MOSCOW – When Babe Flaa talks about her first day behind the wheel of their new 35-foot RV, she sounds slightly amazed.
“I went through town,” she says. “I went right through the middle of town. I did OK.”
Close at hand was driving instructor Jerry Ray, whose classes are part of the 11th annual Life on Wheels Conference at the University of Idaho, which runs through next Friday.
The conference, which draws hundreds of RVers from around the country, offers classes about seemingly every aspect of the enormous homes-on-wheels that are booming right alongside the baby boom.
Babe Flaa and her husband, Bud, were down from Spokane on Friday to take the driving classes – learning to carefully back up, mastering turning radii and watching the engine pressure. Other classes through the end of the conference range from mechanics to geography to fire safety.
“Everything from RVing in New Zealand to how to make reservations to self-defense to how to change your oil – I mean everything,” said Jack Friedlander, a 63-year-old Texan who’s been across much of the United States in his RV.
Friedlander and his wife, Sally, sold their home and hit the road more than a year ago. Since then, they’ve traveled with their two Jack Russell terriers, Puddin’ and Scooter, across the South, the East Coast, the Rocky Mountains – all at a leisurely and transient pace.
Next up is Minot, N.D., for an RV rally.
“From there, it’s a real question where we’ll end up,” Jack Friedlander said.
Friedlander and the other RV enthusiasts in Moscow this week are part of a U.S. growth industry. There are more than 7 million RVs on the road in America, and that’s expected to more than double over the next five years, according to a report commissioned by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
A large part of the increase is being driven by retirees. One in 10 Americans over age 55 owns an RV, and, as Motorhome Magazine notes, “Every day, 11,000 Americans turn 50, according to U.S. Census figures.”
The University of Idaho has in some ways laid claim to the trend. The Life on Wheels conference started as a few very popular two-hour night classes, and it has grown over 11 years into a series of conferences around the country. Besides the event in Moscow, the UI has extension programs in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Iowa. Next year, the school is adding Tucson, Ariz.
“People keep asking for one in the Southwest, and so we’re going to try it,” said Peggy Waterman, UI’s conference manager for the event. “Nobody else does this.”
Though the conference won’t begin in earnest until Monday, there were activities around Moscow all last week, including the driving classes. Courses for first-time RVers were held in Clarkston, and a couple of them had brand-new rigs delivered there, Waterman said.
About a third of the people who come to the conference typically don’t even have RVs yet – they’re just looking ahead, Waterman said. That may not be such a bad idea. Driving RVs is a lot different from driving anything else – they’re bigger, hard to turn and unless everything’s packed up, the household can get pretty messy when you hit a pothole.
And then there are the more mundane trials. When the Friedlanders were cruising through New Mexico, they had a blowout.
“It sounded like an atomic bomb,” Jack said.
The Friedlanders’ motor home has a fairly spacious “living room,” flanked by couches. Kitchen counters line the area off the living room, with a bedroom toward the rear of the coach.
They keep a nationwide restaurant guide handy and try out its recommendations as they move from town to town. They seem converted to the lifestyle and can succinctly sum it up.
“There’s not so much to clean,” Sally said.
Jack added, “Nor is there as much room to enjoy it and spread out.”