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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.1.2010

 

Airstreaming 

Rebirth of the trailerite

by Camilla Mortensen

Craigslist after midnight isn’t the best idea for those of us who can be a bit impulsive. You can find everything on that online flea market from cute puppies to rental housing to truly frightening personal ads. Me? I found an Airstream. 

One day I’m living in an apartment in downtown Eugene; a couple shots of whiskey on a sleepless night and a quick haul with my biodiesel-powered truck later, and all of a sudden I’m parked out in a field somewhere living in a vintage 29-foot 1975 Airstream Ambassador. 

Except for those cold mornings when it’s below 50 degrees inside my trailer and I’m hiding under my blankets crossing my freezing fingers that the propane water heater (also vintage) didn’t go out in the middle of the night and I can warm up with a hot shower, it’s pretty awesome. Those less awesome mornings I call it the Air-cicle. Airstreams are solidly built, but not exactly well insulated inside that aluminum shell.

Darlene Gutierrez  in her ‘65 Land Yacht at the WBCCI rally in Coburg
Walt Weber and his ‘90s Classic at the WBCCI rally in Coburg
Rhoda keeps watch over Camilla Mortensen’s ‘75 Ambassador

Living in a silver Twinkie makes for interesting conversations and a reliable way of weeding out the wrong guy on a first date. You get one of three reactions when you answer the question of, “So where do you live?” with “In an Airstream trailer.” 

First there’s “What’s an Airstream?” which is a sure sign he’s been living under a rock for his whole life, and that’s not good. Then there’s the look of vague horror some guys get, leading me to suspect he’s picturing pink flamingos, Christmas lights up all year and pit bulls (which isn’t far from the truth, really). And then there’s the best reaction, “An Airstream? Cool! I’ve always wanted an Airstream.”

That last reaction is one many of us have: I’ve always wanted an Airstream. Airstreams appeal to hipsters and retirees, kids, teens and those of us who read Tom Robbins and thought it would be cool to live in a vehicle altered to look like a giant roast turkey. New or used, people haul them, live in them, fix them up or sometimes just fixate on them. 



Airstream Sales Central

After I got my Airstream, the need for things like sewage hoses and electrical attachment thingies led me to discover that Eugene is something of an Airstream epicenter thanks to Sutton RV. Sutton’s the biggest Airstream dealer on the West Coast, and the second largest Airstream dealer, not only in the nation but in the world, according to sales manager Eric Benson. Yup, that’s right, in the world. Sutton RV is only seven silver bullet-shaped recreational vehicles away from world Airstream domination.

Benson says Sutton RV keeps 50 to 60 shiny new Airstreams on its lot out on West 7th and sells out that inventory each month. Used Airstreams purchased by Sutton or taken in trade, he says, are almost always already spoken for. They rarely make it to the lot before they’re sold. And believe me, Airstreams are selling these days.

“The downturn in the economy brought more people to the Airstream lifestyle,” says Benson.

While the R-G’s reporting the downer news of the massive motor home industry being driven to near extinction by the crashing economy  — locally, Monaco Coach filed for bankruptcy in March 2009 and Country Coach was liquidated late last year — EW’s here to tell you that Airstream sales have taken a rebound. The Wall Street Journal reported in March that Airstream’s parent company, Thor, just posted its “third straight quarter of dramatically improved results.”

Turns out that people like me, rather than buying homes, are taking the Airstream option. Actually, people like me, under-paid newly born retro-trailer trash, are buying older Airstreams found on Craigslist or eBay for a couple thousand dollars, not those $30,000 to $90,000 brand new ’Streams, complete with garage and flat screen TV, though other people indeed are buying them fresh off the factory floor in Jackson Center, Ohio, and sent direct to Eugene via Sutton. 

The spike in Airstream sales is not in spite of the bad economy; it’s because of the bad economy. The more wealthy RV snowbird types are buying Airstreams too, the new ones, with the interior bamboo accents and oil-rubbed bronze fixtures. (My own 1975 ’Stream is rocking the plastic shelving and orange and hot pink polyester look.)

For a while there, Baby Boomers were tooling around the country in their opulent Class A motor homes priced in the mid-range at $250,000 to $300,000, and those beasts sucked up gas like it was a renewable resource. But after the economy crashed, Benson says, “they remembered their camping days in their old Westphalia camper and wanted to do the right thing.” 

So as the economy tanked, people downsized, opting for getting rid of their massive RVs and giant tow vehicles and buying smaller SUVs to haul smaller, somewhat less expensive, trailers, Benson says. When that nostalgia for simpler times kicks in, Airstreams start looking cooler than ever, simple to deal with and well made. Mary Kulish of Eugene, who organized an Airstream Rally in Coburg March 19-21, says the way an Airstream hauls “is very aerodynamic and especially for women, or anybody, traveling alone, they’re very easy to tow.” Some even say, that if you’re truly eco-minded, you can tow an Airstream with a bicycle. 

Having pulled my nearly 30-foot Airstream down Highway 126, with only my dogs as co-pilots, I have to agree with Kulish. And not only does it tow easily (with my truck, anyway; I haven’t tested the bike theory yet), it just plain looks cool with its sleek silver sides and retro-tin can shape. I can’t pull into a gas station without having at least one conversation about my quirky silver trailer.

The distinctive aluminum Airstream shape, Benson says, makes it “more than just a trailer. To many of my customers, it’s a piece of art.” 

For some ’Streamers the art aspect means that the slightest dent needs to be “re-skinned” and polished. For others, “A dent, that’s part of its charm,” says Benson. My Airstream has some charm in a couple of places.

 People from all over the country send their Airstreams to Sutton RV to be worked on, says Benson. Most of the work they do is re-skinning. Each Airstream is made with 4,000 rivets, hand placed, and it takes two people to set each rivet in each one of an Airstream’s aluminum sections. Airstreams have a lot of sections.

It’s no coincidence that Airstreams look a little like airplane fuselages; Airstreams originated via an airplane design. According to some travel-trailer historians, Airstream founder and visionary Wally Byam, born in Baker City, was sent by his grandfather as a teenager to herd a flock of sheep in summer pastures high in the mountains of Oregon for months at a time. Byam supposedly lived out of a small, two-wheeled wagon covered with cloth and hauled by a donkey. It was this that led to his later fascination with the art of trailer living.

Before there were Airstreams, a company named Bowlus Trailers made travel trailers created by aircraft designer William Hawley Bowlus. Bowlus worked on Charles Lindbergh’s record setting airplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” and based his sleek, aerodynamic designs on the airplanes he knew so well. Bowlus Trailers closed shop in 1936, after which Byam, who had worked with Bowlus, began designing and producing aluminum trailers of his own based on the Bowlus model. The torpedo-shaped Airstreams have been around ever since, and according to Airstream, Inc., two thirds of the Airstreams made since the 1930s are still on the road or otherwise in use. People love them. 

Benson says once someone buys an Airstream, they are considered “ruined in the industry because they’ll never buy another kind of trailer or RV.” 



Airstream Rally

Once you have an Airstream, whether you meant to or not, you’ve joined the club. And if you do want to join an actual club, there are plenty to choose from. The Tin Can Tourists is for lovers of vintage trailers of all makes and models, from Airstream, Argosy and Bowlus to Silver Streak and Winnebago. The Northwest ’Streamers (all aluminum — all the time!) gathers Airstream lovers from across the Pacific Northwest and into Canada for rallies and trailer talk, and for those who really want to hitch up with Airstream history, there’s the Wally Byam Caravan Club International.

The WBCCI was founded in 1955 and is still going strong. “The Wally Byam is sort of a step, once you get an Airstream” says Mary Kulish. “It’s the general club for all Airstreamers.” 

Once you join the WBCCI, you become part of a unit and can also participate in intraclubs, says Kulish, like the one for vintage Airstream owners or — everybody’s favorite — “The Free Wheelers,” a group for Airstream singles.

 The Oregon unit counts among its membership 100-year-old Eugenean Ed Tracy and his 99-year-old wife Vivian, says Kulish. Tracy’s final trip was only six years ago, when at the age of 96 he pulled his ’Stream over the Willamette Pass on a hunting trip with his grandson. Though not hauling an Airstream, the Tracys came to the recent WBCCI rally in Coburg to join in the travel-trailer festivities.

Teresa Taylor, the proud owner of a ’68 Ambassador that she hauled to the rally, says “Airstream people seem to live a long time; they’re very active.” Taylor and her husband, Glenn, live in their Airstream half the year, spending the remainder of the year out on frequent camping trips.

According to Taylor, back in the ’60s and ’70s, owning an Airstream was a status symbol. “If you look back to the membership, it had doctors and lawyers, that kind of group.”

These days, Airstream owners and ralliers are from all walks of life and all ages, Taylor says. She’s an interior designer in her 60s, though she says that rally participants range in age from younger Nike execs to older retirees. 

Full disclosure: I’m from the low-budget Airstream walk of life. I didn’t bring my Airstream to the rally, partly because I was a little afraid of looking like a white trash Airstream newbie with my unpolished trailer and plastic interior, and partly because the thing is currently kind of stuck in the mud where I have it parked, or, more accurately, planted.

