FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, MAY 18, 2012
I HAVE SPENT THE NIGHT in a Walmart parking lot. I have driven through a national park with a trail of cars in my rearview mirror. I have learned how to dispose of my waste through a plastic hose, and I have filled my gas tank more times in one week than I thought was possible.
But this is to be expected when you’re driving a small studio apartment, or, as I began to call it, my “rig.” One man in a rural California border town even called it cute. He said it reminded him of a Doritos delivery truck.
The rig was a 19-foot-long, gleaming white, class-C motor home — an RV that I rented from Cruise America, the country’s largest recreational vehicle rental company; 800-RV-4RENT was prominently emblazoned across the exterior, as were colorful images of America’s national parks and natural patrimony.
It was a proverbial flag patch sewn on a backpack, and as someone who makes an effort to downplay the fact that I’m a tourist when I travel, this granted no disguise. And just as well: I had never driven an RV before, and for this I could say I had never experienced my own country as millions do every summer, and have for more than a century.
When I booked the RV online a couple of months earlier, I found myself signing up for not so much a mode of transportation as a set of desirable feelings. “With a Cruise America RV,” the Web site said, “you can roam wherever your spirit takes you, throughout the US and Canada. And with a full kitchen in your RV, you can skip out on endless drive-through menus and enjoy more satisfying meals and snacks.” Roam, spirit, satisfying meals: these are not the sort of words used to tout a rental car or an airplane seat. An RV road trip promised the distinction of freedom and flexibility, comfort and convenience: a travel experience unencumbered by the need for reservations.
I enlisted my friends Tyson and Angelina, and we mapped a vague plan: Oakland, Calif., to Oregon and back, in eight days. We’d go where we wanted to go, when we wanted to go. We’d tour less-visited national parks and rural towns and sleep wherever it suited us.
RVers constitute a certain tribe on the road, and I learned that thousands were converging in central Oregon for what was billed as the Greatest RV Rally in the World. On a July afternoon, after receiving instructions in the Cruise America parking lot on how to check the RV’s water levels and empty the waste tank, we headed off on Interstate 80.
Packing for an RV road trip is like preparing for a weekend at a cozy cabin. The luxury of space and the semblance of domestic life inspired me to carry things like candles and paprika, soft cotton sheets and extra pillows. I took sharp knives, folding chairs and musical instruments and put avocados and lemons in a bowl on the kitchenette counter. We hung up our coats in the closet, with hangers. As I drove the rig, Tyson and Angelina put away groceries.
A compact RV drives like a van, but its bulky size soon altered my personality behind the wheel. I paid close attention to the yellow speed advisory signs for a change, and I rarely switched lanes, feeling unusually content to cruise in a patient, linear fashion. (Abrupt turns would cause the drawers and cabinets to fly open, anyway, prompting a scramble for rolling onions.) From a higher perch the landscape appeared wider, more available. Once we joined Interstate 5 in California’s Central Valley I began to feel a closer kinship with the truckers on the road, especially that first evening, after we pulled into a Walmart.
OF all the things Walmart is best known for (low prices, litigation, the demise of mom-and-pop stores), an overnight stopping place for RVers is not among them. But drive any evening into a Walmart lot along a busy highway, and you’ll probably find parked motor homes.
RVers often spend weeks on the road: that road is long, and there are many Walmarts along the way. As the company sees it, RVs arrive with their own bathrooms, and their drivers are well positioned to shop: everybody’s happy. Searching online from my phone I learned there were three Walmarts staggered along 30 miles of Interstate 5 in Northern California.
Around sunset, I checked in, so to speak, at the store in Red Bluff. There was plenty of vacancy. Another motor home rolled into the lot after me; its driver, a middle-aged man, placed a footstool outside the side door and made himself at home. He told me he was a semipermanent resident there and commuted to a local community college. “I just came from the gym,” he said.
It was still early, so my friends and I patronized our host: I bought a power inverter while they picked up flip-flops and bottled water. We cooked dinner on the RV’s gas burners, and set up lawn chairs on the asphalt. All night long, the glowing Walmart sign flooded the motor home like pale rays of moonlight.
