Where the rubber meets the parking lot, a hometown grows
By Amy Dickinson
Published June 18, 2004
Text of article:
JACKSON CENTER, Ohio -- It is a perfect Ohio day. Sunlight caroms between the emerald flatland and the flawless sky, which is the same color as Ken and Pieternella ("Petey") Faber's 1955
GMC pickup truck.
"It's aqua," Petey says.
The Fabers' shiny pickup has pulled their 16-foot 1948
"Wee Wind" Airstream trailer all the way from Wyoming, Mich. They have scored a prime parking spot on the blacktop -- not too far from and not too close to the public latrine.
Just right. It is the first weekend of June, and the little town of Jackson Center (pop. 1,369) is the center of the universe for 165 Airstreams and their owners. For the first time in nine years, the Airstream Company is hosting a "Homecoming Celebration," welcoming owners to come camp on company grounds. Though there are plenty of opportunities for Airstream owners to get together, this event has been much anticipated by those eager to see the birthplace of their beloved homes on wheels.Like homesick space pods, these quirky vehicles have returned to the mothership, the sprawling factory where Airstreams have been made since 1952 (the company was founded in 1931 in downtown Los Angeles). Everything from vintage shiny kielbasa-shaped trailers to huge blocky Land Yachts are clustered in the parking lots or lined up like soldiers on the enormous grassy field behind the plant. This gathering represents the most devoted of the line's low-speed road warriors. They call themselves Airstreamers and they have come from as far as California, Florida and Washington state.
Now they'd like to stay put and sit a spell.
The Airstreamers line up their homes next to one another with military precision, the center of one exactly 18 feet from the center of the next, a distance that has been precisely staked out in advance by the Airstream "layout crew." They expertly unhitch their towing vehicles -- mainly 4x4s and Suburbans. They unfurl their flags, awnings and welcome mats. They plug into their power source and hook up to the water supply -- there's the 5/8-inch hose for water, and the other -- the 4-inch diameter accordion outflow sewer hose that snakes out behind the trailer and disappears into a fitting over an underground tank.
Water in, water and waste out. That's how it goes. This is the stuff of life when the caravan pulls into port.
Out come the lawn chairs, the collapsible tables, the potted plants. The dogs climb out of their aluminum homes and shake out their stiff limbs before they find a spot to curl up outside.
In the world of recreational vehicles, there are pop-top camper people, travel trailer people, truck camper people and motor home people. Then there are the Airstreamers.
Though the word is out that Airstreams are "cool" and "retro" and even though there is talk that Airstreams are a must-have Hollywood accessory, none of those Hollywood people is here in Ohio. (Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are traversing the country in a 25-foot Airstream International CCD model in the second season of "The Simple Life," but they aren't here, either.)
This is the hard-core, gray-haired traveling crowd. These Airstreamers follow the sun to Florida or Arizona in the winter, then head north in the summer. The perennial travelers, known in the Airstream world as "full timers," drift from rally to rally (there are about 1,300 Airstream events around the world every year), have their mail forwarded to their next destination and tell their kids they're off spending their inheritance.
The Airstreamers are a cheery band of travelers who have created their own version of "home." Once they engage the parking brake and hook up their hoses, they put down roots that spread faster than kudzu. For now, this patch of company ground is their hometown. Strolling Airstreamers wave a hearty "Hi there!" The first sign of trouble or uncertainty brings neighbors out of their rigs, offering help with a hook-up, a spare hose or a spare opinion or two.
I've arrived at the Airstream Homecoming driving a menacing-looking 2-ton GMC pickup, behind which I am towing a teensy and adorable 19-foot 2002 Airstream "Bambi" -- both borrowed from my Airstream enthusiast friend, Jim Dicke. For my 15-year-old daughter, Emily, and me, this is a first-ever trailer camping experience, and we are a little anxious that we won't be able to handle some of the mechanicals involved. We needn't have worried. My hour-long effort to back the Bambi into our assigned spot draws a little crowd of helpful "c'mon back" neighbors, after which they commence the community unhitching and hose hook-up ritual.
Daryl Ewles, 67, is president of the Wally Byam Caravan Club, International (named after Airstream's founder). With more than 7,000 Airstreams registered, it is the largest club of Airstream owners. Just now Ewles is standing outside his Airstream holding a clipboard while he reviews the parking plan for the club's upcoming rally, in Lansing, Mich. That event is the largest annual gathering of Airstreams in the country; they're expecting around 1,300 rigs. Forty people are working on his parking crew and just now Ewles is mapping out the site on a very detailed chart. His parking plan includes a large area reserved just for Airstreamers who are bringing their dogs to the rally. (There will be a full-time vet in attendance whose office is in an Airstream.)
Elwes says the majority of the club's members are, like he and his wife, former military people and retired schoolteachers. "Our average age is 60-65, we're conservative, we're patriotic, and . . . oh, and we're nuts," he laughs.
Dinner that night at the food tent resembles a sprawling church supper. The approximately 350 Airstreamers -- every last one of them Caucasian, silver haired and hardy -- eat fried chicken and scalloped potatoes. They've never met a stranger. When diners leave the table, their places are taken by yet more outgoing Airstreamers, whose standard greeting is, "So what are you towing?" Once you're able to answer that question, including the length, year, make and model of your trailer, the rest of the conversation unspools like the smoothest macadam.
