Archive for June, 2008
It has been a while since the Federal government sent me a check for doing nothing. So I was tickled, if not “stimulated,” by the recent check I received in the mail. Getting the “stimulus check” was like an early preview of what it will be like to someday collect social security, and oddly enough, in approximately the same amount that I’ve been told to expect … if I live to age 62 and if the older Baby Boomers haven’t already drained the coffers dry.
I have to admit it is fun to get a colorful Department of the Treasury check. It makes me feel like we’re part of the solution. It has had some positive effect on the economy, although probably not enough. It’s more of an interesting little bonus, like getting a small raise in my allowance. “Here’s a few hundred bucks, go have a good time,” says the Prez. It feels like being handed $5 at age 12 and told to go have fun at the County Fair. Oh, the thrilling possibilities of free money. What sort of goodies might I buy?
Sadly, the feeling doesn’t last, because it doesn’t take long for me to remember that even the maximum check of $1200 is really chump change these days. Sure, I can buy a few trinkets at Best Buy. I can snag the new digital 12-volt TV that we’ll need come February 2009 if we want to watch over-the-air TV ever again, with enough left over for a Blu-Ray DVD player. But in reality there are more pressing things. I can get the new set of tires that the Armada wants. I can buy enough gas to get my Airstream from here to Denver. I can pay for five weeks of health care for my family. Oh boy. Suddenly I’m feeling less stimulated and more aware of just how expensive life is. Talk about a mood-killer.
I’m surprised that the vaguely suggestive term “stimulus check” hasn’t launched 1,001 cheezy stand-up jokes yet. It sounds like we all need to dress in something sexy to get the economy going again and this is the money to go to Victoria’s Secret at the mall. Actually, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The economy might not go anywhere, but the love life of millions of Americans could be briefly invigorated.
Is that the true reason behind this? Perhaps each check is dosed with pheromones, designed to spur our instinct to reproduce, and thus cause a massive new Baby Boom. These second-wave Boomers could, in thirty years, broaden the economic base of this country and thus save Social Security from failure. Think of it: short term stimulation (um, I mean “stimulus”) and long-term economic salvation, all from a few million scented pieces of paper. There may be something to this theory. I have to admit that when I opened the envelope and waved around the check, Eleanor was suddenly a lot more interested in me.
Honestly, I’m not at all convinced that this gimmick will do much for our current economic situation. Basically the Feds are giving us all a single pill of “virtual Viagra” and hoping we’ll take it from there. What if we want more economic thrills? Sorry, the prescription plan only covers one dose. We’ll have to make it a good one.
What the plan should do nicely is stimulate the economy of the oil-producing nations and oil speculators. After all, now we can afford gas. Sure, blowing it all at gas stations along I-70 in Kansas is not as intriguing as a lingerie spending binge. But we can stop at Victoria’s Secret on the way.
Being in our former “back yard” we already know the interesting local attractions to visit, but like a lot of people we don’t often visit them. But with a rainy forecast again today, Eleanor and I decided to take the day at the local Shelburne Museum. The Museum has 39 buildings housing an incredible array of exhibits, so even on a rainy day it’s a great place to go.
The trick to visiting the Museum is to pace yourself. It’s not the usual sort of in-and-out place. With 37 buildings spread over 45 acres, and 150,000 objects on exhibit, there is no way you’ll see it all.
Think about that: 150,000 things to see. If you view an object every ten seconds and don’t stop to sleep or go to the bathroom, it will take eighteen days to see it all. If you zip through an entire building full of exhibits in 30 minutes, you’ll need most of three days to see them all. Even with the standard two-day ticket ($18 for adults, $9 for Vermont adults with I.D.) you have to accept that you’ll only be able to appreciate a tiny fraction of the Shelburne Museum.
I used to go to the Museum every year in grade school, and many times since. It never gets boring. I still see things I have never seen before. But knowing most of the buildings intimately, Eleanor and I decided to focus on the places we like the most. The first stop for us is usually the “1950 House,” pictured above. It’s a remarkably simple concept: take a real house that borders the museum and fill it with all the furniture, clothing, food, and appliances that it would have had back in 1950. Everyone loves it.
