by Tim Martin

Big Red, the Croomes' bus. Clifford and Marjorie Croome have not slept in a house for seven years.But don't pity them. They are not poor people sleeping in an old sedan, taking meals at soup kitchens. In fact, if you could, you'd probably change places with these "Cadillac Nomads" in a skinny minute.

The Croomes are touring the lower 48 states in "Big Red," their 40-foot Prevost (PRAY-vo) motorhome. This 45,000-pound bus has two microwaves, two TVs, three air conditioners, a 1,500-watt generator, 170-gallon waste holding tank and a 140-gallon fresh water tank and $7,000 worth of solar panels, according to Clifford, a retired aerospace engineer and orthodontist from San Diego who custom-spec'd the rig before buying it for $700,000.

I met the Croomes at Mad River Rapids RV Park in Arcata, where they'd alighted for a few days to visit their daughter, Evonne, a Humboldt State University graduate student. The Croomes and their big rig floated in on the stream of North Coast RV tourists that never dries up and swells to a torrent in the warmer months.

Those mobile living units range from van conversion campers to motorhomes with queen-size beds, full kitchens and TVs. (For those who don't have a satellite dish, many RV parks provide cable hookups.)

While the Croomes fit the popular concept of RV owners -- well-off retirees -- more and more people of all ages are buying RVs. More than half the 8.2 million RVs in the United States are owned by young families, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).

Mark and Traci Menicucci and their four children -- ages 13, 8, 5 and 4 -- are among those millions. They say they head out for two months of RV camping every summer. They bought their first motorhome six years ago, then moved to a better RV neighborhood last year with the purchase of a 36-foot Fleetwood Bounder with a better entertainment center than they have in their San Jose home.

"If you travel with children, staying in hotels can be a nightmare," said Mark. "When we park somewhere in the motorhome, within five minutes we're having a margarita, and the kids have their toys out. You also don't have to worry about packing and unpacking suitcases, or finding a place to eat.

"If you see a place you want to visit, just pull out the Trailer Life catalog and choose the RV park you want to stay in."

According to the RVIA there are more than 16,000 campgrounds and RV parks nationwide. Bob and Mary Daley, another couple I met at Mad River Rapids, have probably stayed in most of them. "Living in an RV gives you a wonderful sense of independence," said Bob. "There's always a lot to see and do in the places you visit. Traveling keeps you young."

The Daleys, from New Jersey, don't skimp on the creature comforts in their 40-foot Beaver Marquis motorhome. The coach has air conditioning, a washer and dryer, baseboard heating (with three zones), a refrigerator/freezer, several VCRs and TVs.

To own an RV your annual income does not need to approach the gross national product of Bolivia, but sometimes it helps. The Daleys paid $242,000 for theirs.

"List price was $347,000," said Bob, a retired pilot for Johnson and Johnson, "but on a coach like this you can usually knock 20 percent off."

According to a study done by McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, one in four long-term RV travelers claimed that their physical health had improved as a result of their wandering ways. Of those, three-fourths cited reduced stress as the reason for the improvement.

Owning an RV doesn't usually make it onto the wish list of an already seasoned traveler, but Ray Hawthorn is an exception to that rule. A retired Air Force weapons control officer, Hawthorn and his wife Tulay had traveled widely and lived in Turkey before starting to tour the United States four years ago in their rig, a 40-foot London Aire fifth-wheel trailer pulled by a Dodge 1-ton pickup.

"We've traveled all around," said Ray, who reminded me of Beat Generation traveler and writer Jack Kerouac. "We go to a new place about every seven days."

The Hawthorn's fifth-wheel has a washer and dryer, dishwasher, microwave, and two air conditioning units. They like using a fifth-wheel trailer because after they're established in an RV site, they simply unhook the truck for day trips. Motorhome owners quickly discover that a jaunt to Redwood Park isn't always simple when you have to drag your entire home with you.

"The disadvantage (to a fifth-wheel setup)," said Hawthorn, "is that you can't dump your holding tank without hooking back up."

