COL All that glitters is aluminum

The advertisement was irresistible.

So were the directions. Drive south on the Turquoise Trail from Santa Fe, N.M. Turn onto a dirt road after the ghost town of Cerrillos, but well before the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid. Follow the dirt road 3.5 miles. Turn into the sellers' driveway.

"This should only take a few minutes," I said to my wife. "Just look at it very carefully. Think about what we can do with it. But most important, tell me whether you can imagine sleeping in it. If you can't, we'll turn around and go home."

A few hours later we were the befuddled owners of a 1971 Airstream Land Yacht, the 23-foot Safari model. It was in good basic condition. That means its endearing shape had survived 34 years with few dents. It was also fairly functional. The interior lights worked. It had tires and brakes. The windows opened and closed. It didn't smell bad.

A single check for $5,900 allowed us to reach a long-suppressed dream. We might be trailer trash, but we were vintage trailer trash. We'll keep the refrigerator stocked with Thunderbird and MD 20/20 for our jelly glasses.


How this happened is another story. Life requires adaptation. My wife, whose survival instinct is superior to mine, has never ridden on my motorcycle. She knows a klutz when she lives with him.

So my precious 1978 BMW R100S, Motorsport edition, is being sold. No more "accidental" rushes to 100 mph. No more wondering if it would actually do 125.

Similarly, while I may read Sailing magazine as furtively as some men read Penthouse, I'm smart enough to know that living in the Southwest and owning a live-aboard sailboat don't mix well. There is no Island Packet or Beneteau in my future.

So this sailor will cruise the highways, spending nights on the dusty sea of Big Bend National Park, the high crests at Red River and other spectacular landlocked places. Millions of other Americans do it -- count the RVs on any Interstate highway.

And that's what will make this an adventure.

Two years ago I visited RV parks from Florida to California, talking with people and learning about the "full-timer" lifestyle. I wrote about it but didn't do it justice. Nor did I fully explore how RV living can be a good substitute for worrying about CD rates and stock market returns.

I think it can be. That's why you are reading about an RV in a personal finance column.

Millions of Americans are, or will, be facing tough choices. Some will be there because of forced premature retirement. Others will retire on schedule but won't have nearly enough money. Either way, they face the same problem.


They can try to raise the bridge of investment returns on their nest egg. Or they can lower the flood tide of living expenses. Whether they live in an RV full-time or use it as a low-cost vacation alternative, the RV may be the best tool available for re-examining (and perhaps resizing) the American Dream.

So here's the plan.

Our first task: Get the Airstream to the Burns property in Santa Fe. There it will be known as our mobile bunkhouse. We figure it will make a good overflow guest house and an occasional napping place when it isn't traveling.

Once there, we'll work out the remaining kinks to make it ours and truly roadworthy. With any luck we'll venture off the property by late winter or early spring. We hope it won't cost too much to get it on the road.

What I can tell you now is that a new Airstream of this size would cost over $40,000. We also know, from, that the most common mistakes people make when they buy an old Airstream is to (1) think refurbishing will be cheap and (2) fail to consider added weight while refurbishing. The first will result in a disappointing resale. The second will result in an RV that doesn't go anywhere. We'll try to avoid those mistakes. We hope to have it in primo shape for a total cost of $10,000 to $12,000. Significantly, larger used Airstreams are also inexpensive because they are heavier and more difficult to tow. If you were thinking of living in one -- as suggested decades ago in an early Whole Earth Catalog -- the cost is likely to be under $12,000.

This is an experiment. For us it's a guest house and alternative vacation house. For others it can be a tool for snowbird living. For still others, it can be the vehicle for "voluntary simplicity" -- the movement first identified by Duane Elgin in the early '70s but best known through "Your Money or Your Life," the simple-living primer written by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.

Then again, they might be the trendy status symbol Bruce Littlefield describes in "Airstream Living." Actor Val Kilmer has one on his nearby ranch.

Take your pick. Check in on my Web site ( to follow the story, mistakes and all.

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