Sunday, September 27, 2009

Michael & Janet's-Charlotte Vermont

Next we visited with Michael,his wife Janet, and their lovely daughter Allie who live along the shores of Lake Champlain in the rustic little town of Charlotte, Vermont. Michael was a childhood best friend whom I had not seen in over thirty years. He had just returned from sailing the Atlantic from Maine to Ireland (you can read about his adventure here), so he could really relate to the small space and the on board systems in the Airstream. He also relied on solar power for most of his equipment, and was delighted to see our home on wheels. Having never been a sailor, I was in awe of the guts it must take to sail the open ocean in a boat not much bigger than our trailer.

It's amazing how thirty years can go by in a minute and I felt bad that I had not stayed in touch with Michael, but then I realized he had not stayed in touch with me either, so then I felt better! The stay was all too short as we were headed off to do a show, but we had a nice meal at their home and did as much catching up as time allowed. Don't tell Kate, but I hope Michael will keep me in mind when he looks for a crew to sail from Ireland back to the U.S via Africa!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Steve & Teresa's-Woodstock Vermont

We visited Steve & Teresa, friends who live in the country outside Woodstock, Vermont. Steve and I used to work together and have stayed in touch over the years. They had a great little spot to park the Airstream, and Teresa is an excellent cook who loves to pamper her guests!

In between some local sightseeing and a visit to the farmers market, we got a chance to share some of the eco-friendly systems with their two children Kavi & Neela, as well as one of the neighbor's kids who had dropped by. They were fascinated by the solar power system, and I gave them the complete tour from roof top panels to the under the bed batteries. Despite their young age they already had a remarkable knowledge of how it all works and asked a lot of good questions, and it was encouraging to see the next generation accepting these things as a given part of their future.

Teresa keeps chickens, and every time I turned around their curiosity got the best of them. If I didn't close the door I had chickens in the trailer, if I opened up the truck, I had chickens in the bed. If it wasn't for the fresh eggs, they might have become roast chicken! Actually they were lovable, and the "girls" as Teresa calls them were an interesting distraction.

Fall in Vermont is incredible,and seeing Steve and his family made it even nicer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Badges? We don't need no stinking Badges!

Here I am in Vermont and not three miles from the border that separates us from our strange neighbors to the North, when I see that Homeland Security, fearing that I may make a desperate run for the border after having failed to qualify for the “Cash for Clunkers” program, was doing their job and on the alert in this sleepy little border town. “Damn” I thought, “these guys will track you down everywhere”.

Unlike the border towns of Mexico, where a small but influential part of my misspent youth was indeed spent, Vermont border towns do not consist of a hundred bars, a dozen brothels, and thousands of street vendors just waiting to sell you everything from a taco that you will later regret, to a tattoo that you will later wonder where the hell it came from. Instead of Tequila and fireworks, you will find maple syrup and cheese. Although they are wonderful and friendly people, you might say that the residents here were “born to be mild”. One charming young lady we met on a Friday night was headed off to a Corn Maze, the living on the edge excitement of which most of us can only imagine.

Deterred by the presence of the J.B. Police, we turned back from the frontier and re-entered the safety and warmth of rural Vermont.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Near Disaster in New York-Or "It Could Have Been Worse"

Sorry for the delay in new postings, but as we headed through the Adirondacks, I suddenly noticed smoke beginning to pour out of the left rear wheel. Within seconds, as I began to maneuver the Airstream toward the side of the road, I watched in horror as the wheel completely separated from the trailer and spilled out onto the road. This left us careening down the highway on one wheel and we soon ended up off the road and stuck in the soft dirt there.

We would later find out that the hub of the axle had suffered a catastrophic failure which caused the wheel to separate. Stuck in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday night, and hopelessly stuck in the ditch, it was about four hours later before we were able to get the trailer up on the flat bed tow truck that came from the little town of Old Forge, NY twenty-five miles away. The driver said he knew of a small shop in town that “builds trailers”, so he dumped us in their lot and we spent the night there waiting for the shop to open the next morning.

