Road Trip, XVI-2

My folks never needed to wait for Labor Day to take a road trip. I was not born in the back seat of a 1940 Buick but I might have been if my dad hadn’t gotten a job the week before. [From Road Trip 2013]

1940 Buick Special

Rufus sent me an advertisement flogging the five most awesome American roads to drive. I wrote about it then and it’s time to revisit it now.

See, I have a new truck, a tankful of gas, and a desire to leave North Puffin before it gets really cold and not get to South Puffin until it cools off. And until Colonial gets the pipeline fixed. The North Carolina price gouging law has taken effect. It doesn’t help.

“We’ve seen fuel disruptions like this before and want to reassure people that there’s no need for alarm at this time,” said NC Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry.

OK. I’m definitely following Horace Greeley‘s advice.

I’m plotting a road trip for October. I have a yearning for the blue routes: diagonally down toward the Southwest on the outbound leg and then along the southern border to home.

You may recall my obsession with the Not So PTT. “I can fit SWMBO and everything I have to carry and even an RV-size washer-dryer into a cargo trailer. There’s room for the three-esses, room to cook, room to sleep, room to poke a ‘puter,” I wrote. “There is not room to change your mind.”

Good sense prevailed. I was well aware that this $5-10,000 solution would cost me twice as much in twice as much gas as just driving, all so I can save $30-40/night on motel rooms and sleep in a Walmart parking lot for free! That and the couple year build time meant I couldn’t have it ready to leave in a couple of weeks.

Since I decided against the cargo-trailer-cum-camper, I’ll couch surf with friends if I can find any and otherwise hit the Motel 4-1/2s along the way. It’s sort of the 5,000 mile long way around from North to South Puffin.

Hint to old friends and friends I don’t know yet: if you recognize any of the places on my route, I’m open to suggestions for anything from a quick beer to a free night on your couch. I am (mostly) housebroken.

I’ll leave North Puffin the first week of October.

I’d like to see the USS Cod submarine and the Statue of the Flying Housewife and maybe take an Airstream Factory Tour and, of course, see the happy Blue Whale of Route 66. As usual, I’ll try not to go too many places I’ve been before.

Having said I won’t go anywhere I have been, I’ll make my first stop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania because my Aunt Dot who turns 96 this year lives there. She and my folks met when they all lived in an apartment house in Philly before I was born; I spent time every summer with her boys in Annapolis and they with me.

I’ve discovered that a number of US cities that have state names. I’ll have to miss Wyoming, Minnesota, or Minnesota, California and Google has never heard of California, Georgia, but I put California, Pennsylvania on the list first and I might make it through Kansas, Vermont, and Georgia, Kansas, outside Wichita, as well as Vermont, Indiana, just before I get to Kokomo which I want to visit because I like the name. I’ll probably miss Indiana, Pennsylvania, but I might make it through Pennsylvania, Alabama on my way back. Sadly, I can’t get to Alabama, New York but I’ve been in Florida, New York, and I’ll try to find New York, Florida, but Florida, Ohio, is also probably too far north of my route. On the other hand Ohio, Texas, is a possibility but Texas, Maryland, will have to wait until I come back north. Maryland, Louisiana, is sort of on the way from Shreveport but I could see going through Louisiana, Missouri.

Martin’s Ferry and maybe Moundsville, West Virginia sound interesting.

I may have to leave the Police Museum and the USS Cod for another trip because Cleveland may be too far north. Jackson Center for the Airstream Factory Tours is a bit north of my route, too, if I want to see the Statue of the Flying Housewife in Columbus. Dayton, where my Aunt Betty lived, has the Carousel of Inventions.

It’s a couple of hours out of my way but I’ll probably head up to West Lafayette, Indiana, to see where my cousin and his family hang their hats. I won’t stop in Huntington, though, because I don’t know anyone at Shuttleworth Conveyors there anymore. It would be good to stop in Brazil because there are no mosquitoes and get fired up over St. Elmo, Illinois, because how could I not?

Can you drive a truck through the St Louis arch?

I’ll more or less follow the Mother Road from there.

