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It was here, in this very moment of exasperation and resignation, that a new rule was enshrined and codified into our patterns and practices for RV park arrivals. Henceforth, immediately prior to the commencement of any and all RV back-ins, Jill and I are to stand together and through verbal discussion and gesticulation, firmly agree on where precisely the Airstream shall be positioned at the conclusion of said back-in.
Instead of the two day mad dash from Southern California to Austin that we’d originally planned, we now needed adjust our itinerary to include a stop in Albuquerque while also avoiding the risks of winter towing. It was January, after all, and the shortest path from Southern California to Albuquerque included a stretch through Flagstaff where the elevation rises to almost 7,000 feet. Higher elevations meant increased likelihood of snow, ice, and freezing air temperatures, none of which sounded like any fun at all. To avoid all that nonsense, we decided to head east toward Phoenix, then south through Tucson, over to a small town in New Mexico called Deming, before finally making our way north to Albuquerque—home of Airstream of New Mexico. At just under 1,000 miles, we’d complete the mission in six days, including three stops along the way. The final leg from Albuquerque to our home in Austin—without the Airstream—would be completed in one exhausting twelve hour sprint. Work the following day was going to be a real slog.
We departed the Sunday before Martin Luther King day which, conveniently, was a company holiday for us both. This afforded us a full prep day on Saturday and relatively short travel days on Sunday and Monday. We’d spend Sunday night at a Boondockers Welcome in a small, unincorporated community just outside of Phoenix called Tonopah and the rest of the week at an RV resort in Tucson. The real adventure would begin the following Friday—a workday—when we’d depart Tucson early in the afternoon in order to get a head start on our weekend travel extravaganza. We’d drive 220 miles to Deming on Friday, stay the night at a Harvest Host, then cover the final 250 miles to Albuquerque the following morning. We’d roll into Airstream of New Mexico by mid-afternoon at the latest.
On paper, this was a fine plan. Execution, on the other hand, well, sometimes that’s another matter altogether.
Prep days are precious occasions that must never be taken for granted. They are a foolproof means of engendering marital harmony and calm, placid travel days. Dedicating anything less than a full day to this effort is a straight shot to stress, irritability, quarreling, and—in the most severe cases—divorce. Why do that to yourself? We’ve (mostly) given up playing the little game of deception where we try to convince ourselves that it “shouldn’t take too long this time.” It will. It always does. Especially when we won’t be returning to the home we’re leaving for several months. Respect the sanctity of the prep day and you’ll be happier for it.
This particular prep day was a rainy one, which hampered our efforts and underscored the fundamental necessity of dedicating an entire day to the process. Walking back and forth between the house and the Airstream, we packed and prepped like a couple of prairie dogs building a nest. We loaded the refrigerator, did our laundry, and repeatedly checked our lists like Santa Claus at Christmas time. We’d never had to prepare in heavy rain before and although I managed to find some humor in filling our 52 gallon fresh water tank while standing in a downpour (“ha ha ha look at me! I’m soaked!”), it’s not something I’d want to repeat. Next time—and there will most certainly be a next time—I’ll be better prepared. Shortly after this experience I bought a full rain suit from Amazon which will live permanently in the Airstream. I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad that I haven’t yet had an excuse to wear it.
Regardless of the rain, we were upbeat and excited. Instead of leaving the Airstream abandoned in the driveway for up to five bleak months, here we were preparing it for another adventure starting tomorrow. Best of all, Airstream of New Mexico had inspired a great deal of confidence that our roof leaks would soon be repaired right along with the slew of other minor issues that required attention. Airstreams may be toys, but they are extremely expensive toys that, for us, represents a major financial sacrifice. The idea of taking it to an uncaring, unsympathetic dealer for service was nauseating. Now relieved of that burden, we were infused with a cheerful happiness that was palpable.
As early evening approached, it finally came time to hitch the truck to the trailer. And that’s when we encountered the first of what would prove to be several “unanticipated circumstances” as we made our pilgrimage back to Texas.
Hitching up is usually a ten-minute-or-less process. But here again, we’ve learned the hard way never to assume it will be simple and fast. Every once in a while there’s a hiccup. Sometimes the ProPride’s stinger won’t go fully into the receiver without a few minutes of finessing its pitch and yaw. Other times dirt and debris in the receiver have impeded the process. As I backed the truck into the driveway toward the Airstream, I mentally prepared to deal with one of these issues in the rain while hoping that today would be an easy day. The last thing I expected to hear from Jill when I called her phone from inside the truck was “the tongue jack won’t work”. Welp, good thing we’re taking it in for service! I cut the engine and stepped outside.
I had seen a number of complaints online about electric tongue jacks spontaneously crapping out, so I wasn’t completely caught off guard, but I had to marvel at the timing. Of course it happened in the rain. Of course it did. I fetched the manual jack wrench, removed the protective cap from the top of the tongue jack, inserted the wrench, and started cranking. Each rotation required little effort and the jack retracted at a rate that was both surprising and gratifying—except for one thing. A full 360 degree rotation could not be performed without first removing the propane tank cover. Ugh! That left us with two choices. We could leave the propane cover in place and constantly remove and reinsert the wrench after each half-turn. Or, we could remove the cover and continuously crank the jack full circle until the tongue was raised to the desired height. Neither option even approximated the satisfaction of flipping a switch and listening to that distinctive motorized whir as the jack effortlessly rose or lowered to the perfect height in no time. This was especially true in the rain. We decided to remove the cover so we could crank with unrestrained zeal. Once the tongue jack was raised to the right height, the rest of the hitch up was flawless. We were ready to embark!
Fixing our tongue jack, as it turned out, was stupid simple. All we had to do was pull the fuse out and then put it back in again. That’s it. I wish I knew this “trick” before our jack decided to stop working. In the rain. That said, looking back, I’m glad it happened. It’s good to know exactly how easy it is to manually raise or lower our jack. If you’ve never done this before, I’d give it a go simply for the sake of gaining familiarity with the process.
We often joke that there must be benevolent deities up in the heavens smiling down upon us, shepherding us away from hazardous weather conditions. We also joke that, at some point, our luck will run out and these tenderhearted weather gods won’t be there to protect us.
Radar showed an ominous multicolored blob drifting west, right along the same path we were about to follow in the opposite direction toward Phoenix. Anticipating more leaks, we laid down fresh towels throughout the Airstream’s office and bathroom. When we pulled out of our driveway around 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning, it was a bright, sunny day, crisp and cool outside, without even the slightest hint that wet weather would return any time soon. The few clouds that dotted the skies overhead were fluffy and white, emptied of water from the last few days of rain. It wasn’t until we approached the Joshua Tree National Park, some 150 miles along our way, that dark clouds began coalescing into a single, monolithic blanket that loomed overhead. As the landscape darkened, our headlights kicked on and I removed my sunglasses. For hours, heavy rain seemed moments away. But it never materialized. Aside from a few brief splashes here and there, the entire 350 mile drive was utterly uneventful.
The only reasonable explanation—the only one that made any sense—was that the weather gods had once again intervened and protected us from danger. Either that, or our luck just hasn’t run out quite yet. One never knows.
Tonapah is a small town just east of Phoenix, Arizona. We’d booked a night’s stay at a Boondockers Welcome host aptly named Pure Desert1 that was an easy ten minutes off of the I-10 freeway. The owner was an audiologist who—incredibly—commutes 50 miles to Phoenix and back five days a week. “Yeah, I get about four hours of windshield time every day,” he told us. We found him waiting for us as we meandered down his dirt driveway, navigating around a number of large potholes and shallow trenches filled with recent rainwater. After a few minutes of handshakes and pleasantries, he helped guide us into our parking space. To describe this spot as awkward is an amusing understatement. Tucked back at the intersection of two buildings was a 50 amp electrical outlet. Such an amenity is uncommon at Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts locations and, tonight, it meant the difference between a cold dinner and a hot one. The only way to reap this benefit was to wedge the Airstream back into that corner in a way that would allow us to remain hitched without blocking the narrow road along the building’s perimeter. Performing this maneuver involved pulling as far to the left as possible without scraping the adjacent metal shed, then turning sharp to the right, and then finally reversing straight into the corner—again, without scraping the adjacent metal shed. Lucky for us, the host was a thirty year RV veteran with shrewd judgement when it came to reversing trailers into tight spots. The second he detected confusion, he commanded from the road ahead of me, “Turn your wheel HARD RIGHT! Now BACK UP! STOP! Turn your wheel HARD LEFT! Now BACK UP! STOP! STRAIGHT! Now BACK UP! GOOD!” And that was that. The transmission emitted its familiar series of rapid, heavy clunks as I lifted the gearshift lever into the “park” position then set the parking brake and pressed the button to kill the engine. Upon exiting the cab and walking our rig’s periphery I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or unsettled when I saw that one corner of the Airstream’s bumper was a scant two inches from the building behind it.
We chatted with the host for a few minutes, then went for a walk. There was only one street nearby, with dirt shoulders and impatient drivers who zoomed past us without any apparent concern for the speed limit. We saw more chickens than people along the way, and at one point a stray dog with dirty blonde fur zigzagged across the street ahead of us. We stopped and watched it for several moments, hesitant to encroach on its path. Before long it sprinted off, spellbound by something invisible to us. We continued along until a fast approaching pickup caused me to move a few feet further away from the paved roadway and I plowed one foot into deep, sticky mud. We decided it was time to head back to the rig. Upon our return, we nuked leftovers in the microwave (yay electricity!) for dinner and fell asleep. I was out for nearly twelve hours.
When we first got the Airstream, I remember hearing about this so-called 3-3-3 rule. It prescribed three guidelines for RV traveling. First, drive no more than 300 miles a day. Second, arrive at your destination no later than 3:00 p.m. Third, stop every three hours of driving. (Or, ‘stay at least three nights at each destination’, according to some versions.) Pshaw! I thought. I’m not limiting myself to 300 miles in a day. Thems rules must be for old people! Boy have I changed my tune since then. These days I dream of a future when we’ll be able to plan our itineraries according to these wise precepts. Alas, that’s an aspirational goal that will take a few years to achieve. For us, travel days are almost exclusively limited to weekends—gotta pay those Airstream bills!—and our favorite destinations are triangulated between our three distant home bases in Southern California, Central Texas, and Northern New Mexico. Back to back travel days, drives in excess of 500 miles, and arrival times juuuuuust prior to sunset are all too common for us. It can be exhausting. TOTALLY WORTH IT. But exhausting. Then there are days like today. One of those blessed, wonderful travel days when our plans actually conformed to the dictates of the 3-3-3 rule. With only 170 miles to Tucson, we could afford to sleep in, take our time in the morning, and still make it there before 3:00 p.m. Ahhhh!
Our previous visit to the Voyager RV park in Tucson involved what I’ll euphemistically call an “inauspicious” arrival. Unlike most parks we’ve visited, this one requires that an employee escorts you to your spot and then hovers like a anxious helicopter parent until your RV is fully and completely parked within the boundaries of that spot. This is fine, except that our assigned escort showed about as much patience as that white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland while we backed in our trailer. From the moment I put my truck into reverse, he was in my face telling me all the ways I was doing it wrong and how he could do it better. “I could park your rig in a single shot” is a direct quote. Really, who says stuff like that? Not a very welcoming entrance, but once we parked and Sergeant Major Testypants went on to burden someone else with his churlish advice, we cracked a couple of drinks and relaxed.
With this incident in mind, we pulled into Voyager early in the afternoon, our tails tucked between our legs, weary of another needless confrontation. After meeting us at the park’s entrance, our assigned escort offered a terse greeting and gestured that we should follow. I pulled forward, rounded a wide left turn, and tried to keep up with the zippy golf cart as he scooted down the road faster than I expected for an RV park that caters primarily to folks at least 55 years old. When we arrived at our spot, he hopped out and pointed with his finger which spot was ours. He was an older man, with deep wrinkles lining his face, and skin the color of someone who has spent most of his life outdoors. As Jill and I proceeded to back in, he took his place on the side of the road and observed. Every bit as meek as our previous escort was pugnacious, he mostly stayed quiet as we executed a perfect one-and-done back in. I exited the truck and approached our escort with Jill, eager for his approval. Casually, without any hint of judgement or disapproval, he informed us that we’d have to do it all over again.
We had parked—flawlessly—in the wrong damn spot.
Our assigned spot was the one adjacent to where we had just parked. It was here, in this very moment of exasperation and resignation, that a new rule was enshrined and codified into our patterns and practices for RV park arrivals. Henceforth, immediately prior to the commencement of any and all RV back ins, Jill and I are to stand together and through verbal discussion and gesticulation, firmly agree on where precisely the Airstream shall be positioned at the conclusion of said back in.
Our escort was more amused than anything else. He stood by, expressionless, for some twenty more minutes until our rig was parked satisfactorily—in the correct place this time—at which point he quietly made his leave. I didn’t even notice he had left until after we finished setting up and had opened my ceremonial post-travel day beer.
We spent the remainder of the week working each day from the Airstream and breaking bread every evening with Jill’s family who lives nearby. The weather was beautiful and mild with the sort of plentiful sunshine that tickles the skin with refreshing warmth and makes it hard to stay indoors. Late Wednesday evening, after the sun had disappeared and the temperature approached freezing, I strolled over to the resort’s fitness center for a run. Afterwards, I walked the quarter mile back to our Airstream without a sweatshirt, still hot from exertion. My skin felt like armor, insulating me from the cold as I meandered along the road. Endless rows of huge Class A motorhomes, enormous fifth wheels, and more modestly sized travel trailers lined both sides of the street, many adorned with tacky neon lights of all colors that sliced through the pitch-black night. The park was so quiet and devoid of activity that you’d think it was the middle of the night, although it couldn’t have been later than ten. By the time I reached the door of our Airstream, my internal body temperature had begun its return from orbit and I welcomed the low rumble emanating from the furnace as I walked inside.
The next morning, Jill mentioned that we should probably check our propane levels. We last refilled our tanks back in October, but hadn’t used the trailer much since then. When I opened our propane tank cover and saw the gauge, my eyes widened and I leaned in to get a better look. After just three nights of heavy furnace use, we’d gone through more than half our propane supply. Crap!
Our trailer came with two 30 pound propane tanks and a regulator with failover capability, meaning one tank is considered primary and the other is secondary. When the primary tank runs dry, the regulator allows fuel to flow from the secondary tank automatically. As long as the regulator detects flow from the primary tank, it displays a green icon. When flow is diverted to the secondary tank, that green icon turns red. This information is most valuable immediately after the failover tank is tapped because at that moment you know precisely 50% of your usable propane capacity remains. But if you don’t know when your regulator switched to the failover tank, you really have no idea how much propane you have left.
I had no idea when our regulator had switched over to our failover tank.
We were leaving the next day, on a very tight schedule, for Deming, New Mexico, where the low was predicted to be 19 degrees. Without enough propane to heat the trailer, we’d be facing a frigid night and the threat of frozen plumbing.
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