Sunday, November 23, 2014

Airstream Terraport, Airstream Factory, Jackson Center, Ohio

Our service appointment at the Airstream Factory Center in Jackson Center, Ohio, was for Wednesday, but we arrived on Monday. We didn't want to arrive during snow and freezing rain predicted for Tuesday. Living in the Deep South means we have very little experience in driving on snow and ice and we felt that we didn't want to learn while pulling Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer.

The Ohio State Line

In case you are wondering why two cold weather novices had an appointment in northern Ohio during November, you need to know that we called during August for an appointment only to discover that the next available service time was in the middle of November. We decided to chance it and hope that the weather didn't force us to cancel. It turned out that we saw temperatures in the low teens and snow flurries during our visit.

Selfie at a rest stop in Ohio

Jackson Center's city limits

Our new fear once we arrived in Ohio was the following week. If the Airstream people could not finish our repairs by Friday, we would have to spend the weekend there and the lows were going to be single digits the next week, the highs were going to be below freezing plus it was going to snow. We are poor candidates for camping in freezing weather.

Rosie arriving at Airstream's Factory

Wally Byum's Airstream trailer

Airstream's Factory in Jackson Center, Ohio

A 1930s version of an Airstream

Looking at the historic display at the Airstream Factory

If you are in Jackson Center for factory service, you can camp without charge in Airstream's Terraport area. The Terraport offers water, 30 and 50 amp electrical service plus sewage connections. The sewer connection was too far away from the dump port on Rosie, so we would have to rely on the dump station found near the exit of the camping area.

Airstream's Terraport

This turned out to be an interesting place to camp. The common thread linking all of the campers together was that we were all Airstreamers and had decided to adopt that lifestyle. We did see one non-Airstream truck camper pull into the Terraport one night. It was interesting in that they kept saying their other camper was an Airstream.

Rosie in Airstream's Terraport

We picked a camp site at the rear of the Terraport. We felt this would give us a better view of the factory area and the campground.

As winter camping rookies, we were warned to disconnect the water feed to Rosie if the temperature dipped below freezing. It was clear at 10 p.m. that it was going to freeze that night and we were outside in the cold removing the water hose. We were unable to reconnect the water the rest of our time there because of the cold weather.

We were also told to run our propane heater when it gets below freezing because it vents warm air to the camper's water tanks. This would help keep the fresh, gray and black water tanks from freezing. Armed with that knowledge, we used our electric heater to take the chill off in Rosie but the furnace to heat it.

On the morning of our service appointment, we heard Airstream's tractor heading towards Rosie around 7 a.m. It only took a moment for the driver to hitch up Rosie, then she was heading to the service bay.

Airstream's tractor hitching-up Rosie

Rosie on her way to the service bays

We jumped into the truck and drove to the service office. We met the technician there who was in charge of fixing Rosie. We had a long list of little things and one or two potentially big problems for him to solve. Our service technician decided to start with the scariest problem first.

We had a ground problem in the 12-volt power system. The ground cable was not making a solid connection with the batteries and my quick fix was to use a battery jumper cable to patch the negative terminals on the batteries to Rosie's frame. While this was effective, it didn't fix the underlying problem.

Our service rep said this could be a simple wire loose in the tongue jack or it could be a tedious process of tracing out the wires at $115 an hour. Turns out it was the latter and we invested more than two hours to fix this problem.

Our service rep would put Rosie back together every afternoon around 4 p.m. and the Airstream people would tow Rosie back to our site in the Terraport so that we could spend the night there. Then the whole process started over again the next morning.

Rosie in the service bay

Our service technician found and corrected a serious propane gas valve problem in our water heater that we were unaware of and could have been a serious problem later on. When he told us about that issue, we remembered smelling the propane gas "rotten eggs" scent a couple of times and mistakenly thinking we had a black water tank problem.

In addition to fixing the things on our list (missing rivets, door hinge problem, grounding system issue, a slow water leak around the panorama window, etc.), we wanted to add a couple of improvements. They installed a new bicycle rack to Rosie's back bumper and LED lights in the cabin.

Airstream's waiting room

Factory tours start at this desk

During the day, we would talk with other Airstream owners who were also there having their trailers serviced. We saw that valuable information was being passed on by experienced Airstreamers in the waiting room. We picked up on the "must visit" campgrounds, the best WBCCI caravans plus towing and maintenance tips for keeping Rosie in tip-top shape.

