Holidays in the Airstream

Halloween is coming up and like a lot of holidays it reminds me of great times we’ve had on the road. For three years we spent every holiday on the road in our Airstream, and many other holidays since then.  The Airstream is just a fun place to be.

Airstream Christmas 2005

Being in the Airstream makes each holiday so much more memorable.  We’re simultaneously away from our familiar surroundings and routines, and yet completely at home.  Christmas in the Airstream is a particular favorite of mine, perhaps because many of the trappings of that holiday are stripped away, leaving us to focus on the things that really matter: each other and the moment we’re in.

If you ever have lamented the fuss, traffic, commercialism, over-abundance, and family stress of Christmas, I strongly advise you to pack up the Airstream. Pick the right spot far away from the hubbub, shape a little potted rosemary bush into a tree, warm something nice-smelling on the stove, and suddenly Christmas becomes peaceful and magical again.

I remember very well each of the Christmases we spent in the Airstream because they were unique. The first was near San Diego, and we went to the San Diego Zoo on Christmas day.  The next year it was St George Island, and we walked the endless open beach by the state park.  The next year we bought a house and spent one night camped on the living room floor because the house had no furniture (then we moved back into the Airstream for another 10 months).

I like Halloween in the Airstream too, because we always see a different version of it.  In Oregon we joined a parade and saw some wonderfully incredible and creative costumes.

Medford OR halloween parade 2007

Rotten pumpkin AirstreamIn Disney’s Fort Wilderness we trick-or-treated in costume with dozens of other people through the campground. (Warning: the warm temperatures in Florida at that time of year mean that carved pumpkins rot quickly.)

We’ve spent many a New Year’s Eve camped at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, but in the past few years the park has gotten a little too popular at that time of year so lately we’ve been seeking alternatives locally. Still, I love a New Year’s Eve where the primary sound at midnight is a pack of coyotes howling.  Other people like parties, and if that’s your style you can always find a New Year’s Eve rally.

Eleanor has even successfully prepared a complete Thanksgiving dinner in the Airstream.  She had to shop for a very small turkey that would fit in the oven, and the limited counter space was a problem that required lots of pre-planning, but it worked out.  One tip if you ever do this: definitely find a full-hookup campsite.  Otherwise it’s hard to have enough water capacity for all the dishes afterward!

Chatfield SP Airstream snowPerhaps the best thing about major holidays is that many of them occur in the winter season. If you live up north each holiday gives you an excuse to load up the Airstream for some off-season camping, which can be a lot of fun.

You’ll burn more propane and use a lot of electricity but with a campground hookup it’s really no problem to take the Airstream out. Waking up to a fresh snow or a bit of frost on the ground somehow feels very cozy when viewed from your warm Airstream—and you know you don’t have to go anywhere.

I know we’re all supposed to enjoy holidays because each holiday is a chance to get together with the family. But if that’s not your reality, the Airstream has another huge advantage: you can be far away, and even unreachable if you want to be. There are lots of places in North America where cellular service still doesn’t penetrate (but you can still watch the football game on TV). Just look for state park campgrounds located in valleys, national forests, or open desert area.

And if you are staying home, keep in mind that your Airstream can be a great guest house for a visitor, with just a full tank of water and an electric plug. You might be enjoying the holiday at home, but perhaps someone you know wants to have a memorable holiday stay?  Considering that people are lining up to pay to stay in Airstream hotels all around the world, there’s a good chance you know someone who would get a kick out of a night in your very own “Air BnB”.

How To Airstream

Bambi blue awningI’m working on a new blog, as sort of an adjunct to this one, called “How To Airstream.”

The reason is that the Airstream Life Store has become a big project of mine, and I’m spending a lot of time researching great solutions to Airstream problems these days.  That’s so I can find things worthy of recommending to the customers.

As a result, my brain is full of details about things like “Why you really need to own a torque wrench” and all the reasons why most RV drinking water hoses suck.

I’ve been digging into mysteries, like “Why is there a plug on your Airstream that says Use only ZAMP portable solar?” and why people get locked out of their Airstreams so often.

A lot of this information is in my books, but I keep learning new things and it will be a few years before I update the books again.  In the meantime, I want to share what I’ve learned.

