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Archive for March, 2008

Organizing for tomorrow’s fun

tucson-emma-easter-cookie.jpgEaster was a success, by kid standards. An appropriate basket of candy was left for Emma, and a small one was left for Eleanor (a pleasant surprise from the Easter Bunny, who is always full of tricks). About two dozen eggs were stashed in various places around the house too. I think we got special treatment this year because Emma left a basket of goodies for the Easter Bunny, including a cookie with instructions.

Once the fun was over, it was time to tackle our task list. Anyone who arrives at our house this week is on notice: you may be put to work. Gunny was the first victim. He showed up mid-morning for a visit and within an hour we had him helping to move furniture and boxes so I could finish sealing the dining room floor. When Bert & Janie arrive, and Susan & Adam, they might get jobs too, but don’t tell them because I don’t want them to suddenly realize they’ve got to detour by way of San Diego.

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Emma had her job too: entertaining Gunny’s German Shepherd puppy. It turned out that both of them found the same enjoyment in the garden hose. We were wondering which would tire out first. It turned out to be the dog.

We have begun to seriously clear out the Airstream. It is scheduled for an overnight service later this week (for the heat pump problem), and so we will be forced to spend at least one night in our house. I know it sounds bizarre but we’ve reached the point where it would just be easier to stay in the Airstream until we leave for the next voyage.

I would just grab what we need for an overnight “campout” in the house, but this is our chance to re-organize and slim down our possessions. So we moved a lot of our stuff out of the Airstream and into the house today and will continue to do so through Wednesday. The stuff we don’t need will get sorted out and packed away in the house. Tonight we will spend our first night in our new beds in the house. I doubt it will become a habit.

Mostly the re-organizational process means reducing our equipment and clothing, but in a few cases we’ll actually add stuff, like books on Mexican travel. Eleanor is also planning a total refit of our food supply, which is substantial. Right now the 25-cubic foot refrigerator in the house is full, and the 8-cubic foot refrigerator in the Airstream is empty. Somehow all the food in the refrigerator must disappear before we go, and it can’t all fit into the Airstream. Eleanor says she has a plan …

I’m also removing a lot of spare parts. Over the past couple of years I’ve accumulated little-used items (like spare wheel lugs) which are basically souvenirs of past mechanical disasters. These things were useful in past situations which are unlikely to recur, and so I’m finally clearing them out. Other items were never useful, like the caulk gun (it was always easier to use squeezable tubes for the little jobs inside the trailer).

It is hard to pack for a very long voyage. People seem to take one of two approaches: They either attempt to pack something for every circumstance, or they take hardly anything and expect to acquire what they need as they go. Having the storage of the Airstream we tend to take the first approach, but in moderation.

For example, we are often asked how we pack for different seasons. We have learned to take a little something for every season, just not a lot of it. Even though we are heading into summer and expect to be back in Arizona before late fall, we know better than to offload our long underwear, hats, gloves, and warm socks. Somewhere in this country there will be freezing temperatures at night in June and August, and we’ve managed to find those places every year, sometimes without meaning to.

So although my cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirts will be front and center in the closet, somewhere under the bed in a Rubbermaid tub you can also find a set of black synthetic thermal layers, a spare fleece, and a few other warm things. It doesn’t take up much space and it leaves open the possibility of camping just about anywhere this fall.

I really don’t know for sure where we will go. I can foresee mountains, beaches, deserts, swamps, and lakes. I know we’ll attend rallies, birthday parties, and business meetings. We’ll hike urban streets, western mountains, park boardwalks, and shopping malls. We may be back in the heat of Arizona summer or out ducking raindrops in the Pacific Northwest again like last fall.

The uncertainty of this tends to spook people, but it’s really the fun part. So packing the trailer is not a drudgery but rather somewhat exciting. Every decision about what to bring reminds us that all kinds of interesting possibilities lie ahead.

Easter eggs, maple syrup, and a long week ahead

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We paused in our travels two days before Christmas, and here it is Easter already. I can tell it’s Easter by a number of signs: Eleanor and Emma are dyeing hard boiled eggs, people are passing around the annual email about giant bunny rabbits, and people are starting to come out of their winter hiding places to go traveling. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Dyeing Easter Eggs is a big tradition here. It’s a chance for E&E to express their creative sides (but they do that every day anyway), and it’s usually an excuse for Eleanor to do some above-average cooking. This morning we gathered at the dining room table in the house instead of the Airstream, and feasted on some sort of variation on French Toast (a single delightfully fluffy thing baked in a glass pan and covered with maple syrup, with strawberries on the side). I don’t know exactly what it was but that didn’t matter.

As an aside, I should mention another one of my culinary fetishes. You already know about the yogurt thing so I may as well admit to this one. Maple syrup is an essential part of anyone’s diet, unless you can’t have sugar. It’s a fact that if you don’t consume maple syrup at least once a quarter you will eventually find that your skin wrinkles. For first-timers I recommend starting with Grade A Fancy, which has a very light maple flavor. Once you are hooked, you’ll want to get something stronger, and my personal favorite is Grade A Dark Amber.

Don’t ever eat that fake stuff, it’s poison. This message is brought to you by a guy who grew up in Vermont, where elementary school kids are brought out into the snow to pour heated maple syrup over snow and eat it. In Vermont, that’s considered a legitimate educational field trip.

That early childhood experience had an impact on me. Eleanor and I have been known to carry our own REAL maple syrup into restaurants, because good pancakes can be ruined by plastic “breakfast syrup”. We always have at least a quart in the Airstream. When we started our trip, we carried several quarts and gave them away as gifts to people who gave us courtesy-parking.

By the way, Cracker Barrel, every RV’ers favorite stop (because it combines food and free overnight parking) serves 6% of the world’s supply of maple syrup. Now that’s a culinary ideal I can get behind. No wonder we like to drop in there on travel days. I can’t respect restaurants that serve fake syrup, especially this time of year when the sap is running from maple trees all over New England and eastern Canada.

I also have a weakness for maple milk (served at county fairs in Vermont), maple frosted doughnuts (which make Eleanor cringe), and maple cookies. When in Banff last fall we bought three different kinds of maple cookies and had a family taste test. Oh man, we are wierd, aren’t we?

tucson-easter-eggs.jpgAll of this has absolutely nothing to do with Easter eggs except that when the maple trees are producing sap, it’s usually around Easter time. Today, Eleanor invited over the girls from across the street, and our neighbor Carol to help decorate eggs. This seemed to make everyone happy. Decorating eggs is more fun when it is a social experience.

Meanwhile I tackled a few items from our “hurry up let’s get going” list. I finally demolished the old toilet with a hammer (and wow, is that therapeutic if you’ve got some stress to work out — I should have saved it for a stressful day), broke down and cut up about two dozen empty cardboard boxes, cleaned up some house projects, and generally got a bunch of things ready for Departure Day.

… which is now set for Sunday, March 30. Seven days to go. We pushed it back one day just to allow our friends the Neels time to come from California and visit relatives before we head south.

In our last week, it turns out we will have the travel world coming to us. Gunny called today to say he would arrive tomorrow for a brief visit. He’ll stay not far away, at an RV park. The last time we saw Gunny was up in Tillamook, OR. Bert Gildart also called, to say he and Janie would be in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for a few days and then drop in on us too. They might park in the driveway overnight, although they won’t be able to open their Safari 28’s slide-out if they do.

I also heard from Adam and Susan, who are currently somewhere in South Carolina on their way here. They may arrive around Thursday or Friday, and will join us on the trip to Mexico. They have the prototype Airstream Class C motorhome — one of a kind — which was featured in Airstream Life back in our second issue (Fall 2004).

So we are about to be inundated with friends, which, in the grand list of all the things with which we could be inundated, is certainly right up there with greenbacks and maple syrup.

