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In the summer of 2009, Kate and John departed on a cross-country journey of discovery and celebration, hope and serendipity. Using a vintage 1962 Airstream Flying Cloud as their home on wheels, they travel the country to find and share the efforts and initiatives of Americans everywhere to change the way we look at our lives, and attempt to live in harmony with our planet. A journey that will by its very nature continually take a new shape, mature, and through a combination of luck and serendipity, hopefully morph into something greater than the original goal. As they tow their airstream across North America, solar panels on the roof provide electrical power for their living needs, and a composting toilet handles waste.
By Kate Heber and John Byfield -- Like almost everyone, we had always admired the sleek and shiny vintage Airstream trailers we had seen streaking by over the years. As dedicated tent campers however, we had always shunned the use of a trailer. When it became clear that this was going to be a trip of biblical proportions, it also became clear that we were going to need a place to live. The vintage Airstream leapt into our minds and we began a search in earnest immediately. While there was no shortage of trailers to choose from, the prices and conditions as well as the physical proximity were all over the map. As with anything, the trailers often looked pretty good in the pictures, only to be plagued with nightmares of rust, missing pieces, and all other types of expensive to repair damage upon inspection. As luck would have it, while cruising the Los Angeles craigslist postings, we found a vintage 1962 22' Airstream Flying Cloud for sale in our home town! We called "Tex" and within an hour we were drooling over what appeared to be the perfect trailer. Exactly the length we wanted, in excellent overall condition for a rebuild, and located right here. As a bonus, it was a "Flying Cloud", a rare model name that just seemed to fit with the theme of our trip.
We arranged to take our find to our shop where we gave it a full top to bottom inspection. Other than needing a few minor repairs, the trailer was even better than we had hoped for. The frame and body were solid and straight. There was only a small amount of surface rust on the non-aluminum parts,and the signature aluminum skin was in remarkable shape for 46 years. Plumbing, electrical, suspension, tanks, wheels and tires, all restorable! In the end we paid a little more for the trailer than we wanted and a little bit less than we could have, but we were happy. Having read some real horror stories about Vintage Airstream restorations, we knew how bad it could be!
On December 4th we paid Tex and took Doris Mae home for good. Thus began our journey!
The reconstruction of the Flying Cloud was a labor of love that lasted over seven months from the time we brought the "Doris" Mae" home. to the time we hit the road. While the outside skin of the Airstream was in pretty good shape, 47 years of travel and some previous owners "remuddling" had left its mark. We were also determined to set a new benchmark for the design and execution of small space living. Conventional trailer design was thrown out the window, and numerous redesigns were tested out in recycled cardboard before being committed to wood. The "cardboard castle" as we took to calling it became rather humorous, with little felt pen drawings of the stove, sinks and refrigerator, looking more like cartoon characters than the real thing. But none the less, it did the job, and we soon had what we felt and are being told is a groundbreaking design for modern living in a vintage trailer.
Once we had finished gutting the interior, we began the long and arduous task of rebuilding the interior from scratch. The first step was to update the plumbing and electrical in preparation for installing the new toilet and water systems, as well as upgrading the electrical to handle the solar. Once that was completed, the next phase involved sanding and refinishing the interior with zero-voc paints, and preparing the floor for the installation of the new cork flooring.
With the floors and walls now complete, we began to install the most difficult and challenging components which included the cabinets and counter tops, appliances and most challenging of all, the solar system. When rebuilding a vintage Airstream, one quickly discovers that not only does it curve from the floor to the ceiling, like a boat, it also curves from front to back! Luckily, Larry Hein who would prove essential when it came time to build the cabinets, had experience working on boats. We also discovered that like an airplane, the skin on an Airstream expands and contracts with the heat of the day. Frequently, that which fit well in the cool morning air would be off by a mile in the afternoon heat.
All of these factors contributed to an interesting, challenging and exciting remodeling process. Pictured below are some of the highlights of the reconstruction.
The Solar Electrical System
One of the most significant requirements for the Flying Cloud was the solar system. From this we derive virtually all our power and it is the key to our carbon footprint reduction and our self-sufficiency. We looked long and hard at solar systems and suppliers before we decided what to buy and where to buy it. In the end, we were fortunate to find a supplier in our own back yard of Springfield, OR, who not only had the type of system we were looking for, they had extensive knowledge and are specialists in the installation of RV systems. As we were determined to install the system ourselves, we made a trip over to Springfield to pick up the system and to get some pointers from Deb & Greg Holder, and their staff of solar specialists. They were extremely helpful, and gave us all the info we needed to get started on the installation.
We won't tell you that installing a solar system by yourself is an easy DIY! There is some rather complicated electrical wiring, and the controller panel, batteries, and roof panels must all be carefully installed to avoid the potential for serious electrical malfunctions. With some background in electrical systems, the aid of the installation guide, and the help from AMSolar, we were able to install the system without a problem. When we made the final hookup to the solar panels, all the correct lights came on, the controller panel began reading as it should and nothing exploded or caught fire! It was a very rewarding experience. For those of you with less mechanical or electrical experience, I would highly recommend that you have the good folks at AMSolar install your system.
The Nature's Head Eco-Friendly Waterless Composting Toilet
At first, we were a little intimidated by the thought of a composting toilet. How does it work, will it be odor free, how often do we need to empty it, where do we empty it, etc? We also needed to find a toilet that met the requirements for the Airstream. Compact, lightweight, and low energy consumption was essential. Most of the units we had seen required 110V power for the heating elements needed to remove the liquid waste. Our research brought us to Nature's Head, a composting toilet originally designed with the marine market in mind. Because of its ability so separate liquid and solid waste, it is able to run on our 12V system that is charged by our solar array. It was also compact and lightweight and met all of our primary requirements. After speaking with Larry at Nature's Head and getting the answers to the rest of our questions, we decided that this toilet was ideal for our needs.
Installation was quite simple. Two small brackets held the toilet to the new cork flooring we had installed in the bathroom. The vent hose, and 12V power supply were hooked into the existing vent and power systems. The exhaust fan was the type you find in a desktop computer and only draws around 1 amp.
You then place a few gallons of peat moss or coir in the solid waste composting tank to begin the composting process. A few quick turns of the agitator handle after each use serves to facilitate the process. So far we have not had to dispose of our first batch of composted waste. The frequency of this is determined by your usage, and may vary dramatically. Liquid waste must be disposed of more frequently, and can be emptied into rest area or campground toilets along the way.
So far the toilet has operated flawlessly, and people are surprised to find out that it is a composting toilet as it is very similar in appearance to a standard RV toilet. So far, so good, and we will keep you up to date with the straight poop on this system!
RV Boondocking Basics