for lots of disk storage because I carry around the complete archives for Airstream Life (layouts, website, articles, correspondence, database, and over 20 gigabytes of photography). The biggest external drives require AC power, which means I would need to run an inverter to use those drives when not plugged in. That is possible, but I find all the cords to be a nuisance, so I use USB-powered drives exclusively.

I was thrilled to find Western Digital’s Passport model that stores 250 gb in a very small form factor and doesn’t need AC power. But when I got it home I found the bad news: it doesn’t work on the Mac Powerbook G4, despite WD’s claim that it is “Mac compatible.” The reason is that it draws more power from the USB port than it should. It works fine with Eleanor’s Mac iBook G4 however. Western Digital has a work-around for this problem, a funky Y-cable that lets it draw power from two USB ports simultaneously, which I will probably get later, although it’s kludgey.

Cell phone: I talk on the phone a lot and believe it or not, under heavy use cell phones do wear out. My last one was purchased in August 2006, when the previous phone croaked out in Idaho. The battery of the replacement phone has had a noticeable loss of capacity and the case is badly worn. I decided to take advantage of Verizon’s upgrade program before the phone died, because the rule of thumb is that cell phones die in the most inconvenient spots. And, this way I’ve got a backup phone in case of failure.

Tomorrow the local Nissan dealer has made room for us on the schedule to get the big 60,000 mile service interval, which will be expensive but is another piece of the mandatory maintenance.   That’s 60k miles in two years … yikes … That’s a lot more use from this vehicle than we had originally anticipated.   It’s holding up very well, but I wonder if — given our future plans to keep traveling forever — we should consider moving to a diesel vehicle.

We also got a lot of future travel arrangements worked out today, including a bunch of courtesy parking, travel to Vermont (via the dreaded airlines), and a Thanksgiving vacation.   So behind the scenes we have managed to get things in fine shape, which means we’re just about ready to start moving again.

Here’s a holiday Airstream-lover tip from correspondent Craig Dreher:

Holidays are coming up fast, so I was on the Airstream site the other day shopping and noticed they had a cookie-cutter in the shape of a Airstream. It didn’t look like our Bambi however. As a result Mary and I were off to Home Depot for a small sheet of aluminum. With a few cuts and rivets, we had ourselves a unique cookie cutter. Totally easy too.

If one took more time than I did, you could probably fashion a handle too.
Check out the cutters and results here

What next?

One constant theme of this blog has been looking forward. We haven’t spent much time reminiscing. We are always looking to the next adventure, and trying to make the most of the moment. This is great most of the time, but now looking forward means we can see the end of the adventure coming — at least as it has been.

Eleanor and I have been conferring daily for weeks about our travels through next spring. We’ve finally come to some conclusions. First off, we will park the Airstream for about two and a half months, starting December 21, 2007. That’s the Big One.

There are a few good reasons for this. We need to get serious about feathering our nest in Tucson. One point of buying the house was to have a place to go to in case of emergency, or to catch up on things between trips. It needs painting, furniture, and a few details (like a kitchen) before we can inhabit it.

We want to get back before Christmas to finally meet our long-distance friend Bruno, who is flying in from France for his annual southwest US vacation. And we’d like to celebrate Christmas in the house, even if it means sitting on a rug on the floor and cooking in the Airstream.

It will take us most of two months to get the house in order. This schedule will allow us to scoot off for long weekends occasionally, so we won’t be totally housebound. We’re even planning to keep the Airstream plugged in, stocked, and with the fridge running, so we can grab a quick trip at any time. All of those trips, and some in-between ruminating, will be blogged. By mid-March, the house work should be done. At that point we’ll head out again for at least 6-7 months.

I wonder if, during the house phase, we’ll start looking back on the past two years wistfully. Will we start looking backwards? I’ve heard from other full-timers that the transition back to a fixed location can be a little rough.