We also like the Kalkin House, the General Store and Apothecary Shop, the Ticonderoga paddlewheel steamship, the Variety Unit (with a fascinating collection of automatons, among other things) and many other places. The Shelburne Museum collects “Americana,” essentially almost anything from American life that can be collected. You can get lost in some of the collections, just browsing and fantasizing about being back in days of the 18th or 19th century.
The Apothecary got our attention for its huge collection of antique patent medicines. Most of them cured problems we never heard of. When was the last time you had scrofula, King’s Evil, salt rheum, neuralgia, biliousness, dropsy, or liver complaint? Apparently a good dose of sarsaparilla can fix all that. Or you can take “Kodol” for sick headache, flatulence and “water brash.” The 12% grain alcohol content in Kodol is supposedly added only to prevent the ingredients from fermenting. With that much alcohol in it, who needs more fermentation?
The special exhibits are always a treat. Today they were running an exhibit of marvelously carved carousel animals, including exotic African beasts like lions and giraffes. Do you know why modern carousels feature only horses? Apparently the carousel owners noticed that children were frightened of them, and mostly rode the horses.
Another fascinating thing about the Museum is that only one of the buildings on the grounds was originally there. The rest were generally dismantled stick-by-stick (or in many cases, brick-by-brick), transported to the site, and re-assembled exactly as they were. That includes a lighthouse that formerly sat on Colchester Reef in Lake Champlain, including the large stones it sat on, and a completely intact steamship called the S.S. Ticonderoga. (The Ticonderoga was hauled from the lake via a specially-constructed rail line.) For that reason alone I am always compelled by the diverse architecture.
The late afternoon thunderstorms arrived on schedule, but that’s OK because we were aboard the “Ti” when the worst of the rain hit. Besides, the Museum closes at 5 pm most days and we were beginning to suffer overload. We have our receipt and may go back again on Sunday just to browse a few more buildings. I think we’ve only seen about 30,000 items so far.
Three years ago this week, we sold our house and went out “on the road” in an 1977 Argosy travel trailer. It’s our anniversary!
Three months later, we swapped the 24-foot Argosy for our current 30-foot Airstream so that we could travel full-time in greater comfort. We figured we’d be on the road for six or seven months, then return to Vermont and build a house. Four months later we tossed that plan and decided to extend our travels for another year.
Two years after we began, we began to sense a change coming, like a new wind blowing in, and so we bought a home base in Arizona as an insurance policy against sudden changes in circumstance. Last winter, the feeling got stronger, so we returned to Tucson to prepare the house to become our home.
I mention all this because it shows how our lifestyle and plans have changed over the years. We never set out to live in a travel trailer for three years, but it happened that way. We never planned to relocate to the southwest. I never thought I’d be keeping up a blog this long. Our plans are rarely cast in concrete. They seem to flow from circumstance, but really they are the practical results of a thousand soupy factors that occasionally congeal into a plan.
Well, that process continues. I alluded to this a couple of posts back. This plan is no more set that our earlier ones, but I am pretty sure that our current road will come to an end in October. I can’t point to any single reason for that, but there are a dozen small reasons that together are telling me that the winds of change have finally arrived.
This doesn’t mean that we’ve become tired of the lifestyle or disgruntled with fuel prices. It’s not because we’ve seen everything (that’ll never happen!) Traveling is still fun, still affordable, and still something we plan to do. But we’ve had a marvelous run of three years, and seen more of this country than we ever thought we’d see, and now other priorities and opportunities are popping up that we’d like to pursue.
So we will have one last big run of 3,000 miles from Vermont to Arizona (via NY, OH, IN, MO, KS, CO, UT) with many great stops along the way. We’ll begin that trip around August first, and probably arrive at home base sometime in October.
Once we get there I plan to wrap up this blog and start a new one. I’m looking forward to that. I want to write on a less-frequent basis, perhaps weekly, on a somewhat different subject. I haven’t decided what that subject will be. (I’d welcome your suggestions.) I might write about life in Arizona, or the publishing world, ukuleles, bicycling, writing, photography, or any of dozens of other things that interest me … who knows?
