RV Owners Make Themselves at Home on the Road

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marlene DuPont was in a jam.

Her motor home broke down in the middle of a busy street in Thousand Oaks. Having just undergone knee surgery, there was no way the retired special-education teacher could crawl under the massive vehicle to fix the problem--especially with traffic whizzing by.

"When those big RVs stop, they just stop," she said. "It's not like you can get out and push them to the side of the road."

Because the Agoura resident is a member of the Good Sam Club, an international organization for recreational vehicle owners based in Ventura, help was a phone call away. It's the largest club in North America geared specifically for the oversized vehicles--everything from folding trailers to luxury motor homes.

And the club just got bigger. Good Sam recently signed up its millionth member--a milestone for a group that has served as an advocate for RV owners on local, state and national issues.

Most recently, it has joined in the battle against plans to limit the parking of RVs and other oversized vehicles on public streets in Ventura. Locally, Camarillo and Simi Valley have passed similar laws. The Ventura City Council is scheduled to consider its proposed ordinance at 7 tonight at City Hall, 501 Poli St.

Good Sam's growing membership mirrors an increase in nationwide RV sales. From 1995 to 1999, the number of recreational vehicles sold annually jumped almost 30% to 321,000.

Jim Rampton, general manager of Simi Recreational Vehicle Sales, said he has noticed a similar spurt. In the past three years, he said sales have climbed 30% to 40% at his Simi Valley dealership.

And it's not just retirees buying these condos-on-wheels. Young families are now making the investment, which can range from $5,000 for a new pop-up trailer to $400,000 or more for a luxury motor home equipped with everything from a microwave to a Jacuzzi.

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New owners say they're tired of canceled flights and cramped hotel rooms. They want a chance to camp in the mountains, the desert or along the beach without having to worry about indoor plumbing or building a campfire to cook dinner.

Dennis Quiles said he likes to use his 32-foot motor home as a base camp to boat, fish and drive all-terrain vehicles with his wife and three kids.

When visiting Ventura County, a favorite spot for Quiles, a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, and other RV families is the Rincon along the 101 Freeway. On a recent afternoon, the curb was lined with recreational vehicles. The occupants sat in lawn chairs and watched the waves roll in or a misty view of the Channel Islands while their children played on the beach.

"It enables all of us to have fun together," said Quiles, 43, of Granada Hills. "It's like a cabin on wheels, so you don't have to stay in the same place all the time."

The popularity of RV travel has undoubtedly fueled membership of the Good Sam Club--an idea that began in 1966 with a letter to the editor.

A reader had written to a magazine for recreational vehicle enthusiasts called Trail R News questioning whether it was safe to stop and help strangers broken down on the side of the road.

The reader suggested that the publisher print a bunch of bumper stickers, then send them to the magazine's subscribers. This way, the reader surmised, anyone bearing a sticker could be identified as an ostensibly good person worthy of roadside assistance.

It worked. The publisher created the stickers of a smiling man with a halo above his head and named the club "Good Sam" after the New Testament tale of a traveling Samaritan who helped an injured man in the road and got him to safety.

Two years later, a new publisher stepped in and transformed Good Sam into an official organization, soon capable of supporting itself with membership dues.

Today, membership costs $25 a year and includes campground discounts and a subscription to the monthly magazine, now called Highways. There are also discounts on camping gear and RV equipment.

The club's roadside service program costs an extra $79 a year and covers everything from breakdowns to blown tires. Members call a toll-free number to have a dispatch center send mechanics, tow trucks or whatever is needed to get rolling again.

This can be especially helpful in remote areas or unfamiliar cities, because not all towing services are equipped to haul a 40-foot-long vehicle.

"You almost have to get a ride or walk to the next town and look in the local phone book for what is available," said Silvano Ledesma, 70, of Arroyo Grande, who said he has used the service a number of times since he became a member 18 years ago. "There is always some outfit that's open, but you have to get hold of them, and sometimes they can't do it."

Good Sam fields about 10,000 calls annually for emergency roadside service from dispatch centers throughout the United States and Canada. The club is now owned by Affinity Group Inc., which employs more than 1,500 people nationwide. About 190 of them work at the club's headquarters, at 2575 Vista Del Mar Drive in Ventura.

Affinity Chairman Stephen Adams of Montecito also owns Atlanta-based Adams Outdoor Advertising Inc. Adams made headlines last year after contributing $1 million in billboard advertisements to George W. Bush's presidential campaign.

Good Sam was originally based in the San Fernando Valley, having moved among various offices to accommodate its growing operation.

In 1995, headquarters were moved to Ventura, which club officials consider an ideal location. There's room to expand. It's right off the Ventura Freeway. And about 30% of the club's members live in California, including 800 in Ventura County alone. It also has a big parking lot for people to drop by with their RVs.

"It's a lot easier for our members to come and visit us here than it would be in other large cities," said Ron Epstein, associate publisher of Highways.

And the Ventura area is considered a hot spot for RVs in general. It's removed from the congestion of Los Angeles, and offers spectacular views of the ocean from several points, including the campgrounds at Faria and Hobson beaches.

Ventura Police Lt. John Garner said he has noticed more RVs rolling through town in recent years, and many of them belong to young families.

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Cindy and Rick Morris of Santa Clarita are among them. They recently bought their first motor home--a 34-footer that has its own kitchen and bathroom--so they could camp with their children, ages 3 and 6. They also joined Good Sam and enjoy the discounts, the magazine and the phone book-sized directory of campgrounds that comes with signing up.

But they also want roadside service--just in case.

"If we ever have to use it, it's going to be one of the most important things around, knock on wood," Rick Morris said. The 36-year-old firefighter and his family recently camped at Emma Wood State Beach. "We want to get our motor home fixed as quickly as possible with the least amount of headaches."

But not everyone loves the RV lifestyle. They're big. They're slow. And they guzzle gas. Motor homes average 8 to 10 miles per gallon. Their tanks can hold up to to 150 gallons, which means an owner could drop nearly $250 at the pump.

Nevertheless, industry officials say RVs are more economical than a vacationing family staying in a hotel, renting a car and eating in restaurants for a week.

In 1999, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn., a Virginia-based trade group for RV manufacturers and suppliers, commissioned a study that determined a family of four could save 10% to 70% by camping in an RV when visiting such places as the Grand Canyon; Cape Cod, Mass.; Orlando, Fla.; Alaska; or the Napa Valley. The study took into account gas prices, hotel costs, airline tickets, insurance, depreciation values and monthly payments on standard cars, among other things.

Good Sam has defended RV owners on state and national issues. During the gasoline shortages of the 1970s, the club helped secure public support for the right of RV owners to fill up at neighborhood stations along with cars and pickups. During that time, gas was being rationed and motorists were allowed only a set number of gallons of fuel.

RV owners argued that, yes, their vehicles may get deplorable mileage compared with smaller vehicles, but that RVs were more energy-efficient than the average home.

Good Sam also gets involved in local issues. In Ventura, city officials suggest an ordinance that would ban the parking of RVs and other oversized vehicles on public streets from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Police say it's a matter of safety; the big, boxy vehicles block the view of oncoming traffic at intersections and along driveways.

Sue Bray, executive director of Good Sam, said her organization encourages the storing of RVs on private property, such as driveways, rather than on public streets. But Ventura's proposed ordinance is too restrictive, she said, adding that she prefers an existing law that allows any vehicle to be parked on public streets for up to 72 hours at a time.

"Many people need to park there for a day or two to load up and unload," said Bray. "Not everybody has a driveway or their own private property where they can do this."

Times staff writer Margaret Talev contributed to this story.

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