Outdoorsy’s Helping This Airstream Restorer Build His Dream
Host of the Month Michael Fisher-Vallen is unstoppable.
Outdoorsy Pro Host of the month Michael Fisher-Vallen and his business partner Michael Wilkinson are the creators of Nomad Motor Lodge, an Airstream rental company currently renting out five vintage Airstream trailers and two tow vehicles on Outdoorsy. Hard at work this winter in his 5,000 square-foot restoration workshop in suburban Maryland, Fisher-Vallen expects to have several more vintage trailers to add his Outdoorsy fleet very soon.
Further down the road and after much more hard work, he hopes to have his whole collection of 19 vintage trailers in service under his Outdoorsy account, using Maryland and New Mexico “base camps” as two very different starting points for his customers.
Until one day in 2015 when he read a news report about Outdoorsy in his social media feed, though, the business was just an idea struggling to get off the ground.
“Without Outdoorsy, we wouldn’t be a business. Insurance was just too big of a hurdle. It’s that simple.”
Nomad’s Roots: Architecture and Airstreams
Fisher-Vallen has worked as an architectural designer in the Washington, D.C. area since the early 1990s, and has been a small business owner since he founded his own architectural design firm in 1999.
But since his time as an undergrad at Cal Poly (Pomona), he has always been fascinated with vintage Airstream travel trailers.
“There’s this combination of ‘tiny house’ living with aerospace manufacturing technology that makes Airstreams so unique in the design world,” Fisher-Vallen says. “I’ve always admired how Airstream founder Wally Byam was able to combine technology and design to make a product for travelers who wanted to go on vacation anywhere, but still be able to live like they were right in their own home.”
It wasn’t until 2010, though, that his enthusiasm for the idea of Airstreaming became a reality, when he found a 1957 Airstream Caravanner on the very influential Airstreams Classifieds website.
“The seller had gotten over 50 phone calls about his Airstream by the time I got in touch with him,” Fisher-Vallen said. “Lucky for me, he could hear my passion and commitment to keeping his trailer original, and to keeping it in service as a travel trailer rather than chop it up as a food truck or something. So he agreed to sell it to me.”
Airstream as teacher
Loving Airstreams, buying a vintage Airstream, and knowing what it means to own a vintage Airstream are not necessarily the same thing, though, as Fisher-Vallen found out after his successful bid.
“I drove eight hours to New Hampshire to pick the trailer up practically not even knowing what a trailer hitch was. Looking back, and knowing what I know now, it makes me laugh. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
The Caravanner, which Fisher-Vallen named “Ethel” after the character on his favorite show, “I Love Lucy,” needed a lot of work. “As an architect, I’m very hands-on,” he says. “It was no different as a vintage Airstream owner.” He sent the trailer to a Baltimore-based Airstream restoration shop for some of the more specialized work that was needed, but tackled much of it himself nights and weekends.
“I learned so much from working on Ethel,” Fisher-Vallen says.
“That experience enhanced my already deep fascination with vintage Airstreams. Not only did I grow my knowledge about my own 1957 Caravanner, but I also researched, explored and devoured information about all the different models, construction methods, hardware, appliances, etc., from 1950s and 60s Airstreams.”
By the end of the project, the “new” Airstream owner had tackled interior paint, wood refinishing, flooring, curtains, bed and couch, some plumbing, some electrical, some appliances, restoring the windows, replacing exhaust fans, some hitch and axle work, new wheels and tires, and more.
Deepening passion: a transformational road trip
Fisher-Vallen’s first major road trip in Ethel, while not without its challenges, locked in his passion for the vintage travel trailer life. It was May 2012, and he drove nearly 2000 miles from his home in Washington, D.C. to the island of Newfoundland with an old high school pal who, as it turned out, was afraid of towing and left all of the driving to Fisher-Vallen. “After an overnight ferry and four long, final hours of driving, we approached our destination,” he recalls. “It was a balmy 70 degrees and the Gulf of St. Lawrence was flat as a lake.”
They made their campground at Green Point, a beautiful provincial park on the edge of a cliff overlooking the gulf, and went to sleep that night looking forward to three restful weeks of camping. They might have wanted to pay more close attention to the forecast, though. Wind swept in starting at about 3AM, and the temperature plummeted by 40 degrees in a matter of minutes. “In the middle of the night on our first night of camping in Canada, frozen rain started pelting the shell of the Airstream and woke us both up. We absolutely froze.”
No worries after the rough start, though. They were camping on a cliff overlooking one of the most beautiful bodies of water in North America. “We still had the time of our lives.”
Despite the challenges, the Newfoundland trip was important because it was where Fisher-Vallen’s perspective shifted noticeably: “I fell in love with this kind of travel and realized I could be quite content in 22 feet of living space.”
“It dawned on me that Airstreaming was more than a hobby; I wanted to focus my life’s efforts on these amazing objects.”
Making it happen
Some people are dreamers. Michael Fisher-Vallen is a “doer.” After the Newfoundland epiphany, he found a second vintage Airstream, a 26-foot Overlander built in 1964. To further his technical knowledge, he worked out an arrangement with the Baltimore restoration shop to work side by side with the owner on the Overlander, which he named “Lucy” after … Lucille Ball, of course.
Under the guidance of the more experienced restorer, Fisher-Vallen spent nine full months working on his Overlander as well as several other Airstreams in the workshop, learning how they were built from the inside out.
