Getting there

Form follows function when traveling by Airstream

It’s probably time I changed my nom de plume. Not because people on the phone think I’m saying “Harvey.” Not because longtime friends who know me as “Bob” give me funny looks when newer acquaintances call me “R.V.” And not because someone occasionally wastes a quarter-hour of my time trying to guess what “R.V.” stands for.

No, it’s more about the whole recreational-vehicle thing. Just because my initials are “R.V.,” there’s this assumption that I must know something about or be at least in some way associated with motor homes. “R.V., ha ha! Just like recreational vehicle!” people will say, laughing, as I quietly fume at their stupidity. Or I just tell them I was conceived in a trailer, which actually may not be too far off. Bonehead editors figure that naturally, because of my name, I’m the go-to guy for all things RV. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know next to nada.

But I do know this: If I could have any RV I wanted, it would be an Airstream—a gleaming relic from a bygone era when buying American was second nature, not a desperate act of belated patriotism (for that, click here). Once, it was the shape of things to come, a silver bullet hurtling through time and space toward a distant utopian future. That future might be in some remote galaxy far, far away, but there was never any doubt that you’d get there in an Airstream travel trailer. It’s been more than 70 years since founder Wally Byam designed the aluminum-skinned forerunner of the modern motor home, but Airstream’s essential promise remains the same: It goes the distance.

Photo By Larry Dalton

But don’t take my word for it. Like I said, I know next to nada. Instead, listen to Land Park residents James and Betty Carl. The nonagenarian couple—he’s 93, she’s 91, and they’ve been married for 63 years—have certainly gone the distance in their 25-foot Airstream Tradewind travel trailer since purchasing it in 1978.

“We bought it before I retired,” James explained. “We have somewhere over 250,000 miles on it. We’ve taken it up to Canada and all over the West.” Forget about this couple resting on their laurels; they still regularly hit the road, towing their streamlined home-on-wheels behind a diesel Ford Club Wagon. “We spent the month of February in the southern part of the state visiting family. I’ve been meaning to take it up in the Sierra so my daughter can go skiing.”

Like most Airstream owners, the Carls are older and maybe wiser than the average SN&R reader. They’re from a generation that believes form follows function, not the other way around. Need an example? Compare the smooth, slippery shape of the Airstream, essentially unchanged since the 1930s, with the typical motor home of today, such as the Winnebago.

Airstream aficionados like John and Elain White of Carmichael call such mobile cinderblocks “Squarestreams.” Now in their early 60s, the Whites admit they once owned a Squarestream. While piloting the flying brick on the way to Canada in the late 1980s, they got into a game of road tag with a couple towing an Airstream. We’re going to get something like that, the couple thought, and upon returning to California, they did, eventually settling on a 21-foot Airstream Globetrotter. They’ve since traded up to a 25-foot Excella and have become extremely active members in the Northern California unit of the Wally Byam Caravan Club, the official Airstream owners association.

“There’s every lifestyle you want to name in the club,” John said.

“From the wealthy to the poor,” Elain continued.

“From the full-timers to the part-timers,” John finished.

The Whites, who’ve been married for 39 years, often complete each other’s sentences, a habit developed from decades of traveling together on American and Canadian back roads. They’re uncertain about the distance they’ve traveled, but one member of their unit has logged more than 400,000 miles. As members of the unit, the Whites help organize rallies, where as many as 2,500 Airstream owners gather to meet in one spot, and caravans, smaller packs of shiny streamliners that roam the country together. There’s also a combination of the two get-togethers known as a “carally.”

Like many Airstream owners, the Carls and the Whites share a love for the outdoors. James Carl has climbed all of California’s 14,000-foot peaks; in their younger days, he and Betty camped in the Sierras, sleeping under the stars before graduating to a tent, a Scotsman trailer and finally an Airstream, in which they’ve traveled from Yosemite to Yellowstone. Betty Carl doesn’t miss sleeping on the ground. “It’s comfortable to be in the trailer,” she said. “I’m glad we did those things when we did, but as time goes by, you appreciate the trailer—your knees get stiff when you get older!”

John White is a backpacker; he and his son have hiked all over the Desolation Wilderness. On such trips, Elain prefers to wait in camp, usually beside Wright’s Lake. The Airstream makes such trips more convenient. “He likes to backpack, and I don’t like to sleep outside,” she said. “I’m not sleeping on the ground.”

