Where Internet hookups meet bull moose

Ron and Marilyn Keller sat in their living room last weekend, fidgeted with the television satellite dish, and watched a documentary about Yellowstone National Park on The Discovery Channel.

Inspired by what they saw, the Kellers then opened the front door of their deluxe motor home, which was parked in a campground here along the shore of Yellowstone Lake, to see the real thing.

While millions of people are heading to parks, forests, and coastal beaches this summer in search of the opportunity to commune with the outdoors under primitive conditions, untold thousands of explorers like the Kellers are saying there's no need to skimp on creature comforts.

Compared with the sea of pup-tent dwellers and tiny tourist trailers, campers with RV cruisers are pursuing lives of vacation luxury in rectangular castles. Sure, the well-appointed vehicles draw derisive remarks from hard-core campers and purists, but who's to complain when you wake up in the morning on a king-size mattress with a load of laundry in the washer and CNN on TV?

While the concept of a vehicle with all the accouterments of home is nothing new, the level of opulence at campgrounds is. Satellite TV and Internet hookups are standard - one RV owner here even has his own chauffeur. As these cruisers become more common, the behemoths are forcing campsites to meet their thirst for power and space, creating new concerns for parks and making other campers feel trampled under tire.

"Whatever you can imagine, short of trying to fit a pool table or swimming pool into the living space, you can find in a deluxe RV," says Dan Holt, who co-owns an Internet site called RV America, headquartered in Tempe, Ariz. He says the price tag for top-of-the-line models begins at about $178,000 and soars into the $800,000 range - more than quadruple the cost of the average US home.

"Big" is the operative word. A few of the heftier rigs are as long as 40-seat tour buses, and when the metal walls fold out, and the sun roofs pop up at the press of a button, the occupants have more than 400 square feet of movable abode.

Provided the strong economy holds, experts project high-end RV sales to only increase as the baby-boom generation moves into retirement.

"This kind of travel has become a big deal, especially among older park visitors." says Carol Levine, a park ranger at Yellowstone. "We're seeing more and more of it."

More people age 50 and older are choosing posh RVs, not only because of the grand accommodations, but also because they refuse to be tied down to a single location. Enjoying the community of like-minded wanderers they meet through nomadic travel, they're intent upon exploring the far corners of North America, Mr. Holt says.

At the Norris Campground deep in the middle of Yellowstone's lodgepole pine forest, Robert and Edna Carey of Kansas City pulled in for the night, but their quarters were too big to fit into the allotted camping space.

"We're full-timers, so this is more than a weekend thing for us. This is our home," says Mrs. Carey of the couple's last eight years without a permanent street address.

State and federal officials confess they are unprepared for the onslaught of such RVs. At parks across the country, planners are at work trying to reengineer campgrounds. The changes involve everything from providing phone jacks and 50-amp power outlets to building bigger individual campsites.

Gini Bockoven, who works at Rocky Mountain Campground just outside Yellowstone, says she thought she had seen it all until last week. "We had an RV customer who had his own personal driver," Ms. Bockoven says. "The employee would wash the windows and make sure everything was in order. That kind of wowed me."

The Kellers of Quakertown, Pa., actually have comparatively modest digs - recently upgrading from a 26-footer to a 36-foot unit. They say RVs give them the freedom they want in their golden years. While Marilyn makes extra money working for a Yellowstone tourist concessionaire, Ron relishes his access to the finest fly-fishing waters in the world.

But the biggest advantage is that family members are able to visit without shelling out hundreds of dollars for lodging and restaurant charges.

Mrs. Keller says having an RV is a bit like owning a cabin that can be moved from one million-dollar view to the next. "There's an expression that if you don't like your neighbors, all you have to do is start your engine and drive away," she says.

And yet, she laments that bringing certain amenities on the road with them can have an antisocial effect. "The first year we didn't have a satellite dish, and we noticed that we got together with other people a lot more than we do now."

During the summer season, Yellowstone Park spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews and her husband take evening walks through the campground at Mammoth Hot Springs to chat with visitors from around the world.

"You see some pretty spectacular outfits that were rare a decade ago, and you just hope the people inside of them are able to experience Yellowstone's wildness," Ms. Matthews says.

Even in the humble confines of a national-park campground, she says the RVs set a new class system. "We're all equal when it comes to staying in a campground," Matthews says. "Well, let me rephrase that. Maybe some are a little more equal than others."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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