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Hi-yo, Silver

CALIFORNIA

It's a car critic's dream: a trip to Yosemite -- in an Airstream. The Times' Dan Neil ponders the Zen of camping, the costs of Dr. McDreamy hipness and the future of the RV.

August 31, 2008|Dan Neil | Times Automotive Critic

"Airstreamers don't consider themselves RVers," says Randy Bowman, an owner from San Diego who rolls up to us on his mountain bike. "They're a breed apart. It's a clique."

We meet some citizens of Airstream Nation in Yosemite. Michael and Tina Lambert of St. Thomas, Canada, hauled their vintage '71 International the length of old Route 66 before arriving at the park. He's a high school art teacher; she runs her own child-care center. And they are both mad for midcentury modern. The Lamberts gutted the trailer and rebuilt it in Atomic chic/kitsch: the swimming-pool-aqua upholstery, the martini-glass motifs, the Trader Vic's-style Polynesiana.

Michael Lambert first connected with Airstreams in 1969, during the Apollo 11 mission. "The astronauts were put into this thing and quarantined for 30 days," he says. "I thought they were made by NASA. I remember I was amazed when I found out you could buy one."

Like many hard-core Airstreamers, Lambert has taken an electric polisher to his trailer and arduously, over hundreds of hours, brought it to a mirror-bright luster. "The polish is the difference between an old trailer and an icon," he says with a laugh.

Maybe it's too bright? On this trip, the sunlight bouncing off the trailer burned a hole in a carpet he had put outside.

"I've noticed something about the aesthetics of these things," Lambert says. "When they're polished like this, they reflect back their surroundings so much that they actually seem to disappear into the scenery. No other RV does that."

Sure enough, when we step back, the Airstream seems to infiltrate itself into the backdrop like a Magritte painting.

RV FUTURE

After three days of camping, and some delicate proceedings at the park's "dump station" involving "black water," we head home. But before we do, we stop off for another $100 of gas.

How long can the Great American Road Trip survive? Obviously, there will always be people who can afford $300,000 motor coaches and $10 per-gallon fuel, when it inevitably reaches that point. But the average household income for RV buyers is only $68,000, according to the industry's own surveys. It seems certain that soaring fuel prices will eventually put this time-honored, middle-class pleasure out of reach of many.

And, indirectly, the cost of fuel threatens even the storied Airstream. When gas was cheap, big SUVs were hugely popular as first and second vehicles. A large segment of Americans had what Chief Executive Wheeler calls "accidental towing capacity." Which is to say people didn't have to buy a dedicated tow vehicle to go with their trailer.

But truck and SUV sales are plunging. And with dramatically tougher government requirements for fuel economy coming, automakers are getting out of the large truck and SUV business. It's an open question of what people will use to tow travel-trailers in 20 years.

"It's a huge issue for us," says Wheeler.

Airstreams, icons of the 20th century's open road, may find themselves marooned in driveways and parking lots in the 21st. By the time our daughters are grown, an Airstream may be as rare a sight on the road as a '57 Chevy or an Indian motorcycle is today.

But whenever they do see one, they're sure to stop and look. Just look.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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Trailer park

Airstream founder Wally Byam was not alone in his embrace of aircraft-inspired aluminum construction. By the mid-'30s, there were hundreds of mom-and-pop trailer companies in the U.S. For a good overview, check out the Petersen Automotive Museum’s "From Autocamps to Airstreams: The Early Road to Vacationland," through Feb. 8; 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 930-2277, www.petersen.org.

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Scaled down and ready to roll

Many smaller trailers on the market can be towed with crossovers, wagons and sedans. Here are three:

So-Cal Teardrop Rover sleeps two and is equipped with a small galley. $10,995. Possible tow vehicles: Chevy HHR, Ford Fusion.

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Hi-Lo Sporty Towlite -- 15T

is just 15 feet long and fully equipped. $22,000. Possible tow vehicles: Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country.

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T@B trailers have aluminum skins and a lightweight frame. $11,000 to $17,000. Potential tow vehicle: Nissan Murano.

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