Every city was once populated by nomads and immigrants, before the strictures of political boundaries were itemized. Nomadic peoples brought their tools and homes, food sources and hunting gear, to follow the seasons and camp where the game trails and the water sources led. We are mostly embroiled in the business of cities and towns, in the designates of voting precincts and real property, except when vacations and retirement arrive. Then we follow “the lure of the open road,” and plan our deferred travel.
Many travelers were agricultural nomads, following harvests from fruits to vegetables, in spring through autumn. Now we are mostly urban nomads following other kinds of work. We remain in motion, as Americans relocate on average 11.7 times in their lives (according to the census), following opportunities in different schools, careers, and love. But that paradigm may be changing. “Perhaps nothing will be as surprising about 21st-century America as its settledness. For more than a generation Americans have believed that ‘spatial mobility’ would increase, and, as it did, feed an inexorable trend toward rootlessness and anomie…. Yet in reality Americans actually are becoming less nomadic. As recently as the 1970s as many as one in five people moved annually; by 2006, long before the current recession took hold, that number was 14 percent, the lowest rate since the census starting following movement in 1940.” (Joel Kotkin, Newsweek, “There’s No Place Like Home”.)
The explosive popularity of the RV (recreational vehicle) straddles the desire to feel at home when you are on the road. You can take it with you, all 48,000 lbs (the weight of a Class A Motorhome.) We have bought into the idea that we can pack it with family, friends, animals, and food, and see the country. We can pull up to any place that is accessible by road in our travel trailers and caravans – unspoiled waterfall, snow-capped mountain, or beachfront park – and immediately feel at home. Heck, our National Parks encourage this activity!
“RV ownership in the U.S. is growing faster than the population” scream the headlines. In 2011, shipments increased 7.4% over 2010, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the continued economic recession. A total of 7 million RVs are on the road, and the biggest increase in ownership has not been the families with kids portrayed in the ads exhorting people to “go RV-ing!” but the over-55 crowd of baby boomers in retirement, who want the freedom to move when the neighbor’s dog barks.
Between 1 and 1-1/2 million Americans live at least part-time in their mobile coach homes. Some of these are the truly “landless,” having severed all ties to home ownership and its concomitant investment and upkeep. Others are part-timers, who maintain seasonal apartments and condos, but stay on the road for half the year, travelling when the weather is kind and the roads are clear.
Aficionados find temporary docking in a wide variety of places. Some try “boondocking,” or parking for free where there is no campground, but many authorities frown on this practice. There are thousands of RV parks and campgrounds across the country, with a variety of amenities: fuel, pump-out stations, camping stores, baseball diamonds, hiking trails, swimming pools, casinos….
My husband’s relatives come from Las Vegas, and members of his family have lived in an RV park for over 20 years. They no longer hit the road or see the sights. They do live a short walk (or shuttle ride) from the endless buffets, nightclubs, video arcades, clinking slots, and table games that beckon retired folks to this city; they live here on a budget, and they are not alone. Many of their neighbors at Sam’s Town Casino RV Park (“Voted Best RV Park in Las Vegas!”) have been parked here for years. Their trailer hitches may be rusted, but their parking spots are bequeathed only by final relocation.
Their life in the “park” doesn’t differ substantially from life in a condo – their rent pays for grounds and roads upkeep, water and sewer hookups – but the relative efficiency of the unit itself is much lower. Although the largest trailers are 340 SF (8’-6” wide x 40’ long) their power bills are similar to that of a 1,200 SF flat in a similar climate, requiring three times the electricity to heat and cool due to insufficient door seals and insulation. And although the parks are advertised as a green oasis, in reality, the surplus of roads and driveways (because every RV is supplied by, if not hauled by, a car) add a huge burden of impervious surface to the acreage. The park looks a lot less green in person.
RV nomads imagine a life of camping under the stars at sites with unparalleled beauty, making friends from across the globe, and engaging with the local culture. This can happen, primarily in national parks – but there is a maximum stay of 14 days. In the urban environment, RV parks have mostly been relegated to the edges, easily accessed by interstates, adjacent to big stores and chain restaurants. This isn’t the American dream vacation they bargained for.
Nor do these temporary homes and parking spaces contribute to our cities’ vitality or growth. While boutique caravan parks may bring in well-heeled tourists and curiosity-seekers, many permanent-stay sites have become unwelcome neighbors. The Good Samaritans of the roadways need to become good neighbors by improving their lots at home.