Travel & Adventure Trading Time: A Pacific Coast Airstream AdventureA family road trip reveals the price of experience and serves as a reminder that, in life, timing is everything.
- Words & Images Adam Fitzgerald
A bobcat jumps in front of our truck only a quarter-mile after we turn onto Jalama Road. My wife screams, and for a fleeting second, I consider that I may have only maimed it. My concern shifts to the condition of this brand-new truck before I feel our 27-foot Airstream trailer deal another blow to the feline. Its fate is certain. I’ve been promising a beachside paradise, but we’re miles from our destination and I’m losing the confidence of my travel partners. Shaken, my wife asks, “Are you sure this is the right road?” The next few miles are somber. Jalama Road is serpentine and narrow. I imagine it being heaven on two wheels, but right now, I’m pushing eight and scanning for suicidal wildlife. Ten more miles and we’ve lost cell phone reception, which means I now have the attention of my teenage son. “You’re sure this is the right road, Dad?” Fighting my own doubts, we crest the final hill to reveal Jalama Beach as the sun is setting on the California coast. The mood changes. This is exactly where we should be.
I couldn’t think of a more perfect apparatus for our Great American Family Road Trip than the iconic Airstream travel trailer. The rolling silver bullet is esteemed among recreational vehicle enthusiasts, and though they have been around for close to 100 years, its uniqueness has never waned. They’ve managed to avoid the ubiquity of the boxy RVs that crowd the market, and among heritage American transportation brands, I consider Airstream right up there with Harley-Davidson and Ford. In 1929, Wally Byam fitted a tent to a Model T chassis that he could pull behind his truck, and the first camper trailer was born. It was mobile but lacked convenience and weather-proofing. Byam developed a more permanent teardrop structure made of plywood, with a lowered floor for more headroom, and included a stove and ice chest. Demand for his trailer grew, and in 1931, the Airstream company was born. In 1936, the teardrop trailer would evolve into the iconic silver bullet that is still produced today.
Byam put a premium on the value of experience, and he built his life and business around that concept. It’s that same reason I’m pulling a 2018 Airstream Globetrotter down the California coast with my wife, Kate, and my oldest son, Jalen. The travel bug bit me 20 years ago when I left New Hampshire to go to school in Georgia. The following year I traveled cross-country to experience California’s Pacific Coast Highway for the first time at age 19. My personal investment with Iron & Air has had its perks, including travel to the West Coast on several occasions. I’ve carried these experiences with me, and have always desired to relive them with my family in tow. As Jalen prepares for college in only a few months, my guilt over not having much to give him is crushing. But what I can’t provide in money I can make up for in experience, so I decide we should embark on the same 600-mile coastal journey that set my life in motion two decades ago.
I'm all for calculated risk-taking, but my passengers on this trip are two of the most important people in my life.
One of the aforementioned perks of my job is having a relationship with Airstream, who was able to set us up with the trailer and a brand new Ford F-150 for this trip. I may have forgotten to mention that I’ve never towed anything larger than a toy hauler before now. RV horror stories are rampant online, and I’m not about to become another one. Between YouTube, several RV forums, and a couple of hours with my neighbor — a seasoned RV vet — I’ve retained enough information to keep us alive for five days on the road. I’m all for calculated risk-taking, but my passengers on this trip are two of the most important people in my life.
I met Kate and her son Jalen when he was only 5. I’ve raised him as my own son for the better part of his 17 years. His biological father opted out of his involvement, but I doubled down and became the best dad I could while still balancing my professional aspirations. No career comes without cost; the greatest cost for me has been time. For what I get to do with Iron & Air, I am fortunate beyond words. But time is the one thing that no amount of success or equity in anything can recoup. Moments like your child leaving for college raise the question of what you’ve actually been working for. This trip isn’t intended to make up for lost time; it’s an opportunity to invest time in a way that might pay Jalen dividends for years to come.
We spend the first couple of hours getting comfortable on the highway towing the 8,000-pound Globetrotter before we head south on the PCH near Santa Cruz. Around the Carmel Highlands is where Route 1 really starts to unfold. My increased confidence, combined with the 3.0-liter turbo diesel V6, helps me find a rhythm through the sweeping turns as we approach Big Sur. Memories of driving the PCH as a teenager collide with the present as I watch my wife and son see the Pacific cliffs for the first time. I choke up more than once, feeling grateful for this trip. Simultaneously, I grapple with the time that has passed since I was 19, and what I’ve traded it for. The next 20 years are even less of a guarantee than they were then. I thank God for even being here at all.
After a night in Big Sur, we’ve already succumbed to the entitlement of luxury camping. Somehow the settings on our full-size refrigerator were wrong, and our food — and more alarmingly, our beer — isn’t staying cold. But it proves to be a minor setback as we make breakfast in the Airstream’s front living quarters, which boasts a full kitchen with a gas stove, full sink and pantry, and a dining room table. The 27-foot Globetrotter is more trailer than anyone needs, but with three of us jockeying for space, I understand the appeal of the 33-foot Classic model. As we hit the road, a park ranger stops to remind me how much house I could buy for what I’d paid for my truck and trailer. She rolls off in her golf cart before I can explain, but the notion of trade-offs echoes in my head for the next few miles. I calculate the value of the time I’ve traded over the years and justify the paltry monetary sum as a result of poor mental math. “There’s more to life than money,” they say — “they” usually being the ones with plenty of it.
When we arrive at Jalama Beach in Lompoc, it’s later than I’d hoped. Parking the Airstream proves a tiresome process. After backing a quarter-mile uphill and then a half-dozen attempts to complete a 90-degree turn between two other trailers, Jalen tells me to “just turn it into the spot” and I snap at him for the first time this trip. A friendly neighbor throws me a few tips, and I’m in. There is no shortage of kindness and camaraderie here. Jalama is 15 miles off the main road, home to the famous Tarantula’s surf spot, and with only 100 camping spaces and no cell phone service, it feels like a community of like-minded escapists. We walk the beach and Kate tells me that she wants her ashes spread here. I decide the same. To his visible discomfort, we share our wishes with Jalen as we catch the last rays of the setting sun.
We spend our final couple days traveling through Santa Barbara and Ventura, camping at Faria State Beach, and sightseeing in Los Angeles before catching a red-eye back to New Hampshire. The week brought moments of laughter, sadness, frustration, and peace. For the first time in awhile, I feel the value of a week’s time far exceeded any dollar amount I could have earned. I was able to pass along experiences that, had I waited, may have been too late to share. I wanted Jalen to recognize the value that comes from quality time like this, and imbue him with the confidence to venture out, knowing he’ll be okay without us. In reality, I needed to know that I’d be okay without him.
We may not always be certain of the road we’re on, but as long as we place value in the right things, we’re exactly where we should be.