ideas make manifestos
The Caravan of Love
You work with me not someone else
Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for
the modernist print magazine
A 4-minute read
The idea of the idea of America.
The cult of the American Road and its timeless store of riches.
Motels, Greyhound buses, truck-stops, Jack Kerouac, Easy Riders, and Midnight Cowboys. The Sat-Nav instructs you to "take the next right and drive straight for 800 miles.'
Eight hundred miles of fascinating, mythical journeys as written about by Hunter S. Thompson and Paul Simon – off to 'Look for America' with only his cigarettes in his raincoat and the lyrics to his economically titled America. Ventura Highway…..being behind the wheels of a large automobile….Heartbreak Hotel. Earworms that bore into our heads whilst stuck in the office, dribbling about open roads and hazy, sunset horizons.
God, we need a holiday. We need a fantasy-style romp around the gas stations of the mid-west. We need bottomless cups of diner coffee, blueberry pancakes, and nights spent under a big sky of wandering stars and coyote howls.
We need a road trip. Dagnabbit, we need a 'Recreational Vehicle'. In an RV, we control our own journey. We're the boss and director of our own schedule. There is no need to book ahead, drag around a heavy suitcase, or plan. They offer us a simple, self-sufficient way of escaping it all.
A tradition that stretches back to the 1930s when American designer Hawley Bowlus – engineer and builder of aircraft – designed the body shape of one of the first, and probably most iconic, American RV, the Airstream. He based its form on his design for the aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis. But his Bowlus Company struggled, so Wally Byam of Los Angeles acquired it shortly after. Byam knew a thing or two about coachbuilding, having spent much of the 1920s pottering about his backyard building wooden trailers. (This was the prohibition era – what else was there for him to do) In 1936, after having changed the original design by relocating the door from the front to the side, the Airstream as we recognise it today was born and brightly shone; the Airstream Clipper.
Not only does an Airstream make travel sense, but it's more than the sum of its practical parts. In an Airstream, there's everything we could want from a perfectly laid-out sausage-shaped chunk of riveted aluminium. The Airstream is as shiny in nostalgic 'Americana' as it is silver. And that's the most appealing part of its charm…. It's the gateway to a particular American 1950s lifestyle. That magical, optimistic period between the end of WW2 and things beginning to unravel again in '63 when Kennedy got shot, and the Vietnam conflict and the Cold War dragged on continuously. That brief period when – like an Airstream – things were shiny and modern, and there was nothing to stand in the way of us, the jet age, the open road and time spent with family.
During its post-war boom, America revolutionised 'leisure travel' for the working masses. It was the first country to democratise car ownership in 1908 when Henry Ford's Model-T rolled off the production line in motor-city Detroit. His factory system reduced production costs allowing for an American transport revolution. At the same time, Mr Ford paid his workers well; his high wages created a new blue-collar class with independent, commercial clout to afford this new mobility.
The evolution of leisure-travel vehicles from the Model-T to the Airstream was a short, entrepreneurial jump. In less time than it took to ask if you're going to San Francisco, it seemed like every California counter-culturist (The Merry Pranksters) or private investigator (Jim Rockford / Scooby-Doo and the gang) or band (The Partridge Family, the Grateful Dead) was either living in, travelling in or up to no good in a mobile home, a tour-bus or some other ideation of the RV. The RV legacy continued with the development of other, now iconic American RVs such as the Winnebago ('66) and the GMC Motorhome (' 73).
While it used to be the preserve of those who mainly had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, living in an RV now appeals to a whole other demographic. Unlike Walter White and Jesse Pinkman Breaking Bad in their Fleetwood Bounder, some people hold down full-time jobs AND a family from their mobile home. We see them on Instagram, their gaily-strung bunting and twinkly fairy lights decorating converted Ford Transits. They write articles about making the mortgage-liberating jump from convention into mobile enlightenment and environmentally-sound sustainability. But are they really going without a proper shower or bath for that long?
But despite its allure and enduring appeal, an RV romp around the sleepy backwaters of America is something we should probably experience as a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Why ruin the magic by constantly repeating reality until all you have is a bad back from uncomfortable nights spent sleeping on a pull-down bed? Or memories of endlessly hand-washing socks that never quite dry or having to manage constant feelings of isolation due to dead batteries and loss of Wi-Fi.
Better still, don't go and keep the idea of a memorable trip on the Magic Bus fixed in popular culture, where it probably belongs. A much-needed fantasy and escape route to keep us sane whilst stuck in convention. Something visceral we can ponder on, daydream about, and aspire to. Something we can convince ourselves we could do if we wanted to. I mean, we could sell up and go live in an Airstream. We could drop off the grid with nothing but a Pendleton blanket, a can of beans, a hip-flask and a starry, starry sky.
I mean, we could...if we really wanted to...
As featured in the modernist magazine
Writing and front cover photography by Sarah Feeney
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