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Archive for October, 2008

See you on the road!

With great regret, I’m closing the Tour of America blog today.   This blog was started to document our 6-month voyage in an Airstream trailer, back in October 2005.   The trip exploded into a life-changing experience of three years, and I have to admit that it got way beyond what I ever envisioned.   (If you’re just discovering this blog for the first time, dig through the Archives and you’ll learn a lot about the traveling lifestyle.)

But now we   are done with the full-time lifestyle and embarking on the next course.   Instead of writing about travel most of the time, I’m going to turn my attention to other things.   So this blog is being closed, to preserve it as a record of this phase of our lives, and a new blog is being opened.

I spent weeks trying to figure out a name and theme for the new blog.   I wanted to convey the idea that we would be continuing to explore life, tasting new dishes, hiking new trails, making mistakes, and hopefully growing along the way.   Finally, I went to a large bookstore and wandered the aisles looking at book titles for inspiration.

Popular book titles tend to be aggressive or provocative.   I suppose this helps with sales, but I didn’t want a title that had too much “attitude” or was negative.   Actual book titles like “Losing The Race,” “Jihad vs. McWorld,” “Cold New World,” and “Bait and Switch,” were depressing.   I was also trying to avoid a title that implied a pat solution or closure to anything, since I have no idea where the new blog will go.   I don’t have to sell anything, and I want the blog to reflect a positive outlook on life.

I finally settled on an inspiration from our neighbors, the Tohono O’odham people who live in southwestern Arizona.   I think it encapsulates the concepts I want to talk about in the months to come:   the progression of life, striving for betterment, choices, ideas, and learning.   The new blog will be called, “The Man In The Maze,” and you’ll find it by clicking here.

I’ll explain the name and concept further in the new blog.   Right now the blog contains only a placeholder entry, but I plan to write every few days at least.   I’ll talk about new ventures we are exploring (as much as I can without violating confidentiality), the process of raising our daughter, food, photography, our travels, the southwest, and whatever else strikes me.   And yes, I’ll even talk about ukuleles occasionally.   (Sorry Dr. C, but remember, you’re getting this for free.)

Comments will still be permitted on every entry of this blog, so feel free to add your thoughts to anything you read in the Archives.   I hope the Tour of America continues to provide inspiration and assistance to thousands of RV travelers for years to come.   Thank you all for sticking with us this far.   See you on the road!

The Airstream has landed

We’re in Tucson, and our full-time travels are over.

I could tally it by the numbers (75,000 miles, three years, 45 states, three countries, hundreds of stops, 31,000 photographs), but of course that doesn’t tell the full story.

The adventure has ended with neither a bang nor a whimper.   It has simply morphed into something new.   Life doesn’t yet feel particularly different.   I supposed that’s partially because the changeover hasn’t sunk in yet, and partially because we’ve learned from experience that our real “home” is in our mind.   We’ve developed a sort of mental turtle shell that gives us comfort and shelter no matter where we are.   So when we arrived in Tucson it was pretty much like arriving at any other place.   It felt just fine.

The last phase of this travelogue is to document how we make the transition into our new lifestyle.   It’s an adjustment to move back to conventionality.   We’ve set up everything in our lives to accommodate constant nomadism, and now we need to adjust things to suit a “sedentary” life.   I’m talking about ordinary things, like insurance and mail, and choices like schooling.

We don’t expect to just flip a switch and be entirely set up.   The change will take some time.   But we did make a major effort last winter when we were here to get the house to a point where we could just unlock the door and move in, without a lot of hassle.   Our neighbors and local friends, wonderful people that they are, kept an eye on the place while we were gone.   Carol swept the dust and leaves from our carport and entryway, and left us a “Welcome Home” note taped to the door.   She also plugged in the refrigerator so it would be cold when we arrived.   Mike took the Fit out for a couple of drives and ran its air conditioning, so the car would be exercised.   Rick came by to check on the house and water the grapefruit tree (which is loaded with green fruit right now).

The house looked perfect except for a thin layer of dust and some really huge weeds in the back yard.   We stripped out the essentials from the Airstream (toothbrushes, computers, food, etc), and started the task of booting up the house.

Of course, there were some minor hitches.   We’ve never moved in to this house before, so we don’t have a good checklist.   Eleanor started a load of laundry before either of us remembered to turn on the water heater.   We don’t have any hooks or established places to put things like keys, hats, and shoes, so things are just strewn all over the place.   It will take some time to get it really comfortable.   But for the short term it was as convenient as arriving at a furnished rental:   sheets, towels, beds, dishes, and all the other accoutrements of household life were in place and ready to be used.

