Like an alien fleet gathering strength from the mother ship, an armada of shiny vehicles from afar has docked here in the shadow of the Kibbie Dome.
Nourished by an umbilical network of black tubing and bathed in the hum of three portable diesel power plants, the sheet metal-and-fiberglass sojourners have taken on power, water and that most highly prized commodity in any galaxy, the companionship of one’s own kind.
There may or may not be life on other planets, but here there is definitely Life on Wheels, the third annual recreational vehicle conference hosted by the University of Idaho. Life on Wheels opened Monday and runs through Friday.
More than 700 terrestrial travelers from 41 states ran a gantlet of gas stations at as little as 6 miles per gallon to learn more about a lifestyle that, according to Gaylord Maxwell, the event’s director and co-founder, attracts a growing number of participants each year.
An estimated 9 million RVs travel America’s roadways, a figure that is increasing by 100,000 vehicles per year, said Maxwell, who makes his home in Deary, Idaho, during the four to six months of the year when he is not on the road.
The RV community is made up mostly of retirement-age couples. However, there are clubs for singles and the $12 billion RV industry is aggressively courting the baby-boom generation, Maxwell said.
Wandering in an RV is not for the weak of wallet. Top-of-the-line motorhomes sell for as much as $1 million, and the average new motorhome runs $70,000 to $80,000, according to Maxwell, one of nearly 50 industry experts scheduled to teach classes at the conference.
Among the RVs gathered this week in the Kibbie Dome parking lot, digital satellite dishes sprout like metal mushrooms from the asphalt, and portable barbecues sizzle while miniature schnauzers bark. There are no phone lines here, but for many of those gathered, there is no reason to call home.
As one bumper sticker says, “Home is where you park it.”
“I have a home in the mountains. I have a home at the beach. I have a home wherever I want it,” says Jayne Osborn of Riverside, Calif., who is about to retire from a 25-year career at Disneyland to become a full-timer, RVspeak for someone who has sold his or her home and now owns “wheel estate.”
This year’s weeklong conference offers more than 100 classes in everything from how to choose and drive an RV to more esoteric lifestyle-enhancement subjects such as photography and humor writing. About 200 RV wannabes are bunked in nearby motels, hoping to learn from classes like “How to live in a sardine can without killing each other” before themselves taking the plunge.
Kay Peterson, who taught that class Monday, stressed the importance of sharing possessions and reminded participants to carve private time from what can be a suffocating routine.
“Make new friends,” she said. “As a full-time RVer, you gradually widen the distance between you and family. So keep those old friends but make some new ones.”
One tip for meeting new people: “All a man has to do is lift the hood of his vehicle and stand there …” she said to laughter.
Around the Kibbie Dome lot, neighbors drift from awning to awning, trading stories about the price of gas (still less than a dollar in Atlanta) and endlessly comparing their rigs (never big enough). If these people share one thing in common, it’s a passion for adventure.
“The first summer (1962) that I went out in a trailer, I knew I was born to be a Gypsy,” said Bill Farlow, 71.
His neighbor for the week, Sharlene Minshall, 60, shares his peripatetic instincts. “If the grass gets too long I don’t have to stay and mow it,” she said.
RV clubs and associations make finding a friend as easy as locating the nearest RV park. Escapees Club members, for example, traditionally greet each other with a hug. “It’s like an extended family,” said Rosemarie McGrath, a soon-to-be-retired school nurse from Sun Lakes, Ariz.
For all its bonhomie, this village will be a rear-view mirror memory come Saturday.
By the weekend, said Farlow, “We’re going to have a major case of itchy wheels.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos