Grandpa’s Parting Gift: An Airstream

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Grandpa loved Airstreams. He used to talk about them all the time. The problem was, Grandma didn’t. She preferred big motorhomes, with all the fancy gadgets, multiple slide-outs, pretty paintjob, and a big enough bathroom to accommodate her slight rotundness. Although I am writing a doctoral dissertation these days, my parental unit homeschooled me, and I loved it. I used to take my books, a few clothes, my banjo, and hit the road with Grandma and Grandpa. For several years, we’d go to Florida each winter after Christmas. Grandpa loved to go, and I never saw him happier than when he was driving his 1987, twin-axled Winnebago Elandan. Every time we visited Florida, Grandpa thought about trading. He wanted an Airstream. We looked at Airstreams every year, and I hoped he would finally make the plunge. He didn’t. He ended up trading the ’87, not for the dreamy silver bullet, but for a huge motorhome with two slide-outs for Grandma’s comfort. Grandpa loved Grandma, but he still wanted an Airstream.

Grandma passed away on Valentine’s Day, 2015. Two weeks after the funeral, Grandpa began hunting an Airstream for sale. Not long after Grandma died, I moved into Grandpa’s house to help take care of him. One morning he woke me up and said he wanted me to drive him to the nearest Airstream dealer. We drove 35 miles to the local South Carolina dealer and began looking at all the shiny new trailers. Grandpa wasn’t impressed. He walked into the dealership office and asked if they had anything better. The sales manager told us that the only other option they had was an old Excella sitting at the end of their lot. Some man from up north of Columbia just traded it in a few days earlier. Grandpa looked at me and said, “Come on boy, let’s go see it.” We walked to the back of the lot and didn’t see the 34 ft. Excella until we were right up on it. Triple axles. That’s good. They had it tucked away, sandwiched between a couple other trade-ins. As we walked up to it Grandpa said, “Now that’s more like it, ain’t it boy.” The door was open. He walked up the steps, looked around, sat on the couch, and remarked with a tear-soaked eye, “I think your Grandma would have liked this one.”

We checked everything out for about 20 minutes before Grandpa wanted to see a salesman. The sign on the Airstream listed a price of $22,000. It’s a ’94. We walked into the sales office and Grandpa haggled for a long while. He finally got the manager to bring the price down to an even $17,000. Grandpa opened up his billfold, pulled out an old check that had probably been in there for months, and wrote it out for an even $17,000. When the sales manager asked whose name to put on the title, Grandpa pointed at me. I was floored. I did not expect Grandpa to buy me an Airstream. He never hinted that he planned to do that. I felt like a kid at Christmas time, even though I was in my late 20s! I thought, OMG, what am I going to do with it?? I drove an old Mercedes at the time, so I couldn’t pull it anywhere. No problem, the man down the road from our house had just put his Dodge 3500 (with the Cummins motor) in the front yard with a for sale sign on it. Grandpa bought it.

The man at the Airstream place said it would be a couple weeks before they could get it ready. We picked it up two weeks later, and I immediately began planning trips for Grandpa and me. The Airstream wasn’t parked in our yard more than a week before Grandpa’s heart grew tired. His doctor’s told me that if I wanted to take him anywhere in the trailer, I had better make it quick. Rather than sulk over the bad news, I washed the silver beauty, packed it with Grandpa’s clothes, some loaf-bread, bacon, and we headed down to Charleston for a few days. Our first night in the Airstream we watched The Great Outdoors with John Candy. Grandpa laughed so much that I thought he would lose his breath. He was so happy just to stay in the Airstream, at the beach, with me. We stayed for several days, learning new things about the Excella, and talking to other RVers who wanted to get a closer look at her. There’s nothing like an Airstream. People love them.

