The types of people and where they travel on a Wally Byam Caravan, like the one that stopped in Helena, Mont., recently, are as different as the variety of styles of Airstreams they drive, but nearly all have one thing in common: they all camped in a tent once.
Times have changed for these friendly, travel-loving campers who believe that as we age, our bodies need more amenities like water and electricity, as well as some cushion under the covers, the Helena Independent Record reported.
“We were once flat on the ground, until our bones needed a pad or a blow-up,” said Phil Glassey, wagonmaster for the caravan of about 50 Airstreams on the National Landmarks Caravan, which started in Hardin, Mont., in early July and will end some 45 days later in Arcata, Calif.
Participants wear name tags that include their hometowns, making it apparent that Airstream zealots come from all over — New Jersey, North Carolina, and Ontario, Canada.
Cecil and Kathryn Childers are from Corpus Christi, Texas. Cecil retired from psychiatry two weeks before they set out on their first caravan tour. Kathryn was one of the first female agents in the U.S. Secret Service, has hosted her own television show and most recently started a publishing company.
Bob and Nancy Russell are from Diamondale, Mich. Bob is retired from the state’s highway department. The couple began Airstreaming 30 years ago and have done 25 trips.
John and Cissy Thibadeau are native Atlantans and have been married 42 years. Cissy is a retired teacher who still substitutes when she can. John is a mechanical engineer who spent four years on active duty in the Navy nuclear submarine program. He started a real estate company, development and construction company. Today, he manages investment properties and tries to work one day a week, unless a better opportunity to play golf or tennis comes along.
The group visited Montana’s capital city about 10 days into the trip and set up camp at the Lincoln Road RV Park. During their first group outing, they enjoyed a wagon-train dinner ride at the Last Chance Ranch, 9 miles south of town up Grizzly Gulch. The next morning they headed north to ride the tour boat through the Gates of the Mountains and visited the Historical Society in the afternoon.
They traveled in their Airstreams north to Great Falls and are scheduled to be in Glacier National Park this week. From there, they’ll head west to Washington, then south through Oregon and end in California.
Airstreams were first officially made under the name in 1934; each trailer was custom-made because developer Wally Byam didn’t have a production line. In 1936, Byam built a riveted aluminum shell that looks similar to modern models.
In 1942, the War Production Board ordered the manufacturing of house trailers to be halted, except when making them for government purposes. When the war was over and the ban lifted, Byam struggled to get his business going for lack of capital.
There were two Airstream factories in 1952, one in Van Nuys, Calif., and another in Jackson Center, Ohio, where the corporate office is today.
During the following 10 years, the company grew. Byam and his wife, Stella, led every caravan between the winter if 1951 and the spring of 1960.
The Wally Byam Caravan Club is now one of the largest clubs in trailering. There are currently 19 planned caravan tours listed on its website.
It’s not a requirement to be retired, but because the trips are sometimes months long, it helps.
The only person not at or nearing retirement age on the caravan is 11-year-old Michaela Heese, of Arkansas, who was spending time with her grandparents, Florene and Selwyn Heese.
The trip appealed to the soon to be seventh-grader because, she said with a giggle, it got her away from her three brothers.
Michaela didn’t seem to mind not having access to video games, a cell phone or online chatting with friends. She was happy enough to test her creativity by taking pictures using a red Vivitar.
“I loved going to Yellowstone because I saw stuff I haven’t seen before,” she said.
Kathryn Childers says part of the charm of the caravan is the pets that accompany the group.
“Everyone brings their animals,” she said.
When entering the Childers’ 25-foot Airstream with pink flamingos painted on the side and chili pepper lights strung outside, Ellie, the happy cocker spaniel, greets you at the door. When it’s time to travel to the next stop along the way, Ellie is even buckled in a seat belt before they push off.
Kathryn says traveling the country was a “bucket list” item.
“I wanted to get it done before I’m not able,” the vivacious author said.
Visiting new places with an Airstream was more appealing than traveling by plane, staying in hotels and renting cars, she said.
“It’s like every night you go home,” Kathryn said.
Many say it’s nice to have the trip organized by someone else.
Glassey, an outdoor enthusiast and mountain climber from Olympia, Wash., is just that person on this particular trip. He’s been Airstreaming for the past decade, and started leading caravans in 2008. It’s his job to organize and plan the entire trip, not to mention be the “go to” guy for everything.
An Airstream caravan will likely become an annual tradition for Bernie and Doris Goldstein and Tom and Nancy Harrington, who have been close friends since 1965, when they were neighbors in Bakersfield, Calif.
Today the Harringtons reside in Sunlakes, Ariz., and the Goldsteins in Ventura, Calif., but they’ve managed to plan a trip together nearly every year since they first met. They can’t remember ever having an argument.
“We just stay together long enough not to get in an argument,” Nancy said.
The Goldsteins got their Airstream first, but it wasn’t long before the Harrington’s got the bug and joined them.
Nancy says that when she thinks about the Airstream caravan, the word “hospitality” comes into her mind, followed by “fun, fellowship and adventure.”