Monday, August 24, 2009

Tricking Out The Tow Vehicle

I owned a Toyota Tacoma for years and enjoyed the four-wheel drive in our Vermont winters and the ability to haul stuff in back. Even though my airport friends ragged me about my “toy truck,” it suited me just fine. That is until Toyota announced serious frame corrosion problems in certain model years (including mine) and offered a generous buyback program.

Gas was approaching $4.00/gallon and I bought a used Honda Fit -- talk about a toy car -- which I loved but missed being able to carry loads, and to get up our driveway in winter.

Catching the RV/Travel Trailer fever this spring, I started reading blogs and articles and having a general sense of size, first started focusing on a tow vehicle. After getting all sorts of advice (“Never buy a Chevy” “Fords are problems”) I started leaning toward a Ford F-150 with the larger engine and tow package. Right away, up on Craigslist pops the ideal truck: 4 X $ Supercab, XLT 145” Wheelbase, 5.4L, 3.73 limited slip axle, and a tow package.

We are very happy with the Ford so far. It pulls the Airstream nicely and the super cab is a nice traveling space for the Vizsla. However, on our first trip we knew that we would need some sort of cap or cover to protect the extra gear we would be taking with us. Having bought a used cap for the Toyota which didn’t fit right, leaked, and came loose on dirt roads, I decided to go for a professionally-installed truck cap.

I ordered a paint-matched Leer cap from Add-On Accessory Outlet, a local firm in Burlington. It was installed Saturday (Vermont’s tax free day) so I saved 6% but more importantly, was pleased with the fit, the color match, and the overall customer service. With this addition, our tow vehicle is about set to go -- I still need to work more on hitch height and may need to drop the ball a tad.

Here’s our Ford tow vehicle wearing her new red cap.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Airstream Design & History

One of the nice things about owning an Airstream is that you are part of a long history of a travel trailers known for design and function. I recently came across this article by a design firm titled: Airstreams: Icons Worthy of Preservation. The article mentioned in part "
....This week in Germany, I learned that classic Airstream trailers are being restored and rented to hip European "holiday makers." Hence, Airstreams are also iconic structures (albeit mobile ones) being restored and, in some cases, retrofitted."
An older post by a design firm who worked on the new Bambi design noted:
"with their sleek metallic exteriors, these travel trailers
are a nostalgic piece of america.
even today customers love the timeless beauty of the
aerodynamic shapes and the ingenious efficiency of
the compact space, but the average age
of a first-time travel trailer buyer is 64 years old !"
And finally, for a little romp through history, this older web site has a lot of information and links. In part it starts:

In The Beginning...

...was the Great Depression. The stock-market was down. Many people were struggling just to keep food on the table. In the early 1930s, A young college graduate named Wally Byam went to work for a magazine publisher. An article they published was an instruction guide for building a camping trailer. After the article was published, people began using the plans to build their own trailers. However it wasn't long before letters began coming in from the readers complaining about errors in the plans.

Determined to discover the problem, Wally Byam began building trailers in his own back yard. While working but before he would finish a trailer, someone would would see it and want to buy his "project." With each new attempt, Wally would experiment and change, improving the original idea. It soon became a full-time occupation for him. He called his new trailer company AIRSTREAM. The trailers were fairly standard looking for the era with some influences from the European styles of design.

top photo courtesy of American Retro Caravans Bambi photo courtesy Cindy's Salon

Vintage photo part of a wonder collection - Roger's Airstream History

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Shakedown Cruise – Day 3 & 4

After some initial wandering (thanks, MapQuest), we headed out on Day 3 and soon were heading north on Route 3 toward Tupper Lake. It was a pretty Saturday in the Adirondacks and every trailhead and put-in spot was crowded with vehicles.

We passed a spectacular sight – an international rugby tournament – in Saranac Lake with many games going at once and the fields a riot of colorful uniforms. We made the turn toward Plattsburgh and soon the road became lightly traveled with few settlements as we cruised northeast.

We were heading toward Maccomb Reservation State Park which was described as “wilderness-like” on the web but turned out to be anything but that. The gps and map seemed to be at odds where to turn but I made one correct turn but promptly turned too early and the rig was headed down a back road – and I needed to turn around. No easy thing.

I found a driveway and with Mary’s help, was attempting to back up and turn but after several tries was getting nowhere. Suddenly, a guy came across from his yard and offered his help. I jumped out, he hopped in and patted the dog, and in one smooth maneuver, had things lined up and ready to go. Thanking him, I noticed a big travel trailer in his yard – he’s obviously had more experience than I have.