The store at Airstream's factory

Our trip to northern Ohio wasn't only about Rosie. Jackson Center is less than 50 miles from the farm Becky's father grew up on and where she visited her grandparents as a child. So, one day was dedicated to the nostalgia tour of the family farm.

A section of Becky's family farm

Another picture of the farm
With some crucial help from her father providing us with street names and landmarks, we found the farm. It was sad that the farmhouse Becky remembered visiting was no longer there, but the corn field and the livestock areas were. There were some emotional moments as Becky reminisced about visiting her grandparents at the farm and how much she wished they were greeting us from the porch as we arrived.

Old family photo of Becky's grandparents on the farm

We also found the K-12 school Becky's father attended. It continues to be used for all grade levels under one roof.

K-12 School in Ohio

Temperatures were an issue while camping at the Airstream factory in Ohio. Nighttime lows were in the low teens and we saw some snow flurries. We burned through a 30 pound bottle of propane in four days! We discovered that we can survive in Rosie through freezing temperatures, but it is more fun to be out in warmer weather.

Becky with a few snow flakes on her coat

Some specifics about the Airstream Terraport camping area:
  • There are four or five camping loops in the park. All of the loops are named after Airstream models. We camped in the Safari loop.
  • There are five camping pads in each loop. The sites are very close together, but the campers here are there for factory service and not for the park's features.
  • There is no shade in the Terraport.
  • The sites offer 20, 30 and 50 amp service.
  • There are water and sewer connections at each site.
  • There are no bath houses at the Terraport.
  • All of the camping pads are paved and close to being level. We dropped the stabilizers the first night, but not the rest of the time to help speed up our preparation time in the mornings waiting for the tractor to arrive and tow Rosie to the service bay.
  • There is a dump station at the park.
  • AT&T provided moderate 3G and 4G service over the park. Our service would frequently drop back to Edge while there.
  • There is Wi-Fi service in the customer service waiting room. We were able to use this Wi-Fi from the Terraport.
  • There isn't a lot of variety in restaurants near the factory. We quickly found our favorite table at the local Subway.
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS using our TV antenna. We also saw digital signals from THiS-TV, MY-TV, GET-TV and ME-TV.
  • Make sure you take the factory tour while in Jackson Center. You will see how Airstream trailers are hand-crafted and it will make you proud to own one.
We plan to return next year to add a few more modifications to Rosie.

On our last day in the service center, we were having to make decisions about what was important for this visit and what could wait until next time. We had to finish no later than 4 p.m. on Friday so that we would not have to stay over the weekend. Snow and single digit low temperatures were predicted and the next week was going to be much colder. We needed to head south before the service staff quit for the day on Friday.

The waiting room thinned out on Friday afternoon to just us, an Airstream owner from Louisiana and an Airstream motor coach owner. We had said earlier that we planned to hitch up that evening and pull out early Saturday morning. Our service technician promised that we would be ready that afternoon and as they tallied the bill, we started to dread spending the night in Ohio's sub-freezing temperatures. That was when we started thinking about getting three or four hours down the road towards home that night.

We able to make it close to the Kentucky/Tennessee state line before we stopped for the night. While traveling, we wondered if the Airstreamer from Louisiana was able to get on the road that night or if he needed to stay over the weekend so that his service crew could complete the work on his camper. When we left Jackson Center, the service technicians were working on his roof and his trailer didn't appear to be ready to roll. While talking about him, we heard his horn as he passed us on I-71 near Cincinnati. We were glad he was able to get on the road that evening. We saw him two more times that night on I-71 and I-65.

We mentioned earlier that several Airstreamers told us that it was worth heading to the factory in Ohio when you have Airstream specific repairs. We agree and plan to return in the future. Maybe next time we will be able to get an appointment earlier than the middle of November.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Boondocking at a truck stop on I-71 north of Louisville

We heard that some national retailers permit campers to stay overnight in their parking lots, but we never considered stopping at a truck stop. This idea came up in conversation with some camping neighbors while staying along the Florida Gulf coast.

That was a timely idea because we found ourselves on the road about two weeks later and needing a place to stop for the night with no campgrounds near us.

