Bringing Back the RV
Once a symbol of the postwar American vacation, the RV is having a second coming. PLUS A brief history of the trailer and three classic itineraries—from 'Michiana' to Mississippi.
The RV/MH Heritage Foundation, Museum & Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana, may be the only place in the world where you can see antique trailers in what most people think of as their native habitat: on a carpet of bright green Astroturf, surrounded by pink flamingos, fake bushes, and plywood cutouts of kids around a fire. Since the term trailer trash first appeared, in the sociology journal Public Opinion Quarterly in 1943, the two words have been all but inextricably linked—and the Astroturf image is the first that comes to mind when one hears the words recreational vehicle.
The museum's library, though, presents a different story, one that goes back to the trailer's halcyon beginnings. The collection includes newspapers from the thirties on that document a time when whole cities in Florida were taken over by thousands of mobile-home devotees. There are articles about the Curtiss Aerocar, a trailer built in 1917 for the newly monied to take out on the American roadways that were just starting to appear. It had a phone for calling up to the chauffeur, and a kitchen that slid out of a tow car (the help slept in the car). Visitors to the museum can read about Ollie Trout's trailer park in Miami, which at $5 a day was the most expensive—and luxurious—in post-Depression America. Ollie guaranteed palm trees on every camping spot, and had "servants" racing from the clubhouse to the trailers, bringing cold drinks and sandwiches to guests.
Until a few years ago, the glory days of the RV seemed more remote even than the early-20th-century American landscape that spawned them. But then trailers started popping up across the country—refurbished and retrofitted, with curved interiors wrapped in blond wood and brushed and gleaming metal. They came with Italian marble countertops, expanses of stainless-steel appliances, Sub Zero refrigerators, and Viking ranges. By the nineties, stars like Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, and Matthew Modine began to customize their vintage silver Airstreams into on-set trailers. Suddenly, retro-chic mobile homes and RV's were hot again—even if most people had long since forgotten that they had been glamorous to begin with.
As a 1940 article in Trailer Topics magazine put it, a trailer is a "hybrid of the aeroplane, automobile, and house." No model ever fit this description better than the Airstream, which has remained essentially unchanged since Wally Byam built the first Clipper, in 1936. Constructed from sleek aluminum and outfitted with wood paneling and Formica, it was updated in 2000 by San Francisco designer Christopher Deam, a former Frank Gehry employee, for a plastics-company booth at a trade show. With its exposed silvery skin, one-piece vinyl floor, and curved plastic faux-wood-grain cabinets, Deam's version brought the Airstream back to where it was in 1936—into the mainstream of contemporary design. Initially, the company didn't want to actually produce what became known as the CCD (short for Christopher C. Deam), but when they showed it in the annual Bismarck, North Dakota, Wally Byam Caravan Club in 2001, so many devoted Airstreamers loved it—including those dedicated few who supposedly wanted to keep everything just the way it had always been—that the company was practically forced to put it into production. Now, it comes in five different lengths (up to 28 feet long), with optional flat-screen TV's and built-in broadband hookups. It's Airstream's most popular line.
Slipping into the newest model at one of the 100 or so trailer factories near the RV/MH Heritage Foundation, it's easy to imagine yourself gliding down the highway, past the cornfields and the red barns, into the kind of future that we used to think was just up the highway.
MARK VAN DE WALLE is writing a book about RV culture, entitled Trailer Trash (Picador Press).
1915 Roland R. Conklin, an executive in a motor-bus company, and his wife, Mary, create the most elaborate house on wheels to date, the Gypsy Van. Similar camper-style vehicles appear in the U.S. during the teens.
Late 1920's Arthur Sherman is motivated by a disastrous camping trip to invent a freestanding trailer that doesn't require elaborate setup. His Covered Wagon Company becomes one of the nation's first commercial travel-trailer businesses.
1930's Unlike most new American businesses, the mobile-home industry is profitable during the Great Depression. It is only a matter of time before trailer-home campgrounds start to crop up across the country.