Now you're neighbors.
They talk about politics, their travels, their cholesterol count, and where to get cheap Lipitor or cheap dental care. (Answer: Canada and Mexico.) After dinner, they gather at card tables in the space between their rigs and play hearts, pinochle or "joker" -- a combination card and board game popular with Airstreamers. They poke around each other's rigs, comparing notes about gas consumption and leaky hoses. When one gentleman is asked where he and his wife are from, he says, "wherever we park," crooking a thumb back to his gi-normous Land Yacht.
Airstreamers have mastered the recipe for instant friendship. Whatever the human ingredient, you just add an Airstream and start talking. They talk about the fun they have connecting and reconnecting with people as they travel around the country.
Dicky Riegel, 38, has been the president and CEO of Airstream for two years. By 8 a.m. on Saturday he's cruising the Airstream campground in a golf cart, serving coffee to surprised Airstreamers who are up early, crisply dressed and walking in pairs toward the food tent, where the doughnuts are. After breakfast there are tours of the factory to take, company-owned vintage models to inspect and a vintage car show and carnival in town.
Riegel has been at the helm during a period of rapid growth and change at Airstream. This year the company expects to produce between 1,500 and 1,800 trailers, up from 600 two years ago. Airstreams range in price from $33,000 for a Bambi like the one I'm towing to around $250,000 for the largest model -- a 39-foot Airstream XL 390 that sleeps up to nine and has a skydeck on top (presumably the skydeck is most useful when the vehicle is parked). Riegel says he relishes the quirky older owners. "Sure, they're kooks and they say they're nuts, but they're such good people supporting each other. This is a real community." Riegel notes that while the small-town feel of the Homecoming suits the Airstream image, the largest percentage of sales lately is of the newest "International CCD" series, which has a retro-style, tricked-out interior designed by trendy Christopher Dean. "Our newer customers are well-educated, fun-loving, roving spirits with an interest in design," he says.
Ken Faber is all of that, only he's not a new customer. He and wife Petey bought their first Airstream in the early '60s. They've owned 17 different Airstream models over the last 40 years.
Just now Ken is polishing his 1948
Wee Wind. He isn't giving it a full-out polish, but a reflexive polish done with a tiny daub of spit and his thumb. The Wee Wind, one of only three of this model known to be on the road, is already perfect, inside and out, the result of a painstaking restoration by the couple.
If this little makeshift hometown had a prom king and queen, Ken and Petey would be it. Lanky, movie star attractive and twinkly around the eyes, the Fabers, married for 43 years, raised four kids in their hometown of Wyoming, which is on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. Ken is a senior agent with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. The couple manage commercial real estate properties together. Like many Airstreamers, they started their camping life in a tent.
The Fabers own five vintage Airstreams. In addition to the Wee Wind, they have a '63 Bambi, a '64 Bambi II and two '64 Globetrotters. They proudly note that they have traveled and camped in each of them. "These aren't `for show.' We use them," Petey says. They have traveled with a vintage Airstream and camped in the grasslands of South Dakota, and their most recent far-flung trip was joining up with a vintage Airstream caravan and driving their vintage rig all the way to Belize.
"We call ourselves "boondockers" -- we take our little Airstreams and go backwoods camping," Ken says. "Some people like a home away from home. They pull in their Land Yachts and turn on their TV and let the dog out and you don't see them. We're into camping, travel and seeing the world."
The Fabers say that one secret to their family's closeness and their marital happiness was their commitment, 43 years ago, to travel together for 10 to 12 weeks every year and to start each and every day they're together with a nice long breakfast, which the couple did just this morning, seated at the little dinette in their Wee Wind.
Elsewhere on Airstream grounds, Daryl Ewles and his wife, Myrna, show off their 39-foot double slide XL396 Land Yacht, the largest vehicle Airstream makes. This has been the couple's full-time home since they sold their house and left Garden City, Mich., for good in 1994. "Years ago, we started out in a tent, camping with the kids," he says. "Now we have surround-sound."
`You're not camping'
Ewles says that sometimes people look askance at the giant Land Yacht, with its bathtub, washer/dryer, two sewing machines, two computers, microwave oven and seat vibrators. ("I even have a trombone in here," Ewles says.) "People say, `You're not camping.' And I say, `You camp the way you want, and I'll camp the way I want.'"
Ewles says he has about a dozen friends who are full-timers the way he and Myrna are. They cross paths with their friends as they criss-cross the country attending rallies, visiting family and sightseeing. They traversed the country twice last year, spending the nights in between events parked at campsites or Wal-Mart parking lots -- or enjoying the neighborly "courtesy parking" the Airstream owners extend to one another, where fellow Airstreamers can park for free in the driveways of those who still own houses.
By Sunday afternoon the mood at the Airstream campground shifts. The Airstreamers are thinking ahead now. It's time to pull up stakes, pull in the flags and the chairs and the card tables, rouse the dog and get going. They have someplace to be and it's almost time to hit the road.
As my daughter and I pack up -- Airstream veterans after three days -- we draw the now customary cluster of helpers, talkers and well-wishers. Hugs and cell phone numbers are exchanged. It's surprisingly hard to say goodbye to our new hometown, partly because we helped create it.