September 25, 2011 1:26:00 AM
Sporting the trademark blue beret of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International, Airstream enthusiast Kathleen Hedgepeth, 83, stands outside her travel trailer on a September Saturday at Lake Lowndes State Park. The 1949 graduate of Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women) began a two year-term as president of the Caravan Club's six-state Region 6 in July. Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
(silver bullet 9-10-5)
Hedgepeth is pictured inside her 34-foot aluminum home-away-from-home. The octogenarian from Brookhaven is active in numerous organizations -- and is a clogger, too. Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
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The Airstream devotee points out decals from some of the WBCC international rallies she's attended across the country and shares a few favorite memories from several. Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
"She shoots but never misses,
Stare down, passin' traffic;
Go carefully, carefully
Oh, Airstream driver."
From "Airstream Driver," by British indie band Gomez, 2009
BY JAN SWOOPE
"Some people think I'm crazy," smiles a composed Kathleen Hedgepeth, perched on the comfy sofa in her Airstream travel trailer. The door of the gleaming "silver bullet'" is open, channeling dappled sunlight, birdsong and breezes that hint of autumn. Muted conversation from other Airstreamers enjoying the morning's gifts at Lake Lowndes State Park drift in from time to time.
The loyal 1949 graduate of Mississippi State College for Women -- now Mississippi University for Women -- is dressed smartly in the red, white and blue of the Wally Byam Caravan Club International. (Byam was the pioneer manufacturer of Airstreams and a leader in developing America's romance with the road.)
Hedgepeth, who will turn 84 on Oct. 13, has just begun a two-year term as president of the Caravan Club's Region 6, which encompasses Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and the panhandle of Florida.
"Our motto is 'Fun, Fellowship and Adventure'," she says. "That's why I do it."
When Hedgepeth is rooted, the Airstream is parked next to her house in Brookhaven. But as president, she's expected to be out and about, fulfilling her duties. She's in Columbus to install new officers for one of the 11 units within Region 6. In a way, each visit to the Friendly City is like coming home.
"I stayed in Fant (dormitory) for two years at the W, and that and Reneau were really the end of campus ... the school has doubled in size!" she marvels. A bit nostalgically, she reminisces about family- style meals in the old dining hall and tending a small vegetable garden students planted.
"And I'll never forget Zouave," she states, remembering the indomitable Miss Emma Ody Pohl, who directed the W girls in the military-inspired drills.
After graduation, Hedgepeth became a teacher herself, spending 40 years in the Mississippi school system. Ironically, the geography she taught to grade-schoolers turned out to be somewhat prophetic.
On the road
"I've been in all the states twice with the Airstream, except Hawaii. I've even towed to Alaska," she says, matter-of-factly. The total miles and gasoline are incalculable. The rewards? She wouldn't have had it any other way.
Hedgepeth married into this roving lifestyle in 1989, when she wed Gene, an avid Airstream buff. Together, they embraced the open road and the camaraderie of a mobile, but connected, community. When Gene passed away in 2004, Kathleen chose to keep driving. She's had a her share of practice at carrying on.
"On May 5, 1995, I had a quadruple bypass, but on June 16 (that year), with the doctor's permission, I was back clogging," she shares, referring to the percussive Appalachian folk dance she's enjoyed since 1982. "In 2000, I had a pacemaker put in." In spite of the obstacles, she has been active as a Daughter of the Nile (for Shriners' wives), is a past jurisdictional president of Woodmen of the World, and a past grand marshall of Eastern Star. She even subs with a bunco group when she's home long enough.
"And I get together with my class from the W once or twice a year in Jackson," she adds. Staying engaged is obviously a tonic.
Hedgepeth now confidently drives the Suburban that pulls her 2005 34-foot, triple axle travel trailer. She often travels in caravan with other Airstreamers, who all stay in ready touch with each other by CB radio.
"The longest I've been away from home on a trip was 44 days," she mentions, thumbing her way through a directory that lists members of the WBCCI.
"We're identified by the number painted on the front of our Airstreams," Hedgepeth explains. "If you pass one of us on the road, you can look up the number and right away know who they are and where they're from." Since July, her trailer now carries No. 249, a newly-painted triple digit that identifies her immediately to those-in-the-know as a regional officer.
At Lake Lowndes, Hedgepeth's Airstream flies three flags -- the U.S. flag, the Mississippi unit flag and the Region 6 president's flag, all recognizable to other members in campgrounds or at organized gatherings, or rallies. The annual multi-day international rally is a premiere event filled with a dizzying variety of workshops and excursions. The former educator looks forward to them every year.
"There may be as many as 1,500 to 2,500 at those, and they all park just so, very precisely. Then a plane flies over for an aerial shot, and the image is made into a postcard from that rally," she shares, with a hint of justified pride apparent.
For Hedgepeth and fellow travelers who "Dream. Do. Live. Repeat," as the mantra from aluminumbliss.com reads, the thousands of members of the WBCCI form an extended family of sorts. For all its size and mobility, this is a community -- even if it does roll on "silver wheels," and Hedgepeth's two grown sons, every now and then, have to call up to ask, "Mother, where are you?"
At Lake Lowndes, the seasoned nomad talks of the pancake breakfast she shared only a few hours before with fellow Airstreamers at picnic tables outside their trailers. And in another few hours, or few days, weeks or even months, they'll meet again, somewhere on the road. And each will be delighted to see an old friend again.
"If I was not doing this, I would be doing some kind of charity work and volunteering at the hospital," Hedgepeth says. "But with the good Lord's help, I plan to keep a'goin'."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.