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Striking the set

The Caravel project is done, at least for this summer. This morning we “struck the set,” as they say in show business. That means the shed we were working in has been completely cleared out. All of the tools are packed away in a box for next year, and the wood scraps have been hauled off for future bonfires by the beach. The only clue that we were working in the shed is some sawdust on the floor.

I drove all the old and new parts back over to Plattsburgh NY this morning and, with Colin Hyde’s help, loaded them carefully into the Caravel for future installation. This was the first opportunity I’d had to see how the stained wood complemented the Marmoleum floor. The effect, as I expected, is perfect — a testament to Susanne Brown’s ability to manage colors. We’ll be asking her for recommendations on fabrics and countertops as well.

It’s exciting to see all the parts in the Caravel, because it means that after almost four years of being on hold, the project is finally nearing completion. We had stopped work on the Caravel back in late 2004 when we began working on the 1977 Argosy project (“Vintage Thunder”), and then we went out to travel full-timing for “six months” in 2005. You know how that worked out. So until this summer, we’d never managed to get back to the poor old Caravel. There’s a very good chance we’ll have it ready to camp by the latter half of Summer 2009, which will be great fun.

We’re also striking the set on our Vermont visit. It has been fun, but two months is a good long visit and it is time to get moving again. I have to admit that I’m not going to miss the nearly-constant rain (another thunderstorm this evening washed out our celebratory “farewell” dinner). If it had rained less we would have spent more time on the boat, skiing, wakeboarding, fishing, and cruising. As it was, we spent much of the past two months watching weather radar on the computer and trying to figure out activities around the frequent downpours.

plattsburgh-airstream-canoe.jpgAfter a long stop like this, the preparations to leave are numerous. I’ve got to do a bunch of minor safety checks and maintenance items on the trailer, like lubing the hitch and topping off the tires, but that’s nothing that you wouldn’t do for any weekend trip. We also always take the opportunity to thoroughly re-pack and clean the trailer. We can clean on the road (and we do) but it’s more convenient to do it in someone’s driveway where we can borrow a powerful vacuum and other cleaning tools.

Eleanor began repacking food yesterday. I have no idea what she has loaded but I know we’ll be well stocked when we go. She’s also laundered everything that can be laundered. Today and tomorrow her major job will be to find all the items belonging to us that are scattered around the house, garage, beach, and yard, and put them where they belong — or decided that they need to be scuttled. I’ll be doing that as well, since this is a great opportunity to do one of my favorite things: cull down what we are carrying around.

We have left the 1983 Honda at Colin’s shop in Plattsburgh, right in front of our 1963 Serro Scotty and just a trailer away from the 1968 Caravel. The Honda has been put to bed for the season, with a full tank of fuel plus fuel stabilizer, and the battery stored inside the shop. I think it has been a success. Despite a couple of repairs, it has been a good set of wheels and carted us around about 2,000 miles this summer.

While we were in Plattsburgh, Colin took the opportunity to show us some of his recent projects. The photo above is of his “Airstream” canoe. Look carefully and you’ll see the vintage Airstream nameplate he bolted on it. The canoe was a green-colored $50 yard sale special with holes in it. A few weeks later Colin had it looking like new and ready for some trips in the Adirondacks. Seeing what he does with old “junk” is really inspiring to me.

This evening I realized that I could check my tire pressure while sitting at the dinette typing this blog. I just grabbed the Doran 360RV unit from the truck and plugged it into the 12v socket in the trailer. In a couple of minutes it will report the pressure of all four tires, so I’ll know if I need to plan some time to reinflate any of the tires (or deal with a possible slow leak) in the morning.

Oh look, it’s already reporting. One tire shows 59 psi, the other three are showing 60 psi. I like this method — this is the civilized way to check the tire pressure, especially when it’s raining! Those pressures are good news. It shows that none of our tires have a slow leak or any other problems that sometimes crop up when parked for a while. They’ve all lost a few pounds since I last aired them up in North Carolina (in May), but about one pound per month is considered normal. At 60 psi I don’t really need to add air. Our gross weight is light enough that 60 is just fine. But if the sun is shining in the morning I may top them up to 65 psi anyway.

