DU QUOIN - If you drive along U.S. 51 near the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds, a long line of silver bullet-like RV's stands out in the sun. Drive through the front gates into the fairgrounds itself, and the rows and rows of Airstream RV's recall a simpler time - when Burma-Shave signs along Route 66 were part of the patchwork of Americana.
But for the attendees of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International Rally/Convention that began Tuesday, the Air-stream is very much the here and now - a home to get a way from home and a connection to a huge extended family.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 512 Airstream RV's had checked into the fairgrounds for the Caravan Club's 54th annual convention. This is the first year it has been held in Du Quoin, although it has been home to smaller regional rallies in the past.
"We try to go from loca-tion to location" said Leonard Sullivan, rally promotions chairman.
Many of the attendees have actually been in Southern Illinois for weeks. About 150 committees of the all-volunteer club plan a week of activities for more than 1,000 people.
"Well, when you have someone who does a youth program, public relations, electricians, carpenters, layout parking, registra-tion, entertainment... (it's a lot of people,)" Sullivan said.
In years past, the convention has seen as many as 4,000 Airstream RV's. Last year there were 800. The economy has hit even Airstream owners.
"A lot of the recreational vehicle clubs have seen diminished numbers be-cause of the higher price of food," Sullivan said. "And it's impacted us some."
Although all the attendees have basically traveled with a miniature version of their homes in tow, they are not com-pletely self-sufficient. That means they're going out into the community and spending money at laundries, grocery stores, restaurants and other stores.
Sullivan estimates the international convention brings $3 million to $4 million into a community.
Not just camping
The Du Quoin State Fairgrounds may look like a large campgrounds with all of the Airstream RV's in place, but there's quite a bit going on in addition to socializing and grilling.
Each night, a band made up of club members performs at the grandstand. There are day trips to such local landmarks as the Garden of the Gods and even to St. Louis.
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The Southern Illinois Center is the hub of much of the activity. Vendors' booths inside sell many different RV-specific accessories, such as water filters and squeegees. There are seminars, photo contests, and an Airstream history display, as well as tables containing items donated for the club's charitable events.
Whenever a rally comes into a town, the attendees participate in and contribute financially to organizations such as the American Red Cross, The Ronald McDonald House and Habitat for Humanity. They also collect and contribute thousands of children's stuffed animals and blankets to take to police departments, hos-pitals and shelters.
"That's what we're all about - love, sharing, and being together as friends," said Linda Amme, family and youth committee chairperson. "And (be-cause of that) you do things for other people."
Legend on wheels
The Airstream may seem like a kitschy niche item, but more than half the trailers made since Wally Byam first introduced plans for its construction in Popular Mechanics in 1934 are still in use. In fact, a 1935 Torpedo, one of the only Airstreams left actually made from those plans, is on display at the fairgrounds.
"It's probably the most durable trailer made," Sullivan said.
Richard and Jan Girard traveled from Phoenix to attend the international convention. For 17 years, they camped with a pop-up camper before finally purchasing a 1975, 25-foot Airstream Tradewind that still is almost completely original.
"We've got everything here," Richard said. "The pop-up was very limited. It's a step up from sleeping on the ground. When you get down the road, how many trailers are you going to see that's been on the road for 30 years?"
The Girards traveled 6,000 miles last year alone. They've been all over the southwest and in the next three years - Richard retires in Septem-ber - they hope to double that amount of miles. They'd even like to take a caravan trip to Alaska.
The Wally Byam Caravan Club International is divided into 12 regions. Next year, Richard will be president of his southwest region. The Girards usually rally once a month with friends in their region.
"It's just been a phe-nomenal experience," Richard said. "All the people we've met and places we've gone."
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