Everyone always wants to see what the inside looks like, right away, before anything else. The outside is so gleaming and recognizable, the trailer looks so much like it is supposed to—a silver bullet, an outer-space way station, an Airstream—that the mystery of the interior becomes heightened on the threshold, which in our case was in a parking lot in downtown Las Vegas, across the street from where Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh lives in a post-modern trailer park. What’s that? Do you even need to ask? Yes, he lives in an Airstream.
This Airstream—28 feet long, eight feet wide, and about 7,000 pounds—was to be our home for the next five days and four nights. My roommate, Miguel, and I have experience sharing tight spaces. We lived together as college freshmen and sophomores, in bunk beds both years. This situation was quite a bit nicer. I would have an almost queen-size bed in the back (they can’t call it a full queen-size bed because the curves of the Airstream demand pleasing curves along the mattress, and the rounded corners disqualify), and Miguel would sleep up front on a really soft, fake-leather couch that converted to a double bed. There were a stove, a dining nook (also convertible into a bed), a bathroom, a shower, and more storage space than we knew what to do with, much of it preloaded with high-end pots and pans and kitchenware.
Our trip was a throwback with a modern twist, an all-American version of glamorous camping—glamping—out to the great big red-rock canyons in Utah and back. But we didn’t buy the shimmery silver American icon; we rented it—and the GMC Denali to pull it. This wasn’t a one-off journalistic stunt. For the first time in history you, too, can now forgo plopping down upwards of $100,000 to buy an Airstream and instead spend about $4,000 to $10,000—length of trip and trailer depending—to rent one and temporarily live this dream. The rental company, Airstream2Go, is the only licensed and authorized Airstream rental in the world. It has a good pedigree. Its founder and CEO, Dicky Riegel, ran Airstream for several years (and tripled sales); he then ran Airstream’s parent company, Thor Industries (THO) (No. 668 on the Fortune 1,000), based in Elkhart, Ind. Now Riegel is off on his own, with fleets in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and, in the summer, Bozeman, Mont.
Most of Airstream2Go’s clients are first-time RVers looking for a five-star experience.Courtesy of Airstream2go
Riegel started Airstream2Go for three reasons. First, he wanted to try something new and different and create his own thing. A startup fit the bill. Second, he loves Airstreams dearly, bleeds silver, as they say, and owns two (one he’s converted into a pool house, and the other he hauls with his vintage Chevy pickup). And third, he was tired of saying no to all the people who asked—and this happened at least once a day, every day—if it was possible to rent one. The cult of the silver bullet is stronger than ever, and the backlog to buy one can be years. Now that Riegel is a customer of his former company, Airstream2Go’s 30-plus Airstreams built in 2013 are all already presold, much like rental-car fleets.
But there’s a problem, a rather obvious one, with renting out a big, beautiful American icon, and that is that one does not simply hop in and drive off the lot with a multiton, $100,000 object in tow. This became abundantly clear to me days before our trip, when I awoke in a cold sweat after a dream about a years-ago experience hauling a rickety old moving trailer. The anxiety grew as I began contemplating further aspects of the trip, like where we’d park the rig and how we’d navigate gas stations and deal with our toilet tanks and … the list went on and on.
The next day I got an email from Sage Fennig, an “ambassador” with Exclusive Resorts. Last fall Airstream2Go partnered with Exclusive—a luxury destination club wherein members pay a fee to have year-round access to very plush lodgings all over the globe—to offer three trips: one up the California coastline, another in and around Yellowstone National Park, and a third in the Southwest, through Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon. We were going on an abbreviated version of this third trip. Exclusive Resorts handles all the logistics in getting you to and from the Airstream, including air travel and an overnight in Vegas, and Fennig did all this for us. She also put me in touch with Cory Lawrence, the owner of Off the Beaten Path, an adventure-travel outfitter based in Bozeman that works with all Airstream2Go customers on their trips.
I called Lawrence, who told me that while there were suggested itineraries, no one’s vacation ever follows those to the letter. That’s why we were talking, in fact, to figure out what I was after. His company was in the business of creating what he called “bespoke, localized, authentic” travel. While some of Airstream2Go’s clients from Europe and Australia had some experience “caravanning,” for most Americans (the majority of Airstream2Go’s customers) this was their first RV foray. “It’s a five-star experience,” Lawrence said. “It’s taken out of camping the three things that make people most nervous: How’m I gonna eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom?”
Pulling into gas stations is easy. Other vehicles get out of the way.Photograph by Ryan Bradley for Fortune Magazine
Still, a nagging thought arrived: This was a five-star experience in a trailer park. “Actually,” Riegel told me, “these aren’t trailer parks. They’re campgrounds. People don’t live there.” Lawrence said that far from the “Dixie flag, shotgun, and Rottweiler stereotype, what happens a lot is you get to go behind the curtain and enter the world of RVers. And they do have money. And they recreate. It’s a friendly tribe.” Most of the folks who came back from Airstream2Go trips ended up gushing about this tribe they’d entered, if only temporarily.
