Freelance writer and photographer Andy Isaacson rented a 19-foot motor home in the summer of 2011. He enlisted two friends, and together they spent eight days traveling from California to Oregon and back.
With a bathroom, kitchen and beds onboard, they found the freedom to roam without reservations — spending nights in a Wal-Mart parking lot, a winery and beside a stream in a national park. Isaacson discovered what he calls a tribe of people who travel by RV, and wrote about his trip for The New York Times.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Isaacson about his trek through the RV world, and the interesting people he met along the way.
On how RVers band together
"It's always been about camaraderie. I mean, in the same way that you get motorcyclists going on caravans and going to rallies together, you get RVers going on caravans across the highways and congregating in rallies, [one of] which I attended. It was billed as the greatest RV rally in the world. And it was pretty great. And you had over 2,000, 2,500 RVs sprawled across the sagebrush outside of Bend, Ore., at these expo grounds. And it was fun.
"There was a doggy swimsuit contest. There was a world record attempt for the most simultaneous high-fives. There were seminars in green RVing and how to look younger on the road and ... how to stay fit and healthy on the road was another."
On the most amazing RV Isaacson saw
"There was one particular guy that caught everyone's eye in the lot. He had a 45-foot RV with a glass-walled deck that came off the side, a 42-inch screen TV, and he was sitting there. I found him in bear paw slippers, drinking a beer, watching the game. He had two Great Danes and flock of parakeets; and three electric skateboards [and] a go-kart that all fit into this spacious storage bay at the bottom of the RV. And everyone was rubbernecking this guy's spot. And the license plate said, 'TOYZILLA.' And he told me his wife wanted 'I GOT MINE,' but he didn't really want the people hating on him."
On the difference between people who RV, and people who don't
"RVs are a polarizing mode of transportation. People either feel like they're really into it, and you get a devoted population of RVers. And then also you get the people that wouldn't want to be caught dead in one.
"... I think it's a class thing. I think there's some overlap between the people that have some disdain for Hummers and the people that have disdain for RVs, although arguably RVs are more practical on the American highways than Hummers. But I think ... this is how it's been, Neal, since the very beginning. RVers were derided as gypsies, trailer trash and tin-can tourists back in the early days, and I think you still have that.
"... It [also] symbolizes, I think, for some kind of American excess and decadence. I mean, you have this 45-foot monstrosity on wheels hogging up the highway. But I think it depends on where you're coming from ... Whether you see it as like a symbol of environmental indifference, or whether you see it as this wonderfully freeing thing just depends on kind of where you sit."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Last summer, freelance writer Andy Isaacson rented a 19-foot motor home, enlisted two friends, and spent eight days traveling from California to Oregon and back. With a bathroom, kitchen and beds on board, he found freedom to roam without reservations, spending a night in a Wal-Mart parking lot, at a winery, beside a stream in a national park, and along the way he met a lot of interesting characters, part of the special tribe of the road. If you've entered this world, what surprised you?
Give us a call, tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Andy Isaacson joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. He wrote about his experiences in the RV world for the New York Times in a piece that ran earlier this month. Nice to have you with us today.
ANDY ISAACSON: Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And does the world look different from the driver's seat of an RV?
ISAACSON: Well, it looks a little higher, and the landscape is certainly wider. And then you notice certain things that you don't notice in a car. I went to a town called Shingletown, and there's a sign that said: Bakery this way, RVs OK. And it starts to dawn on you that not only does the world look different from the seat of an RV, but that the world sort of treats you differently because of it.
CONAN: Better or worse?
ISAACSON: Differently. You have a special - you're in a special category. You can only - obviously for size reasons you can only fit in certain places, but...
CONAN: So when it said RVs OK, it meant their driveway and their parking lot were spacious.
ISAACSON: Yeah. I think - it wasn't - I don't think it was an RVs-need-not-apply sort of sign. It was more of a you-can-fit-in-our-lot kind of thing. But you also realize that RVs are a polarizing mode of transportation. People either feel like they're really into it, and you get a devoted population of RVers. And then also you get the people that wouldn't want to be caught dead in one.
