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Archive for July, 2008

Way up in a deep damp hole

Early this morning I found myself in a minivan packed with seven friends on the way to the Adirondacks.   We were heading to visit Eagle Cave on Chimney Mountain again.   Someone in the group had picked up a magazine about super-luxury yachts, and during the drive we were all chortling over the absolute ridiculousness of some of those things. Nobody really needs a 100-foot yacht with 12 bedrooms that looks like a floating hotel, but lots of people buy them for millions of dollars anyway, and then presumably toodle around the oceans in search of something.

I have trouble believing that the happiness that accrues from owning such things is of higher quality than the happiness that we got from climbing around in a damp, muddy, cramped cave on the top of a mountain today.   But then, that’s the type of people we are.   I suspect the ultra-privileged would look down on our activities as unfit for them, possibly even disgusting.   We thought it was a great day, and several people in the group were amazed at themselves for being able to free climb the 12-foot rope that led them up and out of the cave.

So while we didn’t get served drinks on the shaded upper deck of our private yacht while cruising the Caribbean Islands, we managed to come out of the experience feeling like we’d accomplished something and perhaps even grew a little.

Adversity is a common factor leading to personal growth.   In this case we struggled with intense humidity (the kind weathermen have calling “oppressive” on the 11 p.m. news), a steep hike that left us drenched in sweat, a grimy cave, tough climbs, and then a long sweaty hike back down the mountain.   We must be full of personal growth now.   If nothing else, at least I’m sure that my hair was full of cave sand when I got back.

The successful day did nothing for my resentment at the humidity we’ve been feeling lately.   It is relentless and heavy, making sweat burst from the skin from the slightest physical activity.   The air is thick to breathe.   Nothing will dry.   The towel I used yesterday in the shower is still damp today.   Paper in the trailer has gone limp, and when I run a sheet through the laser printer it actually steams.   Everything is gaining a damp smell, which is particularly noticeable in the confines of a travel trailer, so we are running the fans to circulate fresh air day and night.

Humidity is a normal part of the New England summer, but this year it has been just amazing. In June we barely had a dry moment, and now in late July we are getting daily thunderstorms again.   (Fortunately, the leaks are in the Airstream are fixed.)   I crave the dry air, and am tortured by the knowledge that somewhere on the west side of the Mississippi it is available in abundance, while here every day feels like a prequel to “Waterworld.”   Although this part of the country is green and beautiful, I will not miss the humidity when we move on.

Our reward for a day of grimy crawling through rocks was an early dinner stop at Pitkin’s in Schroon Lake.   The northeast is not known for its barbecue restaurants, and the Adirondacks are particularly weak on that cuisine, but Pitkin’s stands out as a decent and friendly place to go for the closest thing to Texas barbecue that you’ll find up in the north country.

We seem to get to Pitkin’s once a year, because it is conveniently close to I-87 and our usual routes to Adirondack towns and mountains.   A Texan might find it tame because the recipes have been adjusted to New England tastes, but it’s still fine to me.   It reminds me of fun times in Texas when we were chasing part of the Texas Barbecue Trail.   And in the blessedly air conditioned interior, I could close my eyes and imagine for a moment that a warm dry west Texas breeze was blowing by.

The big cat is home

It turned out to be an all-day session in Plattsburgh yesterday.   Things started out well: Colin’s crew had my new catalytic heater installed fairly quickly.   At last we have an alternate source of heat in the trailer for boondocking.   The catalytic heater uses no electric power at all, and converts propane to heat with 100% efficiency, which is vastly better than the furnace.

catalytic-heater.jpg Despite being the largest “cat” heater I could get, the unit fits nicely in a spot right in the center of the Airstream.     It is hung on the wall, looking like a black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey where it won’t interfere with traffic flow and uses a relatively “dead” space.   For a catalytic heater in a long trailer, a center location is ideal because the heat it produces needs to be distributed by natural air flow through the trailer.

It works like this: We will open a center window near the heater to let cool air from outside spill down to the floor.   This air will be warmed by the heater and rise up.   Slightly opened roof vents at front and rear will create a natural flow through the trailer and bring the warm air to all parts of the trailer.   We know this works because it’s exactly the system we used to keep our former Argosy 24 warm.

The heater we’ve chosen produces 9,000 btus, which is far less than the 30,000 btu furnace that came with the Airstream.   But that’s no problem, because a catalytic produces heat silently and steadily as long as it is “lit”, whereas the furnace cycles on and off.   We used a 6,000 btu model in our 24 foot trailer and it could always keep the trailer warmer than we needed.   Since these heaters don’t have thermostats (but rather just a Low-Medium-High dial), you regulate the temperature by opening the roof vents a bit more or less.

I’m a big fan of catalytics, having used them in two prior trailers with great results.   The only real disadvantages of the catalytic are that they produce moisture and consume oxygen.   For both problems you must have a window and roof vent partially open.   Nine square inches of opening is recommended for this particular model, which isn’t as much as it might seem. And as I mentioned, opening the window and vent is the way you distribute the heat anyway.

The one remaining potential issue is that the catalytic heat won’t reach the holding tanks. Most modern Airstreams come with ducts to direct furnace heat to the tanks, to prevent freezing in really cold weather. Using only the catalytic heater we run the theoretical risk of a frozen tank but in reality we’ve never camped in temperatures sufficient to freeze a tank.   An overnight low of 25 degrees (with above-freezing temperatures during the day) has never managed to freeze our tanks, and if the overnights are colder than that,   I know how to drive south.

There’s usually a payback due to Colin for the work he does on my trailer.   He is brilliant with mechanical things, and hopeless with computers and software.   I’m just the opposite, so when he fixes my trailer I try to pay back with something he needs.   In this case he wanted his email system fixed (on three computers) so it would send email reliably without getting “bounce” messages due to other people’s spam filters, he needed lake-champlain-northern-lights.jpgMicrosoft Office installed on one computer, an external wifi card installed on Susanne’s computer, and cable Internet installed in his house with a wifi router.   None of those are normally difficult tasks if you know what you’re doing, but Microsoft and the local cable company did manage to make everything harder than it had to be.   By the time we’d been to Best Buy, the cable company local office, the shop, and his home, and installed everything, it was 6 p.m.

lake-champlain-airstream-empty-ferry.jpgAt the end of it all I was glad to be rolling down the road again, headed to home base with leaks fixed and heater installed.   Lake Champlain was glassy calm and hardly anyone was on the ferry.   The Airstream just seemed to serenely float across the lake on the top of the ferry platform, enjoying its semi-private ride past cruise boats and jumping trout, while the sun slowly set over the Adirondacks. I’ve parked it in the usual spot and set up camp for the next two weeks.

Post-Jam maintenance

vtj-stained-glass.jpgAfter the Jam I had planned to get some maintenance done on the Airstream up at Colin’s shop in Plattsburgh NY, before returning to home base in Vermont. The cost of taking the trailer across Lake Champlain is now up to $65 round-trip, plus about $35 in fuel, so I didn’t want to make the trip again later in the month.   On Tuesday morning I dropped Brett at the Albany airport (Airstream in tow, much to the surprise of the outdoor personnel), and headed 130 miles up to Plattsburgh.

The list of items to be tackled was fairly simple. In the thunderstorms of the past few weeks I’ve noticed a small leak at the dinette window, and in the heavy rain at the Jam on Sunday night we found a second leak at the curbside bedroom window.   We’d had the Seal-Tech leak test done a year ago, but clearly with heavy use this is a procedure that needs to be done annually.

I also have had a catalytic heater waiting to be installed for months.   We really felt the need for it last fall when we were camping in Yellowstone, Banff, and Yosemite and we were living on a tight power budget.   We’ve chosen a 9000-btu model, sufficient to heat the entire trailer.

I have found that the Seal-Tech system is not perfect.   There are some air leaks that it will reveal (via soap bubbles) that are not really places water is likely to infiltrate, and there are some leaks it will not reveal.   This means there’s no substitute for a sharp eye and experience.   One leak was not hard to find, but the other took a bit of sleuthing.   They’re both fixed now, we think.

There wasn’t time to get to the catalytic heater yesterday, so I towed the Airstream over to Colin’s house and spent the night in the driveway.   While I was there, Colin took a look at a loose bracket under the Armada and received a very small shock while lying on the damp grass and touching the Armada.   We added a possible “ground fault” to the list of things to check, but when I got back to the shop this morning, testing revealed that the ground fault was probably coming from the house wiring (to the Airstream, and through the hitch to the Armada).   The Airstream seems to check out fine.