Emboldened with a vast amount of new knowledge, Fisher-Vallen purchased a third vintage Airstream in the summer of 2013, when Lucy was about 95% complete, and started to work on it in Baltimore under the same arrangement as Lucy. It’s a very rare California-built 1953 Liner, one of only four known to have survived. After having restored late-1950s and mid-1960s models, tackling an early 1950s model only deepened Fisher-Vallen’s knowledge base about vintage Airstreams.
Beginning in early 2015, Fisher-Vallen struck out on his own, leasing a 5,000 square foot workshop in suburban Maryland, closer to his home. Since that time, he has performed restoration and repair work on 11 vintage Airstreams, including six that he has purchased and five that belong to outside clients. These trailers form the backbone of Nomad’s fleet on Outdoorsy.
Another road trip: Nomad is born on the road
In October, 2014, Fisher-Vallen convinced his best friend Michael Wilkinson to take a two-week road trip in Lucy, a trip which turned out to be fateful for both of them.
Fisher-Vallen had been tossing ideas around in his mind about how to transform his passion for restoring and camping in vintage Airstreams into a viable business. Wilkinson was, at the beginning of the trip, not particularly focused on camping or trailers. It was just a good chance to get away from Washington, D.C. for two weeks and enjoy some time with an old friend.
The travelers started in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, and continued through Marfa, Texas, to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and then on to Julian, Malibu and Big Sur, California. They specifically sought out campgrounds that specialized in vintage campers, stopping at places like El Cosmico in Marfa and Pinecrest Retreat in Julian.
Somewhere on a mountain road along the central coast of California, a huge lightbulb went off in Wilkinson’s mind as Fisher-Vallen gently floated ideas about a future business. Fisher-Vallen smiled. He had been hoping to convince Wilkinson to join him in the venture, and two weeks on the road did the trick.
Start-up struggles: Outdoorsy to the rescue
In the first year, the pair worked to refine the concept and forge strategic relationships. They would rent Fisher-Vallen’s vintage Airstreams at various campgrounds around the mid-Atlantic region. It wasn’t really a campground or motel, and it wasn’t really a vehicle rental business. Inquiries to dozens of insurance agents resulted in blank stares and brick walls.
Then one day in the fall of 2015, Fisher-Vallen saw an article in his NBC News feed on his iPhone about a start-up company that was giving RV owners an opportunity to rent their RVs for extra income. The company featured marketing support, a booking and payment platform, and — most importantly — a $1M insurance policy on every rental contract!
“I immediately got on Google and found a number to call. I talked to co-founder Jennifer Young herself. The next day, Michael and I were in business for real.” Their first rental on Outdoorsy was November, 2015, and they have been expanding ever since.
A destination in the mountains: Nomad West
In the year and a half since their first phone call with Outdoorsy, they have added a number of rare vintage trailers — Airstream as well as other brands — to the restoration pipeline. And most significantly, they have invested in land and a restaurant in a small mountain town just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, creating a western “base camp” for their business.
The land is situated right next to both Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve, and will host a rotating fleet of vintage trailers that will be available for rent on Outdoorsy, as well as a group of “canned ham” trailers fixed semi-permanently down near the San Antonio Creek, which runs through the property and is stocked with four kinds of trout.
For staying at the land, plans call for six RV hook-ups and two “off-grid” sites, as well as the canned ham village. Outdoorsy users taking a trailer on the road will be able to create their own adventures, but Fisher-Vallen also plans to develop a few special, historically-inspired itineraries along the lines of the “Harvey Car Motorcoach Tours” and “Harvey Detours” of the early to mid-20thcentury.
The restaurant, which is a quarter-mile down the road from the land, is being renovated and will serve pizza, pasta, and salads starting in the late spring or early summer of 2017. Out front, Fisher-Vallen and Wilkinson will also serve coffee and homemade doughnuts out of a 1961 Airstream Sovereign, serving as a focal point for conversations about vintage trailers, Americana and the open road, as well as directing attention down the street to their vintage trailer base camp.
Nomad Motor Lodge: Look at them now!
Nomad currently lists five vintage Airstreams on Outdoorsy:
Nomad’s website has pages with pictures and back stories on each trailer, as well as pictures and back stories for the 14 other vintage trailers that are in the pipeline:
- Charlotte the 1958 Arrowhead (part of the canned ham village)
- Tryan the 1952 Rod & Reel (part of the canned ham village)
- Garfield the 1958 Shasta Airflyte (part of the canned ham village)
- Chanel “the other” 1953 Airstream Liner
- The 2-story 1951 Lighthouse
- Ethel the 1953 Vagabond
- Fargo the 1958 Silver Streak
- Judy the 1951 M System
- Elsa the 1955 Airstream Overlander
- Mahogany the 1961 Airstream Overlander
- Amelia the 1950 Royal Spartanette
- Zoe the 1961 Airstream Sovereign
- Alicia the 1955 Anderson Coach
- Linda the 1950 Anderson Coach
We Wanted to Know…
What has been the biggest “win” in your business so far?
The biggest win was Outdoorsy! And because Outdoorsy has legitimized us we are now actually a serious business that is making and executing some really wonderful plans!
“Our first year was pretty phenomenal and that is all thanks to Outdoorsy.”
What are you most excited about?
We are super excited to have our business functioning in two places! The “other” Michael will keep the pure trailer and tow-vehicle rental business operating on the east coast while I focus on activities in New Mexico. The work in New Mexico is what has me super excited.
What are your dreams for your business?
I started as a part of Nomad a restoration service business. I’ve completed 4 trailers in the past year and have two in our shop right now. But, the shop space in DC is over the top expensive and I simply cannot justify it. So, my dream is to open another shop in New Mexico where I can keep going.
Originally published at www.outdoorsy.com on February 15, 2017.