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Archive for April, 2007

Emma’s birthday

Our daughter is 7 today, and she had a very happy birthday, thank you. She got some very nice presents (lightweight and small, too, which makes Daddy happy), went to the Pima County Fair, and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Later tonight or tomorrow, we’ll break out the rhubarb pie that Eleanor made (from fresh rhubarb purchased at Beatty’s a couple of days ago), and that will be the “birthday cake”.

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Lost in the hall of mirrors, Pima County Fair

Emma has been living the Airstream Life since she was three, and has celebrated two birthdays while full-timing, so she’s a travel expert now. At this point she is in no hurry to stop living in the trailer or traveling, but I doubt she will celebrate another birthday on the road. This phase of her life is coming to an end, to be replaced by a more traditional existence in a stationary house, conventional schooling, and fewer opportunities to explore the world.

As you might imagine, we have mixed feelings about this, but it was always part of the plan. Change isn’t bad, it’s just different. We started this trip with a 5-year-old and now we have a 7-year-old, and that’s pretty cool.

Google Earth location of the Pima County Fair.

I have not put up a Sign of the Week lately. I’d like to say that’s because I’ve been busy, because it sounds better than “I got lazy.” Whatever the cause, there were plenty of good sign opportunities at the Fair. Here’s an example:

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How do you deep-fry a Coke?

Electric charges

For the past three days it has been breezy here. Our campsite is on an exposed plateau with no natural windbreaks for miles in any direction, and it’s springtime, the season of fair weather breezes. Occasionally a gust will come up and rock the trailer slightly, which is actually kind of fun. We’re in no danger of tipping over until the winds get to hurricane force, and even then they’d have to hit us broadside.

But last night the wind really came up and it has remained strong into this morning. Storms from California are coming through, which for us desert-dwellers means wind, occasional cloudiness, and a slight chance of scattered showers. This is a nice change. The rapidly-moving clouds give the desert a dappled appearance, and the rain showers and virga by the mountains are beautiful to watch.

Yesterday we headed over to Ramsey Canyon again for a quick browse through the bookstore. On the way up the road we nearly ran over a rather larger gopher snake. It was about three feet long and very thick in the cross-section. So the first books we checked out were all about identifying reptiles of Arizona, but ultimately we settled on a book about western birds.

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Buying books at the Ramsey Canyon bookstore

The clouds today cut into our ability to make power through the solar panels. Even though our current campground offers a full hookup, they charge separately for electricity, so we were considering just leaving the power off and living off solar alone. This got me thinking …

Metered electric for daily stays is something we’ve never encountered outside Arizona. It’s common for monthly stays, but most places doon’t bother for short-term visitors. The reason they do here is simply that some people will flagrantly waste the electric if they think it’s “free”. Here in air conditioning country, the campground owners are forced to encourage conservation or lose money. I can see why. In the past month I’ve walked past many an empty trailer or motorhome with the roof air running all day long, even on comfortable days in the 70s.

For our three days in Huachuca City, temperatures have been ideal, so we haven’t needed air conditioning. But since the campground provided an easy-to-read meter right at our site, I thought it would be interesting to see how much power we actually used. It turns out that we used 19 kilowatt hours in three days, or about 6 kilowatt-hours per day. That’s a lot more than we consume when boondocking, and much more than our solar panels can generate.

Why the discrepancy? Well, when we plug into AC power, a lot of new power loads get introduced. Our refrigerator automatically switches to AC, which draws up to 2.7 AC amps, or 324 watts. I am not clear on whether the electric element in the refrigerator cycles on and off or runs continuously, but if it ran continuously, that would be a potential 7.7 kwH per day all by itself. In any case, the refrigerator uses more power when running on AC than the combined output of both our solar panels. That’s why, when we are unplugged, energy for the refrigerator is provided by propane instead.

Another load is the power converter. It takes AC power and converts it to DC to maintain the batteries, with some efficiency loss. You can actually hear that loss when the electric cooling fan in the converter cycles on. What it’s telling you is that it is blowing some of that wasted power away in the form of heat.

Finally, human nature takes hold, and we tend to use more lights, and leave them on longer, than we would if were thinking about conserving battery power. Other electric toys get used, too. Eleanor breaks out the electric coffee pot and the toaster for breakfast. We all use the microwave to heat things quickly. We also are able to run our big TV, so a two-hour family movie costs us about 0.2 kwH. All of this luxury boosts our power consumption from a meager 1 kwH per day to just over 6 kwH per day.

For this lesson, I was happy to pay the campground $2.47 for three days of electricity right before we departed Huachuca City. We’ve towed the Airstream back up to Tucson and will remain here three nights. We’ve got mail to pick up at General Delivery, there’s the County Fair, and we’ve got a bit of homework to do for Emma’s future school. Then the plan is to migrate northward and explore some of central Arizona.

