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Caravans to Mexico are the most popular of all those sponsored by the trailer manufacturers. The principal reason is the security provided by the hired Recreation Directors, etc. Most caravaners fancy themselves as free spirits perfectly capable of pushing their rigs anyplace they choose in the U.S.A. or even Canada, but nearly everyone on a caravan feels that crossing the Southern border alone is carrying adventure a bit far. Old Mexico has always had a strong exotic appeal for American tourists, being the only really strange place you can drive to from Rudolph, Ohio, but the country also frightens them. Mexico, after all, is full of foreigners who don't speak English, descendants of Pancho Villa and amoebic dysentery. A good bit of conversation at the Laredo rendezvous of No. 71 was made up of horror stories, many of them told officially by caravan leaders, about what has happened to honest Americans who ate Mexican lettuce, ran afoul of Mexican laws or strayed off the paved roads. The general feeling is that while going alone with your trailer into Mexico might invite some bad lamb and wolf scenes, no foreigners are likely to jump a herd of 300 Airstreams shepherded by corporate-trained Recreation, Advance, Service and Leadership technicians.
Arthur Droheim from Bristol, Conn. had his new Airstream delivered one day, practiced with the rig for a few hours and the next day set off with his wife to drive out of the ice, snow and sleet to the Laredo rendezvous, 3,000 miles away. So far as Droheim was concerned, the transcontinental expedition was routine, but he admitted that the first day's drive from Laredo to Monterrey shook him. "Did you see that place?" Droheim asked wonderingly of Monterrey. Monterrey is a busy, crowded industrial center of 500,000. It is a street city, as most Mexican communities are. The avenues are clogged with all manner of vehicles, many of which are manned by highly competitive drivers. Hordes of pedestrians wander blithely in and out of traffic. There are a few on the Monterrey streets who are capable of amusing themselves by thumping the aluminum sides of an Airstream Wally Byam trailer and yelling, "Hallo, Gringo." Old No. 71 moved through this turmoil slowly, the rigs bumper to bumper, car windows rolled tightly shut, drivers and co-pilots staring forward to spot the red Wally Byam signs tacked up that morning by the Advanceman to direct the caravan to the haven under the Carta Blanca billboard.
"Can you imagine what would have happened back there," said Arthur Droheim, contemplating his adventure from the safety of the wagon circle, "if you were alone and had trouble in a place like that, not knowing the language or where you were or what kind of people you were dealing with? Frankly, I don't think my wife would have stood still for us traveling in Mexico alone. But when you are with a caravan it's different. If worse comes to worse you can just sit tight and wait for the Serviceman to find you."
This viewpoint is discussed almost openly by a guide for several company-sponsored Caracades or Travelvans who, still being in this line of work, does not care to be identified. "These people tend to huddle," he says. "You know, most of them have run their own businesses or farms, been executives or military men, but they get down here and they want to be told what to do and when to do it. They get very dependent on their leaders. After a while you get the feeling you are in charge of a kindergarten class of 60-year-olds. A couple of years ago I had a bunch parked outside Mexico City. We were going to stay two or three days. One afternoon I had to drive over to the airport to meet a friend. I didn't say anything about it, just pulled out. I looked back and here are seven of them coming after me. They must have thought I was getting away and they weren't going to be left behind."
The head honcho of Wally Byam No. 71, the man who has to put it all together, keep it rolling and soothe the worries is the Caravan Leader, Ralph Waters, and his wife, Frankie. The Waterses, who have been on 15 caravans, are old Mexico hands as well as people steeped in Wally Byam lore. At Laredo the Waterses are preoccupied with the delicate business of selecting chairmen and members for the 81—yes, 81—committees without which a Wally Byam Caravan is considered inadequately organized. How the committee structure contributes to the Wally Byam Way of Life is spelled out in the information packets given each caravaner when he or she signs on for a tour. Such groups as the Bingo, Birthday and Anniversary, Campfire, Choir, Pot Luck, Sing Song, Postmaster, Police and Safety and Bottled Gas Committees are more or less self-explanatory. However, certain others are esoteric, as, for example, the Ambassadorial Committee, which is described as follows:
"City officials often come to our meetings to welcome the caravan officially. At this time a Wally Byam beret is presented by the Caravan Leader. The Ambassadors should: 1) Following the presentation, meet and invite the guests to visit their Airstream. 2) Be prepared to offer the officials a Coke or a cup of coffee. Mr. and Mrs. Ambassador should be people who enjoy meeting people and who really like to entertain. Their Airstream should be one of the larger models, attractive and relatively new."
The Manhole Committee is technically very important to the trailer Way of Life. "The chairman of the Manhole Committee will locate manholes for [sewage] dumping operations and organize his group for efficient operation." The Show and Tell Committee is simply a fun group. "In Mexico, Caravaners buy many souvenirs. The Chairman will organize and plan a showing of these conversational items."
Organizationally, the top group is the Golden Rule Committee, also called the Caravan Council, which is charged with handling "complaints or problems between Caravaners." Caravan Leaders such as the Waterses, and other Airstream functionaries, tend at first to downgrade the importance of the Golden Rule Committee on the grounds that the type of people who buy Airstream trailers and the orderly nature of the Wally Byam Way of Life make problems virtually nonexistent. But under prodding they confess that yes, on an average five-or six-week caravan, some small frictions will arise and the Golden Rule Committee generally has some work to do. People sometimes fail to dump their sewage where the Manhole Committee Chairman tells them to, there are beefs about parking spots, loud radios, pets messing about in neighbors' gopher holes, drunkenness or just plain cantankerousness.
"A strong leader," says Ralph Waters, "can usually talk to the people and settle things before a problem has to go to the Golden Rule Committee."
But if leadership and persuasion fail?