By the time our flight arrived I was relatively calm about the prospect of hauling. I was made all the calmer once we met Josh Rogers, the fleet manager and our expert teacher in all things ’Stream. He showed us into the interior, and then, for more than two hours, Rogers schooled us on the ins and outs of trailer hitching and unhitching, as well as plugging in electric, water, and—most important and grossest of all—waste. Miguel took us around the block slowly, with nice wide turns, and then, for an extremely brief moment, he backed up. A video monitor on the GMC’s dash displayed what was happening in the rear, and we were shown the “trucker’s grip” (palms down, both hands gripping the bottom of the wheel). Finally, we were assured that both of our campsites during our journey were “pull-throughs,” so we would probably not even need to reverse while hitched. And with that, we were sent on our way.
Before setting off, our driver gets schooled in all things ’Stream—hitching and unhitching, plugging in electric, dealing with waste.Photograph by Ryan Bradley for Fortune Magazine
Reader, I’m sure it was unintentional, but we were misinformed. Neither of our campsites was a pull-through. We backed up. Oh, we backed up. But I am getting ahead of myself.
There are many wondrous aspects to journeying with an Airstream in tow. Mona Heath, general manager at Airstream2Go, said we’d get joyful honks and thumbs-up from passersby. We received neither. What did occur was an unsettling wobble and very subtle push from behind—the weight of the trailer at high speed nudging our car along—if we passed much over 60 mph. It was better, we found, to stay between 50 and 55. There is something magical about setting such a slow pace and not worrying a whiff about vehicles of all kinds, including semitrucks, passing us by. The vast desert landscape revealed itself more clearly. We were moving at a speed more closely aligned with the clouds in the sky. The other wondrous aspect was far more basic but I’d wager even more magical: When we had to go, we simply pulled over, hopped in the trailer, and went.
Hitching and unhitching.Photograph by Ryan Bradley for Fortune Magazine
Much has changed since 1931, when Airstream’s founder, Wally Byam, a Los Angeles lawyer, founded the company. But the essential retro-futuristic whimsy of an Airstream has only grown in popularity. Today there are more Airstreams on the road than ever before, and, remarkably, most of those were made in the past decade or so. The Airstream, built in Jackson Center, Ohio, still looks great, and as photogenic as anything on the road, but it’s more and more common—indeed, as we pulled into our campsite, an RV park just outside Zion, we passed two other Silver Bullets, parked within sight of our hookup spot.
A word on our spot: It was in a laughably difficult-to-navigate corner. I am nearly certain that the folks at the campsite figured they were doing us a great favor by saving such a plum space—boasting as it did a view of the Virgin River, a cow pasture, and the rust red cliffs against the horizon. But no. I was driving at this point, and I cannot tell you exactly how long it took to inch that 28-foot metallic Twinkie into our slot. Miguel thought it was maybe half an hour. At least half the campground came out to see these two newbies try to thread the needle on Dead Man’s Curve. I entered a Zen-like trance of pulling forward and moving in reverse, again and again and again, all while taking orders from a very friendly horde of extremely tanned old-timers wearing flip-flops and drinking cocktails out of brightly colored plastic cups. I would see some of these guys around days later, and they’d nod at me solemnly, acknowledging what we had been through. Maybe, possibly, I was one of their tribe now. Nothing I did for the rest of the trip was nearly as difficult—not hooking up or draining the waste tanks, not fixing a bad connection on the water hose, not even pulling into a crowded gas station (the thing about having a really big car towing a really big, shiny trailer is that people tend to see you, and maybe take pity, and certainly get out of your way)—and nothing left me with such a giddy glow in the aftermath, even after I learned I’d pulled in a little bit catawampus, and our trailer listed slightly to the left.
Nothing was as difficult as getting the trailer into its spot.Photograph by Ryan Bradley for Fortune Magazine
When we returned, five days and four nights later, we pulled into that Vegas lot with huge grins. We’d had an adventure, learned some skills. Still, it struck me as odd that the sort of high-end folks who were the core of Exclusive Resorts’ and Airstream2Go’s business would be lining up to take a similar trip. There was a lot of work involved and some stress too. I called Riegel from the front seat of the Denali and asked him why his clients, who could have pretty much any vacation under the sun, would want this one. He laughed and said, “Yes, yes, that is exactly what’s so surprising about it, and what we were betting on.” So many vacations, he said, particularly luxury vacations, are characterized by “doing nothing and having everything done for you and happen around you.” Airstream2Go was the opposite. “You’re at the helm. It’s not quite Chevy Chase in Vacation, but you kind of get the point, particularly if you’re with friends or family. There’s something you don’t get, you can’t get, on other trips: a sense of achievement.” I told him about parking, backing into that spot. “You’ve conquered a little bit of fear,” Riegel said. “And come back with a great story you get to tell, so the trip will live on. What could be better?” I told him I didn’t know.
For rates, visit airstream2go.com/rates.
To see itineraries, visit Exclusive Resorts Airstream 2 Go itineraries.
A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline ‘Airstream Dream.’