CONAN: Is it a class thing?
ISAACSON: I think it's a class thing. I think there's some overlap between the people that have some disdain for Hummers and the people that have disdain for RVs, although arguably RVs are more practical on the American highways than Hummers. But I think you certainly get - I mean, this is how it's been, Neal, since the very beginning. There was - RVers were derided as gypsies, trailer trash and tin-can tourists back in the early days, and I think you still have that.
I think it kind of evokes or it gets reactions from people. It symbolizes, I think, for some kind of American excess and decadence. I mean, you have this 45-foot monstrosity on wheels hogging up the highway. But I think it depends on where you're coming from. I think it's - I think it's - whether you see it as a - as - like a symbol of environmental indifference or whether you see it as this wonderfully freeing thing just depends on kind of where you sit.
CONAN: And, of course, this attitude tends to drive RVers together, you would think.
ISAACSON: Yeah. Well, there's - RVs have always been from the very beginning also a - it's always been about camaraderie. I mean, in the same way that you get motorcyclists going on caravans and going to rallies together, you get RVers going on caravans across the highways and congregating in rallies, which I attended.
CONAN: And what was that like?
ISAACSON: Well, it was billed — it wasn't just any rally, Neal. It was billed as the greatest RV rally in the world. And it was pretty great. And you had over 2,000, 2,500 RVs sprawled across the sagebrush in - outside of Bend, Oregon, at these expo grounds. And it was fun. There was a doggy swimsuit contest. There was a world record attempt for the most simultaneous high-fives.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ISAACSON: There was - there were seminars in green RVing and how to look younger on the road and...
ISAACSON: ...entertainment. Yeah.
CONAN: Can I stop you right there?
CONAN: Green RVing? These things get - it's gallons per mile, isn't it?
ISAACSON: Yes. Yeah. That was not considered an oxymoron. About seven to 11 miles per gallon, actually.
ISAACSON: And that number sits there as a digital display and as a constant source of discomfort on the road.
CONAN: And the other part of that conversation, it was a Green RVing and what else?
ISAACSON: How to look younger, 10 years younger was one of them. How to stay fit and healthy on the road was another. There are bunch of RV seminars put on by RV vendors, and there was a whole RV. Also these rallies have always been about merchandise. They're kind of a - you think of them as oasis where wayfaring RVers kind of congregate, meet their kind and buy and supplies.
CONAN: And there are all kinds of piece of equipment and knick-knacks and all that sort of thing that are peculiar to RVs.
ISAACSON: RV awnings, you know, rug cleaner, there were concealed weapons permits, which isn't related at all but happen to be there. You have - I mean, you name it, everything related to, you know, clogging - declogging drains and...
CONAN: More practical items, yeah. And is there a hierarchy once you get in the world of - does the size of your RV matter, the age, the style, that sort of thing?
ISAACSON: I think there is a - there may be some kind of class thing going on related to the brands. There are certainly luxury-book brands. There's a lot of loyalty around RV brands and some are related to luxury, but not necessarily, but certainly there is a - are more expensive brands. But it's not that much of a hierarchy. I mean, I think there was one particular guy that caught everyone's eye in the lot. He had a 45-foot RV with a glass-walled deck that came off the side, a 42-inch screen TV, and he was sitting there. I found him in Bear paw slippers, drinking a beer, watching the game.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ISAACSON: He had two great Danes and flock of parakeets and three electric skateboards, a go cart that all fit into this spacious storage bays at the bottom of the RV, and it was - everyone was rubbernecking this guy's spot. And there was a - and the license plate said, TOYZILLA. And he told me his wife wanted - I got mine, but he didn't really want the people hating on him.
CONAN: We're talking with Andy Isaacson, a freelance writer, about "Me and My RV," a piece he wrote for The New York Times. 800-989-8255. If you're a part of this world, what has surprised you? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Cassandra is on the line with us from Simsbury in Connecticut.