A recent study conducted by the RVIA found that traveling in an RV is cheaper than other forms of travel, but Hawthorn is skeptical. He and his wife spend about $2,000 a month for food, gasoline, clothes, entertainment and park fees.

"The East and West Coast parks cost about $30 a night.... The rest of the country averages about $18-20 a night. The most expensive place we've stayed is Key West, Fla., It was $62 a night to park there.

"There is also the cost of your RV to consider," added Hawthorn. "We paid $100,000 for our fifth wheel. When you figure that into the equation, it might be cheaper to stay in motels."

But "RV travel is still the best way to go," said Hawthorn, "especially if you have animals. We have six dachshunds. Try and find a hotel that will accommodate that many dogs."

Dennis and Vel Miller are not as interested in touring the country as they are in staying warm. The Millers, of Pigeon Lake, Canada, use their 36-foot Beaver motorhome for the exclusive purpose of going south for the winter, something they've been doing for 12 years. "Snowbirds" is what they call themselves, and this pair stopped in Arcata this spring on their way home.

"We've been in Yuma, Ariz., all winter," said Dennis, a part-time building contractor. "RV parks in Arizona fill up fast every winter. You have to call ahead to book a spot. If you don't, you won't get in." Other popular nesting spots are Florida and Texas.

"When we retire we might travel six months of the year," said Miller. "But we'll always go back to Canada. If you stay in the U.S. more than six months, you have to pay income tax."

Some RVers merge their hobby with business. Dave and Marge Ullman of Yuba City, Calif., love the freedom, the scenery, the wherever-we-are-is-home philosophy of motorhome life. But they also move around to do contract work for health care providers around the state.

"Dave is a lab technician," said Marge. "I'm a registered nurse We find our jobs through trade magazine and agencies. We've been here (in Arcata) since September. Dave is working at Mad River Hospital. I'm working as an RN in Eureka.

"It's better than being a tourist because you get to know the best of everything in the area. We plan to stay for a year," she added. "We'll probably be into this lifestyle another three or four years. We'd like to live in Bend, Ore., but it's cold there. We might become snowbirds, too."

The Ullmans live in a 38-foot American Eagle, built by Fleetwood. Its $200,000 price tag included leather furniture, marble floors and other amenities, even an ice maker.

Is a 38- or 40-foot RV hard to drive? Not according to the nomads I spoke with. "It took me about 10 seconds to learn to drive and a week to memorize the instrument panel," Clifford Croome told me. "Tight parking, though, is another matter."

Some drivers rely on mirrors and rear cameras. Others use whistles, CB radios and hand signals. Still others feel it's best to have your partner outside, guiding you into where you want to go.

Bob Cheever, manager of Mad River RV Park, has seen the best, the worst and the unforgettable.

"The wife will be hand-signaling and pointing, both of them will be talking through portable radios, and he'll be going opposite to her directions.

"I have seen RVers knock over pedestals, drive out onto the highway with their slide-out rooms still out, or with their electric, water and sewer still hooked up.... Sometimes they forget that their tow car is behind them, and back over it. I saw a new Geo Sidekick get demolished that way.

"One family had four kids who were using the swimming pool just prior to their departure. When they got ready to go, three of the kids headed for the motorhome, the other, a 6-year-old boy, went to the bathroom. The parents drove off and left him behind. Ten minutes later, they were back looking for the boy."

Don Jacobsen, manager of the Widow White Creek RV Park in McKinleyville, has seen his share of parking blunders as well.

Take, for instance, the woman who couldn't park her van. "It wasn't a big RV ... just a little van. I have a tree there, a golden Cyprus. She backed over the tree five times before she could get into the spot. Somehow, the tree survived."

There are other stories, like the driver in Arizona Beach, Ore., who knocked out all the utilities as he tried to park sideways on his site. And the guy in Olympia, Wash., who cut down trees to get his motorhome in. And the man who caused a forest fire in the Rockies when he drove for miles with a flat tire on his tow car. Sparks were flying, people were driving by, honking, and he wouldn't stop.

When he was charged with the crime, his defense was, "Hey, whenever you drive one of these things, people honk at you all the time!"

Timothy Martin is a heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University and a free lance writer.

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