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No one's in neutral

To hit the road with economy or ease, with just enough or lots of space, all it takes is an RV and a destination

By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / April 11, 2010

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SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla. — “Diane and I camped in tents when we got married,’’ said Marvin Rosenberg, explaining how he and his wife came to buy an RV. Their trajectory from pitched poles to home on wheels interested me because I was embarking on my first off-ground camping trip. The Rosenbergs were full of advice.

“Ask me about sway bars and hooking up a sewer hose with a mask and rubber gloves,’’ said Marvin. (I didn’t.)

“There’s everything from fly-in RV resorts to overnighting in Wal-Mart parking lots. People will tell you what’s wonderful,’’ said his wife, Diane, offering a list of her favorite campgrounds.

RV travel came of age with the automobile and the US highway system after World War II, said the Rosenbergs, who know because they belong to the Wally Byam Club of Airstream owners. Byam, who grew up summering in a covered wagon in the Oregon mountains herding sheep, created the aluminum Airstream travel trailer in 1936 and popularized it by leading caravans across all of North America and beyond. “Go see what’s over the next hill, and the one after that,’’ Byam urged.

So with a truck stuffed to the max and a teardrop in tow — teardrops are pint-sized campers shaped like a ham tin — my friend Sterling Mulbry and I joined the RV nation of motorhomes and travel trailers rolling into state parks and relatives’ driveways with their jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, and children.

From northeast Florida, the way through the state’s interior passes cow towns and cattle ranches. Sterling watched for promising taquerias and rare caracaras (falcon-like birds) while I drove. As we neared the densely built Gulf Coast, the treeless RV parks packed tight as crayon boxes filled us with unease.

That was until we found Periwinkle Park and Campground on Sanibel Island: sleepy sand streets, no concrete pads, and spaces where a camper can spread a little in the cane palms’ filigreed shade. Run by three generations of Muenches, the park is remarkable for its aviary of macaws, parrots, and swans, not to mention ring-tailed lemurs, which draw visitors from across Sanibel. “Slow down!’’ a bird named Lola called out, warning us to obey the park’s 7 miles per hour speed limit, while another, Terri, imitated a cellphone.

Walter Martilla from Vineland, Ontario, was the first to come ’round and inspect our rig. “You live in this?’’ he said with a smile.

RVs are as diverse as their owners, who routinely check everybody’s out. In the stratosphere are dream machines like Terra Wind, an amphibious model by the South Carolina makers of Boston’s Super Ducks that was so radical no one bought one (“The concept didn’t fly,’’ a corporate spokesman said). There are luxury and off-road vehicles costing $225,000 to $3 million, like EarthRoamer, whose founder, Bill Swails, has traveled in his company’s expedition RV from the Arctic Circle to Costa Rica on solar power and biodiesel fuel. At the other end, production teardrops start at about $8,000, according to Chris Baum of Little Guy Worldwide. Baum describes his teardrop customers as “against-the-grain campers and young couples who want to tiptoe into RVing.’’ (The website www.gorving.com describes everything in between.)

I wandered Periwinkle, meeting campers at their picnic tables spread with salads and sandwiches. Two generations of Ohio McKees were traveling together in separate RVs. Fay Thompson from Michigan was making beautiful hats in her Airstream. A mother and son read novels beside a Cruise America rental. A contingent from Ontario was camped in motorhomes for the winter; one of the couples led a morning aerobics class. And a group calling themselves “the 49ers’’ (because there are 49 camping spaces in that part of the park) gathered daily at cocktail hour.

In the Rosenbergs’ experience, “RV people go out of their way to help each other,’’ and it was our experience, too. Our campsite neighbors, the Ardolinos from Cape Cod, told us about the back entrance, which avoids Sanibel’s daily traffic. Thompson invited us to scones and tea. The McKees shared finds like Cherry Hill Park, close enough to Washington, D.C., to bus in and see the sights. Martilla helped us with our power connector and recommended the salad bar at Sanibel’s Jerry’s Foods, “All you can eat for $5.95.’’

Like most people, I had thought RV travel was for an older crowd, but not according to Kevin Broom, media relations director of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. A 2005 University of Michigan study found over 8.2 million US households own RVs. Among them, “People 35 to 54 years old are the biggest group of RV owners,’’ Broom said. “For them, it’s a cost-effective way to connect with their families, enjoy the outdoors, and at the end of the day sleep off the ground.’’

Broom cites a 2005 report by PKF Consulting showing that despite their notoriously low gas mileage, RVs offer a less expensive vacation than other kinds of travel (visit www.rvia.org).