The timing is absolutely impossible, since this week we have to also somehow get the car serviced, have a followup appointment for the contact lenses, attend three karate classes, have our countertops installed, have our appliances installed, have the interior paint touched up, seal the dining room and living room floors, return books to the library, get the Airstream’s heat pump fixed, pack for a six-month trip, arrange house-sitting, take trash to the dump, and clean the Airstream — in addition to finalizing half a dozen layouts for the Summer 2008 magazine. Oh, and I’m also going to fly a helicopter on Tuesday. Somehow, it will all happen. It should be a marvelous week.

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PS: The bonus picture above is of Brent and I on the roof of his Safari 30, looking for a leak, a few days ago in Huachuca City, AZ. We found the cause of the leak easily: cracked caulk around his middle Fantastic Vent. Brent’s Airstream is parked in the Phoenix sun all summer and the factory caulk just can’t hold up under that stress. He’ll need to check it annually and expect to remove and replace the caulk at least every other year. The recommended caulk for Airstreams is called Vulkem or TremPro 636.

Mail forwarding and other fun projects

Getting ready to go out again has almost been as much work as the first time we did it, back in mid-2005.   I took the opportunity to complete a few projects that would be easier done while stationary, and they have taken over my life.

The first big on was to set up real mail forwarding. For a long time we’ve had a sort of unofficial mail forwarding deal set up in our former hometown of Ferrisburg VT.   I knew this couldn’t last forever, and finally got around to finding a new mail forwarding service for our personal mail and Airstream Life magazine’s mail.

Mail forwarding is easy, if you have the normal amount of mail.   Any UPS Store, PakMail, and hundreds of other private mailbox services can set you up.   You can also get mail forwarding through certain RV organizations.   But we get over 400 pieces of mail every month (mostly Business Reply Mail like subscription cards and payments), and when I mentioned that fact to prospective mail forwarders, they generally got very quiet …

Moreover, most of them couldn’t figure out how to handle Business Reply Mail.   I ruled those out right away — if they had no idea what it is or how to deal with it, I didn’t want them.   For example, I ruled out Earth Class Mail for that reason.

You might rule out the RV organization “Escapees” for other reasons.   They don’t forward magazines unless you pay them extra, a fact that has caused us considerable grief.   (Customers don’t get their magazines and they blame us, then cancel their subscriptions.)

To get your mail received by a private mail box service, you need to fill out a USPS Form 1583, and it has to be notarized.   Since we receive mail under our personal names, our corporation name, and trade name, that meant three notarized forms.   Then of course the official Change-Of-Address forms for every name.   Then a new Business Reply account application, a second form to receive the proper artwork for our Business Reply Cards and Letters, and checks to the Postmaster and the mail service to get everything started.   So I’ve been having a grand time.

 Our new address:
411 Walnut Street #4468
Green Cove Springs, FL 32043

I know where Green Cove Springs is, but we’ve never been there.   I think we may drop in during May just to see what it looks like, and to meet our friendly postal gnomes.

The other project that has taken up far too much time has been the countertop nightmare.   I don’t even want to get into it, because I may spew venom on the keyboard of my Power Mac and it could dissolve.   I’ll cut to the chase:   we will get a partial installation of our countertops on Wednesday, and maybe the rest on Saturday the 29th of March.   That will have to do.   Whatever doesn’t get installed by then will wait until October because we are done hanging around waiting for this stuff.   I hope the vendor involved here sends us a “customer satisfaction survey.”

Another project has been to do something about my glasses.   I’ve worn glasses since 3rd grade and as you might imagine, this makes me something of an aficionado of them.   When we were parked in Aurora, CO back in 2005 I splurged on a $500 pair of Silhouette frames with all the fancy add-ons, anti-reflective, anti-scratch, super lightweight polycarbonate lenses with hinge-less, flexible arms.   They weighed nearly nothing and were almost invisible on my face.

