The recreational vehicle (RV) is so familiar to travelers on America's highways that few people pay attention to them. But its taken-for-granted state masks fascinating cultural phenomena. An RV on the road may contain a family on vacation, or a family with children who live on the road full-time. It could be the only residence of a retired couple who are visiting their children, or a vehicle rented by European tourists out to "see" North America. It may be the home of an itinerant worker headed for a pipeline, or the temporary "house" of volunteers headed to a Habitat for Humanity work site.
Recreational Vehicles: What They Are
While sizes and shapes vary enormously, recreational vehicles can all be towed, hauled, or driven, generally without a special license. Further, they are all designed to be on the move and to require no specialized equipment to make them mobile. Most recreational vehicles are "selfcontained," meaning that they carry supplies of water, have holding tanks for sewage and waste water, and have integral systems for electric power, heat, cooking, and sanitation. These features distinguish RVs from other vehicles and structures, such as "mobile homes" (once called "house trailers," but now called "manufactured houses"), which are not, except in the narrowest sense, "trailers" at all, and are not "mobile" once they are delivered. The point of recreational vehicles, after all, is that they can be used to take their occupants to places where they can have recreation. The places where this happens and the ways that Americans use their RVs are what make them worthy of comment.
There are more than 9 million RVs in North America. They are on the roads, parked in driveways, or hooked up to facilities in RV parks. They are also found parked with no facilities in the desert or on roadside pullouts—RVers call this "boondocking." The category RV includes vehicles of various shapes and sizes: campers that slide onto the beds of pickup trucks; motor homes of all sizes; trailers of all types, including pull trailers, fifth-wheels, and the pop-up trailer. Many RVers see themselves as heirs of those who crossed North America in covered wagons. Indeed, one of the first commercially built travel trailers was named the "Covered Wagon" and looked a bit like a small Conestoga wagon on rubber tires. A contemporary fifth-wheel trailer bears the name "Prairie Schooner."
Modern RVers think of themselves, too, as the embodiment of freedom and independence, and many play with pioneer images as they travel. Caravans of RVs are often led by a "wagon-master," for instance, and folks at rallies of the Wally Byam Caravan Club (Airstream owners) may dress in period costume and park in a circle — circling the wagons. This practice allows them to enclose their social space and form a temporary community that keeps out others.
Any adult who has ever taken a long automobile road trip with small children can understand the attraction of an RV. They have comfortable seats, tables at which games can be played, onboard toilet facilities, and entertainment facilities that may include a TV and VCR. Families can pull off the road at will for a snack, a rest, or just to explore an interesting path or trail. All these factors help to account for the popularity of owning or renting recreational vehicles for family vacations. Those who use RVs this way argue that the vehicle makes traveling an enjoyable part of the trip, recreation in itself, and that the cost of buying or renting the vehicle and fueling it is offset by the lowered cost of accommodation and meals.
Retirement and Full-Time Recreation
The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a new social form—retirement—whose possibilities were still being explored. Increasing numbers of people in good health, with twenty or more years of healthy life expectancy and adequate financial resources, are excluded from traditional paid employment. Nothing in history has prepared either the people experiencing retirement or the society in which they live for this development. Many of these people must literally re-create themselves. Some accomplish this through volunteering in their communities, through continuing education, or through part-time paid work. Some have found that full-time life on the road in a recreational vehicle provides them with a satisfying way to "be retired." While there are no hard figures, there are estimates that as many as 2 million people in North America—most of them retired—live as "full-timers." That is, their motor homes or trailers are their only homes—many refer to their RVs as "my house." While they may have a "home base" for mail delivery and legal residence, these individuals are essentially nomads, staying nowhere more than a few months before moving on. While these people, like their more sedentary fellow retirees, may give additional meaning to their lives through volunteering or part-time work, they do it as part of a floating community largely invisible to ordinary mainstream society. The full-timer's RV is not only his or her home, it is a passport to re-creation in the broadest sense.
If they are a couple whose children and grandchildren are scattered from coast to coast or north to south, the RV is their temporary apartment in the children's community. They can be neighbors for a month, take the grandchildren fishing, or camping, or to the zoo. And they will not be house guests. They will awake each morning in their own beds, follow their own morning rituals, and retire to bed when they choose.
If they are interested in continuing education, there are Elderhostel programs that make space available for participants with their own accommodation on wheels. Alternatively, their recreation in retirement may involve traveling to trace their genealogies, or to find where their ancestors are buried, or to visit all the states within the United States or all the provinces of Canada. They may want to experience hands-on history in Revolutionary or Civil War battlefields, or in national parks and monuments.
They may spend a winter on a guided caravan to Baja California with other RVers, or they may simply join a community of friends met on the road and "boondock" for the winter in the Arizona desert on lands set aside for the purpose by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In such places they will participate with their neighbors in potluck suppers, learn crafts, go on hikes, visit casinos, go fishing, or even become vendors in flea markets. In summer, they may volunteer as hosts in a National Forest or provincial campground and do their own traveling when there are not so many tourists on the road.
Some full-time RVers organize their lives by whim, moving from place to place as fancy strikes—mountains in the summer, desert in the winter. Some are free spirits who make no plans until they arrive at a crossroads, where they then decide in which direction to travel next. Others make more formal arrangements, and enhance their recreation with memberships in RV clubs that provide structured rallies and other services (such as voice mail and mail forwarding) or even parks that are exclusively for the use of their members.
Whether they are re-creating themselves or only seeking temporary recreation at some destination, the people who use RVs have created a new cultural form combining travel, recreation, and home—even if only temporary—that is particularly appropriate to North America, with its vast distances, and a quintessential product of the twentieth century.
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David R. Counts and Dorothy Ayers Counts