by Dan Egan

John Steinbeck had one. So did Charles Kuralt, Barbie, and the 1970s Saturday morning superhero, Shazaam! Even better, these objects of desire have romantic-sounding names that often hint at the motives of their owners: Pathfinder, Adventurer, Endeavor, Sightseer, Chieftain, Swinger.

They're Recreational Vehicles, or RVs, and they haven't been this popular since the Carter administration. In the two years following 9/11, RV sales and rentals have soared. A lot of the new RV'ers are young families looking for low-stress vacations without the hassles of air travel.

"There's been a shift in the country avoiding air travel in favor of driving vacations," says Ken Sommers of the Recreational Vehicle Association of America. "People are wanting more freedom, flexibility and control. As a result, RV sales have boomed in popularity."

Today, there are an estimated 9 million RVs lumbering down American roads - that's one for every 12 households. They can range from small, pop-up campers to lavish Greyhound Bus-sized behemoths, with every conceivable luxury: home theaters with flat-screen TVs, wine cellars, hot tubs, global positioning systems, driver's seats with built-in heat and massage, rooftop patios, even a "basement" and a "garage" in which a small car can be parked and transported. One couple refers to their RV as their "COW" or "Condo on Wheels." For sheer hugeness, consider the Madden Cruiser. It's a 45-foot monstrosity that ex-Oakland Raider football coach and current Monday Night Football broadcaster John Madden uses getting to and from games because he refuses to fly. It's got three plasma-screen TVs, a steam shower and a mobile satellite system. It has a 200-gallon gas tank that takes a half hour to fill. It averages 8 miles per gallon.

There are more than 16,000 RV parks in the United States and an estimated 30 million "RV enthusiasts" using them. I decided I'd drive 10 minutes west on I-90 and visit one.

Yogi Bear's Camp Resort is strangely quiet for the Thursday afternoon before Labor Day. You can hear the crunch-crunch footsteps of a couple as they walk their dog on the gravel road of the half-full campground. By this time tomorrow, I'm told, this place will be packed with RVs, and the quiet will be replaced by the distinct sounds that can only come from hundreds of kids enjoying Yogi Bear-themed activities (such as Yogi's Hey Hey Hay Rides.)

Just past the 18-hole mini-golf course, in slot R7, I meet Cliff and Margaret Johnson sitting outside their 35-foot HitchHiker Premier. On the back of their rig is a sign that reads, "Home is where we park it." Cliff, 67, was a custodian for the Seattle school district, and Margaret, 70, was a counselor for King County. After retiring, they sold their home in Seattle and bought their RV. They've been "full-timers" since 1994. (The U.S. census refers to the 3 million Americans who live full time in an RV as the "affluent homeless.")

"We sold everything," says Cliff. "We don't even have a storage shed. It was kind of like doing your own wake before you die. You get rid of everything -- all our things, we had to sell off or give away." He points to his rig and, with a look of pride says, "That's it, that's all we got."

He offers a tour of his home on wheels: "That's what we RV'ers do, is look at each other's rigs." Inside, it's no Madden Cruiser, but it's very roomy and comfortable. Cliff shows me the living room with a home theater, two large captain chairs and a full-size couch. The kitchen is roomy and fully stocked. The hallway to the bedroom is filled with pictures of the Johnsons' five kids and 16 grandkids. The bedroom has a queen-size bed and a desk with a computer. "It's got three slides," he says, referring to the expandable walls that increase the interior from eight to 14 feet wide.

After just a couple of days here at Yogi's Resort, which costs them $40 per night, they plan to be back on the road with an open itinerary. All they know for sure is they will be in Arizona for the winter. Until then, says Cliff, "maybe go to Yellowstone and see some family in Idaho." They have no regrets about uprooting themselves. "We didn't want to wait until it was too late," Cliff says. "We all know that at some point, we'll be too broke, too old or too sick to be out here."

"And," adds Margaret, "all you've got is your memories." After nine years on the road together, they plan to continue the nomadic lifestyle as long as they can. "And you know," adds Cliff, "we're still talking to each other."

A common stereotype of RV'ers is that of geriatric gypsies who proudly display and live up to a popular bumper-sticker motto: "We're spending our kids' inheritance." This perception, however, seems to be out of date. In fact, over the past four years, the fastest-growing segment of the RV market are buyers ages 35 to 54. Today's typical RV owner is 49 years old and married, with an annual household income of $56,000. This is the main target for the new three-year, $15 million, industry-wide "Go RVing" ad campaign. With the theme "Pursue Your Passions," slick magazine and television ads depicts outdoorsy young families spending quality time together while camping, fishing and kayaking. The sales pitch hasn't changed too much from a 1970 magazine ad for a Winnebago motor home, which advertised it as a "Fifty-Two Week Funhouse on Wheels."

The first RVs were practical vehicles that early road-builders used to sleep in at night while they built the U.S. highway system by day. They've evolved, not only into a verb ("RVing"), but into a distinct subculture, complete with its own language, hierarchy and social network. There are full-timers, part-timers and boondockers. There are specific RV clubs for every interest: birders, Catholics, barbershop quartets, metal detectors, sports lovers, nudists. You name it, there's an RV group for it. There are "Jews on Wheels," "Loners on Wheels," the National African-American RVer Association, and a group called Stonewall, which welcomes "lesbians, bi's, trans- and their friends to join our casual group who enjoy the RV lifestyle."

David Woodworth, an RV historian and owner of 38 vintage RVs himself, says that as different as RVs and those who use them are, they all come to it for the same reason.

"RVing has been so popular for so long because it fills one of the most basic human needs: freedom. Today, people want choices -- the ability to go wherever they want, whenever they want." Among his many antique RVs is Mae West's 1931 motor home and a 1916 model called the Telescope Apartment, which is basically a Model T with a pop-up tent on a board that slides out from the back. For Woodworth, RVs are clearly a lifestyle: "It's my magic carpet that transports me to all kinds of interesting places."

For many people, those interesting places include Wal-Mart parking lots. Doug Hawes-Davis is a Missoula-based filmmaker whose film, This Is Nowhere, documents the subculture of travelers who wander the country in RVs while camping in Wal-Mart parking lots. There's a Wal-Mart edition of the Rand McNally Road Atlas that lists addresses, highway exit numbers and services available at every Wal-Mart store in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. He agrees with Woodworth about the attraction of living an RV lifestyle.

"I think for retired folks, they've lived their whole lives doing some job for 30 years. They're out there because they want to experience... (pause)... freedom, in the American sense. Especially the full-timers, they're done with having roots and want to experience freedom and see how that plays out. They want to find out what it's like not to have any ties. I think that's the draw of it, and it's really appealing. It's not particularly appealing to me to want to camp at a Wal-Mart, but the ideas and the rationale for being on the road are very appealing."

Back at Yogi's Camp Resort, summer is winding down. Yogi is about to go back into hibernation until next spring. Most of us, our summer vacations over, are heading back to work. But for some, like the Johnsons in their HitchHiker Premier, the vacation simply continues, far down another road.

Publication date: 09/11/03

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