This was interesting to me.   I carry two testers to verify the wiring of outlets we plug into, and both indicated no problem.   At the shop, we also found a small voltage leak (0.2 volts AC) that was again originating from the power being supplied to the Airstream.   Apparently such a small leak is below the threshold of the basic testers I carry.

Eleanor and Emma have been back in Vermont patiently waiting for me to return with their bedrooms. I should be done here by the end of the day.   In the meantime, there are a few tasks to resolve with the Fall 2008 magazine, and a bunch of post-Jam jobs to be done.   Once those are complete, I’ll be working on the Caravel re-build again, and planning our westward trip, scheduled to start around August 2-4.

VTJ Day Six

Why was there no “Day Five” blog?   Sheer exhaustion, but in a good way.

Let me see if I can remember everything that happened.   We peaked at 89 trailers on Saturday night, which filled most of the space available to us this year.   We were blown away It was really awesome in our vintage village, with everyone having fun, exchanging ideas, attending seminars, taking pictures, and exploring the park.

The morning dawned a bit cloudy, which was perfect for Steve Hingtgen’s outdoor demonstration of polishing.   At 8:30 I met a reporter from the Schenectady Daily Gazette, which led to an excellent article about the Vintage Trailer Jam.   We also had demonstrations of riveting (led by Brett), the VuCube satellite system, and leak testing (led by Colin).   The leak testing is particularly fun: they take a giant fan arrangement which pressurizes the trailer’s interior slightly, and use soapy water to find leaks on the outside.   (The leaking air creates tell-tale bubbles on the exterior.)

At 10 a.m. I led a seminar on writing and photography for publication, which led to discovery of several budding writers and one illustrator.   At 1 p.m. I was back up again with a seminar on full-timing and working on the road, which was packed with people and really interesting because of all the feedback I got from people who were either full-timers, part-timers, or wannabees.   While I was finishing the talk, Emma, Eleanor and my parents arrived, which lent a little credibility to my story about   being on the road for three years.   People wanted to ask Emma questions as soon as she arrived.   I probably could have turned the seminar over to her.

Then Colin stepped in with a sobering (but informative!) talk on the real costs of restoration, and what drives those costs.   Steve and Colin wrapped it up with a joint seminar on “sourcing parts” and then it was 4 p.m. and we were all wondering where the day went.

At Happy Hour we went nuts giving away prizes.   We gave away another six books, a pair of Vroomer’s “Airstream” slippers, a “campfire in a can,” a set of aluminum tumblers, and a Cyclo polisher worth $260.   We awarded prizes for People’s Choice trailer, Best of Show, and Rat Trailer, all of which came with prizes.   But it was a bittersweet evening, because we knew the event was coming to a close.   Already people with work on Monday were slipping away, and by nightfall we had 55 trailers left.

And then the rain came.   We’ve been lucky with the weather so far but our luck ran out.   It poured, for hours.   The evening chat with Fred Coldwell had to be canceled, and everyone retreated to their trailers to spend a quiet night.   Many of us (myself included) were grateful for the break, because it gave us a nice wind-down from days of relentless scurrying around the lawn.

The rain revealed that our trailer has sprung a leak in the roof somewhere.   Water dripped incessantly in a side bedroom window, and we had to collect it in a stack of towels.   I’ll be stopping at Colin’s shop tomorrow to get the leak   test process done, and I’ll report on that.   We had it done a year ago, and sealed up several potential leaks, but with a lot of road miles on the trailer, it really needs to be done annually.

The question on everyone’s mind seems to be whether we will do it again.   I expect we will.   The VTJ was a huge success from every angle, and in spite of the workload I loved doing it.   We have learned a lot which will make next year’s event better (and easier!), and I am certain that next year we can increase our numbers quite a bit.   We’ve also had many offers to help from people who attended this year, and that is really motivating us to do it again too.

Now, Monday afternoon, it’s all over.   I couldn’t bring out my camera to take photos of people leaving because it was so sad to see.   By 1 p.m. there were a dozen of us left, and now at 6 p.m. there is only my trailer and Colin’s still on the lawn, where we recently had a festival and a temporary city.

