Taking Their Lives on the Road

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Afew years ago when Dorothy and David Counts, a husband-and-wife team of Canadian anthropologists, began applying for research grants to rent a recreational vehicle for a leisurely journey through California and the rest of the Sunbelt, their colleagues scoffed. Some thought it a clever subterfuge to escape the Toronto winter; others ridiculed their plan to devote years to studying the culture of "RVers," suggesting that an examination of Club Med might be next in order.

But the pair had faced daunting challenges in doing fieldwork before. For a quarter of a century they'd trekked into the wilds of Papua New Guinea, braving malarial hordes of mosquitoes and teeth-rattling monsoons in villages with no electricity to learn about how elders were treated in that South Pacific society.

Venturing into the world of RVs also presented hardships: They had to learn to park a truck pulling a 25-foot trailer without taking out a block of cars, ignore taunts of drivers in zippier vehicles and master a strange language with terms like "hitch itch" (the overpowering feeling of being in one place too long).

More than 40,000 miles and innumerable oil changes later, they've produced a trail-blazing piece of work, "Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America," out recently from Broadview Press. Last month, the two presented their findings to an appreciative audience of the American Anthropological Assn. in San Francisco.

Other scholars applauded their methodology: participant observation (driving a trailer), interviews (often over laundry at trailer parks) and questionnaires ("Do you carry weapons?").

The results were surprising, not least to the Countses. "We thought that working with RVers was going to be fairly straightforward," Dorothy Counts said. "We were really astonished. After the first two weeks we got up every day and said, 'What's going to astonish us today?' "

Before the Countses' research, many anthropologists could readily find out more about the sex lives of teenagers in Samoa than they could about millions of senior citizens cruising the byways of America. When the Countses started their project in 1990, the only academic literature they could find was a 50-year-old dissertation. Luckily there were some publications, such as Trailer Life and Motor Home, to give them a glimpse into the RV world before they set off into the wilderness of fifth wheels, folding trailers and van campers.

(RVs are generally towed trailers or motor homes that are designed as vacation vehicles not residences--as opposed to mobile homes, whose builders prefer the term "manufactured housing.")

Although there are an estimated 9 million RVs in North America, no one knows exactly how many are used as primary residences. But the Countses estimate that the number easily tops a million.

"We expected to find most of these people working class," David Counts said. "We were dead wrong."

Many turned out to be former white-collar workers and the average person had some college education. According to the Countses' survey results, the vast majority of nomads travel two to a rig (84%), more than half earn between $5,000 and $20,000 a year and more (35%) worry about their rig breaking down than their bodies (26%). A plurality (32%) had rid themselves of all their belongings that didn't fit in the rig. About half were between 56 and 65 and almost a third between 66 and 75.

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The Countses became intrigued with this nomadic culture during a 1978 camping trip in the Southwest. For two months an elderly couple in a motor home followed the Countses from national park to national park, watching them struggle with tents and other camping gear from the comfort of their home on wheels. On other camping trips the Countses met many other seniors who had sold their homes, left their families and communities, and spent their autumnal years wandering about the continent in RVs.

Throughout most of human history, people worked until they dropped or became enfeebled and were shunted to the margins of society. But in the last century the advent of industrialization and the welfare state created a new class of elderly: retired people in relatively fair health with pensions and potentially another third of their life to fill. Cruising the country in a motor home seemed to be a way to keep active and live inexpensively.

Another surprise for the Countses was how much of a community existed among ostensible nomads, one that was immediately accessible to strangers. Within minutes of arriving at a primitive campsite out in the middle of the California desert, the Countses found themselves invited to a wedding. Rootlessness did not mean a lack of community; by exercising a great deal of control over their lives and enjoying an instant rapport from one campsite to the next, many RVing seniors maintained a sense of purpose and a camaraderie greater than many city dwellers.

"There are alternatives to the rocking chair, and one of them is the captain's chair in an RV," the Countses write in their book.

But not everyone was eager to help with their research. One elder, deeply learned in RV lore, refused to help at all. He asked them to emphasize the blazing days and freezing nights of the desert.

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There are, of course, drawbacks to this life. First, there's something of an image problem, with some Rvers being lumped in with trailer trash types. Some think of them as no more than gas-guzzling road hogs. RV living is cramped and often uncomfortable. Friends and families wonder what you are running away from.

The invariable reply: We are running toward freedom. RVers embody a limitless sense of freedom that taps into the mythos of North America as a New World beckoning explorers and pioneers--even those traveling with satellite TV hookups and air conditioning.

"People are living their lives out there completely autonomously," Dorothy Counts said. It's a freedom that's hard for many to give up. One woman the team corresponded with hung up her keys at 81--and regretted it, even though she spent her last two years traveling with crutches, a wheelchair and an oxygen tank. "Didn't slow me down at all," she wrote. "People stay young on the road and I wish I was back in my M.H."

Added another: "I hope to God I'm never captive back in a house." Some RVers have even had motor homes engraved on their tombstones. And in a few RV parks, areas have been set aside for people who can no longer roam the open road to permanently rest their rigs--sort of an RV retirement community. As one person explained to the Countses: "You can die in a trailer just as well as in a house."

It's an attraction the Countses have grown to understand on a personal level, both having retired in June (he from McMaster University, she from the University of Waterloo) and having purchased a rig. They already have another study in the offing: younger people who drop out of the traditional economy to live on the road in RVs.

"There's a mystique of being on the road and not having to do anything if you don't like it but turn the key and hit the road," David Counts said. "It's really magical not to have a schedule or a destination and to be at home wherever you are. It's powerful stuff."

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