Peace and tranquillity, shattered

My plan to visit Bert, Janie, Eric, and Sue was thwarted last night when I realized that I still had 100 miles to go and it was nearing 9 p.m.  I had covered 660 miles and felt it was time to get some rest, so I parked at a Cracker Barrel in central Albuquerque and settled in.  However, after dinner and the blog I was still wide awake, so I began to fiddle with things in the Caravel, and unpack.

I packed very carefully for this trip, but forgot one critical tool every vintage trailer owner needs: a lighter.  The stove, water heater (and the refrigerator, before we replaced it) are not self-lighting.  So while I had a few gallons of water, I didn’t have any way to warm it up — and that water was near freezing from the long day of towing across the plains of Oklahoma and north Texas.  I gritted my teeth and made do with a sketchy sponge bath in icy water.

The next job was to fix a leak in the toilet’s water supply. That was easy: teflon tape and a wrench.  So I had made some progress in getting the Caravel from “aluminum tent” mode to full-blown camping mode.  I now had a functioning cold water bathroom, plus a space heater, lights, and refrigeration.  I  was feeling pretty good about it when I went to bed.   The trailer was warm, the night was quiet, and I was sleeping peacefully.

… until 4:24 a.m.

Bang! Crash!  The front window of the Caravel spontaneously shattered into a bazillion little shards of glass — and believe me, that’s one heck of a wakeup call.  My first thought was that someone had thrown a baseball at it, because that’s what it sounded like.   But upon inspection, it was clear that once again I had experienced the phenomenon of the amazing self-destructing Airstream windows.

This problem seems to happen primarily to Airstreams made in the late 1960s, when Airstream switched to a (then) high-tech window glass provided by Corning.  The glass was chemically tempered, meaning that it was treated to be stronger, and if it broke it would break into small pieces instead of large dangerous shards.   The 1966-1968 Airstream in particular have an exotic version of this glass that matches the curvature of the trailer for a beautifully streamlined look.  That’s all good.  Unfortunately, the glass does not hold up well after four decades.  In cold temperatures, or when excessively jostled, it can suddenly and violently shatter.

I lost another window on this trailer back in March 2004, also in sub-freezing conditions.  I was towing through West Virginia when a curved side window collapsed.  That gave me no end of trouble, because in 2004 there was no replacement available for the curved windows.  Nobody, anywhere, made them.  I ended up replacing two of the three side windows with Lexan, which was a poor substitute.

Since then the glass has become available again from several sources. During the restoration of the trailer I replaced the two plastic windows with glass.  Three windows remained original: the front, the rear, and one side window. Now the front was in a heap in front of the Airstream.

I closed the front shade to keep the heat in, turned the catalytic heater to High, and climbed back in my sleeping bag to think about the best course of action.  After a few minutes, I turned on my phone and woke up the laptop, and began looking for answers.  By 5:30, thanks to good friends who were awake on the East Coast, I had a plan of action.

It was lucky that this happened right in Albuquerque, rather than on the road like the first one.  A Home Depot was half a mile down the street, where I obtained a sheet of Lexan cut to 39″ x 21″ and some heavy-duty aluminum tape.  Fifteen minutes of taping in the parking lot, and I was ready to hit the road again.

Oh, the joys of vintage ownership. I had forgotten the regularity with which things fall off or fall apart on vintage trailers.  In my opinion, the key is to fix things better than they were originally, so that the problems don’t repeat.  That’s why I bought replacements for all three of the remaining 40-year-old Corning windows the last time I was in Jackson Center.  It is expensive to preemptively replace the glass, but the alternative is waiting for one of them to dump glass shards during a camping trip.

The temporary repair was good enough to last for a while, but I decided to skip visiting with Bert, et al, and head home instead.  The factor keeping me from moving onward to the town of Grants was a storm approaching from the west.  Grants was expecting snow, possibly a lot, and I didn’t want to get stuck there.  So I passed on my regrets to my friends and hustled down I-25 toward lower altitudes and blessed warmth.

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Despite 450 miles of intense headwinds after departing Albuquerque, here I am in Tucson.  Back at home base, safe and sound. The storm began raining on the house just minutes after I arrived.   The Caravel is parked in the carport temporarily, while I work on a few interior upgrades.  The GL has 4,200 more miles on it than it had 10 days ago.  All of us (Rich, car, trailer) will be happy to just sit still here for a while.  If I learned anything on this trip, it’s that there’s no place I’d rather be right now.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine