RV Gypsies

The scene is typical around campfires, from Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park to the Great Smokies in North Carolina. A couple of hard-core backpackers, just returned from a few days of wilderness hiking and climbing, stare in part amusement, part disgust at a 35-foot recreational vehicle lumbering into the campground in search of electrical and water hookups. The $82,000 Pace Arrow, slung with bike racks and a wading pool, bristles with TV antennae."Gawd," mocks one of the 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, from posh living and sleeping quarters to kitchen and bathroom facilities which even allow for city water hookups. Roughing it is definitely not the intent here.It's evident there's a vast chasm between some people's desire for a back-country, close-to-nature experience, and others' desire for camping in the comfort of what is, literally, a mobile home.However, a developing underground of today's youth culture 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 making life on the road into a lifestyle.Typical 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 reinvent the stereotype of the RVer," says Sunfrog. "We're not 65-year-olds with a Winnebago in tow and a TV in the RV."He's not alone. Sunfrog describes a "huge subculture" of radical RVers traversing the continent alone or in caravans."We're a 'poverty jet set,' " he laughs, "living on a shoestring, 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 $1,000. 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 did data entry for the organizers of omnisexual, Bay area safe sex events, while his companion, Lisa, worked as a stripper at the downtown Lusty Lady saloon.Sunfrog and his family assiduously avoided the nation's 16,000 Yogi Bear-type RV parks, with their jungle gyms and miniature golf courses. Instead they camped for free by following information from Don Wright's Guide to Free Campgrounds; 10th Edition. "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 outside of fancy hotels where they helped themselves in the mornings to complimentary continental breakfasts. Cooking is done roadside over propane stoves, wash-up and showers come courtesy of park accommodations or streams and rivers, and bathroom facilities are often the nearest bush.Statistically, radical RVers like Sunfrog and his family make up only a small portion of the estimated 25 million people riding the highways in recreational vehicles. The average age of the conventional RV owner is 48, and unlike their youthful counterparts, the vast majority see the activity simply as a comfortable way to spend a vacation.Sunfrog denies any friction between the two subcultures. "Most mainstream RVers see a long-haired family in an RV and just assume we're on a Grateful Dead tour."For many conventional families, mainstream RVing is an opportunity to experience a connection often missing from their hectic daily lives."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 mainstream RV owners are an upscale 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 annually. To join the RV fraternity, you have to have some bucks, and not just for the startlingly low gas mileage. Although pop-up trailers can start as low as a few thousand dollars, the really elegant rigs can top out at more than $100,000.But whether you sleep on a foam pad in a converted van or the bedroom of a luxurious motor home, 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.As a result, a vacation for many Americans means taking the money saved all year and blowing it on a brief stay at an 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."Every day 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."Therefore, most adherents of this contemporary-nomad philosophy travel in older-model van conversions, including a sprinkling of the classic '60s ride, the VW microbus. Many of the vehicles sport nouveau-hippie decorations -- including the old-fashioned peace symbol -- on their exteriors, but most travelers leave their vans unadorned to allow for an unobtrusive presence at parks and campgrounds.As they cross the country, young RVers aren't just traveling aimlessly. They tour in earnest, hitting numerous alternative events, most of which are unknown to mainstream vacationers.By unspoken agreement, these contemporary gypsies are apt to turn up in numbers at neo-hippie national Rainbow gatherings; at the radical environmental Earth First! Round River Rendezvous, where they plan direct action to preserve the wilderness; at Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater pageant, which features 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 after much pagan revelry.Once part of a marginal subculture, these events 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 could 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 noncommercial 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 such as 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.

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