We found the campground, checked in, and went to our reserved site – one of the few with power. Scoping it out, I realized that it was next to a big playground swarming with kids. Bad move. Again, I had to figure out how to back the rig in without hitting trees, bikes, kids, etc. Fortunately, one more Good Samaritan came from across the way and offered the guide me (he said he’d hauled drag racers for years and had backed up a lot of trailers.). After some colorful and direct advice and backing and forthing, we got it situated and ready to set up.The site was level but the noise level was high – lots of pre-teen girls and boys doing their summer flirtation rituals complete with screams and giggles. The noise did quiet down after dark and rain the next day keep things quiet.

This campground was a disappointment. Not particularly well designed, it had a seedy feel to it – grubby restrooms, balky showers, and a weedy swimming area on a man-made lake. We’d signed up for a couple of days and decided just to relax, read, and get to now the Airstream’s systems a little better.

One nice thing about upstate New York is that there’s pretty good coverage for the iPhones. While not finding wifi (we didn’t look too hard), we could check email and do limited web surfing at all the campsites.

We used our new departure checklist and the trip home was easy, heading north on I-87 and then taking pretty Route 2 down through the Lake Champlain islands. We explored Grand Isle State Park as a possible future camping spot and then stopped in South Hero and grabbed some wonderful, if not healthy, lunch items. (I won’t tip our hand but they involved catsup)

Driving ahead a bit, we found a beautiful shaded parking area along the lake and enjoyed lunch with breezes flowing through the Airstream and the Vizsla sleeping in the truck. It was another reminder of the flexibility of hauling along your own eating space.The last test of the trip was to make the sharp turn and steep climb up our driveway. Well, the bumper dug a rut in the dirt road but we made it up fine and after buttoning things up, were home safely with a very successful shakedown cruise.Postscript: Three days later, I was in the Emergency Room facing an operation for a perforated appendix. As they say, timing is everything!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Shakedown Cruise – Day 2

On the second day of our first adventure, we headed north on Route 3 toward Watertown. The pretty highway follows the coast of Lake Ontario and while I’d driven the road before, it was different hauling a trailer. First of all, everyone travels faster than the speed limit and secondly, there are few places to turn off to let folks by. (The type of thing you note while towing but don’t give much thought to driving solo.)

As we crossed the Salmon River, it brought back old ski trips where I’d see anglers, standing side-by-side in the frigid waters, hoping to entice a spawning salmon to their line. “Look at those idiots,” I’d sometimes muttered forgetting that soon I would be out in the same sleet and cold air, in a Lycra suit – racing the Tug Hill trails. Different strokes ….

Passing beautiful Henderson Harbor, we got a couple of good views off to the west but I was concentrating on the traffic, which was picking up as we entered Watertown. We managed to navigate our way through lane changes and traffic lights and soon were heading out of town on Route 11 – another road I’ve spent many hours on during my work days.

Two major changes in the last 20 years that I’ve watched is the dramatic growth of Fort Drum as the 10th Mountain Division has expanded and taken more deployments and the influx of Amish/Mennonite families moving in and buying old farms. So, we saw a number of buggies but no Humvees.

We had our first on-the-road lunch in Governeur at a gas station where Mary picked up some Subway subs while I walked the dog and got her settled in the truck. It was rather civilized without the Vizsla’s brown nose sniffing our food and after some “remove the evidence” hand wiping, we were on our way.

The drive up to Potsdam and down to Colton is pretty. We were heading to the Higley Falls State Campground on the Racquette River. The campground is nestled in big pines with sites well spaced and placed. It had looked good online and we weren’t disappointed. However, as I clanked by way along the access road and found our site, it was an “oh, oh” moment. I needed to do a 90 degree back in, avoiding several big trees. Some folks were sitting out across the way and I said to them, “Get ready for 20 minutes of comedy – I’ve never backed this thing up.”

Just then their son-in-law arrived in his pickup – and offered to guide me. (This is typical of the help we ran into everywhere.) Well, after a lot of coaching, false starts, wrong turns, we got the trailer lined up on the site with room to keep the truck hitched.

The site was great. Neighboring sites were no that near and we could walk down to the river for a beautiful view. First order of business was to grab a swim before the area closed for the night and off we shuffled down the path toward the beach.

This was our first swim of the year and it was great. The beach is fine and the water, while bracing, was not heart-stopping cold. The river is very wide in this area and it was just like swimming in a pond. Like most streams in upstate NY, the water is tea-colored from the tannic acid.

Power at some of these campsites is a little dicey and while this was supposed to have 15 amp service, we had some circuit breaker issues. I got the refrigerator running for the first time on gas, after some tinkering, so that helped our overall situation. We went down to the water, sat on a log, and watched a gorgeous sunset over the river.

We had a good night and in the morning, after a bike with the dog using the Springer, used the gas stove for the first time. Bacon and eggs while camping always tastes a little better.

We really like this campground. The sites are spaced and sited well and it has a good “family” feel to it. For water activities, it’s unbeatable.

