RVs’ popularity skyrockets during pandemic
It was near the shadow of Mt. Whitney, in a campsite nestled among trees and sagebrush along a rushing stream, that I decided I really liked our recreational vehicle.
The used RV we’d just bought represented a modest dream my wife and I nurtured for many years — for once we retired — to hit the open road, head for national parks and towns off the beaten path and maybe even venture to Canada and Alaska.
Now, here we were on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, watching the interweaving of clouds and shafts of late-afternoon light play out like a “God shot” in an Ansel Adams photograph.
The setting seemed to validate our decision, after months of back and forth deciding whether to buy a motorhome, comparing models and weighing if we should settle instead on a pop-up tent trailer.
Then in late spring, when news stories began appearing about the demand for RVs shooting up during the pandemic, we decided we’d better act quickly.
With increasing numbers of vacationers avoiding airlines and hotels, people have been flocking to RVs as a safer way to travel, to maintain social distance and avoid crowds and the coronavirus.
“I look at it as our rolling SIP (shelter-in-place) bubble home, self-contained,” said Caitlin Woodbury, a Santa Rosa retiree who just bought a motorhome with her husband in late July.
“There's no restaurants, crowds or having to deal with other people. We control that and have everything we need.”
Her husband Albert said they’d been perusing RVs for sale for the past few years, driven by a desire to see more of the U.S. and nostalgia to relive family trips to Mexico in a Volkswagen van decades ago.
But finding a good deal in recent months hasn’t been easy.
“I’d see something on Craigslist in the morning, and by evening it’d be gone,” Albert said. “Things were selling like hot cakes.”
Year of the camper
The surge in RV rentals and sales, along with the low cost of gas and diesel, has led National Geographic to dub 2020 “the year of the camper.”
The European vacation and the cruise to Mexico is on hold, so why not hit the road and see America the Beautiful?
“People are getting back into the swing of RVs. It’s a way to get out of town. They don’t have to worry about the pandemic so much,” said Curtis Carley, the owner of Santa Rosa RV Specialist, who’s been repairing and upgrading RVs and travel trailers for almost 30 years.
“There’s definitely more people buying,” he said, adding that there is also a backlog of parts for repairs, along with employee staffing shortages. “Manufacturers can’t keep up with demand.”
People are obtaining RVs to live in, as well, to avoid high housing costs. “A lot of people are terrified of not being able to pay the rent,” said RV specialist employee Teresa Fallon.
Nationally, sales of mid-range motor homes in June were up 90% over the year before, according to the RV Industry Association.
Dealers are not only running low on RVs to sell; rentals also have spiked. Bookings through the rental site RVshare for the Fourth of July weekend were up 81% over 2019.
And the company predicts continued high demand through the fall, with Labor Day bookings already up 50%.
Yen for the open road
While the extended lockdown and pent-up wanderlust piqued interest in RVs, the need to move has always been part of the American character, something John Steinbeck identified in his book “Travels with Charley: In Search of America.”
In the trip he took 60 years ago across the country and back, in a small “house truck” with his dog Charley, Steinbeck saw this yearning to move about, free and unanchored, in all the states he visited.
“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation — a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from Here,” Steinbeck wrote.
Twenty years later, William Least Heat-Moon chronicled his 13,000-mile trip on back roads and through small forgotten towns in “Blue Highways, a Journey into America.”
The interesting and eccentric people he encountered, along with the wonders of ordinary life, came as he drove down the smallest roads he could find in a Ford Econoline van with sleeping bag and blanket.
“Driving through the washed land in my small, self-propelled box — a ‘wheel estate’ a mechanic has called it — I felt clean and almost disentangled. I had what I needed for now, much of it stowed under the wooden bunk,” he wrote.
Those books planted a seed in me to want to wander around the country some day in a camper van, much like the TV series “Then Came Bronson” helped stoke motorcycle journeys in my younger years.