Trailer Joes

Do two new books on trailer parks signal the second glorious age of the RV?

Nothing embodies as many American virtues as the trailer. With a mobile home, you’re free to pick your neighbors, choose your surroundings; you’re even free to seek out the climate you like. The idea is undeniably seductive and hearkens back to the pioneer mythos of rootlessness and frontier freedom. With a car and a trailer in tow, you can, as Phillip Smith wrote back in 1936, “go anywhere, stop anywhere, escape taxes and rent—this is irresistible. Nothing but death has ever offered so much in a single package.”

The images a trailer commonly calls to mind, however, are far from virtuous. When John Waters wanted to convey real freakishness in his movie Pink Flamingos (1972), he cast trailer-trash friends like the 300-pound-plus Egg Lady who apparently really did live in a leopard-print-decorated trailer, at least until she got famous. After that, she moved to Hollywood to pursue her singing career. Eminem, who’s long referred to himself as “trailer trash from Detroit,” and whose autobiographical movie 8 Mile  revolves around his attempts to get out of the 8 Mile Road park, never lived in a trailer at all. Like a gangsta rapper dummying up an arrest record, he just wanted to cop the aura of white ghetto realness the trailer park conveys. Video game portrayals of parks don’t exactly shatter stereotypes either. In Trailer Park Tycoon, you try to keep slack-jawed locals happy with hot tubs and pink flamingos. You also have to stave off assaults by marauding aliens. And in No One Lives Forever 2, you battle ninja assassins in Stuckeyville, Ohio, while a tornado rips through the single-wides.

With this kind of PR, it would be easy to miss the fact that we are currently experiencing the second golden age of mobile home living. Some 3 million people live on the move full-time, and perhaps as many as 7 million do so part-time. The About Schmidt nation is a reality. It’s made up of tons of heavy equipment being maneuvered down the road by balding men in hats with the names of aircraft carriers on them and wives in the passenger seats, or by tiny silver-haired ladies peering over the steering wheels. It’s made up of fifth-wheel trailers pulled by pickups with monster diesel engines, smaller pickups hooked up behind the trailers. Of hulking Class-A RVs, like long-haul buses turned into luxury homes, trailing SUVs or Cadillacs behind them. And as more and more of the baby boomers reach retirement age, the mobile home industry is growing at a rate that hasn’t been seen since the trailer’s first golden age, which lasted more or less the length of the Depression. Boomers have never liked being tied down; now, they’ve rediscovered a way of life that allows them to celebrate both rugged individualism and the old-fashioned pleasures of old-fashioned community.

So, it’s hardly surprising that trailers are currently coming in for the kind of retro chic treatment previously reserved for Modern architecture. San Francisco designer Bryan Burkhart recently published a collection of vintage trailer imagery, Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America, co-authored with his wife, Allison Arieff, editor of Dwell, and Phil Noyes, a PBS producer. And this month, Viking Studio put out a book called Ready To Roll, a collection of photos of restored trailers by Arrol Gellner and Douglas Keister. More and more, people are looking back at the mobile home’s hitherto forgotten glamour days, when the trailer was romantic and exciting and was supposed to take over the world (or at least the country) and that was supposed to be a good thing.

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