I’ve talked to other full-timers like Leigh & Brian (the former 63FlyingCloud travelers), and Bobby & Danine (ending their year-long journey in five weeks), and Brad Arrowood (who wrapped up his travels with Mary over a year ago). One common thread is that we’ve all discovered there’s an end eventually. Sometimes it’s not even clear to ourselves why we are ending what appears to be the “perfect” lifestyle, but we do.
I suppose that’s hard for most people to appreciate. I know that the way we’ve lived has been the dream of many people, and I don’t discard the lifestyle casually. For you, it must seem rather anti-climactic for us to go back to a life of conventionality when, strictly speaking, we don’t have to. But a lesson of having done this is that we realize most of the restrictions of conventional life that we perceive are those we’ve put on ourselves.
In other words, we’re not afraid to go back to a house in the suburbs because it is not the ultimate for us. We know now that we can break the rules again if we so desire, and run off once more to a completely different lifestyle. This gives me the same epiphany of freedom that I first experienced when we were three weeks into our first big run across the country. We have choices. We live in a free nation, a great land, and there is a lot to be explored if we will only let ourselves do it.
For the record, we are not selling our Airstream. I can’t imagine life without it. We’ve already planned a trip to California over the holidays. Our first few months in the house will be spent settling in, making local friends, and exploring Tucson, but we’ll still get away from time to time. Frankly, we’ve become spoiled by our travel format, where we can stay as long as we like in a place for $0-30 per night. (Eleanor has a short trip planned to the Boston area while I’m at the Vintage Trailer Jam, and we are both suffering sticker shock from what ordinary motels cost down there. I’m ready to propose she take the tent and sleeping bag…)
There will be more on this subject later, as we work out details and ideas. In the meantime, I’m going to keep posting on our travels this summer. Next week the Caravel project will start in earnest, and the week after that I’m heading to the Vintage Trailer Jam. A couple of weeks after that we’ll start west.
It seems that every summer we are here in Vermont I end up writing about thunderstorms. I am sorry to be so repetitive, but the storms have always been the dominating influence on our lifestyle while we are here. We are slaves to the weather here in the northeast, with our daily activities determined in a large part by whether we will have snow, rain, or heat and humidity. Only rarely does it seem to be sunny and dry.
Back in Tucson our neighbors and friends are awaiting the annual “monsoon season.” Yes, the American southwest desert has a monsoon season, extending from June 15 to September 15, during which time the dew point soars up above 54 degrees and dramatic lightning storms roll in from the west and south. The dry washes are flooded with raging brown water, and in a couple of months Tucson receives half of the 12 or so inches or rain it gets per year.
Back in here in Vermont, we don’t have a monsoon season, because there is no season in which we don’t get thunderstorms and heavy precipitation. Or to put it another way, it’s monsoon season all year long.
As I write this I am sitting in the Airstream listening to today’s thunderstorm. It started with a sudden chill breeze at 8 p.m., dropping the air from 70 degrees to the mid-60s, and then long crackling distant warnings, that morph into a rumble and ten seconds of echoes and aftershocks. Then the rain began in earnest, rattling down on the aluminum roof and accompanied by huge booms that shook the Airstream. Eleanor and Emma are in the house right now, probably watching the storm through the glass sliders on the west side. I am comfortable and well-protected in here.
Our friends in Tucson told us we should be there for the monsoon season, and I’m sure it is a spectacular sight. In some future year we will be there to watch the blue storms gallop in from the west over the desert landscape. But for now we have the Vermont version, which I suspect is no less dramatic in its own way.
It wasn’t all storm today, however. After a solid week of on-again, off-again rain and sun, we got half a decent day, and that was enough to encourage my brother to come over with his sailboat. He and my parents jointly have purchased a 1975 Chrysler Buccaneer, an 18-footer that looks like serious fun to race around the lake. The boat needs a little work (new hatch covers mostly), but it should be sailable almost immediately. We spent an hour trimming trees with the chainsaw yesterday so that the Armada and boat could squeeze around the side of the garage to the lakeside, and today Steve trucked it over. The boat was dismantled for travel, so re-assembly work started this afternoon. If things go well, we could be sailing later this week.
I am told that Emma was the driving reason for getting this sailboat. Being the only grandchild, she’s a handy excuse for all sorts of things. But I heartily approve. Sailing is a good thing for a kid to learn, and a great outdoor activity for everyone. Emma has a book on sailing to study this week, so she’ll be ready for her first lessons.
