The Airstream Trailer 09.08.11

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In the 1950s and 1960s, Airstream founder Wally Byam led caravans through Europe, Central America, and Africa, considering himself an ambassador of goodwill and American values. With his Airstreams floating across the Atlantic and travelling over seemingly impassable desert tracks, Byam imagined a global network of land-yacht harbours where world travellers might rest, see the sights, and learn about distant societies. The "World's Most Travelled Trailer" and other Airstream Globetrotter models upended North America's midcentury isolation, bringing Jackson Center, Ohio, into contact with Hong Kong, Kiev and Nairobi. In its idealism, this quest proclaimed – perhaps with a hint of land-yacht imperialism – that travel afforded education and a freewheeling cosmopolitanism.

Byam's Airstream tourism culminated in the Caravan around the World between 1963 and 1964. In a television miniseries, Vincent Price narrated this 34,000-mile journey – a global tour that began its Asian leg in Tokyo and exited Europe through the port of Lisbon. En route the Caravan passed through Kabul before camping in the Afghanistan desert where the tourists baked an apple pie in the Airstream stove. On these tours, Byam practised what he called "person to person diplomacy" at the "four corners of the world".

Airstream has manufactured travel trailers with aeronautically inspired design and technology since Byam's backyard experiments in the 1930s. However, Bayam's utopian idea of spreading democracy and freedom would soon take on a military dimension. The durability of its monocoque shell and integrated chassis made it the vehicle of choice for the Civil Defence Test in 1955 in the Nevada desert. Parked in "Doomtown, USA", the trailer received minor damage from the atomic bomb dropped two miles away. On 24 July, 1969, Richard Nixon greeted the crew of Apollo 11 through the sealed rear window of the Airstream, which served for three weeks as a mobile quarantine facility to protect earthlings from pathogens the lunar campers might have contracted. Fifteen trailers served as mobile hospitals for the US Army Medical Corps in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration.

More recently, the Airstream trailer has been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, embedded in a Boeing C-17 Globemaster military cargo jet and used to accommodate government officials visiting the warzones. In April 2006 Donald Rumsfeld travelled in this hull within a hull – marketed by Airstream as a "home away from home" – during one of his surprise visits to Baghdad with Condoleezza Rice. In February 2007 vice president Dick Cheney was carried this way between Oman and Islamabad. On these flights soldiers as well as reporters sat in jump seats between the C-17's shell and the three Airstream sections that have been welded end to end.

With these events, the Airstream provides a seamless transition from the moon to a travel trailer floating on an aircraft carrier to the broader populist ideals of self-containment practiced by full-time trailer enthusiasts in long-term visitor areas. The same aura of recreational diplomacy now surrounds 21st-century DVs. The Silver Bullet has become the Silver Palace. The Airstream camp is upscale, symbolic of a class of travellers who before midcentury were differentiated from other recreational itinerants by FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, who contended that the tourist camp harbored criminals and caused instability in nearby communities. The Airstream has resisted such aspersions. It is unlikely that US officials would travel in a Winnebago or a Spartan trailer. And just as Byam played the adventurer, the capitalist, and the politician, the globalised in-flight camp conflates nostalgia and power, an idealist's pragmatism, and a treacly imperialism.

 

Image

Jenny Nordquist

 

Words

Charlie Hailey

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Byam practised what he called "person to person diplomacy" at the "four corners of the world"

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