Michael Dautel's life was a model of success. He was married, held a $200,000-a-year job with a fiber optics company and owned a four-bedroom home in a pricey Atlanta suburb. There was just one problem. He hated it. "I was living in an airplane and hotels," said Dautel, 58. "I decided I'd had enough of that rat race." So when his fourth marriage ended in divorce in 1999, Dautel put all his furniture into storage. He bought a 30-foot trailer and hit the road.
Nine years later, he's still on the road.
"My family wanted to have me committed, because they knew what I walked away from," said Dautel, who for the past several months has parked his newer, 40-foot fifth-wheel at Tampa East RV Resort.
"The funniest thing was, I didn't miss a bit of it."
Dautel is part of a nomadic class of "full-timers," as insiders call people who live exclusively in their recreational vehicles and travel trailers. About 1-million Americans fall into that category, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.
Increasingly, they are composed of early retirees who are often supplementing fixed incomes by working at the parks where they stay.
They might winter in Florida or Arizona, then head to Maine or the West Coast. The lifestyle, which Dautel calls "the last friendly refuge," appeals to several generations, from the elderly to aging hippies to newly retired yuppies looking for more.
A 2008 annual survey by Workamper News, a magazine devoted to the RV lifestyle, found a majority of readers within the expected older age groups, including 53 percent between 61 and 70 and 8 percent who are 71 and older.
The survey also found 33 percent between 51 and 60 and 5 percent ages 41 to 50.
"You've got a lot of Type A personalities, a lot of folks who have had successful careers, whose dream was to call it quits in their 50s," said Mike Gast, a spokesman for KOA Kampgrounds of America.
Younger full-timers, Gast said, relish the community of others in the RV lifestyle.
"This is a generation that has a desire to belong," he said.
It took Dautel five years to get rid of his storage locker, the last vestige of his former life. He has traveled across the country but often returns to Florida.
He typically supplements an Air Force pension with work, either for the parks where he stays or outside. He spent three years managing a restaurant in the Keys, despite having no experience.
Lately, he sells RVs at Bates RV, next door to Tampa East. "I sell the lifestyle," he said. "I love the lifestyle."
A recent trend backed by KOA and other RV parks encourages RV dwellers to work off all or part of lot rentals by doing seasonal work at RV parks or theme parks.
Those living the RV lifestyle tend to make good employees, said Steve Anderson of Workamper News, which posts job openings online. "A lot of it has to do with the maturity of the individual," Anderson said. "They've worked in positions where they have longevity. They understand what it means to say, 'If I tell you I'm going to be here for six months, I'll stay for six months.' "
"With the RV people, it's a pretty mobile crowd," Dautel said. "So you end up running across each other all the time. It's like boat people. They know other boat people all around. RV people are the same way."
The network affords opportunities for singles to get together.
"Look on the Web sites," Dautel said. "You see the people looking to hook up. Some have the ride, others are looking to latch on with someone. Some say they are looking for companionship; some want considerably more."
Take, for example, the following posting from "orphan" on workamper.com:
Attractive SWF, young 60s, good cook/co-pilot/fun companion. LOVES sightseeing, workamping, music and outdoor activities. Seeking active SWM - NS 50s-60s for travel/work/possible LTR. Travel anywhere in your RV — mine is too small.
Dautel, who appears fit and trim, has dated his share of women in RV parks across the country. After four marriages, he's neither eager to settle down again with one person nor willing to rule it out.
"I'm open to the right partner," he said. But the man whose Air Force buddies gave him the sobriquet "Tell it like it is Mike" has a caveat: "You get me as I am. And, frankly, if we don't connect, that's your problem, not mine."
Full-timer Bill Weschler also enjoys the lifestyle. A former Texaco executive, he sells vehicles at Bates RV. He shares a 40-foot motorhome in Zephyrhills with his wife, Terry.
Since going full-time in 2002, they have enjoyed stays in Oregon, living in sight of the Pacific Ocean, and Pennsylvania near Lake Erie.
"It's sort of like a motorcycle," said Weschler, 57. "It doesn't matter where you're going, as long as you're going."
A Texas mail service that caters to full-timers forwards his mail for $4.35 a week. Many full-timers use cell phones, and put up with "dead zones" when they travel out of range from any tower. The Workamper survey found that the majority (43 percent) of respondents connected to the Internet through wireless (WiFi) networks, followed by cellular air cards, DSL and dial-up and satellite modems.
Dautel's wandering days are far from over. He wants to head out west again. Maybe take in the Washington coast, the mountains of Oregon or the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico.
He enjoys the ever-present freedom of the road, an option that stay-at-home, suburban types — most of us — only dream about.
"When you can change your environment with the twist of a key, there is absolutely not a reason to ever be stressed again," he said.
Someday the choices will dwindle. The long hours of driving will become tiresome. He might have to go back to having one place he calls home.
In the meantime, Dautel didn't hesitate when asked for his current definition of the word "home."
"Wherever I'm at."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.