The “How To Airstream” blog is separate from this one because it’s more commercial.  If I find a good solution that we are going to sell in the store, I’ll put it there rather than here.  That way Man In The Maze can be more about the travel and lifestyle topics and I can avoid crossing the line into shameless promotion of the store.

Right now the How-To blog has a few dozen entries in it, many of which were adapted from prior issues of our newsletter Outside Interests.  I’ll be writing new tips and product reviews on an irregular basis. Things are still a little rough over there, since I am still working on the the design template, but please take a look.

I’m very interested in whatever questions or ideas for topics that you may have.  Just use the “Ask A Question” link at the top of the page, or put in a comment below the blog. The more questions I can answer—even if it takes me a while to find the facts—the more of a resource the How To Airstream blog can be for everyone.

One community, indivisible …

I was writing my Editor’s column for the upcoming issue of Airstream Life the other day, and part of it touched on the recent spread of Airstream’s product line.  I’d like to expand on that here, because the space I allot for myself to bloviate in the printed magazine is very limited.

Once upon a time, and for several decades, Airstream meant aluminum travel trailers almost exclusively.  There were a few experiments here and there with fiberglass (such as the “Wally Bee“) and with canned ham styling (the “Wally Byam Holiday” trailer), but otherwise Airstream stuck to what they knew. Even the painted Argosy trailer line in the 1970s was still mostly the same construction beneath.

Brett Greiveldinger's motorhomeThe Airstream motorhomes of the 1970s were essentially trailer bodies laid atop commercial truck chassis.  Even though the idea of an Airstream motorhome was initially unsettling to travel trailer purists, at least the final product resembled the beloved shape of the iconic Airstream trailer.

Sadly, things went downhill from there for a while.  Airstream made a few stabs at expanding the product line in the 1980s and beyond, introducing creatively-challenged products such as the Legacy fifth-wheel series and white-box Land Yacht motorhomes, both of which were virtually indistinguishable from any other manufacturer’s if you removed the AIRSTREAM labeling. Those products might have been good for the bottom line at the time, but nobody remembers them fondly.

 

VTS1Around 2004-2005, when it became clear that the Class A motorhome business was dying, Airstream stopped producing white box motorhomes and began to try to think a little more out of the box—or perhaps “away from the box”.  The first experiment was the Airstream Westfalia, a Mercedes Sprinter-based mini motorhome based on the popular James Cook sold in Europe.  Airstream imported it and upfitted it to meet US standards starting in 2004.

I thought the Airstream Westfalia was a really cleverly-designed motorhome with a ton of potential, and so did Airstream leadership for a while. But dealers in the US didn’t seem to know how to sell it and Airstream buyers didn’t “get” it. At $85k or so (more than PleasureWay and RoadTrek competitors at the time) you’d want to really be convinced this was the right choice before buying. Only about 192 were imported before Airstream killed the product.

AS_BaseCamp_Lifestyle_bThen they tried the Basecamp, as a sort of rolling sporting goods hauler designed for Millennials and Gen-X’ers who hopefully would not care that it lacked a real kitchen, any sort of bathroom, and cost about $25k.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the target market did care about those things. The optional Kelty tent for the rear didn’t save the original Basecamp from being compared to an expensive horse trailer.

Around the same time Airstream brought out the first Interstate motorhomes, based on the Mercedes Sprinter 2500 chassis.  These Class B motorhomes were moderately successful as far as I know, but the real leap forward came a few years later when it was completely re-designed on the Sprinter 3500 chassis (dually rear wheels) and upgraded in just about every way possible.

Suddenly, Airstream couldn’t make enough of them, and even with the price rising from the $90k neighborhood to $150k+ over the past eight years, the Interstate has become the most popular diesel Class B motorhome on the market. For comparison, Airstream is selling this tight little 25-foot Class B for more than they had been selling their much-larger “white box” style Class A motorhomes in 2005!

In 2011 Airstream tried to dumb down the Interstate to attract a lower-budget audience by building it on a Chevy gas van platform. The short-lived Airstream Avenue was the result. It was a “me too” product: looked like everyone else’s B-van and didn’t have the elite Mercedes diesel drivetrain. There’s a good reason you’ve probably never seen one on the road. It bombed.

