Though often associated with the unworldly, travel trailers of the mid 20th century were for cosmopolitan wanderers who wanted to see Earth in its entirety. During the 1950s, Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream, Inc., brought caravans of his silver trailers to astonishingly remote places. After a few trips, the Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) formed and trailerites were soon rolling their way across six continents on goodwill missions.
A snaking line of silver toasters created quite a stir wherever it went, generating buzz for the company and eventually a television miniseries narrated by Vincent Price. The trailer’s arrival in foreign lands was compared to a spaceship landing and always accompanied by Wally’s brand of person-to-person diplomacy, creating, in his words, “more honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth goodwill in the countries we’ve visited than all the striped-pants diplomats put together.”
The first caravan was in 1951 and lasted three months. Inspired by an article on the new Pan American Highway, Byam decided to check it out despite it being incomplete. The expedition was so ambitious that by the time the trailers reached the halfway point, Mexico City, about a third of the trailerites had given up and gone home. The diehards continued south all the way to Nicaragua.
The trip was rough – roads were unpaved, grades were steep, and turns were of the hairpin variety. Byam offered up parts of his own trailer to help other adventurers in need and finally left his cannibalized Airstream on the side of the road. At one point the trailers were piggybacked on a flatbed train, secured only with ropes.
After returning home, many of the participants said they’d never do anything like that again. They went back on their word and the world tours began.
The caravans that followed were each larger and more inspired than the last, as rows of chrome bullets wriggled shot through Central America to Canada to Europe to Africa. The “Capetown to Cairo” trip, in which Wally and his wife traveled in a gold anodized Airstream trailer, was Wally’s final caravan. He wasn’t there to witness his biggest dream, the Around the World Caravan, when it was finally realized.
The ultimate trailer trip followed a path mapped by Marco Polo in the late 13th century, this 403-day trek covered 31,000 miles and wound its way through Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Portugal, Syria, Thailand, and Russia. Legend has it the trailerites baked an apple pie in an Airstream oven for the locals Afghans.
Wally would have liked that.
Tara Cox, Managing Editor of ‘Men’s Journal,’ is the author of Airstream: The Silver RV.