1936 Wally Byam invents the iconic Airstream trailer for his wife, who refused to go camping unless she could take her kitchen along. The sleek design is meant to move "like a stream of air."
1938 The Federal Highway Act leads to the construction of a national interstate system. This new infrastructure brings mobile living to the masses.
Post–World War II Americans start traveling in record numbers and the RV industry flourishes. The term recreational vehicle is devised in the sixties as a marketing tool.
1967 Another classic is born: the first motor homes roll off the Winnebago assembly lines.
1973 OPEC creates an oil embargo, drastically reducing the supply of gas that the United States is able to import. Consumers now face long lines and high prices at the pumps. The energy crisis is enough to bring the RV industry to a brief halt.
1979–80 Due to a second oil shock and rising interest rates, the industry collapses. RV's are deemed inefficient and outmoded.
1997 The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) kicks off its Go RVing campaign, which encourages Americans to embrace the RV lifestyle for the same reasons their grandparents did in the thirties.
2004 The RV industry rakes in $12 billion. The RVIA estimates that nearly 8 million American households will own RV's by 2010.
"Michiana," the intersection of Michigan and Indiana, along the shores of Lake Michigan, was the birthplace of the RV industry. The first RV assembly lines and many of America's first trailer parks lie in this region, just a few hours south of Detroit. The Airstream Factory is 162 miles east, in Ohio.
Day 1 Elkhart, Indiana Close to 60 percent of all recreational vehicles are produced in Indiana. Start your visit in Elkhart, known as the RV Capital of the World, at the RV/MH Heritage Foundation, Museum & Hall of Fame (801 Benham Ave.; 800/378-8694), the world's only RV-themed museum. Leave time for the Hall of Fame and Library, then take a factory tour at one of more than 100 RV companies nearby.
Day 2 From Elkhart to Fort Wayne, Indiana (64 Miles) Drive through the tiny Amish and Mennonite settlements along Route 33 to Fort Wayne, Indiana. History buffs can also make a pit stop at the Lincoln Museum (200 E. Berry St.; 260/455-3864; www.thelincolnmuseum.org), which showcases signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. Visit the Kruse Automotive and Carriage Museum (5634 County Rd. 11A, Auburn; 260/927-9144; www.kccmuseum.org), just outside Auburn, Indiana, to see vehicles of all shapes and makes, including the 1932 Auburn Boattail Speedster.
Day 3 From Fort Wayne to Jackson Center, Ohio (98 Miles) Head southeast from Fort Wayne on U.S. 30 to I-75. Along the way, stop in Wapakoneta, Ohio, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, whose walk on the moon coincided with the height of the RV craze. Continue on I-75 to Jackson Center, Ohio, and the Airstream Factory (419 W. Pike St.; 937/596-6111; www.airstream.com). Retired line workers give the factory tour—a must-see on any RV-history itinerary.
3 Days For dramatic views of the California coast, take the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to San Francisco. The Candlestick RV Park—www.sanfranciscorvpark.com—has a shuttle bus into the city. DON'T MISS The Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (www.parks.ca.gov), along the Big Sur coastline, has an 80-foot waterfall.
Natchez Trace Parkway
4-5 Days The 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway lies atop a trail that once connected the southern parts of the Mississippi River to the salt licks in Tennessee. The Choctaw and Chickasaw traveled this path, cutting a diagonal line from the southwest region of Mississippi through the northwest corner of Alabama and on to the northeast corner of Tennessee. Over 100 species of wildflowers grow along the roadside, which is surrounded by hiking trails, campgrounds, and historic battlefields. DON'T MISS The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (www.nps.gov/trte), which tells the tragic story of the 16,000 Cherokee who were forcibly removed from their land by the U.S. government in 1838.
www.airstream.com Take a virtual tour of Airstream's latest models and find a dealer in your state.
www.byways.org The National Scenic Byways site describes 96 of America's most beautiful roads and includes maps, photos, and tips on places to visit.
www.gorving.com Still need convincing?This site details the benefits of RV ownership—from family bonding to spending more time in the Great Outdoors.
www.rvia.org The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association's site contains basic information on RV ownership and rentals.