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Archive for June, 2007

Early arrivals

We are now officially set up at the WBCCI International Rally in Perry GA. Despite being nearly a week early, we are probably about the five-hundredth Airstream to arrive.

I have to assume with all the new people reading this blog that many of you don’t know how this particular event works. The club that runs this large Airstream rally has been in existence for fifty years as a volunteer organization, and this means that things are run a bit differently than at commercially-sponsored events.

A commercial rally would hire professionals to do most of the tasks, including the mammoth job of setting up facilities for 1,000 or more trailers and their occupants (water, sewer, electricity, parking, food, etc). These tasks would be done with the intent of making a profit, so efficiency and speed would be paramount. Since the club is dependent entirely on the efforts of volunteers, it takes longer. People start arriving at the rally site weeks in advance to set up, hobnob with their friends, have meetings and dozens of other things.

So even though Brett and I arrived on Friday June 22, which is five days before the official opening date, we are relative latecomers. There were already hundreds of Airstreams here, and most of them seem to have arrived two weeks ago.

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Parked in the bullpen

This morning at 8 a.m. the parking committee members knocked on our door and informed us they were ready to escort us from the bullpen (holding area) to our permanent parking spot. This was a drive of about 1000 feet, and we could have easily parked ourselves, but in a rally this large there are procedures and traditions, and being parked officially is one of the most sacrosanct.

Being in advance of the official schedule, there wasn’t much to do today. The Airstream store has opened to sell parts and trinkets and overstock bargains, the service guys are running around doing their thing, and some meetings were held (internal politics of the club), but otherwise it was a day for people to visit their neighbors and catch up on things since last year’s rally.

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After exploring the grounds — which are very nice when the wind is blowing and the gnats are discouraged — we took the Fit into town and checked out Perry’s two-block “restored Colonial downtown”. There’s not much there but it’s quaint and there’s a restaurant we might try later. Lunch was at “My Sister’s Cafe”, which was virtually deserted at 1:30 despite a pretty good lunch buffet for $7.50.

For a small town Perry seems to be very into tourism, and so there are a disproportionate number of motels, chain restaurants, and traveler’s services compared to the apparent population. We found all the requisite services of the full-time traveler: Post Office, ATM, groceries, auto service, laundromat and of course the ubiquitous Wal-Mart. In short, it is an extremely convenient place to be, if not an exciting one. We may not be overwhelmed with thrills but we will never be short of the practicalities.

I have never come this early to an International Rally before, so for me this is an odd experience. Riding around among the maze of Airstreams, I wonder, “What are they all doing here? Why do they come so early? Don’t they get bored waiting for the rally to start?”

I interviewed a few briefly to see, and generally they say that they come to help set up and that they like being among all their friends for a few weeks. But most people have hardly any work to do. So many volunteer that the axiom, “Many hands make light work” applies. All you need to do to get early parking is raise your hand to do the simplest task, like setting up tables for an hour or two, and you automatically become one of those privileged to come a week or two early.

For the people here, coming early is not a boring obligation but the central focus of the event. Once the schedule actually begins, it’s almost anti-climactic. But I am looking forward to the friends who have not yet arrived, because that’s when the fun will really crank up. If you are looking for us at the rally, we’re parked in Green section 1, row 1, moho ##5501. Drop by and say hello!

The Fit is Go!

“The Fit is Go” is Honda’s slogan for their new very small car, the Fit. I bought one this morning in Florida, and then drove it 350 miles from Florida to Perry, GA.

The purchase of the Fit is a reflection of our changing lifestyle. Buying a house was one significant step away from the full-timing life that we’ve lived for the past two years, and with the house came the need for a second car. The Nissan Armada has been great for towing the Airstream, but even when not towing it gets a horrific 15-18 MPG, and I’m not going to pump $80 worth of gas into it every few days just for toodling around town.

So the Fit is the answer. It’s a zippy little thing that costs very little to own and feed. It should be ideal for those times when we are stationary. I like tight handling and light cars, and the Fit is very fun to drive. I am finding that buying an economy car is not an uncommon reaction among former full-timers. Most recently, when Brian and Leigh came off the road a couple of months ago, they swapped their Ford F-150 for a Toyota Prius, and are now reveling in the joy of 50 MPG.

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Rich takes delivery of the Fit, beside Brett’s motorhome

Once we had the car, I followed Brett’s big twinkie of a motorhome up I-75 all the way to Perry. We pulled in around 4:30 to the “bullpen” here at the Georgia National Fairground. The bullpen is a waiting area for people who arrive after the usual parking times. Normally you get no amenities in the bullpen, but this year a full hookup is offered, so it’s just as comfortable here as it will be in our final parking space. We’ll be directed there first thing in the morning.