Going carefully through our departure checklist, we did everything right except to remove the 15-30 amp adapter (I had a second one). That got added to the checklist.

We hated to say goodbye to this nice setting (checkout is 11 AM but you can stay all day), but we had miles to move to a two-day stay near Plattsburgh.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Shakedown Cruise – Day 1

I bought our 25’ 1999 Airstream Safari rapidly, right after it came up on Craigslist for Syracuse. I’d been watching a number of sites around the Northeast, having lost a couple of units to quick sales earlier. Looks like the 25’ model is popular for those, like us, who are retired and want a unit that fits into most state and national parks. So, right after this unit was posted, I called, lined up tentative financing, and the following morning began a quick round trip out to Syracuse, New York – the Vizsla and I – made a less than thorough inspection, and a purchase – then started the long drive home in the truck. I wanted to get plates and get organized for actually towing the rig.

I was working on some time constraints because the seller was undergoing tests for some lung issues and probable surgery (the reason for selling) and I wanted his help in hitching things up. So about a week later, after loading the truck with all sorts of provisions for the Airstream, we headed out early for central New York. We had decided to camp our way home and make it a test cruise – and it sure was.

We arrived mid-day after a trip of about six hours – a trip I’ve made many times. But this time it was different – I visualized hauling a travel trailer behind me and noted that the turns needed to be wider, the traffic changes fewer and smoother, and all in all, just a slower pace. I have never towed a trailer any distance so I was a bit apprehensive but the weather was good and the roads were, although busy, ones that I know.

The former owner directed the hookup of the ball, the sway systems, etc and loaded us up with the gear needed to operate the rig. After some last minute directions about the TV antenna and the awning (instructions I’ve forgotten) and a quick walk for the dog, we were off – testing the new brake controller on the side street. The tow system squawked loudly with every turn but soon we were launched on 7 North and just ahead, trying to blend our way onto to I-81, the major highway heading north.

I got up to speed and generally was comfortable – the Ford 150 handled things well and once I got into the right lane and settled, we cruised north. I’d picked a close-by state campground, Selkirk Shores State Park – since I didn’t want to tow very far before checking things. The access road of the interstate was lovely and aside from the clanking and squawking we made, it was a pretty drive.

New York state campgrounds vary greatly in quality and I was not too impressed with Selkirk Shores. The site I had reserved was pretty low and very close to the neighboring trailer, whose occupants had sort of taken over the vacant spot. Fortunately, I could pull far enough ahead so the backing up for the first time was fairly routine (little did I know what the future held).

We got going on transferring most of our gear from the truck to the trailer. We’d gotten water on the way in and there was 20-amp service so we were ready to relax. I took the dog for a walk and we found every barking dog on the circle but I could get off the road and head down the path toward the beach. It was Thursday night and the beach is only open on weekends (budget crunch?) but the structures and pier were impressive. One of the many CCC projects from the 1930’s, the park has some beautiful buildings and areas for outings and day use.

Back at the trailer, I started to learn that the previous owners really had never “camped” with it. They told me that they drove to Florida, hooked up and lived there during the winter, and drove home. They did not know that the refrigerator could use gas and never used the gas stove. Well, I found out that they also never used the fresh water tank – I could not get the pump to run. It would turn on but nothing would happen and in spite of taking the water pump apart, we had no water that first night. Great! Fortunately, the rest room and showers were right down the path.

I always have to chuckle at the propensity of campers to make roaring campfires every night and this place was no exception. Our neighbors, who were very helpful, were no exception. We had a light supper, turned the fans on and slept pretty well. The state parks seem to quiet down nicely – it’s kids and families and not many partying types – at least near us. The Airstream is a nice sound barrier with the fans on.

The next morning, I took the dog on a walk up the path to the north along the lake and we saw a couple of deer out for a browse. It was quiet, the lake was clear, and only the ever-present image of the big Oswego nuke plant disturbed the tranquility.

After breakfast, it was water system time again. I removed a length of piping connected to the pump to see if it was clear to the tank, and it was. Then I spotted a tiny valve on the underside of the pipe, turned it with a screwdriver, and after hitching things up, had water flowing through the water pump. Yahoo! The valve was impossible to see and the manual for the Airstream is so limited that it shows no helpful schematic information.

Now, wouldn’t hot water be nice? I tried to turn on the heater with little success. Then, a knock on the door and my neighbor said, “Do you know you have water pouring out of your trailer?” Sure enough, the drain plug was missing. I thought I might have to wait and visit a plumbing store for one but rummaging around in the box of spare parts in the back, I found one and soon we were cranking. So two successes in a day – now to navigate the dump station for the first time.

I’d done a lot of reading and things went well, items got stowed and we were off for Day 2, heading north to Higley Flow State Park on the Racquette River.