We have decided not to rush off in the morning tomorrow. Instead, we’ll take our time getting out, probably departing in the early afternoon. Our first day will be a short one of about three hours drive time. After such a long time of being parked, it’s nice to have a soft start to get back into the travel mood.

Building furniture

At long last Eleanor and I have found time to work on rebuilding the furniture for our 1968 Airstream Caravel. It’s awfully late to be starting this project, in the home stretch of our visit, but it’s now or never. All of the wood has been stacked in the shed for weeks, along with glue, fasteners, sandpaper, polyurethane, and all the tools we need. Our excuses for getting started this late are simply that we’ve been ridiculously busy on other things, and the relentless rain. But excuses don’t get the job done, and now the pressure is on.


A thunderstorm passes over Lake Champlain  

On Saturday we got a break in the weather for half a day, so we got started on the project. Each piece of furniture in the trailer is to be recreated in new ash wood, duplicating almost exactly the original elm wood. With a light oak stain, the finished product would be nearly identical to the original in grain and color, but at this point I am leaning toward finishing with no stain, thus lightening the wood considerably from the original honey color. It should go better with the yellow/tan Marmoleum floor that is already installed in the trailer.

charlotte-caravel-woodshop.jpgOur workshop is a 20×10 tent structure with a blue tarp floor. The ground is sloped to one end, enough so that a loose pencil will roll off the table. Tomorrow I will have to try to level it up a bit more, but so far we’ve just dealt with it as-is. Rainwater leaks around the perimeter and pools on the edges of the tarp, so any good wood has to be kept off the ground to avoid water staining. The tent is infested with spiders, Daddy Long-legs, and flying insects of every description, so much that each piece of wood must be brushed clean of insect legs and wings before use. As a result of the rain-saturated ground, it is intensely humid in there, even with the door wide open. In short, it is far from an ideal wood shop, but it’s all we have.

charlotte-caravel-wood-joinery.jpgGetting started on a big project is always the hardest part. I did the first couple of hours alone, to get a sense of the process and the specific challenges. Then Eleanor joined in. Once we got past the first hour and both of us began to understand what we were doing, we began ticking along pretty nicely. She is specializing in drilling the joinery holes using the mini-Kreg, which involves careful clamping and adjusting. I mostly cut pieces to length and sand them smooth. Together, we manage the long rip cuts on the tablesaw and assemble the finished pieces.

charlotte-caravel-wood-armada.jpgThe only really safe dry storage we have is in the Armada, so all finished pieces are going in there, with loose parts taped and the original pieces alongside for reference during re-assembly. We can’t fully assemble the furniture, because it has to go back to Plattsburgh in a compact format, so we’re assembling all the flat sections and labeling how they go together.

Today we put in another four hours before the heat of the day arrived. Progress has been reasonable. So far we have built the face frames for two closets, one side of the dinette, and the kitchen. We’ve still got another dinette side and the gaucho to go, plus two overhead cabinets, six cabinet doors, and a few simple bulkheads.

Whether we finish before we leave depends mostly on the weather. I’ve cleared some time in my work schedule this week, but if the thunderstorms continue it may not matter.   I can’t use the tablesaw or chop saw when it’s raining (since they have to be set up outside the tent).   In any case I’m not wild about building furniture in such humidity, since dry winter air will almost surely cause joints to open up.   If conditions are really adverse, we can at least take some of the plywood down to the basement and start cutting it to shape with the jigsaw.

This weekend we’ve been visited by several friends from far away.   Yesterday Abe and Melissa dropped by, visiting from Virginia.   We just saw them a couple of weeks ago at the Vintage Trailer Jam, but they needed to come up to Vermont this weekend for somebody’s wedding so they popped by the house for a few minutes.   Abe scored big points by bringing me a dozen maple donuts from a bakery in Waitsfield VT.   He knows how to make himself welcome.

Today we had a sort of open house/beach party and invited several friends over.   Among the guests were Felix and Patricia (with toddler Nicholas), who were the unnamed friends in a previous post from Tucson.   Felix and I went to the same grade school in Vermont, and were by happenstance reunited last summer while we were both back in Vermont visiting.   It turns out that he and Patricia now live in southern Arizona not far from our place, so we meet up at both ends of the country from time to time.

