For more than 80 years the Airstream trailer company has been a fixation for American road warriors entranced by its sleek, bullet-shaped aluminum body and the promise of camping in luxury, nowadays known as glamping.
The shiny trailers, built in Ohio, cast a strange spell. Smitten by some combination of nostalgia and wanderlust, a cross-generational section of Americans – from the still ambulatory greatest generation folks to their boomer children and their hipster grandkids – all long to hit the road like high-style hobos.
So what's it like to actually travel in one? Once we arrived, being there was terrific. But getting there was terrifying.
THE GOING WAS GOOD
My wife, Julie, and I left Los Angeles early on a Friday morning in April, driving an Infiniti QX80 SUV and pulling a 22-foot Airstream Sport. I was testing the Infiniti for a car review and wanted to know something about its strength. Towing a trailer seemed a good way to do that while indulging my curiosity about the Airstream.
We were headed for the Mojave Desert and a campground in Red Rock Canyon State Park ((661) 946-6092, www.lat.ms/redrock) largely because we'd been in Joshua Tree twice recently and I wanted to investigate an area I had driven past many times but never really explored.
Julie's spirits were higher than mine, because the Infiniti was a lot more comfortable than many vehicles she has been forced to travel in or on – cars, trucks, motorcycles and sidecars – and because she wasn't driving.
I was, and my state of mind was somewhere between guardedly optimistic and terrified. I had never pulled a trailer that long or that heavy nor one that would cost quite so much to replace. (This particular unit retails for $52,900.)
But the big Infiniti felt sure-footed and stable, and a previously posted high-wind advisory for the desert had been lifted.
As we rolled up California 14 through thinning traffic, I was increasingly confident that the Airstream would not end up in a ditch.
Our first stop was Vasquez Rocks, the otherworldly landscape off Agua Dulce Canyon Road that has served as a film and TV location for shows as different as "Gunsmoke" and "Star Trek."
The silver sausage looked good photographed against the great slabs of stone and drew some admiring comments from other visitors as we left and continued north.
We left the highway again just north of Lancaster and drove west toward Gorman in search of poppies. We had been told that the flowers at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve weren't really popping but that we could find fields of them west of there, along California 138.
So we did, not the resplendent carpet of gold that would appear there soon but a mansion's worth of fine area rugs of purple and yellow blooms. I took Julie's picture. She took mine. She looked great.
Back in the Infiniti, we stopped in Rosamond at the lip of the Mojave to gas up and get coffee. The staff at the Sister Sister Coffee House seemed, as always, giddy with excitement to have customers and served us some good brew before we continued into the desert.
THIS IS CAMPING?
I had failed before leaving Los Angeles to find a desert destination that took online reservations and offered sites big enough to accommodate our metal missile. After extensive web browsing, I had set my sights on Red Rock Canyon State Park's Ricardo Campground, but I was concerned we would find no vacancies by the time we arrived in late afternoon, too late, I thought, to claim one of the 50 camping spots.
I needn't have worried. Half the sites were open. We chose one, set against the hills, that had an eastern view and wouldn't require me to perform any backing maneuvers to get in or out.
We paid the rangers $50 for two nights' residence in a spot that, though it didn't include RV hook-ups or showers, did offer clean public restrooms, drinking fountains and trash cans. (Seniors 62 and older pay $23 per night.)
Pretty soon, we were camping. Sort of.
Outside, we had a fire pit, folding camp chairs, the looming rock formations and the promise of a canopy of brilliant stars.
Inside, the Airstream offered a sumptuous bed and a dining room table that could seat four comfortably as long as two of the four were children. (It could also convert into a bed for one short adult or two small children.)
The two-burner stove, fired by twin tanks of propane, warmed the grub we brought from home. The refrigerator, also powered by propane, put a chill on Julie's white wine and my Perrier.
The full-size shower delivered a torrent of delightful hot water. The propane-powered furnace would supply heating, though the gentle nighttime temperatures didn't require it.
The Sport, one of eight trailer designs Airstream offers, would have also allowed us to run a microwave, television and air conditioning had we been able to plug it in.
At Ricardo, though, we were limited to battery power, but the in-cabin illumination rendered the strap-on miners' lights I'd brought almost unnecessary.
INTO THE DESERT
As cozy as we were in our sleek satellite, we hadn't come to the Mojave to remain indoors. So we unhitched the Airstream and set out in search of adventure.
We found some, hiking along the Scenic Cliffs and Black Rock trails across California 14 from Ricardo Campground, where for two hours we marveled at the strange sandy monuments carved by wind, water and time.
Signs reminded us to watch for desert snakes, including rattlers.
The hiking was even better closer to our campsite. We explored the trails immediately west of the Airstream, following sandy washes along sandstone cliffs, absorbing that strange, special silence that one finds in dry desert landscapes.
We got back to camp near sundown and began bundling up as the outdoor temperatures fell from 70 to 55 degrees in an hour.
I had brought firewood from home, and after dinner set kindling and small branches alight in the fire pit. Soon we had a roaring blaze. We settled back in our folding camp chairs, warming our feet by the fire, and watched the stars and satellites spin slowly over our heads.
The next morning, after a restful sleep and a light breakfast, we left the Airstream in its parking spot and drove off in the Infiniti to visit a pair of ghost towns.
Garlock proved to be a ghost of a ghost town, with only California Historical Landmark No. 671 standing as testament to the gold mining activity here in the late 1890s.
But nearby Randsburg was a living ghost town that offered much more to see and sample. Several Western-themed antique stores and galleries were open, as were the town watering hole, the Joint, and two popular lunch and dessert stops. The White House Saloon is known for its chili. The Randsburg General Store, right across the street, is famed for its homemade ice cream, milk shakes, malts and sundaes.
We enjoyed a little of everything while admiring the passing parade of "Mad Max"-like desert motorcycles, ATVs and dune buggies that use the once-thriving mining town as a weekend way station.
We had planned to visit Burro Schmidt Tunnel too. Despite dozens of trips to the desert, neither Julie nor I had ever seen this half-mile-long oddity.
It was hand-dug in the early 1900s by William Schmidt, an entrepreneur who spent 38 years digging a shortcut through a granite mountain separating the local mines from the stamping mills.
But folks we met in Randsburg told us the recent rains had made the dirt roads approaching the tunnel treacherous. We decided to save it for another day.
A WINDY WIND-UP
Nightfall in the desert often means the end of whatever breeze has been blowing that day. But sometimes it means the opposite.
Our second night was windy, exposing one of the weaknesses of our desert digs. The Airstream folks hadn't given us a key to the cabinet containing the tool designed to lower the trailer's stabilizing legs, which would hold the unit steady and prevent any side-to-side movement.
For much of the night the trailer rocked gently in the wind, rolling like a ship on the sea with each succeeding gust. We secured the mini-blinds so they wouldn't rattle but kept the windows open to enjoy the nighttime smells and sounds.
By morning, a fine sheen of dust covered every surface.
The day promised warmer temperatures and stronger winds. We set out early, finding the trailer easier to reconnect to the SUV than expected, and hit California 14 shortly after breakfast.
After another stop at Sister Sister, we were rolling back through Lancaster. More confident behind the wheel, I wished we could roll on and add a few Joshua Tree days to our Airstream adventure.