There is one
thing we have always especially enjoyed about this way of life," says Mrs.
Eleanor Roe. Mrs. Roe indicates the flat field behind the Laredo, Texas Civic
Center in the middle of which she and her husband, Dale, are sitting in a pair
of aluminum and plastic lawn chairs. The field is treeless, almost grassless,
and would be barren except at the moment it is occupied by 300 Airstream travel
trailers. Collectively the herd of trailers is known as the Airstream Wally
Byam Caravan No. 71. In a few days the Roes, along with all the other members
of No. 71, will shove off on an eight-week, 3,741-mile expedition to Yucatan
and back. All of the trailers look very much like the Roes' Airstream #8807,
being elliptical, glistening, aluminum-skinned vehicles. The 600 or so people
belonging to the trailers are more various but have many points of similarity.
For example, a lot of them, like the Roes, are sitting in lawn chairs in the
Laredo field. Almost all of them are wearing jaunty blue berets emblazoned with
a Wally Byam Caravan Club insignia, a headpiece that, if not legally required,
is strongly encouraged by the Airstream operatives in charge of the caravan.
But in addition to these superficial similarities, the members of the caravan
have much else in common.
"So many of
us," says Mrs. Roe, who is from Rudolph, Ohio, "are from small towns,
have our own homes and have what I guess you could say is the small-town
spirit. This is just like being in a small town, only one that moves with you.
You never have a chance to get bored or lonely because there are so many
friendly, interesting people with you. You're traveling but you are always at
The notion that
driving along a highway pulling a trailer in convoy with a few hundred other
trailers of the same brand is a way of life comparable to the way life is lived
in a small town has occurred to many caravaners. It has also not only occurred
to, but is assiduously promoted as a compelling sales pitch by virtually all of
the 50 or so firms that manufacture travel trailers. (At Airstream, the largest
of these companies, the corporate unit in charge of scheduling, arranging and
pushing caravans is officially known as the Way of Life Division.)
But popular as
the small-town figure is, it is not entirely accurate. In the first place, 300
trailers parked in a bare Texas field do not look like Rudolph, Ohio. They look
like a small military bivouac or a large used-car lot. A caravan is much more
homogeneous than, say, a company town in the West Virginia coal fields. There
are no big, fancy, shaded houses up on the Heights, no unpainted, crumbling
shacks down by the tracks. There is only acre after acre of Airstreams—or,
depending on the sponsor—Avions, Holiday Ramblers, Nimrods, Shastas, Winnebagos
or whatever, all identical.
while it is true that a high percentage of the caravaners are originally from
small towns, a small town populated with the kind of people who go on caravans
would be a bizarre community. Nearly all caravaners are over 50. On Caravan No.
71 there are only two children. There are no indigents, but on the other hand
hardly any caravaners are still regularly employed. The preretirement
occupations of the group were, of course, various, but nearly all of them were
of the supervisor, manager, officer, owner and/or professional type. There are
no dirty people, long-haired, protesting, boat-rocking, banner-bearing people
in these mobile communes and practically no drunken, philandering, pugnacious
travel trailer caravan resembles the double-distilled, concentrated, 99% pure
essence of Middle America, that badly named phenomenon which knows no
geographical bounds and is currently intriguing so many social analysts. As is
often the case in pop sociology, none of the authorities seem willing or able
to circulate a definitive guide that locates Middle Americans or describes
their distinctive characteristics. But until some better place is found, a
student of—and one might as well use the phrase—Middle America could do worse
than to go to the field behind the Laredo Civic Center. Airstream Wally Byam
Caravan No. 71 is as predictable as a cheeseburger, satisfying as it does many
of the deep-seated desires of touring Americans while protecting them from most
of the things they know or imagine to be disagreeable.
"Take my rig
over there," advised Don Dunlap, a retired Bradenton, Fla. general
contractor, pointing to his 1969 27-foot air-conditioned Airstream trailer
attached to his 19-foot 1969 air-conditioned Cadillac. Dunlap's rig is sitting
in another bare dusty field, this one in Monterrey, Mexico, hard under an
enormous Carta Blanca beer billboard, where Caravan No. 71 has pulled up after
its first day's run from Laredo. "Altogether," says Dunlap, "that
cost 16,000 bucks. I figure what with maintenance, depreciation and what you
lose by not having the money invested, it costs you $150 a month or so just to
keep a rig like that. Give or take a little, it's about the same for everyone
here. So what does that tell you? It tells you that people on a caravan like
this have got together a few bucks from somewhere. Also it tells you that these
people are going to be people that talk your language, that have the same sense
of values you do."
"What we have
is a group of fairly well-to-do people who have the money to spend their
vacation at the Greenbrier, but might be a little uncomfortable in such a
place," says Bob Korff, the vice-president in charge of advertising for
Avion, the second (behind Airstream) most prestigious of the trailermakers.
"That is an
interesting opinion," says Charles Manchester, the Airstream executive
vice-president, upon learning of his counterpart's analysis. "However, I
don't think I really agree, and I'm sure many of our people would not like to
hear themselves described that way."
Manchester may be
a small indication of why Airstream is a very strong No. 1 in the
trailer-selling game. He is a smooth, articulate, charming man who neither
looks nor talks much like a caravaner. Though it is a gloomy, slushy day in
Sidney, Ohio, Airstream's Eastern headquarters, Manchester is tanned and
relaxed, confessing that he was able to slip away for a few days to the
Bahamas, where he chartered a fishing boat. "Our people," says
Manchester, "are people who have led vigorous, productive lives. Many of
them are retired now, but they are not inclined to be sedentary. The
excitement, activity, adventure and companionship of caravaning is a way of
life that appeals to them."