In the morning we branched east on Highway 44 into the volcanic foothills of the southern Cascade Range. The fertile single-crop fields of the Central Valley transitioned to a forest of spindly firs and pines and pumice rock. In Shingletown, Calif., I spotted a hand-painted sign: “Great Food. Bakery. RVs OK.” It began to dawn on me how the world not only looks different from the seat of a big vehicle, it also treats you differently because of this.
We also needed less from the world. Traveling with our own toilet, mini-mart and motel room left us open to make unessential pit stops with little concern for time. We could roam.
Down the road an eccentric roadside carpentry workshop caught my attention: “Paul Bunyan. Holiday Log Style Gifts, World’s Best Bird Houses, Benches, Teepees and More.” I pulled over and found a tall man holding a chain saw, wearing a hard hat and overalls with an American flag lapel pin on the strap. He introduced himself as Steven Pelloza, “a k a Paul Bunyan, and I certainly live up to that. We’re the Paul Bunyan Conservation Society.”
This was a pro-timber environmental group, Mr. Pelloza explained. “We clean the forest and build products, like the world’s greatest birdhouse, which that is,” he said, pointing to one carved out of pine, with two little holes. We chatted a bit longer about the area, and he told me stories about being a logger in southeast Alaska, after the Exxon Valdez spill. (“Truckloads of money. Total bonanza.”) As I made to leave, he reached for a birdhouse. “Here,” he said. “You take this one.”
The native Modoc people once called California’s sparse northeast corner “the Smiles of God.” Then in 1915, the area seemed to incur God’s wrath with the eruption of Lassen Peak, which blanketed the surrounding high desert in volcanic ash. One county’s official slogan today is “Where the West still lives,” although the area’s history is laid bare in boarded-up places like Uncle Runts Watering Hole, in Old Station, and abandoned homesteads.
Hardscrabble frontier life seems not to have eroded a sense of whimsy; the sidewalks in Alturas, a town near the Oregon border, are lined with stores like the Belligerent Duck (an outdoor outfitter); Skirts N Spurs (a hair salon); and Classy Lassie (an apparel shop). We passed signs on front lawns that read: “Land of the Free Because of the Brave.” Outside the Adin Supply Company (since 1906), in the town of Adin, we were advised: “Starbucks is 70 Miles Away. Our Coffee Will Get You There.”
Nearly every town seemed to have its resident hoarder with an antiques and collectibles shop. “Some people can’t come in,” said Sally B, a self-described “hard-core junkie” who owned Just Stuff, in New Pine Creek, Ore. “They just stick their head in and walk out. But others just get consumed by it.” As did my friends: Tyson, a musician, found an antique toy piano; Angelina walked out with a black leather jacket and beret.
Our meandering had taken us past dark, so we parked for the night by a stream a few miles up a national forest road.
RVs have long been bound up in the American myth of freedom and mobility and independence, with allusions to the covered wagon, that symbol of the Western frontier.
Recreational vehicles (which include motor homes, fifth-wheel trailers, folding camping trailers, travel trailers, truck campers and sports utility RVs) date back to the Model T. In 1922, The New York Times estimated that of 10.8 million cars then on the road, 5 million would be used for motor camping. Initially these “auto campers” just attached tents and other supplies to the outside of their vehicles, but eventually a few craftier individuals were affixing platforms to support canvas tents.
Solid-sided tents were built with cabinetry and wardrobes and also kitchens. Later, in the 1920s, commercial manufacturers began mounting “camp bodies” over auto chassis. During the dry years of Prohibition, even Anheuser-Busch built RVs, advertising in the pages of Field & Stream magazine.
As the towing capacity of automobiles increased, so did the size of house trailers, which by the late 1930s contained built-in iceboxes, kitchen ranges and flushing toilets. Some even had front-mounted airplane-style propellers to drive a wind-powered generator.
Recreational vehicles promised to make vacations easier and cheaper. “ ‘Home Sweet Home’ Wherever You Roam,” claimed a 1936 brochure for the Kozy Coach trailer. “Is there anything finer than ‘to get away from it all’ now and then? Out on the water. Hunting through the woods. Tramping over the hills, or just lolling under the open sky. That’s the life!”
Early auto campers were derided as “Gypsies,” “trailer trash” or “tin-can tourists.” In the winter of 1919, a group of 22 families parked their jerry-built mobile shelters at Desoto Auto Park, near Tampa, the first public campground in Florida, and founded the Tin Can Tourists of America, a fraternity of RVers that by 1935 had swelled to some 300,000 members.
