Our Family's First and Only Camper

Bill Hartig with his daughter Kate, her husband Nate, and their two daughters, posed in front of their family RV.

I was raised in a family of nomads. My father was a military man, so being on the move was a normal way of life for me and my family. I was born on Guam and spent my adult life as a merchant seaman, traveling all over the world, following in Dad’s footsteps.

It wasn’t until later in life that my dad’s fascination with Airstreams began. In the late 1990s, he and my stepmom Joyce had long-since retired in Southern Nevada when they decided to attend an Airstream rally in Phoenix, Arizona. Age hadn’t suppressed his itchy feet. And to his mind, there was no better way to travel than in an Airstream motorhome. Attracted by its cachet and craftsmanship, when he spotted a 1974 Airstream for sale at the rally, he made up his mind to have it. With gleaming oak cabinetry, porcelain fixtures and original upholstery, it was a vintage gem.

For the next ten years, Dad and Joyce hit the road every spring, making the 300-mile trip from Boulder City, Nevada, across the desert to the Naval Weapons Military RV Park in Seal Beach, California, where they spent cool summers by the ocean in a community of other military types. “I’ve got a sweater on here, son!  How hot is it in Boulder City today?!”

In 2006, with Dad in his mid-80s, I volunteered to take the helm of the Airstream for the annual trip. Although he was still spry and energetic, I had concerns about him making the long trip. So Dad set out in his truck, taking a couple of days to get there with an overnight stay in Apple Valley. I gave him a day’s head start and then drove the Airstream straight through, waiting for him at the “military access only” gates of the park. He took advantage of the Grand Slam breakfast at a nearby Denny’s before meeting up with me, which let me catch a couple hours of sleep. Once we gained access to the park, I set the Airstream up in its spot so Dad and Joyce could enjoy their summer. In September, we did it all in reverse, and this became our annual tradition for years to come.

In the summer of 2013, Dad took his last trip to the coast. He’d been on the move for most of his 92 years, but later that year, he was hospitalized and passed away.

He left the Airstream to me.

The Airstream had always stood for tradition, family and making memories. So it didn’t take me long to come up with a plan. My daughter Katie, son-in-law Nate and two granddaughters, Kai and May, were our new generation of nomads. What better way for them to take advantage of the open roads than in the Airstream? 

Nate and I bonded over working on the Airstream, cleaning salt air and corrosion off signs, putting down new hardwood floors, fitting bunk beds for the girls, and installing solar panels for energy efficiency and convenience. Soon, they were ready for their maiden voyage to Carlsbad beach, not too far from their Oceanside home. It became the first of many fun-filled family adventures.

And who knows? Perhaps one day, the sisters will continue the tradition handed down by their great-grandpa and take to the open road, following the sun with the Airstream in tow.

 Here are some of my tips for creating a family legacy of RV travel:

  1. Enjoy one another. It’s the most important part of the trip with your family. Take time to let the kids be kids, and marvel at the way they see the world. Lie beneath the stars together one night or enjoy s’mores!

  2. Start teaching kids young. To really build a family culture of RVing, it’s important for everyone to feel involved. Teach your kids about different aspects of taking care of the RV, and make sure everyone has a chance to try out various responsibilities. While kids may not be old enough to learn how to drive, you can let them assist you in pumping gas, checking fluids, or doing routine maintenance checks.

  3. Organization is key on the road, especially with kids. Create organized spaces for them to store their own toys, books, activities and whatever it is they decide to bring. See-through plastic tubs are ideal for this. Have them put their things away when they aren’t using them. An RV can become cluttered very quickly without assigned spaces for everyone’s items.

  4. Invest in battery-powered lights for everyone. Whether you need to find something in the dark while others are sleeping, or you just need a midnight bathroom run, having a flashlight or lantern for each person will make everyone feel more secure in new surroundings. I like the Coleman Quad LED lantern--it separates into four individual lights when you need it.

  5. Start traditions. When your kids are grown, the things they’ll remember most will be the traditions you repeat over and over. Be thoughtful about what traditions you want to start, and then make it a part of every camping trip. Whether it’s making s’mores over the fire, telling scary stories together, or collecting cool rocks, the traditions you set will become part of your family mythology of camping.