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Seniors take to the road while feeling at home in their RVs

Robin and Mary Murray rode in their 2011 Phaeton after it was loaded on a rail car for part of their tour through Mexico.
Published Jun. 23, 2014

It's the time of year baby boomers take to the road driving or dragging RVs. • Moving down the open highways with their homes on their backs. Human turtles off to see their kids or see the world.

Industry reports that credit boomers with the explosion of RV travel — manufacturing of RVs in the first quarter of this year was up 13 percent and that of motor homes up 31 percent over the same period last year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association — aren't hard to believe judging from the clientele roaming in and around the hundreds of vehicles that were on display at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall on Thursday, the first day of the Tampa Bay Summer RV Show. The only people who appeared to be under 50 were the people selling the vehicles.

The shoppers were looking to fulfill all sorts of dreams. Some hope to take to the road full time. Some want to buy bigger; others want to downsize.

James and Connie Wilt, who are 61 and 60, were perusing the full-sized motor homes, the Class A variety, the ones you drive in. The Lakeland couple have had two pull-behinds but are looking to move up.

They were looking for room, lots of room.

"We like the slides," she said. "We want one with four slides." (Slides, for the uninitiated, are walls or portions of walls that slide out — by pushing, cranking or using a hydraulic system — to expand the living space.)

Across the Expo Hall, Dennis and Judith Parrino of Zephyrhills were looking at van campers — vans customized post-production or built with bathrooms and benches and other amenities that make road travel more comfortable.

It's just the latest in the Parrinos' downsizing. When they first became part-time Floridians, they had a full-sized motor home, two houses and a seasonal cottage, Dennis Parrino, 72, said. Now they are full-time Floridians and have one house. They want a van to visit their kids in New York.

"When we go up, we can also use it as a vehicle," said Judith Parrino, 69. It's not to go camping.

Her biggest priority? A full-sized bathroom.

And, believe it or not, some vehicles have one, complete with its own holding system so it can be used when driving down the road.

Elsewhere at the RV show, Madeira Beach neighbors Frank Farmer, 60, and Dave Jones, 54, were sitting on facing couches in front of a large-screen TV hung above a fireplace in the upper reaches of a fifth-wheeler, an RV trailer connected to a truck in such a way that a portion of the trailer hangs over the truck's cab. That's where the men were sitting.

They said they were at the show to browse. Neither has ever owned an RV, but they thought it might be a good way to get to the homes they own in other states. And Farmer was looking for a way to take his two Jack Russell terriers with him when he travels.

Another dreamer was Wally Miller, 66, of Zephyrhills. He has pulled a trailer containing a motorcycle and a customized golf cart all over the country, most recently to Yellowstone National Park and the Redwood Forests of California, with his wife, Linda, and terrier, Rocky.

"It's so hot here, I cut a hole in the side of it for an air conditioner but when we got out West, we were wishing it was a heater," he said. He hopes to someday buy a motor home.

"It's just a great way to see things. If you travel in a plane, you don't see much — and there's a lot to see from here to there."

RVers in action

At Frog Creek, a campground nestled under live oaks near the southeastern tip of Tampa Bay, the tranquility was so pervasive that you'd swear the nearby body of water had to be Walden Pond.

That was until the clubhouse door swung open, revealing a buzzing sea of men and women in red golf shirts and white vests covered with colorful patches and decorative pins in every size and shape — members of the Trail Blazing Sams (as in Samaritans) club, a group of do-gooding RVers from all over the Tampa Bay area.

Their May meeting was the last before summer break, when its 50 or so members take to the road, joining others among the 3.6 million people over the age of 55 who own RVs, modern-day Conestoga wagons that eat close to $4 in gas every 10 miles they go.

Retired RVers are on the road an average of 26 days a year traveling 4,500 miles, mostly visiting children and grandchildren, according to RV Retirement in the 21st Century by Jane Kenny.

It's estimated that 1 million live in their RVs full time, but it's impossible to get an exact count because they live off the grid, James B. Twitchell wrote in his recently published book, Winnebago Nation.

Twitchell, 70, is a retired University of Florida professor of English and advertising whose home without wheels is in Gainesville. He says he has been the unlikely owner of an RV since 2008.

In the academic world, Twitchell said, admitting to owning an RV is akin to admitting he shops Kmart's blue-light specials or owns an Uzi. But, frustrated with air travel and wanting to take along his dog and sleep in his own bed, he cast aside the stereotype (and ribbing from colleagues) and took to the road, traveling all over, from the Deep South to Alaska, in a Winnebago View. Right now, he is on the beach in North Carolina for a weeklong stop on the journey to his summer home in Vermont. His daughter and two grandchildren travel in the small 26-foot RV with him, while his wife, Mary, follows in their car.

Back at Frog Creek in Palmetto, there's nothing small about the Monaco Diplomat owned by Good Sams Bill Conway, 68, and his wife, Joan, 66, of Wimauma. Once inside, its easy to forget you're on wheels.

Warm wood cabinets surround a kitchenette, complete with a window over the sink, and a TV above the windshield. At several places, walls slide out to expand the living space.

The price of this luxurious 43-foot land cruiser the retired Conways — and their Pomeranian-poodle, Charlie — will use to visit national parks this summer: $200,000. It cost more than their (non-) mobile home, said Joan Conway, but still a bargain compared to its original asking price of $350,000.

And it provides the room they need for guests — and grandchildren.

Down the road apiece at Frog Creek sits a 36-foot RV missing a rearview mirror that snapped off as it was being wedged in a too-small campground space. It's now parked in a larger one.

Its owners, fellow Good Sams and Wimauma residents Robin and Mary Murray, took the incident in stride. After all, there isn't much they haven't had to deal with in their 34 years on the road in 17 or 18 camping rigs. She's 77 and he's 75, but they look much younger. The couple golfs almost every day.

She said the 15-foot camper he had when they were married in 1980 is a far cry from their custom-ordered 2011 Phaeton with a full kitchen containing a full-sized refrigerator and French doors, stacked washer and dryer, and four recliners, including the driver and passenger seat.

What they don't have that came standard with the coach is a satellite dish ("people always complain about the reception") or a sleeper sofa. Unlike the Conways, they kind of like being by themselves.

"We wanted an RV big enough for cocktails for six, dinner for four, but only big enough to sleep two," Mary Murray said, laughing.

Since retiring in 1991 from GTE (now Verizon), they've been as far north as Newfoundland and Labrador and as far south as Mexico.

"Our trip to Newfoundland was 8,804 miles, and gas was $3,008. We had to take a six-hour ferry ride to get there from Nova Scotia," Mary said. "It was the most beautiful place I've ever seen."

The trip to Mexico, on the other hand, was a little scary. They were on a tour that included putting their RV on a train — they stayed inside it — part of the way.

"We were attacked with rocks. Our guards captured one person. When we got to the rail yard, the remaining rock throwers were there waiting for us with more rocks. Soon, the police showed up with Uzis and they all scattered. Eventually six of them were captured and jailed," she said.

Then there were the hidden gems they just happened upon. The one that gave them the biggest hoot was Gene Autry, Okla., a town in the middle of nowhere.

When Robin Murray found it listed in the AAA Tour Book, they were intrigued. They knew the Gene Autry Museum was in Los Angeles; they had been there. But they had to check this out.

"It seems Gene owned a large ranch there and built the school, church, post office and just about everything else, so naturally they named the town after him. Well, he's gone now and so is the town; only about 65 people live there," he said.

"They turned the school gymnasium into a museum, and there is a ton of his stuff there as well as any other cowboy hero you can think of, from Lash LaRue to Hoppy to Roy to Tom Mix to Clint Eastwood and John Wayne and a bunch more I never heard of. They have a 100-seat theater where they show old cowboy movies, and this is all free. They do have a donation box (unattended). The caretaker is dressed in Western gear with guns and gives a running monologue while you are there."

The Murrays will spend this summer at Fort Pickens National Park in Pensacola, where they'll work as campground hosts. It's just the latest in the string of national parks they've visited, their favorite places to go. In fact, they said they purposefully got a 36-foot rig because that's the biggest allowed in many parks.

Robin Murray is a bit of a philosopher about life on the road. "A lot of what I learned while RVing translates into life lessons," perhaps, he said, the most important being, "You need to RV with your best friend. If you're not, you'll end up hating each other. When you spend four months in here, it gets kind of small. You've got to have your best friend."

Twitchell talked about the most important lesson he has learned while RVing.

"My wife and I went to Alaska. We put our RV on a ferry in Seattle and sent it to Alaska. When we got there, every time we'd see an animal, we'd stop," he said. It was a grueling stop-and-go, trying to spot the occasional brown or black bear or moose.

"Then, when we were going home on the Alaska Highway, it was filled with animals. We saw all these things driving home that I flew to Kodiak Island to see."

In other words, he said, you don't travel in an RV to get somewhere. You travel in an RV to enjoy getting there.

Patti Ewald can be reached at News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.


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