Hunting hummers

If you haven’t guessed by the previous few blog entries, this is the top place in the United States to see hummingbirds. Fourteen species live here in the summer, and people come from great distances to get a spot near the feeders and photograph the birds.

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I’m not actually a birder, but I like the photographic challenge of capturing a hummingbird in flight. It has been an exercise to hone my skills — an exercise which I haven’t yet mastered. That keeps it interesting.

From Sierra Vista, you can take Miller Canyon Road up into the Huachuca Mountains to visit Beatty’s Guest Ranch and Orchards. The rough dirt road winds up the canyon through the Coronado National Forest lands, and at first we had the impression we were on the wrong track. A mile or so up, there’s a trailhead and a few acres of privately owned land — Beatty’s.

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Beatty’s is a mecca for hummingbird watchers. In addition to selling honey, apples, rhubarb, eggs, and renting out some very private guest accommodations, they have a bank of hummingbird feeders. This time of year the hummers are consuming 6 quarts of sugar water a day, and by this summer Beatty’s will be serving many times that amount. So it’s a superb place to view the birds. For a fee, they have some exclusive areas for particularly nice viewing.

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A female Allen’s Hummingbird

Google Earth location of Beatty’s Guest Ranch and Orchard

Now what I really need to get better photos is a longer, faster, image-stabilized lens … I got myself a lens for my last birthday, perhaps it’s time for another?

Fairbank and Bisbee, AZ

Just down the road from our campsite is one of the better-preserved ghost towns of southern Arizona, a town called Fairbank. It was a stop along the railroad line, complete with school, hotel, miner’s homes, a post office, and more.

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The rail line has long been abandoned, and now Fairbank is just a patch along the San Pedro river. The schoolhouse remains, converted into a one-room museum, and a couple of other buildings in decrepit shape. Some interpretive signs are there, along with trails to the river, the old stamp mill, and Fairbank cemetery.

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The cemetery is a half-mile walk from town. An old story is told which claims that bodies bound for the cemetery would be floated down the San Pedro River, but it’s probably not true. We took the hike to check it out, and it turned out to be a hilltop with a panoramic view, strewn with rock-covered graves. Few of the graves are marked, but they can be easily identified by the piles of stones and an occasional wood cross. Only a couple have elaborate metal surrounds, like the one above.

The cemetery was surprisingly eery. I think it was the closely-spaced, unmarked graves. Each one gives the impression of someone resting only inches below the surface, and the entire place is sort of lonely. We’ve been in many graveyards in New England that are much older than this one (dating from the late 1800s through about 1920), but this one definitely wins the prize for the spookiness. I’ve posted more photos on our Flickr photo album.

Google Earth location of Fairbank Cemetery

Twenty or thirty miles down the road, past Tombstone, is the old copper mining town of Bisbee. The copper is all played out, and now the town is known as an artists community. Bisbee is known to us for two reasons: It’s Eleanor’s favorite place to buy beads, and it’s the home of The Shady Dell RV Park. The Shady Dell is a sort of trailer motel where you can rent a 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s vintage trailer by the night. We stopped in to check it out and talk to Ken, who runs the place.

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Ken leaning against a “Flxible” bus

The Shady Dell is for sale, if you want to own a very funky trailer park with a collection of restored trailers. Ken would like to stay on and continue to manage it, so it’s a great opportunity for a vintage trailer nut who wants to be an absentee owner. Hmmm… wish I had the money.

Google Earth location of The Shady Dell

Ramsey Canyon

One of the reasons we are here was to explore Ramsey Canyon, a Nature Conservancy site near Sierra Vista. It’s part of a “sky island” formed by the Huachuca Mountains. Sky islands are biologically diverse high altitude areas found in the southwest, primarily Arizona and New Mexico.

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Ramsey Canyon sits at the confluence of two mountain ranges (Rockies and Sierra Madres) and two deserts (Chihuahuan and Sonoran). Thus, it has bird, plant and animal life from all four of those areas, making it a unique place for naturalists and the curious travelers like us.

It’s also a great spot to experience the variations Arizona can offer. Hiking in Ramsey Canyon was just like a hike in the Green Mountains of Vermont, or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, except without mosquitoes & black flies. A burbling brook tumbled down the canyon, just parallel to the trail. Deciduous trees and butterflies surrounded us. The major clues that we weren’t in the northeast were the occasional yucca and trees we weren’t familiar with such as the Arizona black walnut.

