- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

FAIRLEA, W.Va. (AP) - Some 1,200 miles separate Lynn Conner and Gene Nelson when they’re not on the road, but the two are great friends. Airstream friends.

Conner, who hails from Jennings, Louisiana, and Nelson, a Marshall County native now living in Pittsburgh, have seen much of the United States from the windows of their pickup trucks and their silver bullet Airstream travel trailers.

The two met on the road about four years ago and have remained good friends. They pack up their trailers and go on caravans with other Airstream friends often - some years sleeping more nights in their trailers than in their own homes.

Conner caught the Airstream bug in 1989 when he purchased his first trailer. Nelson purchased his first in 1993.

“This one here has been to Alaska. It’s been to Newfoundland and everywhere in between,” Conner said, gesturing to his ‘97 28-foot trailer. “Been to Key West, been to San Diego, the four corners of the country.”

Nelson and his wife Ingrid have traveled to all 48 lower states, Canada and Mexico in their 1984 25-foot trailer.

The two spend weeks - months - on the road away from home, seeing the world and meeting new people.

Conner and Nelson’s paths recent crossed again - this time in West Virginia.

The Wally Byam Caravan Club International brought Nelson, Conner and more than 1,500 other Airstream enthusiasts to the West Virginia State Fair campgrounds for the organization’s annual international rally.

Airstreams date back to 1935. The famous silver bullet travel trailers were first created by Wally Byam, whom the international organization is named after. The company still manufactures trailers and vans of all sizes. An estimated 70 percent of all Airstream trailers ever made are still on the road today.

Members from around the world come together for the international rally in new locations each year. Last year it was Farmington, New Mexico. West Virginia is this year’s location, and in 2017, caravaners will meet in Escanaba, Michigan. The group has members from all 50 states, Europe and Japan.

Even country singer Miranda Lambert is a member. Matthew McConaughey’s parents are also involved in the organization. The international organization and regional clubs host several other caravans across the country each year.

The rallies are packed with seminars, gatherings, excursions, happy hours and entertainment. They give club members the chance to see different parts of the country, learn the history and make lasting memories with friends.

Hundreds of silver trailers glistened across the state fair campgrounds. Club members set up their community for nearly two weeks at the rally, complete with makeshift offices for the organization’s leadership, a daily newsletter and a post office.

Jim Schwerdfeger, president of the WBCCI has owned several trailers, but he said nothing compares to an Airstream and the community that comes with it.

“When I retired in ‘89, we wanted another trailer, so we got an Airstream. This will be my seventh. They pull like no other trailer. They’re really great towing vehicles, they’re great for the value,” the College Station, Texas, resident said. “The club is like a family. It’s an extended family. We come to these rallies. Sure, the Airstreams bring us here and they’re great, but we come to see the people.”

Schwerdfeger owns a vintage 1984 trailer, a collector’s item, he said. Many members collect trailers and own more than one.

Schwerdfeger and his wife traveled to the rally in their 2005 land yacht motor home. Airstream no longer makes the motor homes, but many are still up and running. Several people traveled to the rally in theirs this year.

While the rally serves as a way to see new places, meet new people and have fun, Schwerdfeger said the organization aims to give back to the communities they visit.

Not far from the fairgrounds in Fairlea, hundreds of people fell victim to the severe flooding that hit the area late last month. The fairgrounds saw almost no flooding, but lost power for nearly two days.

Several of the club’s events were held by flashlight. Some of the planned activities in Greenbrier County were canceled due to flooding, he said.

Almost immediately, Schwerdfeger said, WBCCI members began donating money, volunteering in the communities and donating items to those in need. Members from Canada, California, Texas, West Virginia and everywhere in between came together and raised $4,000 to be given to flood victims. Several fairgrounds employees lost their homes and belongings, and members of the club are pitching in to help them as well, Schwerdfeger said.

Their response to help those not far from where they’re staying is a true representation of the kind of people who belong to the club, he said.

“It makes you appreciate what you have,” he said. “This is my family. (The Airstream) is just a machine. It’s a good machine, but it’s the people inside them.”

The international rally officially began June 29 and will continue through Tuesday.

For more information about the WBCCI, visit www.wbcci.org .

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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