They also drove me crazy.   The anti-reflective coating scuffed off, the lenses scratched almost instantly from my camera’s viewfinder, and the arms were unadjustable.   The coatings seemed to attract dust, so they were constantly needing cleaning.   They didn’t fold into a standard glasses case so I had to use Silhouette’s special case, which soon fell apart.   I had to use two hands to put them on because they didn’t have hinges.   They moved out of position at the slightest touch of my camera.   They were, in short, the prima donnas of eyeglasses, and more trouble than they were worth.

They were also difficult to get repaired — most optical shops won’t touch them — and getting replacement lenses meant at least a two week waiting period (during which I would need a spare pair).   Given our frequency of movement, that was unacceptable.

I ended up getting a new eye exam two weeks ago and buying a “spare” pair of glasses at a cheap online eyeglass retailer.   The new glasses arrived in five days, were a great fit, and cost me $40, shipping included (I used a 10% discount coupon).   You know what?   They’re great.   The “spares” quickly became my primary glasses.   Heck, for forty bucks a pair, I’ll order another pair and say goodbye to those fussy Silhouette frames.

I also got contact lenses, for the first time since high school.   Contact lenses are a lot better now than they were back in the Early Post-Disco period, but it has been so long since I wore them that I have to go through the awkward adjustment all over again.   So I am spending 4-6 hours per day blinking like an owl and watching the world go all blurry as one of the toric lenses spins like a deranged clock.   I’ll need to get through this before I can tow again.   It should take about a week.

Writing all this, I feel sort of stupid.   These things I call projects are really just ordinary tasks of an evolving American life, and perhaps I am giving them too much credit.   But when you want to get going, any little thing that takes more than one phone call to complete feels like a barrier.   We’ve got places to go!

We are enjoying the house, as much as we can without a kitchen or any appliances, and in some ways we’d like to stay longer, but there is also the call of the road getting louder every day.   Whatever projects are left on the 29th will have to wait.   We’re checking out soon.

Lightening up

We’re back in Tucson at home base.   The little three-night trip to the Sierra Vista area was very helpful as a test of our ability to go back to road travel after three months of parking.   It was as easy as anything could be, so my fear of getting terribly rusty has been abated. I can still back up the trailer, hitch it, and find my way to the bathroom at night — the three essential skills.

Tucson has warmed up to what I regard as decent weather: low 80s during the day with lots of sunshine.   “Winter,” as it is defined here, is over, and that means the house is starting to show how well-designed it is for desert life.   I opened the door this afternoon and found the interior at about 68 degrees, downright chilly for my blood, despite the warm temperatures outside.   The masonry construction and reflective roof are doing their job.   I almost wish we could spend the summer just to see how well it performs in the real heat yet to come.

The warm weather has inspired Eleanor too, I think.   Knowing that we have only a little more than a week left here, she is starting to tackle the maintenance and housekeeping items   on our list.
First item today was the routine defrosting of the refrigerator.   Since our refrigerator is normally in continuous use, it accumulates ice and frost and needs this process every six months or so.

It’s much easier now that we have a second refrigerator in the house to put all the food in, but even on the road it’s not hard to do.   We just put the food into a big cooler, shut off the refrigerator, prop open the door, and mop up the melting ice for a few hours.   The melt from the refrigerator compartment will mostly drain out the drip line (located in the exterior refrigerator access hatch), but the freezer doesn’t have a drip line so it has to be mopped up with a sponge.

The other major task to prepare for the road ahead is to clear out stuff from the Airstream.   When we started full timing our procedure was to re-evaluate what we were carrying every six months.   Anything that wasn’t used in the preceding six months, and wasn’t likely to be used, got pitched overboard, donated, or shipped back to storage.   We haven’t done that in a while and since we are here at our “storage facility,” this is our chance.

Some of our stuff has become embedded in the deepest, darkest recesses of the Airstream’s storage compartments.   The only good way to deal with it is to completely empty those compartments, and then re-pack them slowly, evaluating the utility, necessity, and weight of each item.   I already did this with the front storage compartment and found that about 20% of the stuff could stay behind.   Now we can actually get to things we need in there without fighting past layers of “we might use this” stuff.

The mental challenge of this stems from the fact that even an Airstream can seem dauntingly packed with stuff.   Where to start?   It’s a gumption block.   So we’ve broken the task down by room.   First on the list will be the bathroom.   Everything comes out, gets evaluated, and only the essentials go back.   If we tackle one room a day (counting the exterior storage compartments as a single room), we’ll easily be done before next weekend.

When we get back on the road, I’ll stop and get the trailer weighed.   This is another task we haven’t done lately, and I think it’s good practice for every RV’er at least annually.   We haven’t done it since July 2006, so we are overdue.   Our GVWR (maximum weight) is 8,400 lbs., and at that time the trailer weighed 7,320 lbs.   The empty weight of the Airstream is 6,400 lbs., so at the time of our last weigh we were carrying less than 1,000 lbs of stuff (including a full tank of water @ 312 lbs by itself).

People are often surprised that the trailer weighs so little, and that we able to full-time with so little weight.   But what would we carry that weighs a lot?   Clothes are light, as are bedding, toiletries, DVDs, laptops, and stuffed animals.   The only heavy things we carry are magazines, books, dishes, cookware, Emma’s rocks, and water, and we keep our collections of things like books and rocks to a bare minimum (which reminds me, I’ve got to check that Emma has offloaded her rocks).

I do see some RV’ers who carry ridiculous items just because they have the space.   More than once I’ve observed a fifth-wheel or Class A motorhome owner open up a basement storage compartment and reveal half a dozen concrete blocks (“to put under the stabilizers”), a chainsaw, 300 feet of garden hose, and a mechanic’s toolkit that could be used to rebuild a Boeing 777.   I think we run light because I enjoy the challenge of finding lighter and smaller solutions to problems.   I was just eyeballing the charger for my Nikon batteries and thinking, “I bet I can find a travel-size version of that.”

I’ll also need to make some off-site backups of my data.   I’m amazed at the number of people who travel around taking irreplaceable photos of their trips and don’t even have a primary backup.   One microscopic failure in their computer’s hard drive, and poof, all those photos are gone! That happened to my photos from Glacier National Park, and it was painful enough. It would be a nightmare to lose two years worth of photos.

So in addition to my primary backup drive, I have an emergency backup of my most critical files on a 60gb iPod.   It’s encrypted so if the iPod is stolen, no valuable information can be compromised.

I have also periodically maintained a off-site super-duper emergency backup on DVDs, but this is getting too cumbersome (my photo collection alone is over 30 gb, which is about seven DVDs). I considered getting a subscription to “.mac” (dot-mac), which will do incremental backups over the Internet, but the sheer volume of data I have makes that impractical (and dot mac costs $99 per year).   Ultimately, the cheapest thing to do is buy another external hard drive for $100, back everything up to it, and leave it in the house.

Think I’m paranoid? Well, remember we don’t go to home base very often.   If the Airstream is stolen, or catches on fire, there goes my computer, my backups, and a big chunk of my livelihood.   For the average traveler, I’d just recommend having at least one good backup on an external hard drive — and remember to update it once in a while.

Soon we will be lean, clean, and tuned up for another six months on the road.   This will be the critical week before getting back out there.   Our trial run worked out well enough, but after a week more of preparation we should be in prime form for some fun camping.

Garden Canyon, Ft Huachuca

scheelite-canyon-descent.jpgSome of the nicest hiking and birding in the Sierra Vista area can be done in the canyons beyond Ft Huachuca. Although Ft Huachuca is an active military base, US citizens can enter and get a temporary car permit to access the hiking trails behind the base. That’s what we decided to do today.

