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.

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.

Let’s talk about it

After such an absence from this blog—the longest continuous blank spot since I started blogging in 2005—I wonder where to begin.  These days social media, blogs, and such demand a continuous stream of updates and trivia, even if there’s nothing to say. I find myself wishing for the days of paper correspondence again, where a month or two away wouldn’t be considered unusual.

Certainly much has happened in the Airstream Life world and personal life, but we’ve done no Airstream travel since arriving in Vermont back in early June and so I’ve been disinclined to fill this blog with other details. It’s not that I felt no one would be interested; it was more a matter of trying to live in the moment.

VT Summer-2

That’s because this season marks a milestone for us. Our summer location for the past decade (the place where I grew up) on the shores of Lake Champlain is going away. The house will be sold and a family tradition will come to an end. No more Tiki Bar parties on the beach, views across the broad lake to the Adirondacks, Frisbee on the lawn, tubing on the lake, sunset dinners on the deck, and nights sleeping in our Airstream beneath the old cedar trees. Knowing this, we’ve savored each day of the short and sweet Vermont summer.

VT Summer-3

That sounds sad, but I prefer to look forward. The memories of past summers and the life-shaping experiences we’ve had can never be taken away from us. Rather than bemoan what is gone, we’ll be looking to new opportunities here in Vermont and in other places. From our years of Airstream travel I have learned that there is always another adventure around the corner, if we just bother to break out of our mental rut and go look for it.

VT Summer-1

There are lots of fun things pending indeed …  Some of our Vermont traditions are perennial, like evening trips to the ice cream stand, weekend Farmer’s Markets, boat rides on the lake, blueberry picking, sweet corn on the cob, the County Fair or Fire Dept BBQ, daytrips to Montreal … all those low-key and local activities that seem so small but end up being fond and important moments in retrospect. None of those things are going away.

This year we added a few things to our repertoire which will help make up for what we can’t do next year. Emma and I have had a blast exploring bike trails and urban areas on our electric unicycles, for example.

After years of borrowing motorcycles for annual rides around New England and Canada, I finally bought my own (an eBay steal) and outfitted it with luggage for week-long tent camping expeditions. The first major trip was across New Hampshire and Maine to Acadia National Park in July. It was a flawless trip. The guys are talking about a bike trip to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island next year, so there’s another nugget of the summer that will be retained.

But I remind myself that every year is different. None of us will ever be this age again and so we must seize the opportunities we have right now, or possibly forgo them forever.  It’s not about what we can’t do anymore, it’s about what we can do. Everything new we do has a chance to be the next cherished memory.

Or as I always say, Airstreaming is not about where you go, it’s where you stopand the things you do when you get there. Our Airstream has traveled exactly zero miles in the last 60 days but nonetheless it has made possible a wonderful summer.

VT Summer-6VT Summer-7

Now it’s winding down for us. Obligations in other places are clamoring for our attention, and we’ll be getting on the road soon. Today is a prep day: cleaning the Airstream inside and out, testing systems that haven’t been used in a while, re-packing and shipping excess stuff home, making rough travel plans, etc.  It’s the lead-up to yet another adventure, so even the prep work comes with a certain excitement of anticipation.

I’ll try to remember to live in the moment, even as we launch across the country knowing that a heap of obligations and responsibilities await us. A summer of savoring has been good practice. But now that summer is almost over, I’ll also try to balance that with more regular updates so that I can share experiences and lessons as we go.

Road trip 2017

It’s that time of year again: Airstream road-trip planning season. (It’s a great time of year.)

Each year we head out of the rapidly-building Tucson heat for a massive cross-country Airstream trip that lasts all summer. Each year we end up in Vermont parked on the shore of Lake Champlain because that’s where family members are—but along the way there’s a great road trip.

Usually we get back home sometime in September or October, although one year we came back in November. It all depends on obligations and opportunities.

Trip-planning is great fun. With a vast American continent to cross there’s no end of tempting detours and stops. With an Airstream we get to take our time and meander, spend time with friends, drop in on lesser-known spots, and (very important) try all kinds of interesting things to eat. The problem is not finding places to go, it’s deciding which ones to skip because even with a month to travel each way there’s never enough time to do it all. What a great problem to have.

The key is not to be in a hurry or afraid. Being in a hurry causes people to take the Interstate when they don’t really need to, and miss everything except what’s at the exits. Being fearful causes people to avoid the unfamiliar, which is a shame because that’s where all the interesting stuff is found. So each year we try to break away from the places we’ve been before (except a few favorites or the unavoidable) and go someplace completely unknown to us.

That is getting harder each year.  Our Airstream has crossed the country at least thirty times, and for the last decade our route has been from Tucson to Jackson Center, Ohio, for Alumapalooza each May. I’m not sure there are many more ways to cross the Plains states. At this point the Airstream could probably drive itself there, like a horse pulling a carriage on a familiar route in the 19th century.

My M.O. is to start with an open map of the USA, and just browse the states between Point A and Point B. I look for national and state parks we haven’t visited, or roads that look curvy enough to be scenic. Then I browse the Internet looking for interesting events, curious destinations, etc.  Adding people we want to see along the way is helpful for picking out a route. For example, last year we met up with two of Emma’s Internet friends IRL.  (That’s “In Real Life” for those who are unschooled in Internet relationships. Remember when there was no other way to meet people other than in real life?)

Sometimes inspiration comes from the oddest places. One year I spotted a random article about “Forbidden Amish Donuts” and that instantly spurred a memorable detour through Amish country in western New York state. We’ve detoured for rallies, snorkeling, free parking, business meetings, to see snow, to get away from snow, national park badges, photo opps, factory tours, festivals, beaches … you name it.  The point is, with the Airstream we can do that.

