Front cover features my photo of an iconic Airstream in front of a power station in big-sky Colorado.
My featured piece is about Airstreams and the evolution of RV-living with additional photos shot in LA.
Photo used: On and off the grid. Colorado 2018.
The idea of the idea of America. The cult of the American Road and its timeless store of riches. Motels, Greyhound buses, truck-stops, Jack Kerouac, Easy Riders, and Midnight Cowboys. Sat-Nav’s that instruct you to ‘take the next right and drive straight for 800 miles’. 800 miles of alluring, mythical journeys as written about by Hunter S. Thompson and Paul Simon – off to ‘Look for America’ with only his cigarettes in his rain-coat and the lyrics to his economically titled America. Ventura Highway…..being behind the wheels of a large automobile….Heartbreak Hotel. Ear-worms that bore into our heads whilst stuck in the office, dribbling about open-roads and hazy, sunset horizons.
God we need a holiday. We need a fantasy-style romp around the gas stations of the mid-west. We need bottomless cups of diner coffee, blueberry pancakes, nights spent under a big-sky of wandering stars and coyote howls.
We need a road trip. Dagnabbit, we need a ‘Recreational Vehicle’. In an RV we control our own journey. We’re the boss and director of our own schedule. No need to book ahead, no need to drag round a heavy suitcase, no need for planning. They offer us a simple, self-sufficient way of getting away from it all.
A buggering-off lineage that stretches back to the 1930s when American designer Hawley Bowlus – engineer and builder of aircraft – designed the body shape of one of the first, and probably most iconic of American RVs, the Airstream. He based its shape on his design for the aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis. But his Bowlus Company struggled so Wally Byam of Los Angeles acquired it shortly after. Byam knew a thing or two about coachbuilding having spent much of the 1920s pottering about his back-yard building wooden trailers. (This was the prohibition era – what else was there for him to do) In 1936, after having changed the original design by relocating the door from the front to the side, the Airstream as we recognise it today was born and brightly shone; the Airstream Clipper.
In an Airstream, there’s everything we could possibly want from a perfectly laid-out sausage-shaped chunk of riveted aluminum. Not only does an Airstream make travel sense but its more than the sum of its practical parts. The Airstream is as shiny in nostalgic ‘Americana’ as it is silver. And that’s the most appealing part of its charm…. It’s the gateway to a certain American 1950s lifestyle. That magical, optimistic period between the end of WW2 and things beginning to unravel again in ’63 when Kennedy got shot and the Vietnam conflict and the Cold War dragged continuously on. That brief period when – like an Airstream – things were shiny and modern and there was nothing to stand in the way of us, the jet-age, the open-road and time spent with family.
In the middle of its post-war boom, America was revolutionizing ‘leisure travel’ for the working masses. It was the first country to democratize car-ownership – way back in 1908 – when Henry Ford’s Model-T rolled off the production line in motor-city Detroit. His factory system reduced production costs allowing for an American transport revolution. At the same time, Mr. Ford paid his worker’s well; his high wages created a new, blue-collar class that had its own independent, commercial clout to afford this new mobility.
The evolution of leisure-travel vehicles from the Model-T to the Airstream was but a short, entrepreneurial jump. With the development of other, now iconic American RVs such as the Winnebago (‘66) and the GMC Motorhome (’73) the RV legacy continued. In less time than it took to ask if you’re going to San Francisco it seemed like every California counter-culturist (The Merry Pranksters) or private investigator (Jim Rockford / Scooby-Doo and the gang) or band (The Partridge Family, the Grateful Dead) was either living in, traveling in or up to no good in a mobile home, a tour-bus or some other ideation of the RV.
While it used to be the preserve of those who had mostly turned-on, tuned-in, and dropped-out, living in an RV now appeals to a whole other demographic. Unlike Walter White and Jesse Pinkman Breaking Bad in their Fleetwood Bounder some people do manage to hold down full-time jobs AND a family from their mobile home. We see them on Instagram, their gaily-strung bunting and twinkly fairy lights decorating converted Ford Transits. They write articles about having made the mortgage-liberating jump from convention into mobile-enlightenment and environmentally-sound sustainability. But are they really going without a proper shower or bath for that long?
But despite its allure and enduring appeal, an RV romp around the sleepy backwaters of America is something we should probably experience as a once-in-a-lifetime trip? Why ruin the magic by constantly repeating reality until all you have is a bad back from uncomfortable nights spent sleeping on a pull-down bed. Or memories of endlessly hand-washing socks that never quite dry or having to manage constant feelings of isolation due to dead batteries and loss of Wi-Fi.
Better still, don’t go at all and keep the idea of a special trip on the Magic Bus fixed in popular culture where it probably belongs. A much-needed fantasy and escape route to keep us sane whilst stuck in convention. Something visceral we can ponder on, daydream about, aspire to. Something we can convince ourselves we could do if we wanted to. I mean, we could just sell-up and go live in an Airstream. We could drop off the grid with nothing but a Pendleton blanket, a can of beans, a hip-flask and a starry starry sky. I mean, we could……if we really wanted to……