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Palo Alto in his rear-view mirror, Keith Orchard and the Fam headed down Highway 101 in their SUV, Santa Barbara-bound.
They were off to vacation with two other families, take in the cool ocean breeze, soak up the city’s chill vibe and catch the city’s annual wacky and weird Solstice Parade, at which a city councilman dons a jester’s hat and the mayor presides atop a “Game of Thrones” float.
And this eyebrow-raiser, too: They would be staying at a trailer park.
Now, you’ve got to visualize the Orchards to appreciate the incongruity here. Keith and Nancy are your average suburbanites in their mid-40s, working in the high-tech sector, with two middle-school-age kids, Amanda and Charlie. After pulling into the Auto Camp, a tightly packed trailer village off a busy downtown Santa Barbara street, Nancy emerged from the car and started hefting luggage toward their camper, saying, “Thank God, we don’t have to hook it up to anything.”
Keith seemed more amused than bemused by this new experience.
“Jokingly, when we told our friends, ‘Hey we’re going to go stay in Santa Barbara in a trailer park,’ and they were like, ‘What?’ ” he said. “So I say, ‘We’re camping at a trailer park.’ And they say, ‘What?’ So then I say, ‘OK, it’s this Airstream park.’ And then they’re like, ‘Oh, that sounds like fun. Send us a picture.’ ”
Ah, yes. As soon as you invoke the word Airstream, people get the attraction.
It’s one thing to take an RV or trailer on the road, a hulking, lane-clogging Winnebago, or one of those 40-footer, fifth-wheel beauties you tow with a hemi-powered truck. Those are your hard-core, long-haul motor-home folks, where size and bulk matter more than aesthetics and years of practice go in to pulling their rig neatly into a tricky trailer-park hookup site.
But being an Airstream aficionado can be quite another thing.
This is a distinct subset of the camper crowd. They are equal parts old-timers who yearn for simplicity of a 1950s- or early ’60s-era Airstream trailer, appreciate the sleek and shiny silver aluminum shell, the rounded corners riddled with rivets, the homey interior with lace curtains and brushed steel cabinets. They also tend to be romantics when it comes to travel, seeking the adventure of Airstream living without the muss and fuss of dealing with fresh-water tank pumps and dumping of the, uh, not-so-fresh-water tanks.
More recently, too, the hipsters have discovered the retro allure of these silver bullets, these toasters on wheels, these airplane fuselages sans wings.
Across California, Airstream parks or traditional RV parks with permanent Airstreams available for nightly rental have popped up with regularity.
Santa Barbara’s Auto Camp, which has five non-ambulatory, custom-designed Airstreams parked in front of a trailer park with permanent residents, has been featured in such travel bibles as Sunset Magazine, Travel + Leisure and National Geographic Traveler. The Auto Camp is so popular, its owners are planning to open similar sites soon in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ventura.
Kate Pierson, the retro, beehive-coiffed singer from the B-52s, has opened Kate’s Lazy Desert Airstream park near Joshua Tree. Flying Flags RV Park and Campground, in Buellton, a sprawling, upscale trailer park, rents nine Airstreams. The quirky, French-themed Metro Hotel in Petaluma’s wine country has parked a couple of 16-footers in its parking lot.
Even a few utilitarian KOA sites, such as the campground in Santa Cruz, have hitched onto the Airstream trend.
It would be too easy to dismiss this Airstream revival as a fad, a traveler’s version of the oh-so-ironic wearing of trucker hats or horned-rim glasses by trend-seeking hipsters. After all, celebrities such as actors Johnny Depp and Matthew McConaughey, rockers such as Eddie Vedder and Sheryl Crow, own tricked-out tins, perhaps to burnish their Everyman street cred. Country crooner Miranda Lambert, owner of a 1954 Airstream she named “Wanda the Wanderer,” even wrote a song about her trailer: Sometimes, I wish I lived in an Airstream/Homemade curtains, live just like a gypsy/Break her heart and roll out of town/’Cause gypsies never get tied down.
But Airstreams endure. They are vintage and iconic, not merely a passing fancy on the roadways. Inventor, writer and Stanford grad Wally Byam designed the aerodynamic rig back in the 1920s, started his company in Los Angeles in 1930, saw the business go on hiatus during World War II but then come back with a boom in the late 1940s.
The company, now based in Ohio, arguably had its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, when the Eisenhower-inspired interstate highway system encouraged travel. Even amid periodic gas crises and the push for more fuel-efficient means of transportation, Airstream keeps molding aluminum in impressive numbers. Its factory still produces 50 trailers a week and, according to Investor’s Business Daily, enjoyed a 59 percent increase in revenue in 2013 over the previous fiscal year.
Perhaps more impressive, the company boasts that 60 percent of all the trailers it has produced over the past 80 years are still in use.
In fact, the restoration of old Airstreams is a growing side business. In Guerneville, at Russian River Vintage Travel Trailers, Kevin O’Connell re-designs the interiors of other campers besides Airstreams, but he knows what strikes customers’ eyes.
“It’s got great sex appeal,” he said, pointing to a 1957 Airstream Flying Cloud. “You could line up 1,000 trailers on the street, and they’ll flock to this here Airstream. It’s a whole subculture. It’s catching up with the vintage-car folks. People appreciate the craftsmanship.”
Jewelry artist and interior designer Kristiana Spaulding, of the foothill town of Lotus, was so inspired by the lore of Airstreams that she bought eight and redesigned the cabins. Her Airstreams have been used in advertising photo shoots and props in TV shows and movies. Her business boomed so much that she’s temporarily moved to Las Vegas to start a company called Airstream to Go, offering rentals, which will be situated next to a proposed Airstream hotel.
