WITH winter close to frosting the North, tens of thousands of ``full-timers'' are gassing up their recreational vehicles (RVs) and fleeing to the South.
``We are like turtles,'' says Barb Hofmeister, who has lived in a motor home with her husband full-time, repeat, full-time, for five and a half years. Their only home is 34 feet of friendly plastic, glass, and steel on wheels. Their only address is here, there, and everywhere, not Michigan where they once lived and had real jobs.
The Hofmeisters are part of a nomadic group - the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association estimates as many as 1 million people - who live year-round in RVs ranging from truck campers to high-tech motor homes.
Thousands more are part-timers, retirees who keep their homes but head south in winter in a motor home. Yuma, Ariz., attracts some 60,000 of these ``snowbirds'' each year alone.
The wheeled tribe has become big enough that members now have their own newsletters, singles clubs - some even think they deserve a voice in Washington. ``We weren't counted in the latest census, and I think a million people should have at-large representation in Congress,'' Mrs. Hofmeister says. ``There are more of us than people in Montana. We aren't homeless. We pay taxes too.''
The decision to break with the American tradition of home roots, a warm hearth, and a two-car garage came easily, Hofmeister says.
``Ron retired on March 17th five years ago, and we were completely out of our [sold] house, and on the road by the 30th,'' Hofmeister says on a cellular phone - what else? - from Phoenix, Ariz.
``In winter they go to the Sun Belt states,'' says Bill Baker of the Reston, Va.-based RVIA, ``and in summer they go wherever the breezes take them. With satellite technology you can be on the rim of the Grand Canyon talking on the phone to the kids in Iowa, and faxing birthday greeting to grandkids in California.''
Most full-timers are retired couples, but Roberta Null, who has studied the full-timers lifestyle, says when a spouse passes on, the remaining spouse often remains a full-timer. ``I know an 85-year-old woman who was a full-timer for 10 years,'' says Dr. Null, ``and when her husband died she tooted around by herself.''
What apparently leads perfectly normal people into full-timing is the adventure of traveling all over the US, the flexibility of movement or staying in one place for a month, the disengagement from the desire to own a houseful of things, and the ease in joining a distinct and supportive sociable community.
``Full-timers go against a lot of our generalizations about aging,'' says Null. ``The presumption is that people want to age in place, but that is not necessarily so. Full-timers are going against these stereotypes, and yet they are seeking a community too. They see themslves as very young-thinking...''
Experts say the numbers of full-timers will continue to grow. Because more and more older Americans are living longer with vim and vigor, the footloose RV lifestyle becomes a manageable adventure. ``RV's are really wandering cocoons, cozy and warm,'' says Null, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, ``and much less expensive than a house.''
The Hofmeisters have written a book, ``Alternative Lifestyle: Living and Traveling Full-time in a Recreational Vehicle.'' They also publish a newsletter.
``There are thousands of RV camping sites and parks around the US,'' says Hofmeister. ``You can have your mail forwarded, and there are many organizations and clubs offering advice, maps, RV shows and meetings, equipment sources and support.''
For single full-timers there are three organizations: Loners on Wheels, Women on Wheels, and Loners of America. Marriage means a membership revoked in the singles organizations, but a couple can join Escapees, an organization in Livingston, Texas, for full-timers. The organization has 33,000 members and is growing.
Janet Culley, a spokeswoman for Escapees, say the organization publishes a bimonthly magazine, has 15 co-ops around the country for discount prices for members, holds seminars for ``first-timers and old-timers'' and other discounts for businesses all over the US.
``You have to be more adventurous in the first place,'' says Hofmeister of the attitudes of many full-timers, ``and the people you meet are a thousand times friendlier than the people you live next door to, even though they are probably the same people.''
`No more shoveling snow'
The Hofmeisters headed toward full-time life in an RV very slowly with plenty of camping trips, and a love of doing it. A trip to the West led to the question, ``I wonder if we could do this all the time?'' They squeezed a budget out of their retirement income and said, ``Yes.'' No more mowing lawns or shoveling snow.
Hofmeister was a sales trainer and motivational speaker in Lansing, Mich., and her husband, Ron, was a deputy director for the Michigan Department of Transportation. ``We have nine children between us,'' she says. ``Tomorrow Ron's daughter is coming from Michigan to spend four days with us, and Ron's mother is coming for Thanksgiving.''
What has developed for some full-timers is a need for a permanent address, but still with the RV as their anchor. ``This latest innovation has responded to a need,'' Null says of RV ownership parks in California ``where people can settle down between traveling around, or when they can no longer drive.''
Full-timers can buy a small lot for around $3,000 in an RV park complete with services such as meals-on-wheels. ``You don't have the expense of a big retirement community. It provides a very positive housing alternative for this big group of aging people that is growing bigger all the time,'' Null says.