They’ve crisscrossed the country countless times, encountering unique adventures along the way. At Canyonlands National Park, they stumbled upon a nudist in the middle of nowhere. “Boy, did he give us a dirty look,” Elain recalled. “All he was in was his nothingness and his boots.” Then there were the tours of various worm factories. “At first you think, ‘How disgusting!’” she said. “But you get down there, and it’s pretty interesting.”

“What about Pat Bean’s awning?” John asked. Bean was an Airstream Land Yacht owner the Whites caravanned with once. “We were going to Lansing, and in Wyoming, high winds blew the canvas across the top of their rig,” John continued. “The wind under the awning was lifting me right off the stool.”

“Pat Bean was holding on to his belt to keep him from blowing away!” Elain added, laughing.

The Land Yacht is the crème de la crème of Airstreams, a 39-foot diesel pusher equipped with all the luxuries of home, according to Rancho Cordova resident and Land Yacht owner Erv Harding.

“For me, the biggest thing is the washer and dryer,” the 66-year-old said via cell phone from Maine, where he and his wife, Roberta, were visiting relatives in their behemoth, hickory-framed $250,000 motor home that also features satellite TV, a queen-size bed, a couch that folds down into a another bed, Corian countertops, a full-sized shower with a built-in sink and a porcelain commode “just like the one you have in your home. This is all the good stuff.” Harding added that’s it not quite as extravagant as the NASCAR Land Yacht, which has “seating and a barbecue pit all built into the top; you push one button, and it all folds up out of sight.”

All of these gewgaws are nice, but that’s not what it really takes to get where you’re going. From the 14-foot Bambis currently being collected and restored by younger owners to Land Yachts like Harding’s, the unifying elements of these fully self-contained time machines are quality design and construction. “The Winnebago, they threw it together,” Harding said. “The Airstream has always been top quality. It’s not stapled together; it’s screwed together, riveted.”

Form follows function. That’s second nature for the older generation that makes up the majority of Airstream owners, and there’s a lesson in there for those who would follow them onto the open road this summer. It’s not the destination that matters; it’s how you get there. Just don’t forget to tell ’em R.V. sent ya.

—R.V. Scheide

A few Airstream-family vitals

Well, here I am, writing yet another story about RVs. It could be worse, I suppose. I could be writing about the ubiquitous “squaretreams” clogging our highways and byways—the Coachmens, the Winnebagos, the Travelmasters, the green thing in that godawful Robin Williams movie—like so many hideous corrugated sheet-metal boxes. The Airstream, though, is in a class by itself.

Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson says the key to a successful marriage is to “take your spouse RVing,” and he may be on to something. This country has more than 8,500 RV parks and campgrounds, so what are you waiting for?

As you can see from the list below, there’s an Airstream for just about every size of family or budget. If these prices seem a little steep, just remember that an Airstream is more than a travel trailer. It’s a work of art. And that’s something I can put my name behind.

—R.V. Scheide

Size: 16 feet
Sleeps: two
Price: under $20,000
The Basecamp is just what Uncle Chronically Single Extreme Sports Aficionado ordered: a tent/trailer combo with space to stow a half-dozen surfboards, a couple of dirtbikes and an ATV.

Size: 16 feet
Sleeps: three
Price: $31,454
The cutest Airstream also has the longest roots, stretching back to the very first aluminum-skinned trailers made in the late 1920s. Just enough room for Ma, Pa and Junior.

Safari SS
Size: 25 feet
Sleeps: six
Price: $43,868
Contrary to popular belief, “SS” stands for “sleeps six,” and in the sleek Safari, you and your extensive brood, or perhaps your recalcitrant in-laws, will be arriving in style.

Classic 34
Size: 34 feet
Sleeps: five
Price: $80,353
Be the perfect yupple and peeve the kids’ friends’ parents with Airstream’s largest travel trailer, which comes standard with Moen plumbing fixtures, Corian countertops and a live-in maid.

Land Yacht XL
Size: 39 feet
Sleeps: five
Price: $257,493
Sailing anyone? With a vessel displacing this many tons, steering inputs must be planned well in advance. Diesel engine included. Don’t forget the optional washer and dryer.