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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.

Pooh Loses His Cell Phone

Two and a half years of roaming around the country in the Airstream, and I’ve never lost my phone. Not even for a few minutes. But a couple of months sitting in the house and suddenly it’s gone.

I remember talking to Colin Hyde this morning for a while. We were discussing the Vintage Trailer Jam and how we were going to solve electrical challenges at the event. The phone usually goes right into my pocket after a call, but this time I don’t remember what I did with it. I know I didn’t make or receive any calls for the rest of the day (unusual in itself), and then this evening when we went to the local used bookstore to trade in some books, I realized I didn’t have it.

There are too many places the phone could be, especially in the mess of a house undergoing renovation. I spent forty minutes turning over boxes and re-tracing my steps before conceding it was not here. In the Airstream, if something was lost it could not remain lost for long, because there simply wasn’t enough space for something to be without getting in the way, and thus being discovered.

To my mind this dilemma is the direct result of having too much house around me. But that excuse reminds me of A.A. Milne’s story of Winnie The Pooh being stuck in Rabbit’s door.

“It all comes,” said Pooh crossly, “of not having front doors big enough.”

“It all comes,” said Rabbit sternly, “of eating too much.”

Perhaps Rabbit is right and it is really a matter of just being fluff-brained, like Pooh.

Things do get lost in Airstreams, I’m sure, but it takes real effort. I remember last winter when Rich C and I were camped in Tucson (this was before we bought the house). In a distracted fit of cleaning, he managed to put his cell phone in the trash, take the trash out to the dumpster, and only after the trash truck had emptied the dumpster 30 minutes later did he figure out what he’d done. By then the phone was halfway to a landfill, no doubt bleeping plaintively all the way.

I accompanied Rich on the drive over to the Verizon store to get a new phone. It was a long drive of self-remonstration, as I recall. I didn’t try to soften the blow for him either, agreeing with him every moment that he was a total doofus for tossing his phone in the trash. (That’s what guy friends do.) But his experience proved one thing: you can indeed lose a phone in an Airstream if you try hard enough.

The phone is an essential lifeline for full-time travelers and I would not be without it, even if I wasn’t working. That’s why we have two, and we keep them on separate networks. With two different networks we often find one phone works when the other doesn’t, giving a sort of redundancy and a slightly higher level of reliability. Being without mine feels like the time I sent in my camera for a week’s service. It’s one of my three essential tools: laptop, camera, and phone. With them operating normally, I can do anything — without them I feel naked and disarmed.

Eleanor and I have tried the obvious trick: calling the phone from another phone and listening for it. No joy. I also have contacted Verizon to put a temporary outgoing call block on it. I don’t want someone else finding it and making a few long calls to Paraguay. (This has happened to several people I know, and the phone companies are not good about waiving the bill.)

At this point I have to conclude that the phone is either quietly dead somewhere or beeping the “missed call” warning from deep in the cushions of a comfy chair at Bookman’s. I hope it passes a pleasant night. I’ll give the store a ring in the morning — from Eleanor’s phone.

Safe water

We have been only partially successful at avoiding Emma’s cold. Eleanor has a mild congestion, and I have a sore throat. Nobody feels 100% but at least we are mostly functional. But because we are dragging ourselves along and the days are so short at this time of year, it seems almost impossible to get anything done before sunset.

This morning we meandered out of our campsite on the shore of the Colorado River in Needles, and puttered further along Rt 95 in the desert, eventually merging with I-10 south of Joshua Tree National Park. We had no fixed destination in mind. Along the way, we tried entering Joshua Tree from the south side, but the only campground in the park (Cottonwood, 4000 ft. elevation) was cold and windy and lonely. The ranger station was closed for staff training, there were no evening ranger programs within 30 miles, and I couldn’t blog or do any work up there since there was no cellular service. If we’d planned a couple of days in advance we might have stayed, but for an impulsive visit it didn’t make sense. We decided to skip Joshua Tree in favor of the warmer air down in the Palm Springs area.

I think the virus is affecting our decisions. With a rhinovirus in your system, you want warmth and comfort food. You want plenty of hot water and early bedtime. You want a movie or a book in bed. You don’t want to go rock-hopping at 4000 ft. in a cold breeze 40 miles from the nearest pharmacy. Our adventuresome instincts have been blunted by the influence of a microscopic nuisance.

However, this is an opportunity to talk about ways to avoid microscopic nuisances. (You’ll admire the smoothness of this segue in a moment.) Last week at REI I bought a Steripen, which is a little hand-held ultraviolet light that renders harmless all bugs that might be in your drinking water. You press a button, dip the light into the water, and in about 90 seconds it has scrambled the DNA of 99.999% of the viruses, bacteria, and protozoa in the water. Voila! Safe drinking water.

UV devices like this are commonly built in to household water treatment systems, but this portable version is ideal for an RV’er. It runs on 4 AA batteries and it weighs less than a pound. I bought it after a lot of research into ways to get safe water when traveling in Mexico. Filters can get out the “chunky” stuff like metals, chemicals, protozoa, and bacteria (down to about .9 microns), but they can miss some bacteria and all the viruses. (For example, hepatitis can be caused by contaminated water.)

