Airstream rally down from heyday

rob.carson@thenewstribune.comAugust 12, 2013 

Carol Orvitz would be the first to admit that the national passion for Airstream travel trailers is not what it once was.

Back in Airstream’s heyday, during the 1970s and ’80s, Airstream trailer owners from around the country would pack the exclusive Hawks Prairie trailer park each summer, turning it into a sea of silver.

The annual Washington rally would draw hundreds of the distinctive rounded aluminum trailers, and every one of the 192 residential lots in the Land Yacht Harbor subdivision, which requires an Airstream for ownership, was spoken for.

This year’s weeklong Airstream rally, which ended Sunday, was just a faint echo of that boom.

The club’s traditional salmon dinner Saturday night drew 160 Airstreamers – although, most were permanent Yacht Harbor residents. Fewer than two dozen visitors pulled their rigs in from outside the area.

“Age has taken hold,” said Orvitz, 72, one of the organizers of the rally and a past president of the international club’s Washington unit. “We have a lot of people, really, who came to the end of their lives or are ready to go into assisted living.”

But Orvitz has what she calls her “wave theory.”

Most of the first wave of Airstreamers, who bought their trailers in the 1950s and ’60s, Orvitz says, have gone on down the road. “They’re gone now,” she said.

Their children, who cherished their adventures in Airstreams as kids, inherited the trailers and formed the second wave, she said. Most of them are now, like her, in their 70s.

Now, Orvitz says, there’s a third wave, propagated by young, wealthy professionals who are taken with nostalgia for the classic rigs and are lovingly refurbishing them. They caught the disease Airstream owners laughingly call “aluminum fever” or “aluminitis.”

“We think we bottomed out and we’re starting up again,” she said.

That may be the case, but there was no sign of it at this year’s rally, the club’s 34th annual.

At the card games, in the group classes and on the tours – to Safeco Field, the Seattle Center and the Museum of Flight – almost all of the heads were white or gray.

Nationally, the figures do indicate a slight uptick. According to Richard Girard, a national club officer, the number of club members dropped from a high of 25,000 in the 1980s to about 6,000 in 2011.

However, Girard said, membership increased by 75 rigs in 2012. “The club has been declining for the past 20 years, he said. “Now we’re seeing new growth.”

Girard owns a 1975 vintage Airstream – a 25-foot Tradewind that resembles a highly polished loaf of Wonder Bread. Girard said he and his wife – plus their two large, aging dogs – spend about six months of the year on the road.

The trip that brought them to Hawks Prairie last week, he said, began May 12 and also took them to the club’s biggest rally of the year, in Huron, S.D.

While club members may be fewer and older, they are still bound together not only by their love of Airstream trailers, Girard said, but love for each other.

“It almost gets to feel like a family,” he said.

Airstreamers near the end of their lives often describe their traveling days and the people they met at Airstream gatherings as their best memories, Orvitz said. Two club members, women who are now in their 90s and who lost both their husbands and their Airstreams, took a train then a taxi from their retirement home to be at a recent club gathering, she said.

And just what is the appeal of life on the road?

“What do I like about it?” asked James Howard, a fit-looking Alaska man who lives permanently in his Airstream. “It probably would be easier saying what I don’t like about it, which is buying tires.”

“I like everything else,” he added. “Seeing different stuff: a field of blue bonnets and a herd of cattle. The Statue of Liberty. The Grand Canyon. Four Corners.

“I see the world, and I don’t have to worry about anything except tornadoes.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

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