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Catching up

June 9, 2008—I've neglected this journal shamefully in the past year or so. I've been busy with projects of various kinds, from Eureka to my new line of blank books... and let's face it, I've been lazy. So by way of atonement, let me at least try to bring you up to date on my travels in the last few months.

By late March it was beginning to get warm at Pancho Villa, so once my teeth were taken care of and I had a new pair of glasses, I headed up to Rock Hound State Park, about 35 miles north. OK, that's not very far north... but Rock Hound is partway up the slope of a mountain, and it's generally a bit cooler than Pancho Villa, which is down in the desert. I spent a couple of weeks there with friends, then took off for Elephant Butte Lake State Park, where someone had told me there was a nice campground that got very little traffic—my kind of place.

I guess I should explain that I was really in need of some time to myself. I love being with my friends, but I love my solitude as well, and it's hard to strike a balance between the two... I seem to swing between extremes. By the time I got to Elephant Butte Lake, I had been camping with friends every day for almost three months, and I had accomplished nothing on the two book projects I had planned for this winter and spring. So I was looking forward to spending some time without distractions (other than the usual stream of email).

My first night at Elephant Butte Lake wasn't exactly auspicious. I arrived in the early evening, very tired after a long drive, and took the first site I could find in the campground nearest to the visitor center. It was spring break weekend (somebody told me later), and the campground was packed with vacationers: families, dogs, boats, motorcycles... all jammed into small sites that were only a few feet apart. It was almost as crowded and noisy as a KOA. I hate KOAs.

Steep site

At that, I was lucky to even get a site. Unfortunately, the only one available was on a steep slope. I drove up onto thirty leveling blocks—all I had—and was still nowhere near level. But I was too tired to care very much. I had a light supper, pulled the blinds, put in my earplugs, and went to bed.

The next morning I set out to find the campground I'd been told about. Elephant Butte Lake is about fifteen miles long and two miles wide, and the state park has half a dozen or more separate camping areas along the lake. The one I was looking for was South Monticello, the furthest from the visitors center... and, I hoped, the least populated. It's about twelve miles up the road on the west side of the lake, but isn't easy to find, due to misleading signage. My faithful GPS, Mabel, didn't know about it, so she wasn't much help either.

I finally located the Monticello campground after driving all over town. I won't claim it's the most beautiful campground I've ever seen. It's just flat desert with a few scrubby bushes. But it has this going for it: fifty nice, level electric-hookup sites, about a dozen of which have a good view of the lake... and not many campers. I was there for three weeks and never saw it as much as half full, even on weekends. What's more, the sites are so widely spaced that even when the campground is half full, it looks as if it's three quarters empty. There's plenty of privacy and no noise (the rowdy families are all at the other end of the lake)... and that's what I was looking for. I found a nice site overlooking the lake and settled in to watch the birds circling endlessly.

South Monticello

Another book goes to press

Monticello gave me the quiet time I needed to do the first of the two books on my agenda: an illustrated version of the story of how I retired, sold my home and moved into full-time RVing three years ago. Titled "From Camping to Full Time: Making the Big Jump," it's a retelling of the tale you can find elsewhere on this website. I published the book via Blurb, a print-on-demand service that I'd used before when I published a small book of photos from my travels called "Quiet Waters."

From Camping to Full Time

Blurb does only all-color books, and they're good at it. They provide you with a free, easy-to-use basic page layout program, BookSmart, that runs on either Macs or Windows PCs. You place your text and photos on each page, then when you're finished, click a button to upload the book to Blurb, and click another button to order a copy. Because Blurb only prints a book when it gets an order for one, there's no minimum order; you can do a one-copy press run if you like. If you want, you can list the book in Blurb's online store, and they'll take orders, print, and ship for you. Print on demand, or "POD," is an ideal system for an RVer like me, since there's no up-front investment and no need to lug around cartons of books or mail them out to buyers.

By most accounts (I've done a lot of research on this), Blurb is the best of the affordable color POD publishers. You probably wouldn't use them to print a $75 coffee-table art book, but for anything less ambitious, their color reproduction is quite good. There are just two drawbacks to the service: the software and the price. The BookSmart software is a decent basic page layout program, and it's certainly not hard to learn. If you've used iMovie, this is the publishing equivalent. Unfortunately, the version I used suffered from a number of minor but irritating bugs. Text jumped around unexpectedly, page numbers failed to remember the typeface and size I'd chosen... things like that. For "Quiet Waters," where I was just putting a photo on the right page and a one-sentence caption on the left, these bugs weren't too much of a problem. But with "From Camping to Full Time," which is more text-heavy, it became a constant struggle to work around the software's quirks, not to mention its limitations. There are many things BookSmart simply can't do... and I'm used to laying out books in Adobe InDesign, which can do it all.

