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Archive for July, 2007

A perfect summer day

After posting my call for more Airstream visitors, I received an email last night from Mac and Linda, who have been traveling all over the US for the past three months. Now they are visiting family in Lake George NY, which is about 90 minutes south of here. On their way up to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont they stopped to meet us.

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Emma and Eleanor were in the trailer getting ready for Emma’s swim class when Mac and Linda arrived, but we’ve grown used to having visitors to the trailer at any time, so it wasn’t any problem at all. E&E stayed inside while Mac, Linda, and I caught some shade under the awning. (It’s been another 85 degree day here.)

I thought Mac and Linda would just say hello and zip back out to the highway to get on their way to Ben & Jerry’s, but we had such a nice time talking that they stayed for about an hour. Not long after they headed off, I got a call from my parents inviting me to join them for a sandwich by the banks of Otter Creek. We rarely get a chance to do something like that together, so I jumped at it.

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Vergennes has a little Falls Park that few people visit, or even know about. It’s just a short distance from the tiny downtown that defines this “smallest city”. Boaters from Quebec come all the way down Lake Champlain and then up Otter Creek to get to this peaceful spot. There are even electric and water hookups at dockside (not accessible to RV’s, sadly). Coming down to the Falls Park you can get a perspective on Vergennes that most people never see. I sat there with Mom & Dad and had a moment to just hang out together in a beautiful spot. That’s a great summer thing to do.

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This evening was another mellow experience, with some local friends and their 1-year-old boy, and a few pizzas from the Brick Store. The Lake went dead calm, which means warmer water in the shallows, and so we waded in for a little while. Even on its warmest days, Lake Champlain is refreshing. After dinner, a few yellow sparklers, and time to plan next week’s trip to the County Fair, it feels like we’ve had the perfect summer day. We’re going to try for another one tomorrow.


Not every day is an adventure. Some days we have to put our heads down and do the routine stuff. So I’m just going to do some clean-up here in the blog today.

Item #1: We have worked out an approximate schedule for getting back on the road. I’m trying to avoid a rigid schedule because it’s always easier to just wing it. But we do have to be in Jackson Center OH (home of Airstream) the week after Labor Day, so that does force us to get moving in August. Right now we are thinking we’ll pull out of Vermont around August 25.

First stop will probably be Massachusetts, where we’ve got family and friends to visit. We’ve been hearing about a campground in Salem near Massachusetts Bay, and so we’ve decided to give it a try for a weekend. From the campground I can catch a ferry to downtown Boston, which is both a scenic ride and a fun way to get into town to visit friends at their jobs and do a little street-hiking.

From the Boston area, we’ll be heading straight west to the Albany NY area, where we want to take Emma on her first-ever “wild” cave trip. Then we’ll keep west to Ohio, and eventually follow I-90 all the way to Washington state. By November we will have driven almost every mile of I-90 from coast to coast.

Item #2: To get out of town on schedule, we need to complete our personal divestiture project. What I mean is that we need to finalize our stuff in storage and get it in the hands of the movers. Eleanor and I went up to the storage units again today (and it feels like our thousandth visit). We’re almost done. Just a few more things to donate, a few more boxes to repack, and a few more boxes to sort through. I think 2-3 more sessions and we’re done. Can’t be soon enough for us.

Item #3: Frustrated with spotty Internet here at the campground, and many other campgrounds we have visited, I am investigating better ways to receive wi-fi signals in the Airstream. Right now I’m interested in the Hawking Technologies HWREG1 wireless range extender combined with their 9 db omni-directional antenna.

The Hawking extender works like my current Linksys WRE54G wireless range extender, by repeating an existing wi-fi signal. But it has two major advantages. First, it runs on 12 volt power, which means I can wire it into the trailer’s power system. Second, it accepts an external antenna, so I can have the repeater inside and an antenna on the roof for maximum convenience. I am seriously considering adding this to the permanent equipment in the Airstream.