The Mark Twain National Forest has 1.5 million acres of beautiful public land with sections of the Ozark Trail and the historic Greer Roller Mill. Maybe I’ll get the lead out in Joplin, Missouri and I have to stop in the railroad town of Chandler, Oklahoma, simply because my grandmother was a Chandler.

Amarillo calls me because it was the “Helium Capital of the World” and that is lighter than air. That city has one of the largest meat packing plants in the United States, right next to the only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility in the country. (Really, it’s the Cadillac Ranch that I want to see.)

Unfortunately, I’ll be too late for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with over 500 kaleidoscopic hot air balloons rising up at dawn over the New Mexico landscape but I’ll likely stop at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History and the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum. I’ll stop at the Western New Mexico Aviation Heritage Museum in Grants, New Mexico.

Acoma PuebloPetrified ForestI definitely want to see the new Eagle Aviary in Window Rock and float around that part of New Mexico and Arizona (Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, or valley of the rocks) that includes the area surrounding Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the Navajo Nation equivalent to a national park where my mom painted.

The westward leg will end in Paradise Valley.

I’ll rest out there before heading east along the southern border; that’s a story for our next installment.

It will be good to get away from the idlers and imbeciles running toward November 8.



No, not the “perfume.” That crap makes my nose curl.

SWMBO complained that I was obsessing over trailers last night.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s what I do.”

I’m an engineer, not just because I went to school for it but moreso because I need to drill and chew and drill and chew to get the facts, find the data, figure out how something works. I do that with the news that is a staple of this column. I do it daily with the weather.

Weather is important to me, and not just for concerts. I have an old roof in South Puffin and a lot of grass to mow in North Puffin. I drive a car with no top. It also lets us remind ourselves that the modeling that makes the one-day Inaccuweather forecasts so wrong so often uses the same modeling as climatologists have to forecast out one century.

And lately I’ve chewed around the ankles of two different kinds of trailer houses.

Some back story. I don’t like to camp — I live on an island and I summer right on the sixth Great Lake in the middle of tree-filled lawn, so I don’t need a field with trees and ponds and beaches — but I like not having to set up in motel after motel after motel when I travel. Traveling, for me, means visiting, sightseeing, touristy stuff, photography, and working on the road. Photography and working on the road means a fair dinkum load of gear.

I’d like to go someplace, set up “camp,” and just visit and look and live there for a few days, then move a couple hundred miles and do it again.

I also like to design and build things. Engineer, remember? I have long known that my design skills far exceed anyone who builds RVs for a living so my summer brainstorm is simple. Why not build the “camper” that purely, precisely, perfectly meets my travel needs. That becomes the Perfect Travel Trailer.

The PTT would be 6.5′ wide with a full length, four foot, power slide. That brings its towing width down to about that of the truck. Add a power mechanism to lower the top when it’s time to travel and the frontal area is suddenly no longer an air grabber. Inside the layout can be moderately conventional with about 300 square feet of floor space.

I’ve been working with composite materials all my life but I think I will build the shell in wood. It’s lighter and cheaper than steel and even than aluminum, both important, and can be pretty to look at. It’s also well within the grasp of my shop.

I had a layout ready, of course, when I stumbled upon this thirty-one foot long, 1977 Airstream Sovereign. It is pretty much gutted, ready for my PTT interior.

1977 Airstream Sovereign

The Airstream search was a fluke but (maybe) a good one. If I can buy a shell for around the cost of building it, it means not having to source a flatbed trailer, not having to build and finish the shell, and still getting a layout I like. And Airstreams are nice looking. I don’t see much downside, other than fitting the interior through the door, if the fuel economy works out.

“How will you fit your desk and chair and all the stuff you usually carry with you? And SWMBO?” Liz Arden asked.

Number 1 Daughter has the answer. She is gung ho as long as she gets to design it.

“Just hold your horses. Some of these things have to be run past mom also. This is a project.” SWMBO said.

“Yeah, I’m not a fan of the ‘project’ aspect either. And yes, it would be a project that needs to be completely laid out before anything should start,” Number 1 daughter said. “But mommy, my girlfriend and I would love to decorate something for you as a surprise. Wouldn’t you love that, mommy?”

