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Western Quest: Prologue

Updated: Jun 25

For a number of years now, I have had a strong urge to do some extensive traveling.  In 2021, I traded our fifth wheel camper for a 33 foot Airstream Classic trailer.  My wife, partner and soul-mate of 17 years was already battling the challenges of early onset dementia.  The Airstream appeared to be the right environment for her and provided the amenities I needed to provide her with care.


While we were able to do some local traveling and attend some week-long music festivals, extended travel proved to be beyond our reach.  Following her death in September of 2023, I decided that if I were to sate my appetite for travel, it needed to be sooner than later.  As a result, in December of that year I traded the trailer for an Airstream Rangeline Class B coach that is much better suited to my needs.


My initial thoughts were to retrace the route of a mid-1970s hitch hiking trip that circumnavigated the continental US.  As I started planning the trip, I decided to make a similar quest rather than try to duplicate the first one.  Times have changed.  My primary goal is to recapture the spirit of the trip rather than the form of the trip.  I am not sure that I can do both.  Time will tell.


Over the winter of 2023/24, I looked at various routes and places that I would like to visit.  Simultaneously, I began outfitting the van to make it more conducive to serve the needs of extended travel.  My feeling was that there were a number of features that needed improvement or were simply lacking to support full-time camping.  As a part of this blog, I will be sharing the experiences of my quest, as well as my thoughts on the Rangeline’s functionality and performance.


My initial focus in outfitting the van included sleeping arrangements, communications, food storage, food preparation, tool storage and the transport of accessory equipment.  I have found that the Airstream design team did a wonderful job of making functional use of as much space as possible.  On the other hand, my close to 60 years of camping experience led me to believe that there was room for improvement.


Outfitting took me a couple of months, which wasn’t bad considering ordering, shipment and installation of various items.  As I write this, there are still a few issues yet to be resolved.  The outfitting effort was incredibly satisfying to me.  I have always loved to solve problems and turn wrenches.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to admit that at the age of 72, my body will simply not do what it did 50 years ago.  When running some antenna cables behind the cabinets, I had to do some serious twisting to get to the screws holding the cabinet lining.  Evidently, I twisted too much which led to a flare up of sciatica.  While it has become a lingering problem, I have forged ahead.


As the time grew close for my departure cross country, I became increasingly anxious to do a trial run.  It just didn’t seem smart for me to spend my first days camping in the Rangeline after passing the point of no return.  While I am typically not a joiner, I did apply for membership of the Airstream Club International.  The local chapter was holding a rally a week before my departure in a part of the Shenandoah Valley that I had long wanted to visit.  As a result, I headed up to Fort Valley for a trial run.


May 3, 2024:  Destination - Fort Valley


The trip to Fort Valley was pleasant.  I had to delay a day because of all the outfitting work and losing some time to planning my high school class’ 55th reunion.  Fort Valley is a completely enclosed valley located withing the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  The drive to Fort Valley was primarily on I-81.  The last part of the drive was on state and county roads across the mountain into the valley.  The steep grades and winding roads gave me opportunity to learn mountain driving in the Rangeline.  Of utmost importance was how to use the manual shift capability of the transmission.  It helped tremendously on steep downgrades.


One important lesson on the trip to the rally concerned the dog car seat I had purchased.  My plan was to have Benjamin ride shotgun on my quest.  Unfortunately, dog car seats that will fit a front seat captain’s chair are too small for anything but a miniature dog.  At 22 lbs, Benjamin was simply too big.  He was restless the entire way.  Within a half mile of the campground, he jumped out and was suspended in air by the safety tether.  I abruptly stopped in the middle of the road and got him loose.


The solution has been to put his Kong bed in between the two front seats.  I put a full sized bed pillow horizontally up against the front console and pushed the bed forward to hold the pillow in place.  I later bought a Carhartt dog barrier designed for captains chairs.  I will use this in the event I need to keep him contained in his bed.


For the most part, camping was good.  I am glad that I invested in the extra mattress pad and sheets.  The bed is very comfortable and plenty big to handle my 6 foot, 220 lb. frame.  During the first night, it became clear that the furnace was not working properly.  The Timberline system kept resetting itself.  I was able to get the van warm once each evening which was fine for the time being.  This trip reminded me that I needed to be prepared for varying weather conditions.


GPS was spotty in Fort Valley and the route out of the valley wasn’t really clear.  I ended up on a one lane gravel road.  It was headed in the right direction, so I decided to keep going.  Over the years, I have navigated these types of roads in a lot of different vehicles.  I forged ahead confidently.  As I neared the top of the mountain, I crossed over a couple of low water bridges crossing streams.  I crossed one of the bridges in a curve and was confronted with a tree laying across the top of the cut.  A pickup had passed the other direction on my way up, so he was evidently able to drive under it.  I got out and surveyed the situation and determined that there wasn’t enough clearance for the van.


So here I was on a one lane country gravel road in a deep cut with a downed tree in front and a low water bridge behind.  After a few minutes of scratching my head, I decided that trying to turn around was a better option than backing down the mountain.  After several back and forth y turn maneuvers, I got the van mostly turned around.  I looked carefully at the situation and determined that I could make the rest of the turn.  I had about a foot of clearance between the driver’s side tire and the edge of the concrete low water bridge. Upon completing my maneuvers, I headed confidently back down the mountain.  Eventually, I figured out the right road and ended up on US 340 near Luray, Virginia.  The rest of the trip was uneventful. 

That drive back reminded me of the importance of having backups and alternatives.  Since then, I have purchased a paper based road atlas of the United States that should give me some sense of roadways should technology fail me again. After a few tweaks to the van, I felt ready to head out.


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