Today there are many RV clubs and, of course, blogs. Some cater to specific RV brands, like the Wally Byam Caravan Club, for Airstream owners, founded in 1955, with 5,600 loyal members today. Others are for certain RV lifestyles, like Escapees, a club for “full timers.”
The Greatest RV Rally in the World, which is held three times a year in different parts of the country, was taking place on expo grounds on the outskirts of Redmond, Ore., and was put on by the Good Sam Club, the world’s largest RV club, with 870,000 member families. My friends and I arrived just as the 1960s crooner Bobby Vinton took to the main stage as the evening’s entertainment.
In the registration building, attendees had decorated a map of the United States with pins over their hometowns, which spanned from Hawaii and Alaska to the border town of Pharr, Tex. One RV came from Homestead, at the southern tip of Florida, a 3,191-mile drive away. A yellow Post-it affixed off the Eastern Seaboard read: Germany.
I splurged on a parking site with full electrical and sewage hookup. Many of the 2,500 rigs, sprawled across the sagebrush like a marina of yachts, had American and state flags flapping overhead, or fake flowers in vases that rested on artificial grass rugs beside the front door. Address placards hung in the windows, like “Grammy and Grumpy’s Motorhome.” One motor home in particular caught my eye, possibly the most gaudy vehicle in the lot — or the most awesome: a 45-foot, black-and-tan Country Coach Veranda 400, tricked out with a glass-walled outdoor deck that came off the side of the living room.
I found its owner, Steve Collins of Atkins, Iowa, perched on a leather bar stool on the deck wearing fuzzy bear-paw slippers and sipping a beer. A baseball game played on a 42-inch flat-screen television. The rig was a stunning McMansion on wheels. On the ground beside the motor home lay three electric skateboards, a golf cart, a remote-controlled toy helicopter and a plastic Nascar racer, all of which fit into spacious storage bays below the RV. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he said, offering me a bottle of Bud. “I’m in awe every time I look at it.”
Mr. Collins said he and his wife leave their RV parked beside their home, behind its own remote-controlled gate. Every so often they take to the road, packing their two Great Danes and a flock of parakeets, which Mrs. Collins had advertised for sale on a lawn chair. When they drive up to a convenience store, kids will ask Mr. Collins if he’s a musician on tour, which flatters him. The RV had a vanity license plate that spelled TOYZILLA. Mr. Collins explained that his wife wanted IGOTMINE, but he didn’t want people hating on him. “My first choice was PRIAPISM,” he said.
The rally featured nightly entertainment, including the country singer Vince Gill (“Howdy campers! Although RVing isn’t really camping.”) and Herman’s Hermits, the 1960s British invasion rock group. Before that show, I joined 1,798 of the rally’s 6,500 attendees in attempting — and, we believed, setting — the Guinness World Record for most simultaneous high-fives (it turns out that a group in Norway had bested the record a couple of weeks earlier).
I also attended a dog show one morning in a tent on the expo grounds. “The doggie swimsuit competition is up first, so get those suits on,” the M.C. announced to kick it off. “If anyone needs a cleanup bag, they’re behind the stage.” More than a dozen RV owners trotted out their pooches, colorfully outfitted in swim caps, plastic sunglasses, bikini bottoms and, in one case, nothing save a red paper crown and sign that read: Nude Beach Queen 2011.
“We’ve got some real canine bathing beauties here, let me tell you,” the M.C. noted. To a soundtrack of Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love,” a black Labrador passed before me in a pink polka-dot one-piece and swimming goggles, followed by a bichon wearing the retired Speedos of his master. There was a fluffy black poodle with pink toenails. Giggles filled the tent after one contestant in the “Double Vision” category (a dog/owner look-alike contest) introduced his pet Chihuahua shepherd. “I know what you all are thinking,” the M.C. said. “Chihuahua-shepherd sex is pretty funny.”
RV rallies have always been about both camaraderie and merchandising, and there were serious deals to be made at the Greatest RV Rally in the World. Vendors hawked RVs, RV awnings, satellite TV packages and concealed-weapons permits, and there were seminars, too, like “Green RVing” (not an oxymoron) and “Feel Better and Keep Energized While on Road” (drink green tea and exercise).