<le sigh>

I am envisioning shabby chic here.

The desk’n’stuff will be done the same way I plan it for the PTT: I have in mind to do a Harper-bed (a Murphy bed concept but hinged for the space actually available) and have a shelf in the “bedroom” and a rolling desk chair that can come in there so I have a cave of my own.

Problem. Newbies typically keep their first camper for a year or two while they figure out what they really want.


I built a spreadsheet so I could obsess on my 4-1/2 camperish choices:

  • Rebuild an Airstream
  • Buy some kind of ready-to-go Travel Trailer
  • Build the perfect Travel Trailer
  • Buy a Bus, meaning a Class C or Class A RV.

I suppose I could even add “Build the Perfect Bus” to the list. Nah.

Lots of advantages for each.

  • I like like the perfect layout and the cachet of the big Airstream but at least a year and more likely two to finish and 11-12 mpg.
  • I like the instant gratification of buying something ready-to-go but 10-11 mpg.
  • I like like like perfect layout and the “I did it” gratification of the PTT but at least a year and more likely two to finish. Maybe as much as 15-16 mpg.
  • I like the cellar space of a Class A as well as the added square footage upstairs but any repairs require a truck facility, it gets lousy mileage, and requires serious insurance.
  • I like the ability to repair of the Class C in a local garage but I’d need 30′ LOA to fit stuff in.

Then I thought about my To Do list.

If I want to do any travel this year or next, I need to stop thinking and simply buy some kind of ready-to-go Travel Trailer that allows me to crawl in and sleep in a parking lot. Or do a quickie conversion of an enclosed cargo trailer.

“I guess realistically you could ‘camp’ in a relatively bare but roadworthy shell,” SWMBO said. Note the emphasis on the “you.” And she figures it would be primitive… “The mattress-on-the-floor bed isn’t bad but cooking would be limited unless you had a working generator so you could nuke and hot-plate and have a portable propane grill. Working fridge is a must and you really need that to be propane unless you can find a fridge that runs from an inverter and lots of batteries.”

It finally occurred to me that I can carry a lot of stuff like the pantry and freezer in the truck that I’d planned to store (somewhere) in the trailer. Modern 60-something quart freezers take 5-6 amps at 12VDC so the truck can power that easily underway and a pair of 50Ah deep cycle house batteries would easily carry the trailer and freezer load overnight. Run the genny only for boondocking.

“Be nice if the bathroom worked,” SWMBO muttered.

Most 50s-60s campers and boats (and 50s-60s-70s-80s-maybe-90s Airstreams) were primitive. The beds were little more than a foam pad on the floor and cooking was limited although my mom did pretty darned well on a propane camp stove on the little boat and a two-burner alcohol stove on the Richardson. Shore power takes care of A/C, frig, nuke, water heater, and heck even an electric cooktop if you want. I will definitely go all-electric in the PTT and probably would do so even in a little tag along.

The Streams
I found a pair of 25′ Airstreams over in New Hampshire.

The first is a 1970. 46 years old. The major systems — converter, water heater, furnace, toilet — appear to work. Road debris shattered the curved, right front window. There is no a/c. All the roof vents are caulked. The seller wasn’t sure about the operation of the gray water tank. Cosmetics are poor. The shell is dull, not bright, aluminum and the plastic parts are brittle. The tambour doors are troublesome. The awning needs replacement.

The second, a 1973, is only 43 years old. Its water heater and furnace appear to work and someone replaced the converter with an inverter but it still doesn’t make 110 from 12v to run the frig. A/C is icy. The shell is nice, bright, aluminum and the rivet joints are sound. The plastic parts are brittle. The tambour doors are troublesome.

On inspection, I found that all aluminum Airstreams have a boatload of steel in them. Every bit of it is on these was well and truly rusted.

These trailers also have a boatload of room and storage, partly because the beds are so small. The bathroom in the ’70 is bigger than mine down south.

I like the ’70 layout better.