The Georgia National Fairground is a fairly nice spot, as big fairgrounds go. Having attended many large rallies over the past few years, I’ve become rather experienced with fairgrounds. This one is neatly mowed and divided by several small man-made “lakes” (really ponds).

But as nice as the setting seems, the gnats are horrible right now. The moment we stepped out of the vehicles we were swarmed with them, flying an inch from our faces, in our eyes and ears. They don’t seem to bite, but they are expert at annoying. They are relentless and numerous, especially during the heat of the day, and we haven’t yet figured out how to beat them other than to hide in the motorhome.

This does not bode well for daily activities at the rally. Perhaps a change of weather will discourage them. I hope so, because I’ll be here for two weeks. It’ll be a long rally with those guys around.

Once the rally is over, I’ll take the Fit north and eventually end up in Vermont again. There will be a few stops along the way, but I’ll try to keep them short. This is the longest I’ve been separated from Emma since she was born, and it feels very awkward to be separated as much as we have been lately.

If you haven’t checked the blog’s companion Flickr album lately, you’ll find lots of new photos uploaded in the past few weeks. This morning I uploaded photos from our speed run across America, and there is also a Grand Canyon album.


Every time I fly I seem to find myself thinking I’d rather be in my Airstream. Today they confiscated my bottle of water at the security checkpoint, but I got an “atta boy” from the screener who searched my bag because I had all my travel-size toiletries in the TSA-proscribed clear plastic bag. When flying, one has to be grateful for the little things.

The reason for going against preference and flying is the annual WBCCI International Rally — the big Airstream event. This year it is being held in Perry, GA, which is known primarily for its giant fairground that can accommodate thousands of RVs, and several hundred with full hookups. In Georgia, in July, the demand for 30-amp electricity to run air conditioners becomes paramount.

Just having completed that massive drive from Las Vegas to Vermont, I don’t feel like a whole lot of driving for a while, and (strangely enough) Eleanor and Emma preferred to stay in the cool weather of Vermont visiting family rather than sitting in a reportedly sugar-ant-infested fairground in Georgia. But I have actual business to do at the rally, so here I am awaiting an Airbus A320 to pick me up at JFK.

It will be an interesting two weeks. Lots of things happen at these rally, and the best things aren’t on the program. I’ve got meetings scheduled, of course, but I also came loaded for bear with all my photo equipment, including tripod. The plan is to capture some good Airstream images and especially a few night shots. I’ll also hopefully bag a few articles for upcoming issues of the magazine.

First things first. This next flying bus will take me to Tampa where I’ll be picked up by a vintage Argosy motorhome (for newbies, an Argosy is a 1970s Airstream brand, which looks just like a painted Airstream trailer). That’s better than a limo — bigger fridge and more space to stretch out. These Airstream things are handy in all sorts of ways.

Ontario-New York-Vermont

It has been a challenge to update the blog since the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Not only has cellular Internet service been absent or unreliable, but the relentless pace of driving nine hours a day has completely obliviated the enjoyment and adventure we usually get from traveling.

No longer, however. We are back in New England for the summer, and there will be no more spine-compressing, gas-and-go travel for a while. Well, not until July, but I’ll get to that issue later.

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Our stay in De Tour, MI with the good doctor and his wife was extended out of sheer laziness. I needed to catch up on sleep and our hosts were making it far too easy to stay. Eleanor paid her way by giving Lynn a cooking demonstration on Saturday afternoon and making another dessert too (something with chocolate sauce, banana, pound cake … who knows, but it was good).

So it was Sunday morning before we finally swatted away the mosquitoes, hitched up, and headed north to Canada. Regrettably the trip through upper Ontario from Sault Ste. Marie and eastward along Rt 17 was less interesting than I had hoped. The country is mostly flat, with small hills, and there’s not a lot that captured our attention. I was hoping for a series of interesting local features: farmer’s markets, bakeries, crafts, cultural museums, piney lodges, general stores, short scenic hikes, etc. Mostly what we saw were the routine roadside and rural emblems of commerce: farm implement dealers, gas stations, motels, and the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s. As result, we stopped only for gas.

Gas turned out to be its own potential adventure. Many gas stations along Rt 17 do not have “Pay at the pump”, which we have come to regard in the US as a virtual right of citizenship. Instead, the upper Ontario stations offer an anachronism: full service. A real human being comes out and pumps your gas — something usually seen only in the two US states where pumping your own gas is still illegal (Oregon and New Jersey).

We discovered the dark side of “full service”: no service. Since we were driving on a Sunday afternoon, many stations were closed. Towing a trailer, one does not have a lot of miles in the tank between 1/4 full and Empty — and the fuel stations (“gas bars” locally) along Rt 17 are occasionally spaced rather widely.

It finally came to a point where we had our choice made for us. If the next station didn’t have gas, we would have to park there overnight until it opened. The prospect didn’t bother us much; we’ve slept in weirder places. But as it turned out, not only was there an attendant on duty, but he was happy to spend a couple of minutes comparing US and Canadian candy bars with us. (Consensus: Canadian candy bars are way better.) We came out of there with 80 liters of gas and an interesting chocolate-peanut-caramel crunchy thing called a Cadbury Wunderbar.

Along the eastern end of Rt 17, north of New York state, the scenery turns more to exposed granite outcrops and tall trees, so it starts to feel a bit like the Adirondacks. We stopped at an Irving truck stop for dinner and then relocated to a nearly deserted Wal-Mart for a very quiet night, before making the final few hours past Ottawa and across the border once again.

US Customs are always unpredictable, but with a few simple preparations you shouldn’t have any trouble getting across the border with a trailer. I get asked about this a lot, so we have an article slated for the Fall 2007 Airstream Life on exactly that topic.

In New York we stopped in to see Colin Hyde and Suzanne Brown, who are leading the team that is building Matthew McConaughey’s custom Airstream. That’s another thing we are documenting in the magazine, so I took some pictures for the next issue and interviewed Colin about the latest details going into the trailer. (Congas, a digeridoo, and solar panels, among other things.) We’ll have those pics and a description in the Fall magazine also.

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Colin and Suzanne invited us to their house for courtesy parking, so we delayed our arrival in Vermont by one day and spent the evening in their driveway, near their 30-foot 1950s Airstream Sovereign.

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And now, after a short trip across Lake Champlain on the ferry, here we are, parked under the cedar trees in Vermont. Whew!

De Tour Village, MI

This stop is indeed a detour for us, about 50 miles out of our route to Sault Ste. Marie, but well worth it. The relentless driving has taken a toll on us and we need a break before the final legs through Ontario.

Our friends Dr. C and Lynn, who we last saw in Tucson, have provided us a haven. The Airstream is parked next to their little log home near the shore of Lake Huron, getting its own rest, and it looks like it belongs there. Since the courtesy parking spot provides full hookup, it could just stay there a while.

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We’re tempted. Despite stories of mosquitoes and black flies, it’s really pleasant here. De Tour is almost the end of the road going east on the UP (there’s a ferry to Drummond Island that allows you to get a little further east). As a result, there’s no through traffic here, very few people (population 420), no crime, no roadside litter, and it’s very quiet.

Our hosts took us out for dinner up by Raber Bay, at one of the few restaurants in the area. The local specialty is whitefish, whether fried, broiled, or blackened, so we tried that (and yes, it’s good). This is one of those areas where the same “summer people” come up every year, and so when you walk in the door everyone looks up from their table to see who it is.

There are small signs of a very wealthy set of people beginning to change this small town. Dr. C took us on a tour of vintage Airstreams sitting in backyards all over town, and in the course of that we saw a few McMansions popping up too. The most peculiar had to be this house project still in progress: the aft end of a freighter, cut off and dragged to shore. It looks awful right now, but clearly whoever is building this has deep pockets.

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Back at the cabin Eleanor made crepes with fresh berries and cream for all of us, and by about 10 p.m. we more or less collapsed into the Airstream. For the second day in a row I slept nine hours. Is it the long driving days or the peaceful surroundings? Either way, this is the kind of place I can really relax in. Surrounded by cedar trees, birds chirping, the lazy buzz of bees going by, a log cabin outside my window, and it’s Saturday …

Our approximate Google Earth location

The pasty route

“Anywhere there are miners, you’ll find pasties,” said the lady at Joe’s Pasty Shop in Ironwood, MI. The last time we saw pasties for sale we were in Oxford, England in the mid-1990s. Apparently the tradition of making these baked meat-and-potato meals started with miners in Cornwall, England. Since the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is loaded with iron mines, the tradition spread here.

And now you can find pasties in virtually every town along the Upper Peninsula. We made a spontaneous stop at Joe’s new location along US Rt 2 and bought two fresh hot traditional pasties for lunch, and a few more frozen ones for dinner.

