The Most Photographed Trailers in America

Kara Phelps wonders if Florida’s Airstream Ranch is merely a roadside attraction or something more? Or something less?

airstream ranch

Just past I-4 Exit 14, on a tract of empty land near a dealership called Bates RV, seven and a half Airstream trailers protrude from the sand. I lived nearby for a few years, first on Florida’s Gulf Coast and later further inland, and I used to pass them a lot. They’re both incredible and small.

The owner of the RV lot, Frank Bates, built “Airstream Ranch” in 2007. He got the idea and the name from Cadillac Ranch, an installation of Cadillacs half-buried in the Texas desert just outside of Amarillo. Visitors can tag the Cadillacs, but every so often they’re painted flat again. Everyone is encouraged to touch them and leave a mark.

At Airstream Ranch, that’s not true. Bates embraces the fact that his Ranch is derivative. He consciously imitated Cadillac Ranch, right down to the slant of the buried objects, which match the slope of the Great Pyramid of Giza. But he’s aiming for the level of kitsch that Cadillac Ranch has accreted over 36 years, and he has a few ideas about getting there faster. He sells t-shirts and postcards. He wants no graffiti on the trailers, and polices them regularly — any markings that show up are soon erased. He says he’s angling to be remembered one day as the wacky eccentric behind a public art project.

Among the pastures and gas stations that dot the interstate for miles in both directions, they’re robots grown soft and fat in the Florida heat. They make a scene just standing there, not even trying.

But it’s possible to drive past the trailers and fail to see them. On the interstate, there’s no place to view them from afar, nothing that might give them away. They’re so tightly framed by the live oaks. We barely register their existence before they’re gone again.

People who do encounter Airstream Ranch often feel obligated to go for a photo, too. Some pull over on the interstate, hazard lights blinking. Some go to the Bates RV office, where an employee will usually take them out to the empty land, unlock a gate, and let them photograph the trailers up close. In a Google Image search for Airstream Ranch, about five pages of photos scroll by before the results trail off into regular trailers and ranches.

This Ranch is lame and totally shameless, but it also has a weird grace. It’s a copy of Cadillac Ranch, but it is distinct. Like a flyer in a dirty Xerox machine, the decay from the generational loss gives the trailers an abstract quality. The seven and a half trailers are closer to the void than they are to the staged feelings of kitsch. They’re artificial to such an extreme that they become anti-kitsch.

Bates says he wants the Airstreams to remind people of the open road. That seems fair. To me, “the open road” brings to mind a blank, absented state, against which all the McDonald’s pit stops and all the podcasts of This American Life are powerless. The trailers look like a faintly ironic tourist trap, until they start looking like something more intense.

A lot of Ranch photographers, via the internet, have weighed in on their subject. Some pictures are posted with the type of confused reactions you might expect contemporary art to provoke — couldn’t Bates have found something better to do with his time, they ask? Couldn’t he have pursued his ideas in private, where the public wouldn’t have to get confused about them? Other photos accompany sentimental statements of support, citing local professors who’ve labeled the trailers “art.” Some appear beside photos of Cadillac Ranch. And a blogger at a muscle car outfit called Mopar Muscle Magazine wrote, “If I had some Airstreams around that I didn’t want, I’d recycle them into beer cans. Then I could buy beer later and drink it out of cans that used to be the Airstream campers that I owned.” Word.

A Tampa Bay high school class has planned walkways and gazebos around the Ranch for an architecture project. A friend of Bates has announced a documentary in the works. But Airstreams aren’t the sentimental objects they used to be. Families take their vacations on cruises now, or else they stay home. As more people hear about the Ranch, I imagine it losing even more context, becoming even more blank, like the video ripped and uploaded to YouTube a thousand times. Soon all their power will be in their uncanniness, not in any nostalgia switches they might now be able to flick.

Not everyone has embraced Airstream Ranch. Bates’s neighbors complain about traffic, and call the thing an eyesore. Hillsborough County fined him $7,800 for code violations. But Bates insisted the Ranch was art, not an advertisement for his business. He hired a lawyer and appealed the fines. He told the media that thousands of people were signing a petition to save Airstream Ranch.

That was two years ago. In February, the county gave in, forgiving Bates the $7,800 and letting the Ranch stand. No one from the county has ventured an opinion on whether the trailers are art.

I think the official non-stance on the “art or not” question might keep people talking about the Ranch, which is good. But Airstream Ranch exists far beyond the place where that debate has any meaning, like the internet, like the thousands of Florida subdivisions with hieroglyphic names like Wyndcove or Paradise Run by the Gables. Airstream Ranch will live in its own time.

Photo by Chris M. Gent

Kara Phelps has worked as a journalist and a fast food restaurant employee.