How do you know where to go?

Wally Byam saw the problem first. While talking to a customer in early 1951, Wally realized some Airstream owners weren’t getting as much use from their Airstreams as they could. The problem was that they didn’t really know where to go, and wanted someone to lead the way.

Wally suggested a short trip down Baja California to Ensenada. He and his customer enjoyed that jaunt so much they talked about a more ambitious trip to Mexico City, each taking some more friends. That led to Wally organizing “The First Annual Inter-American Caravan Tour,” which ended up with 63 trailers (even though the caravan was supposed to be limited to 50). In turn that led to even bigger caravans into Central America and Canada, and eventually the formation of the Wally Byam Caravan Club and caravans around the world.

These days we have a similar problem. With the pandemic causing a lot of state and commercial campgrounds to shut down or have tight restrictions, and Airstream Club rallies and caravans mostly cancelled, it might seem like there’s nowhere to go. Atop that, there’s the social pressure from friends and family who might be freaked out at the idea of you traveling across the states in a time when people have been told to limit “unnecessary travel.”

Even in the best of times I’ve often been asked by new Airstream owners, “How do you know where to go?” It might sound like a silly question in the context of vast and diverse North America, but I get it. We have the blessing of a land filled with opportunities and sometimes the choices can be overwhelming.

Some people choose to simply “chase 70 degrees,” meaning they go where the weather is good and find things to do when they get there. That’s a great strategy if you are a full-time Airstreamer (perhaps a mobile worker or retiree), or have lots of time to travel.

Others go with their interests, chasing birding hotspots, playing premiere golf courses, riding famous trails, exploring history, or volunteering, for just a few examples. When you start to look at the travel opportunities in that light, you’ll see there are an abundance of possibilities.

My favorite tools for trip-planning include:

  1. Paper maps. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there’s an inspiration (and education) that you can only get from browsing a big map. Spread it out on the dining room table, or open one of those really big road Rand-McNally atlases or Delorme Gazetteers, and have a conversation about the green patches that indicate state and national parks, the attractions that are flagged, and the roads less traveled.
  2. NPS.gov—the national park service’s official website. There are over 400 national park sites in the US and most of them are reachable by road. They exemplify and protect the very best of America’s history, culture, geography, and beauty.
  3. RV-specific websites like Campendium. Once you’ve zoomed in on an area, sites like this one are extremely useful to choose your campground. You’ll find reviews by other travelers, pricing, details about cellular reception, and much more.
A bit of snow in Yellowstone National Park in early October

Perhaps the real trick these days is to know where you shouldn’t go. Mostly I look at the weather, especially in the Rocky Mountain region and the Central Plains states. In the summer, I’m looking for indications of weather fronts that might spawn big thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes. Traveling across the Plains in May, as I often do, I check the weather at least twice a day to make sure nothing is brewing that might force a course change. Once the thunderstorm arrives, it’s too late.

In the other three seasons, I’m looking for the possibility of snow or hard freezes, especially in mountain passes and other high-altitude spots. Altitude is really the key factor. More than once I’ve run into sudden snowstorms in Colorado, after a blissful day of towing in sunshine and 70 degrees. Places like Crater Lake National Park (Oregon) and Lassen Volcanic National Park (California) are so high up that they are only accessible for a few months each summer.

With the pandemic still raging, my list of “where not to go” includes states that are suffering big spikes and/or have restrictions on travel or camping. Of course, this has been a very fluid situation over the past few months. At this writing, the big one to avoid is California, since even in less-affected counties there are significant restrictions and “stay at home” recommendations. A few months ago it was New Mexico, where we found campground owners locked us out of the showers because visitors were under a mandatory 14 day quarantine order.

Our site at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

For sure, Tothie and I have no interest in camping in urban areas right now. We’ll get back to that once things calm down, but for now there are many great opportunities in small towns and out-of-the-way places. No need to risk crowds; Our visits lately have been to places like Silver City NM, Prescott AZ, Borrego Springs CA, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Patagonia AZ.

Being aware of local circumstances is crucial. For example, next month we’re planning a trip to Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco), in Sonora, Mexico. It’s a great spot for a quiet beachfront weekend, but not during Spring Break when the students are rip-roaring through town waving bottles of tequila and barfing on the campsites. (I’m not exaggerating, this is what I experienced a few years ago when I wasn’t quite diligent enough). A quick lookup of the major university schedules in 2021 reveals that Spring Break is cancelled, so no worries there.

We do have quite a big trip planned for this summer, predicated on the assumption that the pandemic will be more under control than it is at present, and we’ve had the opportunity to get vaccinated. The trip will start in June and cross the country, ending sometime after Alumapalooza in September. Our trip is based mostly on big rallies that we want to attend, with our course influenced by friends that we want to visit along the way and other side trips.

It will hardly be a straight line (more of a giant letter “N” across the USA) because the point is not to fly from west to east as quickly as possible, but rather to have a full and satisfying summer of travel adventure. If it doesn’t work out as planned, due to circumstances out of our control, that’ll be fine too. No matter what changes might be thrown at us, there will always be a lot of places to go. We’ll do what Wally wanted: get as much out of our Airstream this summer as we can.

Comments

  1. Abby says

    We were just in Organ Pipe last week with our Basecamp and saw at least two other Airstreams there. (Trying to decide if I recognize the pop-up in your photo’s background.) Absolutely gorgeous time of year to visit. Great advice, particularly about bad weather and local events. We have and use a big statewide Road and Recreation Atlas from Benchmark Maps, which we purchased on Rand McNally’s website. We’ve also found Recreation.gov to be really helpful for location-scouting.

  2. melisse says

    Hello! Do you feel safe traveling to Mexico in a high profile Airstream? I was told if you head south of the border you’d be part to have a rig covered in duct tape to avoid being a target from crime. 🙁

    • RichLuhr says

      Yes, we do feel safe in Mexico in our Airstream. Like the US, there are places best avoided, and places where visitors are welcomed and safe.

      But I have to add that saying “Mexico is (or isn’t) safe” is too broad. It’s like saying “United States isn’t safe”—it depends on exactly where you are. Are we talking about Detroit or Palm Springs?

      The thing about “feeling safe” is that it is just how you feel. Reality often doesn’t have anything to do with it. Some people will “feel” safe in the middle of a riot, while others won’t “feel” safe walking on the beach after sunset. We feel safe in Rocky Point. To each, their own.

  3. melisse says

    Other apps and sites are:
    Harvest Hosts
    Hipcamp
    Free Roam
    Dyrt
    Sisters on the Fly ( sisters can camp for free on sister curbs)
    Camp USA
    Recreation.gov
    Passport America
    Road Trippers
    Trip Advisor

  4. Dave and Martha Cochrane says

    Our Airstream International is frozen to the ground with our minus 20* C temperatures We miss not being able to travel south this year ( had to read the snowblower manual again ). I have a route in my head that will take us across Canada and perhaps down to Arizona for the winter.
    Winter in Canada is a quiet time , listen to music, dream about the next trip and feed the birds.