Whatever the American Dream isor wasit reached its destination in Los Angeles where Route 66, that ribbon of highway, ends at the Santa Monica Beach. Its all played out to a logical extreme here, from the glamour of Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland and the Hollywood sign to Jimmy Dean at the Griffith Observatory. But, in some ways, the idea of the open road, that thing of the American conscience thatll get you here, to John Fante and Nathaniel West and Bruce Wagners city, took its physical form in a Los Angeles backyard in the early 1930s.
Thats where Stanford law alumnus Wally Byam, who had previously owned an ad agency and been a magazine publisher, began building his recreational vehicle trailers. After Byam ran an article on how to build a better trailer for under $100, the response was so enthusiastic that he soon found himself rocketing the fledgling industry. In 1934, Byam dubbed his company "Airstream" because the trailers moved "like a stream of air." The trademark would come to describe any sleek, silver trailer that embodies a mid-century image of the future. The name became ubiquitous, like Kleenex or Xerox. Hence Byams creed: "To place the great wide world at you doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home."
Byam spent years leading caravans of Airstreams around the world, from the Eiffel Tower to the pyramids, from Nogales to Costa Rica, across the Americas, Europe and Africa. By the time of his death in 1962, his impact on popular culture was real indeed. Its hard to say whether the look of the Airstream was another product indicative of the post-war affluence or actually a template for 50s style. One need only look at a few silver diner cars to see the resemblance and wonder.
In Byams fair city, at the corner of Topanga Canyon Road and Ventura Boulevard, kids hung out at a 1957 Valentine diner, bearing a striking resemblance to the reflective trailers. But Burger Bar #3, as it was called, is gone from its old home. The diner now resides 600 miles away at the Shady Dell Trailer Park in the little desert town of Bisbee, Arizona, where the past is more than just the past.
Driving from L.A. to Bisbee is like rewinding space and time. My girlfriend and I head out Route 66 to Barstow, through the Mojave Desert and into Las Vegasstill a land of the in-between where transients get caught on their way west. Then its down to Arizona, where a few hours and one speeding ticket later we roll into the high desert border town in the Mule Mountains. Bisbee is home to an old copper mine. But hippies, artists and writers have now appropriated the historic town, which is built into the side of a hill like a strip mine. Its a strange place, sort of David Lynchs small-town America.
About a mile outside of town, the sign by the little road to nowhere has a logo depicting the vintage trailer parks slogan: "Follow the Sun to the Shady Dell." The threshold of the park is like a gateway to yesteryear. A one-night stay here gets you more than a place to sleepit buys you a piece of national identity captured in the pop culture of 1950s naiveté.
The Shady Dell began in 1927 as a rest stop and campground for travelers making the trek across the big ol U.S. of A. along the Mexico border. Now the RV park is home to eight vintage trailers, completely refurbished with period furniture and bric-a-brac, that you can rent out for $35-$75 a night. Antique dealers Ed Smith and Rita Personett, the proprietors of the Shady Dell, began the odd projectpart hotel, part museum, part time machinealmost by accident in 1994.
It all started with a little 1952 10-foot homemade trailer, built from plans in Popular Mechanics.
"We bought our first one at the Pomona car show in 1994," Ed explains. "Then we bought two more trailers within a short span, and we didnt have a place to park them. And thats when we bought the park." But in the beginning, Smith and Personett had no intention of turning the Shady Dell into something so grand. "We parked them in a row as an art statement or to look at."
As it turns out, the vintage trailer park grew out of necessity. "At that point," says Smith, "we were trying to get the money together to pay for the expenses that come with a piece of property like that. We figured if we could rent them out for $25 a night and if we could rent out each of them two times a month, that would be an extra $100 to go to making the payments on the property. When we started, our outlook was very small. We didnt feel we were going into business that way."
But things have a way of taking an unexpected turn. "In the first week, we had two single men rent each of those trailers for a month at a time
we were immediately successful with that." By the time Smith and Personett had four trailers, journalists Jane and Michael Stern had heard about the park and did a travel piece on it. As Smith recalls, "There wasnt any turning back; people were calling from all over the country."
There are more than just Airstreams at the Shady Dell, and we stay in the giant of vintage trailers, the 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion built by multimillionaire J. Paul Gettys airplane company. At 33 feet, its bigger than the classic Airstream design and more square-shaped. Outside, there is a little white picket fence and a big tomcat that wanders around. Were surprised when Rita calls him Mr. Snuggles. But Smith explains that the former marina cat used to go by DC and Eveready while living on a huge, 100-year-old, sunken dredge in the Sacramento Delta, Rio Vista, California. Since Smith and Personett rescued the tough cat, Snuggles has become a fixture of the park, always first in line at the occasional wedding reception. When I ask Smith if there is anything he feels people need to know about the Shady Dell, he replies, "Well, as long as you get the cat in there."
Inside, the Royal Mansion is a retro dream. On one end, theres leopard print carpeting, a purple couch, a vintage television and an old phonograph. The fully functional kitchen in the middle is stocked with martini glasses and a shaker, Tiki cups, a Frigidaire and even a breakfast booth. The far end of the trailer includes an airplane-size bathroom and a bedroom with a full bed that takes up nearly the whole space. The ceiling and walls of the entire trailer are blonde wood paneling with trim, like something youd expect to see in a mid-century cottage kitchen. Smith explains, "Most of that stuff I didnt make up; I wanted to recreate that feeling without going overboard. Thats what I strive for most; I dont want it to be like an amusement park ride. They glorify it to where its more of a parody, and thats not what I wanted it to be."
