Jim and Jaylene Myers knew exactly what they wanted to do when they retired in 2008: Go wherever whim and chance might take them in their 45-foot recreational vehicle.
In the last five years Jim, 63, a former paper manufacturing executive from Seattle, and Jaylene, 62, a former schoolteacher, have camped in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, retraced the route followed by 19th century wagon trains, gone fly fishing in Colorado, visited the Alamo in Texas and relatives in Alabama, and devoured crawfish in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Along the way they have befriended hundreds of other RV aficionados who, as he put it, are also “living the dream.”
“When I was working, my life was my schedule,” Jim Myers said. “It was an endless run of meetings. One thing I wanted when I retired was to not have a schedule and to get to know places I’d only seen from airplanes on business trips.”
The Myerses are members of a high-octane tribe of retirees who are transforming their golden years into a golden age of adventure on the open road. Inspired by disparate strands of the American way of life – from don’t-tread-on-me individualism to an it-takes-a-village communitarianism, from a love of nature to a craving for the best creature comforts modernity can offer (or both) – they are a wildly diverse bunch.
Some live in small trailers that cost a few thousand dollars and are barely larger than a van. Others cruise the country in expensive rigs – such as those favored by celebrity RV enthusiasts like Clarence Thomas and Robert De Niro – with flat-screen televisions and king-size beds. Some seek the country’s most isolated nooks and crannies; others stay in plush RV resorts that offer more activities than costly summer camps for children. Most travel as couples; a few go solo.
They include former teachers, lawyers, doctors, firefighters, artists and corporate executives. Not that it matters. In RV culture, “no one asks what you’ve done,” said Kathi Vogler, 64, a retired nurse from Pompton Plains, N.J., who has traveled with her husband, John, a retired middle school principal, for five years, “just where you’ve been, where you’re going, what you’ve seen.”
The best estimates say 750,000 to 1 million retirees call RVs home, according to Kevin Broom, director of media relations for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. He said independent studies suggested their ranks were growing. Although the recession took a toll on sales of new RVs, the number of RV owners 55 and older increased 20 percent, to 3.6 million, from 2005 through 2011.
That is not surprising. “We are seeing a lot more people, 55, 57, 58, who got laid off and decided they couldn’t handle retirement,” said David Gorin, an industry consultant from McLean, Virginia. “We’re also seeing more people who can use technology to work from the road and those who have just decided, ‘Let’s enjoy life while we can.’ ” The Affordable Care Act may also make it easier for retirees who do not qualify for military benefits or Medicare to secure health insurance, making health care more accessible on the road.
But the RV landscape has changed considerably in the last decade because of new technologies and the active lifestyle embraced by baby boomers. When Jaimie Hall Bruzenak, 69, began full-time RV living in 1992, cellphones, the Internet and satellite television were nascent technologies. She needed a service to forward her snail mail and an 800 number where friends could leave messages she would answer at pay phones. Now online banking gives her and her husband, George, instant access to Social Security checks; Skype allows them to stay in touch with friends and GPS makes it hard to get lost and easy to find stores. Solar panels help power her rig. Oddly enough, these advances have made it easier for them to live in the wild.
“We love boondocking,” or camping without hookups for water or electricity, “in national parks and other public lands, away from everything except nature,” said Bruzenak, whose books on the lifestyle include “Retire to an RV: The Roadmap to Affordable Retirement.”
Parks and other public lands remain among the most popular destinations, said Jeff Crider, an industry consultant in Palm Desert, Calif. “There are about 6,000 public campgrounds in the country, many of them in the most beautiful places on earth,” he said.
Budget cuts create opportunities for these retirees, as park agencies increasingly rely on volunteers. Called VIPs (volunteers in park), they provide visitor information, patrol trails and present programs in exchange for camping privileges and an opportunity to explore the park in depth. Allen Parsons, 79, a former financial planner, and his wife, Bonnie, 69, a former physician assistant, who lived near Philadelphia, have served as “volunteer interpretive rangers” at several national parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone and Petrified Forest.
Since hitting the road in 2007, they have observed bears, bison and many other species while wandering through every state in the lower 48. His voice filled with wonder, Allen Parsons recalled watching animals congregate at the remaining water holes when the Everglades dried out in the spring. “As crocodiles lazed nearby, we watched an osprey family in their massive nest,” he said. “The mother is feeding her three young fledglings, as big as the adults, and chases away a vulture, while she’s calling to her mate to provide more fish. On our last day at Flamingo we saw the fledglings fly for the first time.”
For Wendy Parsels, 50, and her husband, Charles, 65, retiring to an RV in 2007 offered the chance to see America, and each other. We “hadn’t spent a ton of time together” because of their careers in the military, she explained. “I’d seen a lot of the world but not the U.S.,” added Wendy Parsels. As her husband drove their motor home along U.S. 301 in Florida – “we just decided yesterday to go,” she said – she said that they avoid Interstate highways “at all costs,” preferring “two-lane roads” that “allow us to go through all the small towns.”
“If we see something that sounds interesting, like the smallest church in America,” in South Newport, Ga., “or the smallest post office,” near Ochopee, Fla., “or the 40-acre rock,” in Kershaw, S.C., “we’ll see it,” she said. They had to pare down their possessions, but she said she did not miss “all that stuff.” Instead of straining their marriage, their tight quarters have brought them closer together, she said. “We are always out doing something,” she said. “The only time you’re cooped up is when it is raining.”
Two great myths surround RV owners. The first is that they are in constant motion. Even if high gas prices and poor gas mileage did not make travel expensive – a typical large rig might get seven to 10 mpg – owners say the destination is even more important than the journey. Instead of bouncing from attraction to attraction, most spend weeks or months camped at particular locations. The second myth is that RV owners are a solitary lot, a gang of two. A prime attraction is a sense of community – Deadhead bohemianism mixed with Mayberry traditionalism – kindled by its like-minded members.
“It is a very social lifestyle,” said Roger Buchanan, vice president for regional operations at Carefree Communities, which owns and operates 79 RV and manufactured home parks in the United States and Canada. “When someone first comes to an RV park, they are coming into the site, people next to them are giving directions, ‘pull forward,’ and help them get set up,” he said. “They ask where they are from, ask them to come to the campfire, and then maybe have a drink or dinner.”
Many of the country’s roughly 8,000 private RV parks serve as seasonal homes to travelers fleeing cold or heat. Florida and Arizona are popular in the winter, Maine, Washington and the Upper Midwest in the summer. They become instant small towns whose members live cheek to jowl on lots, usually 20 feet by 40 feet, that rent for about $400 a month.