My Caravel project is still moving along slowly. I was having trouble matching the wood in the trailer, so I brought a big chunk of it up to the wood experts in Burlington, and they determined that it is not oak (as many people have claimed), but in fact pecan. I am not entirely sure that is correct, but I do agree it’s not oak. The grain is all wrong for oak. It’s also not poplar, ash, or birch — all species which people have guessed at in the past.
Even if we were sure it was pecan, it would be tough to match new pieces to the old. Pecan isn’t as cheap as it was in 1968, either. So, after considering several options, I have decided to rebuild everything from new wood. This greatly increases the magnitude of the work, and the cost, but I am sure that the end result will be far superior. It will eliminate a lot of refinishing work and allow me to correct a few design problems as well.
For example, the kitchen cabinet front was built to accommodate a gravity furnace that is long since gone, and a fully manual Dometic gas refrigerator that (despite much work) still insists on freezing our lettuce. We will re-design the kitchen cabinets to allow a slightly larger and considerably better replacement refrigerator, and put in door fronts that reflect how we really use the space.
At this point we are looking at ash for the replacement wood. Ash has a light blonde color that will go well with the vinyl walls and warm yellow Marmoleum floor in the trailer. I’m awaiting a estimate on availability from our wood suppliers before settling on the wood choice. In the meantime, I’ve measured every piece of 1/4″ plywood and all the structural members of every cabinet in the trailer, in order to estimate our needs. It’s considerable: at least four sheets of veneer plywood, and many board-feet of 3/4″ lumber.
To speed the project, I’m asking the wood guys to deliver some stock pre-ripped to the dimensions we will need. They can do it more quickly and straighter than I can on my homeowner table saw. Most of the Caravel’s furniture was assembled from 3/4″ x 3/4″ or 3/4″ x 1-1/2″ sticks, glued and doweled, with 1/4″ plywood forming the sides, and two thicknesses of 1/4″ plywood glued together to make the cabinet doors and drawer fronts. I’m going to use pocket hole joinery using a Mini-Kreg kit with glue, instead of dowels. With a few improvements to the design, we will even save a few pounds, making the 2400-lb Caravel even lighter and easier to tow.
But that’s all just details. The best things that happened today were Emma playing a Hawaiian tune on her Flea “pineapple” ukulele for everyone, and Eleanor making a superb dinner of fresh Thai summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce, and shrimp on the barbecue. The little things are what make a summer’s day. The big projects are just the things we do to fill in the time between moments like those.
In the past week I have neglected the blog more than any other time in the past three years. I find it curious that as we approach our third anniversary “on the road” next week, I have suddenly run out of things to say. It surprises me more than anyone, I think.
The dry spell is probably because things have changed for us. Without getting into personal details, we are facing a confluence of events that seem to be telling us that our time for full-time travel is coming to an end. It feels like it is not a choice, but an inevitability — which is also a strange feeling, because I am not a fatalist.
So we are talking and thinking. Why does it feel like the end of this phase? What will our lives look like next year? What do we want to achieve?
There are some things we know. We know we still enjoy travel and will continue to go on frequent and extended trips with the Airstream. We know we’ll be together. The rest will follow. More on this later.
The Caravel project is off to a slow start. Work has interfered, and I have yet to find the appropriate wood to match to the oak in the trailer. Modern oak looks different. Fortunately we have some excellent wood specialists in Vermont and I’m sure eventually they will set me up.
In the meantime I’ve been getting the workspace ready. I have use of a 20×10 tent shelter with electricity, a tarp floor, and all the tools I should need. The cabinets are spread out so that I can see them all, and I have a long work bench in the middle. This weekend I hope to have some time to start sanding the good pieces of wood, and putting a few test coats of polyurethane on them.
Polyurethane … There’s a smell I had hoped not to detect again anytime soon. In our last house, Eleanor and I urethaned every single piece of door trim, window trim, baseboard, railing, crown molding, plus all the stairs, about a dozen pine doors, and 17 windows — three to four coats each. (We also built most of the trim ourselves.) We earned our Polyurethane merit badges several times over.