I do get asked a lot how I can “take five months of vacation.” Of course, I don’t—I’m working all the time as we go, just like many other Airstreamers. These days it’s a lot easier to get online and work from most of North America. In the early days it was a rather tedious experience getting online. Now my cellular Internet is faster than my home Internet.

We don’t plan round-trips. We just plan enough to get through our major obligations, and figure the rest will take care of itself. So here’s our plan so far:

2017 eastbound trip route

Our favorite part of the route is always in the Four Corners region, which is why we’re willing to add a few hundred miles and spend hours toting our trailer up and down the mountain passes of Colorado. This year I’m not sure what exact stops we’ll make but the wide open spaces of the west make it easy to find great campsites. The only thing I know for sure is that we’ll avoid Moab this year. The campground in Arches National Park will be closed all summer and the others in the area will be heavily burdened in May.

There’s a rally in Fort Collins CO happening in mid-May, and we plan to attend that. I will probably do a maintenance presentation there. After that there’s no avoiding the Great Plains and the tedium that is associated with long drives in that area, but I think it will be made better by avoiding the numbing sameness of I-70 through Kansas in favor of Route 36.

The planned route ends where it always must, at the doorstep of Airstream in Jackson Center OH for Alumapalooza. It will be interesting to see how Jackson Center has grown and changed with Airstream bursting at the seams lately.

And after that? Not sure.  We’ve got thoughts of meeting one of the printers I work with in Ohio, visiting family and friends in Pennsylvania, doing genealogical research, camping in the Adirondacks … but who really knows?  It’s fine at this point to have a list of possibilities and a general goal (Vermont by a certain date). We’ll wing it on the rest.

Come along with us for the ride, through this blog.  We hit the road in mid-May.

Superbloom, bah humbug

We were planning to head out last week to one of our favorite spots, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. But then the New York Times, NPR, LA Times, CNN, and even Wired blabbed to everyone about the “superbloom” of desert flowers, and the crowds showed up.

[Big sigh here]  One of the reasons I love going to Anza-Borrego is because it is so wonderfully peaceful, slow-paced, and quiet.  There are thousands of square miles of desert filled with canyons, mountains, precipices, badlands, palm oasis, and human history, and all you have to do is wander off the beaten path to find a spot all your own.

Anza Borrego Airstream solitude

But Wired summed it up:

The nearby community of Borrego Springs more than doubled in size as 5,000 people poured into the area on Saturday, an influx that filled motels, prompted the sheriff to close miles of road, and sparked a fistfight over a pork Cubano.

Our friends Bert & Janie are out there now.  Bert called me a few days before we planned to leave, warning that for the first time he’s ever seen Borrego Springs has traffic jams (a real feat for a town with a population density of 79 people per square mile) and many of the hiking trails were overrun with crowds.

I wouldn’t necessarily cancel a trip just on that basis, but I was behind on the Summer 2017 magazine (having lost some time in February due to a virus) and so it seemed like the smart choice would be to try again in early April, when the crowds have departed.

Anza Borrego canyon

To all those people who drove out from Los Angeles and San Diego to look at the flowers:  I understand the flowers are nice, but if you only go to Anza-Borrego when the media tells you there’s a “superbloom” you’re missing the real beauty of the place.  There’s a subtle beauty that you can only experience without the distraction of thousands of other people nearby.  It takes time to experience, time in which your mind slowly unwinds and relaxes.  Then you begin to notice the little things: the sound of the breeze, an occasional buzz of a bee, the clearness of the air, the silent passage of a desert jackrabbit or bighorn sheep, and the soft light that colors the rocks at dusk.

Anza Borrego sunset  Anza Borrego badlands view

It seems like the past few years we’ve had to search a little harder for the peaceful experiences we formerly took for granted in national and state parks.  The National Park Service was perhaps too successful in promoting the 100th anniversary of the park system last year, and as a result many parks were overcrowded. Even before the anniversary year we noticed it was getting harder to find campsites, and on occasion we had to skip popular national parks even during the “shoulder season”.

Having the Airstream makes it easier for us than for the weekend travelers who need to book a motel.  In a place like Anza-Borrego we can escape the center of the hubbub and retreat to the niches of the park to hear only the whispering breeze and the coyotes howling at night. But that’s the advantage of the vast desert. In most other parks, you can’t just pull off the road and wander around until you find a nice patch to call your own for the night.

If you watch the orientation movie in most national park visitor centers it will almost always emphasize quiet enjoyment of the park.  You’ll hear how our parks are an opportunity to relax, get away from technology and daily stress, appreciate nature, and re-connect with family & friends.

Anza Borrego boondocking

That’s all still true.  I guess the only thing that has changed is that you have to go a little further off the beaten path each year.

This is part of the reason why I sometimes encourage people to travel outside of their personal comfort zone. Every tourist wants to go to Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone and Yosemite.  Go there and you’ll be sure to meet busloads of people. Those are great places but if you’ve got wheels, be different and try the lesser spots: unknown state parks and BLM sites, national forest campgrounds, trails that aren’t conveniently located, places you haven’t read about in travel magazines, the quirk and oddities of this country, and places that have a reputation for horrible weather. I guarantee that if you go with an open mind you’ll find things you never expected but are glad you experienced.

For us, the trick will be to visit Anza-Borrego when the New York Times isn’t talking about it. We used to visit the state park campground every year during the last week of December or first week of January, but I suspect that tradition is over permanently. Still, the door hasn’t closed—it has just moved. I look on this as an opportunity to discover new spots that we love, at other times of year, in order to keep finding peace and relaxation out in the wide southern California desert.