Modern Gentleman of the Road
American highways have long been a representation of the American disposition. People from the United States, unlike any other nation on Earth, travel primarily by personal vehicle. Much more than by train, bus, or even aircraft, Americans have chosen to visit our towns, our countryside, and each other in the relative solitude of an automobile. The solitude of the personal vehicle embodies the individualism that defines the American spirit. The gentleman motorist is lone, self-sufficient, and free from anyone else’s agenda.
RVing has become a popular way of expressing the vehicular wanderlust that is so characteristically American. A visit to any National Park, popular scenic area, or historical site will afford an exhibit of countless—monstrous—Winnebagos roaring from overlook to overlook. Often, stuck proudly on the rear bumper or windshield, is the gooney smile of Good Sam, the logo of the largest club for RVers in North America. Good Sam, short for Good Samaritan, is a symbol for the good will and affability of the RVing culture.
Classic American literature has venerated people who travel the American highway while self-contained in their personal vehicle. One such book is John Steinbeck’s American literary classic “Travels with Charlie.” In his book, Steinbeck documented his experiences full-timing on America’s back-roads. Charles Kuralt virtually invented the human-interest story while collecting the stories for his book “On the Road with Charles Kuralt,” by wandering from small-town to small-town interviewing local personalities and cultures. Interestingly, both books were written—literally—in the back of a recreational vehicle.
The word camping has a nebulous definition that can be interpreted in innumerable ways. To one person, camping may mean sleeping on a thin foam pad atop the ice of a frozen lake that borders the US and Canada. To someone else, camping may mean parking beside an Arizona desert oasis in a one million dollar air-conditioned recreational vehicle. The two worlds of wilderness travelers and RVers may seem galaxies apart. The great irony, however, is the proximal existence that these two groups share. Though both groups have incongruent definitions of camping, RVers and wilderness travelers share the same spaces—National and State Parks, scenic areas, monuments, and historical sites. These places often define their lives and serve as an expression of their character. These places may in fact be where their community exists. In the campground of a National Park, RVers may see scrubby backpackers passing through a campground on their way to a wilderness trailhead. Those same backpackers may see the RVers in the relative opulence of their motorized mansions. And yet, a word is rarely shared between them.
I suspect that snobbery is not what segregates RVers and wilderness travelers. Like most instances of sectarianism, the discord may be due to the trepidation that comes with the mystery of an unfamiliar person. “Why on earth would someone want to camp like that? ” an RVer or backpacker might ask of each other.
The mysteriousness of RVing is due in large part to the relative obscurity of the RV culture. Many RVers are retirees who have left their homes, work, friends, and families to live—full-time—in constant motion on the road. In a country where the idea of community is synonymous with place, the culture of full-timers is difficult to understand or even contact. A full-timer is not bound to anyone’s schedule but one’s own. Some do not have a permanent postal address or phone number. Some do not even wish to be contacted. And so full-timers have continued to exist as a largely unnoticed culture—save for those brief moments that we pass their lumbering vehicles along the interstate highways. Yet, the adventurous character and love of the road makes the lives of full-time RVers the epitome of the American spirit.