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They were superb. One traditional pasty (which is a thin crust stuffed with diced potatoes, onions, and shredded beef) was enough for Eleanor and I to split for lunch. Sorry there’s no picture of it, but it was so delicious we ate it before the thought even occurred to take out the camera.

By the way, pasty rhymes with “nasty”, not “tasty”, which is really unfair since these things are just terrific. The ones we got at Joe’s are even better than the ones from Oxford — and in saying this I apologize to the nice people in Oxford who sold us nice pasties back in 1995.

All along the northern shore of the UP you can find pasty shops, and this inspired the idea of a “pasty tour”. It would be probably the most fattening trip you could take (other than a cheesecake tour) but probably also one of the most delicious.

Last night’s stop: Straits State Park within sight of the “Mighty Mac” (the Mackinac Bridge). Next stop is the end-of-the-road village of DeTour Township. The town is really a detour, but I think in recent history the name has been tarted up to seem more exotic with the capital “T”.

Pipestone National Park and beyond

This has been a different sort of trek for us. Normally to cross the country the distance of Las Vegas to Vermont we’d take about one to three months. This time we are doing it in nine days. That’s beyond whirlwind. I am reminded of tourists from Europe who come to the United States expecting to see the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and the Golden Gate Bridge in one spectacular 14-day tour package.

Sure, you can do it, but it helps to own a jet. Since we don’t, our compromise has been to break up the drive with lengthy stops each day. Yesterday’s stop was at Pipestone National Monument, in a quiet part of Minnesota.

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The falls at Pipestone National Monument

Pipestone is one of those lesser-known national park sites that you have to detour off the highway to visit, and thus is not heavily visited. But it is a fascinating glimpse into a bit of native American history and there’s a really nice short hike through the Pipestone quarries. The park also had the advantage of taking us off I-90 and into the rural heartland of Minnesota, which turned out to be a scenic and pleasant way to go.

It certainly improved upon I-90, which was frequently bumpy and amazingly dull. Driving along it I had the constant sense that we were missing things. The grasslands went from shortgrass to mixed to tallgrass as we headed east, the lakes began to appear more frequently, and then suddenly we were in the humidity of Minnesota and everywhere it was green and mowed. But what of the grasslands we streamed through? We’ll have to see them next time. I have a feeling there are great stories there.

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Historical graffiti at Pipestone National Monument

Eleanor and I are having trouble adapting to the humidity. “It’s only 80 degrees!” we say, “Why does it feel so hot?” Back in the southwest it doesn’t even feel warm until the low 90s. We’re used to not feeling sweaty. We’ve lost our northern acclimations.

The drive has been mammoth. Normally I don’t bother to do much research along our proposed routes and this time I’ve been bitten for it. We usually plan a light travel day of no more than three hours, so there’s plenty of time to explore along the way. On this trek, our driving days have run 8-10 hours, which is punishing if you want to stop a few times.

Also, we didn’t research our stops in advance. We’re so experienced at finding places to stay that we usually just wing it. Our feeling is that we’ll always have a place to sleep (the Airstream behind us), so our only problem is finding a place to park — and parking is easy. This has proved true but it has been the height of challenge for us to find a spot at 10 p.m. or later while remaining calm and not snapping at each other.

Last night we passed up a couple of truck stops in hopes of a quieter spot, and ended up at Amnicon Falls State Park in northern Wisconsin east of Duluth. This seemed like a great idea except that all the sites were tough back-ins (sized mostly for tent campers and small RVs) and it was pitch black, and there was no cell phone service (hence no blog last night), and we were tired.

So there we were, trying to back a 53-foot rig into a space only about 12 feet wide from a single-lane road with a 90-degree bend, a steep ditch to one side, and batteries failing in one of Eleanor’s two flashlights. To avoid bothering other campers, we did it entirely with hand signals and whispers. Try that sometime. It is a testament to our long experience on the road, and perhaps the strength of our marriage, that we survived this and still slept the same bed when it was finally over.

We are posting this from a roadside stop east of Ironwood Michigan, somewhere near Lake Superior. Phone service is getting spotty and frankly I had to stop at a motel to snag wifi to post this. We are headed up to a remote park of the Upper Peninsula to visit with Dr C and it’s questionable whether we’ll be able to get online again. Then our route takes us into Ontario for at least a day, where my Verizon Internet card doesn’t work either, so if the blog disappears for a couple of days, that’s why. We’ll be back.

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