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“There is a major leak in the Airstream,” I boomed. It didn’t sound emphatic enough. “Major!” I repeated.
It has been raining like hell for more than a day. Such heavy rainfall is unusual in Southern California, especially in the middle of a severe and protracted drought. I watched the rain ricochet violently against the aluminum surface of our Airstream as I sipped my morning coffee from the comfort of our home. A large window adjacent to my desk looked out at our driveway, where the Airstream had sat immobile for the better part of six weeks. It was chilly out—perhaps in the low 50s—and blustery, as you might imagine. The morning was still young, but it was dark, as though late evening was approaching. The rain sounded like grains of sand as it impacted the windows and walls of the house, propelled by furious wind gusts. A nagging desire to go inside the Airstream and check for leaks welled up every few minutes, then gradually subsided like steam cooling inside a tea kettle. I felt contented at the moment, with my hot cup of coffee, sweatpants, and a full night’s rest. Running out into the cold rain seemed an unattractive prospect.
Small amounts of rainwater had infiltrated our Airstream’s interior on two previous occasions, both when we had windows open in a light rain. In the first instance, I found a very obvious gap in the sealant above one of the bedroom window frames that allowed water to seep in, drip through the screen, and collect on the floor. That was easily fixed with some Sikaflex 221. Later, the same thing happened to one of the windows behind the couch. I still hadn’t gotten around to fixing that one. It was an easy thing to put off because it only happened when the window was open. If it rained, all we had to do was close it, and no more water dripped inside. I figured I’d get to it eventually. On a third occasion, we found several large droplets of water on a dinette seat cushion—but no apparent source. Sure, we had just driven through a mild rain, but there was no evidence of water seeping in from the seam in the ceiling above the collection of water. That time we closed our eyes, decided one of us must have dripped water while washing dishes or something, and moved on. Though these were all minor “hydro-intrusions”, involving minuscule quantities of water, it produced a generalized anxiety about the quality of the seals applied to our trailer at the factory. Our concern was further magnified by a video I encountered at one point in the Airstream Addicts Facebook group. It showed water flowing through a seam of a brand new Airstream’s ceiling during a storm. Horrible. But, again, in nine months of ownership, 7,500 miles of towing, and more than sixty nights of camping, only these minor leaks had presented themselves. Maybe we were one of the lucky ones.
For at least an hour, I sipped coffee and nervously watched the rain while alternating between meetings and email, telling myself there’s nothing to worry about. It’s fine. The windows are all closed. The Airstream has been through worse conditions before. Maybe check inside the Airstream at lunch when it isn’t raining quite so hard. Focus on work. Focus on work. Focus on work. Focus on— why the hell does my monitor keep flickering on and off? It’s driving me bananas! This has to happen now? Was it the monitor? The HDMI cable? The cable adapter I was using? Gaaah! I systematically checked all the connections, ensuring that each plug was inserted firmly into its corresponding port, but still—right as I’d get back into the flow of composing an email—the monitor would drain of all color for a quarter second, then immediately pop back to life.
“Something is wrong with my monitor!” I barked as Jill walked into the room on her way into the kitchen. “Do you have an extra HDMI cable I can use to see if that’s the problem?”
“I don’t. But isn’t there one in the Airstream?”
I turned my head toward the window and watched the rain as it continued to pummel our defenseless travel trailer. There was indeed an extra HDMI cable in one of the office drawers inside the Airstream. I took a deep breath and rescheduled an upcoming meeting.
I exchanged my cozy sweatpants and sweatshirt for waterproof boots and a rain jacket and moved toward the back door of our home. The door is composed of a white vinyl frame and a large window that spans nearly the entire height and width of the door itself. Standing in front of it, I could see that the rain had lightened. Pools of water that collected at various low points along the driveway had dissipated somewhat and the winds had ceased its lashing against every physical structure in sight. Outside the door was a small, two-step concrete patio that led to the driveway where the Airstream was parked. With the Airstream’s stairs unfolded, a small hop is all it takes to travel from the patio to the Airstream’s entrance.
I darted outside holding the key to the Airstream in a low-ready position like a competitive shooter awaiting the sound of a shot timer. Rain passed through the cuffs of my waterproof jacket and drizzled down my arms as I inserted the key into the door—consciously reminding myself that, unlike most locks, these had to be turned clockwise to unlock. I turned the key as far as it would go, yanked it back out, and in one swift motion opened the door, hopped inside, and slammed it shut behind me.
It was dark inside. All the shades were drawn and what little sunlight was available cast a muted, amber haze across the interior. Here we go, I thought. I flipped on the lights and carefully scanned the interior from where I stood. The couches were adorned with a couple pillows each and the countertops were bare. A hat I had forgotten about hung on the wall next to our dry-erase board where an obsolete note was scribbled. Above it hung a small sign featuring a vintage silver camper next to a campfire. It read “Happy Camper” and always brought back fond memories of when the seed of owning a travel trailer was first planted. Nothing appeared out of place, so I proceeded to inspect the specific areas where evidence of leaks had been found in the past. To my right, in the bedroom, I parted the curtains and examined the sill of the “curb side” window, then checked the “street side”. I shined my phone’s flashlight on the floor. I checked the seams in the ceiling where the overlapping aluminum sheets were riveted together. I pressed my hands against the mattress near the front window, probing for moisture. Finding nothing, I shifted to the couch, then to the dinette. Still nothing. Not even a drop. I smiled to myself, comforted, and headed toward the office area in the rear of the trailer in order to retrieve that HDMI cable so I could get back to work.