Item #4: It’s getting to maintenance time for the Airstream. We’ve put on about 10,000 miles since we last replaced the disc brake pads and repacked the wheel bearings. I’m putting together a list of items to be serviced when we get to the factory in Jackson Center. I should have had those things done a couple of weeks ago when I was at Colin’s shop, but forgot. I’ll also be checking the running gear before we get on the road later in August, just to make sure everything is set for the 800-mile tow. I’ll verify the condition and pressure of the tires, look for leaking wheel bearing grease, check the lug nut torque, lube the Hensley Hitch, and check the underside of the trailer for damage.

A few other things need to be done on the trailer as well. The entry door hinges are starting to squawk — they need a little lubrication. The Fantastic Vent screens need their semi-annual clearing of dust, which I do with a small brush on the screen and a damp towel on the blades. I may want to use a little sandpaper and paint to touch up rusty spots on the gray paint of the trailer’s A-frame or bumper compartment.

We’ll borrow a Shop Vac to clean up embedded dirt in the carpet and corners, and break out the glue for minor repairs on trim and counter edging. I’ll also replace the water filter in the kitchen’s Moen faucet, and probably the cabin air filters in the Armada as well.

This is also a good time to get spare keys made, clean out stored stuff that hasn’t been needed, replace any broken or lost tools, verify the essential spares, donate or store books, and wash the rugs.

We’ve timed a lot of other annual events to be done in August. Our car registrations, inspections, etc., are set to expire in August. This makes it easy to get it all done when we are back at home base. When our home base moves to Arizona, we’ll reset all those things to be done in the winter instead.

It may seem like a lot of maintenance to think about, but really it’s less than we had to do on our previous house. Taking care of the Airstream is a pleasure most of the time, because it is so simple, and the Airstream rewards us with trouble-free travel for a relatively small amount of work.

Airstream visitors again

Socializing is a huge part of this Airstream lifestyle. Being on the road full-time can be lonely if you don’t meet people, but fortunately there’s not much effort required to make new friends. Just owning the same brand of RV can be enough to start a friendly conversation, as we’ve proved dozens of times over.

Today, we had a double-header visit: Abe and Melissa, and Dick and Ann dropped in with their Airstreams for a visit down by the lake. Dick and Ann couldn’t stay, and headed off to Lake Placid, NY, but we convinced Abe and Melissa to hang out for the afternoon and through dinner.

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Melissa and Abe and their shiny 1976 Airstream Sovereign

In campgrounds we meet people all the time. While we are in Vermont and relatively stationary, our form of socializing is to invite friends or acquaintances met online or through rallies to come by and visit. We’ve got room at a neighbor’s house by the lake for overnight visitors, and our present campground has a couple of spaces free most of the time too.

It might seem odd to non-RV’ers that we feel so free about inviting people over, but keep in mind that we all travel with our own homes. It’s not like inviting someone to stay at your house. No need to wash the sheets and towels, clean up the living room, or wonder if your future houseguest has odd habits. We meet, we visit, and we can each retreat to our own spaces whenever we want. This means we can meet lots of people without the worry of being stuck with a bad dynamic for an entire weekend.

It almost never goes poorly when we have Airstream visitors. They seem to be generally cut from a similarly adventuresome cloth, and there’s always lots to talk about.

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Abe and Melissa pull out to go to Lake Placid

Right now we’ve got no one on the schedule for the rest of August, but I’m hoping that will change soon. We have reviewed the maps and decided we need to be on the road about August 26. That leaves precious little time to get in the last few wonderful days of summer, finish prepping for the movers, and finalize our remaining annual tasks. At the end of the month, we’ll be on our way again, with stops planned in NY, OH, WI, SD, MT, and WA through November.

Farmer’s Markets

We hit a couple of the Farmer’s Markets again today. The primary reason was to capture photos for an article next year in Airstream Life, but of course there’s also the side benefit of munching one’s way through an incredible variety of food.

