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Call of the open road. A growing number of Americans are enjoying a wayfaring life on wheels

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 1987

Pasadena, Calif.

FROM 43 states and Canada they came for friendship ... through jazzercize, square dancing, seminars on fly-fishing - and listening to Eddie Baxter at the Lowrey Electronic Keyboard. They parked 800 Silver Streaks, Prowlers, Airstreams, and Nomads cheek by jowl in the mammoth parking lot of Pasadena City College. The expensive rigs - including a $265,000 Newell the size of a Greyhound bus, a $240,000 Beaver complete with radar dish - had bumper stickers that read: ``Grandma and granddad's playground,'' or ``We spent our children's inheritance for this.''

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For a burgeoning segment of mostly older Americans, ``this'' increasingly represents a new way of traveling, recreating, meeting old friends, and making new ones all at the same time. Recreational vehicles (RVs) - for years a symbol of the new, mobile America - hit hard times during the recessions of 1973 and '79 as gas prices soared and RV sales slumped. Now, the itinerant life on wheels, where friends meet via the citizens' band radio or in one of the country's 16,000 RV trailer parks, is back on a roll.

``RVs have added new dimensions to travel for everyone from young families to retirees - the freedom to travel together, cheaply and without restrictions,'' says Beverly Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Good Sam Club, the world's largest RV club. ``Many choose to become full-time RVers and sink temporary roots wherever the sun shines.''

The number of RV parks is still growing, up a few thousand from five years ago. But the number of ``households'' owning RVs is up even more dramatically - by millions, to 7.5 million at last count, representing 10 percent of all American homes. Projections by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association in Washington indicate that 20 percent of Americans would like to own an RV.

``The American public has an almost fanatical attachment to the outdoors that goes back to our heritage in freedom and individual rights,'' says Dave Humphries, president of the RV association. ``Old and young have increasingly realized it's not only the best way to experience the outdoors for extended periods, it's the least expensive and most versatile [way].''

On this particular day in late December, all RV roads led to Pasadena for a celebration of sorts. The Good Sam Club was holding its annual International Rose Parade get-together (know as a ``Samboree'') and celebrating its 20th anniversary and a membership that has doubled in a decade to 500,000-plus. There were four days of activities and seminars, and the Rose Parade to boot. But the primary reason these RVers travel cross country is to gain a new sense of community.

``I became an RVer to get out of the house and meet people,'' says Mimi Starbuck, a longtime member from Rialto, Calif. ``I love the out-of-doors and I love people, and you don't get either when you stick yourself in a hotel.''

``It's an easy form of life to see the country, to really get out in it,'' says her husband, Dale. ``People say, `Aren't those expensive to drive, don't they waste energy?' - but when you think how much heat and lights you're not using at home, it comes out much cheaper.''

Breakfast and dinner were the best times to see the RVers in action - firing up propane grills, playing cards, and chatting about rig designs or previous Samborees.

``The first thing I do after parking our rig is search out our old friends,'' says Lucille Wheeler, from Upland, Calif. ``The second thing I do is seek out new friends.''

A retired sheriff says he's met so many people while putting 30,000 miles a year on his 32-foot trailer that he now mails 750 Christmas cards each December.

What, besides chasing down friends, is there to do at a Samboree? There are seminars: ``Citizen Band Radios: Theory and Practice''; ``Highway Safety and Your RV''; ``Ifs, Ands, and Buts of RV Refrigerators.'' At one lecture, a representative of the Thetford Corporation was ``taking the confusion out of chemical additives, with special attention to RV holding tank problems.''