My gaze was pointed vaguely toward the office drawers as I flipped the switch on the wall. Light instantly illuminated the area revealing a sight my brain momentarily denied. I blinked a few times, hoping the water splatter all over the cabinetry was nothing more than an optical illusion. Disbelief turned to a sinking, desperate bewilderment. I took a step back and surveyed the area, searching for an explanation—any explanation—other than the one I feared most. My eyes dropped toward the floor. A puddle, amounting to perhaps a cup of water, had accumulated. I tilted my head back, redirecting my gaze directly above the puddle, and saw two fat droplets of water, a foot and a half apart, both swelling outward from a single aluminum seam. Every second or so, a droplet would expand until it fell under its own weight and a new one would begin gestating. I stared at the mess for several seconds before moving on to the bathroom, the last remaining area to inspect. There, too, sat a spiteful convergence of rain water, smaller in quantity, but no less distressing. This one was the result of a separate ceiling leak near the exhaust fan.
The abrupt shift from serene reassurance to this jarring new reality produced an emotion that is probably best characterized as panic. In that moment, the most important task at hand—even more important than mopping up the liquid and laying down towels—was to wail about the discovery to Jill. I stormed out of the Airstream right as the rain and wind exploded in force. I gripped the door handle tight to keep it from blowing out of my hand and stepped outside the Airstream. Rain sprayed the inside of the door and saturated the entryway despite my swift exit. I pushed away a growing awareness of a cold, damp accumulation on the lower half of my pants as I traversed the two steps from the Airstream to the back door of the house. Water blew a surprising distance across the kitchen floor as I cracked the door just wide enough to slide inside. I barged into Jill’s office, not bothering to wipe my shoes or remove my dripping rain jacket. Her back faced the doorway and she had on her black, oversized noise-cancelling headphones. The little square images evenly distributed across her monitor like Brady Bunch characters indicated that she was engaged in a meeting. I disregarded this observation and waited until she turned around, removed the headphone muff from her right ear, and looked at me with one upraised eyebrow.
“There is a major leak in the Airstream,” I boomed. It didn’t sound emphatic enough. “Major!” I repeated.
It wasn’t really a major leak, not compared to some of the horror videos I’d seen online. But the shock of it all had rendered me overreactive and dramatic. Returning the ear muff to its previous position over her right ear, Jill turned and explained to her team the reason for the interruption. “Soooo… apparently… we have a leak in our Airstream,” she told them. Based on her tone alone, she could have been telling her team that the sandwich she ordered for lunch was going to be late. Disappointing, but not tragic. Once again removing the ear muff, she turned her attention back to me. “Do you need my help right away?”
Her reaction brought me back to Earth. I declined her offer, tiptoed back out of the room, and closed the door with a barely perceptible thud. I had a few hours before my next meeting, so I returned to the Airstream, retrieved a handful of large beach towels from the rearmost upper cabinet, and started sopping up the puddles.
We had originally planned on leaving the Airstream at our home in California for the winter. That would allow us to avoid the subject of winterization altogether because it never freezes there. According to this plan, we’d head back to Austin in mid-January, sans Airstream, making the 1,400 mile drive in a single, long weekend. We’d reside in Austin for a month, then head to Vail, Colorado for a week-long ski trip before returning to Austin for another month or so, and then, finally, we’d return to California and reunite with the Airstream. This plan had one depressing flaw. It meant putting our RV adventures on ice for at least four torturous months. In nine months of ownership, we’d averaged one trip a month. We’d towed nearly 8,000 miles and stayed at more than fifteen RV parks and Harvest Hosts. We didn’t wanna be separated from our beloved travel vessel for so long! Undeniably, RV ownership invites degrees of stress and disappointment—like, say, just for example, if water were to seep through one’s ceiling (grrr)—but overwhelmingly, it’s been a positive change for us. When we think back to the spectacular views from our trailer while we stayed in Kanab, Utah or Bayfield, Colorado, all we want is to get back on the road and head to a new destination. Leaving the Airstream idle for an extended period wasn’t really conducive to our traveling proclivities.
There was one, rather significant argument against following this plan. Warranty work. We had already tallied over a dozen problems on our Airstream that needed repair under warranty. Prior to the advent of our roof leak, every issue on our list amounted to mere inconveniences. The battery disconnect switch light was malfunctioning. Weather stripping around the door was torn. The digital numbers displayed on our SeeLevel II didn’t always illuminate correctly. Nothing that would end a trip. For several months we’d avoided taking the trailer in for service because our selling dealer had proven themselves unreliable and inept. Despite our relatively positive sales experience, we’ll never return for sales or service due to the way they handled our attempts at making a service appointment. Then the question became, where the heck can we go for warranty service?
If you spend any amount of time in online groups for Airstream owners, you’ll quickly detect a pattern of disappointment and frustration with the quality of service provided by nearly all Airstream dealerships. Only a very few diamonds seem to exist in the rough. One such diamond is the factory service center in Jackson, Ohio. Every report I’ve ever read of their service has been glowing. Another one is Airstream of New Mexico. A much smaller shop, they also generate fewer reviews, but nearly every single one I found was exuberant in its praise. They were also located in Albuquerque, which was conveniently right in line with our 2023 travel plans.
We called Airstream of New Mexico shortly after we discovered the roof leaks. Not only did we get a prompt call back, but the employee spoke with us at length about our issues. She was kind, sympathetic, and accommodating. Contrast that with Airstream of Austin, where we purchased our trailer. They rarely returned our phone calls. When they did, they were terse and impertinent. They were disorganized, unable to keep track of our list of required repairs despite repeated submissions of that very same list to multiple personnel. Comparatively, Airstream of New Mexico was a shining beacon of light. What a relief! We scheduled a date to drop off our Airstream and got to work planning the trek from Torrance to Albuquerque.