Test Drive to Retirement

Lichtenstein is a former chief of the New York Times Rocky Mountains bureau and the author of six books

Bambi was agog. For the first time in her 12 years, this thoroughly urban cat was in the middle of a forest in the Rockies, with strange sights, smells and sounds all around her. She sat motionless, her eyes wide, atop the dinette table in our 23-foot RV, peering out at the new environment. Bo, her feline older sister, took in the view from the dashboard. My friend, Sandy, and I, their equally urban human companions, were only slightly less enthralled.

It was early August. One year earlier, Sandy and I had been in this same campground in a tent, freezing our noses off as we awaited the annual Perseids meteor showers in the night sky. Now, we were cozily ensconced inside a movable house, complete with a heating and cooling system, a microwave, a bathroom and real beds with sheets on them. We were able to observe the shooting stars from the picture window and enjoy the company of our pets.

We were in the midst of a 7,000-mile odyssey, test-driving our future. Neither Sandy, a high school teacher, nor I had driven an RV before, but our summer-long journey was proving that a motor home is an ideal vehicle for sampling different parts of the country. Our reconnaissance trip was aimed at investigating possible retirement locales in the Southwest and enjoying an economical vacation at the same time.

Our round trip from home in New York City included stops in the Great Smokies and at Elvis' Graceland, the hometowns of Willa Cather (Red Cloud, Neb.) and Amelia Earhart (Atchison, Kan.), a boisterous Indiana state park on Labor Day, and Las Vegas, where our parking slot was so narrow, we almost could grab dinner from our neighbor's dinette.

Some RV-ers cover 500 miles a day and more, stopping just before dark. We limited our daily driving to about 350 miles, or five to six hours. Thus we were able to stop each afternoon with plenty of time to find a pleasant campsite, stretch our legs with a hike or a bike ride, cook dinner, see some sights and chat with people. When we found a place that seemed to have promise as a retirement spot, we stayed for as long as a week.

That's how we hit the animal jackpot: Turquoise Trail campground. This wonderfully pastoral spot high in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque, N.M., was home to Greta the goat, a llama and some rabbits. A few spaces away from our motor home sat a redheaded woman in a lawn chair with a parrot on her arm. "Her name is Gracie," the woman said as we were walking by. "Hey, so is mine," I replied. Soon Beth was showing off the rest of her menagerie: a second parrot, two cockatiels and a bowlful of goldfish. A former nurse from West Virginia, she, too, was thinking of relocating in the Southwest.

Before our week outside Albuquerque was over, we had made a number of new friends. We shared dinners with Beth, exchanged life stories, used her temporary phone line to send an e-mail message from my laptop to her sweetheart back home, and enjoyed the relative spaciousness of her slide-out living room. (A slide-out is an extension of living space that can be opened when the rig is parked.)

We got in touch with Gina, an acquaintance of some California friends of mine, who took us on an exhilarating mountain bike ride near Tijeras Canyon, a few miles down the road from the campground. On a ranger-led hike through nearby Cibola National Forest, we met Steve and Ann, two recently relocated Easterners. They invited us to share their picnic lunch, and we quizzed them on how they had adjusted to their new environment.

Once we had settled in at Turquoise Trail, we contacted two real estate agents and explained our mission. They were happy to give us tours of the Albuquerque area, where adobe houses came with price tags half that of similar homes in Santa Fe, an hour's drive north.

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After rambling through several neighborhoods in Albuquerque proper that were too suburban for our taste, we zeroed in on Corrales, a village of about 5,000 just north of the city. It was only 30 minutes from the Albuquerque airport and 10 minutes from a huge shopping mall, but it felt uniquely small-town. It had one main thoroughfare with only a few small shops, a 25-mph speed limit and more dirt roads than asphalt ones. The climate was dry but the soil was rich enough for trees to shade many homes and for orchards to flourish. The view of the Sandias to the east was stunning. And the people were a diverse economic and ethnic mix of Anglo and Latino.

We were intrigued. Corrales shot to the top of our list of possible retirement sites.

Having spent plenty of time in the Southwest, I thought I was familiar with that gorgeous patch of American desert, but there were fresh experiences ahead of me. At El Morro National Monument, a few hours west of Albuquerque, we walked around the huge sandstone bluffs upon which travelers have been inscribing their names since the 17th century conquistadors came through.

A few miles farther on, at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northern Arizona, we took an off-road tour to the cliff dwellings of a mysterious ancient people, precursors of the Navajo whose land it is today.

At the park's campground, called Cottonwood for its shady nook on the canyon floor, we had our first experience at "boondocking"--camping without electric or water hookups. It is spots like this for which an RV is ideal. We turned on our built-in generator to run the air-conditioning during the hot days and the microwave and stove at dinner time. Our interior lights, toilet and sink worked on auxiliary power without the generator. (The campground is free, on a first-come, first-served basis; space can't be reserved.)

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When we wanted a break from home cooking, we, like other RV-ers, discovered the joys of Flying Js (truck stops with special RV bays plus good restaurants) and Cracker Barrels, a nationwide chain of restaurants that have decent food and offer homes-on-wheels special parking spots.

Along the way we met the most friendly bunch of people on the planet. They held potluck dinners, lent a hand in fixing balky gadgets and did everything in their power to pass along their "good Samaritan" ethic. (Thus the name of one RV membership organization--the Good Sam Club.) For native New Yorkers like us, that helpfulness was priceless.