I think at this point the light went on for Airstream management. If making the Interstate better was the secret to success, maybe the earlier failures were not because they were too expensive relative to the competition—but not expensive enough! People didn’t want cheap Airstreams, they wanted better ones.

In that context it’s not surprising that the Basecamp eventually came back with a full kitchen, full (wet) bathroom, and lots of clever innovations that transformed it from a essentially empty shell to a functional travel trailer, without compromising the sporty aspect. It’s more expensive than the original design. And now they sell.

2018 Nest Prototype _ Exterior _ Curb Side WEBWell, since Airstream has cracked the code and the economy has been humming well for the past couple of years, Airstream’s new problem is keeping up with demand. Their response has been to come up with more cool ways to go traveling. For example they bought the design of the fiberglass Nest trailer invented by Robert Johans and will be producing that later this year.

The upcoming Winter 2017 issue of Airstream Life will have an in-depth interview with Airstream senior managers that reveals why they bought Nest, what they’re thinking, and how it will fit into the Airstream family.

The other news this month has been that Airstream is launching yet another new product, a Class C motorhome called “Atlas”. It’s also based on the Mercedes Sprinter 3500, but it’s much larger than the Interstate and priced at over $200k.  (We’ll take a close look at Atlas in the Spring 2018 issue of Airstream Life.) This means Airstream will soon be selling five separate lines: Atlas, Nest, Base Camp, Interstate, and the classic aluminum travel trailers.

Airstream Atlas motorhome

People often ask me if Airstream is just cannibalizing its own products. Well, of course they are smarter than that. If the Base Camp was eating into sales of the Airstream Sport 16 and 22-foot travel trailers (which are priced slightly higher), they would have noticed and done something about it.  But so far every new product they’ve launched in recent years has found a new audience, expanding Airstream’s customer base.  Atlas and Nest are expected to do the same.

This all sounds great for Airstream, and great for all those people who are now going to get an Airstream (Nest, Atlas, Basecamp) who would otherwise have not bought an aluminum travel trailer. But did Airstream think about my needs?  Noooooooo.

See, I’ve always had a big challenge in publishing Airstream Life magazine: unifying the community. When I started the magazine in 2004, the hard part was trying to come up with articles that appealed to the vintage trailer owners (of which there are many) and the new trailer owners, plus a small contingent of motorhome owners. Hardly a month went by that I didn’t get a letter from someone griping that “The magazine has too many articles about [insert subject other people care about] and not enough articles about [insert name of letter-writer’s own trailer].”

I still get those letters from time to time. In fact last week someone wrote a lengthy note with their non-renewal, listing all the article categories that they didn’t like as well as a helpful list of the exact articles they’d like to see in the future. The letter concluded by saying that only if I complied would they consider mailing me $24 for a year’s subscription in the future.

(Sadly, it is my policy not to negotiate with hostage-takers. The $24 will have to be sacrificed.)

I try to explain to people that Airstream Life is not about the trailers.  It was never about the trailers, or the motorhomes.  It’s about the other things that Airstreamers are interested in:  community, history, art & design, technology, destinations, etc. Sure, we talk about trailers and motorhomes, but if you look at any issue you’ll see that most articles are agnostic, talking about great adventures or ideas. Whether those things happened in a trailer or motorhome, vintage or new, it doesn’t matter. At least, that’s what I hope.

So in this respect I try to be a Great Unifier. Or to be more accurate, I try to help keep the Airstream community from fracturing. I’ll keep touting the message that no matter which Airstream you own, you’re a part of Airstream Life.  Special interest groups within the Airstream community are cool, but in the end we’re all people united by a common love of travel, adventure, learning, socializing and —well, to be honest—eating.

8th Annual Buellton Vintage Trailer Bash

Our good friend David Neel has been organizing a “Vintage Trailer Bash” in Buellton CA for eight years, and each year he very kindly invites us to attend. Normally we’re still traveling somewhere far away from California in September (except last year when we were busy with Alumafandango) so we’ve missed out.

