Watkins Glenn, N.Y. — It's 9:30 at night, and a small truck is pushing a 30-foot motor home into its appointed slot at the Watkins Glen KOA Campground. A crowd of motor-homers has gathered. Through the windshield, they see the gleam of the driver's white knuckles as he grips the wheel in impotent silence. Almost all of them have been in the same position as this driver. Often. ``You know what mine does?'' a tall, gangling man asks, not bothering to wait for an answer. ``It conks out on me. I mean, I have lights and all, but the engine won't do anything. You think I can figure out what's wrong with it? Nobody can fix it.''
``Motor homes are so delicate,'' one lady complains. ``They sit all winter, and all kinds of things go wrong.''
All kinds of things must go right, too.
Because most motor-home owners report long, trouble-free lives from their vehicles. And, even though the repairs one must have done can be expensive and cumbersome (since you're likely to break down on the side of a mountain or in some remote national park), motor-homing must offer great compensations.
After all, 25 million people (owners, relatives, guests, and renters) -- an industry estimate of the number ``involved in the life style'' -- can't all be wrong.
Hit the American highways any time from June to September and you'll have a hard time keeping count of the mobile homes that pass in both directions. Renting, buying, or borrowing these rolling motel-rooms has become the vacation of choice for families, newlyweds, retirees, loners, you name it.
According to a new University of Michigan study, there are 7.8 million motor homes on the road. Last year 398,200 recreational vehicles were sold: a far cry from the all time-high 1972 high of 526,300, but, also, a good sight higher than the industry low of 181,420 units in 1980.
Motor-homers are paying anywhere from a couple thousand dollars for a well-used vehicle to $350,000 for unimaginably plush and roomy models.
Right now, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, the motor-home business is picking itself up after, first, two devastating bouts with gas shortages, and, second, high interest rates in 1981.
Although hard numbers are scarce, motor-home rentals appear to be booming these days, as well.
Why? What are the motor-homers getting for their money? What's it like to park one of those things between two mean trees in the dead of night and then plug them into an electrical outlet that is attached to a water faucet? Is it worth it?
``The most of what you get out of it is the friendship of the people that you meet,'' offers Chuck Mogg, an inveterate motor-homer and Michigan state director of the Good Sam Club, an association of campers and motor-homers. ``The full-time camper that goes out all the time, people that own and maintain their own units, go up to the lake to meet the guy who will be camping next to them.''
What about the fellow who decides to just go and rent one of these things for a summer vacation?
``Well, 85 to 90 percent of the people who rent don't have any knowledge of motor-homing. They get in and turn the key, and then they're surprised that it wouldn't do what the family car will do.''
That explains it, then. Because this reporter leaped last summer into a motor home just that way, and with just those expectations. Six weeks and half a dozen breakdowns later, the vehicle was left, devoid of power, in a vacant lot outside Marysville, Ohio, as reporter and family returned home in a nice sleek baby from Hertz that bore a much closer resemblance to the family car.
There were others, on the road at the time, with less than happy experiences.
In northern Michigan, a man with his wife and four-year old son had been chased by weather for almost two weeks: first, down into Ohio and Tennessee; then, back through West Virginia; now, up here in a rain-drizzled campground outside of Mackinac, Mich. On a Saturday morning, the last of his vacation, they sigh and bundle up their things, as they leave for home.
The promise of a big, well-furnished motor home seems to be that, when the weather is bad, you have all the comforts of home, and then some.
Well, not quite. No matter how big your modern Conestoga is, it quickly gets cramped and narrow. Besides, the places you go beckon you outside. Like it or not, you are a captive of the weather. Children want to swim and play in the playground, and if they can't, there usually isn't a city-style cornucopia of things around to take them to.
Then there are the unknowns and imponderables, such as pulling into a campground and asking for a wooded, relatively secluded, lakeside site and being sent to what looks like a permanent traffic jam, in which road roamers had set up a sort of refugee camp around their stranded vehicles. None of which seems amusing after countless hours on the highway, and with appetites and tempers rising. The ``heated pool'' in this campground, supposedly kept at 80 degrees, turned out to be a good deal colder. The ``stocked'' fishing pond turned out to be an Olympic-size pool stuffed with trout, and two- or three-dozen people around it.
Lest all of this seem a total bust, one must recount the evening walk, just around sunset, along the rim of the lake.
The sky went from solid gun metal gray to a roseate-ridged soft white with luminous patches here and there. The seekers of solitude sat behind Coleman lamps and pit fires, letting the dusk fall gently around them, and talking of small matters, or nothing at all. They heard the water work at the sandy shore; and they looked satisfied.
Across the country, throughout the summer, similar scenes are to be found in campgrounds at night. A strange ritual follows pulling into a campsite: hooking up to a faucet, an electrical outlet, and a sewer line, and then stringing lights around the vehicle. More often than not, a portable TV gets flipped on. Usually, the occupants are within a couple yards of the nearest motor home on either side. Usually, the setting is woodsy, although certainly not ``the woods.''
Why do they do it?
Chuck Mogg seemed to have the answer: conviviality.
Motor homes look like a ticket to the great outdoors. But they are really for those who believe the world's prime attraction is not geography, but people. The setting, the fishing, the swimming do not by and large seem to hold the whole thing together. Rather, it's this yearning to congregate, and that the change of surroundings makes folks friendlier, more open.
After all, sooner or later, motor-homers wind up wedged in with a flock of other vehicle owners in places that take on the appearance of suburban parking lots. The bigger the unit, the truer this axiom becomes. But motor-homers don't seem to mind.
``Most of the time, they are not too crowded,'' observes Buddy Hinson, who has been hauling a live-in trailer out of his home in Hernando, Miss., for 17 years now. ``You generally have room to breathe.''
Mr. Hinson says one of the virtues of this kind of vacation is that ``you get to see a lot of the good old USA you might not otherwise see.'' But he also subscribes to the theory that people, not places, are the real attraction of motor-homing. ``It's a different kind of people, good Christian people most of them, and we get together and have a good time.''
This month, about 1,200 to 1,400 motor homes will pull into nearby Greenville, Miss., for just such a ``good time,'' during this year's Samboree. They'll all park out on the runways of an airfield; and it will ``be just like a family reunion.''