Not many people seem to do this, at least at this time of year, and since it was a weekday, we had the lovely Garden Canyon to ourselves. There’s a pair of well-documented spotted owls living there, but today we had no luck spotting birds.

The hike we chose from the canyon is called Scheelite Canyon Trail, and it is very steep. Over about 0.8 miles we climbed a considerable amount, although I’m not sure how much. Much of the trail was as steep as climbing stairs. Birding tours rate this hike as one of the most difficult, and we were doing it with a 5-year old and a 7-year old, both of which did very well.

scheelite-canyon-gecko.jpgEven though we saw few birds (and no owls), we did see some other interesting signs of a life. A fox skulked away from us in the forest. We saw only his outline as he retreated up the canyon. A bit later I got a good closeup of a gecko stalking a Daddy Longlegs. Later when reviewing pictures on the computer I was surprised to see how scaly the gecko’s skin appears up-close. (Click on the photo to get a better look.)

Signs of humans were there too. There’s a lot of unauthorized border crossing around the Huachucas, as there is along most of Arizona’s border. Some are coming here to illegally immigrate, others are “mules” carrying marijuana. However, it would be a foolish “mule” who would choose this route, leading down a steep canyon and ending up directly in a US military base.

Apparently a few have tried. We spotted their tell-tale signs: an abandoned pack of caffeine tablets, empty plastic water bottles, an old blanket dropped in the leaves. If this were a popular route we would have seen literally tons of trash, but the very few bits we saw suggest that the drug smugglers have figured out that hiking into Ft Huachuca is extremely stupid — or perhaps ecologically minded birders are cleaning up the trash as they find it.

ft-huachuca-aerostat.jpgFt Huachuca’s “eye in the sky” keeps a lookout for border crossers too, at least the airborne variety. A huge radar-carrying aerostat has been floating here since 1987. It has been a constant presence over our heads for the past couple of days as we’ve hiked and driven around the Huachuca Mountains. On the drive through the base to Garden Canyon you’ll pass right by the turnoff to the aerostat site.

Tomorrow we’ve got to head back to Tucson. Appointments are pressing on Friday, and all of next week. Emma will resume karate for another week (yes, we bought more lessons, since Eleanor was able to negotiate a flexible schedule with the instructor), and we have indications that we might finally get our kitchen countertops installed next week. I’m not exactly holding my breath on that, but it would be extremely helpful to the schedule if it could be done.

On the birding trail

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This area of southern Arizona is a hot birding spot. Although it’s a low time of year for birds, since the winter birds have gone and the summer birds aren’t here in great numbers yet, along the San Pedro River area and in the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains there are still plenty of birds to see.

Traveling around the country we’ve become more interested in birds. I never really cared much about them in the past, but now it’s fun to see the variety of species the live in North America, and to try to photograph them. To really do a good job I’d need a much longer lens than I have, but I catch a few halfway interesting shots from time to time with the 200mm zoom. Today I wasn’t trying too hard because we were just having a nice time walking along the river with the kids.

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A fire near the Dragoon Mountains, north of our position, cut our hike short. The smoke began drifting to the south and put a haze in the air, as well as apparently discouraging the birds. We never found out what caused the fire but it was still burning hours later.

Seeking clearer air, we drove up Carr Canyon Road into the national forest. There are three canyon roads that lead into the Huachuca Mountains. Carr is in the middle, and undeniably the roughest. It’s a single lane of very rough dirt, riddled with potholes and twisting so tightly that even long pickups can’t make the turns without taking two passes.   It’s a challenging drive, and occasionally scary, since none of the road has any sort of guardrail and the drops are intimidating.

Six miles up the road, if your kidneys survive the pounding of the seat belts, is a nice national forest campground (Reef Townsite) at 7,200 feet.   But no Airstream is going to go up there, unless it is under 12 feet long.   I could see coming back there to tent camp in the summer.   At that altitude the temperature would be perfect, and there are a lot of very interesting-looking hiking trails.