The electrical cables and water hoses are rolled up, our stakes are pulled, and recycling is neatly packed in two barrels.   We’ve taken pains to leave no trace of our presence here.   In fact, the lawn is cleaner than when we arrived, because we’d like to come back.   The Saratoga Spa State Park is a superb venue, and right now the VTJ is the only way to camp in it.   Brett and I will spend one more night here and pull out in the morning to drop him at the airport.   And then it will be time to do something else.

VTJ Day Four

For unknown reasons we were all up even earlier today, at about 5:45 a.m. We didn’t have the excuse of an early parker arriving at dawn, so I can’t fathom why I felt unable to sleep to a civilized hour. When I woke up, Fred was already awake and lying quietly on the dinette, probably contemplating what he could do in a strange trailer without disturbing me. Back in the rear bedroom, Brett was rolling around in reluctant preparation to get up too.

Since Fred joined us yesterday from Colorado, we are three guys in one big trailer. With door prizes, spare registration materials, computers, cameras, and cables, there is hardly room for Fred’s luggage or our dinner. The easiest thing to do is to stay out of the trailer most of the time, and use it primarily for sleeping the few hours we allot ourselves each night.

vjt-gail-buck.jpgWith the VTJ rolling along tumultuously, we have had precious few moments to sit in the trailer anyway. This morning over breakfast Fred commented that he could easily get along for three days on adrenaline alone, but for Brett and I, this is already Day Four. The Jam has been enormous fun and keeping us propped up so far.

vtj-sabrina-artel.jpgToday’s major event was the Open House from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., which kept everyone busy. I don’t know how many people walked through but there were certainly dozens of visitors from town, in addition to about 200 people camped here. I led a photography safari through the maze of trailers with a few people tagging along. Sabrina Artel recorded her radio show, “Trailer Talk” on site, and then in the afternoon the seminars began with Susanne Brown talking about interior design of trailers. Even with temperatures in the upper 80s and plenty of humidity (back again), everyone seemed to be having a terrific time.

After Susanne, we had Colin Iwasa from Yamaha talking about generators, and then it was time for happy hour, where we gave away six t-shirts, three bottles of Corrosion-X, three bottles of Rejex, two Maxxair vent covers, two copies of the book “Airstream Living,” one copy of the book “Silver Palaces,” and a second 12-volt “Endless Breeze” fan from Fantastic Vent. Then we fired up the band for a 40-minute set, and got everyone started on their catered dinner on the lawn while the band played a second set. Now it’s time for the evening movie at 8:30, outside on the lawn amidst the trailers, while I fine-tune my presentations for tomorrow back here in the Airstream.

vtj-eriba-puck.jpgThe local newspapers have been in love with the VTJ. We got front-page coverage from the Saratoga Post-Star and the Daily Gazette today. Tomorrow I’m expecting a reporter from a third newspaper. The park seems happy with us, and everyone here is calling for another Jam next year. I don’t really know if we can do it, but we will be checking into the prospects. It would be a great thing if we can pull it off again, but I’d rather think about that in a week or so, after I’ve caught up on sleep.

Once I have a good high-speed Internet connection, I’ll make a new Flickr album with all my VTJ photos and notify you here.

VTJ Day Three

The VTJ is a huge success.   Everyone seems to be loving it, even as they are crammed into an increasingly crowded space.   I think that’s because the space is crowded with cool vintage rigs of all types, and their fun owners.

vjt-woody.jpgThis morning started at 6:15 for Brett and I, as someone arrived for extremely early parking.   The thrumming of his vintage truck woke us up, so I dashed out to get him parked quickly in the hope of not waking up any more people than necessary.   From there it was all go-go-go.   At 7:30 we met up with park personnel to get some low branches trimmed, and Abe was busy managing that process all morning.   Registration was set up at 7:30 with Steve, Kim, Melissa, and Star handling everything.   Don, Brett and probably some other people were running around parking people.   Electric lines were being strung by a team of seven other volunteers by 9 a.m., and the first newspaper reporters arrived at 9 also.

We’ve got excellent coverage coming.   All the area newspapers are running stories and/or photos on Saturday.   Two TV stations are expected tomorrow, and the Automobile Museum’s director of programs (Alan Edstrom) was interviewed on NPR this morning. It seems our little event is catching the eye of a lot of people.   Tomorrow’s Open House should be a very exciting time.

vtj-colin-presenting.jpgBy 1 p.m. the electricity and water were reaching almost everybody, and it was time for the first presentations.   Colin kicked it off with a program on “structural integrity of Airstreams,” or more simply put, “keeping it all together.”   I followed at 2 p.m. with a talk on camping in National Parks, which was well attended, and then at 3 p.m. Brett presented on “the history of motorhomes.”

