The RV Thing……

It hasn’t been too many years ago that I shunned the RV culture.  If you are handy with a pencil and yellow pad, it does not take long to arrive at the logical conclusion that you can stay in a lot of nice motels around this country for far less than you can purchase a recreational vehicle, stock it and drive from one RV park to another.  Two years or so ago, I began to rethink this concept, aided by a friend in Texas who is familiar with the benefits of RV travel.  We began the entry into this culture by carefully shopping for just the right RV.  We attended RV shows in Dallas, Ft. Walton Beach, St. Louis and Kansas City, and a number of smaller shows around the Midwest.  When we had time, something you have more of in retirement, we stopped at dealerships that have popped up faster than morels on a warm, damp April morning, subjecting ourselves to both low and high pressure sales pitches, suggesting their units were superior to the units across the street.  Today there are a number of manufacturers, producing RVs for every style and budget from pop-up campers to lavish coaches that can be had for half a million or twice that!  We have never been exposed to the penthouse lifestyle and likely couldn’t cover the sales tax on some of these monsters, so we thought it best to make a modest entry into this game.  We decided on a 26’, pull behind trailer made by a little start-up company called Grand Design, pulled it to it’s new domicile in a covered storage lot not far from our house and began planning our excursions.  If you are a speed reader, and prefer one sentence summaries to lengthy discussions, then now is the time to stop reading.  We are hooked.  RV travel is a hoot!  Now for the fair and balanced details.

The RV

It would be a mistake to assume that RV sales are similar to automobile sales.  RV dealers tend to be territorial in nature, thus resulting in spotty support after the sale.  One should remember that America’s roads are deteriorating, and pulling what is essentially a small apartment on wheels over these roads will test the quality of construction in your unit.  Compound this consideration with the exponential growth in this industry over the past few years, resulting in hurried construction, one can find himself a very long way from the selling dealer when a leak suddenly appears under a cabinet.  We chose a company that enjoys a superior reputation for service after the sale, the aforementioned Grand Design.  They have managed to grow from start-up to number 3 in the industry in 5 years!  We attended their owners rally in Goshen, Indiana, where they saturated the campground with service personnel and handled the inevitable problems that surface with grace and expedience.  I will write about Grand Design in a future post, but suffice to say we were very impressed.  

Do you want a motor coach, 5th wheel or trailer?  We opted for a trailer, bearing in mind we had no idea what we were doing, primarily to facilitate the sale of the unit should we be disappointed in the RV experience.  With a basic knowledge of our tow vehicle’s weight limitations we selected a unit that seemed perfect for the our truck, a late model Toyota Tundra.  I strongly urge folks to carefully consider their intended tow vehicle before selecting the RV.  We have found that a large percentage of the dealers we were in contact with will assure you that whatever you drove onto their lot will easily tow whatever you are looking at!  Folks, a riding lawnmower will likely pull your trailer across a flat lot, but is not particularly suited to pulling your apartment on wheels (AOW) through the Smokey Mountains.  Mobility after setting up at your destination was the consideration for us..   A motor coach is ill suited to driving into town for dinner at a legendary tavern, unless you are pulling a second vehicle behind it.  We did not want to go to this expense.  A 5th wheel seems like a good option, and is very popular among the RV clan, but we use our truck to pull a bass boat and for carrying things that do not share space well with the bulky 5th wheel mount in the bed.  It should also be noted that 5th wheels are generally heavy, thus really stressing a pickup that is too light for the task.  We chose a unit that was well within the Tundra’s tow capacity, to include the weight on the tongue.  In fairness to the many RV owners who pull various units with 1/2 ton pickups, these trucks are indeed adequate, in most cases.  I was not satisfied with the handling characteristics of our truck when towing and traded for a 3/4 ton, diesel Ram.  The big Cummins smiled as it pulled our RV through the Alleghenies with ease.  Consider your options carefully when you explore the RV experience.  There are distinct advantages to each configuration as well as distinct disadvantages.  Investigate and read!

The People

With one notable exception, everyone we have met in the various RV parks have been among the the most gracious, patient and friendly folks we have ever been around.  They represent a tremendous cross section of America.  I have enjoyed conversations with a retired career public defender, an Akron police sergeant and a systems engineer from Boeing.  One of the most fascinating fellows that I have encountered traces a career from pulp wood cutting through salvage yard management in Louisiana.  Step on an American flag in front of him and he is going alter your mindset in a hurry!  Our neighbor at a gorgeous park named Anchor Down, on a lake outside of Knoxville, was patiently waiting for me to exit our AOW one morning, standing patiently in the street with his dog.  When I stepped out, he extended his hand and said simply “thank you”.  He had noted the 1st Cavalry decal on the back of my truck. I learned through our conversation that we served together in Vietnam, in the same unit, at the same time!  He was a long time RV enthusiast, and had me laughing hysterically at the misadventures he had experienced in a RV.  Blue line flags are evident everywhere in RV parks, an indication of the culture’s attraction to law and order folks.  The one exception to the rule that RV folks are great folks was a gentleman from New York who made a snide remark about our RV, suggesting that I would likely not be able to hang long in an auction that was being sponsored by a manufacturer, based on the size of our RV.  Sharon is just now mastering the intracies of setting up and breaking down in a park, thus I avoided putting her in a bad position as a result of me knocking the slop out of the pretentious New Yorker, and being lodged in the Goshen, Ind., city lockup.

America

We were fascinated with the beauty of Pennsylvania and Virginia.  We stayed in parks close to Gettysburg and Antietam, where I could drink the history of those huge fights at a leisurely pace. We were pleasantly surprised when we set up near Lexington, Va., where we swam in the legend of Robert E. Lee and the great fighting General Stonewall Jackson.  There was no bag dragging into and out of motel rooms to contend with, and we enjoyed breakfast within our AOW, as well as bar-b-cue dinners under the awning.  We stayed in a not so great park near York, Pa., where I was able to enjoy a long tour of the Harley-Davidson plant that built my motorcycle.  As another advisory, take the time to carefully study the many guides and rating periodicals when selecting your park, and be prepared to carefully exit a park that does not meet your expectations when you arrive.  We limited our driving to 5 hours +/-, each day, and made sure we were set up for the evening before dark.  The RV trend is on a solid upward trajectory, and new parks are being built as we speak.  Our last voyage lasted four weeks, and we avoided stays of less than two days in any given location, and were disappointed on only one occasion….as a result of not doing due diligence in the park selection.   America is beautiful, and we hope to enjoy this experience to a much greater extent in the years to come.  Perhaps the greatest thing about this mode of travel is our ability to keep our Lab, Taz, with us as we travel!  No more boarding kennels for him!  It was surprising to note the large numbers of folks who travel with their dogs……and there is no better way than in your AOW.

Our first year’s experience taught us many things about this travel mode.  You become a bit of a systems engineer, resulting from the hookup and breakdown of electrical, plumbing and sanitation systems.  You learn the fine art of leveling and stabilizing the unit at each location.  After a year in the culture, our tastes in RV’s has matured and we just now sold our AOW to a very nice couple in Illinois, themselves fully retired and anxious to hit the open road.  We are actively looking for our next unit, a little larger and more in line with our tastes.  It will be a towable and well within the weight and payload capacities of our current puller, the Ram.  Our eyes have been opened to the fact that motel expense vs. RV expense is really a very small part of the equation.  The lifestyle cannot be measured in empiracle terms.    What a hoot!

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