Our new house has no polyurethane in it at all. In the southwest they go in for paint instead, which suits me fine. But I have a 1968 Airstream and the wood needs to be finished with something other than paint, so out comes the poly …
The good news is that I have recruited some helpful labor. Brett is coming up in early July to lend a hand. (He thinks he’s coming for a visit and some boat rides.) If you read our Vintage Thunder blog in early 2004 you know what happens when Brett and I get rolling on a project. Progress should be fast, which will be good because on July 9 we’re leaving for the Vintage Trailer Jam.
I will leave you with this photo taken on Lake Champlain last week, a reminder of the times that the weather is good here. It hasn’t been good lately. The past week every day has been in the 60s with frequent rain. The forecast is for this to continue until at least Monday. Such is the way it goes here. It is green, damp, buggy, and gray most of the time. Vermont is beautiful, but you have to be patient for the weather to let you see it at its best.
I have hung back on the blog this weekend to let my thoughts catch up with events. It has been a time when a lot of “not much” seemed to happen. Sometimes I find myself simply living the events of day to day without having any motivation to analyze them, which is lot different from how I normally act. This was one of those times.
Most of the time I am like a cow, regurgitating my experiences during the day to re-think them — mentally chewing the cud so to speak. But sometimes the flood of events overwhelms me and I find that at the end of the day I have no thoughts to share, no results of introspection, and even though things have happened they feel like secrets. It’s a feeling like being washed down a river and there’s nothing to be done about it but wait until you land on a sand bar.
It’s a particularly strange sensation because quite a few things happened and yet I wasn’t writing about them. On Friday night we took the boat out for an evening tour of the lake. Across the lake and a few miles south there’s a spot called Split Rock, and just west of the split rocks is a beach famous for its beautifully round rocks and driftwood. Somehow conditions are just right for the slate and granite to become circular and nearly polished, and wind up here on the beach.
On Saturday Eleanor and I took off to Plattsburgh, where Colin Hyde restores vintage trailers. We met Colin at the shop and toured a few projects in progress, but our main task was to take a look at our beloved 1968 Caravel, which has been sitting at Colin’s shop for three years. We left it there, partially restored, and haven’t gotten around to finishing the project.
Until now. I want the Caravel to be usable for next summer, so we loaded up a minivan full of interior cabinetry to take back to Vermont for refinishing or rebuilding. It is now proven that you can fit the entire interior of a Caravel in a Honda Odyssey with room to spare. I’m going to return all the parts to Colin over the next few weeks, either refinished or completely rebuilt from new wood. It will take a while but I think I can get it all done before it’s time to go. I plan to document the process here, so you’ll be seeing more of this.
On Sunday we had Colin and his wife Suzanne and son Malcolm over for a day of play by the beach. They hit it right because the weather was gorgeous: about 80 degrees, sunny, and very calm on the water. We did all the usual beach day stuff: a little wakeboarding, catching rays, playing in the water, then dinner on the grill, a game of whiffleball on the lawn, and finally saying farewell to our guests at about 9 p.m. (when at this time of year the sun is just setting).
It was in every way a pleasant day, and at the end of it I began to feel the writer’s block breaking down. I think a heavy workload and lots of little concerns built that block during the week. While I don’t expect this week to be any easier, I think having a little project as a distraction will help keep me writing in this period of non-travel.
So I’ll talk about that for a moment. The interior of our 1968 Airstream Caravel is supposedly oak. It does not look like the sort of oak you see in lumberyards today. The grain is very broad and knot-free. The color is sort of a yellowish, possibly due to the age of the varnish. This makes it very difficult to match. Some of the wood is 1/4″ veneered plywood, and other pieces are solid 1″ thick planks.
Water damage, physical abrasion, burns, and hack repairs have all taken a toll on the wood, and many pieces are beyond refinishing. If I replace just a few pieces and finish them with modern polyurethane, they are likely not to match the older pieces, and in most cases will make the older stuff look terrible. The solution appears to be to refinish everything so it all looks about the same.
This isn’t as bad as it seems because there isn’t really a lot of cabinetry inside such a small trailer. The whole thing amounts to perhaps three sheets of 1/4″ plywood (albeit expensive veneer plywood), and some 1″ planks ripped to appropriate width. My first mission this week is to take some samples to the local wood specialists and see what I can get to match the grain and color. I may have to adapt the wood with a light stain. I also will consider changing all the wood to a new species if the cost is not outrageous. Personally, I think the Caravels I’ve seen with cherry interiors are very nice.