All in all, it was a good trip because I didn’t buy either of them. In fact, it would now take special circumstances for me to by a 60s or 70s trailer. Simply too many pieces parts are about to fail after that many years. I reckon I’d be comfortable after a frame-off restoration.

Wot to do, wot to do.

The Not So PTT
Now we get to the challenging part.

7x14 Cargo Trailer cum Little House

I still like to design and build things. Engineer, remember?

I can fit SWMBO and everything I have to carry and even an RV-size washer-dryer into a cargo trailer. There’s room for the three-esses, room to cook, room to sleep, room to poke a ‘puter. There is not room to change your mind.

It’s about a three-week build.

Dixon makes a decent 7×14 Cargo Trailer with windows, torsion axles, and a real plywood floor somewhere down there in Georgia. I’ve been watching the ads up here, though, because I have stuff to haul down from here that would be a lot easier and safer to do with a cargo trailer. In fact, just Saturday, SWMBO saw a nice (used) frig and said, “Don’t you need a refrigerator with a bottom freezer down there?”

The only reason this project works is because I want a cargo trailer because I somehow keep hauling crap around. So. Room for cargo.

Cargo Space in the 7x14 Cargo Trailer

Note that I am well aware that either this $5-10,000 solution or the PTT will still take two years to build and cost me twice as much in twice as much gas as just driving, all so I can save $30-40/night on motel rooms and sleep in a Walmart parking lot for free!

Stay tuned.


Working Vacation

The first year I had a cellphone, I was sitting down on the beach when my friend called.

“I lost all my files,” she said, crying. “Everything is gone. My customer database. Everything.”

With the little bitty surf soothing in the background, I talked her off the ledge.

She reminds me of that every once in a while, that I was down here on vacation, working.

I have since moved to South Puffin here in the middle of the Florida Keys and I still work about as much as I ever did, so I’m likely to do it wherever I like the view. I can get away with it because I live here but I’m always sorry to see visitors not getting “Keysey.”

My inch of beach (actually, I own 5.33 inches of sand on the ocean) is just far enough from the front door that I have to leave the house and go there on purpose. That’s good.

I was late getting away from the house yesterday. Still, our lot was pretty full of cars when I got there but few people were around. I think the sand critter got the rest. Maybe ate some cars too. One young couple was snuzzling with a radio playing softly. I swam and read and swam but didn’t nap. And watched a visitor pacing the beach, back and forth, talking on his phablet. He’s a lawyer by appearance and context and he seems to work that phone pretty much all the time. Sometimes he walks the sand. Sometimes he wades.

“I wish people didn’t have to work on their vacations here,” I said to him as I passed him on my way into the water, “but you seem to have the best of both worlds.”

He agreed as his phone rang and he answered again.

That said, I don’t encourage people to work when they are here on vacation, unless they come here to do just that.

“Voluntourism” is more and more popular. “A vacation isn’t just for relaxation. It’s also a chance to pass along values to your kids,” says USAToday.

I want my kids to learn to relax but a number of Keys destinations need volunteers including the Coral Restoration Foundation, Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center, Habitat For Humanity of Key West, the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, Key West Wildlife Center, Marathon Wild Bird Center, Pigeon Key, and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

The Coral Restoration Foundation creates offshore nurseries and restoration programs for threatened coral species. Their programs and techniques are implemented in new nursery and restoration projects worldwide.

They're So SoftFlorida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center rescues, rehabilitates, and releases native and migratory birds and provides or locates a humane shelter for those birds that cannot be released. They have very good intern programs. It was at a visit to the Laura Quinn Sanctuary that I learned that pelicans are soft.

Habitat for Humanity of Key West treats its volunteers as their most valuable resource as visitors work alongside staff, homeowners, and other volunteers. They build and repair houses using volunteer labor and donations. Families purchase the houses through no-profit, no-interest mortgage loans or innovative financing methods.

Pigeon Key hosts day and overnight marine science field trips for educational groups as well as special events and summer camps but they are also open for individual visitors. They need interns and junior counselors.

Leave your smartphone home and drink plenty of water if you come. Summer may start this weekend up north but it is already summer here and I guarantee you’ll sweat.