Steve from East/West Trailer Sales arrived at work early and after surveying the damage for a moment, declared that “Yup, we can fix that” and sauntered off to get his tools. Several hours later we had everything apart and considering the intense violence of the hub failure, were surprised to see how little mechanical damage we had sustained. Unfortunately, we had suffered a small amount of body damage as the wheel excited the wheel well. Kate is one of these “it could have been worse” people, but surveying the damage I was hard pressed to think of how. Steve could fix the axle, but could do nothing to make our silver beauty whole again.

We had to order parts, so we spent another night in the back lot of the trailer shop. In the morning a family of deer sauntered through the lot on their way to the nearest watering hole. Our parts were not due in until the afternoon, so we spent the day working on the website and looking for someone to repair the body damage. As luck would have it, my friend Steve from Vintage Trailer Supply knew a guy in nearby Plattsburg, NY that he highly recommended. One phone call later, and we had set up an appointment for the next day with Colin Hyde, an expert on vintage Airstreams.

Our parts arrived as we had hoped, and by 5pm we were back on the road, a little bit worse for the wear and tear, but moving none the less. We spent the night on a nearby lake, and made our way to Colin’s place the next morning.

As we approached the shop, there were a half dozen or so Airstreams strewn about the lot and it was obvious we had found Colin. Inside the shop another group of Airstreams were in various states of disassemble and awaiting their repairs. Colin grabbed his floor jack and was soon drilling away at the rivets that, like an airplane hold an Airstream together. For the next three hours, we swapped Airstream lies as Colin cut away the offending bits of metal, and replaced them with some salvaged aluminum sheet from a previous repair. Once complete, he gave the spot a quick polish to match the rest of the trailer, and although clearly a visible repair, “it could have been worse” as Kate loves to say, or “it is what it is” a phrase Colin and I discovered we both share.

By mid-afternoon, we were back on the road, took a ferry ride to Vermont, had a Martini in Burlington, and settled down for the night by the peaceful shores of Lake Champlain. As I drifted off to sleep, I realized that just before the axle failed, I had looked back at the wheel and thought that something just did not look right. Next time I will listen to the voices in my head!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Organic Valley-Organic AND Farmer Owned

The first thing you notice when you pull into Organic Valley’s ( headquarters in La Farge, WI is the large array of solar panels that dominate the front of the building. Recently installed and built with the help of students from the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) the panels are just part of their efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. The power from this impressive array is pumped directly into the grid, thereby reducing their dependence on power generated by the power company with fossil or other fuels. Immediately inside the front lobby sits a computer station that monitors every aspect of the array’s performance. Anyone can see at a glance how much power it is generating at the moment, for the day, month year, and how much CO2 that would otherwise have been generated it has reduced. Way cooler than my little control panel in the Airstream!

We had arranged a tour with Jennifer Harrison, the Sustainability Program Manager for Organic Valley. If you are not familiar with the company, they are the largest Co-Op of Organic Farmers and Dairies in the U.S. Their products such as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, juice and produce are available in many groceries throughout the country.

Jennifer greeted us in the lobby and gave us an excellent tour of the facility that began with the solar panels and the fields of Camelina and Sunflowers that grew nearby and from which they produce bio-diesel for their vehicles. They not only generate fuel for themselves, they also have a “mobile” bio-diesel distillery which they are using for a pilot program to help teach their Co-Op members how to produce bio-diesel on their farms from the waste they generate. We did not get to see the distillery in action as it was out in the field doing its work! This program has been very successful so far and it has inspired a number of their members to begin their own programs. This has the duel effect of reducing their waste and their dependence on fossil fuels.

Unlike many companies that prefer to use carbon offsets to reduce their impact, both the Solar Panels and the bio-diesel distillery are part of Organic Valley’s commitment to develop and use programs that make a real measurable difference. These programs include a van-pool for employees living in outlying areas, free bicycles for the use of the employees, and a community garden.

We then toured their building which was built in 2004 to LEED Silver standards. We did not get to meet George Siemon, one of the original founders of Organic Valley and now the self-styled “C-E-I-E-I-O” as he was out, but we did see his unassuming office which included reclaimed barn wood floors, and a view of the community garden that he has been known to wander out and weed the less diligent members plots to improve his view.

After meeting some of the other members of the staff, we were treated to lunch in the company’s cafeteria, where Organic Valley products such as milk, cheese and juice are available at no charge to the employees. Lunch itself is very inexpensive and based on weight. The more you eat the more you pay!