The other problem with Blurb is that is their base prices are such that once you add a profit margin, the resulting product is priced so high that it's difficult to sell. For example, the base price for a 7" X 7" book like "Quiet Waters" is $12.95 in softcover and $22.95 in hardcover. I added a modest $3.00 profit, giving a "cover price" of $15.95. Frankly, that's a lot of money for a slim 38-page paperback. "From Camping to Full Time" has 80 pages, but it too is rather pricey for its size.

I like my little books. They're well printed and bound, the color photos look great, and they have interesting content. I just wish I could offer them for half what Blurb forces me to charge. But for all-color POD publishing, this is as good as it gets. Of course, I knew going into this that the Blurb books would be expensive, and therefore wouldn't sell very many copies (twelve to date). So why did I bother? Well, they weren't very hard to do, and I didn't have to invest any money... but most of all, I just wanted to hold those books in my hands. And that, my friends, is the textbook definition of "vanity press."

My next book, "Travels With Gertie," will be in black and white (from a different POD publisher), and it'll have hundreds of pages for about the same $16 price as "Quiet Waters." I'm hoping it'll be a good enough value that significant numbers of people will want to buy it. That's my next project...

The waters' roar

After my three weeks at Elephant Butte were up, I drove south again to Percha Dam State Park. Although only 28 miles away, Percha Dam has a completely different character from the desert ambience of the Monticello campground where I'd been staying. At Percha Dam, lots of trees, including tall cottonwoods, provide welcome shade, yet without blocking so much light that my solar panels would be crippled.

Percha Dam is a small park, with two camping areas: an electric-hookups loop with closely spaced sites, and a dry-camping area with widely spaced sites. I'd been here before, and knew that the hookup sites were apt to be occupied by big rigs. Sure enough, when I pulled in, they were nose to tail like a line of circus elephants. And like the elephants, each rig had a great view of the hind end of the next one... and not much else. (You can't see the dam from the hookup loop.)

I drove down to the dry camping area, which was completely empty...

Percha Dam dry camping

...and found a nice spot with a great view of the dam from my office windows:

Percha Dam afternoon

The water flows over Percha Dam all day and all night, with a muted roar that's almost as soothing as listening to waves on the seashore. And for most of the time I was there, I had the dry-camping area all to myself. It was funny to watch RVs come in, sniff around briefly, then leave as soon as they realized that no hookups were to be had.

Only on Memorial Day weekend did things change. Then the families who were too young to own an RV (and hence didn't care about hookups) descended in a horde, set up dozens of tents in all shapes and sizes, and for three days the place was jammed with noisy children and barking dogs. (My pun-prone mind recalled Edwin Porter's 1905 film, "The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog.") It was a great relief when they all packed up and left, and I once again had peace and quiet.

The next day I got up before dawn and photographed the dam just as the sun was about to climb above the mountains.

Percha Dam morning

A new Mac

It was at about this time that I spotted a bargain on Amazon: last year's iMac computers were on closeout, since Apple had just introduced newer, slightly faster models. I've always liked to stay on the "trailing edge" of technology—buying a just-discontinued model is the best way to get a good deal on a fairly up-to-date machine, while avoiding the teething problems of brand-new models. My three-year-old 20" iMac had served me well, but I'd had it in the back of my mind to replace it sooner or later with one of the new Intel-based models, and this looked like the time.

What cinched the deal was finding friends who wanted to buy my old computer (replacing an even older one that they'd been using). Once I knew that my old iMac would have a good home, and that I could partially defray the cost of the new one, there was nothing to stop me. I had the new machine delivered to the park, unpacked it, and marveled at the superb 24" screen. (For those who don't know, the iMac is a one-piece unit that packs a state-of-the-art computer into a slim aluminum case no larger than a standard LCD display.)

New iMac

It was great... until I tried to play a DVD on it, and discovered that once the computer had warmed up for more than about ten minutes, the Pioneer-supplied optical drive wouldn't work. Not Apple's fault, but frustrating in a brand new computer. I'd never had a defective Mac before (and I've owned eight or ten over the past 23 years). Fortunately, a call to AppleCare soon had me feeling better: they dispatched a service tech to my motorhome to replace the defective part. Yep, he drove out from Las Cruces to the state park, and made the repair on my dinette table. What a luxury to have on-site service!