Splitting the time between work and fun is the only way to go.   The Caravel project has the potential to be a nightmarish thing, but it should be a pleasant exercise if we handle it right.   I actually do enjoy building things when I have time, and in the end there will be a lot of pride in having done it ourselves (and well), so if it comes down to rushing madly to complete the job or leaving it unfinished for next summer, we will leave it unfinished.   At this point my goal is to get all the frames done, cut all the plywood pieces (so as to reduce them to manageable size), and deliver it to Colin up in Plattsburgh for winter storage.   Finishing with polyurethane, hardware, final assembly, and fitting can be next summer’s project.


We’ve got only about a week left to our Vermont stop, and then we’ll be off again. We’ve been talking on and off about plans for the next year, but they have been rather loose. As usual, we’re mostly winging it. We know that we want to end up in Tucson sometime in October, and we’ve got stops in Denver and a few other cities. The details have been left vague until today.

For trip planning I find Google Maps to be extremely useful. You just click the “Get directions” link and then input the zip code or city/state of the start and end points. Additional stops can be easily added, and Google has a really neat feature which allows you to drag the suggested route to explore alternative routings. The total distance and estimated time is instantly calculated for each possible route.

In about five minutes this morning I put together this plan for our first week on the road. We’re eyeballing stops in Herkimer NY, Cazenovia NY, Limestone PA, Lagrange OH, and Jackson Center OH. No big towns on this trip! We might add in a visit to Corning NY to see the Corning Glass Museum again too, or maybe Letchworth State Park or Allegany State Park.


The plan is not finalized but I love how easy it is to play around with stops and routes using Google Maps. It allows me to get creative about our trip planning. With a list of cities for people we know (or want to meet), we can see who is within reasonable reach. Sometimes the most wonderful coincidences arise, bringing us to friends we didn’t think we’d see. That’s when technology really starts to make a difference.

Speaking of creativity, I want to show you some of Emma’s recent artwork. She has recently been working with some polymer clay called Sculpey. I may just be another overly proud parent, or perhaps easily impressed because I am not competent at artistic things, but when I saw the miniatures she was creating (out of her own head, no books or pictures), I was blown away.


(Click for larger views.) These little figures are about 1″ long each (the unicorn is about 2 inches). They are intricately detailed with colors (like the striped horn on the unicorn), and textures that she applies with a toothpick. What freaks me out is that nobody told her what to make, or how to make it. She just got hold of this clay and starting making them. The middle one is an Orca whale splashing out of the water with a wave behind it. The action of it reminds me of a Remington bronze.

The things that come out of kids’ heads are amazing, in what they do and what they say. It’s the kind of creativity that adults often pooh-pooh when they see it, and then spend their adult lives trying to recapture. Anyone in a creative business could do well to think more like a kid. That includes me.

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.

Pumped and ready

When there’s no time for creativity or Grand Verbiage, I just write what I’m thinking. This is one of those posts, because it is the eve of the Vintage Trailer Jam, an event I’ve been working on for several months, and the past week has been too busy to even talk about. This is just a brain dump.

Tomorrow morning Brett & I will pull out around 9 a.m. We’ve got everything done, and so tonight we can relax. We might even get a chance to see the last half of the movie we started last night. Eleanor and Emma will be pulling out in the morning as well, but for a separate trip to visit family in the Boston area.

The events leading up to our departure have been so complex that I can’t begin to tell the full story. But at this point, the logistics are worked out, everything is being shipped or delivered, checks have been cut and contracts signed. It’s enough to say that we met a dozen different deadlines and are still managing to have a good time.

The Armada almost became the straw that broke the camel’s back. In Plattsburgh last week we discovered something was wrong with the Armada that caused the right turn-brake signal not to work. The local dealer finally got to it today. Their tech spent two hours confirming that all the necessary components were working, but the signal still wasn’t being sent. It looked like we would have to tow down to Saratoga Springs tomorrow without a functioning right brake/turn signal, but then after 2.2 hours of shop time, it was discovered that a connector beneath the carpet was “bad”. At 5 pm today we got the Armada back, just in time to wash it, fill it up with gas, and hitch it up to the Airstream.

