Anything as momentous as the introduction of the new Chevrolet Silverado deserves an extra special observance. After all, it’s the equivalent of Paul Bunyan emerging from the woods to trade his ax for a chainsaw, of Mighty Casey stepping up to the plate with an aluminum bat. Naturally enough, we just had to try the Silverado with a load on the road. Considering the pickup’s iconic status, we matched it up with two other icons by tugging a 1974 Airstream Overlander travel trailer on a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. Thereafter, we would go to Trailerpalooza in the Florida Panhandle.
On a chilly Monday morning, the day before Halloween, our party of three set off from Ann Arbor, driving 150 miles south to Jackson Center, Ohio, a “quiet outpost in the heart of America’s farmland,” as Airstream Incorporated’s official history describes it. Although founded in California by Wally Byam, Airstream opened a facility here in 1952 and eventually consolidated all operations at the spot. Today’s 140,000-square-foot plant turns out about 2300 trailers annually, some of which cost up to $90,000 and boast elegant Danish modern interior appointments.
In the gleaming lobby of Airstream’s service center, where trailers are restored and retrofitted, we met customer relations manager Dave Schumann, who had agreed to lend us his “fine piece of aluminum,” namely, the twenty-six-foot Overlander. While a hitch was being fitted to the Silverado, company president and CEO Bob Wheeler explained that Airstream’s singular growth in a suppressed industry can be attributed to the current interest in premium brands, mid-century design, and product authenticity. “We hit all those notes,” Wheeler said. Although the company has been “very careful about not tinkering with what’s iconic about Airstream,” the BaseCamp, conceived at Nissan Design America and harking back to the historic teardrop Airstreams, is currently ramping up to weekly production of ten units; it reaches a new audience of younger, utility-minded people who would never be caught dead at a rally of Wally Byam Caravan Club International (WBCCI) members.
Soon enough, the Overlander was attached to our Silverado, the brake controller was adjusted, and we were southbound on I-75. It was formerly believed–even inside executives’ offices at General Motors–that pickup owners cared nothing about ride quality. (A long, 1962 diary entry by Chevy general manager Bunkie Knudsen furnishes proof.) Yet, with our substantial load, we marveled at the new Silverado’s jet-smoothness. The previous generation’s torsion bars have been ditched in favor of coil springs in front. Rack-and-pinion steering has been added. The frame, fully boxed and with a hydroformed front section, is vastly stiffer. The suspension provides compliance for a supple ride, and roadbed furrows and ripples are easily dismissed. Meanwhile, the balance is just right for stable handling, so a chuckhole at the apex of a turn causes no turmoil.
Those improvements underneath helped interior comfort and quietness approach the divine. A look around our LTZ model makes one recollect the vinyl-covered, uncarpeted, shuddering boom-rooms of, say, 1963 Chevy pickups. Our Silverado was, well, almost Audi-like. The leather-wrapped steering wheel should detach, so it could be taken away and hugged all night. As for the hide upholstery, it felt somewhat ordinary but sure looked nice. Thanks to lots of sound-deadening, serenity usually prevailed, making a wonderful environment for listening to music and excluding the clamor of traffic.
Thereby happily ensconced, we plugged along until turning west on I-71 and reaching Louisville, Kentucky, being there joined by the expedition’s fourth member, Alice Smith, the mother of assistant editor Sam Smith. Her mellow attitude and gentle humor propitiously countervailed Sam’s brashness. The very next morning, Halloween day, Alice detoured us to the Loveless Cafe, “A Nashville Tradition Since 1951.” At this charming establishment we first whiffed the pungent hickory smoke that would keep on triggering our appetites in a Pavlovian response as we progressed through the South. Courtesy of the house, we were treated to delectable ham biscuits. While consuming them as slowly as possible, we looked just beyond our shoelaces to the incipient Natchez Trace Parkway, which from this point leads right past the very hem of Tupelo, and even with heavy rains moving in we said, “Aw, why the hell not?”
Untrafficked, undulant, abounding in blazing autumn hues, the Parkway stretched out for 444 miles, and we pointed the Silverado’s handsome face and the sleek Overlander in that southwesterly direction. By this route, “Kaintucks” of the early nineteenth century returned home after floating down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in pursuit of commerce. Tupelo sits almost exactly halfway between Nashville and Natchez, and we had been told that Elvis would have followed the Trace on his way to the Music City. The Trace is administered, manicured, and patrolled by the National Park Service. The desire to drive this ribbon flat out–in a performance car, not that the Silverado wasn’t performing its task most admirably–was palpable.