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The canyon is well worth the short drive from Sierra Vista and the $5 admission charge. There’s a small nature center, and naturalist volunteers are standing by to help interpret the park and identify creatures. We spotted a screech owl nesting in sycamore tree, several hummingbirds, numerous butterflies, the endangered Ramsey Canyon Leopard Frog (no kidding), and the hiking was excellent. In fact, we plan to go again and do a longer hike. The admission receipt is good for a week.

If you go, I’d recommend good birding binoculars and plenty of water. The trail is all uphill, but not very challenging until you’re about 1/2 mile from the nature center.

Google Earth location of Ramsey Canyon

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You’ll have to look very closely to spot this well-camouflaged screech owl!

Huachuca City, AZ

Nice to have a change of scene. Even though we are only about 60 miles from our last spot, and the view is still mountains and desert, it looks and feels completely different. Our spot today is situated on a rise of land overlooking Tombstone (“the town too tough to die”), 10 miles away, and the Dragoon Mountains to the northeast.

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We’re told that the Dragoon Mountains turn gold in the sunset, which is about to occur as I type this. In a minute I’ll head out and see if there are some good photos to be taken. Earlier, Emma and I went for a walk around the campground and practiced taking photos of the hummingbirds.

I have found that I need to use the flash and a high ISO even in daylight, if I want to get a good blur-free image. Today’s shots were not very successful, but I feel prepped for the next few days. We will undoubtedly see a lot of them as we check out Sierra Vista and the surrounding area.

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Part of our departure checklist is to clean the trailer’s interior. This means putting everything away, dusting the counters, making the beds, throwing out the junk, sweeping the floor and vacuuming the carpet (if we have an electrical hookup). Since we haven’t moved in a while, we had more cleaning than usual, but because it’s a small space the trailer cleaned up quickly. It’s a nice ritual because it means we pull into our new space with a home that looks neat & new, like we just moved in.

So here we are in a town that is new to us, a view that is new, and the Airstream looking and feeling new again too. It’s a really enjoyable sensation, sort of like going to a nice hotel on vacation. All the detritus is left behind, all the dullness is washed away and it feels like an adventure just to go 60 miles. Every new campsite is a reboot on life. No wonder we like it.

Still, the mundane aspects of life continue. We’ve had a couple of rounds of paperwork related to the house. The roof needs replacement and that meant plenty of documents with signatures and counter-signatures getting faxed back and forth between us and the seller. The seller has agreed to split the cost of a new roof.

In case you are wondering how we handle the paperwork without a fax machine or a regular telephone line … We carry a laser printer with us, and a flat-bed scanner that is USB-powered. We receive all of our faxes through eFax, which means they arrive in my email box as PDF documents. For documents for our records, I simply save them in a folder and they get included in the next regular disk backup.

If a signature is required, we print it out, sign, then scan as a PDF and email it back, or send it out as a fax through eFax. I also keep a copy of all the documents we’ve signed on my computer. In the end, nothing stays in paper format — it’s all digital, which is much more convenient, searchable, and safe. We are able to store the equivalent of several file cabinets worth of paper in virtually no space at all. As I’ve been reminded, buying a house generates a lot of paper!

At this point the house seems to be under control, so we can leave that job behind for the next week. We’ll do some adventuring. I’ve got a little break before the crunch comes for the next magazine, and I plan to use it as well as I can.

No reservations, no worries

This has been the longest stopover of our entire trip. We’ve spent a total of six weeks in Tucson, with a couple of breaks. While I like it here, it’s definitely nice to be contemplating our departure tomorrow.

Yesterday we got back into the old mode of things, discussing possible destinations. Eleanor and I made a general plan to head toward Sierra Vista (south of here), based on a suggestion that the hummingbirds are there. We have no idea how long we’ll be there, or exactly what we’ll do while we are there.

We’ve made no reservations, either. Part of the fun of our travels has been winging it a lot. Reservations are annoying. We’d rather just pick something out. I know this sounds whacky but really it’s fun. We know we’ll end up somewhere … and no matter where we are, we’ll be comfy in our Airstream, so why worry?

I got a call from my friend Colin Hyde yesterday. Towing his Airstream back home from the Cherry Blossom Rally in Maryland, he and his five-year-old son found themselves stuck in a big snowstorm on I-88 in New York. They ended up spending the night at a rest area in a foot of snow but they didn’t care — they just settled in with a stack of DVDs and a fridge full of food, and waited out the storm. That’s a disaster turned in to an adventure courtesy of an Airstream. So we don’t sweat the small stuff, and reservations fall in that category most of the time.

What I’d really like to do is disappear in Sonora (Mexico) for a couple of weeks, but there’s too much work to be done. So we’ll stay near populated areas where I can get online and my phone works. We’ve got until about May 7 to roam, and then we need to get back here for the house closing. Time is starting to become very precious with home & family & school obligations looming. We’ll try to make the most of it.

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