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In the photo you can see Eleanor ambushing the girls with a tiny snowball on one of the trails.   There was very little snow up there, but they all managed to find some and have fun with it.   In the background you can see Sierra Vista through the smoke, about 3,000 feet below us.

Brent turned on the radio in his truck and of course we heard Mexican music come through.   This close to the border, it’s no surprise.   Listening to it always feels fun and it put Brent in the mood for a Mexican beer, which led to Eleanor suggesting Mexican dinner at the Airstreams, which led to a shopping trip for fresh tortillas and other ingredients.

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My job was to wrangle the girls (or at least keep an eye on them) while Eleanor and Brent shopped.   The girls seemed to have far too much energy left in them, but that made them interesting photographic subjects, at least until I was apprehended by the management of Food City and told that the store “absolutely” did not allow photography.

That sort of thing happens regularly to me.   Unless I see a sign specifically advising me that cameras are not allowed, I assume it’s up to my judgment to decide whether to bring one into a situation.   Most of the time it’s perfectly OK, and other times I know better (and don’t take photos), but once in a while somebody gets bent out of shape over me taking a photo in a situation where I felt it wouldn’t be a problem.   That’s one of the minor risks of photography.

Really, if you only take pictures when they are specifically approved, you’ll miss a lot of good shots.   I figure if I don’t get busted by an authority figure at least 3-4 times each year, I’m probably not using my camera enough.   Last time was in Hawaii in another store where I was preemptively warned not to take photos of the erotic netsukes (miniature sculptures). That was in November, so I’m fulfilling my quota of socially-incorrect photographic conduct.

We have discovered another dark side of having a home base: it’s too easy to leave things there.   Not long after we headed off yesterday, Eleanor remembered she forgot her crock pot, and I realized I’d forgotten my cell phone charger.   It’s a good thing we are heading back this week.   I’ve started a list of things we might forget to do (or pack) so that we won’t repeat these mistakes when we leave for the summer.

A tirade about tires

Back on the road!

Getting hitched up and ready to go always takes longer when you’ve been parked for a while. When we are moving every few days, our departure routine is quick and efficient. After a week of parking, it can take a couple of hours to get everything packed up, and after several weeks, it seems to take most of a day to get ready.

It would have been much easier to leave if I hadn’t had a pile of frustrating tasks to complete first. I am relocating the company’s official mailing address from Vermont to Florida (for complicated reasons having to do with mail forwarding), and this means literally dozens of phone calls to vendors. Those people have managed to make “customer service” an epithet. Of 13 vendors on my list for today, nine had dysfunctional websites that could not or would not accept my new billing information.

So I had to call again and again, wading through voice-response menus and answering security questions about “the last four digits of your social,” and “your mother’s maiden name.” It took about six hours to effect 11 vendors. The other two proved so well-defended against customers who might try to make changes to their accounts that they defeated me today. I’ll have to attack them again another day.

Vonage won the award for most irritating “customer service”. Their rep was beyond obtuse, and I finally had to threaten to close my account completely before he would make the billing plan change I requested. Sprint won the award for best defenses against hackers and customers, by instituting a new web system that required me to set up a new username (8-30 characters with a mix of letters and numbers), a new password, a new PIN, a new security question … and then provided no way to give them a new credit card for billing.

FedEx deserves an honorable mention for their incomprehensible website, which was so baffling that even their own representative could not at first tell me how to navigate it to make a simple billing change. (He figured it out after I did.) Verizon’s website became convinced that my VISA card was a Mastercard, and thus would not accept it. And so it went all day.

After six hours of this, you can see why I was eager to pack up and hit the road, and maybe chuck a few Molotov cocktails toward the call centers of certain companies. It was not the most inspiring day, and the rather uncharacteristic weather we had today (occasional rain and temperatures in the 40s) didn’t help. But I went out and hitched up anyway.

