LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — Years ago, drivers clad in bowling shirts sat high above the open road in their looming RVs. Wiggling hula girls and bobbing poodles danced on the dashboard as they made their way to warmer climes.
These days, however, a Grateful Dead CD, a cell phone, or tofu are more common in a motor home.
Across the US, baby boomers are heading out in a new wave of recreational vehicles. With higher debt - and even a wistful longing for a Kerouacian "life on the road" - a growing number of former flower children pass on the summer cottage and instead purchase a luxury land yacht.
In the process, they are changing the nature of campground culture and roadside vacation spots.
"The boomers are taking the once blue-collar motor home and 'yuppifying' it to make it their own personal home on wheels," says Gerald Celente, head of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and author of "Trends 2000."
In fact, the average age for RV owners has shifted from 65 to 48 in the past five years, as RVs once again become a hip retirement status symbol. And ownership among 45- to 54-year-olds has grown by 25 percent since 1993 - more than in any other age bracket.
Wouldn't be prudent
With the economy strong and gas prices relatively low, the costs of RVs are no longer the obstacles that led to a decline in ownership in the 1980s. But for the boomers, one of the reasons to purchase a motor home is that it's cheaper than the beach-side summer home.
The majority of boomers have high debt and low net worth, according to a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company study. It estimates the average boomers' debt is close to 95 percent of their annual personal incomes. In addition, there has been a sharp decline in net worth in the past 10 years among people 35 to 54.
"You look at how blue-collar Joe, who worked on the assembly line for General Motors, now has a pension and the retirement [motor] home," says Mr. Celente. "This trend is flip-flopping.
"White-collar boomers weren't prudent, so now they have to find a way to be cool after retirement."
Sam and Bren Holcombe are one of the 9.3 million American households that own an RV. The couple lives in a bedroom community outside Little Rock. A mid-size RV sits in their driveway beside a Volvo and a Saturn. In their early 50s, the Holcombes never imagined owning a motor home. Even now, they sheepishly justify their purchase.
"We did own a van in the 1960s," laughs Mrs. Holcombe. "We were sort of hippies. Now we just plan to resume that lifestyle."
The Holcombes enjoy traveling and bought a small RV a few years ago for a trip out West. With early retirement only a few years away, the couple plans to upgrade to a fancier RV and again hit the road.
"It's not exactly what we were thinking about retirement," said Mr. Holcombe. "I mean, it seems like we are doing just what our parents did. But maybe they had it right. The way to enjoy life is behind the wheel of an RV - not on a jet."
The RV was never fashioned as a yuppie toy but was rather more popular among the TV-dinner-bowling crowd. Winnebagos were especially popular during the 1960s and '70s among retired "snowbirds" who traveled south for the winter. They proudly slapped bumper stickers on their motor homes touting: "We're Spending Our Grandchildren's Inheritance."
But if economic realities have led ex-hippies to invest in a '90s version of the VW bus, there's also the old longing to express their freedom and again seek a bond with nature.
Bonding with nature?
"It's about owning the open road," says new RV owner John Jenkins of Memphis, Tenn. "So we laughed at our parents in their campers. Our generation has always liked nature and the environment. It's natural that we want to spend our retirement years roaming."
Even so, liking nature isn't the same as being close to nature. An RV isn't exactly a pup tent under the stars, and many come with amenities for the Internet generation.
Small, towable units can cost as little as $3,300, but the largest motor homes can cost more than $300,000. They can offer basement storage, washers and dryers, and even hot tubs. But they are also including satellite dishes, PlayStations, and Internet access.
Road side resorts
The new, yuppified RV also means a new kind of road side park. Boomers on the road are becoming a boon to the country's 8,000 commercial RV parks, and they are fast becoming more than just the KOA campground with a parking space, water spigot, and electrical outlet. Some of them have become mini-resorts with water slides, theme parks, and shuttle buses to nearby attractions.
A park near Gettysburg, Pa., for example, has Civil War-themed activities and battlefield visits. Others have linked up with golf courses, and a campground in Ocean City, Md., called Frontier City has built an amusement park with a Wild West flavor.
In Florida, Arkansas, and other winter roosts for retirees, RV parks market themselves as cheaper alternatives to summer vacation homes.
"As the baby boomers age and hit the highway en mass, the roads are going to be flooded with these things," says Celente.
He adds, "Boomers are turning RVs into the coolest mode of transportation for the 21st century."
Come drive with me
Even as sales increase, RV makers are cooperating to step up advertising and and boost the image of motor homes. They plan a three-year, $15 million effort in magazines and television to tout the freedom of the road and the "coolness" of RVs.
Industry analysts predict the number of RV-owning households will jump from the current 9.3 million to 10.4 million in 2010 - with boomers leading the way.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society