Half of my mind is thinking about the next time we’ll be on the road, and so while moving into the house I’m also preparing for the next trip.   We may go out for a weekend trip, in as little as ten days.   We got the Armada washed at the TTT truck wash on I-10 ($30), we’re washing the sheets from the Airstream, and slowly unloading all the detritus of full-time life so that we can make short trips with less weight and clutter.

The Armada is going in for a set of tires today too.   I think in the last few months of travel I’ve been unconsciously delaying maintenance because I knew we’d have plenty of time to do it here, and that actually hasn’t been a good thing.   I’ve got a pile of things to take care of that we should have (and would have, in years past) done along the way.   It needs a brake inspection, four tires, cleaning/detailing, wiper blades, a repaint of the hitch, and a check of the exhaust system.

The Airstream, for its part, needs at least one tire, a thorough cleaning, shampooing of the bedroom carpet, disinfection of the water system, a new flush ball seal on the toilet (the current one has a slow leak), some new chrome trim (which I bought in Jackson Center but haven’t yet installed), a Hensley refurbishment, and new upholstery on the dinette.   We’ll get all that taken care of over the next few months, starting with the most urgent items like the tire.

In a way I already miss being the Airstream.   I’ve grown accustomed to that cozy little bedroom, with storage lockers overhead, pictures from our travels on the walls and a window two inches from our pillows.   Our bedroom in the house seems much too large, and too echoey, like sleeping in an auditorium.   We don’t know what to do with all the space.

Our “official” first night in the house was strange.   When you move into a new place, it takes a while to get used to the surroundings. Little noises at night, the feel of the bed, and even the smell of the air give your mind subtle clues that you’re in different surroundings, and it makes for a fitful night.   Eleanor was awoken by the sound of the ice cube maker, and the cycling of the air conditioning. But we were pleased to see the sun rising over the Santa Catalinas, and to hear the birds singing in the morning as they always do here.   It won’t take long to get used to.

I suppose it goes without saying, but the past three years are a phase of our lives that we will never forget.   It was not always easy, but I don’t regret a minute of it, nor do I regret the expense.   It was absolutely, without a doubt, the most sustained, exhilarating and rewarding thing any of us has ever done.   We have been changed by this experience, and we have gained dozens of great friends too.   I can’t think of anything I would have rather done with the last three years, and so even though we are paused, I am completely satisfied.

Sky Gypsies, Rodeo NM

Our last(?) stop before Tucson is an assignment I’ve given myself, for the magazine.     There’s a little airpark in the very remote town of Rodeo NM, where a group of “Sky Gypsies” fly light sport aircraft from a 7200 ft packed dirt airstrip.   While I like flying, the real reason we are here is because this park contains a small array of vintage Airstreams, polished and arranged in a semi-circle next to the runway.

This is the fun part of my job.   I interview everyone I see, take a lot of pictures, and then write up the experience for the blog and (eventually) the magazine.

rodeo-airstreams1.jpgThe Airstreams are housing for members of the park association as well as students who come here to get certified to fly light sport aircraft.   Neil Bungard teaches these folks in Air Creation planes every morning and evening when the air is relatively calm and the temperatures are moderate.   It takes about 28 hours of flight instruction to get certified, and so having the Airstreams as temporary housing is handy.

rodeo-toa-trailer.jpgWe parked our Airstream in the gravel lot adjacent to the field for a night.   There are no hookups and no formal transient spots for visiting RV’ers, but plenty of room to just dry camp.   At night it’s very quiet, but in the morning and evening it’s nice to hear the sound of little aircraft engines practicing touch-and-goes on the runway.   For a pilot, aircraft noise is a good thing.


We’re 30 miles from a very lonely stretch of I-10 out here.   This is a quiet corner of New Mexico.   It’s 60 miles to a grocery store.   Apparently it’s a popular place for retired astronomers to go, since the night sky is very dark and clear.   It’s also a great place for observing the natural desert world.   There are lots of interesting creatures here, including giant grasshoppers, tarantulas, and javalinas.   Emma found a black widow spider last night, which was exciting for her but then caused her to worry they’d climb into the trailer while she was sleeping.


Coming into the park requires a half mile drive down a washboard gravel road.   When making a 90-degree turn at low speed on this road, the right rear tire of the Nissan blew out. (The on-board Tire Pressure Management System that comes with the Nissan was no help at all — it alarmed 30 seconds after the tire blew out.)