What else was palpable? The irony of arriving at Elvis’s shrine just before dusk on Halloween. We were among the last that day to tour the 450-square-foot shotgun shack with the board-and-batten cedar ceiling sprouting one bare bulb in each of the two rooms. This house was built for $180 by Vernon and Gladys Presley. On January 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron took his first breath here, but his twin, Jessie Garon, was stillborn. The imagery that has come to depict this family is taken right from the New Testament: vague father, strong maternal attachment, wandering from place to place, and guitar lessons from a pastor. Young Elvis dazzled the learned with his second-place prize in the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show for singing “Old Shep.” He also discoursed with the pharisaical bluesmen of Tupelo’s Shake Rag quarter.
As the Birthplace’s free pamphlet phrases it (with a mind-boggling succession of dangling modifiers), “Financially, times were hard on Vernon and Gladys, and they had to move out of the house where Elvis was born when he was two and a half years old for lack of payment.” The lack was owing to Vernon’s eight-month jail term for forging a four-dollar check. The house languished even after Elvis purchased it when he was twenty-five and famous.
“It’s not many times people give you a gold mine and you don’t know how to work it,” said Birthplace hostess Nina Holcomb of Tupelo’s reluctance to develop this site into the present park. Another Birthplace employee told photographer Regis Lefebure, “That Silverado wouldn’t be welcome in my family. My family hates Chevrolets. We like Foh-ords.” Seeing his raised eyebrows, the woman continued, “Down here we say it with two syllables.”
Darkness soon settled upon northeastern Mississippi and Tupelo. Directly across Elvis Presley Drive, dubiously eyeing the Birthplace, was Saint Mark United Methodist Church. The illuminated signboard informed us that on the coming Sunday the Reverend Donny Riley’s sermon would be: “No Mask Will Hide Your Sins from God.”
In the 1954 screen comedy The Long, Long Trailer, Nicholas (Desi Arnaz) and Tacy Collini (Lucille Ball) use a Mercury Monterey convertible to tow a house trailer from California to Colorado. Of course, everything goes wrong, causing the exasperated Nicholas to say, “It’s been one long nightmare, worrying about ‘will the brakes hold, are the signals working, are we gonna make that hill, is it boiling over?’ “
By that time, trailering had become a well-established American practice. The first bloom of trailer manufacturing in the mid-1930s had seen hundreds of makers enter the market. In the 1940s, Henry Ford provided fellow vagabond Charles Lindbergh with a travel trailer; the Lindberghs used it as their writing retreat for the next fifteen years. Throughout the 1950s, Wally Byam led caravans in exotic locales. The expeditions were covered by publications such as the Smithsonian and Time.
Lucy and Desi’s trailer weighed three tons. Our Overlander tipped the scales at 6200 pounds. It was in original condition, and all the systems worked. Period ’70s decor was typified by the harvest gold countertops, drably patterned headliner, rackety tambour doors covering storage spaces, and quaint upholstery and carpeting. Foam cushions covered the sitting and sleeping surface in the forward lounge, with thicker padding on the bed between the galley and the tiny bathroom. On the first two nights of our journey, we stayed in motels in White House, Tennessee, and Demopolis, Alabama. But when we finally reached Trailerpalooza, things would get interesting.
The Silverado did a good job of towing, although hilly southern Alabama was a challenge. With its 5.3-liter V-8, which chuffed out 315 hp and 338 lb-ft of torque, the truck had plenty of punch. The problem was the four-speed automatic. A six-speed will eventually be offered, but we could have used it then. A heavy foot on a steep grade would provoke a downshift to second gear, with the engine roaring as though we were shooting from Turn Four at Darlington Raceway. We suspect the 6.0-liter V-8 and the six-speed will be the ideal setup for towing, especially since our truck returned only 10 mpg throughout our experience.