Being in the vintage trailer is in no way a joke; its truly transformational. The Spartan Royal Mansion is a live-in museum, and it feels like weve become part of the exhibit, living out the 1950s of our imaginations. We while away the afternoon into the twilight hours listening to Cal Tjader and Santo & Johnny records and old 78s like Under Hawaiian Skies. Later that night, I leave the Rick Moody book Ive been reading in my bag and flip through the 30s and 40s paperbacks stacked on the shelf. Theres Francis Beedings Spellbound and Whistle Stop and the 1936 pulp novel Kid Galahad by Francis Wallace, with its inscription, "To all the boys, and girls, of the fight mobwhose only regret will be that I havent spelled their names right." Each book has its owners name penned in the front: "Bernice Levine, Hollywood, California." I feel like were on the way to visit my glamorous Aunt Bernie, reading the books she sent in the mail.
This is what Smith and Personett strive for, "to go back into time to the 1950s and experience what a trailer park was like and to be able to have the whole grouping of the trailers and have them decorated with the vintage items, listening to the vintage records, watching old shows on the old television."
Its easy to forget that theres a VCR hidden in the cabinet under the television while watching Giant, It Came From Outer Space or Teenage Devil Dolls. The old set takes awhile to warm up and then flickers and the sound is virtually unintelligible, but it somehow seems more authentic. And with eight trailers, you can look out the window and the park confirms your feelings of time travel. "It became a little 1950s trailer park village, and thats the experience," says Smith. "I use a lot of the ideas out of the vintage trailer magazines that I own. Like the picket fences. Those are a particular style that I chose from the magazines of the time."
That night, there is a giant hailstorm. We lie in bed and listen to the pings and patters on the aluminum roof and cant imagine going back to a world where it is the year 2001.
The Shady Dell will do that to youlull you into the cadence of another time. As Smith says, "There are many people that just hang out there, they dont want to break that spell that theyre in," and that describes the feeling perfectly. "We had some ladies from San Francisco," Smith recalls, "and I asked them if they were going into town and they said they were waiting until the last day. They hadnt read a newspaper since theyd been there."
So what type of person is after this odd and entirely unique experience? "Its really all different kinds," according to Smith. "This week weve actually had a group of German motorcycle riders, and they saw us on German TV. And then weve had three different groups of English people come. And then the other day another German couple came with a German travel guide to the Southwest. Bisbee was represented in there, and there was a photo of the Shady Dell."
In addition to foreign tourists looking for America, the park gets its share of weddings and honeymooners, thanks to the 1949 Airstream. The 21-foot trailer was pictured in Brides Magazine and has been dubbed the "honeymoon suite" because the back room features a polished aluminum ceiling over the bed. Then there are the folks celebrating their anniversaries. "Weve had people who are very old. We had someone who wanted a particular trailer that they had when they got married in 1949," Smith says. "They were going back and reliving something over 50 years ago."
The Shady Dell has had its share of eccentric celebrities as well. There are regular guests like artist John Baeder and the Surreal Gourmet, who drives a car that looks like a toaster with two slices of toast popping up. Comic artist and writer Tom Tomorrow visited the park and was really affected by the place. Tomorrow explains, "I was taking a cross country road trip a couple of years agomy honeymoon, actually. My friend and fellow cartoonist Max Cannon lives in Tucson and suggested we rendezvous at Shady Dell." How does he describe his stay? "It was fantastic. We had a barbecue while listening to old scratchy Dean Martin records on the record player. Later that night, I stayed up reading some of the old Time magazines lying around. It was
like stepping into a time warp. If you have any affection whatsoever for the design and aesthetic of the 50s, it's just an astonishing place to visit
like a museum display, except that you're not standing behind a velvet rope, you get to partake in the experience."
Tomorrow, who is the creator of the politically astute This Modern World with its hip commentator, Sparky the penguin, even used the Shady Dell in one of his comic strips. "I like to throw in odd backgrounds. The location had nothing to do with the content of the strip; I just felt like drawing it in. A small way of saying thank you to whoever it is that brought the place together, I guess."
Interestingly, Ed Smith and Rita Personett did not really know who Tom Tomorrow was until people started sending them the strip. They only realized the quirky name was legit when another oddly named celebrity signed the guest book after Tomorrowpunk legend Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys. Smith remembers, "He was there and he signed the book, Wow, I cant believe I stayed in the same trailer as Tom Tomorrow!"?
The night before we leave, we listen to a tape of someone reading Jack Kerouacs On the Road. The next day, we load the car and bid farewell to the Shady Dell. It strikes me that the trailer park is not just a doorway to the past, but the type of place that we need out on the road in the here and now. Adventure is where you find it, and the Shady Dell will reshape your perceptions.
Its a little sad, then, when we find out that the vintage trailer park is for sale because things like this are too good to not stick around. But Smith and Personett have found that the park takes over more and more of their lives. "I dont want to lose control over keeping things the way we wanted to keep them," says Smith. He assures me that if they do sell the park, it will be to someone who will keep it going. "Thats what I would like, and I hope thats what happens."
But Im not so sure that visionaries like Smith and Personett can escape their creations so easily; its just not in their nature. In one breath, Smith tells me that the park is getting to be too much and in the next describes how they could expand. "Vintage cabins. There was an original one of those in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and we just fell in love with it."