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In Burlington, the Farmer’s Market is held in City Hall Park, just a few blocks uphill from Lake Champlain. This is a big one, with everything from maple syrup to Bosnian meat pies. I tried a really good local root beer, a buttermilk doughnut, two local blue cheeses, and a couple of bites of the meat pie. That was a tiny fraction of the things we saw, but I was more engaged in photography than I was in grazing.

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The vegetables were beautiful, as were the flowers, bakery goods, and dozens of other goods. The Farmer’s Markets don’t just feature groceries, either. We found honey, wine, jewelry, handmade clothing, tortillas, turned wooden bowls, beeswax candles, and many other things. It’s easy to spend an hour or two browsing all the great stuff.

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Some of the vendors were adding music to the mix. In addition to this fellow (a blacksmith), another couple was jamming on guitar and harmonica.

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A Farmer’s Market is one of the great ways to explore a local community without driving around. All of the craftspeople, the small farms, and local producers of all types come out and bring the community to you. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, a peek at the market gives you an insight into the values of the community and the sorts of things that are still developed locally.

It’s also a great place to meet people and, by talking to them, learn about things you’ll never hear about from the Chamber of Commerce. I grew up here and still picked up a few things from talking to the maple syrup guy. Sure, there are a lot of people who produce maple syrup in Vermont, and I can find some any day just by going to the grocery store. But will the impersonal bottle I buy in the store tell me a hidden place to go hiking?

Date night

Parents everywhere know that once in a while you’ve got to have “date night”. Tonight Emma is having an overnight with her friend Kati and we are getting a nice evening to ourselves, including dinner at the local sushi joint.

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We often get asked by people about the issues of intimacy and privacy in the Airstream, since we travel full-time with our daughter. Most people don’t want to approach the subject directly, but we try to read between the lines and give realistic and carefully worded answers.

The short answer is that we try to take advantage of opportunities like visiting friends and relatives with children who are willing to babysit for a few hours. This happens surprisingly often. We don’t let Emma away with people we don’t know well, but we have relatives in both east and west, and we have trusted friends in many parts of the country as a result of our travels.

Any amount of time to take a break from being parents is good. It doesn’t have to be overnight. Sometimes we just need to talk as adults for an hour to hash out issues or discuss future plans. It’s amazing how much we can clear up between us in a short period of time.

Being together in a small space doesn’t eliminate the need to converse and update each other — if anything, it increases it. You don’t want issues festering when there’s so little personal space. Even though we enjoy the excitement of travel, we still need the same human considerations that other people do.

So Date Night is always a success, regardless of what we do with it. Tonight, we had a lot of time to be together and a nice dinner too, both of which are like battery recharges to us. Tomorrow we don’t have to pick up Emma until dinnertime, so we’ll extend Date Night into Saturday and do some “boring” adult things for a change. I can see a whole program of little decadences, starting with a very leisurely breakfast …

Finding adventure

One of the problems I have discovered that I face in writing up our experience from two years of mobile living is that we have had an almost uniformly good time. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s boring. The best travel stories, it is said, come from the worst trips, or at least travel to the worst places. We had a lot of sunshine and few mishaps, poor fodder for a travelogue.

Our travel was through the settled and safe USA, where civil war is an unlikely experience. Nor is being stranded deep in the veldt, or having our passports held by a foreign consulate, or other classic tales of globe-trotting reporters. Political intrigue, bomb-shattered cities, attacks of dysentery, unreliable cabbies, or even airport delays are not contained in our experience. The State Department has not issued any frightening cautions about the places we’ve been.

If I were writing for National Geographic Adventure or Outdoors magazines, I suppose we would have taken the Airstream overseas and tried to find a campground with amoebic water and sparking electrical outlets. Or we might have set up rope and climbed the Canyonlands of Utah in the thunderstorm season and hoped for a flash flood adventure. If none of these things worked disastrously, we’d write it up in a breathless Gen-X style that at least made it seem exciting.

