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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.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2007



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.

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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.

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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."

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