Not long after our trip to Charleston, Grandpa’s health began to fail quickly. He was in and out of the hospital several times that summer, and soon he couldn’t get out the bed anymore. All the while he was bedridden, I would go to school and teach high school history during the day and come home to hear Grandpa talking about a big trip to Alaska. Since I was a boy, Grandpa talked about going to Alaska, about selling his house and going on the road full time. It was, in fact, his biggest dream. I knew he would not be able to travel anymore. His congestive heart failure grew worse, and Grandpa passed away in February of this year. He never got to take that trip to Alaska, and he never got to travel full time like he wanted to. But he did buy an Airstream, finally. After he died, my uncles sold Grandpa’s motorhome, but I got the Airstream. And her life has just started.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about why people are traveling full time these days. Some claim to be part of some “minimalist” movement, while others are following the tiny-house fad. Many are seeking a simpler lifestyle, one closer to nature, and free from the demands of the modern world. Although I’ve studied the history of America’s rural-to-urban paradigm shift, and can talk, write, and teach about how and why that cultural transition happened, to participate in a neo-hippie “back-to-nature” scheme is not the reason I am remodeling my Airstream with plans of traveling full time. I sympathize with people who seek a simpler lifestyle, but mine is already simple enough. Actually, traveling in the Airstream will make it more complicated than ever. But that’s not the point. The point is that since both my grandparents passed away I’ve thought a lot about how short life really is. Grandpa wanted to see more, do more, and live more, but other things got in the way. I have determined that the same will not happen to me. Alex and I may not travel in the Airstream forever, but we’re looking forward to doing it as long as we can manage it. The day Grandpa bought the Airstream, he looked at me and said, “Your Grandma and I had our fun. Now it’s your turn.” He won’t be disappointed.

-Alan James Harrelson

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  1. Mike Dunaway says:

    Beautiful story, thank you!

    1. Thank you so much. It’s great to know someone is getting something out of our little story.

    2. Deborah Teeters says:

      Alan, Your Grandfather’s story is beautiful. I read it out loud to my husband and had to pause several times as I fought back my tears. We hope to start our life on the road within the coming year. As an older couple, not in great health, we could relate so much to your Grandfather’s dreams. He inspires us to realize ours while we are able. And, you and Alex inspire us, as well. You are honoring your Grandfather by living his dream. We will continue to follow your adventure as we prepare for ours which will include our 3 Rescue dogs, a Chocolate Lab, Harvey, age abt.3 yrs, Harvey, a Senior Lab/Boxer/Bernard mix, Addy age 14, and a Flat Coat Retriever Mix, Cord, age 6. Good luck to you, Alex and the puppies. Deborah and Earl

    1. Thank you for reading! I’m so happy you enjoyed it. I just checked out your website and was thrilled to “meet” another full-timer! 🙂

  2. Oh that is such a lovely story! And so true! Life’s just incredibly short and we should all just make the most of it while we can! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  3. Dan Engel says:

    I sure enjoyed your story. What is so nice is that you did everything you could to try and help your grandpa realize his dream. He was fortunate to have you. We all need to be able to dream. Everybody’s dream is different.

    I am very fortunate. I have two Airstreams, a 66 Tradewind and a 95 Excella 34′. We use the 66 exclusively but hope to use the 34′ when my wife retires and we can travel for longer periods. Has your ceiling fallen yet? Mine has. Still trying to come up with the best solution.

    1. Thank you!
      I have never heard of the ceiling falling in! Was it the original?

  4. This is the most beautiful story! I actually had tears in my eyes at some points. My grandparents actually did a very similar thing and now that they’ve both passed away, I really felt a lot of emotion reading this as I’m sure you felt writing it. Your grandfather would be so proud of you and I admire your courage to make the move to full-time travel so much! When my grandparents retired they bought an Airstream and traveled around the US for so many years. It was what made them the happiest people. They inspired my parents so much, that now that my parents are retired, they’ve begun the same journey. And well, they’ve become my idols. I hope to continue in their footsteps and do the same one day!

    1. That is so cool! What a great legacy our grandparents leave us! You totally should do it!

  5. That’s a lovely story, thank you for sharing. Our grandparents really do teach us so much, don’t they? I hope you and the airstream have many happy years and memories together, and that it keeps reminding you of your grandpa. Happy travels!

  6. So pleased you got to enjoy a trip in the airstream with Grandpa before he passed away and you now have it to enjoy.

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