So-called “purifiers” can knock out the viruses but they generally do that by introducing chemicals like iodine or chlorine. I like my water to contain only water. So I chose a two-step approach: fill the fresh water tank with well-filtered water, then treat it with the Steripen for drinking purposes.

We use the Camco CX90 ceramic in-line filter on   our fresh water hose whenever we fill the tank or are connecting to city water.   This ensures the water in our tank and fixtures is not contaminated by sediment, etc., and it also improves the taste.

The system works.   Las Vegas water tastes horrible, but with the CX90 and the charcoal filter built-in to our Moen kitchen faucet, it was passable.   I’m planning to use the Steripen when we go to Mexico next, and here in the USA it is also useful for those times when we are boondocking and need to make safe drinking water from the fresh water holding tank.

Tonight the blog comes to you from the parking lot at the Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella CA, right at the noisy intersection of I-10 and 86.   We’re here with eight other RVs, laying low until sunrise, when we can get back on the road down toward the Salton Sea.

Tough equipment

I’ve over-used my camera and it needs a rest. Some time ago I calculated that I shoot roughly 12,000 photos a year. The trusty Nikon D70 that I have been using for about three years has put up with immense stress, including everything from being dumped in Florida sand to being splattered in the Washington rain forest.

The camera has done well, but the toll of years, miles, and images has begun to show. The onboard flash stopped working a year ago, the long 55-200 zoom makes a grinding noise from the sand inside it, and now my primary lens has a spot in it.

If you look at the photo of “The Mad Greek” I posted a few days ago, you will see the problem. In the upper middle of the image there is a unfocused dark spot. This has actually been in all my photos for the past week or so, but in some images it is hard to see. The spot appeared while we were in Hawaii, sometime between the USS Arizona Memorial and Hanauma Bay. It’s probably some dust that got inside the lens.

In a way, it’s a souvenir of Hawaii, perhaps some lava. I hope Pele the volcano goddess doesn’t blame me. She doesn’t like it when you take lava from the islands.

I was able to work around the other problems, but this one is a killer. The lens probably has to be disassembled, and in the meantime I’ll be camera-less, which for me is like having a thumb removed. My friend Bert Gildart, a serious professional photographer, advised me to get not only another lens but a second camera body, so the D70 could be retired to the role of spare.

(Bert can be forgiven for his free-spending advice. He is currently blissed out, rolling around in joy like a pig in slop, because he just got his new Nikon D300, which is an amazing new camera. The D300 costs $1800 without any lenses and it is not in my budget.)

I have discovered that getting a hard drive replaced on a laptop is much easier than getting camera service. My options are few: ship the camera to an authorized service center, or find a local camera repair shop (very rare) in a major city. Either way, the camera is out of commission for days.

So Bert’s advice does make some sense. A couple dozen of my photos have appeared in Airstream Life, and hundreds are on this blog, making the camera a clear business expense (ahem), and potentially justifying spending a bit more. I’m looking at a really slick replacement lens that would lighten my camera bag and greatly reduce the need to switch lenses when working: the Nikon 18-200mm VR zoom. Unfortunately it is not exactly cheap either, at about $700 from reputable dealers. I’d ask Santa but I already got a ukulele.

Despite the maintenance now needed, the Nikon has been almost as tough as our Airstream. The Airstream has over 50,000 miles on it and with a good bath it will look almost new. It still performs like new and there’s every reason to expect it will last for decades. I can only hope the Nikon lasts as long. I like equipment that can take a beating and doesn’t wear out prematurely. Traveling as we do, there’s no advantage in buying cheap stuff that doesn’t last.

We are still in Las Vegas because Brian and Leigh won’t let us leave.   No, really, it’s because they keep emphasizing that we are welcome to stay longer and that’s awfully convenient right now.   We have nowhere to go for a while, Eleanor can do her shopping easily here, Emma can recuperate, and I’ve been finalizing articles for the Spring 2008 issue of the magazine.

Plus, Brian and Leigh are giving me lots of “black socks” ideas that may get integrated into our upcoming new website launch.   Airstream Life magazine will have an exciting (I hope) new website in a few weeks with a lot more content for you.   Our staff of programming gnomes have been hard at work on it for weeks, and I’m really pleased with the way it is shaping up. should soon be a very interesting destination …

Getting things done

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why campground wi-fi sucks

I’ll cut right to the chase here.   We didn’t go anywhere today and the most exciting thing was having tuna fish on toast for lunch.   So I’m going to take today’s blog to rant a bit.

Today’s Thesis: Campground wi-fi is about as reliable as Nigerian banker with $20 million to share.

It’s not usually the campground owner’s fault.   Many of them got swept up into the promise that wi-fi would be a money-making service for them.   They’d provide Internet service and charge $6 a day for it.   A few still try to do it, but many of them have just opted to allow wi-fi for free, figuring it’s another marketing tool.