“It’s a proud, beautiful, rounded, clean form,” Spaulding said. “I’m a jeweler, and I love silver, so, for me, that was the initial draw. I love that continuous, beautiful curved lines. Same with the interior, those rounded walls. It’s so liveable. It just makes you feel good living in there. It’s such an intimate space.”
Prices for restored vintage Airstreams vary wildly, depending on the age, the condition of the exterior shell and the extent of the interior design. They easily sell for well into five figures. New Airstream travel trailers range from $40,00 to $95,000, depending on size and amenities.
Based on how expensive it is to own an Airstream, it’s no wonder that driving to a park that rents stationary Airstreams is popular. Though that’s not cheap, either: Most Airstream units, even the tiny 16-foot “Bambi” trailers, charge in excess of $200 a night.
Really, that much for sleeping in a tin can with varying degrees of water pressure in the snug shower?
“It was more than I thought it was going to be; it’s hotel rates,” said Colleen Baker, of San Diego, who organized the three-family Airstream convocation at the Santa Barbara Auto Camp. But it’s a fun way to travel, and you don’t have to tow it, park it and stow it.”
Across the gravel walkway, Adam and Rosa Lund, also of San Diego, were impressed with their Airstream 1959 “Overlander,” re-done in mid-century modern style, which manages to squeeze in one full bed, a pull-out bed, full kitchen and bathroom with glass-tiled shower in a 26-foot space.
Adam, who calls himself a “hotel guy,” acknowledged that Airstream rentals are “a thing now,” but he’s wondering if it will have staying power.
“I’m curious to see, at 200 bucks a night, if they maintain a good occupancy rate and make money. I bet it sure wasn’t cheap to retrofit this sucker, make it look as good as it is.”
The owners of the Auto Camp enlisted local architect Matthew Hofmann to design the interiors. He used “exotic and locally sourced” hardwood and bamboo flooring, “hand-sanded pecan-stained birch interior and repurposed hardwood,” and “solid, glacier-white Corian countertops and Carerra marble tile,” as well as vintage (but new) metal fixtures. Each of the five Airstreams is a work of art, but the most important interior element was the air conditioning unit.
Even in temperate Santa Barbara, the aluminum can get broilerlike in a hurry sans the AC.
At the Flying Flags RV Park in Buellton, part of employee Debbie Brannon’s job is to go to each of the site’s 10 Airstreams and turn on the ceiling AC unit well before guest check-in. She said she knows newbies to Airstream life won’t notice how well-appointed the interior of their rental trailer is if the thing feels like a sweat box.
The 1968 “Ambassador,” 28 feet and nicknamed “Dorothy,” was ice-bucket cold as Brannon unlocked the door. The interior looked like a ’50s sitcom house, miniaturized.
“They did a fabulous job restoring this one,” she said. “If you only could’ve seen them all when they got here. A lot of work. We had artists come in and decorate for us. The trailer next to this is all done in (a) Marilyn Monroe (theme). We’ve got one with a surfboard and sea shells. Each is different.”
Junior Aguilar, who lives in Antelope Valley but was working in Buellton for a week, had a balloon-themed Airstream. He’s 30 and wasn’t really into the Airstream nostalgia. His employer chose where he’d stay — but he said he now is a convert to trailer life.
“I saw it first, and I’m like, ‘These thing are weird but kind of cute,’ ” he said, texting a photo back to his wife at home. “Some people might call them nerdy, but hey it is what it is. I sleep comfortable.”
Across the lot, Terry Gooding, nearly three decades older than Aguilar, was swimming in nostalgia while sitting in a lawn chair outside a 1962 “Land Yacht.”
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a while,” he said. “It’s the old retro-camping thing. The Airstream’s bones, the product itself, will last 80 years. Look at these other, new travel trailers parked here. They aren’t going to last 50 years. They weren’t built to last like Airstreams.”
Not everyone, though, has fallen for the Airstream mystique. One longtime RV observer, Paul Lacitinola, publisher of Vintage Camp Trailers website and magazine, seemed unimpressed.
“For me, they are a more generic trailer,” he said. “I mean, they all do look the same. But it’s get a huge following. There’s no denying it. It’s just such an iconic symbol, so identifiable. When I tell people I restore vintage camper trailers, they’ll say, ‘Oh, like an Airstream?’ I’ve never owned an Airstream and I’ve owned hundreds of vintage trailers. But (Airstreams) are shiny, and people like that.”
At Petaluma’s Metro Hotel, the front desk clerk, Omar, said that whenever he tells Airstream guests that the hotel soon will replace its two 16-foot “Bambis” with three larger, newer models, “They always ask if they can buy the old ones. They ask seriously.”
Even guests who don’t necessarily ask to stay in an Airstream become converts. Carmen Meyer, from Austin, Texas, had to make a last-minute trip to Sonoma County and liked the Metro, where she’s stayed before. But she was told the only room available in the boutique hotel was a 16-foot Airstream.
“It’s actually nice,” she said. “Totally adorable.”
After two nights and three days of Santa Barbara Airstream living, the Orchards gave the experience mostly positive reviews.
“There’s an authenticity to (an Airstream),” Keith said. “And of course, driving back home, we saw them everywhere. We’re like, ‘Oh, there’s one. Oh there’s another one.’ Amazing how many are on the road.”
And how many are parked in trailer parks, waiting for the young and hip, the old and nostalgic, to squeeze in for a night of retro charm.