I’ve been watching the Nissan’s tires for a few months.   They are nearly worn out after about 40,000 miles, and my plan was to replace all four when we reached Tucson.   Apparently I waited a bit too long.   This one seems to have failed as a result of wear, sharp rocks, and the added stress of carrying a trailer.   There was a two-inch long rip in the tread, emanating from a central failure point.   There was no sign of a nail or other object (other than rocks) that caused the failure.

We put the spare on but it’s a solid 80 miles to the nearest tire shop, so I am taking a few steps to reduce the risk of the other rear tire going.   We are going to transfer some cargo from the Nissan to the Airstream to lighten the tire load, and increase the rear tire pressure slightly.   We’ll also keep the speed down on the highway today, although lately we never tow over 62 MPH.

City of Rocks State Park, NM

From Albuquerque south we made very few stops yesterday.   We paused for lunch and a water fill at a truck stop along I-25, then for chiles in Hatch, and not much else.   It’s a peculiar feeling to know that we are headed somewhere to stop indefinitely, and I think that contributed to a sense that we had no particular purpose for being on the road.


When you don’t know where you are going, it’s helpful to stop and take stock.   So we pulled into City of Rocks State Park in southern New Mexico for a night.   Eleanor and I remember City of Rocks from our only previous visit, in early 2000 when Emma was still a womb passenger.   I remembered thinking back then that we should come   back sometime and camp with a tent, but we never did.   Finally, we’ve come back with an Airstream and an 8-year-old.   The rocks are the same, but everything about us seems different.

Along the road yesterday I noticed that we’ve once again broken a belt in a trailer tire.   That’s (I think) the fifth one in a year.   This particular tire was a TowMax Power King, which is sold by Les Schwab tire stores.   At this point I have not found any brand that seems to last longer than any other.   The TowMax on the other side is still holding up fine, as are the Goodyear Marathon and Carlisle, but none of them are older than a year.

The tire appears usable for now.   The broken belt is revealing itself by unusually fast wear on the outer edge.   In about 500 miles it will be bald there, but I’ll replace it before then.   Since we had the axles aligned in August, I’m fairly sure that this is not an alignment problem, but there will be no doubt when we remove it.   A broken belt causes the tire to bulge out along the tread, which is what causes the rapid wear.   I’ll take pictures of the tire when it is removed, so you can see what I’m talking about.

city-of-rocks-sp-2.jpg We’ve got one more stop to make on this trip, in the remote town of Rodeo, NM.   It’s a tiny place 30 miles south of I-10 in a very lonely corner of New Mexico.   There’s an ultralight airport based there, run by a group of flying fanatics.   Students who come down are housed in Airstreams parked on the property.   We’re going to head down there tonight and spend some time learning about the place and the people who run it.   I may even get a chance to take a ride in one of the ultralights.

After that stop, we will head to Tucson, wash the trailer at a local truck stop, and then park it.   It needs some maintenance.   We’ve got a list of about a dozen things to do for it, including repairs, upgrades, and cleaning.

I have decided to extend the blog for a bit longer.   In addition to having maintenance tasks to talk about, there are things that need to be said about the process of coming off the road.   It’s a very emotional change for us, and I don’t want to underplay the significance of it.   I also want to summarize some of my feelings about the past three years.     Stopping travel (even for a little while) is a part of the process of full-timing, so it seems legitimate to continue the Tour of America blog long enough to cover all of those items.

This is a chance for you to ask questions, too, so if there’s something you’re wondering about, ask away!   I’ll blog our return to suburbia and all the other things over the next few days.

Best show, worst campground


We’ve left the Balloon Fiesta to roam down I-25 into southern New Mexico somewhere.   We left on a high   note: This morning the balloonists were competing to play a form of aerial poker, where they dropped things onto “playing cards” on the field in an attempt to make the best poker hand.   After passing by the field, they floated at low altitude directly over the VIP RV area where we were parked, and many of them landed just a few hundred feet away.


This made for some spectacular morning viewing, along with the opportunity to play ground crew for the balloonists.   As they touch down they usually need a few people to help hold the basket down until their chase crew catches up.   Emma and Eleanor helped three balloons, and Emma was privileged to stand in the basket with the pilot, too.

Other balloonists took advantage of the famous “Albuquerque box.”   On about 30% of days in October, there’s a low-level wind that blows in one direction, and a higher-level wind that blows in the opposite direction.   By changing altitude, the balloonists can fly back and forth over the area.   This kept the sky full of balloons for a couple of hours.


Unfortunately, the winds didn’t favor those gas balloonists who left last night.   This morning a couple of them were still visible in the sky, just a few miles from where they started.   They were hoping to get as far as Minnesota in a couple of nights.

Moments like this morning are the payoff for putting up with camping at the Balloon Fiesta Park.   It is certainly one of the worst places we’ve ever camped in all other regards.   Even Wal-Marts are far superior.   The grounds are crushed asphalt and dirt, and in the rain sections of it quickly turned to mud.   Sites are tight, allowing just enough room to put out an awning but nothing more.   Generators are permitting 17 hours a day, and many Class A motorhome owners took full advantage, deluging us with diesel fumes.

Particularly annoying is that there is little enforcement of the rules.   Almost every night someone ran their generator for hours after the official shut-down time of 10:30 p.m.   They weren’t all the quiet type, either.

There’s no dump station, and no water fill.   A roving pump-out truck and a separate water truck will service your RV for $20 (each).   We paid for both a dump and fill because we used a lot more water than we normally would, due to Emma’s 24-hour virus.   The water truck never showed up, and this morning (after two days of waiting), we got a refund.

For $65 per day, there are certainly better values in a campground.   But you put up with the crowded, noisy, smelly, and occasionally muddy conditions because the spectacle of the balloons makes it all worthwhile.   We are glad we went, and we might even go again sometime, but I sure wish the Fiesta organizers would try a little harder to improve the experience. I’d suggest trimming the generator hours down considerably, arranging a water fill station, and bringing volunteer “campground hosts” every few rows to enforce the rules & help people with problems.

Fun with hot gas

I can see why hot air ballooning is so popular.   You get to fly, in a beautiful object, on a beautiful day, and play with fire.   People always look up and admire your aircraft.   Balloonists are so venerated that they have carte blanche to land almost anywhere and be forgiven for whatever disruption they cause.

One of the big joys for balloon watchers is the “balloon glow.”   The balloons are tethered to the ground, and the huge propane burners that make the hot air are fired at dusk, making the balloon into a giant incandescent light bulb.

Like moths, we were all attracted to the scheduled balloon glow last night. I was surprised to see that I was one of a few photographers out with a tripod, since without one it would be difficult to get good photos.   Shooting a balloon glow is particularly tricky, since the constantly changing light of sunset and randomly-firing propane burners will confuse automatic exposure meters. I started using a bracket program (where the camera would fire off three quick shots at different exposures) but soon settled on an exposure that I set manually and adjusted every few minutes as the sun went down.

These events are so brief that it is like watching soap bubbles.   For just a moment the sky is perfect and the balloons are all glowing.   The people are cheering and smiling as they walk across the grassy field, and then moments later it is dark.   The balloons all disappear and there’s nothing left but the fluorescent lights of the vendors off to the side.

Earlier in the day we visited the nearby Balloon Museum, which is small but interesting.   It covers all the highlights of ballooning from the first flights by the Montgolfier brothers through Japanese WWII-era “Fugo” bombs and up to the recent round-the-world flights by Steve Fossett and others.     But while the museum was worth a couple of hours, everything seems to pale in comparison to those fleeting moments when the balloons are inflated and flying nearby.

Since the Mass Ascension of Sunday (sounds like a religious event, doesn’t it?) was canceled due to rain, they held it this morning.   Since many of the motorhomes which had been running generators at 5 a.m. have now left, we managed to sleep until 8, and awoke to find a virtual shower of balloons overhead.

On the whole, I think that I prefer to wake up at 8 and find balloons in the blue sky as I eat breakfast in my Airstream, than to get up at 5 a.m. and hike down through wet grass to watch them inflate in the dark.   I may not be cut out to be a balloon pilot, since I assume that pilotage requires a lot of pre-dawn awakenings.

My major regret is that the Airstream was so disgustingly dirty today.   Had I thought ahead, I would have washed it before arriving, so that it would make a better foreground for possible photos.   The poor thing looks like it has been through a New England winter.   We will have to make a stop for a truck wash somewhere along the way back to Tucson, because I can’t put it away in the carport looking as bad as it currently does.

This afternoon they’ve been inflating the large white gas balloons, which are filled with either hydrogen or helium.   These big suckers take hours to inflate, but they can float for many days before landing.   I’ve been told that a typical hot air balloon flight requires a few hundred dollars in propane, but a gas balloon takes many thousands of dollars worth of gas.   They’re the long-distance racers of ballooning, and the few that are preparing on the field tonight will be doing exactly that over the next few days.   One is already in the dark evening sky as I write this, and it looks like a floating moon.

