February 2013

A taste of nostalgia

By David Feela

At the fairgrounds in Gunnison, Colo., well over a hundred vintage Airstream trailers had converged — all that polished aluminum parked in the sun where one would usually find a few ranchers currying their livestock.

I’d been downtown in the morning and overheard a conversation about the tribal trailer gathering. The scoop included news that the public had been invited to an open-house walk-through during the afternoon, but the notice had not found its way into the newspaper, which goes to prove that eavesdropping can sometimes be an effective form of social media.

At 1 p.m. I grabbed my sunglasses and headed for the fairgrounds.

Nearly every Airstream had its awning unrolled like a flying red carpet, welcoming guests, but as I strolled among the various configurations and models, my natural-born Midwestern inhibition surfaced – an instinct that chided me, insisted that it’s not polite to walk up to someone’s doorway and invite yourself in. Eventually my curiosity gained a foothold and propelled me into unfamiliar territory.

The classic Airstream has always reminded me of a giant aluminum Twinkie. Its iconic shape and shiny exterior is unmistakable, but the cream filling had always been a mystery. And I’ve seen the unimaginative interiors of more than a few contemporary trailers; I even own a 13-foot fiberglass Scamp, which I suspect looks more like a baked potato on wheels, but the vintage Airstream – ah, that amounts to the calorie-laden sweet sponge cake of portable homes.

Coincidently, the Twinkie and the Airstream debuted about the same time, during the 1930s. Twinkies emerged from an effort to keep idle strawberry-shortcake machinery churning away while strawberries were out of season. These days 18,000 employees are idling, and the only Ho Hos remaining are those 19 Hostess executives who were awarded 1.8 million just to stay on board and get the liquidation done.

Airstream, however, is still around, having evolved from one man’s “perfect” backyard trailer kit, preserving the home experience while traveling the open road.

I seriously doubt any collaboration between the snack-cake industry and the trailer designer existed, but for some reason both products are thought of as collectibles.

Slipping in and out of the first dozen trailers, I sensed the pride in possessing one of these units from what the owners had done to restore them. The exterior, like the Airstream brand name, pretty much took care of itself. In fact, I learned the Argosy – a model considered by some to be the “tin can” of Airstream trailers – was a painted 1970s attempt to do away with the polished aluminum appearance, though like the Edsel, the Argosy turned into an icon of futility.

Some of the Airstreams had been reconditioned with an eye to original features, down to the exact wallpaper pattern, while some strayed from a rigid traditionalist’s view and took a theme of, say, the 1950s or western Americana and exaggerated it, down to horseshoes or poodles patterning the curtains. One trailer had redone all the woodwork in luxurious golden maple and constructed a hallmark to cabinetry. Another had gone so far as to restore a pickup truck from the same year the trailer was manufactured so it could be towed from show to show in a timeless fashion.

The hosts were mostly couples, often retired, clearly nostalgic. Their obsession with Airstreams literally gleamed in their eyes. They led me down the hallway of their dreams, pointed out the features, let me ask any number of silly questions, and thanked me for stopping by.

After a couple hours, I knew Airstreams qualified as the snack food of the travel industry. They were oh-so-portable and addictive, wrapped in their shiny exteriors. Not that the owners would ever admit it, but I swear I heard a sigh in so many voices when it came to discussing how much time and money they’d invested, that cavernous growl in the pit of their stomachs as the craving for an even-more-perfect and innovative restoration surfaced in their imaginations.

As I left the fairgrounds, I glanced back toward the collection of Airstreams, circled in concentric rows like a prairie full of old covered wagons, and the only enemy they had to face as a group was that constant fear that America would somehow forget the past, settle for the present, inhabit unimaginative incarnations with no future, bereft of the freedom to travel, shiny and selfcontained, in an ever-increasingly dull world.

David Feela is a poet and essayist who writes from Montezuma County, Colo.