Planning for retirement, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mary Olson didn’t know which state she wanted to live in, so she made a choice that allowed her to enjoy them all: she bought a recreational vehicle.
Olson had never driven a large vehicle or even gone camping in her life.
“I said to the salesman, ‘Maybe before I give the down payment I should go out on the road.'” She took the wheel of a 36-foot motor home (RV enthusiasts call them “rigs”) and navigated a misty, windy day on Interstate Highway 10 in Texas.
“I made left turns, I made right turns, got back and parked it between the yellow lines in the parking lot, and said, ‘Oh, I think I can do this,'” Olson said.
It was 1999, and the single former nurse had just joined the ranks of the approximately 1 million people in the U.S. who live in their RVs full-time, according to Rachel Parsons of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va.
With the wind in your hair, the road stretching ahead and your rear end firmly planted in the front seat of your motor home, the life of a full-time vagabond is appealing to many – and the trend is expected to continue.
Recreational vehicle ownership is booming, according to Parsons.
“The industry as a whole is experiencing huge increases in sales and shipment because of the aging of the Baby Boomer generation,” Parsons said. (Baby Boomers are people born between 1946 and 1964.) “The typical RVer is 49, married, with kids, with an annual income of $65,000.”
As the trend continues, Parsons said, “You are going to see more full-timers and RVs on the road.” However, Parsons noted, “full-timers” – RV lingo for those who live in their vehicles – are only a fraction of the estimated 8 million RV owners in the country.
Olson, who is 63, has traded up from her 36-foot home to a 40-foot motor home. She has visited all but 12 of the 50 states, and has gone on caravans with other Winnebago owners to Alaska, the Canadian maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador), the Lewis and Clark Trail, which follows the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition through seven states, and the Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
The full-timer finances her lifestyle through retirement pay from the military and investments, she said. She tows a Jeep behind her Winnebago, a practice typical of RVers. According to industry experts, 80 percent of all RVers tow a car.
Asked how she copes with emergencies on the road, the single woman replies, “I do the same thing the men do. I pick up the cell phone and call road service.”
Olson explained that Winnebago has a road service similar to AAA. Also, “Most big name brands have authorized places where you can go.” She emphasized that cell phones are essential to the full-timer lifestyle, and that full-timers also use CB radios.
Though some might think the full-timer lifestyle would be lonely, Olson vigorously disagrees. “I have to try to find time when I can be by myself.”
Indeed, the RV community is stronger than many less mobile neighborhoods, according to Dennis Burkholder, general manager of the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers, an owners club with 19,000 motor home memberships.
“If you go into a hotel you never ever speak to the person in the next room. In a (motor home) campground, it’s exactly the opposite,” said Burkholder.
“To not be friendly to your campsite neighbor would be rather unusual. It’s an open society. You can have someone driving a big fancy motor home and someone driving an introductory and there would be no economic stratification going on,” Burkholder said. The Winnebago price range for full-timing vehicles is $100,000 to $260,000, he said.
RVers go on caravans, pre-planned trips to a series of locations, together. They also have rallies, or gatherings, several times a year.
“I belong to MILWIT, a group of retired military who own RVs that is a subsidiary of the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers,” Olson said. “We also do e-mail, we have a newsletter and have cell phones and call each other.”
She also visits her parents, who are still living, and various relatives throughout the year, Olson said.
The biggest pain of the RV life can be summed up in two words, according to Olson: Gas stations.
“You don’t have diesel gas in regular gas stations so you have to figure out where you can get your gas. So most of us map out the route, or your navigator who can research it while you are driving,” said Olson, who, unlike most RV owners, is single.
Unlike most RVs, her rig takes regular gas instead of diesel, which makes gassing up a nightmare. Few gas stations are set up to accommodate 40-foot-long rigs that, because of the car in tow, can’t back up, she said. “If an 18-wheeler gets into a situation, they can back up, but motor homes towing a car can’t back up.”
Overall, Olson is pleased with her life and has no plans to buy a conventional home. Speaking from San Antonio, Texas, she said, “You can get up in the morning and be at the beach or the mountains or the desert, and if you don’t like your neighbors you can move. Though I can stay in parks, I’m also self-contained, so I can be in the middle of nowhere.”
According to Burkholder, “It’s (full-time RVing) a remarkable thing in our society that has more to do with the soul and spirit than perhaps most things we do in our life plan.”
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