Photos by Hector Acuna
A brightly colored parrot atop a sign reading "It's 5 O'clock Somewhere!" marks an RV as a mobile Margaritaville.
Phil Harrison has been living full-time in his RV for more than 16 years, and says he is constantly meeting new friends. In 1993, Harrison retired and traded his condo for a life on the road.
Jerry Rhodes lives in his 37-foot motorhome along with his wife, a cat and two dogs. The couple lives and works in Phoenix from May to November and then they move their home to Oregon for the summers.
Published by Lovin' Life, December 2009
Phil Harrison pedals his bike down the lane of the Desert’s Edge RV Park in north Phoenix to the lot housing the massive Mandalay luxury coach owned by friends Larry and Shirley. The long Class-A RV, which retails in the neighborhood of $330,000, is parked behind a meticulously landscaped triangle of plants and homey knick-knacks, fronted by a hand-made wooden sign that reads, “Home Is Where You Park It.”
“Still sleeping,” Harrison says, getting back on his bike to pedal to the next neighbor who might be up for watching the Sunday afternoon football game in a couple of hours. At 73, single and entering his 17th year as an RV “full-timer” – shorthand for an owner living full-time in his RV – former Air Force mechanic Harrison, still sporting a big military build, typifies the happy retiree living the portable life.
“My motto is, ‘Take it slow. You’ve got the rest of your life to do your next job,’” says Harrison, who in 1993 retired, sold his condo and decided to “travel and do what I like” — a list that includes golfing and fishing, but apparently not cleaning. “I’m a bachelor,” Harrison says, by way of apologizing for the unkempt décor of his 30-foot Fleetwood Bounder.
“If you’re going to get into RVing, first, you have to like talking to people,” he says, smiling. “Because you’re constantly meeting new friends.” Harrison says he’ll often pull into an RV park near a golf course, grab his clubs and go around asking if anyone needs another player. “Next thing you know, you’ve got three new friends, and your two- or three-day stopover turns into a two- or three-week stay. That’s just the way we do it!”
Not every RV park is full of laid-back retirees like Phil, though. On a couple of occasions, Harrison says he’s tiredly dropped anchor in an unfamiliar RV park late at night and wound up instant neighbors with America’s Most Wanted. “Dope sellers and kind of rough people,” he says. Though rare encounters in the RV world, Harrison insists, it’s worth warning that drug runners and shady businessmen have discovered their own advantages to living in a home on wheels.
Another thing to consider about RVing, Harrison warns, is that family and relatives will consider you a movable taste of home, ready to roll to any Thanksgiving dinner or wedding at the drop of an invitation. Resist the impulse.
“If you run around thinking you’ve got to visit this kid at this time, your sister here, a nephew there – all you end up doing is running yourself ragged,” Harrison says. “And one thing you don’t want to be driving a motorhome is tired and weary!”
Younger GunsFrom his canvas travel chair on the patio beside his 37-foot motorhome, Jerry Rhodes lifts the brim of his baseball cap slightly and peers out across the tidy lanes of Desert’s Edge at the new residents. In the next lane over, a young-looking Hispanic man meticulously dries his coach using what appears to be a rechargeable hair dryer, while a big van from Green Dog Mobile Grooming pulls up to service his dogs in an Airstream-sized salon- on-wheels.
For the past three years, the 45-year-old Rhodes and his wife have enjoyed their status as the “young kids” at Desert’s Edge, which, like many RV communities, operates under the Sun City-pioneered tax-exempt status that requires 80 percent of its spaces to be rented to parties where at least one of the residents is over 55. But now, riding a trend reflecting the tolls of the current economy, more and more younger families are joining the ranks of the RV dwellers – even if they are still holding tight to certain extravagances.
“The guy there blow-drying his car, I didn’t see him here last year,” says Rhodes, who, along with his wife, has been spending about six months out of the past three years parked at the 40-year-old north Phoenix RV park. “But he’s got a wife and kid, and both he and she work, it looks like. I’ve got a feeling they’re doing the same thing we’re doing.”
What Rhodes and his wife are doing — living in an RV while working temp jobs at restaurants and waiting for their house in Oregon to sell – is not exactly what they had planned when they first bought an RV, which was then mainly intended for vacation trips to Mexico.
“We owned restaurants in Oregon, and in 2006, we sold the last one. The plan was that we would sell the house, buy a piece of land down in Baja and semi-retire,” Rhodes says. “But that didn’t happen.”
Instead, the couple found themselves unable to sell the house after buying the land, and living for a longer period than they had expected in a cramped camper.
“We kind of played the money away, buying the land and then not being able to sell the house,” says Rhodes, noting the Oregon house is now up for a short sale. “So we ended up trading in the RV that we had been using for trips to Mexico for one that was actually big enough to live in.”