While the interior is out of the Caravel, perhaps this fall, Colin’s elves will start to finalize the interior. The serious work on this trailer was done in 2004, including a new plywood subfloor, stripping of clearcoat, re-wiring, refurbishment of the bathroom, plumbing fixes, new axle, a spare tire holder, extensive exterior metal work, dent repair, new insulation, new belly pan, Marmoleum finish floor, upgraded power converter and electrical panel, window repairs, refrigerator refurbishment, etc.
That was a hunk of work, especially the metal repairs, but there’s still a fair bit left to do. We need to reinstall the interior, reinstall the appliances (fridge, catalytic heater), finish the plumbing, get new foam and upholstery, add curtains, add a vintage awning, refurbish some exterior nameplates, and polish the skin. I will likely also remove the TV antenna (the trailer doesn’t have a TV), add LED clearance lights, and get the trailer clearcoated as it was originally.
Not all of this can be done in the next few weeks, of course. But if we can have the trailer ready for next summer, I’ll be satisfied. It will be fun to take to the Vintage Trailer Jam in 2009, and we could even use it as our temporary house in Vermont rather than taking the big Airstream across the country again. I’m not at all sure what sort of living situation we’ll have next summer, but it’s nice to have options.
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Friday the 13th has never been an unlucky day for me. In fact, I usually have great experiences on that day. I even turned age 13 on Friday the 13th.
Today things worked out well again. I went to the dentist and he found no cavities. I went for a haircut and … well … OK, at least I don’t have any cavities.
After that overhaul, I went looking for my friend Dave and found an interesting technology in the bargain. Dave runs a small company in Ferrisburg VT that makes incredible “stuff.” I can’t describe the mission of the company any more precisely, because nearly everything they do involves some physical or engineering principle that I never heard of. Their products tend to be incredibly useful and obscure.
For example, they make some sort of specialized intelligent pump that goes down in a well and sucks up spilled petroleum that is floating on top of the water table, without also sucking up the water. They make a device called an ultrasound wattmeter, too, which is apparently useful in calibrating therapeutic ultrasound machines. It’s all magic to me.
Since I haven’t seen Dave in a year, I dropped by the shop to see what the latest gizmo was. It’s a bit like dropping by the shop of Caractacus Potts. There are all sorts of machines and interesting-looking devices on benches. Even more interesting are the clever re-uses he comes up with, in support of new product development. I remember we once gave Dave a 1960s-era Thermador oven from our house and he used it for strange experiments. I think it might still be there, somewhere between the CNC machine and the pile of Sunny Delight jugs they collected for some purpose, not far from the heap of obsolete computer displays that they are no doubt scavenging for precious metals.
The latest is a multi-year engagement in “human generated power.” I had no idea what this meant until Dave showed me the product. It’s basically a small generator attached to a bike stand. You ride your bike and produce 60-100 watts of power while getting good exercise.
It turns out that people on sailing yachts don’t get much exercise and they are often challenged to generate electrical power, so they buy this product. In remote parts of the world it also comes in handy. Dave’s company recently sold a bunch of them to the Siberian forestry service, for backup power to communications equipment. (More)
Educators like them too, because with a little accessory light bulbs attached to the system, kids can see for themselves how much power it takes to run those lights they keep leaving on. With a pair of bulbs, one 12v incandescent and one 12v CFL, the huge energy savings of CFLs can be clearly demonstrated.
I could see using this as an adjunct power source to my solar panels. With steady cycling, I can produce almost as much power as one of my panels in full sun at noon, which is a pretty decent amount of power for RV purposes. I’d have to pedal for hours to fully recharge my batteries, but a 30-minute workout each day would still be a nice boost on a cloudy day.
The problem for RV’ers is that the generator and stand are a bit bulky and heavy. Also, I don’t have a full-size bike with me. But I love the concept. I’d rather bicycle for 30 minutes than run a generator for 30 minutes. And I could see telling Emma, “Sure, you can watch a movie. Just get on the bike and make the power.” That would help take the excess energy out of her — and put it in our batteries instead.