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Wally Byam - The Man Who Started It All

history1 As you read this story of Wally Byam, you will know he was a real person, not a myth, as we have heard some profess. Wally Byam is no longer with us, but his dream goes on. Each one of you, as you travel the highways, here and abroad, are living evidence of Wally’s dream. He placed the world at our doorstep, for us all to enjoy! 

"Don’t stop. Keep right on going. Hitch up your trailer and go to Canada or down to Old Mexico. Head for Europe, if you can afford it, or go to the Mardi Gras. Go someplace you’ve heard about, where you can fish or hunt or collect rocks or just look up at the sky. Find out what’s at the end of some country road. Go see what’s over the next hill, and the one after that, and the one after that."

This is the message and the legacy of Wally Byam. The words, typically simple and direct, were Wally’s answer to a caravanner who asked in 1959, "Wally, what are we going to do while you are in the hospital?" It was what Wally would say now to all of us.

 

Wally taught a generation and more of ordinary persons how to travel to the near and far places of the world. He provided them with a mechanism in the form of a travel trailer, which he offered for sale. More basically, however, he gave them a concept, an idea, a dream come true. He taught by showing them that they could bring “home” with them on their travels, near or far, and that they could feel at home wherever they went.

 

history2 Where Wally Byam led, people eagerly followed. Somehow in following him they became better able thereafter to lead themselves. Perhaps this was because he had a way of expecting and getting the most that was in a man.

How Wally Byam happened to choose trailers to glorify his life, what inclined him in that direction, is surely contained somehow in the story of his life. But here there is a snag. Wally Byam was an extremely verbal and communicative man. To many he appeared to be an egotist. The fact is that he could rarely be brought into a direct discussion of his own life.

There aren’t many details available about Wally and his family. They were never “poor” in the modern sense, certainly never hungry or in debt. But the times were hard, rough, beset by the physical elements, the wind and the rain, the crudeness of the roads.

Later his grandfather acquired a large flock of sheep. He didn’t hesitate to put a teenage Wally in charge of them. He sent the boy to lead the flock to their summer pastures high in the mountains of Oregon, to stay there alone with them for months at a time.

As a shepherd boy, Wally lived out of a small, two-wheeled wagon covered with cloth and towed along at a walking pace by a donkey. At night the wagon would be unhitched and propped up by its tongue. The tail board let down to disclose a mat for a bed, a kerosene cook stove, food and water, and “all the other necessities of life”—a wash pail and some books.

Years later, on a trip through some western sheep country, Wally told one of his close friends that the shepherd boy’s wagon had something to do with his later interest in trailers.

Wally graduated from Stanford in 1923 with a degree in law. He never applied for a board examination or practiced law in any form for the rest of his life. Instead he went to work for the Los Angeles Times as an advertising copywriter. He held that job long enough to decide that he liked advertising, but did not like to work for other people. He quit and formed his own agency and published a how-to-do-it magazine for home carpenters and builders. In the course of editing and publishing, Wally came across an article on how to build a trailer and bought it for publication. It was rather poor, as he was soon to find out. Every mail brought him complaints.

His curiosity piqued, he decided to follow the instructions himself. He quickly found them impossible. Abandoning the article but not the project, which tremendously intrigued him, he proceeded to build a trailer.

It was a “crude, boxy structure which rested none too easily upon a Model A Ford chassis”, Wally wrote later in his book, “Trailer Travel Here and Abroad”, “little more than a bed you could crawl into, a shelf to hold a water bottle, a flashlight and some camping equipment … protected from the elements.”

Crude or not, it was Wally’s first trailer. It attracted much attention and people even tried to buy it from him. At first he wouldn’t sell; he was having too much fun with it himself. He wrote an article on how to build it and sold plans on the side.

He might have published the article himself in his own magazine, except for a very simple fact; he needed more money than he could “pay” himself. It was published by “Popular Mechanics” magazine.