Like many of the newer RV models, Rhodes’ rig, which he says they bought for about $55,000, is a spacious unit with multiple “slide-outs,” or room extensions, that transform the long trailer into a more open and comfortable home when parked. It’s enough space to keep the couple, their cat and two dogs from going stir crazy, and affords them a unique advantage in this soft job market. With both of them working in the seasonal hospitality field, they can literally pick up roots and go to wherever the work is, on a moment’s notice.
“Both of us have been in the restaurant and bar business forever,” says Rhodes, who last year managed the Salty Senorita in Scottsdale and whose wife on this day is pulling a shift at the restaurant she started working at last winter. “So what we do is, from November until the end of May, we live and work in Phoenix, and then in the summers we go back to Oregon.”
The ability to take your home along with you to where the jobs pop up has also caught on with people working in construction and even the medical fields. At the Mesa Spirit RV Resort, manager Joan Fote says they’ve got a contingent of traveling nurses, who live full time in their RVs and travel from state to state, wherever they can find employment.
It’s an edge that has been quietly drawing more and more travelers to the RV parks. For about $550 a month, an RV owner can get a landscaped space including paid electricity and water hook-ups, along with free Wi-fi and access to a clubhouse, heated pool and fitness room. But Rhodes admits that being one of the few working couples among so many contented retirees can have its drawbacks.
“A lot of these people travel all over the country during the summers,” says Rhodes, an avid outdoorsman who says he was into camping long before it became their lifestyle. “We’d travel more, too, if we weren’t both working. But that kind of keeps you parked, which is a shame, really. I mean, they don’t call ‘em recreational vehicles for nothing!”
Far beyond the RV parks, the Good Sammers and the KOA campgrounds, runs another breed of RV owners called “boondockers” – people who camp for free on public lands around national parks, generating their own green power, and moving on at least another 25 miles, by law, every 14 days to keep within the free-stay restriction set down by the Bureau of Land Management.
Secretly, every RVer seems to want to be a boondocker: roaming free, stopping wherever the sunset or the fishing looks good, leaving bad news no forwarding address, though actually, all RV dwellers legally have to be “domiciled” in one state, though many simply choose a mail- forwarding service in a state with the lowest income taxes or cheapest vehicle registration. Park residents talk about their boondocking friend like he’s the Fonz in a Fleetwood, coolly embodying the freedom the motorhome has promised since its invention.
Many of these free spirits meet up each January in Quartzsite for what’s considered the Lollapalooza of RV nation: the annual Quartzsite Sports, Vacation & RV Show, which last year drew close to a quarter-million attendees for a week of exhibits, music and endless tailgate parties.
But few RVers are actually cut out to be full-time campers, says Bob Difley, a retired RV dealer who for the past 14 years has been living full-time in his own motorhome and writing and publishing e-books on, naturally, RVing.
“It’s a pretty big step to move from living in a house, with all the things you’ve accumulated, into the confined space of a motorhome,” says Difley, who calls Santa Cruz, CA home base but who spends most of the time between October through April traveling around Arizona. “But it’s another big step to move from a park or campground to camping without electrical hookups, a water supply and a sewer connection.”
Most modern RVs are set up to be somewhat self-contained, Difley says, coming equipped with a generator and, optionally, even solar panels and wind turbines, to make living off the grid possible. “Most RVers are, in fact, pretty green,” Difley says, even though their rigs are notorious gas hogs: with a strong wind at their back, most drivers are lucky to get more than 6 or 7 miles to a gallon. But they’re not commuting to work, Difley points out, and tend to stay put for long periods. “Out of necessity, boondockers find lots of ways of conserving their natural resources.”
Not everyone can handle the lifestyle change, though, which is why Difley recommends getting into it “incrementally” – first by renting a camper for the weekend, then progressing to longer trips. “You have to change the way you live,” says Difley, who’s fortunate to have a wife equally committed to the sacrifices. “For instance, your waste water tank fills up rapidly if you try taking a shower in a mobile home the way you do in a house – by letting the water run constantly. So boondockers get used to turning on the water, wetting down, turning it off to soap up, then on again briefly to rinse off.”
Additionally, all RVers quickly face the inevitable task of shedding a lifetime of possessions to get down to the nitty-gritty of what they consider important enough to truck around: family photos, a fishing rod, some favorite books. For some, it can be cathartic therapy.
“It’s like George Carlin said: ‘Your house is really just a place for your stuff,’” says Rhodes. “And you never realize how much you’ve accumulated until it’s time to get rid of it!
“But it’s kind of nice, not having a lot,” he adds. “I’ve got a few work shirts, my golf clubs and most importantly, my wife and our pets,” he says, pulling his two playful dogs in close. “What else do I really need?”