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What is now called caravaning—groups of anywhere from 50 to 1,000 people towing vacation trailers behind them, on preplanned, tightly scheduled tours—is a relatively new phenomenon, but its roots go far back into the American Automotive Age. In the 1920s, when automobiles, highways and gas stations began to proliferate and affect everyone's way of life, cars were smaller and slower, accommodations scarcer and habits of frugality stronger than they are now. In consequence, not a few shade-tree mechanics began to make boxed-in truck beds and towable covered carts that allowed them to carry their gear across the face of America while sleeping and cooking in or near their vehicles. The Depression introduced an element of necessity to the enterprise. By the mid-1930s there were some 250,000 trailers, or "mobile homes," as some forgotten euphemist named them. There were also hundreds of small factories turning out commercial mobile homes. Among these was Airstream, owned by the former publisher of a how to carpentry magazine, a Californian named Wally Byam. Byam, according to his book (Trailer Travel Here and Abroad), began as a backyard hobbyist, building his first trailer out of Masonite and furring strips.
As it was for so many others, World War II was a swell deal for mobile-home makers. With big industry and big government both having an urgent need for quick, cheap, utilitarian housing, there were cash customers for every trailer unit makers could build. Following the war the mobile home establishment reached a parting of the ways. One group of entrepreneurs began to concentrate on the homey features of the rigs, building, instead of small tourist cabins on wheels, small multiroom apartments, which were just mobile enough to be towed by a diesel tractor from the factory to a vacant lot where they were set down on concrete foundations, there to remain as anchored as a chicken coop. Though immobile mobile homes have been roundly damned by planners, beautifiers and conservationists, about 6 million Americans live in them today. Meanwhile, the other branch of the industry went back to doing what it had been doing before the war, building temporary accommodations that one way or another could be propelled along a highway by vacationers.
While Wally Byam, the Airstream man, was only one of many pioneer trailer builders, he was indisputably the inventor of the trailer caravan. In 1951 Byam gathered together 63 trailers and started out from El Paso to drive to Guatemala City and back. Reports by survivors suggest this first caravan was a grueling experience. Only 14 trailers completed the trip. Mechanical breakdowns were frequent and dissension considerable.
Despite all the difficulties with Caravan No. 1, Wally Byam persevered. Before he died in 1962, unfortunately—for dramatic purposes—in bed, Byam personally led 18 caravans, including several to Africa and Europe and even planned one mind-blowing round-the-world expedition of 125 Airstreams. (Forty-five actually made it after his death.) Between 1951 and 1962 Byam codified the Caravan Way of Life, laying down regulations, ethical and philosophical principles that to this day are revered and respected at Airstream and rather obviously imitated by competitors.
Byam gave his name to the Way of Life. For example, Airstream employees do not refer to Caravan No. 71, but to the Airstream Wally Byam Caravan No. 71. Byam left caravaners a creed. It begins: "In the heart of these words is an entire life's dream. To those of you who find in the promise of these words your promise, I bequeath this creed...my Dream belongs to you." It ends: "To refine and perfect our product by continuous travel testing over the highways and byways of the world." Byam designed the blue beret, the hat that caravaners are expected to wear while en caravan, and decided that the proper way to park a caravan was in a big circle, pioneer wagon-train fashion. Most important, Byam decreed that no one who did not own an Airstream would be permitted on a Wally Byam Caravan.
"The Wally Byam Caravan is a strong sales promotion tool," says Charles Manchester. "The caravans have created a lot of publicity for our product and convinced people of the durability of trailers. The fact that there are caravans overcomes some of the doubts people have about the difficulties of trailering. A new owner can join a caravan, pick up a lot of tips from just watching and know that if he gets in trouble there will be plenty of people to help him. Also there is the matter of the friends people make on a caravan. Once they have gone on a Wally Byam Caravan they are inclined to stay with our product so they can stay with their friends."
Most of the major trailer firms sponsor exclusive group trailer travel tours, but the Wally Byam Caravans remain the largest and most intricately organized of the lot. The Airstream Way of Life Division, located in Cerritos, Calif., currently has 11 full-time employees. They publish the Blue Beret, the caravaners' newsletter, sell blue berets, decals, stickers and other accessories, and conceive, schedule and promote Wally Byam Caravans, of which there are now 10 or so a year.
To go on a Wally Byam Caravan, all that is necessary after the purchase of an Airstream trailer is to sign up with the Way of Life Division, report on a given day to some rendezvous like Laredo and pay your money into the caravan kitty. For No. 71 the payment was $50 per trailer and $10 per head. The money is used to pay for entertainment, "charitable" donations to the Mexican municipalities where the caravan encamps and other miscellaneous communal expenses. From that point on, a caravaner can sit back in the driver's seat and relax, letting the Wally Byam organization take over.
Each Airstream caravan is assigned four couples of veteran trailer travelers who are trained and paid—on a part-time basis—by the company. They are the Leader, Recreation Director, Advance and Servicemen. In the Airstream system the Leader and Advance and Service operatives are men, the Recreation Director a woman. The Advancemen drive over the scheduled route a month or so prior to the tour, inspect parking sites and lay some Airstream bread on functionaries whose goodwill is needed. During the caravan, the Advance couple stays a day ahead, ready to radio back to the main convoy in case there is a need to change the route or schedule. The Serviceman, pulling his trailer with an Airstream factory truck that is crammed with trailer parts, follows behind the caravan each day, ministering to the mechanically halt and maim. Though the Servicemen are only responsible for fixing trailers, it is their vow that no member of a Wally Byam Caravan is ever left behind on the road, no matter what his difficulties. If the Serviceman cannot make on-the-spot repairs he gets the malfunctioning rig to a garage. Recreation Directors, who are usually chatty, gregarious ladies, organize caravaners for all sorts of intragroup fun, from bridge to square dancing. The Recreation Director also sees to it that the Airstreamers get to bullfights, floating gardens, bona fide native ruins, markets and the better-class curio shops, and that city dignitaries show up at caravan encampments to present official welcomes and city keys. Generally speaking, there is little unplanned time on a caravan, but this appears to be for most an attraction rather than a nuisance.
"If you go alone," says Ed Hinkle from Santa Rosa, Calif., "you've got to find everything for yourself and you pay through the nose. This way you can pack a lot more into a day and you're sure you are going to see the things you should."