But getting wi-fi into RV’s all over a campground reliably is trickier than it looks.   Geography, trees, buildings, and aluminum sided RVs all interfere with the signal.   Electric motors, cordless phones, and other wi-fi installations also get in the way.   Given that they are giving it away, not too many campground owners are inclined to make the level of investment that is needed to provide a good consistent signal.   The result is that at most campgrounds we’ve visited that promise wi-fi, only about half actually provide a signal we can use inside the Airstream.

If you can’t receive the signal indoors, it’s not very useful.   In Oregon near Crater Lake National Park, I remember a park where the wi-fi was reachable only within a few feet of the office.   I had to sit at a picnic table outdoors with mosquitoes chewing on me. If it’s not mosquitoes, it’s cold temperatures (try typing with frozen fingers!), wind, sun so bright you can’t see the screen, or rain.   It’s rarely nice enough outside to work on a laptop.

Then it gets worse.   The routers and cable/DSL modems commonly used occasionally have problems, caused by power outages, spikes, people tripping over the wires, etc.   They often need to be re-set, but usually nobody in the management office knows how — or even is aware that something is wrong.   So even when we find a signal, I often find something technical is wrong.   The router may not be assigning IP addresses, for example.

A typical scenario is that the wi-fi works for a few hours, but then suddenly stops for no apparent reason.   Sometimes it comes back, usually it doesn’t.   When I tell the folks in the office, I usually get a panicked look and then some gobbledygook like, “I think the Internet is down,” or “I’ll have to ask Tony when he gets back next week.”

Sometimes they’ll give up and let me take a look at the system.   I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself on my hands and knees underneath someone’s desk sorting out dusty wires.   Usually it’s a matter of tracing the power cables, discreetly pulling them out (because the staff gets nervous when things are disconnected, even for a moment), and reconnecting them in the proper order.

This is why, when I am told by prospective travelers that they intend to seek out “wi-fi campgrounds”, I ask if they really need to get online.   If you intend to rely on the Internet as you travel for information and communications, don’t expect wi-fi in the campgrounds to work more than 50% of the time.   Really, it’s that bad.

If intermittent and unpredictable access to the Internet is OK with you, then you’ll be happy.   If not, you’ll need to consider   either a cellular Internet card (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T/Cingular, and Alltel offer them), or a satellite Internet dish.   I’ve talked about these options before in the blog, so if you are curious, just do a search on our archives.

I don’t have a lot of hope that the bad state of campground wi-fi will improve any time soon.   The cost of putting in a real commercial-grade service is beyond most campground owners.   For those who regard Internet service as essential as oxygen and drinkable water, expect to “bring your own” for the next decade or so.

Onward to Banff

Parked in Bert & Janie’s driveway, I have dug through enough work to escape for a few days to Canada.   In the past 36 hours I’ve worked nearly 20 hours.   I feel like a rodent gathering seeds for winter, constantly working so that I can take a little time off.

Except that I won’t hibernate.   The weather forecast for Banff looks pretty good, with highs in the upper 50s and lots of sunshine.   Considering the altitude and the time of year, that’s about the most we could have hoped for.   So we’ll scurry around and try to see half of the great things that everyone has told us about: Radium Hot Springs, Icefield Parkway, historic Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise, the Post Hotel, etc. — in a few days.

I’m also reliably informed by loyal blog reader Bill that I can get a great Canadian yogurt while we are in Banff.   If you’ve read this blog more than a few weeks, you know that hunting yogurt that contains just milk has become a peculiar passion of mine lately.

I’d like to stay up in Alberta and British Columbia for a few weeks, roaming west toward Vancouver and slurping down yogurt, but again the demands of work interfere.   My Verizon Wireless card will work in parts of Canada, but Verizon will charge me a punishing $2 per megabyte to use it.   That means a typical load of daily email would cost me $25-50.   It’s the same with my phone: brutal per-minute rates.   So those tools that I normally use every day will not be used.

And unfortunately, timing is against me.   The Winter 2007 issue of Airstream Life is going to press next week and I need to be online for at least a few hours Tues-Thursday to review final page proofs.   That means I need to find a wi-fi hotspot or cybercafe in Banff.   It shouldn’t be terribly hard, just slightly inconvenient.   You retirees have got it right.   I need to retire!

Seriously however, a job well done is a reward in itself and I do enjoy my job.   I’m not sure that I would enjoy our travels as much if I wasn’t also publishing the magazine.   The two go hand-in-hand, for me.

I am also proud of my staff for pulling together to create a great magazine issue.   It feels good to complete any issue of the magazine, but especially so when it looks great, and comes in on time and under budget, as this one has.   The Winter 2007 issue should be well received.   I’m particularly happy with the “newsstand” cover, the one that appears only on the magazines that are for sale in book stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.   Want to see a sneak preview?

I thought so.   Here it is:


Now, don’t tell anyone you saw this!   It’ll be our secret until it comes out in November, OK?

The plan is to head out on Friday, mid-morning.   We should be across the border within an hour and in Radium Hot Springs by early afternoon.   Most likely I won’t be able to blog from there on Friday night but it’s hard to say for sure.   At some point over the weekend I’ll try to get a blog entry up, and as usual, once I do get connectivity to the Internet I’ll backdate a few entries.

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