Randy’s Pot of Gold

Randy Gilson grew up dirt poor in a small mill town just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. As one of six children from a “broken” family, he remembers being teased by schoolmates, who called him “dumb, stupid, dadless, welfare boy, and white trash.” But his mother, a minister, advised him to ignore the noise, and instilled in him a commitment to do good for others. Her voice became Randy’s moral compass, and he’s walked the high road ever since.

Randy

He recalls a childhood Christmas when there was no money for presents, so he scavanged the neighborhood trashcans in search of discarded toys, and placed a wrapped gift for each of his siblings under the tree. It was a powerful lesson.

He learned that “making others happy made me happy.”

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He also discovered that traditional learning was a waste of his time. He was wired differently from others, and blamed his failing school grades on an unofficial diagnosis of “ADHD and OCD, mixed with a little bit of autism,” because he was never formally tested. Rather than depend on his brain, he reminded himself that “my eyes are a tool to see, my ears are a tool to hear, my hands are a tool to work, and my heart is a tool to help.”

garden gate

Randy’s first money came from mowing neighbors’ lawns, but in a roundabout way. At first, he furtively cut their overgrown grass as a goodwill gesture. The neighbors called Randy out for tresspassing, but eased their anger once they realized the benefit to their properties. Eventually, they hired Randy to tend their yards–where he honed his topiary skills on their hedges and trees.

red knight

Additionally, working on family farms over the summers taught him the value of nurturing seeds and the resultant harvest. In later years, Randy’s interest in horticulture blossomed into the Old Allegheny Garden Society, which resulted in planting hundreds of whiskey barrel gardens along the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side during a risky time of transition and uncertainty.

swan planters

“Living his life” gave Randy the confidence to gamble on his future. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it was the best he could do at the time. When long-time residents fled to the suburbs, the gangs moved into the area, and a drug culture took root and held the community hostage. “The neighbors used to shoot off guns in the middle of the night. For them, it was particularly useful in keeping the rents low,” claimed Randy.

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But Randy stood his ground. Although planting gardens and painting murals raised eyebrows of derision and suspicion among grown-ups, the children of the streets gave Randy the benefit of the doubt. At first they were confused.

“Why would a stranger be doing all sorts of nice things on their streets?” Randy mused. “When I told them that I was doing it for them, then they wanted to help, too.”

The street became Randy’s parish, and he preached a gospel of stewardship and goodness. Soon after, his Pied Piper nature won over the rest of the community, and he was accepted as their resident eccentric (or eccentric resident). 

land beach

An opportunity presented itself in 1995. An abandoned building on Arch Street, earmarked for the wrecking ball, was saved from demolition when Randy bought the property from the bank with a $10,000 credit card loan covered by the bank.

Immediately, he began collecting litter, planting gardens and painting wall murals.

Randy house

That was the genesis of Randyland…

Randyland entry

a candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky habitat of repurposed whimsy and soul,

Welcome to Randyland

People travel to Randyland from around the world, and prepare destination arrows to indicate their country of origin.

every which way

They stop by for the novelty…

belonging

for the vibe and the energy…

sandbox

and to remember the child still trapped inside us all.

knit fish

Randy doesn’t pretend to be an artist. In fact, he disagrees with the characterization. “I’m not an artist. I’m a gay hippie that smokes pot, and believes in sharing my vision.”

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Randy’s charm is infectious; his energy is contagious;

neighbor paint

and his message is inspirational. His mother would be proud of him.

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What started out as a typical tour of a colorful outdoor habitat, turned into a surprisingly deep and endearing conversation with Randy, once Leah and I introduced ourselves.

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Passerby cars with follow-up horn toots were a constant interruption, but Randy always had a quick response for them:

“Hey, pretty mama…”

“I love your weave…”

“Lookin’ good in the neighborhood.”

signpost

Randy is eager to tell his story and have his story told. He is also unabashed about his upbringing and background. Few people I know are so accepting of themselves. He easily shares the details of his life normally reserved for confidants or therapists. But then I realize that Randy’s candor is probably an ongoing part of his therapy…where he plays the therapist.

Randy placed a wad of business cards in my hand, and like a butterfly in search of its next flower nectar, he flew off to be photographed with his next best friends.

Say cheese

It’s easy spotting a rainbow, but following him to his pot of gold is a greater reward.

A Concrete Idea

Chiseled from concrete, George Bartholomew stands aside Logan County Courthouse in Bellefontaine, OH with a pick ax and a plan. He is widely regarded as the American father of concrete pavement,

GB tribute plaque

but it took ingenuity and loads of confidence before city leaders agreed to allow him to continue his experiment.

Logan County Courthouse (2)

Little did he or the citizens of Bellefontaine realize what the profound effect his efforts would yield, and its resultant impact on the future of transportation across the country.

1st road plaque

Imbedded plaques surrounding his likeness detail Bartholomew’s discovery and his process, and memorialize his achievement.

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But that’s not all there is to Bellefontaine!

Sandwiched between Garfield Avenue and W. Columbus Avenue lies 30 feet of patched concrete known locally as McKinley Street (named after President William McKinley),

McKinley St

and recognized nationally as the shortest street in America, or the corners of No Parking and No Parking.

High Time

While camping alongside the Airstream factory in Jackson Center (see Building Airstreams), Leah and I wondered how we would kill time during our weekend stopover. There wasn’t much to do in town, although we were within walking distance of the Elder Theatre, a one-screen cinema showcasing Dora and the Lost City of Gold and the Heidout Restaurant, serving bar food backed by a roadhouse jukebox.

We took a pass on both, and drove to Bellefontaine, 20 miles east of our location. How fortuitous, because high atop Campbell Hill–overlooking a scenic parking lot, and peaks of grasslands beyond, as far as the eye can see–

Campbell Hill panorama

sits the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center, a two-year career-technical high school campus that also doubles as the highest point in Ohio, at 1549 feet elevation.

Campbell Hill marker

Once upon a Cold War time, this site was home to Bellefontaine Air Force Station, providing radar surveillance to NORAD in the event of a Soviet invasion from the North Pole.

Remnants remain.

Hazmat Team

Leah and I were giddy with excitement. It could have been the altitude, but the notion that we were standing at the highest point in Ohio nearly took our breath away. 

highest point

However, we are seasoned travelers who have Airstreamed through most of America (see Top of the World), and we refused to be intimidated by the height of Campbell Hill.

Admittedly, we were weak-kneed.

We took a deep breath to clear our heads, and took a seat on a strategically placed bench by the geodetic survey marker.

Campbell Hill bench

After a snack to raise our blood sugar, we managed to trek to the parking lot a short distance away. As I regained my composure inside the F-150, I realized that we were brought here for a reason. I figured that given our vantage point and strategic positioning, the military may be interested in recommissioning this location as a secure listening post as we approach the 2020 presidential elections.

 

 

Building Airstreams

Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio. 

Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).

Shredded tire

Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.

factory exterior

In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.

Wally and Stella (2)

Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.

When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,

1930s Airstream

1930 Airstream

to several vintage varities,

Wally and Stella's golden ride

Vintage 19

Airstream 345

to newest production models–

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all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,

gutting a classic

junk pen

and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.

repair lot

After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.

Customer Lounge

We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.

Don Ambos

Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…

Furniture assembly

galley build

forms cutter

curving the walls

chassis build

shells

 

wiring

assembly

final assembly

finishing

…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.

Atlas

By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!

terraport

The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.

 

 

After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.

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And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.

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