The lunchtime experience on this third day of travel was something else. At a place called Ollie, on the southeast corner of the U.S. 84 and Alabama 41 junction, we sampled the offerings of Clark’s Bar-B-Q. Clark and Brenda Hill have been in business for eight years, ever since Clark, formerly a purchasing agent, and hundreds of others were sent home from a paper company in nearby Excel. The menu remains simple, with barbecue, baked beans, potato salad, and coleslaw. But the barbecue is remarkably complex. “Mild sauce, with hickory depth of flavor,” as Alice described it. Hill said he is having the sauce patented, and with the help of his son, who has marketing experience, he intends to launch a product line.
We tore ourselves away from the redolence of Hill’s smoker–he pronounces “ribs” as a two-syllable word, “ree-yibs”–and covered the remaining distance to Trailerpalooza, at the Mystic Springs Airstream Park, which squeezes in between some railroad tracks and the western bank of the Escambia River near McDavid, Florida. Well, all right, so it wasn’t Trailerpalooza–instead, it was the Wally Byam Caravan Club International’s Region Six computer rally. Airstreamers from as far away as Louisiana were camping out for the next few nights and gathering in the campground’s pavilion by day to learn the fundamentals of Microsoft Windows.
Herb Spies, of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, taught the course. He and his wife, Sidra (named for the Gulf of Sidra, off Libya’s shore), retired in 2003. Herb worked at Eglin Air Force Base and was in on the ground floor of the Internet, and Sidra taught high school biology. “We’ve been on the road most of the time since,” Sidra said. They prefer vintage cars and trailers, with two 1955 Chevys in their collection as well as a ’63 Suburban daily driver. Their ’63 Airstream Globe Trotter is nineteen feet long, weighs only 3300 pounds, looks smart inside with a Route 66 motif, and is so cozy that, according to Sidra, “A tea-kettle full of water heats the whole trailer.”
In addition to teaching Windows, Herb also teaches trailer polishing, and the Globe Trotter’s gloss is indeed high. “People use it for a mirror,” said Sidra, who was eager to demonstrate what she called “the Airstream diet.” She made us walk along the straight and flat side of the trailer looking at our reflection, and we saw a familiar bulging tummy. But as the aluminum bent around the rear corner, a funhouse effect was noted, and a buff fellow with a flat stomach and broad shoulders gazed back from the metal surface.
Wally Byam not only invented the Air-stream company–the sole surviving manufacturer from that first blush of 1930s trailering–but also practiced a sort of messianic activity that is still recognized by his followers. Leading his caravans, he used to hoist a bullhorn before his lips to reach his followers’ ears. He left to a cousin his own worn-out boots as holy relics. There even remain a few living apostles, well into their eighties, who actually traveled with the man. We were informed by a camper that the majority of Airstreams produced remain in use. As a special distinction for the WBCCI Region Six, the oldest of all Air-streams is part of their Pensacola Unit. This 1935 teardrop model was built from a set of plans by Dr. Norman Holman, Sr., and is still owned by his son.
That night, serenaded by crickets, we bedded down under a half moon. Alice took the wider and deeper aft bed, Regis slumbered in the forward lounge, and poor Sam writhed on the floor. Yours truly reposed comfortably in his own tiny tent. Around three o’clock, Sam moved to the back seat of the Silverado’s Crew Cab. About six trains passed during the night, originating with pinpoint sounds in the depths of unconsciousness and finishing with a whistle blare right up the medulla, but no one else would ever admit hearing them.
“Tow-wee-ah, tow-wee-ah, tow-wee!” blared four or five ounces of aggravating songbird at 5:30 a.m., as through Byam’s bullhorn. We broke camp after the Airstreamers treated us to pancakes and sausage in the pavilion. They regaled us with stories of 12,000-mile round trips to Alaska and of trailering in the good old days, when a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville would be equipped with a transmission cooler and a five-blade fan to improve towing performance with a twenty-four-foot trailer.
Then we had to head north. Ann Arbor lay just over 1000 miles away. After emptying our black water, then our gray water, we sealed up and pulled out. We had to refuel the Silverado every 200 miles or so. Eventually reaching Jackson Center, we gratefully returned Schumann’s “fine piece of aluminum” and continued home unfettered. After such a diverse experience in so short a time, synthesizing all these elements into something coherent would be tough, but for inspiration we cast our minds back toward Tupelo, whence Elvis had taken the barest essentials of country, blues, and gospel, shaken them up inside his overalls, and produced something as remarkable as rock and roll.