But not this year! Coming back to Arizona in August has its perks, and one of them is being able to hitch up the old Caravel for a 600 mile road trip to the gorgeous Pacific coast for a rally.

The only problem was that the Caravel hasn’t been used much over the past few years, and storage is never kind to a travel trailer. Even though we have kept it out of the sun in a dry desert climate, inevitably things get funky. So I ended up replacing the spare tire, battery, and a few belly pan rivets. The toilet valve was stuck, the entry door lock was stubborn, the bathroom vanity needed a latch re-aligned, some screws and nuts had magically vibrated loose or gone missing, the dump valves had begun to leak (uck) … you get the picture.

Airstreams really prefer to be used rather than stored. Even in ideal storage conditions, stuff happens. In our climate, rubber seals go bad and lubricated parts dry up. I wasn’t surprised we had to do some maintenance, and overall I was pleased that it was as mild as it was. The fundamentals of the trailer were all still good: no weird smells, no rot or leaks, appliances all fine—so with a few days of part-time tweaking and lubricating we were ready to go. The final step was on the second day of travel: we stopped at a car wash in Blythe CA to get the dust off and were feeling pretty good about things.

Marana Airstream Caravel

Of course it wasn’t quite that easy. Something had to happen. See that white blob on the roof (the AC shroud) in the photo above? After a few years the plastic shroud covering an RV air conditioner tends to get brittle and crack, and then come loose.  Apparently, ours suddenly departed the Caravel somewhere along I-10 in California—unbeknownst to us— and so we arrived at the rally with a naked air conditioner. It gave the trailer a bit of a “Mad Max” look on the roof.

(I have since ordered a replacement shroud which will be at our home on Friday. It’s a simple matter of four screws to put on a new one, so not a big deal. I have no idea where the old one is. Upon landing it undoubtedly experienced a RUD.)

Buellton Vintage Rally mod girls

Buellton Vintage Rally mod coupleThe rally, in case you are wondering, was fantastic. David really has found an ideal mix of trailerites and activities, and the result is a fun time with a lot of cool people. In fact, the rally is so popular that it sells out in a matter of days, so David has had to deal with a lot of flack from people who want to attend but couldn’t get in. Success has its drawbacks.

We participated in the vintage fashion show and the vintage scooter parade, among other things.  Eleanor made a 1960s dip (which contained of a lot of stuff you’d never knowingly eat today, but which when combined actually tastes pretty good) for the Vintage Appetizer Party. She and Emma missed no opportunities to dress up, including the 70’s Disco Party and the Tiki Party.

Of course we had to watch the vintage movie by the pool (the 1966 Batman movie, fantastically campy), and who would miss the morning “donut truck” on Sunday before departure? When at a rally, diets are forgotten and there is no shame in being goofy.

 

Buellton Vintage Rally canned hamsBuellton Vintage Rally Pierce ArrowBuellton Vintage Rally canned ham 1

Returning home, I had a mix of feelings about the Caravel. The trip had proved that it is really too small for us, but the trailer is so adorable and relaxing that part of me wanted to keep it. It’s fun to meet up with other vintage trailer owners, and once we sell the Caravel that door will be never be open to us in the same way.

Quartzsite Airstream Caravel 2017-09

This made our final night, parked in the remote BLM land at Quartzsite, somewhat poignant. I took a picture of Emma sleeping in the trailer, in exactly the same position as that little three-year-old we used to travel with, and realized this was the end.  The Buellton bash was an excellent way to experience it just one last time so we’d all remember the Caravel with a fresh fond memory.

We’ll probably stick close to home for the next month or two, but you never know. Perhaps something will come to entice us away for a few days. In the meantime we’re going to be perfecting the Caravel for sale and planning a longer trip for this winter.

Fly and be free, Caravel

While I love having Airstreams and cars and all sorts of other things, periodically I stop to evaluate what “stuff” is in my life.  That’s because the human habit of collecting things combined with the abundance we enjoy in North America quickly results in clutter—and I hate clutter. Clutter inevitably decays (the universal process of entropy) and becomes kipple.  (Read Philip K Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” for a good understanding of this.)