On the job
Steve Anderson, the founder of Workamper.com, might not agree. “RVing isn’t cheap. Put the pencil to it and do your research,’’ said the former park ranger whose company’s slogan is “See America one job at a time.’’ Workamper connects RVers with jobs around the country ranging from wrapping Amazon customers’ Christmas gifts to tending llamas on a New Mexico ranch. Some offer compensation as well as free hookups and campsites. Most jobs last a month or more and are often filled by retiring baby boomers traveling for extended periods. “It’s a culture with an economic spectrum as big as you can imagine,’’ Anderson says of his members, some of whom by choice or necessity live and travel in their RVs full time.

National and state parks, wildlife refuges, and historic sites around the country also offer free camping for RV volunteers willing to perform light maintenance or lead tours. Workamper and similar websites list many such opportunities. If you don’t see something for the area you want to visit, contact the park directly.

Before our trip, I watched Robin Williams goof on stereotypical RV behaviors like hyper-friendliness and groupiness in the 2006 movie “RV.’’ In reality, it is, and it isn’t, like that. RV travel requires a certain independence to be the organizer and navigator of your trip and the troubleshooter of your machine. Being among one’s fellow campers provides a supportive environment. In the American heartland with its wide open spaces of federally managed public lands, you can stand on a ridge overlooking the Quartzite, Ariz., valley and see a million RVs collected like Conestoga wagons. For camaraderie and safety in numbers, caravans and other group trips are as popular as they were in Byam’s day.

Along with Airstream, most RV makers have owners’ clubs whose members organize trips in their region. Others like Good Sam Club offer discounts to participating campgrounds and other benefits. Even teardrop owners, many of whom build their own rigs, come together for trips and parts through Todd Brunengraber’s Tearjerkers.net (on the East Coast) and Lisa and Grant Whipp’s teardrops.net (on the West Coast).

The great outdoors
Whether in a tent or an RV, camping keeps you outdoors, and on spring break in Sanibel, that’s where you want to be. We rode the generous bike paths from Lighthouse Beach at the east tip to Captiva at the west, spent hours in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, waded dreamily in the celery green water and hunted sharks’ teeth on shell-strewn shores.

Beyond this outer rim of pleasures, the island’s interior, made over with touristy businesses and second homes, lacked interest for us. The campground felt more real, and we began spending more time there. Sterling, a painter, took out her watercolors, fascinated by the RVs’ awnings and the strong shadows they cast. I plugged a laptop into the teardrop’s galley outlet and wrote to the background squawks of the birds.

Behind the laundry room where clothes dry in the breeze, I met one of the “49ers,’’ Estelle Studer from Nashua.

“When I was in high school I read a magazine article about Sanibel and thought, someday I’m going there,’’ she said. After their children were grown, she and her husband, Paul, made their first trip in a VW camper; now they winter over in a comfortable motorhome.

Studer was enjoying the lectures and outings of the local historical society and the pot lucks and parties with her RV friends. The 49ers pull together not only for fun — soon they would be taking a boat to Cayo Costa State Park — but for each other, she said. When one of them broke a heel, the others brought him food. Another friend’s husband died, she said, but, “She’s not alone. We’ve got her tucked under our wing.’’

Tanned and fit from walking and biking, the former teacher rose to leave, adding with a gesture: “We don’t need shuffleboard or bingo. We have this.’’

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Periwinkle Park and Campground

1119 Periwinkle Way

Sanibel Island

239-472-1433

www.sanibelcamping.com

$35-$45 a night for two (cash or check).

RV resources

Cruise America

800-671-8042

www.cruiseamerica.com

Rents motorhomes; 137 pickup/drop-off locations nationwide.

Little Guy Worldwide

877-545-4897

www.golittleguy.com

Production teardrop maker with national distribution. Offers $350 a week rental with camp stove through its San Diego dealer near Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Mountain.

Workamper

709 West Searcy St.

Heber Springs, Ark.

501-362-2637

www.workamper.com

Provides job listings and forums for member RVers.

Good Sam Club

800-234-3450

Park discounts, road service, insurance plans, and other member benefits. Open to all RV owners.

Escapees RV Club

888-757-2582, 936-327-8873

www.escapees.com

Park discounts, mail forwarding, and other member benefits. Open to all RV owners.

US National Forest Campground Guide

www.forestcamping.com

A camping couple offers well-researched by-state listings of sites with and without hookups.

Bureau of Land Management

www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html

Most BLM lands allow free camping for up to two weeks. See the by-state listing for links to BLM campgrounds.