Footloose in an RV: America's new nomads
Questing adventure and plugged into the Internet, a growing number of people are selling their homes and traveling full time.
Waterville, Maine — Meet John and Jane Woodman, modern day nomads. Their home is a 10-year-old recreational vehicle (RV) with mud flaps and a retractable awning. Their address is anywhere they happen to park it, which at the moment is tucked behind a concert staging platform, at the end of an unmarked athletic field in this college town on the Kennebec River in central Maine.
They're hardly roughing it. On the roof, a retractable satellite dish taps into the Internet. Inside, Ms. Woodman sits by a desktop computer near the windshield and evaluates essays sent from her distance-learning students. With this arrangement in mind, the Woodmans last year sold their home in East Flat Rock, N.C., deposited the modest proceeds, and hit the road full time – all without disrupting her teaching career.
"I love living this way," says Jane. "Sometimes I get a charge out of the fact that no one knows where we are unless we tell them.... It's kind of like being a child and hiding in the closet."
A growing number of adventurers plying the nation's highways in RVs are doing the same thing – deciding never to return to what they term a "sticks and bricks" house. In order to save money, avoid property-related annoyances, or simply maximize good times, they're choosing to live in their rolling rigs year-round in a world where many jobs and creature comforts no longer require a permanent address. For some baby boomers, the RV has become the new Harley Davidson – a symbol of nomadic freedom.
While no one knows the precise number of full-timers, they are believed to makeup a significant tribe. The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds estimates that about 200,000 Americans qualify as full-timers. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), a trade group, puts the number at closer to 1 million, though, even they admit that's a rough guess.
Full-timers represent just a fraction of the 30 million people who use RVs. But experts who follow the subculture agree that the ranks of full-timers are steadily growing as baby boomers reach retirement age.
Dealers "are catering to that type of person – the full-timer" – by outfitting RVs with full-size refrigerators and bigger electrical systems, says Richard Coon, president of RVIA.
Full-timing, as RVers call it, has been a niche lifestyle for more than a decade. In "Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America," anthropologists David and Dorothy Counts point out that millions of retired full-timers were already joining the itinerant subculture by the early 1990s. Now information technology is making the nomadic life more feasible, even for nonretirees. Cellular phones and wireless Internet services enable some business owners to thrive in a mobile office.
In June 2005, Daniel and Traci Bray of Carmel, Ind., packed up their belongings and their 8-year-old son for a year of home schooling and traveling the country in their RV. Ms. Bray's book about the odyssey – "Vicariously Yours, Letters and Lessons from the Ultimate Road Trip" – came out in July. As a budding travel writer, she now writes off the RV as a business expense.
For the Brays, saying goodbye to homeownership led to a net reduction in family expenses of more than $1,000 per month – even with the hefty RV fuel bills. Plus, Mr. Bray, a telecommunications broker, saw his sales increase. "The customers loved it. They thought it was really cool that we were doing it," he says. "I'm not exactly sure sometimes whether they bought from me because of my talent or because they wanted to support the trip."
Cutting expenses by as much as $1,500 per month isn't unusual, full-timers say, when utility bills, property taxes, and household maintenance costs aren't siphoning family finances.
Still, it is nonfinancial factors that often propel people to go full time. For Brenda Comire, living in a 40-foot, $225,000 RV guaranteed that she and her husband, Roger, wouldn't become sedate in retirement. "I didn't want to spend all my retirement [just at] home in one place where we'd just sit and look at each other," says Ms. Comire.
Natives of Manchester, N.H., they're parked for the summer at an RV park in Salisbury, Mass. In October, they're off to Florida. Their summertime neighbors, Joe and Audrey Darrigo, will travel southwest to the only real estate they've owned since selling their home in Chelmsford, Mass., in 2001 – a concrete parking pad with utility hookups, which they bought four years ago in Yuma, Ariz., for $30,000.
Full-timing can be as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. The Comire's white coach is outfitted with four televisions, a gas stove, convection oven, oak cabinets, and washer/dryer. The couple keeps wind chimes on a side mirror and photos of their grandchildren on the dashboard.
Guests relax on a cream-colored leather couch in a slide-out wing that extends, at the push of a button, almost four feet beyond the side of the coach. It's like a retractable living room.
The campground furnishes hookups to electricity, cable, water, sewer, and wireless Internet, most of which is free (as is rent) for the Comires in exchange for their working a few shifts in park maintenance and administration.
In Maine, the Woodmans are taking a thriftier approach in their 34-foot Fleetwood Bounder, a secondhand unit they bought last year for $23,000. "The house," as John Woodman calls it, gets 8.5 miles per gallon. They drive only a few miles twice a week to a wastewater treatment plant, where John dons bright blue latex gloves to empty the septic tank.
This week, they also need to find somewhere to park for a few hours. The Colby College trustees are going to picnic on the field they've called home while Jane's been working on campus as a math camp administrator. The rest of the year she teaches essay writing online to seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders from around the world through a Baltimore-based center for gifted youth.
It's a way of life that requires flexibility, but can also be rewarding. John feels his health has improved since he quit his stressful property management job and went on the road full time. "We realize that if we had a medical emergency, it would wipe us out" since John lacks health insurance, Jane says. "But that's also true for people with a lot more than we have."
The lifestyle does come with trade-offs. The Woodmans say they miss singing in local church groups. Brenda Comire has had to deal with anguished questions from a daughter: "How can you abandon the family?" The Comires also found themselves parked indefinitely in a daughter's snow-covered New Hampshire driveway once after Roger was hospitalized. "I was asking, 'What are we going to do?' " Brenda recalls. But within a month, they were back on the road.
For the most part, full-time RVers find life on the road far more therapeutic than onerous. The Woodmans, for instance, shed most of their possessions when they went on the road, something that left them feeling unburdened and calm.
Once they settle in a new place, they rely on two bicycles and a Dodge Neon for local transportation. The move has helped them reduce their carbon footprint – and get a little more exercise. "It's liberating," says Jane, "to know exactly what's enough."