Reupholstering

Upholstery

You can say a lot of things in favor of Lazy Daze motorhomes—I've said most of them at one time or another—but it's hard to praise their choice of upholstery fabrics. In recent years they've ranged from what I call "explosion in a paint factory" to the material that came with my rig... which to my eyes looks like the spattered interior of a used barf bag. See for yourself:

Now, I understand that the purpose of a pattern like this is to hide dirt and stains. Trouble is, the only way you can really do that is to make the fabric look like dirt... and at that point the cure is worse than the disease! So one of the first things I did after buying the rig was to throw a microsuede cover over the rear couch, hiding the splashes and splotches of the original upholstery. But the dinette was more of a challenge; I couldn't just throw something over each seat. I needed fitted covers, and that's a lot of work. Being lazy, I postponed it for a year or so.

Fortunately, while shopping in Target one day I spotted a package of "t-shirt sheets"—a complete set of sheets and pillowcases made from bright red jersey knit. For less than twenty bucks I acquired a goodly amount of yardage, easily adaptable to making stretch-to-fit covers for my four dinette seat cushions.

Jersey curled

Well, not quite so easily, as it turned out. The material was ideal for my purposes, but it was a royal pain to cut accurately, because it stretched so much... and an even bigger pain to sew, because of its infernal tendency to curl. Nothing would make my seams lie flat—not even steam ironing—so they were very difficult to get through the sewing machine. Still, I managed in the end. And the stretchiness of the fabric made my patterns easy: little more than pillowcases, deliberately cut undersized for a snug fit.

To finish the job, I also reupholstered the padded panel on the wall next to the dinette, covering it with some tan heather fabric that I'd scrounged from an unused comforter. As the before-and-after shots here show, the result is a much brighter, cheerier look. You may be wondering how well t-shirt material, which is after all rather thin, holds up on seats. Well, after three months it's holding up fine... and I have enough fabric left over to make another whole set, if need be. Given the under-$20 cost and the fact that it only took an afternoon's labor, I felt it was well worth doing. (If you click on the photos below, you'll see a larger version of the "after" photo.)

Dinette reupholstery

And how do you suppose I closed the open ends of these covers—with zippers? Velcro? Snaps? Nope. I'll tell you a deep, dark secret: I safety-pinned them! Shocking, I know... but, after all, the closed ends are shoved up against the wall so that you can never see them. I figured "Why waste hours sewing on fasteners?" (Especially considering what a pain it was to sew this stretchy jersey material.) So I just pulled the fabric taut, overlapped the ends, and pinned them with big basting safety pins.

A visit from Gertie's parents

Well, that's how I think of Judie & Gary, even though they were actually my old rig's second owners. (I was her third). They were certainly my first and best RVing mentors. In any case, it was Gary who wanted to buy my old 20" iMac, so they drove from their southern Arizona home to meet me. I hadn't seen Gary since he was diagnosed with bone cancer last fall, and he'd had a rough winter of treatments, so it was great to see him up and around.

They arrived in their Sportsmobile motorhome, a converted van with a popup top, and a surprising number of amenities crammed into its small interior: sink, stove, storage cabinets, toilet, and a comfortable full-sized bed that stowed under the raised roof.

The LEM

We spent an enjoyable couple of days together, just hanging out and chatting about our plans. In the evenings we'd watch movies on the big, high-resolution iMac screen—better than any TV. Gary got a special kick out of seeing "Destination Moon" for the first time in nearly fifty years.

Inside the LEM

Judie and I had new toys to play with: we'd both recently bought new cameras, and were still getting to know their capabilities. I spotted this little fellow sunning himself on a rock at their campsite and slowly crept up on him, with my Canon SD1100 IS held at arm's length. Ordinarily that would be a recipe for severe camera shake, but the SD1100's image stabilization took it in stride, producing a photo so sharp that you can count the spikes (ouch!).

Horned lizard

What makes it all the more remarkable was that this shot came from a camera smaller than an Altoids tin. It has always been my habit to carry an ultracompact camera in a case on my belt, ready for any opportunity. In fact, probably 80% of the photos in these pages up to now have been taken with one of these little point-and-shoot cameras, a five-megapixel Minolta X50. But the new Canon SD1100 IS tops anything I've seen in its class. With eight megapixels, image stabilization that overcomes the drawback of an ultra-small, ultra-lightweight body, and the ability to slip into a shirt pocket, it's truly amazing.

Canon SD1100 IS

Here's the first picture I took with the new camera: an image of Alix watching the world outside the window. This was taken from four feet away at maximum telephoto setting, handheld. I've been a serious photographer for more than forty years and owned my share of both 35mm and digital cameras (this is my ninth), but I'm still astounded by the quality and performance that today's super-small cameras are capable of.

Alix vigilant
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