In the six years since they decided to sell their house and move into a 40-foot motor home, Julie and Marc Bennett have crisscrossed the country and become masters of the R.V. life — all while “still working and saving for retirement,” as they note on their website, RVlove.com. Their book, “Living the RV Life,” has tips on how to pick the right vehicle, how to get the mail, and more.
But even the Bennetts couldn’t have foreseen the challenges of an RV life during a global pandemic. “Amidst a challenging time for many R.V.ers, we have had to put our resourcefulness to the test,” Ms. Bennett said.
Full-time RV Life
The couple is among about 11 million owners of recreational vehicles, an estimated one million of whom live a full-time RV Life, according to the RV Industry Association. Sheltering in place may sound like a more pleasant experience when your home is on wheels, especially with gasoline prices at rock bottom. But with a patchwork of travel restrictions in place, national and most state campgrounds closed indefinitely. Also not to mention locals feeling less than welcoming of out-of-towners for fear of contagion, R.V. drivers are increasingly trapped in the vehicles meant to liberate them.
“Most R.V.s are not set up to be disconnected from utilities for extended periods of time. So as a result, when a shelter-in-place order is issued, it creates a nationwide game of musical chairs for people trying to find a spot to hunker down in,” said Shawn Loring. He’s the chief executive of the Escapees RV Club, one of the country’s oldest and largest groups for R.V.ers.
The decision to keep moving
The Bennetts monitored the growing pandemic as they “boondocked” off the grid in the Arizona desert. They were there for five weeks — about as long as they could live self sufficiently. Then, as they looked ahead to extended lockdowns and rising temperatures in the southwest, they headed for their home state of Colorado.
“For us to keep moving was a big decision,” Ms. Bennett, 51, said. With about 100,000 online followers across their platforms and subscription lists, the couple felt their conduct would be scrutinized. “We have to be responsible for the choices we make. Because we’re not promoting recreational travel, and our actions set an example.”
While people leading an RV life can set up on “dispersed” public land — open grounds without utilities. Most are still in need of R.V. parks that offer connections for power, water, septic tanks, and Wi-Fi, among other services. Leigh Wetzel, the co-founder of Campendium, an online resource with 27,600 campsites in its database, said that as of March 20, 9 percent of those sites were closed. A month later it was 46 percent.
Parks, utility shutdown
Some R.V. advocates have been lobbying to get these parks recognized as essential services. “Local governments don’t understand, only a very small percentage of R.V.s are equipped for off-the-grid living,” said Curtis Coleman, chief executive of RVillage, an online community with about 216,000 members. “They think campgrounds are gathering places. They aren’t thinking they provide an essential service for people leading an RV life.”
Joe Rhodes, who’s been on the move in his “Traipsemobile” camper for 10 years, has made a life of eating in restaurants, drinking in local bars and going to gyms, where he uses the shower. “But what’s happened is that those spaces where I was living my life have slowly but surely all shut down,” he said.
As the crisis worsened, he fled to a friend’s home in Dallas, where he is now parked in the driveway. He has access to the house, a shower, a meal or bed should he desire, but he feels keenly aware of not wanting to impose on his hosts. “I will stay here for as long as that seems viable,” he said.
A former entertainment journalist, Mr. Rhodes, 65, has always enjoyed meeting new people in new towns. “My whole career was built on mostly talking to people that I didn’t know,” he said. “But now I’ve had some days where I felt a little lonely.”
Mr. Rhodes has only himself to worry about on the road. Robert Meinhofer, 49, has been living in a one-bedroom trailer with his wife, Jessica, 42, and their two children since 2015. He said the family’s life is now on pause in their “mobile quarantine pod,” which is marooned in his in-laws’ driveway in Mount Dora, Fla.
Traveling in such a small space has always been offset by the excitement of pulling into a new destination, Ms. Meinhofer said. Now that they’re “grounded” at her parents’ house, the confinement is amplified.
“Once you stop traveling, it turns into a routine. Then we’re, ‘Oh my god, we’re in 26 feet of living space and my daughter is running down the middle of the R.V. and my son is trying to have video calls with his friends’. It just feels like the walls are closing in on you,” she said.
Then there’s the added stress of parking a few feet away from relatives who don’t endorse their itinerant life. “In an R.V. park, everybody’s in the same situation and you understand that you choose to live in a small space,” Mr. Meinhofer said. “But my in-laws — they have never really approved of our lifestyle. So whenever we go to the house we’re very conscious that it’s not our place.”
For other R.V. families, enduring the crisis has remained a communal activity. Lauren and Aaron Grijalva, who traded their home in Atlanta for a 42-foot Coachman “fifth wheel” trailer 18 months ago, were parked at a campsite in Hardee County, Fla., preparing to join a crew of mobile friends in the Florida Keys when the state shut down its southern archipelago in March. They stayed in the park with their two children and two other families and awaited their friends’ return.
The reunited group, totaling five families, is now set up in an isolated spot along a river. Creating a self-contained community away from other campers. Together they number 21 adults and children, including Michelle and Justin Russell, who have two children in a 35-foot motor home.
Ms. Russell said they have made rules about congregating in small groups. Designated people make trips to the grocery store so that most of the group stays put. “We’re used to having a big campfire and our kids in and out of each other’s rigs. We love that!” she said. “But it’s just a different time right now. We feel safe and we know that each one of us is respecting the other’s space. And we’re all on the same page.”
Ms. Grijalva, 39, and her husband, who blog as the Wanderpreneurs, have an aggregate following of 42,000 on their social media platforms. “We are concerned about how it will go over that we didn’t distance ourselves from our neighbors during this time,” she said. “Everyone knows that we ‘river people’ are hanging out together, and it’s even raised some eyebrows in the campground. Some people don’t like it and have said we should be kicked out.”
Other R.V.ers know exactly where they have to go: home. Last December, Mary Lorenz and Lyndell Rowe set out from Northampton, Mass., in their 19-foot camper van for a six-month tour of the west coast and national parks in Arizona and Utah. “We just picked our dream destinations and planned a trip around that,” Ms. Rowe said.
By late March, most of those destinations had closed and they headed east, stopping in open parks as they made their way back to stationary lives. “We were not anxious to get home and live under shelter-in-place restrictions,” she said.
Rerouting their journey, they used online maps to find areas with low case counts. The women, both in their early 70s, knew they were in a vulnerable demographic, though they felt they were “in good health with really good immune systems,” Ms. Lorenz said. They ended up staying in some places longer, choosing more open and isolated spaces where they could at least hike. But their small refrigerator meant regular shopping trips, something they didn’t relish in small grocery stores with narrow aisles.
As in many other corners of the world, the pandemic will change how this subculture operates. Ms. Bennett, of RVLove, says more R.V.ers are talking about scaling back travel and seeking longer-term leases in parks to ensure having a home base, should they need one. “If you lead an RV life, now more than ever, you need to consider your options at a whole other level and have a backup plan,” she said. “Even an exit plan for getting off the road.”
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