Sadly, our time at the Fiesta is up, and we must leave the RV area on Tuesday morning.   The event will continue for another week, so if you are within driving distance of Albuquerque you can still drop in.   For our part, we only know that tomorrow we are going somewhere south of here.

Incidentally, we also need to evict a mouse.   This week, probably as a result of falling evening temperatures, he scrambled into the trailer and has been living with us for two nights.   Eleanor discovered the mouse’s presence by his tell-tale chew marks on the cornbread she was storing in the oven, and the resulting tiny mouse droppings.   No doubt this is a happy mouse, enjoying the cornbread and warm surroundings on these cool desert nights, but his happiness will soon come to an end.

The first tactic will be to tow the trailer 200 miles south to a warmer climate. I suspect that mice don’t enjoy the rock-and-roll lifestyle of a moving trailer, and if this one is smart it will decide to bail out at a stop along the way.   If not, he may be inclined to leave when we hit warmer temperatures in southern New Mexico.   I am hoping these hints will be sufficient.   If we can’t come to an amicable understanding with our rodent roommate, I may have to resort to harsh methods.   I don’t have anything against mice as long as they are housebroken, but this fellow is clearly not.

Future blog & yesterday’s lunch

Apparently I startled a few people by casually mentioning that this blog will end in about a week.   I’ve talked about this on and off for the past year, but never declared a firm end date until now.     Here’s the official announcement:   After the Balloon Fiesta, we’ll take a couple of days to get back to Tucson, and then settle into the house that we’ve never really lived in.   At that point I’ll wrap up this blog.

We aren’t about to stop traveling.   We’ll do a little travel in October and December, but not enough to sustain daily blogging.   I have many other projects that I want to turn my attention to in the coming months, including some refurbishing of the Airstream, and some work on the house.   It will be time to start writing about something new.

Now, having written this blog for three years, I’ve become rather accustomed to it.   The task of summarizing my thoughts of each day has been good practice for me as a writer, and it has resulted in an irreplaceable journal of this remarkable period of our life.   Without the blog, I’d probably have forgotten half the things we’ve seen and done.   It has become a public extension of me.

So I do plan to keep blogging.   The question, which I have wrestled with for months, is what to write about in the future.   I still don’t know.   But I do know that once I have the idea, I will announce it to you so you can follow along again, if you want.

The problem is that I don’t know who most of you are!   So here’s the key.   To be informed of the future blog, you need to do one of two things:

  1. Check back on this blog regularly and look for an announcement.
  2. Register yourself on this blog using the link in the right column that says, “Register”.   That way I can send you an email when the new blog is ready.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

The weathermen were right.   Yesterday afternoon the weather steadily declined until finally around 5 p.m. some light rain arrived and the temperature dropped.   We have had rain all night and   although I didn’t get up before dawn again to see, I’m pretty sure the morning balloon launches were a washout.

I have no idea what went on last night because Emma got one of those unpleasant kid stomach bugs and kept us completely occupied until about 9 p.m., when she finally and very suddenly crashed in bed.   We have some serious laundry to do today, and the comforter from our bed is not going to be usable for the rest of the week.   (Note to other full-timers: Never buy a comforter that is “Dry Clean Only.”)   This experience also reminds me why I hate carpeting in trailers — it’s very difficult to clean.

When we get back to Tucson I had already decided to completely remove the dinette and re-upholster it in some sort of easy-clean vinyl, probably the “Ultraleather” type.   Ours is permanently discolored from dirty hands & feet, tomato sauce stains, and a thousand other kid-related spills.   We’ve tried washing it but it just doesn’t want to come clean.   The foam cushions are dead flat too, so it’s time for a makeover.   This latest episode just sealed the deal.   If I get really ambitious, I may even remove the entire bedroom and replace the carpeting in there with something more suitable for our lifestyle.

The loss of today from the Balloon Fiesta is not a terrible thing.   We are paid through Tuesday morning, and the weather looks like it will be better on Monday, so we’ll resume that program soon.   Having some errands to do in town gives us a reason to leave the grounds and see a little of Albuquerque.

If Emma feels up to it today, we’ll go to Petroglyph National Monument, which is right in Albuquerque.   If not, we’ll take it easy.   Given that this is our last week of full-timing, I feel like mixing in plenty of “doing nothing.”   Il dolce far niente.

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