Nation/World

Airstreamers Go With The Flow Caravan Of Travelers Pitches Camp In Coeur D’Alene

No slaves to the whims of fashion, hundreds of Airstream trailer owners rumbled into the Lake City this week.

The silver sausages still were arriving Wednesday as orange-gloved volunteers directed each trailer into place at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds. They’ll be here through Sunday.

“That’s what they call the classic style - the Cadillac of RVs,” said Arizona native Dave Walker, 71, admiring a Land Yacht docking nearby.

There’s no mistaking an Airstream. They’re rounded and riveted, with streamlined hulls made of gleaming aircraft aluminum.

And while other camper companies dress up their fiberglass creations in snazzy paint, Airstream hasn’t strayed very far from the simple look it pioneered in 1936.

“It’s not trendy. It’s good, solid, first-class,” said Zelma Bernd, of Lacey, Wash. “To us, it’s not an old-fashioned look; it’s the look.”

“We call those others ‘SOBs,”’ said Alfred Fredekind, also of Lacey. “Some Other Brand.”

“This is our way of life,” said Ken Eckley, 73, of San Francisco. “Airstreaming.”

The Airstreamers meeting in Coeur d’Alene are members of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, a group of travelers named after the man who founded the company.

Travelers, mind you, not campers.

“We’re not camping. We don’t camp. We travel,” said John Rothgeb, who spends nine months a year roaming the country in his 1996 model. It has solar panels on the roof.

Not everyone can join the club. For one thing, you must own an Airstream trailer - new ones range from $32,000 to $58,000. And even some Airstreams were blackballed for a long time. Airstream motor homes, for example, only recently got the nod, and Airstream trailers with the audacity to be painted - sold under the brand name Argosy - were allowed to join only last year. A new boxy motor home made by Airstream is allowed in the club, but is derided as a “Squarestream.”

Byam formed the company in 1931, selling plywood trailer kits that buyers assembled at home. Using construction techniques and workers borrowed from the Curtis Wright Airplane Co., Byam began making aluminum trailers in 1936. He promised buyers “the world at your doorstep for those who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home.”

To prove it, he led huge “caravans” of his trailers across Europe, Mexico and Africa, sometimes flying in gasoline ahead of the travelers.

“We prefer the secondary roads. All the freeways look alike. But when you get on the secondary roads, you see things like they are,” said Al Kerwin, 78, who lives in an Airstream-only mobile home park in Lacey, Wash.

Byam died in the late 1960s. But the club bearing his name holds international rallies each year in the United States. This year’s drew more than 2,000 Airstreams, a silver city with its own temporary post office and “Wally Byam Control,” a CB radio channel to keep Airstreamers abreast of events. Flaggers direct arriving trailers precisely into place.

“You look down this line and there’s nobody out of line,” said Kerwin.

Kerwin will be giving the Sunday service at the Airstream encampment. He’s so taken with Airstreams and their creator that his sermon uses the dedication of Airstreamers as a metaphor for the dedication of Christians.

“We revere Wally Byam and follow his precepts, just like as Christians we follow Jesus. Both are a way of life,” said Kerwin.

The 1972 trailer he shares with his wife, Winona, is homey and tidy. There’s a spice rack, table for six, an afghan blanket on the couch. Flowers are on the table near the cribbage board, and pictures of great-grandchildren are taped to the wall.

Airstreamers tend to look out for each other, said Winona Kerwin. They’ll call each other on CB Channel 14 and compare travel notes.

“You meet them on the highway and you’re not alone,” she said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Streamlined facts The Airstream Trailer Co. began in 1931, when founder Wally Byam began selling $415 plywood trailer kits. He introduced the aluminum “Clipper” in 1936. It sold for $1,200 and included a dry-ice air conditioning system. Since then, the company has built 115,000 trailers, of which 80,000 reportedly are still on the road. Today’s trailer prices range from $32,392 to $58,223, with lengths from 21 feet to 34 feet. Airstream, headquartered in Jackson Center, Ohio, manufactures 550 trailers per year. It also makes motor homes, buses and fifth-wheel campers.

This sidebar appeared with the story: Streamlined facts The Airstream Trailer Co. began in 1931, when founder Wally Byam began selling $415 plywood trailer kits. He introduced the aluminum “Clipper” in 1936. It sold for $1,200 and included a dry-ice air conditioning system. Since then, the company has built 115,000 trailers, of which 80,000 reportedly are still on the road. Today’s trailer prices range from $32,392 to $58,223, with lengths from 21 feet to 34 feet. Airstream, headquartered in Jackson Center, Ohio, manufactures 550 trailers per year. It also makes motor homes, buses and fifth-wheel campers.



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