Kipple slowly saps your energy and your money, like negative chi.  It keeps you from being able to move forward creatively and efficiently, trapping you in a world of what was instead of what could be.

I am very devoted to the future and not very attached to the past, so I’ve been looking at the stuff–>clutter–>kipple connection around our home base and trying to figure out whether things fit into our future or are just boat anchors. The boat anchor-type items will get cleared out.

Surprisingly, one of the big items that made my hit list is our beloved 1968 Airstream Caravel. This trailer has some real history with my family, as it was our first Airstream, and the inspiration for Airstream Life magazine and all the things that have followed it.

1968 Airstream Caravel-4388

We’ve kept it in fine condition—in fact, considerably better than when we found it, thanks to a major renovation—but in the last few years we have rarely used it. Almost everything about it has been repaired, replaced, upgraded, or polished.

And yet it sits, because a 17 foot Caravel just isn’t what we’ve needed for the past decade.  It was a lovely trailer when Emma was three years old and we were taking weekends all over New England and Quebec. Everywhere we went people would stop us and ask about it, beg for a tour of the interior, and say “That’s a cool vintage trailer.” But Emma will be old enough to vote in a few months and three adults in a 17 foot trailer just doesn’t work very well for our style of 5-month roadtrips.

Still, over the past few years I’ve kept everything in working condition and ready to go at a moment’s notice just in case we might decide to pop out for an old-fashioned camping weekend. I’ve kept it insured to the tune of $600/year (on a more expensive “Agreed Value” policy since the trailer is fairly valuable), locked with a Megahitch Lock, battery charged, and in a prime spot out of the sun and rain in our carport.

One of my favorite memories of the Caravel was in 2004 in Florida, when we decided to spend a day at the beach near Bradenton. We parked the Caravel next to the beach in the regular lot and used it like a cabana for the day, staying to watch the sunset long after all the other visitors had gone home, and then making dinner before heading away. It was one of many blissfully peaceful times we spent in that old trailer.

Memories like that tempt me to keep the trailer just a little longer, in the hope that somehow we’ll recreate them. But life has moved forward: Emma is driving herself around, making her own plans, and we’ll never have a 4-year-old toddler again, nor will we ever be in our early 40s again. I’m looking forward to the things we can do now, instead of wishing for experiences we can never repeat.

The Caravel, to its credit, has a long life ahead. It is too nice to become kipple, so rather than let it sit and slowly deteriorate we’ve over-invested in maintaining it (as vintage owners often do). It is stocked and trimmed and ready to travel. Just about everything from the axles to the roof vents has been refurbished or replaced. Marmoleum flooring, AGM battery, gray tank, PEX plumbing, and aluminum propane tanks are just a few items on a lengthy list of upgrades.  Someone else will benefit from all of this, and hopefully love it as much as we have, and probably take it on many adventures of their own.

If you know someone who might want this trailer, or are interested yourself, there’s more detail here.

BuelltonBut before we let the Caravel go, we are taking one last trip as a family this week. We’re going to the 8th Annual Buellton Vintage Trailer Bash in Flying Flags RV Park, Buellton CA. Nearly 200 vintage trailers will be there!

Our good friend David Neel runs this event and it has been on our “must do” list for years. Finally, we’re going to make the 600 mile trip with our vintage trailer and join the fun (and hang out a “For Sale” sign).

The Caravel is not the only possession of ours going up for sale; I’m also selling my 1984 Mercedes-Benz 300D Turbo, for similar reasons. It was a great car to me for the past five years and a great vehicle for Emma to learn to drive in, but it doesn’t fit our life going forward. Since that’s a non-Airstream topic I’ll spare you the list of things I’ve done to that car, but believe me when I say it’s an extensive list.  [UPDATE: now sold]

We’re doing a lot more downsizing of “stuff” than these two examples, but you get the idea.  I’m upbeat about it.  I’m not forced to clear out stuff, I want to.  Clearing out the cobwebs and stuff we don’t use will open doors we can’t even imagine yet—and I believe that the longer we avoid kipple, the longer we’ll avoid becoming kipple. And the Caravel will be happier too, when it’s back on the road and seeing America as it was always meant to.