I met a retired couple from Maryland who were heading north to the Columbia River Gorge in Washington after the event. From there, they said, they would just head “wherever the wind blew.” A full-timer from Michigan told me how friends often ask how she could sell her house for a life on the road. “It’s just stuff,” she said. “The way we look at it, we’re home wherever we are.” I may have been one of the younger attendees at the rally, by about 30 years, and probably the only RV driver with a rental, but all this made sense to me. These were travelers inclined to roam, in the words of Cruise America, wherever their spirits took them.
AFTER three days at the rally, my friends and I blew westerly into the Cascades, passing by Crater Lake National Park, which was the magnificent blue hole in the earth that I’d always imagined. Friends had told me about undeveloped hot springs on national forest land down the road. I pulled into a gravel parking lot, beside an outhouse, with the sign: “NUDITY. Nude bathing is common at Umpqua Hot Springs. If this makes you uncomfortable, we recommend you not go into the area.”
Next to my rig was parked a 1966 cream-colored, vegetable-oil-powered Gillis school bus, towing a yellow VW van. Its passengers were milling about. One woman, with yellow dreadlocks, wore a quilted skirt made of leather scraps and a coyote tail. I asked the group where they were headed.
“We’re all Gypsies,” replied one man. “We don’t move on until we get moved on.” Another, who had “I may be lost but I’m Makin good time” scrawled on his pants, said he’d “been from where the wind blows since 1998.”
Their driver was a longhair named Manny, who told me that he’d just picked the others up at the annual Rainbow Gathering, in Washington State. Manny wore frayed overalls and a Grateful Dead shirt under a brown hoodie. His bus had a Family Coach Motorhome Association placard affixed to it, which I’d seen on many RVs at the rally. Just as my mind began to grapple with the cognitive dissonance of holding Manny in the same company as retirees at a Bobby Vinton concert, he said he was also a life member of the Good Sam Club.
“But they kicked me out of one of their campgrounds,” he said nonchalantly. “They said: ‘Your bus is too old. Other campers won’t want to camp beside it.’ Whatever.”
Umpqua attracted the kind of people prone to detour down the side road. Tubs were carved from the rock on a steep riverbank overlooking the misty hemlock forest. In one sat a Japanese family, wearing modest bathing suits. In another tub I chatted with a couple on their way home from a Kinetic Sculpture Race (a contest of human-powered amphibious sculptures) on the Oregon coast. As night fell, a group of neo-pagan women nearby, who had just met at a “summer witch camp” in southern Oregon, sang hymns.
HARVEST HOSTS is the name of a new program that allows RVers to stay free overnight at wineries and farms across the country. (As at the bakery in Shingletown, RVs are O.K., but cars in this case are not.) The annual membership fee is $35, and joining gave me access to a network of hosts, which is how I arrived the next evening at Hillcrest Bonded Winery 44, in nearby Roseburg.
The proprietor and winemaker Dyson DeMara was casual and welcoming. He poured us lovely wines; Hillcrest is one of Oregon’s oldest estate wineries, home to the state’s first pinot noir vines.
He then pointed out a grassy patch beside the tasting room where we could park the rig for the night. Next to it was a stone fire pit stocked with wood. “It’s in the spirit of wine,” Mr. DeMara told me when I asked how he’d become a volunteer host. “In the New World it’s a business, but in the Old World, wine is an open-your-doors kind of thing.”
We drove back across the California border and joined Highway 101 in Crescent City. There I spotted a man on a street corner slumped against a stop sign with a cane, thumbing it. The rig had room and he looked harmless, so I offered him a ride.
His name was Dan. He was 61, a former trucker from North Carolina, and spoke with a polite drawl. He was hitching his way down the coast, taking it as it came. A year earlier, Dan said, he was hospitalized after striking a deer on his Harley. Doctors gave him a short time to live, but he kept living, and figured he’d been dealt a second life. He jumped on a bus going west to Seattle.
Dan was roaming in the manner of Manny and his band of neo-hippie “Gypsies,” just like the Good Sam Club RVers and the Tin Can Tourists a century before them. My rig had brought me a similar freedom: something in which to wander “wherever your spirit takes you,” without reservations. An endless drive-through menu, after all.