We continued to chat with Jennifer while we ate and covered a wide range of subjects including their efforts to reduce or capture the methane produced on their farms, ongoing social responsibility programs, and one of my biggest concerns, Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs (Wikipedia-GMOs). GMOs are genetically engineered crops which now constitute up to 90% of certain crops like corn and soy grown in the U.S. The use of these monster seeds is very controversial, and many believe that it is not only potentially disastrous, but may also be linked to some strange goings on like the sudden collapse of bee colonies around the world (Wikipedia-Colony Collapse Disorder). Jennifer indicated that they were very concerned about these issues, and were actively involved in efforts to regulate their use and developing a “seed bank” to prevent the loss of certain strains and species of plants. Many plant species are already under pressure and hundreds of them are already lost. Most of the GMO seeds come from the supplier already infused with pesticides and are sterile so that the farmer is forced to buy new seeds each year. Many fear that these sterile plants will unleash an Armageddon in the plant world that will leave us with plants unable to propagate themselves. Should something then go wrong with the supply of GMOs, or further research proves that they are indeed as harmful as it is feared; we may find ourselves unable to replace them with the plants that our ancestors ate (Article-GMOs Threaten Food Supply)

While we were eating, an email was circulated inviting the employees to come visit the Airstream, and we were delighted to show it to a number of them after lunch. We hung for awhile then bid Jennifer adieu and drove off through the verdant farmland of SW Wisconsin.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Knot for Naught

When I think back on my Boy Scout days, it’s a miracle that I can even light a fire.

During the first initiations, we were sent on a wild goose chase by the older boys to go find a “blue & white smoke-shifter” which was apparently stored down the road. Our absence from the camp was then used to mess with all our stuff including the usual sophomoric pranks like “short-sheeting” our beds. If you are not familiar with this, it involves folding the lower sheet of your bed in half then re-making the bed. The supposed point of this is that when you go to get in bed, you feet are supposed to tear through the sheet and ruin your bed. I never really saw it work, but the tradition carries on never the less.

The next ritual we had to endure was the venerable “pink-belly”. The first night of camp us newbies sat quivering in our sleeping bags, knowing full well the older boys were going to pull this inevitable torture on us, and waiting for the raid to begin. Sure enough just as we finally began to drift off to sleep from pure exhaustion, our tent flap was flung open and in sprang a couple of the oldest and meanest Scouts in the Troop. They threw us on our backs and began slapping the tight young skin of our bellies with considerable force. It was excruciating, and the eventual outcome of this openly sadistic and probably clandestinely homosexual ritual is a very pink and very sore belly. Luckily for me, my tent mate started crying and was of course subjected to far greater torture than I.

The list goes on. Little tricks like dipping a sleeping boys hand in warm water, causing him to wet the bed, and substituting various nasty substances for things like salt and sugar. Of course the Scout leader who I now realize probably had questionable sexual intent as well was indeed the leader of the pack.

But just like getting a “wedgie” from the older boys in Jr. High School, over time, these tortures subsided as the next round of newbies came in, and you were expected to join in the fun of terrorizing the next generation of Scouts. I quit the Scouts for this and many other reasons, foremost of which was the fact that I discovered that these were BOY scouts, and I was becoming a lot more interested in what the GIRL scouts looked like under those crisp green uniforms.

However, in the meantime, I dove into earning merit badges, and learned all kinds of things that I have come to appreciate over time. Tonight as I watched my neighbor struggle to light a campfire, I had one blazing in a matter of minutes. On the other side of our camp a young couple tied their rain tarp up with enough rope to hog tie a horse, only to have it crash down around their heads, while I can tie knots that would baffle Houdini.

I learned to start a fire with just a stick and some moss, and how to filet a freshly caught trout with a pocket knife. And once I caught that fish with nothing more than a piece of string and a paperclip. By the time I was in my early-twenties I used to go on week long “survival” trips with just a sleeping bag and a drop line. All the hazing I went though to get there is perhaps an integral part of the learning process, and that which does not kill you makes you stronger.

