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Rad RV's

by Peter Werbe

The scene is typical around campfires from Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park to the Great Smokies in North Carolina. A couple of hardcore backpackers, just returned from a few days of wilderness hiking and climbing, stare in part amusement, part digust at a 35-foot recreational vehicle (RV) lumbering into the campground in search of electrical and water hookups. The $82,000 Pace Arrow is slung with bike racks, a wading pool and bristles with TV antenae.

“Gawd,” mocks one of hard edge campers, “why didn’t they just bring their whole house?”

Indeed, these behemoths of the road have many of the amenities of home including posh living and sleeping quarters plus kitchen and bathroom facilities which even allow for hot water showers. Roughing it is definitely not the intent here.

It’s evident there’s a vast chasm between some people’s desire for a backcountry, close-to-nature experience and that of others for camping in the comforts of what is literally a mobile home.

However, there is an underground sector of today’s youth culture developing that perhaps provides a middle-ground between the two approaches to life on the road. Younger, hipper and decidedly less conventional than their RVing forebears, these neo-nomads are are defining a new lifestyle.

Typical of those in this emerging trend is an ex-Detroiter, now going by the name Sunfrog, who chucked a promising writing career in the Motor City to head out for the open road with his companion and child. Their home is a converted 1980 Ford Econoline van with a turtle top and queen size bed.

“We want to re-invent the sterotype of the RVer,” says Sunfrog. “We’re not 65-year-olds with a Winnebago in tow and a TV in the RV.”

And, he’s not alone. Sunfrog describes a “huge sub-culture” of radical youth RVers transversing the continent, singlely or in caravans. “We’re a ‘poverty jet set,’” he laughs, “living on a shoe string, ignoring camping fees, and doing soup kitchens or Food Not Bombs feedings for free food.” Sunfrog estimates his family traveled the country for six months on $1000.

Their odyssey took them east to French-speaking rural Quebec, south to Florida and as far west as the national Rainbow gathering in northern New Mexico. After their funds began to dry up, they did temp work in San Francisco, Sunfrog doing data entry for organizers of omni-sexual, Bay area safe sex events, and his companion Lisa, as a stripper at the Lusty Lady saloon in North Beach.

Sunfrog and family assiduously avoided the nation’s 16,000 Yogi Bear-type RV parks, with their jungle gyms and minature golf courses, instead relying on information gleaned from Don Wright’s Guide to Free Campgrounds; 10th Edition to avoid paying to camp. “It was our bible,” says Sunfrog. “We couldn’t afford fees that were as much as $40 a night in the Florida Keys, and we never paid a dime our entire trip.” Besides campgrounds, overnight sites were often strip mall parking lots or even outside fancy hotels where they helped themselves in the morning to complimentary continental breakfasts. Cooking is done roadside over propane stoves, wash-up and showers come courtesy of park accommodations or streams and rivers, while bathroom facilities are often the nearby bush.

Statistically, radical RVers make up only a small portion of the estimated 25 million people on the road in recreational vehicles. The average age of the conventional RV owner is 48 and unlike their youthful counterparts, the vast majority don’t see the activity as as a life-style, just a comfortable way to spend a vacation.

Sunfrog denied any friction between the two subculture. “Most mainstream RVers see a long-haired family in an RV and just assume we were on a Grateful Dead tour.”

For many conventional families, mainstream RVing is the opportunity for them to experience a connectedness often missing in the hectic daily lives many Americans lead. “At home we often don’t get the chance to sit down and eat dinner together,” says Christine Loomis, travel editor of Family Life magazine. “When we travel in an RV, we eat together every day.”

Not surprisingly, most RV owners are an up-scale bunch, according to industry figures, with an average income of nearly $40,000. They use their vehicles approximately 23 days a year and travel 5,900 miles a year. To join the RV fraternity, you have to have some bucks, and not just for the startlingly low gas milage the big vehicles get. Although pop-up trailers can start as low as a few thousand, the really elegant rigs can top out at over $100,000

But whether you sleep on a foam pad in a converted van or the bedroom of a luxurious motorhome, the yearly vacation has tremendous importance in our society. The 14-day respite from toil approaches iconic status in modern, work-intensive, industrial cultures as the reward for 50 weeks of bone- or mind-deadening work. However, the two-week vacation is increasingly a thing of the past with the average American now receiving paid time off for only eight days. By contrast, European workers often receive as much as six weeks.

For many Americans, a vacation means taking the money saved all year and blowing it on a brief stay at a expensive resort or hotel, eating meals in restaurants, and getting a tan to prove to one’s fellow workers that you were at leisure. .Sunfrog and other gypsy-RVers, by contrast, don’t think life on the road should be something special.

“Everyday can be a vacation if you abandon the values of the consumer generation,” he observes. “We don’t have the disposable income of the previous generation, but we realize all of life can be a vacation if we abandon the mall values of our parents.”

Like Sunfrog and family, most adherents of this contemporary nomad philosophy, travel in older model van conversions with even a sprinkling of the classic ‘sixties ride—the VW micro-bus. Many of the vehicles sport nouveau-hippie decorations on the exterior—including the old-fashioned peace symbol—but most travelers prefer to leave their vans unadorned to allow for an unobstrusive presence at parks and campgrounds.

Once summer hits, youth RVers begin touring in earnest, hitting numerous alternative events, most of which are unknown to mainstream vacationers. By unspoken agreement, gypsy-RVers are apt to turn up in numbers at neo-hippie national Rainbow gatherings, the radical environmental Earth First! Round River Rendezvous where direct action to preserve the wilderness is planned, Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater pageant featuring outdoor plays starring giant puppet figures, or the Burning Man Festival held in the Nevada desert where post-punk, primitivist celebrants torch a giant effigy following pagan revelry.

Once part of a marginal subculture, these events, which now attract thousands and have leaked into the mainstream through exposure in such publications as Details magazine. As a result, some participants in the gypsy RV scene fear increasing commercialization at the sites threatens to suck the authenticity and romance out of the underground

Sunfrog, however, thinks they will avoid becoming what he calls a “commodified spectacle.”

“Even if Rainbow and Burning Man attract tourists and gawkers, they’re still mainly non-commercial events that evade the commodification of the nomadic lifestyle.”

Meanwhile down the road, mainstream RVers, who are decidedly less apt to dance around a fire adorned only with body paint, will more likely turn up at the network of RV regional rallies, campouts, and conventions sponsored by groups like the Good Sam Club, Family Campers and RVers, and the Loners on Wheels

Culture clash? You bet, but fortunately there are enough highways and woods left to accommodate everybody.


Peter Werbe is the Public Affairs Director for WCSX-FM in Detroit.

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Copyright 1997 Peter Werbe Article Database
Last modified: October 21, 1997