Reconsidering the RV
Published: May 2009
By Stephen Webster
Stop trashing the trailer—and discover the great
American art of 'uncamping' in a classic Airstream
Before we had children, the concept of joining the RV crowd appalled us. As tent campers on our way to state parks, Chris and I would pass private campgrounds and see those huge vinyl-sided rigs with their seasonal hookups and satellite dishes, and try to comprehend which part of the great outdoors their owners were frolicking in.
Then, in 1997, Emma was born. Camping went on hold for a while, until one weekend when I saw a For Sale sign on a little silver trailer in a used-boat lot near Columbus, Ohio, where we live. Within the week, I had more or less traded in my old Vespa scooter for a 1969 Globetrotter Land Yacht by Airstream, the company that began building aluminum trailers after World War II using airplane materials and tooling.
Our weekend cottage on wheels needed work. Water pipes had to be replaced. A découpaged tabletop made out of a cross section from a tree had to go. Chris insisted on reupholstering all the cushions in retro burgundy canvas. I insisted on decorating the interior with ephemera from the 1964 World's Fair purchased on eBay (Globetrotter, Unisphere—get it?).
After five months of tinkering, the Globetrotter was ready for its maiden voyage. Despite a frozen water line the first night, we were converts. We named our new endeavor "uncamping"—we weren't exactly roughing it, but we hadn't become condo-campers, sitting in La-Z-Boys watching wrestling on a wide-screen TV. Still, such luxuries as the electric waffle iron and the margarita blender showed up on our picnic table. We've since organized a yearly Uncamping Weekend at Hocking Hills State Park in southeastern Ohio. Our friends and their kids sleep in tents near our rig, and we have crafts, hikes, campfires, and pseudo-fishing (no bait or hooks) for the kids. Our "drive-in theater" shows Super 8 cartoons projected on a sheet hung in the woods. And when the kids go to sleep, we haul out the trusty blender.
As our family expanded—Ben was born last year—so did the need for more elbowroom. So last spring, I drove to Indianapolis to pick up our new old Airstream, a 1966 24-foot Tradewind, for $4,000. The Globetrotter sold in an hour and a half on the Vintage Airstream Club's Web site for $4,000 (I had paid $2,000) to a male couple outside New York, with nine prospective buyers standing by.
Pretty much any station wagon can tug an Airstream. Our two have sheltered us on long trips to Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan and to state parks in Indiana, but more often we choose weekend getaways close to home (for those, "two hours' drive max" is our rule). The trailer has become a beloved fixture of Emma's upbringing. It will for Ben, too. He can already say "uncamping."
AT LAST: A MOTOR-HOME MAKEOVER
Airstream is still in business, producing aluminum as well as fiberglass RV's that look like so many other highway hogs. But this fall it releases the VW Bug of trailers—the updated Bambi, with a gleaming skin and an ultramodern interior that gives a big nod to its sixties counterpart. Asking price: $30,000. Care to join us on a caravan?
THE TIN-CAN TOURISTS AND THEIR KIND
The Vintage Airstream Club can be found at www.airstream.net (no phone). Groups with similar interests: Tin Can Tourists (www.tincantourists.com; no phone), enthusiasts of old trailers and motor homes; Families on the Road (www.familiesontheroad.com), a Web site for clans who RV around the clock (or want to); and Lost Highways (215/925-2568; www.losthighways.org), which organizes an annual vintage trailer gathering at Tiki Campground on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht, by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt (Chronicle Books, $19.95), is required reading.
If you want to try out the life without living it, you can stay in an old Airstream (they're stationary, but you still get the vibe) at Shady Dell (1 Douglas Rd., Bisbee, Ariz.; 520/432-3567; trailers $35—$75 per night). Unfortunately, they don't accept children under 10.