But I’m not seeking adventure solely for the sake of a good story, so instead we have roamed the 48 states and parts of Canada and Mexico in perfect safety, enjoying good food and friendly natives at every turn. Nobody has died or even been injured, and in fact nobody has gotten an illness more worrisome than a bad cold or a migraine. We’ve suffered no financial disasters, haven’t been ripped off by an unscrupulous mechanic, haven’t been strip-searched at the border. We haven’t even been short-changed by anyone. Our trip is almost defined by the lack of dramatic things that have happened.

This is, of course, a good thing for us. We had a nice time. But in reviewing other travel books, I find that the authors celebrate the angst of the trip even if they are really having a pretty good time. In Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” he manages to tell a funny yarn about what would otherwise be a monotonous hike up the Appalachian Trail, thanks to his dysfunctional hiking companion. The companion becomes his comic foil, and revealing his many faults is a big chunk of Bryan’s writing. If I did that, I’d be facing divorce. It is not for me to pick at my travel companions. They might write a book about me someday, too.

Paul Theroux, in his under-appreciated story of hiking the coast of England (“Kingdom By The Sea”) sees black and ruined industrial towns, threatening nuclear plants, strange and dishonest innkeepers, football hooligans and skinheads, and dismal seaside resorts virtually every step of the way. This is his interpretation and he’s welcome to it but while I can imagine a dark perspective on everything we’ve seen and done, I prefer not to go there. I am unwilling to suffer as I travel, or view everything with the eyes of a critic. I can do that, but it takes the fun out of the trip for me, and I feel no particular need to poke holes at the fabric of American society. Plenty of other people already manage that job.

Although I must confess I’ve considered it. At one time I was thinking about writing two blogs, this one and another “dark side” blog in which I revealed my most satirical, cutting, and no-holds-barred impressions of our experiences. I didn’t do this and didn’t even keep notes, but believe me there was plenty of material.

For example, we have seen hundreds or even thousands of examples of the lingering “white trash” mentality and behavior that forms the basis of the popular image of RV’ers. There’s a lot of truth in the stereotype, but I am looking for and documenting the exceptions to the rule, the people who travel with purpose beyond a quest for the local Early-Bird Special. The world of RV travel has changed already but the popular media are just now catching up with it. The Boomers are not doing it like their parents did, and I want to document that.

Still, I find myself wondering if we should take some sort of risk in the waning months of our full-time travel, to create a startling tale as the centerpiece of the trip. We could go backpacking with open food containers in bear country, join a research trip to the Arctic, scuba dive the sunken airplanes deep in Lake Mead, or at least smuggle a ton of prescription Zyrtec out of Canada. Any one of these would likely give me that sort of dramatic opening line that writers strive for: “I remember clearly the glaring sun over the ice when the polar bear began to chew on my leg.”

Nah. I’ll cure this problem the old-fashioned way. A good story can be told of any adventure, no matter how hum-drum it might at first seem. The writer is responsible for telling the tale interestingly, and every tale has an angle. Several friends who are avid readers — and even a few writers — have written inspiring emails with fantastic advice. I am saving those emails and reviewing them periodically as I digest the events of the past two years.

Of my first attempt at an essay, my friend Tom (a professional writer) said: “I think you netted the whole panoply of what moves people to take to the road, and how you pare down to essentials, and see more clearly what means something and what doesn’t. If you’re able to put that kind of theme and structure in the book, it will be a winner.”

My legal advisor, Don “Nacho Grande” says, “The characters and situations you encounter along the way make for the most interesting read to me. Tell me more about the Victor Valdezes of the world singing by their homemade walking sticks; Boots Hinton and his Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum; and of course, Ayres T. Reem.”