One thing Airstream rallies do is inspire ’Streamers to fix up their silver wagons. There’s nothing like poking around in other people’s dolled up Airstreams to stir up a little Airstream envy. “It’s like having a little playhouse,” says Teresa Taylor, who left the American walnut interior of her ’68 Ambassador unaltered, but sewed curtains for it and reupholstered the beds and sofa. We both agreed, as long as we’re playing house, Ikea, with its focus on small living quarters, is pretty cool for picking up Airstream decorator items. 

Some of the larger rallies, like the upcoming 53rd International WBCCI Convention this June in Gillette, Wyo., have contests judging vintage Airstreams, while other rallies simply provide the opportunity to hang out, shoot the Airstream breeze and peek into other folks’ travel trailers. “Anybody who owns an Airstream and you go into a park and see one, 99.9 percent of the time, if you asked to look inside or something, you’re more than welcome to,” says Kulish.

Brad and Susan Taylor (no relation to Teresa)’s 1958 Flying Cloud draws a crowd everywhere they go. “I saved it out of a farmer’s field,” Brad says, “and my wife fell in love with it.” Brad says no sooner had he towed the thing home, full of junk from being used as someone’s storage shed for years, than Susan “went in the house and signed us up for a rally five weeks out.” 

Brad Taylor was able to use his background restoring classic cars to bring the Flying Cloud back to its former glory. Now, says Susan, “It’s our little escape pod.” While Brad did the restoration work, she did the interior painting and upholstery. Thanks to Susan, I have discovered that you can make cool Airstream curtains while living in an Airstream without a sewing machine. When you live and work in a 29-foot long, eight-foot wide giant hotdog, space is at a premium. The secret, Susan told me, is the Stitch Witch tape. This, I learned, is also why you go to rallies: to learn the secrets of Airstreaming.



The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me

“It’s the camaraderie,” says Brad Taylor of the Airstream way of life. He calls the upsurge in Airstream interest “the rebirth of the trailerite.” Airstream lovers at rallies also welcome the Airstream dreamers, those of you who don’t have a ’Stream, don’t know where you’d put it if you got it, but want one anyway, or want to think about wanting one. And for the true Airstream-o-phile, owner or non-owner, there’s the online Airstream Forums (www.airforums.com), page after (web)page of ‘Streamers talking travel trailers. 

The Airstream Forums are a lifejacket for those of us who jumped blindly into Airstream ownership without knowing how to swim. You can get advice on full timing (living in your ’Stream all year), boondocking (extended Airstream living, often off the grid), camping and hauling, and general Airstream repair. Airstreams are built solidly, this is true, but if anyone tells you they don’t leak, trust me, they’re lying. They leak. And if you live in Eugene, they leak often.

The Airstream Forums are also where the Airstream dreamers go to get their silver travel trailer fix without actually buying one. Many of those people, who wish they had an Airstream but don’t, know more about the trailers than I do. “Oh, a 1975,” said one such aficionado I chatted with one day with a sneer, “the Beatrice Food years.” Turns out that along with having such uncool and ’70s-esque things like plastic, polyester and, horror of horrors, twin beds, my beloved trailer was made after Wally Byam’s death in 1962 and before the company was purchased by Thor. “Yeah, well,” I thought to myself, “I have an Airstream and you don’t.” 

David Levin, a UO math professor, is among the Airstream dreamers in town. He plans to get one when he retires, even if that might be a long ways away. “Airstreams are beautiful,” he says.

“I’m a bit retro in all my tastes,” says Levin, “things that are well made, well designed.” Though, as an academic, he can’t help but wonder: “How many bookshelves can you fit into an Airstream?” 

As a book geek with disorganized tendencies, I can’t tell you how many book shelves you can fit; mine came with three built in, and those are packed full, but I can attest that a couple of stray books in an Airstream is practically a book avalanche. Actually, a couple of stray anything in an Airstream is an avalanche.

Despite the cold mornings, twin beds, leaks and space so limited my dogs have to jump onto the bed so I can walk down the hall to use the bathroom, I’ve got no plans to move out of my Airstream and cash in my Airstream dream anytime soon. Right now, I’m looking forward to warm spring nights, sprawled on my orange polyester sofa, drinking cheap $6 champagne and watching the sunset through the curved oval door of my ’Stream. I’ve been told that if I do decide to move out, Airstreams hold their value, and I’ll be able get back what I paid for it. But like a lot of other Airstreamers, if I do sell mine, it will only be get another one. Once you’ve joined the club, you’re in for life. As Wally Byam once said, “Let’s not make changes — only improvements.”