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In The News

At Home on the Road

Category: At Home on the Road
Source: New York Times
Publish Date: Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Summary: It’s the rare homeowner who has not dreamed now and then of walking away from the mortgage and the yardwork and taking to the open road.

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It’s the rare homeowner who has not dreamed now and then of walking away from the mortgage and the yardwork and taking to the open road.

Trudy Lundgren, once a graphic artist in Lower Manhattan, and her partner, Lisa Wade, a sales representative, were no exception. Their one-bedroom apartment in a Chelsea brownstone was charming, but the noise and pressure of New York City was grinding them down. Living in an R.V. was something they’d talked about for years — not for just a few meager weeks in summer when the crowds in Yosemite are so deep you might as well be in Times Square, but full-time living and working on the road.

Four years ago, they made it happen. They sold their apartment and moved into a vintage 40-foot motor home with a queen-size bed, drapes that can be opened with a flick of a switch and a kitchen bigger and better designed than the one they had in New York. They have regular work selling and designing ads for R.V. parks, which enables them to stay in parks rent-free and set their own hours.

Their travels these days, as Ms. Lundgren described them, involve gorgeous scenery, adventure, and a cast of ever-changing characters: a sort of endless summer, on the road. In early August, after gigs that had taken them from Arizona to California, they were in Leavenworth, a town in the Cascade Mountains that had remade itself as a Bavarian village. (No, not tacky, Ms. Lundgren said. Well, maybe a little, but a spectacular setting of firs and lakes. ) They could meet the reporter at their next stop, a motor home park 80 miles away in Ellensburg, adjacent to the Days Inn.

In fact, the R. V. park turned out to be in the Days Inn parking lot: A large paved lot behind the motel with space for 80 R.V. ’s with the charm of a suburban mall and barely enough grass to feed a rabbit. The only landmark of note on the horizon was the truck stop down the road, where several 18-wheelers were parked.

Ms. Lundgren was seated outside her van at a small table.

“So where’s the burbling brook? ” the reporter asked.

The look that followed suggested that this was not the best opener.

“Too bad you didn’t get here last week; we were in the forest,” Ms. Lundgren said finally. “You don’t get the total R. V. thing here. This is like a parking lot. But it is what it is. ”

Life on the road, which has in many ways lived up to the dreams of the couple, has also been a challenge. The early jobs they found were often physically draining and paid minimum wage.

Falling in love with a vintage motor home turned out to be as fraught as falling in love with a Victorian house, and nearly as expensive. It was a money pit on wheels.

The couple’s 1985 Blue Bird Wanderlodge was 19 years old when they bought it, the equivalent of 190 in house years. Repairs and improvements the first year cost $21,000. Four years after going on the road, the couple have $32,000 in debts they have been able to start paying off only this year.

There are no hard figures on how many Americans choose to live full-time in motor homes. The Recreation Vehicles Industry Association, hardly a disinterested source, estimates it at 400,000. Sue Bray, the executive director of the Good Sam Club, which has one million member families and claims to be the largest R. V. club in the world, estimates that 70,000 of the club’s member’s are full-timers. How many R. V. full-timers work on the road, she does not know.

Ms. Lundgren, 57, and Ms. Wade, 49, may be a bit younger than many of the R. V. full-timers, but wanderlust, of the Route 66, hidden America sort, is something they both share. Both consider the road trips they took with their parents when they were young the happiest times in their childhoods.

Beyond that, the couple, who have been together 12 years, are a study in contrasts.

Ms. Lundgren, who was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt when a visitor stopped by, is warm, frank and game. Finding herself in an R. V. park clubhouse with an 80-year-old female stride piano player and many older extra ladies, Ms. Lundgren danced with them all. (“Because I know how to lead, my dance card was full all afternoon,” she wrote in one of her regular e-mail dispatches to friends, which she is thinking of turning into a book. )

Her partner is pale, blond, petite and reserved. On a recent morning, she went off to seek advertisers in a crisp white shirt and tan trousers, carrying a briefcase. Seeing her, you’d assume she’d gotten dressed in a suburban house, not a motor home (which has full-length mirrors in both the bedroom and bathroom). Their feelings about New York City are also very different.

