Hitched up

Any given day, there's not much to Milford's Camp Dearborn: tranquil, man-made lakes and a cluster of trees here and there. But on a sunny May weekend, the recreational park has been transformed into a landscape of gleaming aluminum and space-age dream machines. This is the ninth annual Tin Can Tourists Gathering, a rally celebrating vintage trailers, motor coaches and the "gasoline gypsies" who worship them. The camp's sloping hillsides become a living tribute to America's long love affair with the open road, as well as a fanciful rolling history lesson.

"A big part of the hobby is tracking them down," says 43-year-old Henry Wallace of Prospect, Ky. He's holding court outside his perfectly appointed, screaming yellow, 1953 Vagabond. "You hear about one in a barn somewhere and you search it out. It's an adventure. It takes you to places you would probably never go to otherwise."

Wallace's Vagabond is joined this weekend by 130 or so other vintage machines and the obsessed TCT members who own them. Devoted to the "enjoyment, preservation and promotion of vintage trailers and motor coaches," the Tin Can Tourists organization was founded in Tampa, Fla., in 1919, during the first boom in American road travel. The club fizzled in the '70s, but, nine years ago, vintage camper buffs Forrest Bone and his wife Jeri resurrected TCT, and a new era of trailer appreciation was born. Bone and his wife, both Michigan natives, spend half the year living at Camp Dearborn and the other half at one of the original TCT campsites in Bradenton, Fla.

The rally, which started with 21 trailers in 1998 at Camp Dearborn, has grown to a more than 500 members from across the United States and the world, including England, France and Japan. And, unlike many other clubs, which cater to specific brands of trailers, no make or model is excluded from TCT. "We don't care if you have a teardrop or a 2006 motor home," says Bone, 63. "Everybody's welcome."

And that's certainly the vibe at Camp Dearborn.

"It's a labor of love," says Ken Hindley, 67. He and wife Lana, 62, are attending with their 1936 Curtiss Aerocar — a handsome, gunmetal gray behemoth pulled by an equally enormous 1938 International truck. Hindley found both vehicles crushed and deteriorating under a collapsed barn five miles from the couple's Union, Ontario, home in 1981. He restored them himself — a theme prevalent among the rally's participants. "I enjoy it," he says. "You can't get mad. You just keep doing it till you get it done."

For retired art director Don Boehme, 68, who rolls in a cherry red 1962 Shasta Airflyte trailer pulled by a matching '56 Ford station wagon, it's about the life inherent in the lifestyle. As flashy as it is, Boehme's boss rig has stranded him before. "In a way, when you break down, it's another part of the experience," says the Oak Park, Ill., resident as he tinkers with an old soda fountain jukebox on the camper's dinette table. Boeheme will join 29 other vintage campers for a road trip in June. "If I break down, I may not make it back till July. But you meet great people."

"You can really see people's personalities in [the trailers]," says Springfield, Ohio, resident Holly Ratliff, 41, as she suns herself outside the 1961 Airstream Overlander she owns with husband Wally. "The '50s and '60s were a much more interesting time — people were going places. They hit the road and they didn't worry about campgrounds. They really enjoyed the world."

The weekend's festivities are de rigueur for a vintage vehicle event: hot dogs, an awards ceremony, door prizes and a '50s dance party on the campground's decrepit tennis courts. There's a casual air to the proceedings, which usually includes the tapping of a keg and lots of easy laughter.

"The trailer is a catalyst for people who are looking for a greater community," says Bone, gesturing with a foamy cup of beer as his wife cuts a rug on the crumbling court. "A lot of us are looking for a community where people know each other and embrace each other, like they did when we were kids."

And while the rest of the world continues its relentless pursuit of convenience, the Tin Can Tourists keep hitting the road in search of something else. And it's that open-ended pursuit, along with dry rot and electrical failure, that unites them.

Charon Henning, a 34-year-old student from Virginia, has logged more than 80,000 miles in the 1966 Airstream Safari she shares with partner Alex Kensington. On one trip the couple lost their brakes in downtown Miami and, on another, they threw a wheel going 60.

"Somebody told me once that adventures are defined by the discomfort we experience while having them," Henning says. "When I heard that I said, 'Oh my god! That's my life!'"


For more info go to tincantourists.com.

Wendy Case is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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