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Freedom-Seeking Retirees See RVs as Dream Machines


Published March 29, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 29, 2023 at 10:04 a.m.

Tom and Lori Piper inside their Airstream - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Tom and Lori Piper inside their Airstream

Are you RV-curious? Retirement signifies freedom, which, in turn, implies the ability to pick up and go whenever, wherever and with whomever you wish. The recreational vehicle, or RV, is widely considered a symbol of that liberty. You take your home with you.

On March 18, 15 freedom-seekers showed up at South Burlington City Hall & Public Library to listen to a tutorial on the roam-home life by Tom and Lori Piper, RV mavens who have traveled 50,000 miles and spent 500 nights in Stanley, their 22-foot Airstream trailer.

For the most part, the Pipers were preaching to the conversion van-, camper-, trailer- and motor home-willing — the RV-positive. Most of the attendees were focused on the how, not the why.

Lin Kalson of North Ferrisburgh has no previous experience but plans to set out on a solo odyssey "cold turkey" as soon as her new customized camper van is ready. "I have friends all over the place," she said. "I want to travel, and I want the freedom to go when I want."

Another newbie, Suzanne Lemire of Colchester, said, "I want to see the country." The urge to tour the U.S. at "see level" is a strong motivation for the RV inclined.

For veteran nomads and wannabe practitioners of untethered living, this is the dream. For others, this is a trip to crazy town. Recreational vehicles tend to create deep schisms in public opinion, like daylight saving time, baseball's designated hitter and Justin Bieber.

Who among us hasn't gazed wistfully at a 45-foot-long road yacht — no doubt filled with a travel-loving family playing board games or a touring rock band sleeping off last night's show and after-party — wishing they were part of the great adventure? Until, of course, we find ourselves crawling behind a meandering motor home, its massive bulk making a rumor of America's most scenic highways.

Tom Piper preparing the Airstream for upcoming travels - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Tom Piper preparing the Airstream for upcoming travels

As advocates of journeying, the pied Pipers of wanderlust were responding to friends and followers of their online travel blog — called Ramble On — who wanted to know the pros and cons of RV life.

"It's fun to impart knowledge and tell our stories," Tom explained, "and this is a natural extension of what I'm doing with the website."

Tom, 59, who is semiretired from his marketing business, is savvy about his audience. "There are two types of people, and it's funny how often they exist in the same couple," he explained. "One of them is like, Tell me if the dream is as great as I imagined it. And the other is like, All right, tell me the horror stories. Tell me if my fears are accurate."

The Pipers admitted that all the reading and research you can do is no substitute for getting out on the road.

"I've never spent a day out there that I was disappointed or wished I hadn't, but I could easily see it happening," Tom said. "Part of the purpose of this education is, some people buy into the dream and they literally get a month out, and they're like, 'We got to sell this RV. This isn't for us.' It would be good to help them avoid that mistake."

Although the Pipers are evangelists of the RV, they are realists; their 90-minute slideshow presentation balanced the good with the not so good.

"The planning never stops," Tom told his audience. "Things break; you have to fix them. Thank goodness for YouTube." (On the plus side, added Lori, 64, a retired speech pathologist, "People want to help you on the road.")

Bad weather, grouchy traveling companions, crowded or full campsites, bears or the imagining of them — all are inevitable. Sedona, the scenic Arizona town famed for its red rock buttes, has a relaxed policy regarding campsites, earning this mention in Tom's blog:

"Off-roading is more popular in these parts than pickleball is at a Florida retirement village. The hills are dotted with makeshift RV camps and most of their occupants are tearing around in Jeeps, motorcycles, Razors, Slingshots, etc. all day long. It all has [a] real lawless, Road Warrior type of vibe."

But the joy of the open road! The glorious parks! Whatever the downsides, RVs are gaining popularity. A 2020 study by the RV Industry Association showed that 11.2 million U.S. households now own one, an increase of 62 percent in 20 years. And it's not just legions of baby boomers exiting the working life and going mobile. There's significant growth among 18- to 34-year-olds, who now make up 22 percent of the market, the study found. The research predicted that a surprising 9.6 million households will buy an RV within the next five years.

Of course, not all RVs are created equal. As with a tiny house versus a McMansion, you get what you pay for. You can buy a pop-up camper for between $10,000 and $20,000. A new trailer can run up to $75,000 — or well into six figures for the Airstream. And motor homes range from $50,000 to $300,000 for 45-foot Fleetwoods.

OK, so you have the dough to splurge on a monster of the motorway. What about fuel? A 40-foot motor home gets 7 to 13 miles per gallon. A 25-footer can get 18 to 25 mpg. Tom pulls his 22-foot-long, 8-foot-wide Airstream with a Toyota SUV that gets 12 mpg. Trailers generally are more fuel-efficient when paired with newer cars.

RV enthusiasts have gotten better results with hybrids, but the real savings will come when all-electric vehicles have the nationwide infrastructure — that is, fast-charging EV stations — to support long journeys.

Within the rambling community are differing opinions on the best type of RV. The Pipers prefer trailers, or "towables," which require a separate vehicle to pull them. Self-powered RVs, such as motor homes, combine home and vehicle and can be driven straight to the campsite, no unhitching required.

"But let's say you forgot a bag of ice," Tom told his audience. "With a motor home, you have to break camp and drive the whole rig to the store." Once you unhitch a trailer, the car or truck gives you more freedom of movement.

Lori Piper getting the kitchen ready - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Lori Piper getting the kitchen ready

This is why you may see motor homes towing a car behind, Tom explained, a sort of belt-and-suspenders approach, "which kind of defeats the purpose of having a self-driving motor home," he noted.

"I gave a ton of thought to a trailer versus a motor home," Tom said, "and concluded I wanted a trailer so I could get to my campsite and detach."

Campground charges are about $50, Tom said. Hookup fees — for water, electric and sewer dumps — are extra, averaging about $55.

Ironically, Tom never went camping as a kid. He grew to love it as an adult in Seattle. After he and Lori married, they set off on an epic, no-frills, 17-month-long, round-the-world honeymoon — perhaps the purest expression of wanderlust ever. Family trips, mainly car and tent camping, followed with their two sons.

Visions of towables danced through Tom's head until he saw his destiny. Driving through the Cascade Mountains, he spotted an Airstream, and nothing would ever be the same. A silver bullet had entered his heart.

"There are those of us who think that they're just works of art, and I happen to be one of them," he enthused. "And that intrigued me, but then the whole house-on-your-back thing just suddenly took hold with me, and I became borderline obsessed."

Works of art tend to be pricey, — Airstreams run from $40,000 to $140,000 or more — but the Pipers said theirs "practically fell in our lap." Lori overheard someone at her fitness club say they were selling one. Not long after, a gleaming 'Stream nicknamed Stanley was sitting in the Pipers' South Burlington driveway.

On April 1, Stanley will leave that driveway as the Pipers begin this year's grand tour. Their five-month itinerary takes them down the East Coast to the Florida Keys, then west through New Orleans. They will continue on to Santa Fe, N.M., and Denver, into the Rocky Mountains, crossing into Canada for the famed Calgary Stampede rodeo, through the Canadian Rockies, and down to Seattle to attend a wedding. The return trip should get them home by the end of August.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Road Worshippers | Freedom-seeking retirees see RVs as dream machines"

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