OK, so we’ve got a new refrigerator full of food, two full tanks of propane, a full tank of gas, three new Yamaha generators, 24 wooden stakes, two bicycles, $75 worth of beverages, three cans of spray paint, 100 copies of Airstream Life, and a dozen hats. The holding tanks are dumped and the tires are pumped. We’re ready. I’ll report daily from the Trailer Jam with photos.

A few random notes:

(1) We met a very nice couple on the ferry from Essex NY to Charlotte VT, namely Mary and Dave. They were on vacation, roaming upstate New York and Vermont. It turned out that they are Airstream fans (future owners). I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet them again when they are ready to get their Airstream.

(2) The Honda Accord is already down in Glens Falls NY awaiting us. It chewed up another set of wheel bearings on the right front wheel and is currently awaiting parts for a warranty repair. Apparently the folks who replaced those bearings in Tampa a couple of months ago did something wrong (possibly used a wrong part). We’ve gone through extensive machinations to discover this, and get the car to the nearest outlet that can do the repair under warranty. No word on when it will be fixed since they are still trying to figure out what was done wrong, but I hope to pick it up while we are in nearby Saratoga Springs.

One lesson has emerged: on a car this old, when you bring it in for repairs, bring your own parts too. Too many repair shops don’t want to have to go hunting online for rebuilt parts for a 25-year-old car.

(3) With extreme humidity yesterday and today, but temperatures only in the 70s and 80s, I can now confirm that yes, it is not the heat, it’s the humidity. Fortunately, a cold front is expected to pass through tomorrow night. We should have excellent weather for the Jam.

Pre-Jam task jam

 charlotte-lori-emma.jpgThe week before a major Airstream event is often a busy time for me, and this week is an exceptional one even by that standard.   That’s because this time the event is one which I’m co-organizing, and that means a lot of last-minute details to be managed.   Add in my attempt to start rebuilding the entire interior of our 1968 Airstream Caravel, two guests staying in the Airstream with us (Brett and now Lori, who flew in last night), last-minute work on the Fall issue of the magazine, and then the complete & sudden failure of our refrigerator … well, you can see how things are a bit hectic.

The day Brett arrived by air, I picked him up in the morning and we immediately headed over to the hardware stores to get supplies for the Jam.   Then we dropped by Sterling Hardwood to pick up the Caravel project wood (11 sheets of plywood and lots of lengths of ash hardwood cut to various sizes), and by the time we were done unloading at 4 p.m., I noticed the bleeding refrigerator.


Yesterday was about the same.   At Colin Hyde’s shop we got the new Dometic refrigerator installed, which is a major relief and a substantial upgrade.   The new refrigerator has about 25% more useful space inside, and more importantly, it isn’t bleeding coolant.

While we were there, somebody noticed that the trailer’s right brake and turn signal wasn’t working.   We isolated this to the Nissan easily, using a light testing rig that Colin’s guys made up.   You can see it in the picture.   Digging around the Armada, we discovered there isn’t a specific fuse for the trailer lights but there are relays, which we couldn’t test.   So off it goes to the dealer on Tuesday.

We also discovered that there’s a Technical Service Bulletin which is possibly related to this issue, involving the need for a new Body Control Module (think, “computer”).   We’ll find out on Tuesday if the cause is simple or not, but either way it needs to be ready to tow to the Jam on Wednesday.

Then we hauled the Airstream back to Vermont, dumped the tanks and refilled the propane at a nearby campground, and got parked again by 7 p.m.   After dinner and early this morning, I squeezed in a little time to review layouts for the magazine and reply to email.   Late last night Brett went to the airport to pick up Lori and then we were four in the Airstream (with Emma sleeping in the house with my parents).

Today we took a break, mostly.   We had Colin and his son over for the Fourth of July, under spectacular clear skies and fine temperatures.   The humidity has broken at last, and the thunderstorms have relented.   We got the sort of weather that makes Vermonters forgive the state for the awful conditions they’ve experienced lately.   So a little boating, a lot of conversation, a grilled dinner, and a late sunset have given us a nice break from the pressure of being ready for next week.   We have a long way to go before we can rest easy, but I think we’ll be ready for the Jam by Wednesday.

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