He also went on to say, “Rich, what I really want to say is write whatever stirs your soul. To hell with the ultimate consumer. Forget about making a buck on this one. This should be for you. Take a page out of Eleanor’s book and go a little crazy with your herbs and spices. Listen to the bread’s crust. Poe’s meter. Hemingway’s metaphors. Take some literary risks and try to SCARE yourself by your own audaciousness. Use a pseudonym if you’re afraid of tarnishing your good name. Make Jonathan Swift roar with laughter!”

I think the pseudonym is a particularly good idea. I’m thinking of using the name “Don.”

My medical advisor, Dr. C, was helpful also, with a detailed suggestion that I go find Paul Theroux in his home, roust him out of bed, and shake him roughly until he confesses all his secrets of writing to me. Well, actually, the good Doctor didn’t quite go that far but he did provide Theroux’s home mailing address, quite a handy feat. I’m supposed to write him for advice. Instead, I’m thinking of asking Dr. C for the home address of some of my other heroes. Perhaps they’ll have courtesy parking.

By the way, Theroux completed an overland voyage from Cairo to Cape Town a few years ago, at the age of 60, and wrote the book Dark Star Safari about it. You can read his interview about the conditions in Africa here. It may be particularly relevant to those planning the Cape Town to Cairo trip in 2009.

Now there’s an adventure in the making. Never mind that public and private caravans traverse Africa routinely. It’s still a rough journey and the spirit of exploration calls all the more loudly because of it. That hasn’t been our experience but I’d sure like to do it, and in fact we are reserving the option to drop in for at least a portion of the trip.

“When travelers, old and young, get together and talk turns to their journeys, there is usually an argument put forward by the older ones that there was a time in the past — fifty or sixty years ago, though some say less — when this planet was ripe for travel. Then, the world was innocent, undiscovered and full of possibility. The argument runs: In that period the going was good. These older travelers look at the younger ones with real pity and say, ‘Why bother to go?’ ” — Paul Theroux, Sunrise With Seamonsters

I think if you are reading this you already know why to go.

Yes, our North American voyage has been relatively free of strife but nothing is 100% free of risk. I tell you about my writing challenge because Nacho Grande’s and Theroux’s advice applies to you, too. You have to “hike your own hike” as they say on the Trail. Nobody can define what your travel will be, or the product of your travel. When people tell you what they fear will happen, they are telling you their fears, not what will happen. So don’t worry about what other people think, or whether they will find your trip interesting. Just go — and find your adventure on your terms.

More friends

We had another Airstream couple drop in this week: Adam and Susan. They’ve got the prototype Airstream Class C (the only one made), and love to drive it everywhere. They spent one night at the same campground as us before heading on.

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Walking through Vergennes, Adam encountered one of those priceless moments of Americana: a little kid with a lemonade stand. The pink lemonade Adam bought from this budding entrepreneur ($0.50 per cup) served not only him but a nearby flamingo. Now you know where they get the pink color!

July has at last arrived — three weeks late. We are getting the classic Vermont summer weather now, with sunny, warm, humid days that gradually build into thunderstorms and then re-start with fresh dry air. I’ve finally felt the need to put out the Airstream’s awning, which is the first time I’ve done that since Lake Mead in Nevada. Every evening we all gather at the rocky shore of Lake Champlain for swimming, boating, fishing, gabbing, whatever. The program is different every night but the general idea is the same: enjoy the warm nights of summer while we can.

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And afterward, what better way to wrap up the evening than with a visit to the local “creemee” stand? Emma’s choice was Cookies-n-Cream ice cream dipped in Cherry sauce. It sounded horrible but I tried it and it wasn’t bad at all. But I’ll stick with one of my favorites: Vermont Maple with Walnuts.

A blog reader emailed me this week to say that I never appear in the blog myself. That’s because I’m the guy with the camera most of the time. But if you hunt through the archives you’ll find a few shots of me, and even one or two of all of us together.

Still, not to disappoint those who just can’t get enough of my face … here’s a bonus shot from last February when I was at the Florida State Rally. Every time I catch a cold my nose gets all red …

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Rich with Obie the Clown

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