For Ms. Lundgren, who grew up in Southern California and has a degree in psychology from George Washington University, New York was the city where she bloomed. She visited New York as a trombone player with a Washington, D. C. , gay marching band for Gay Pride Day in 1979, fell in love with the New York band member who was her host, and moved to the city the following year. She created her own business, Pro-Type Graphics. In the mid ’90s, she bought a one-room apartment on West 20th Street in Chelsea, with a skylight and fireplace, for $92,000. Measured generously, it was 500 square feet.

Ms. Wade, who grew up in Kansas and has a degree in music from Pittsburg State University, was a flight attendant when she was assigned to New York City. She hated it. The couple talked about going on the road from the day they met, but they thought of it as something they would do in retirement. The attacks of September 11 not only drove Ms. Lundgren into a six-month drinking binge and then therapy, but reduced the couple’s combined income to about $60,000, which made them decide to do it sooner.

Ms. Lundgren and Ms. Wade spent three years researching. They visited the sites of the Escapees and the Good Sam R. V. clubs. They signed up with Workamper News, an online job resource for R. V. full-timers. They went to R. V. shows and drew up a list of requirements: A 40-foot bus with space for an office and two computers, because Ms. Lundgren hoped to keep her business going from the road. They wanted a Blue Bird Wanderlodge. Their rule was that an owner had to be able to explain every working part. Otherwise, they felt, it was unlikely that the R. V. had been well maintained.

They looked at 11 vans, finally settling on one in Texas. The price was $72,500, with an additional $5,000 for the 2000 Toyota RAV4 that had been hauled behind it. The owner, an airline pilot, flew Ms. Lundgren to Texas to look it over. Having it inspected by a professional was something that never occurred to her.

In Chelsea, meanwhile, prices had been skyrocketing. Ms. Lundgren sold her apartment in the spring of 2004 for $375,000. After buying the R. V. with cash, paying off the mortgage, and setting up a retirement account, they had $40,000 for their first year. Diesel fuel was $1. 65 a gallon, and although the R. V. got between 6 and 8 miles to the gallon, they figured they would be fine.

In July 2004, the couple took possession of their motor home in Texas. Their official address was now 139 Rainbow Drive, Livingston, Tex. — the headquarters of the Escapees R. V. Club, which claims to have the largest registered mail forwarding service in the country, forwarding mail for 10,000 subscribers The couple had learned in their research that Texas was a good place to have an address, because it has no state income tax.

Ms. Lundgren’s R. V. updates to their friends back home were rich with colorful characters and beautiful country: the biker turned R. V. full-timer who traveled with a Shih Tzu named Rosie and when intoxicated recited “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”; the evening at the rodeo at which the cowgirl who galloped into the ring standing up on the horse carrying the Stars and Stripes was Tonya Harding.

There were also e-mail messages about the more traditional pleasures of R. V. living.

“Here it is our last night in Dallas and we are enjoying our campground for one last night. I am cooking dinner over an open wood fire. There’s a beautiful sunset to my right and a perfect view of the lake to my left. ”

Unfortunately, there were also major problems with the R. V. In the Days Inn parking lot, with the two frisky dachshunds they acquired on the road and a 12-year-old tabby who is none too happy with both the canine and human interlopers, the women enumerate the expenses: $100 apiece for six R.V. batteries; $3,000 for a charger; $1,000 for new air-conditioning; $3,000 for new radiator hoses; $500 for a water heater; $1,000 for two new tires — $13,400 for essential repairs within the first year. Then there was a car accident with an uninsured motorist that cost them $900. There were also some purchases that they now consider extravagant: the $2,000 flat-screen TV; the $5,000 satellite system; $5,000 for new computers.

