SANTA BARBARA — Palo Alto in his rear-view mirror, Keith Orchard and his family headed down Highway 101 in their SUV, Santa Barbara-bound. They were off to vacation with two other families, take in the cool ocean breeze, soak up the city’s chill vibe and catch the city’s annual wacky and weird Solstice Parade, at which a city councilman dons a jester’s hat and the mayor presides atop a “Game of Thrones” float.
And this eyebrow-raiser, too: They would be staying at a trailer park.
Now, you’ve got to visualize the Orchards to appreciate the incongruity here. Keith and Nancy Orchard are your average suburbanites in their mid-40s, working in the high-tech sector, with two middle-school-age kids. After pulling into the Auto Camp, a tightly packed trailer village off a busy downtown Santa Barbara street, Nancy Orchard emerged from the car and started hefting luggage toward their camper, saying, “Thank God, we don’t have to hook it up to anything.”
Keith Orchard seemed more amused than bemused by this new experience.
“Jokingly, when we told our friends, ‘Hey we’re going to go stay in Santa Barbara in a trailer park,’ and they were like, ‘What?’” he said. “So I say, ‘We’re camping at a trailer park.’ And they say, ‘What?’ So then I say, ‘OK, it’s this Airstream park.’ And then they’re like, ‘Oh, that sounds like fun. Send us a picture.’”
Ah, yes. As soon as you invoke the word Airstream, people get the attraction.
It’s one thing to take an RV or trailer on the road, a hulking, lane-clogging Winnebago, or one of those 40-footer, fifth-wheel beauties you tow with a hemi-powered truck. Those are your hard-core, long-haul motor-home folks, where size and bulk matter more than aesthetics and years of practice go in to pulling their rig neatly into a tricky trailer-park hookup site.
But being an Airstream aficionado can be quite another thing. This is a distinct subset of the camper crowd. They are equal parts old-timers who yearn for simplicity of a 1950s- or early ’60s-era Airstream trailer, appreciate the sleek and shiny silver aluminum shell, the rounded corners riddled with rivets, the homey interior with lace curtains and brushed steel cabinets. They also tend to be romantics when it comes to travel, seeking the adventure of Airstream living without the muss and fuss of dealing with fresh-water tank pumps and dumping of the, uh, not-so-fresh-water tanks.
More recently, too, the hipsters have discovered the retro allure of these silver bullets, these toasters on wheels, these airplane fuselages sans wings.
Across California, Airstream parks or traditional RV parks with permanent Airstreams available for nightly rental have popped up with regularity.
It would be too easy to dismiss this Airstream revival as a fad. After all, celebrities such as actors Johnny Depp and Matthew McConaughey, rockers such as Eddie Vedder and Sheryl Crow, own tricked-out tins, perhaps to burnish their Everyman street cred.
But Airstreams endure. They are vintage and iconic, not merely a passing fancy on the roadways. Inventor, writer and Stanford grad Wally Byam designed the aerodynamic rig back in the 1920s, started his company in Los Angeles in 1930, saw the business go on hiatus during World War II but then come back with a boom in the late 1940s.
The company, now based in Ohio, arguably had its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, when the Eisenhower-inspired interstate highway system encouraged travel. Even amid periodic gas crises and the push for more fuel-efficient means of transportation, Airstream keeps molding aluminum in impressive numbers. Its factory still produces 50 trailers a week and, according to Investor’s Business Daily, enjoyed a 59 percent increase in revenue in 2013 over the previous fiscal year.
Perhaps more impressive, the company boasts that 60 percent of all the trailers it has produced over the past 80 years are still in use.
In fact, the restoration of old Airstreams is a growing side business. In Guerneville, at Russian River Vintage Travel Trailers, Kevin O’Connell re-designs the interiors of other campers besides Airstreams, but he knows what strikes customers’ eyes.
“It’s got great sex appeal,” he said, pointing to a 1957 Airstream Flying Cloud. “You could line up 1,000 trailers on the street, and they’ll flock to this here Airstream. It’s a whole subculture. It’s catching up with the vintage-car folks. People appreciate the craftsmanship.”