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Travelers put silver in those summer days

Georgia O’Keeffe’s familiar landscape is the backdrop for camping at Abiquiu Lake’s Riana Campground. (Martin Frentzel/For The Journal)

FAYWOOD, N.M. — For commercial photographer Grover Sterling, owning an Airstream camping trailer is a dream come true. “My father had one and we traveled with it. I liked the way they looked, and I always dreamed of owning one – but I never thought I would actually live in one.”

Sterling is originally from El Paso and he appreciates the desert. He camped at City of Rocks State Park in March, his 28-foot trailer home his base for photographing landscapes. His pictures are sold to homeowners in the Dallas area and the dramatic black-and-white photos may be seen at facebook.com/groovingrover/.

His choice of trailer is experiencing growing popularity. Initially designed and constructed by Wally Byam, an Oregonian who moved to Los Angeles, Airstreams are easily recognized by their signature silver siding that shines like a rocket ship in vintage space movies. The trailers were so named because they “moved like a stream of air,” ironic because Byam was inspired by days spent living in a sheepherder’s wagon pulled by a donkey.

Sales are soaring

Tristan Burman takes a break from changing bedding in the 17 vintage trailers awaiting campers at the Hotel Luna Mystica near Taos. (Martin Frentzel/For The Journal)

Airstream of New Mexico, formerly Holliday Travel Trailers, has been selling the sleek silver campers in Albuquerque since 2000 and has seen sales explode.

“When we started with Airstream, we were selling maybe five trailers a year,” says Dan Dissmore, sales consultant at the dealership on east Central. “Volume increased significantly about 2013, once we got through the recession of 2008 and ’09. Sales are up to 60 to 80 trailers a year now.”

In addition to the stock market recovery, the retirements of baby boomers probably are the major factor in the sales rush, Dissmore says.

“First and foremost, the increase is due to demographics,” he says. “The increase in the number of people retiring with the finances, the health and the interest to travel across the country has not seen a surge like this for some time, maybe never before.”

Having a product that is recognized around the world doesn’t hurt, either. “We have people from Europe stop by the lot and take pictures,” Dissmore says. “This is the only trailer that’s been parked in front of the pyramids in Egypt.”

Byam is responsible for much of that recognition. He started caravanning with his trailers in 1951. He camped across Africa in 1959, and old movies of his trips may be seen on the Airstream of New Mexico website at airstreamofnewmexico.com. That spirit of adventure continues today through the Wally Byam Caravan Club International Inc. Learn more it at wbcci.org.

The trailers’ reputation also is a factor. “Airstream is a leader in quality and styling,” Dissmore says. Of the approximately 150,000 Airstreams manufactured since the 1931, an estimated 70% to 75% are still on the road, he says.

Vintage trailer nostalgia

“We found a great boondocking site with a great view of the Tetons,” says Chad Battles, whose adventures in a vintage Airstream with his wife, a dog and a goat can be enjoyed at argosyodyssey.com. The Battleses have posted stories about Balloon Fiesta and Taos. They watched the August 2017 total eclipse of the sun near the Grand Tetons.

“The eclipse itself was a near religious experience,” he says. “The air shimmered, all the shadows were crescent shaped and the temperature plunged at totality.”

The Argosy trailers were built by Airstream in the 1970s, but rather than shiny silver they were painted white. Chad’s wife, Kate, has gone one better than that, creating a mural of their travels on their Argosy.

Elbert Sturgis of Talkeeetna, Alaska, spends winters in the Southwest touring in his 30-foot, 1979 Airstream. Sturgis is a bush pilot who flies wildlife-watching tours in the Great Land during the tourist season, then spends chunks of the winter in the sunshine.

Those who want a taste of vintage Airstream camping don’t have to buy one and restore it themselves. The Hotel Luna Mystica near Taos has several for rent. “Apollo” is a 35-foot trailer named for similar units once used by NASA to quarantine astronauts after trips to the moon. This trailer, however, was used by the Southern Pacific Railroad to provide employees housing while working on the rails. It rode the tracks on a rail car.

Adjacent to Taos Mesa Brewing, the hotel has 17 trailers available for rent now, although not all are Airstreams. The trailers’ vintage charms, however, appeal to many campers.

“There is something in every trailer I really like,” says Ryan Irion, a civil engineer in Austin, Texas, and majority partner in the hotel. The “Sands,” for example, “really pops.” It also sleeps up to eight campers and occasionally is used by University of New Mexico alumni groups.

Eldorado High School and Anderson School of Business graduates Patrick Nechvatal and Tristan Burman also are partners in the hotel. “We have a good team and we’re all hard workers,” Nechvatal says.

“The grand plan is to have 24 trailers and a permanent office,” says Burman. For prices and photos, visit hotellunamystica.com/dwellings/camping/.

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