California coast RV road trip

What's it like to haul an Airstream 300 miles up the California coast? Romantic, nail-biting, and yes, cooler than driving a convertible. Get our road rules and route

California RV campground
Photo: Thomas J. Story

By Anna Nordberg

The sun is out. Sea air blows in through the rolled-down window. And there’s nothing but plate-glass blue Pacific alongside us. My husband, Brant, and I are cruising the rugged, cliff-hugging highway on California’s Central Coast—aka the stuff of road-trip dreams. Where you drive for miles upon miles, not even braking for traffic. Life is good.

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Then we barrel past a sign that on any other excursion would be casually ignored—perhaps barely noted. It looked something like this.

I look at my husband. I look at the road.

He grips the wheel, stony-faced. We’re towing a 23-foot Airstream trailer with a rig that would be right at home at a monster-truck rally—headlights that could freeze a herd of deer, tires the size of Texas. As we roar onto this white-knuckle stretch of Highway 1 north of San Simeon, all hairpin turns and glorious views of Big Sur, I have a moment of longing for my Volvo.

Airstream boot camp

Maybe I had watched one too many episodes of Mad Men or ordered one too many Prohibition-era cocktails, but I became romanced by an idea that has been sweeping the nation: retroism. Which is how I ended up driving a retro icon—the Airstream—up a highway that looks like the backdrop for a Hitchcock chase scene.

It took several weeks of planning, but when we picked up the Airstream at a lot in Los Angeles, it gleamed at us like an airplane fuselage. As I opened the floor-to-ceiling drawers, turned on the saucer-size gas burners, and peeked in the tiny shower (you could stand up in it!), the effect was like being in a shiny, ergonomic playhouse designed by NASA. I mean, this thing was cool.

Man Skills—my nickname for my husband, since he can change a flat and back our SUV into a space the size of a mailbox, all strengths I could tell were going to come in handy—seemed equally excited. He nodded and asked pertinent questions as our Airstream expert showed us how to dump our sewage tanks and walked us through the Manhattan Project of hitches.

Lessons absorbed, Man Skills took the wheel as we chugged up the entry ramp toward the freeway. The Ford F-250 Super Duty pulled the trailer as if it were a toaster, and I kept tabs on our side mirrors, which was easy because they’re the size of large flat-screen TVs. A team dynamic emerged: I checked for blind spots and rogue cars. Man Skills did everything else as we headed toward our goal: Kirk Creek campground in Big Sur, the creek itself taking on Shangri-la status the more hours we logged behind the wheel.

Going native

I’ve heard that RVing has its own instant community. True to nature, at our first stop, in Ocean Mesa RV Resort near Santa Barbara, a friendly ex-trucker takes pity on us after our third attempt to back into our space goes awry. Rick is tall and built like a linebacker, and he tows a trailer twice as long as ours. We hang on his every word. After teaching us the hand signals for successful husband-and-wife reversing (a fist for stop, a beckoning motion for go), he invites us back to his RV, which could easily be mistaken for a large house. Before we leave, Rick and his wife, Susan, pile us up with firewood to put in front of our trailer tires (“You can’t believe what I’ve seen rolling away”).

After we make sure our trailer won’t end up in somebody’s backyard, I cook a one-pot dinner of lemon chicken and wilted spinach, and we eat in the Airstream’s retro dinette, feeling like passengers in a first-class train cabin circa 1955. The following morning, drinking coffee outside in the 8 a.m. quiet, I get the same nature rush I usually feel after a night of camping—except the coffee I’m drinking came from a percolator and I slept in a dry, mostly comfortable (albeit U-shaped) bed. I’m beginning to get the appeal of this genre of “camping.”

Next: Taking the wheel

 

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