We had a growing list of repairs for Rosie, our 25 foot Airsteam trailer, and we heard that it was hard to beat the factory service at the company's factory in Jackson Center, Ohio. The word must be out because Airstream's service center is booked solid and we had to wait more than three months for our scheduled appointment. We booked our time and hoped that the weather would be good during November, the timeframe we ended up with for our service appointment.

Entering Tennessee while on the road to Ohio

Bet you don't see signs similar to this in the North

The Kentucky state line

Selfie at a Kentucky rest stop

That brings us to a truck stop in northern Kentucky.

Our camping site for the night

The weather forecast for the day before our appointment predicted snow and freezing temperatures. We both grew up in Florida and have lived in the Deep South most of our lives. The idea of towing 6,000 pounds of aluminum over snow and ice wasn't appealing to us, so we we left two days early and timed our arrival in Ohio a day ahead of the winter weather.

Our goal for Sunday was to get far enough up the road so that we could easily reach Jackson Center on Monday before 4 p.m. This would allow us to park in Airstream's Terraport, where we could stay without a camping fee while our trailer was being worked on.

So, that was the set-up. We calculated that we needed to camp north of Louisville if we were going to arrive in Jackson Center on time. The Pilot Truck Stop, or Travel Center as they called it, at exit 28 in Pendleton, Kentucky was our camp site for the evening.

Rosie in the middle of the trucks that evening

Having never ventured into the land of the 18-wheelers for the night, we first went inside the store to ask permission. It turns out that boondocking at truck stops is common and they said to find a spot and have a good evening on their lot.

The temperature was in the mid-30s that night and Rosie's propane heater did a great job keeping us warm.

Rosie after spending the night at the truck stop

We were not prepared for the loud sounds of the air breaks and diesel engines reving up all night. We will be better prepared for these annoyances the next time we camp at a truck stop.

We categorized our stay at a truck stop as an adventure and will not hesitate to try again in the future.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fort Pickens Campground at Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida

We returned to Fort Pickens for our second visit during October, 2014. One of the facts you must deal with when heading to this park is that you will pay a toll to cross the bridge heading to the island. The question about the toll is how much you will pay.

Last year our GPS took us over a $12 toll bridge to get to the island. While paying the toll, the attendant told us that we could have saved a bundle by picking the $1 toll bridge, which was down the road.

Armed with that knowledge, we double-checked our GPS's route against Google Maps to make sure we took the U.S. Highway 98/Gulf Breeze Parkway path to the park.

On the road to Pensacola Beach

Speaking of the toll, it is only charged for the south-bound traffic. Vehicles leaving the beach area are not charged the toll.

On the road to Fort Pickens Campground

Just as before, we found the beach road leading to the park to be magical in that our spirits were lifted by sight of the surf, dunes and sand on this beautiful beach. Snow-white sand and clear blue water help us think that the Gulf of Mexico beaches along the Florida and Alabama coasts to be the best in America.

Road to the campground after a day of 20 mph winds

Fort Pickens Campground is inside the Gulf Islands National Seashore. You have to pay admission to the National Seashore park before you can get to the campground. If you have the Senior Pass for federal parks, your admission to the National Seashore is waived plus the campground fee is cut in half.

The sign at the entrance of the park

The last time we camped at Fort Pickens was during the Spring and enjoyed seeing the many bird nests in the park and the osprey and herons feeding their young hatchlings. While we saw osprey, bald eagles and herons this time, we didn't see any baby birds.

A heron on the fishing pier (bay side)

The baby birds were replaced by bigger birds; much bigger birds.

Fort Pickens is across the bay from the Pensacola Naval Air Station. This is where all Naval and Marine aviators learn how to fly. We watched those early in their training go up in prop airplanes in the morning and more advanced students go up in the jets during the afternoon. Mid-days were special because this was when the Blue Angles, the Navy's precision show air team practiced their routines.

It was an amazing sight to see the Blue Angles in their F/A-18 Hornet fighters scream across the sky above Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer. We watched as the Blue Angles practiced their routines two days while we were at Fort Pickens.

The Navy's Blue Angles flying over Rosie

The Blue Angles over Fort Pickens
The Blue Angles

This camping trip was made special because our youngest son and his wife were able to visit us in the park. We really enjoyed being able to see them and explore the fort together.