The Boy Scouts made me stronger. Hopefully time has made me wiser. Either way, I sure got a nice fire.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hwy 61 Revisitied

Kate’s home town of Red Wing, MN welcomed us with open arms. After a quick explanation to Kathy Silverthorn from the local visitors’ bureau of what the tour was all about, we soon received a string of emails from the Chief of Police, the Public Works Dept., and Brian Bombach who coordinated the blocking of a string of parking spaces for us in Downtown Red Wing. Everyone was enthusiastic about having us and on Saturday morning we set up our show by a colorful mural in the Historic District of this well preserved Mississippi River town. The town sits on Hwy 61 and houses the boys reform school about which Bob Dylan penned his famous song.

As we got ready to open, a little old gentleman stood patiently waiting. He must have been in his eighties, and had read about us in the local newspaper. As soon as we were ready for guests, he politely asked if he could come in and take a look. He was completely intrigued, and was particularly interested in the composting toilet. He poked around for awhile and soon whipped out a digital camera for a few pictures.

The downtown was busy that day with out of town tourists who flock to the town in the summer to go antique shopping and spend a day by the river. The newspaper had done a story on us a few days earlier, and this brought a steady stream of locals, including some of Kate’s old friends from school.

As we were getting ready to close, the little old gentleman who had been our first visitor of the day came back. “Remember me?” he asked. “I went home and talked to the wife, and we have a few more questions about the toilet” he told me. With a smile on my face, I answered his questions, and as he ambled off into the distance, I realized that this is when the shows become truly rewarding. Thank you to the City and the people of Red Wing for having us.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Viroqua, WI-Amish Buggies and Organic farms in SW Wisconsin

Steve at Home Green Home(www.homegreenhome)/ in downtown Viroqua had invited us to park in front of his store on Saturday morning, which is Farmer’s Market day. We pulled in early to try and get a spot before the market shoppers filled things up. Despite being early, the spot we needed was already taken, and we decided to wait for it to open up by parking in a yellow zone. Within minutes, a local policeman let us know that while he didn’t really care, his boss was going to be wandering around the market at some point and he needed to do his job. He then told us we could hang out until the spot opened up and wished us well on our show. The spot soon was clear and we opened the Airstream up for visitors.

Viroqua is at the center of one of the largest groups of organic farmers in the country, and the people here have an open mind when it comes to things like our project. We were soon quite busy with visitors, and were quickly the talk of the town. The Farmer’s Market which is about half occupied by Amish vendors and is very popular, drew a nice crowd for us. We met people like Chuck Sinclair who got his wife on the phone and told her to get down here and see this Airstream. They are working on their plans to build a small, eco-friendly home after they sell their farm and retire, and had a ton of questions about the systems, materials and features we had incorporated. We also met Sonya Newenhouse from the Madison Environmental Group who immediately fell in love with our wool bed. Her group is working on some pretty cool designs for small living spaces. You can learn more at:

We took advantage of the market to pick up some fresh maple syrup and a couple of ears of corn from one of the Amish vendors, and thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this charming little town.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Family & Friends-Part 2

Kate’s sister Peg, her husband Bryan, and their charming but rapidly growing son Ben, live at the dead end of a rural road in the historic community of Frontenac, just outside Red Wing. Having caught up on our blog, we now needed to make some much needed repairs to our vehicles. Bryan has a full shop in case I needed anything I hadn’t brought along for just such an occasion. After realizing I was in over my head on trying to get a “Service Engine” light to go off, Kate’s nephew Rick, an experienced auto mechanic came to my rescue and helped me make that and a few other necessary repairs.

Between the auto and trailer repairs we ended up staying a week with them, and besides all the help with the repairs, the delicious meals that Peg just wouldn’t take “no” to, and the chance to see some of the rest of Kate’s family, we had a wonderful visit.

Kate comes from a family of eight, so sometimes keeping up with all the family is a challenge for me, but while we were there, we were treated to visits from 3 Sisters, 2 Nephews, a Niece, a Cousin, and a stream of associated husbands, wives, kids, grandkids, and more! We also saw our old friend Peggy, and made some new friends as well. This included Art & Andrea Hamilton who lived in Frontenac, owned a vintage Airstream and after having read about us in the newspaper drove every street in town until they found us. You can check out Andrea's blog at: Andrea's Web Log

As we were leaving, Kate’s nephew Rick brought us some fresh tomatoes and a loaf of Zucchini bread his wife Beth had made for us. Once again we were delightfully reminded that when you really need them your family and friends are always there.