The women took a six-week park manager’s training course with the Escapees R. V. Club so that they could live rent-free in exchange for working 20 hours a week. Since the program did not pay cash, they took turns working at outside jobs. Ms. Lundgren and Ms. Wade had thought about what those jobs might be before going on the road; their descriptions of them sound like something one might have seen on a dusty calendar in a back road garage on a road trip in the 1960s. “I wanted to pump gas in a vintage gas station and wear the cute little outfit,” Ms. Wade says. “I thought working in a carnival would be fun. ”

The jobs they found were often hard and paid minimum wage: standing for long hours as a Wal-Mart clerk; working the morning shift at McDonald’s. They’d hoped to travel to Alaska, but fuel would cost a few thousand dollars. Most of Ms. Lundgren’s clients, unhappy that she was no longer 10 blocks away, slipped away themselves. Their credit card debt reached $30,000, and Ms. Lundgren borrowed $12,000 from her mother.

A year and a half ago, they found work with AGS Publishing, which creates maps of R. V. parks. Ms. Wade sells advertising; Ms. Lundgren designs ads. The job gives them a free site and utilities at the parks where they work, as well as commissions, which this year were about $36,000, according to Ms. Lundgren. The job has helped them reduce their credit card debt to $20,000. It also enables them to deduct their motor home expenses on their federal income taxes.

“Now instead of driving a big old money pit, we drive a big old tax deduction,” Ms. Lundgren says.

Diesel fuel, which has risen by $2 a gallon since the women went on the road, has not been a major problem. With a 300-gallon tank (which could cost nearly $1,200 to fill at today’s prices) they buy fuel only when the price is right. Also, time is elastic for the couple; they are not constrained by a two-week vacation.

They’ve found other ways to economize. They buy clothes in thrift shops and get their haircuts at beauty schools. They permit themselves only two meals out a week. And they remain convinced that their motor home is providing a wonderful life.

“Living in an R. V. park is pretty stress-free,” Ms. Lundgren says. “You don’t have to worry about crime, you don’t have to worry about getting packed into the subway, we get to have campfires almost every night if we want.

Sure, but meanwhile, they’re in a parking lot.

“For this particular job,” Ms. Lundgren says. “But guess what? It’s only going to be for two weeks. One of the last ones, we were in Pacifica, California, on a cliff, looking right down to the ocean. ”

And how long will they stay on the road?

“As far as I’m concerned, until I’m so old I can’t lift my briefcase anymore,” Ms. Wade says.

“As long as our health holds out,” says Ms. Lundgren.

Highway Life Made Easier

IF you’ve ever wondered about life on the road, there are several R. V. clubs and organizations that offer information about it.

The Good Sam Club (, with a membership of about 1 million families, offers a 10 percent discount at 1,700 parks in the United States and Canada, along with travel tips and other benefits.

The Escapees R. V. Club (escapees. com), with about 35,000 families as members, provides discounts to some 1,000 commercial R.V. parks. The club owns a number of parks, some of which offer leases for up to five years, and it has a mail-forwarding service.

Workamper News has been a job resource for the R. V. community for 20 years. The editor, Steve Anderson, says he works with about 5,000 employers. They include the Army Corps of Engineers, for campsite work; the Southern Cross Corporation, which hires people to walk and inspect its gas lines; Disney World; and Amazon, which needs help during its Christmas rush.

Workamper News also represents Air Photo, a company in Washington State that takes aerial photos of homes and sends them to R. V. users, who sell them door-to-door.

A one-year subscription to Workamper News, which includes online access and a magazine subscription, is $42 (www. workamper. com).

The soaring price of fuel has not dampened the enthusiasm of many full-time R. V. campers. Kevin Read and his wife, Ruth, from suburban Ottawa, have been on the road since October 1997. They have traveled across Canada to Vancouver, south to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, then back across North America and up the East Coast to Nova Scotia.

“We’ve done 15,000 miles in nine months and have spent $5,571 on gasoline, an average of $619 a month,” Mr. Read wrote in an e-mail message. “Here’s the way we look at it: Most people have a regular job and spend about $400 a month seeing the same 20-mile route day after day. We spend slightly more than that seeing of all of North America.


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