Winter has finally faded in the rear-view mirror, and road trip season is here. For many Northwesterners, an RV offers a passport to freedom, whether we’re looking for adventure in a vintage camper, a rock-star motor coach, or something in between.
RVs are hot: The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association says more than 430,000 new campers of all kinds sold in 2016, about 15 percent more than the year before.
And that’s just new RVs; there’s a robust market for used rigs, too. Loyalty runs especially strong among aficionados of sleek silver Airstream trailers and classic VW camper wagons. Sunset magazine recently profiled a young Seattle-area couple who live in a 1971 Airstream instead of paying outrageous rent, and VW camper fans even have their own regional Facebook page. (Look for WetWesties, the Pacific Northwest VW Camping Society.)
At the recent Seattle RV Show, I met Jim and Linda Hemans of Mukilteo, who spend several months each year as campground hosts in Washington State Parks. It’s a volunteer gig for the retired couple—he was a Seattle firefighter; she worked in IT. As hosts, they get a premium site for their 29-foot Arctic Fox trailer and plenty of free time to bike, fish, and kayak when they’re not helping fellow campers.
“We usually do it a month at a time, but there are full-timers” who travel from park to park while exclusively living in their campers, says Jim. The Hemans have hosted in many parks, but two perennial favorites are Steamboat Rock State Park on Banks Lake near Grand Coulee Dam (where “every site is a great site,” says Jim) and Pearrygin Lake State Park in the Methow Valley, where they’ve made friends among the rangers and local residents, “and the deer come visit every day.”
Rebecca Hom spins stories for a living, bills herself as the BackRoads Teller, and had long yearned for the freedom, flexibility, and security of “a little house on wheels.” She found a 26-foot Fleetwood Jamboree motorhome she liked at a local RV dealer. Then her son, Marcus, went online and located the same model with 10,000 fewer miles and for $5,000 less. But there was a catch: The camper was in Jonesborough, TN, 2,700 miles from Rebecca’s Olympia home.
Rebecca was undeterred; she knew Jonesborough was home to the International Storytelling Center, which she’d long wanted to visit. (“It was fated,” she recalls. “I was supposed to get this rig.”) The camper had excellent repair records, so she bought it sight unseen and made plans to pick it up with her husband, Dale.
The Homs rendezvoused in Tennessee with Rebecca’s sister and brother-in-law from Phoenix. As veteran RV’ers, Rudene and Chuck were able to help the rookies learn the fine arts of camper life, from dump-station etiquette to mountain downshifting. The quartet took the long way home, sharing time and memories across the miles.
“For me, the whole thing has been about family,” says Rebecca. She has since taken the Jamboree on tour with her daughter, Rachel—they perform spontaneous mother-daughter dialogues on stage—and a trip with Marcus and his family to Idaho’s City of Rocks.
Yet it’s personal, too. About the time she bought the motorhome, Rebecca saw a painting by Joan Miró at the Seattle Art Museum, its title translated to Woman Entranced by the Escape Velocity of Shooting Stars. The artwork inspired a nickname, E.V., for her camper and spoke to Rebecca’s lifelong yearning for adventure. After all, this is someone who lived alone in a tipi in Central Oregon as a young woman.
My sweetheart owned several VW campers “back in the day.” Last fall, Tom bought a Ford Aerostar van that had been expertly converted into a pop-top camper in 1997, then was well loved for nearly two decades by an owner who meticulously recorded every repair and tankful of gas in a small spiral notebook with a lifetime Golden Age parks passport taped inside the back. Its early entries read like a ship’s log, with notes from wide-ranging treks across the Western U.S.:
2-27-00 Mojave Chevron $1.519
10-10-04 Reno Costco $2.159
Later, the script is shakier, the trips far less frequent, and closer to home:
12-20-11 Burien Fred Meyer $3.299
7-27-15 White Center Safeway $2.119
The camper finally outlived its owner, whose widow sold it to Tom. But the odometer is still under 135,000, with plenty of miles left to travel and many pages to fill. Now that it’s spring, we are eager to get started.
GoRVing.com covers the basics on everything from pop-up trailers to deluxe motor coaches. Northwestrving.com is a regional website from the same people who put on the Seattle RV Show each February and the Puyallup RV Show (coming May 4-7 at the Washington State Fair Event Center).
Julie Fanselow is a veteran travel writer and the author of guidebooks to Idaho, the Oregon Trail, and the Lewis and Clark Trail. She lives just north of Seattle.