The words of Wally

Over the past few weeks I have been working on a very special project: reprinting the two books written by Wally Byam.

Now, to those outside the Airstream world, Wally Byam may be just a name.  But to those of us who travel in Airstream trailers, Wally is a demi-god.  He’s most famous for starting the Airstream company back in 1931, and introducing the first aluminum-skinned Airstream trailers in 1936.  Every Airstream owner travels in a direct descendant from those 1936 Airstream Clippers, even today.

But what really made Wally a hero were his famous globe-trotting Airstream caravans.  He was a man with “an itchy foot,” as he put it, and soon began leading ordinary people on extraordinary voyages all over world — in Airstreams.  In 1948, he toured post-war Europe in a custom built Airstream with his friend Neil Vanderbilt (heir to the Vanderbilt fortune).  This by itself was an extraordinary achievement, since Europe was hardly open for tourism at that time, and entire cities were bombed out.

In 1951, Wally arranged the first trailer caravan ever, when he took a group of untested and inexperienced Airstreamers into Mexico.  The group was bigger than he had expected, 63 trailers in all, and the trip was arduous beyond belief.  Roads were rough, power was hard to find, and they had to dig their own pit toilets at every camp site.  By Mexico City, one-third of the caravan turned around and went home.  The rest pressed on to Guatemala, through roadless jungle (via rail) and incredible conditions.  Wally wrote it better than I could:

The border crossing into Guatemala took several hours despite the advance arrangements, and since it was a hot day, we joined the Mexican children swimming in the river while we waited. After the red tape at the border, we crossed the Talisman Bridge, and most of the outfits had to be towed up the steep hill from the river — a significant introduction to our Guatemalan journey. Another stop for examination of documents, and we were off at a snail’s pace on the dirt-and-boulder road Guatemalans call a highway — a rocky, rutted trail through dense forests and underbrush. In the eight and a half hours until we found a clearing where we could camp for the night, we covered nineteen miles.

guatemala-lunch-stop.jpgThe terrific jolting on the road caused cabinet doors to fly open inside many trailers; when we parked, the weary owners were confronted with scenes of utter devastation. Broken glasses and bottles and their contents mingled with flour, sugar, pots and pans, on the floor. Learning a bitter lesson, Caravan housekeepers put everything on the floor that could possibly end up there before continuing this rugged journey.

The next day was another prolonged struggle with steep grades, rocks and dust. The trailers spread out for miles with the tow truck continually pulling them out of holes and up hills. One trailer was stuck in the middle of the road, blocking a bus, until all the passengers got out and pushed it up the hill. From eight-thirty in the morning till nine-thirty that evening we covered exactly sixty miles. I found a fair campsite on a river and went back along the road telling everybody how to reach it, but the last one didn’t limp in until the following evening. Meanwhile, Caravan wives did their laundry in the river exactly as we had seen Mexican women doing all the way along, and everybody went swimming to cool off.

Every disaster you can imagine – and certainly more than I ever imagined — occurred on that road to Guatemala City. Axles and springs broke; brakes and clutches wore out, transmissions failed. The power wagon carried tools for some repair jobs, as well as equipment for towing, but there were naturally many parts we did not have — nor did the nearest garages. They had to be flown in from Mexico City in some cases, which caused a considerable delay.

After they had been pulled up and eased down numerous steep hills, with hours spent waiting for the tow truck to come to their aid, many outfits just gave up. Some sold their trailers to local buyers, some shipped them home by rail or boat and either went with them or by plane.

By the time the caravan left Guatemala it had dwindled to twenty-two trailers. The rest headed to El Salvador, Honduras, and finally arrived in Managua, Nicaragua.  After a week’s stay to recuperate, they turned around and did it all again to get home — a repeat performance of the entire ordeal, complete with burned-out transmissions and other failures.  Wally cannibalized his own trailer for parts so often that he finally abandoned it by the side of the road.

Wally Byam came back from this trip with only 14 of the original 63 trailers.  He had lost 27 pounds and his hair turned gray.  And yet, he recovered from that adventure and led another caravan into Mexico just nine months later.  Then he went on to lead a Canadian caravan in 1955, a European caravan with 34 trailers in 1956, a Cuban caravan in 1956, numerous Mexican and US caravans, and then his magnum opus: the incredible Cape Town to Cairo Caravan across Africa in 1959-1960 — both ways, north and south.

The stories of these caravans were well-documented at the time, in magazine articles, films, and books, but most of those are hard to find today.  Wally wrote two books about the trailer lifestyle and caravanning, both of which are long out of print.  They were “Fifth Avenue On Wheels,” published in 1949 and 1953, and “Trailer Travel Here And Abroad,” published 1960.  These books are really marvels of travel history, documenting a unique golden age of worldwide trailering that simply can’t be duplicated today.

byam-books-cover.jpgUsed copies of these books are extremely expensive if you can find them at all.  Typically an original copy of “Trailer Travel Here And Abroad” will run $100-350.  This means that the vast majority of vintage trailer and Airstream owners have never seen them.  That’s a shame, because the stories, photos, and ideas that Wally shared half a century ago are still fascinating.

I’ve wanted to reprint those books for years, but the motto in the publishing world is that “reprints don’t pay.”  That’s especially true when you are re-publishing a book that will sell, at most, a few hundred copies.  It was to be a labor of love, if we were ever going to get them back in print.  After a few false starts, I discovered that Forrest McClure, had also begun working on the project, and we threw our resources together.

After four years of part-time work, scanning, correcting, and re-setting every word of Wally’s books, we have finally completed the job, and now both of Wally’s books are available once again.   In an effort to ensure that the books would be read by as many people as possible, we designed the books for lowest possible cost ($24.95 in the Airstream Life store).  We re-set the type for an 8.5″ x 11″ page size (to reduce the page count), printed in a paperback edition. But every fascinating word and every wonderful historic photo is included — plus a couple of new introductions and a memoir by Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn, who was on many of the famous caravans as a young man.

There will never again be a Wally Byam.  He was unique, and his accomplishments simply can’t be duplicated today.  The only way to appreciate this period of travel history is to read his books.  That’s why we went through all the trouble of getting them back in print today.  If you want to get a copy, visit the Airstream Life store.  Enjoy!

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine