Research with Rvers

We did not become involved in research with RVers because we were ourselves RVers. Although we briefly owned a "pop-up" tent trailer, most of our camping for over thirty years was in a tent and/or with backpacks. For decades, the only thing we knew about RVers was that we were annoyed if a behemoth pulled in near us in a quiet campground and broke the stillness with its generator. Our favourite story about RVers was of a little girl who left her parents' shiny Airstream trailer with its television set and colored lanterns to visit our campsite and say wistfully, "I wish we could have a campfire."

In 1978 we first became aware of the possibility that large numbers of North American seniors might give up their homes, families, and communities and become rootless nomads living in their RVs. That summer eight of us went on a two-month camping trip in the U.S. southwest. We visited several national parks there, with an elderly couple in a motor home following us from one park to another. They would greet us and inquire where we intended to go next. They would be there when we arrived, find a campsite near ours, set up their chairs and watch as we, with our tents, sleeping bags and packs, spilled out of our two short-wheel-based Land Rovers and set up camp. Watching us was almost as much fun as watching a circus act, they said. They were full-time RVers. They actually lived in that motor home. They amazed us almost as much as we entertained them.

Our second meeting with serious RVers occurred in 1982. We had spent eight months of a year's research leave living in Victoria, B.C. where we worked on a book on aging in the South Pacific. On June 1 we started home to Ontario, camping as we went. Canadian schools are still in session in early June, and so the forest campgrounds were nearly deserted. The other occupants were mostly friendly retired folks. We struck up an acquaintance with several of them as we shared a pot of coffee or an evening campfire. Some of them explained they had sold their homes and were living as nomads, travelling in their RVs. They said there were thousands of others like them out there on the road, and that they were having a wonderful time.

Bemused, we began to wonder whether there were really thousands of these folks, or if we had just run into a few eccentrics? Why would they leave behind family, friends, their family doctor and maybe, even, their honest mechanic. How would they cope with two sets of problems: the problems associated with aging and the problems of being nomadic. Why would anybody do a thing like that? Trying to find the answers to those questions might, we thought, be an interesting research project -- someday. We labelled a file "Airstream Nomads", dropped in some newspaper clippings and a sheet of paper containing those questions, and put it in our filing cabinet under "possible research projects". Then we returned to our New Guinea research.

In 1990, twelve years after our first chance meeting with full-timers, we each had six months' research leave. Because of the unstable situation in Papua New Guinea, we were uncomfortable about returning there. For the first time since 1966 we were without a compelling research plan or a field site. So we dug out our "nomads" file and began a literature search to find out what other academics -- anthropologists, gerontologists, sociologists -- had written about elderly RVers. We found only brief mention of RVing as a retirement alternative and discovered that little research had been done on RVers as a group. The notable exception (we discovered much later) was a doctoral dissertation done in 1941 by the sociologist Donald Cowgill. Cowgill's research was based on a combination of questionnaires and participant observation, but the other studies were primarily survey research. Anthropological-type research on modern RV retirement seemed possible. It seemed worthwhile to investigate further to see if there were enough people out there to study.

We applied for and received a small grant for a pilot project. When we began we had little but questions. We had - and still have - no demographic profile. We were not even sure where to find RVers, although we knew there were many retired people in the southern mainland of British Columbia. We went to Vancouver and arranged to rent an old travel trailer for two and a half months. Then we pulled it to a nearby KOA park and started knocking on doors to find out where people went and when they left. The typical response was, "Well, when it starts to rain and the furnace comes on at night, it's time to head south."

As in 1966 when we first went to Papua New Guinea, we had a field research project but little preparation and no idea where it was going to lead us. Also as in 1966, we were lacking not only in how the society worked, but in technical know-how: poling a dugout canoe and backing a trailer into a narrow space both require a lot of skill. In both situations, the only way to learn is to do it. So, once again, we started.

RVers are not New Guinea villagers. There are huge numbers of them -- perhaps millions -- while the largest of the five Kaliai villages only has a population of a few hundred. RVers do not share kinship, history, or long association with a place, and they are not sedentary. Travel, indeed, is the main reason RVers live as they do. Furthermore, we and they mostly share a language and a culture and they are at least familiar with the notion of academic research. Doing participant observation with RVers would be different from doing research with Kandokans. We were dedicated to the notion of living with and like the people we wanted to study and to participation in their daily activities. But first we had to find them. When it started raining, we headed for "the field"

Operating on the assumption that if we wanted to do participant observation field work with people who live to travel, we too must become travellers, we decided to go to the places where RVers told us they went. We also decided to sample as wide a variety of methods and styles of RV living as possible, and to learn about the various options as we went. Although we did not exhaust the possibilities, we did try to go those places people told us about most often.

Not knowing any better, in Laughlin, Nevada we paid to stay in a commercial RV park instead of staying free in one of the casino parking lots. When we later told RVing friends about that they hooted with laughter: "Hey, everybody, they paid to stay in Laughlin."

Knowledgeable RVers are more likely to boondock (park without hookups, usually free or for a minimal fee) in casino parking lots, sometimes for months, while they attend low cost entertainment, enjoy inexpensive meals, and do some recreational gambling. We never made that mistake again

We next spent a week in the short term parking area at Quartzsite, Arizona. Quartzsite is a desert town on U.S. Interstate 10 and US 95 near the California border. During the summer its population is about 400 and, as one RVer told us, "It's so hot there in the summertime that when a roadrunner pulls a worm out of the ground it has to use a potholder." In the late fall and winter Quartzsite hosts the Main Event, billed as the world's largest flea-market and gem show.In the winter of 1990 the population peaked at 1½ million, most of them RVers. Most RVers boondock in the desert on Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA) land administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Quartzsite's Main Event

Several RVers told us that our study would be incomplete if we missed Slab City, also known as "The Slabs," an abandoned US military base near Niland, California, named for the concrete slabs that were the foundations of the temporary World War II buildings.

Residents either park their rigs on the slabs or use them as a patio base. Some do both. While most of the residents of Slab City are seasonal, staying from November or December through early March, some live there permanently. Everyone lives there free. Our informants usually added that we would not want to spend more than one night there. To them Slab City was a spectacle to behold rather than a place to stay. We spent a week at the Slabs and were enthralled by the communities that had formed there in the absence of any external authority, dependent on the hospitality of the residents and their sense of independence. As one resident told us, "People think we're here because it's free. We're not. We're here because we're free."

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