Jeremy and Elizabeth join us at Fort Pickens

There are three main areas of the park. The first is the Gulf beach area. We think this is one of the best beach areas from those we have seen. The water is clear and the sand is soft and snow-white.

The Gulf at Fort Pickens

Steve and Becky along the Gulf

The second area of interest in this park is the fort itself. Fort Pickens was active during the Civil, First and Second World Wars. It is interesting to see the maze of rooms inside this fort.

Fort Pickens

Fort Pickens

The third place of interest is the bay side of the park. You find more shells and there is a pier for fishing on the bay side.

The fishing pier

Path to the Bay

We thought we did just about everything you could do at Fort Pickens on our first visit. We were wrong. There are many things to see and do at this park and we have more things to do when we return for our next visit.

Some specifics about this park:
  • There are five camping loops in this park. Loop E is where you find mostly tent campers. Loops A-D is where you find RVs.
  • The maximum length listed on the Web for each site is very optimistic. It was a tight fit to get Rosie in our site.
  • There isn't a lot of shade in this park. You would want to make sure your air conditioner is working at peak capacity if you decide to camp at Fort Pickens during the heat of summer.
  • Some of the bath houses need more than causal maintenance. They need to be demolished and replaced. We were not sure if the mold or the unidentifiable bugs were more alarming in the bath house serving Loop A. The campground host said that the park has scheduled replacing that bath house and the new one will operational within a year.
  • There was only one bath house in Loop A. There were multiple bath houses in the Loops B-E.
  • Bring your bicycles. There are some great trails to ride in this park. The vegetation on our site backed up to Rosie's rear bumper. After hooking up shore power and water we discovered that poison ivy was the predominant vine at our site. We did not see poison ivy at other sites.
  • Most sites in Loops A-D have 20, 30 and 50 amp service.
  • AT&T provides reasonable 3G and 4G service over the park. We had to carefully choose the window we would place our iPhones near in order to connect to the Internet.
  • There is no Wi-Fi service in the park.
  • There are two dump stations in this park. One serves Loop A and the other is for Loops B-E.
  • There is a camp store in the park. It has the normal supplies you expect to find in a campground store.
  • If you need more food items than the campstore can supply, there is a Publix about six miles from the park. You will spend a dollar in tolls to cross the bridge to this grocery store.
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS from our TV antenna. We also received digital signals with programming from ME-TV, GET-TV and MY-TV.
There were six Airstream trailers at this park while we were there.

Fort Pickens was the inaugural trip for our new kitchen tent. We talked for a while about getting a kitchen tent to place over the picnic tables at our camping sites. We recently camped at a park that had, as Grandma would say, more flying bugs than Carter had Little Liver Pills. That experience convinced us that we needed to look for a screened-in kitchen tent instead of a canopy type.

Our trips to the usual sporting goods stores were not promising. Most of the designs appeared to have been created by a disgruntled engineering school drop-out who wanted to add mental anguish to humanity.

While sitting on the floor at a major sports retailer, we realized that most of these screen houses were too small, too complicated or they have too many little parts to loose. That was when we found a YouTube video about a screen house from the Clam Corporation. The video boasted that anyone could put the Clam up in 45 seconds or less.

That was a bet we were willing to take. It was worth the risk to order a Clam to see if it would be the answer to our search. Turns out it was.

The downside is that the Clam does not fold down into a tiny package. The carrying case is probably 6 feet in length, so you need to know how you are going to transport it.

We were also concerned about how to put it up over the camping site's picnic table. That turned out to be easy because we simply unfolded it on top of the table then started the 45 second set-up process.

Inside the Clam Kitchen Tent
Inside the Clam Kitchen Tent

The set-up was very easy and it didn't take more than a minute. The campers in the next site came over to ask about our screen kitchen tent. It appears that our rookie attempt to set it up impressed them enough that they wanted to get one.

As before, we found Fort Pickens to be an amazing campground and one we plan to frequent in the future.

Path to the Gulf

Foot/Bike bridge on a nature path near the Fort

Family photo inside the fort

Bald eagle nest near the campground

Happy campers at Fort Pickens
Sunset at Fort Pickens

Scene along one of the bike/hiking trails at Fort Pickens