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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.

Then came subsequent times when my wife Virginia and I car camped around the American West and Canada. Now we were ready to leave behind any more sleeping in a tent on the ground.

Taking the plunge

After scouring Craigslist and RV Trader, we found a 1997 Roadtrek 200 Versatile within our budget, with 49,000 miles on it. At a modest 20.5 feet in length, it’s bigger than a camper van and holds a decent-size double bed; kitchen with refrigerator, stove and microwave; toilet and shower.

One day in late June we drove to Sacramento to look at it and potentially buy it. The sellers told us not to dally, because a half-dozen other parties also were interested in the just-listed vehicle.

We rushed to see it. After an inspection and short road test, we struck a deal to buy it for $20,000.

I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation. There's a bit of a learning curve to driving a larger vehicle and having to master the different tanks for fresh, gray and black water — how to fill and drain them — as well as how the electric and propane systems work.

But before we were married, my wife had owned a larger RV and seemed to know what we were getting into.

We needed some work done on our Roadtrek, including buying and installing a back-up camera and fixing a pretty good leak around the side door frame.

But RV service centers are jammed. After calling three places in Santa Rosa that work on RVs, the soonest appointment we could get was a month out.

In the meantime, we had our car mechanic check out our new rig and give it an oil change and some routine maintenance. We were ready to hit the road.

The shakedown cruise took us through Pinnacles National Park where we marveled through binoculars at California Condors soaring above the oddly shaped rock formations.

We spent two nights on a family visit to Riverside County where we stayed in our motor home in the side yard of my sister’s house and plugged into her electrical outlet.

On the way back north, there were a couple minor mishaps. I cracked the top ceiling vent on a McDonald’s drive-through height limit sign and crunched the muffler in a deep hole on a dirt road.

We explored and camped not far from Mono Lake, the ancient saltwater body with its other-worldly limestone tufa formations and pillars.

We found scenic, bargain campgrounds, like Tuttle Creek, reached by dirt road on Bureau of Land Management property near Lone Pine. It was less than half full and the price for the night was right — $4 — with my half-off senior discount provided by my lifetime American the Beautiful Pass from the National Park system.

The next day we tooled around nearby Alabama Hills, a jumble of rounded rocks and eroded hills with the jagged High Sierra peaks as a backdrop, a stunning location Hollywood discovered a century ago. More than 400 movies have been filmed there, including classic Lone Ranger and western pics, and countless car commercials.

But the dirt “Movie Road” tour was a little unnerving, even at very slow speed with our RV shuddering and shaking over the washboard surface.

In Yosemite, we scored a coveted permit to drive through the national park, which is only allowing a limited number of visitors due to COVID restrictions. Chugging toward the 9,945 foot-high Tioga Pass to get there, we were relieved to discover our Chevy V-8 engine had more than sufficient power to crest the summit.

Nomadic lifestyle

Gas mileage? Not so good. We averaged 12 to 14 miles per gallon on our trip.

Of course that’s a lot better than the behemoth “land yachts,” the residential-style motor homes that are as big as a school bus and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There is also an in-between size, like the 25-foot-long Coachman with a Mercedes-Benz diesel engine and chassis that retired Cloverdale City Manager Paul Cayler and his wife, Ellie, bought new for around $85,000.

The couple lives in Chico and purchased it just before the nearby Camp fire devastated Paradise two years ago. Their first trip in their new acquisition was to the Oregon Coast for 10 days, to escape the smoke.

Since then, they’ve embraced the nomadic lifestyle. They travel to national parks and destinations all over the country with their dog, a chocolate Lab named Penny, and like to follow Dead & Company concerts.

Their meanderings have taught Cayler a basic truth about the motorhome lifestyle: “something always breaks.”

All that vibration to a home on wheels as it travels down the road, he said, is like a house being shaken by a 4.0 or 5.0 earthquake, all the time.

“You have to be prepared to fix stuff,” he said. He’s always tightening things with a screwdriver and carries duct tape, zip ties and strong glue.

Cayler said if you want everything to be perfect on the vehicle, “you will never go out.”

‘Boondocking’

Along the way, he’s learned a lot about camping sites, such as which are the best maintained and have convenient electrical and sewer hooks-ups, if needed.

“I can’t say enough about Oregon State parks. They're really fantastic,” Cayler said. “California State parks are hit-and-miss. Some are really nice.”

“National parks are OK,” he continued, because facilities are a little more dated.

“We boondock, too,” Cayler said, explaining that “boondocking,” also referred to as “dispersed” camping, means taking advantage of the many free sites for camping in national forests and on federal BLM property.

Being in remote areas can provide an even greater sense of biosecurity. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advises some common-sense precautions when staying at RV parks and getting gas and supplies. That includes wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing and washing your hands often.

Cayler said that in his RV peregrinations, he comes in contact with few people and the risk of virus transmission is really low.

Pandemic, or not, he said, “it’s a way to spend leisure time and travel. People still need time to relax.”

You can reach Clark Mason at clarkmas@sbcglobal.net

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