At 4 p.m. we broke for happy hour under the tent, which involved massive quantities of food, four door prize giveaways, and a presentation by Alan Edstrom about the Automobile Museum.   Then at 5 p.m. Alex and Charon did their carny act, which included sword swallowing, fire eating, and the “blade box” routine ( sort of a variation of the magician’s truck of cutting a lady in half.)

vtj-awning-chat.jpgFrom 6 to about 7:30 we organizers (Brett, myself, Colin, and Steve) ran around solving problems and parking late arrivals.     A few people arrived who had never towed before and were afraid to back up, so I backed up one myself and helped some others.   A couple of water hoses broke and had to be replaced, some electrical GFIs tripped repeatedly and we had to isolate some trailers that were problematic, and in the midst of it all we tried to figure out if we still had space to park the 10 more trailers we expect to see on Saturday (we do).

vtj-freds-talk.jpgSomewhere in there we managed to scarf down dinner, and then at 7:30 we set up Fred Coldwell for his outdoor presentation on “Airstreams from 1939 to 1959”, with a projector, sound system, screen, computer, and our trusty utility Yamaha 1000 to power it all.

Our participants have seen very little of this.   They seem to be generally having a wonderful time, which is of course what we want.   People keep complimenting us on how well organized we are, and what a great place we’ve picked.   Honestly, all the advance work we did would be for nothing if we hadn’t had about ten volunteers also pitching in to make things happen.

At this point it is 9:30 and I’m looking forward to bed.   There’s a lot of action still going on outside and I hate to miss it.   But it looks like tomorrow will start early for us too, and we’ve got to get some rest if we are going to survive the rest of this weekend.

VTJ Day Two

When I was preparing for this event, Eleanor asked me if I was worried about it. I told her I was worried only about two things: eating and sleeping. Those are the two things that are hardest to do at an event like this, because the action never stops from dawn to dusk, and Brett and I are always running around taking care of things.

vtj-hunts-rig.jpgThat’s how it has gone on Day One. We were up and dressed by 6:30 this morning, and feeling more comfortable since a weather front came through with crisp cool air. At 8 a.m. we were parking Hunt Jones’ shiny Globe Trotter (he spent the night at the “Bullpen,” our holding area for nighttime arrivals) and at 9 a.m. our first guests showed up.

We spent the day dealing with all the little issues that pop up when you are tucking trailers into spots all around the pine trees. Low branches were an early problem but the park staff were very responsive and had the branches trimmed off within an hour. But the jobs began to multiply quickly and so we began recruiting our volunteers for help as they arrived. Adam and Susan showed up and helped Brett and I stuff 100 “goody bags” with literature and gifts for everyone. The young boys were conscripted as runners, to deliver packages and news around the campground.

vtj-nancy.jpgBy noon we had probably a dozen trailers, and a neat little “credentials station” set up under a tent by the road, complete with a staff of 3-5 people, a laptop computer, laser printer, and a little Yamaha generator powering it all. As each trailer pulled up, we greeted it with a cheery smile and easy directions to get parked, because we wanted to make the experience of arriving as easy and simple as possible. It seemed to work, because everyone looked thrilled to be here and happy to get set up.

vtj-kompac.jpgAt 3 p.m. I broke out for an orientation meeting with all present volunteers and while were were in the Automobile Museum another half dozen trailers showed up. By this point the field was starting to really look great, filling in with a lot of cool trailers. By 5 p.m. we closed the credential station but trailers kept arriving, so we kept jumping up from whatever we were doing (happy hour, dinner, troubleshooting, photography) to park more people. All told, we’ve got 36 trailers set up today and should get another 50 or so tomorrow.

I can’t say enough about the fun people we’ve got here. Everyone is out and about, talking, laughing, telling stories and sharing knowledge. Already the event is a success, and it hasn’t even officially started yet. I’m a little sunburnt and hoarse in the throat, but the friends we have here and the things that are happening are making me (and the other guys who helped organize this) feel good.   Looks like a few great days are ahead.

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