CASSANDRA: Hi. One of the things that we did is when I turned 50, my husband bought us a class C, just a small 25-foot. And we took our children on an eight-week trip out West, and now, every summer since, we have been in the RV. And the wonderful thing that I love about it is the fact that when you're in the national parks and in the state parks and camping, you meet so many different kinds of people who, no matter if they're driving the 45-foot, no matter if they're in a tent, no matter if they're in a class C or whatever they can afford, everyone is together, and it's just been - we've meet people that will remain friends for life. And just so many diverse - people coming from such diverse backgrounds all coming together and living in these RVs, and it's just very cool.
CONAN: How many children did you put in with you and your husband in a 25-foot RV?
CASSANDRA: Yeah. We have two - first, we started with a slide in and then they got bigger, so we moved on to a 24-foot. Two children, one boy, one girl, and our Brittany Spaniel of 40 pounds.
CONAN: A cozy trip?
CASSANDRA: Yes, while we're outside cooking by the fire, hiking in Yellowstone, going all over Moab, Utah, and it's just - you sleep in the RV. We don't actually live in ours like the 45-foot people do, but they're great to have conversations with. I'd love to see the glass-deck slide out.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: All right, Cassandra. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
CASSANDRA: Thanks. Bye.
CONAN: And, Andy Isaacson, I guess that's a distinction, those who travel from time to time in an RV and those who live in them.
ISAACSON: Yeah. There's the people who consider it a mode of transportation and then there's the lifestylers. And these are the people who, it seems, spend some - well, there are part-timers and there are full-timers. So there are some that'll spend the winter at home and in the summer, they'll take to the road. And that - that's - oh, you see a lot of retirees. And you'll also people who actually for a whole season, I think - I don't know where exactly it is. I believe it's Arizona somewhere, southern Arizona, there's a sort of desert, you know, a sort of desert patch where there are thousands of RVs that spend - that occupied the winter months there.
CONAN: Let's go next to Kevin. Kevin with us from Broken, Oklahoma.
KEVIN: Yes. Hi. It's Broken Arrow.
CONAN: Broken Arrow, OK. We couldn't squeeze the other word in on the line. Go ahead.
KEVIN: We spend - we've RVing for about 10 years. I kind of bought mine about six months before I got married. It was kind of my fallback plan, you know, having never been married before. And it was amazing how inexpensive you can get into a nice, used travel trailer, you know, for under 5,000, you get in. We get did it for a few years and then got involved in the clubs for the dealers around. If you buy the RV from the dealer, you get in their club, stuff like that. And we upgraded to a newer motor home in, you know, in the hopes of, you know, having children and long-time kids.
And the people are just so friendly, and they help you, you know, when you have mechanical problems. Like we didn't really know about leveling, so we put a whole bunch of stuff together, leveled the trailer and boom, it fell right over because, you know, we didn't do it right. So all this people come running and help you do it all and figure it out. And we've had some experiences between the book and - between the boat and the trailer and just all the difference things. We keep saying we're going write a book, but never did.
CONAN: Well, Kevin, it sounds like it'd be a pretty interesting one. Thanks very much.
CONAN: We're talking with Andy Isaacson. "Me and My RV," again, is the name of his piece. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. Bob is on the line with us from Boulder.
BOB: I'm taking a call. I have a little bit of a different perspective. I began a type of RVing back in the late '50s with my father; just threw a mattress in the back of an old Ford station wagon. We went from New York down to Florida. And then through the '60s, it was traveling around the country in a van, and then upgrading eventually with my family to a class C RV and traveling around. But I like to comment on the external observations, in that back in the '50s, when we went, there were no interstates. You had to drive through all of these roads that will take you through towns.
The towns were interesting and different. You stop in restaurants that had local cooking and local flavor. There were - the only chain we ever came across back then was Howard Johnson's, and we stayed in all kinds of different motels and meet different people, and you got to really experience the localization. And as I've traveled more and more, and today, every rest stop or every place you stop - you want to stay on the interstates, so you stay close to it. So all the restaurants were the exact same chain. You don't get off the intestate as much. It's all about getting to the destination.
And back in the '50s and '60s, it was - the journey was as interesting as getting to your destination, and though the experience of seeing America close up and all the different diversity of the different communities and regions were just as fascinating experience.
CONAN: Well, Bob, isn't - excuse me. Andy Isaacson, isn't that one of the points of going in an RV, where you don't - the journey is the journey, and you don't have to stay out in the intestate, and you can sleep wherever you want.
ISAACSON: Yeah. It frees you up to make all these unessential pit stops. So when you're towing your bathroom, your minimart and your hotel, you don't have to make any of those stops. And so, really, it's just - and you can meander wherever you want in the self-contained vehicle. And it really does allow you to roam.
CONAN: Let's go next to Larry. Larry with us from Fort Wayne.
LARRY: Hey. What's happening, Neal?
CONAN: Oh, not much. Go ahead.
LARRY: Yeah, yeah. My strangest thing that I got from the RVing - I bought one at a bit of a younger age, and I got some pretty strange looks riding down the road in a 1979 Champion motor coach.
LARRY: Really, the most folks that are doing the RVing thing are retired folks, but, man, that's just the way to go. No way, no two ways about it. Find you a good campsite, fire up the grill, and you'd be amazed at the amount of new friends you can make inside of a month.
CONAN: So you still do it?
LARRY: Oh, at least once a year. I drive a tractor trailer for a living, so once a year I get at least for a couple weeks and go motor coaching. And I don't care where we go as long as we go.
CONAN: Isn't that a little like a busman's holiday? You're driving a rig, and then you go on vacation and drive a rig.
LARRY: Well, yes, sort of, kind of, but you'll have more free time when you're on your own.
CONAN: Can you also tell me - do your fellow truck drivers, how do they view RVs?
LARRY: Oh, that's probably not a good family conversation sometimes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LARRY: It can be - as you drive, like, you got some sense - like I said, I've got a very old one. I get the strange looks because I'm a younger guy and I drive, like I said, the '70s model, red box on wheels. I keep it in the right-hand lane, run 55, 65 miles an hour, get on the CB and let them know where I'm at so I don't get run over, and I don't cause troubles.
CONAN: All right. Well, Larry, safe driving.
LARRY: Thanks. Thank you much, Neal. You folks have a good day.
CONAN: You, too. And, Andy Isaacson, did you get any of those looks too? You must have dropped the demographic a little bit?
ISAACSON: Well, yeah, by about 30 years. But I would be - I hope I didn't piss off any of my trucker brethren, but certainly my behavior behind the wheel changed. My driving personality changed behind a rig.
CONAN: Can you give us an example?
ISAACSON: Well, I just, you know, first of all, I paid attention to those yellow advisors, speed advisory signs, which is not typical. And also, I was just content to drive in a linear fashion behind, at the pace of other people because abrupt turns or any, you know, you don't want to have a kind of a hotshot mentality or a speed demon mentality on the road, you know, in a - while I was in a 19-foot RV, but certainly not the 40.
CONAN: Even so, yeah. And finally, we mentioned, obviously, beyond the environmental issues, the gas is expensive. On the other hand, you're eating in the RV a lot, so did you thought of, did you save money, did you spend money?
ISAACSON: I probably spent more money because I wasn't - it came to about $280 a day and that did not include gas. So with gas, you're probably paying, all told, you know, $300, $400 a day. So it depends - the final analysis really depends on whether you're the kind of person that would be staying in a hotel, or whether you were spending $10 a night in a campground, or whether you'd be pitching your tent on for free on, you know, on public lands. So it can be a money saver, especially for a family. It could be a money saver...
CONAN: Your calculating in rental for a van?
ISAACSON: Yes, which is not a small change.
CONAN: Well, are you going to do it again?
ISAACSON: I might. I might.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, let us know if do you. Andy Isaacson, thanks for your time today.
ISAACSON: Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: Andy Isaacson joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Again, "Just Me and My RV" ran earlier this month in The New York Times. You can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, we'll look ahead to the immigration and health care decisions of the Supreme Court with Nina Totenberg, among other guests. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.