I’m always suspicious when we’ve been parked for a long time. Everything gets a more careful check, especially hitch, tires, and brakes. Scanning the tires, I noticed one had a definite thin patch in the tread. This is a sign that a belt inside the tire has broken. The broken belt allows the tire to bulge, and that causes uneven wear.

This not the sort of thing you want to ride on for long, so even though we were eager to get going, I called a local tire shop and verified they had a replacement tire (the Airstream takes ST225/75R15 tires), and that they could handle a 30-foot trailer coming into their parking lot. Assured on both counts, we headed over to the nearby “Big O” tire shop.

After a 40-minute wait, the tech came over and said, “The tire is still on the trailer? I’m not allowed to take a wheel off a trailer.”

Huh. And here I thought I was at a tire shop. So we got the manager over and he explained first that “We don’t have a jack big enough for a trailer like that.” I pointed to the hydraulic jack sitting nearby and said, “That one will do just fine.”

“No,” the manager said, “that one is only rated for 10,000 pounds.” Well, the Airstream’s max weight is 8,400 lbs. Once I clarified that, the manager told me that it was a “liability issue” and that he had to protect the technician. The trailer might fall off the jack and smush him, you see.

I refrained from pointing out that the trailer was unlikely to topple over, that it was hitched to the Armada with the parking brake set, that we can chock the wheels, and that it has a spare axle which makes it impossible to “fall”. But I did point out that I had called in advance to verify they could do this job and was told they could. That got me nowhere.

So I volunteered to do it myself. Nope, still not good enough. Liability again. I finally clarified, “I’ll use my own equipment.” And finally the manager said, “I have no problem with that.”

Well, that’s a relief. I was allowed to remove my own wheel with my own tools, and roll it over to the service bay, whereupon they removed and remounted a new tire, balanced it, and returned it to me for $150 in total. (That’s no bargain.) I mounted it back on, using my torque wrench, and fled. So I can’t recommend Big O Tire to anyone with a trailer.

Once on the road, the whole rig felt perfect. It was like putting on a worn old baseball glove. The trailer towed as beautifully as ever, the road was smooth and the short 60-mile drive (now at sunset) was scenic. I haven’t driven the Armada or towed the Airstream since early January, but it was still as easy as ever.

Our trailer is now a tire test lab. As the original tires (Goodyear Marathons) have been replaced, either due to wear or failure, I seem to always end up with a different brand. In Idaho when we lost a wheel in the summer of 2006, I bought a Trailer King because that’s all that was available. I was wondering about it at first, but it’s still on the trailer and seems to be wearing very well. In December 2006 we replaced two of the worn-out Marathons with two new Marathons. In Oregon last October we bought a TowMax from Les Schwab. Now in Arizona we have replaced one of the Marathons with a Green Ball tire. This means that we have four different brands on the trailer, counting the one Goodyear Marathon still on the trailer.

Of the seven Goodyear Marathons we’ve owned, two have had belt failure, two have worn out, one suffered an irreparable flat, one was destroyed when the wheel came off, and one is still on the trailer. I’m not happy with the loss of two tires from belt failure, but until I wear out a few of the other brands without similar failure, I’m not ready to cast aspersions on Goodyear alone. Another year on the road will be a good test.

Having taken a wheel off means I’ve got to check the lug nuts periodically, but again I’m so used to that routine that it’s really no big deal at all. Whenever a wheel is removed we check the lug nuts at 10, 25, 50, and 100 miles. When in doubt, check ‘em again — it only takes a minute.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to a very good article about trailer tires and why they fail.  

Tonight we are in Huachuca City, AZ, near Sierra Vista. We are parked directly beside an identical 30-foot Safari bunkhouse owned by our friend Brent. Tonight Brent made corned beef and cabbage for all of us (in honor of St Patrick’s Day) and we unwound at his place for the evening. I’ve still got work to do this week, but I’ll keep it to a minimum in order to enjoy the little break. I definitely won’t be calling any more “customer service” departments.

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