Fortunately, for us this isn’t the end, only a transition. We are going to continue to travel extensively in the Airstream even after the house is done. There’s really no reason to settle down yet, and there are so many places we want to go. So the blog will continue.

The only question left is what to do with the blog during the transition period of Dec 21 through mid-March. Well, there’s good news in that department. We are working on a major new Airstream Life website which hopefully will be up by Christmas. I have invited several top-notch Airstream bloggers to join me at our new website, and we’ll all be blogging (in separate threads) here at So even if our blog is a little quiet, there will be 4-6 other similar blogs to follow.

I may also launch a temporary blog for the house renovations for those who want to snicker as we bumble through the process. I’m sure we’ll have a few amusing adventures of a different sort as we wrestle with contractors and write enormous checks for things we didn’t expect to need.

Hmm … let’s not dwell on that now. We have good stuff to think about in the coming few weeks. Southern California awaits, with all its fantastic spots: Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, Anza-Borrego, San Diego, In’n’OutBurger … And, we have the inklings of a really great trip across Texas and into Mexico, and then to the southeast US this spring.

Going forward, our goal is to find a good balance between the benefits of travel and the benefits of a fixed home. I expect that challenge will be with us for many years. Just when we think we’ve got it figured out, something will happen to mix the formula up a bit. That’s good. Life is a process of constant change, and that’s what makes it interesting.

Feeling’ groovy

After two years of full-time living and traveling in our Airstream, I think we have come to really understand what we are doing and make the most of it. Why is it that when we are in the groove we inevitably have a reason to break out of it?


Friday morning we were all feeling fine. There was nothing much on our schedule except another 2 p.m. Ranger Walk (this time on park geology), and we had a sated feeling about the park that encouraged us to just hang around camp and have a relaxing morning. I asked Eleanor why she was looking so happy, and she said, “We’re just camping!” She meant we had no obligations, no pressing schedule, beautiful surroundings, endless opportunity, and all was well.

Many times we’ve been in a wonderful national park but I’ve had business obligations hanging over my head, worries about meeting deadlines, phone calls that needed to be returned, etc., and those things have tainted the enjoyment of the place. Finally this year the pressure of business seems to be abating, and I’m finding I’m more able to walk away from mental stress. The rest of the family can sense that, and I think that’s helping them relax as well.

In Yosemite I haven’t been free from the duties of my business but I have managed to compartmentalize them. I have allotted 60 minutes in the early morning to write before Emma is up, half an hour in the late afternoon in the center of the village to check voicemail and maybe briefly return a call, and an hour in the evening to respond to email at the hotel. It helps that the news from the business and from my friends has been uniformly good. The associates who help me run Airstream Life are all independent professionals who can generally take care of whatever comes up without my intervention, which is the way any good manager should want it.

In the afternoon Eleanor and I left Emma in the care of Robert and Kelli for a couple of hours so we could explore the Yosemite Museum (native baskets, an exhibit of climbing photos from 60s, obsidian arrowheads) and so Eleanor and I could visit the Ahwanee together. Sitting on the big couch by the fireplace is a romantic experience. I have to admit that the fireplace is one advantage of our house over the Airstream on a cool fall evening.

I’d like to come back in summer so we can hike to Half Dome (16 miles roundtrip), or perhaps do some backcountry camping in our tent. I did a little research on those possibilities for a future trip. But for now it is time to head south. This is the irony that I was alluding to earlier. The final days of our full-time travels are approaching quickly, and there’s much more we want to do before we pull into the carport in Arizona. I’ll talk about that in greater detail in a future blog entry.

Today we hitched up and moved south about 130 miles to Visalia, where we are courtesy parking at the home of blog readers Roger and Roxy. They’ve got a nice concrete pad next to their house and have generally rolled out the red carpet to us, with wifi, 30-amp electric, and water. They even moved their Airstream to the curb so we could park on the pad inside their fence. When an Airstreamer moves their own treasured trailer to the curb, it’s like offering their own bed, so we feel honored.

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