Gradually we learned that this is a distinct population, the motorized community. It's not just the stereotypical snowbirds and retirees. The caravan includes aging boomer couples, visiting Europeans, single women, pet owners and yuppie adults with small kids, who have decided, as we did, that you don't have to go roughing it to have a good time in the outdoors.

Although many folks we met had luxurious RVs the size of Greyhound buses outfitted with every imaginable amenity, we learned that RV-ing is a great way to economize while on vacation. We paid no more than $30 a night--and often nothing at all--for space in private campgrounds and state and national parks and forests, and averaged another $20 per day for food, gasoline, propane and the occasional small repair. RV rental prices vary widely, up to as much as $100 per day in peak months. We bought our year-old Tioga Montara by Fleetwood for a bit less than $35,000 with no money down. (It's now up for sale.)

As a lapsed backpacker, I loved the convenience of brewing fresh coffee in minutes in my kitchen, eating a civilized breakfast outdoors on a picnic table, biking off to must-see attractions before the tour buses arrived, having an air-conditioned rest in the heat of midday, then a cozy dinner and stargazing before turning in.

Of course, not everything on the trip went smoothly.

Early on, I was terrified by 18-wheelers passing us at 85 mph on the interstate. Luckily, Sandy quickly grew comfortable maneuvering our rig. She became the designated driver; I became the navigator.

Although the RV felt big for driving, it was small for living. Even with just two of us, a meal meant an intricate pas de deux of preparing the food, tending the stove, serving and cleaning up without stepping on one another or tripping over the cats.

Ah, the cats. Although they were elderly, they were so invigorated by the adventure they acted almost reborn. With their litter box conveniently stashed in the shower stall, they got used to their rolling home almost immediately. Each morning Bambi jumped on Sandy's lap, looking like Toonses, the mad driving cat from the old "Saturday Night Live." They played practical jokes on us, such as getting "lost" in the clothing bins or in the far recesses of the upper bunk. I can't imagine ever again taking a long vacation without them.

The RV had other limitations. Parking was a problem, as were mountain roads. I had to shut my eyes as we drove the two-lane highway that twisted down a canyon to Sedona, Ariz., a spot we had been told was a paradise of red-rock canyons and mellow residents.

It was paradise, all right--if your idea of paradise embraces aura-balancing salons, crystal boutiques on every corner and temperatures of 100 degrees in the shade at 6 p.m. The surroundings were beautiful; the New Age commercialism, combined with the heat, was so loathsome we crossed Sedona off our list of retirement possibilities. We stayed exactly one night. Another plus of RV travel: When we disliked a place, we could vamoose without a fuss.

Next stop was southern Utah, where we did more boondocking at Zion National Park's campground before checking out the town of St. George, which has gained some notoriety as a haven for disaffected Californians. It turned out to be a real estate brokers' haven. New housing tracts were sprouting like jumping cholla, along with Burger Kings, Jiffy Lubes and strip malls. It might be great for young California families, but it wasn't what we had in mind for retirement. On to Colorado.

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Once, I had been certain I would spend my golden years in the Aspen area's Roaring Fork Valley, as beautiful a domain of high-altitude countryside as I have ever seen. The trouble is that movie moguls, Wall Street tycoons, basketball superstars and oil sheiks feel the same way. These days, would-be buyers can't make a down payment until their hedge-fund manager vouches for their net worth.

I already co-own a tiny ski condominium in Snowmass, near Aspen. But pets are not allowed in the condos, winters linger through May and middle-income retirees are becoming extinct. So we went "down valley" and camped in the driveway of a friend's place near Carbondale. We found golf courses and gated communities being laid out there, too, as fast as you can say "Prince Bandar."

It was not long before we stowed the dishes and pointed the RV toward home.

Sometimes now, as I'm drifting off to sleep in my New York apartment, I can conjure up the smell of spruce trees and the symphony of crickets, cicadas, frogs and birds filtering through a screen door. I wonder: Does Bambi dream about them too?

If she does, her dream is about to come true. Sandy and I have rented a home just outside Corrales for at least a month this summer, to test-live, rather than test-drive, the future.

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GUIDEBOOK

Road Readiness

Maps: Delorme's Map-n-Go (including AAA guidebook listings) and Rand McNally's Tripmaker (with Mobil Guide listings) are CD-ROMs, about $35 each. They also show tourist attractions, lodgings, campgrounds and restaurants.

Campground directories: Woodall's and Trailer Life are recommended, but they emphasize amenities such as swimming pools and utility hookups, and, we found, underrate simpler and sometimes more scenic state park and private campgrounds.

The Kampgrounds of America (KOA) chain also has a free guide available at any of its parks.

Reservations: The National Parks Reservation Service, telephone (800) 365-CAMP, takes credit-card reservations for the 25 most heavily used national parks, including Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Everglades, Rocky Mountain, Joshua Tree and Zion. For Yosemite, call (800) 436-7275. For U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, try (800) 280-CAMP.

Required reading: "The RVer's Bible" by Kim Baker and Sunny Baker (Fireside) and "Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America" by Dorothy Ayers Counts and David R. Counts (Broadview Press).

Internet info: Worthwhile Web sites: http://www.rvclub.com/home.lasso (RVers helping one another); http://www.rv.org/ (RV Consumer Group, a nonprofit organization modeled on Consumers Union); http://www.tl.com/ (North American Roads Travel Network, which publishes Trailer Life and Motor Home magazines, directories and manages Good Sam Club.)

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