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The cowboy spirit lives on in RVers

By Andy Zipser

For some inexplicable reason, I have for years retained an image of Kirk Douglas as a horse-riding cowboy with a pair of wire cutters, snipping his way through one barbed-wire fence after another as he flees the law, following a misplaced noble impulse gone awry. The vignette is from the 1962 movie “Lonely Are the Brave,” set in contemporary times and based on a book by the misanthropic Edward Abbey. It is, in essence, a parable about the clash between stiff-necked individualism and the growing strictures of modern society, as succinctly captured in this exchange:

Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas): “A westerner likes open country. That means he’s got to hate fences. And the more fences there are, the more he hates them.”
Jerry Bondi (Gena Rowlands): “I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life.”
Jack Burns: It’s true though. Have you ever noticed how many fences there’re getting to be? And the signs they got on them: no hunting, no hiking, no admission, no trespassing, private property, closed area, start moving, go away, get lost, drop dead! Do you know what I mean?”

SIXTY YEARS LATER the fences are still there and the horses are mostly gone. But the cowboy spirit lives on, and as often as not it’s bound up with a segment of the RVing public that prizes independence, mobility and freedom from restrictions. These are the RVers, often (but not always) full-timers, who embrace boondocking and camping self-sufficiency, take pride in living off the grid and extol the virtues of rugged individualism. They are as American as apple pie, and their values are deeply ingrained within the national character.

What brought this to mind most recently is a book I’ve just finished reading, first published a quarter of a century ago by two Canadian anthropologists, Dorothy and David Counts. “Over the Next Hill,” subtitled “An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America,” was a ground-breaking look at a phenomenon that until then had gone largely unremarked except by those stuck behind a slow-moving RV on a narrow road. An estimated 2-3 million people, many of them elderly, were wandering the North American landscape in their motorcoaches and travel trailers without much public understanding of who they were.

A generation of elders “have become nomads,” the Counts couple wrote. “They do not spend their days sitting on their porches in their rocking chairs or baking cookies in hope their grandchildren will drop by. Instead they’re out roaming the blue highways, sleeping in truck stops, parking in the desert for months at a time. These old folks are not acting like old folks used to! What is going on?”

In answering that question, the duo began to pick at an inherent tension in the RVing lifestyle that remains unresolved — and still largely undiscussed — to this day: the urge toward freedom and independence on one hand, and toward reciprocity and mutual aid on the other. For every impulse toward shrugging off society’s constraints, they note, there is an impulse toward neighborliness. Many full-timers view themselves as modern-day pioneers, and pioneers not only struck out on their own, but also drew together against hostile forces, helped each other harvest crops and knew they could count on each other in a crisis.

“By this method [RVing] we are finding again the old standards of neighborliness and helpfulness which, sadly, no longer seem to exist in ‘normal’ day-to-day living,” the Counts couple quoted from one full-timing retiree’s letter.

That desire for neighborliness led to the founding of the Good Samaritan Club in 1966 and the Escapees RV Club 12 years later, both created to provide members with a rolling fellowship of like-minded spirits. “Community” did not need to be geographically fixed, these clubs attested. With their readily recognizable logos and scheduled group activities, the Good Sams and the “Skips” answered the question posed by Allan Wallis in his 1991 history of mobile homes: “How, people ask, can people who live in houses on wheels honor a commitment to community?”

But much has happened in the 25 years since “Over the Next Hill” first appeared, and in the seesaw between fierce individualism and civic-mindedness, the latter has been greatly diminished. The number of RVs has exploded, the wide-open spaces are increasingly cluttered and littered, and the connections between people have broken down. The growth in Escapees, whose watchword is “freedom driven,” has been tailing off — the overall total increasing by just 10,000 in the past 20 years – and now stands at approximately 70,000.

Good Sam, meanwhile, has jettisoned all pretense of being a community of anything other than consumers. Claiming more than 2 million members under the slogan “our members save more,” the “club” has steadily distanced itself from the Good Samaritan symbolism of its early years, most recently modifying its logo so that the only remaining graphic symbol is a free-floating, cryptic yellow halo — the Good Sam version of the Nike swoosh.

RELATED: Is the Good Sam Club finished as an active RV club?

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, without a balancing sense of community and reciprocity, there’s no surprise that many of the voices on behalf of “freedom” have grown more strident within RVing circles. The extreme wing of the anti-vaccine, anti-mask crowd is matched in vitriol only by the equally extreme climate-change deniers. Wearing a mask, a “face diaper,” is viewed as an intolerable intrusion into personal sovereignty. Even describing one’s personal experiences of being assaulted by a climate gone mad — of being chased out of campsites by floods and forest fires — is decried as unwelcome political discourse.

The Jack Burnses in the crowd view themselves as heroes, wire cutters in hand, slicing through the fences of government overreach and political correctness hemming them in on every side. It’s worth noting, however, that even Jack Burns confessed to a more sober self-assessment, as when he explained why he did the things he did. “’Cause I’m a loner clear down deep to my guts,” he explained. “Know what a loner is? He’s a born cripple. He’s a cripple because the only person he can live with is himself.”

Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. The fascinating book, recently published, is available at many large bookstores and at Amazon.com.

##RVT1029

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Retired Firefighter Tom
1 month ago

Joined Good Sam back in 1983 for the discount. Local club I joined was sponsored by the dealer and NOT GS. affiliated. Bercame GS life member the first year it was offered. When Lemonis took over I thought about cancelling my membership but decided to keep it for the 10% camping discount. Tried CW service under Lemonis once. Turns out it was too often. Too bad Art Rouse retired and sold the club to Lemonis.

Bill
1 month ago

Interesting that the Good Sam Club was established in 1966. It no longer exists as a “club” for RVers as the writer states. Good Sam is now just about collecting dollars from RVers. Marcus and his ilk are not helpful to the RV community. Andy stated that the Escapees RV Club was founded in 1978. When was the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA) founded? How many members do they have now? Interesting that FMCA one of the prominent RV clubs in North America was not mentioned in the article. I notice that RV Travel never mentions FMCA either. Why is that?

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
1 month ago
Reply to  Bill

Hi, Bill. Just for kicks, I looked up “FMCA” in our published articles and there have been 287 posts about it, or where it was mentioned. Here’s the most recent post. It’s a recap of the FMCA’s recent convention from Tony Barthel: https://www.rvtravel.com/fmca-convention-recap/ Have a good night. 🙂 -Diane

Bill
1 month ago
Reply to  RV Staff

Thanks Diane. I am a member of both FMCA and Escapees. As they are probably the best known of the RV clubs I found it odd that Andy a former RV Park owner didn’t mention FMCA along with Escapees and “Bad” Sam. I don’t agree that “Escapees is the best Club for RVers” even though I am a member. Maybe for full time RVers but that is debatable. Keep up the great work Diane. You’re the best!

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
1 month ago
Reply to  Bill

Awww. Thanks, Bill. (Blush) Flattery will get you everywhere. 😉 (Would have responded sooner but was working on tomorrow’s newsletter.) Have a good night, and stay healthy. 🙂 –Diane

Carson Axtell
1 month ago

This phenomenon of senior nomads has been around for decades in Australia, too, where they are known as “Grey Nomads”. (There is a movie about them on YouTube.) But the instinct for this lifestyle is thousands – if not millions – of years old, which is why humans migrated to and settled on every continent and environment on this planet. It’s in our DNA. There is even evidence that gatherings of nomads to reinforce their sense of a greater community is tens of thousands of years old, going back past the great Neolithic construction of Gobekli Tepe, a massive gathering and ceremonial site built by ancient hunter-gatherers in what is now modern day Turkey. In more “modern” times there were the annual “rendezvous” of plains Indians and fur trappers in North America, and now of RVers in Quartzsite, AZ. And one fundamental instinct seems to underlie Jack Burns and these nomadic cultures: That no one has the “right” to own the Earth, the common inheritance and “Mother” of all living creatures.

paul smith
1 month ago

Well said. May I add that despite all the negativity going on in the world, the people I meet on the road are friendly, eager to help and willing to have a civil discourse. It all starts with a “Good morning” or a “Where you folks from” or “Nice rig”, goes from there until it ends with a “have a nice day” or “have a safe trip”……..

Dick and Sandy near Buffalo, NY
1 month ago

In my younger years (I have been around the Sun 78 times) I was a big fan of Roy Rogers. Then I met him in 1963 while serving in the US Air Force in Kotzebue, Alaska where I was serving on a remote Air Force Radar base. He and a bunch of his male friends were in Kotzebue on a Polar Bear hunt as Kotzebue then (and may still be) is a prime starting spot for large game hunting especially Polar Bear. Well needless to say he was not anything close to what I was used to seeing on TV or in the movies. At that time Kotzebue was a dry area (no alcohol, might still be). So they brought their own booze and plenty of it along with some female companionship (Dale Evans was not there). So TV and the Movies are just that, not always what they seem to be. If I had my choice I would rather be a Great Plains Indian centuries before the white man arrived. Stay safe, Stay well.

Tommy Molnar
1 month ago

That has always been one of my all time fave movies. Black and white too.

We still have our “sticks and bricks” home (that we are currently doing some major improvements on) but love to hook up the trailer. We drive to the end of the driveway and say, “Well, is it left or right this time”? Planning is a sometimes thing. Being out west (not CA!) we pretty much just look for a dirt road, turn onto it, and look for a view. “Find a view. Park the house”. No traffic, no crowds.

David F.
1 month ago

Well written and descriptive. Sitting outside the restaurant, in 38° rain is my Harley. I am fueling up for a ride to a charity event, and then I will take the long way home. By myself.

Suzanne
1 month ago

Oh dear! Does the author have a factual number of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers being full of vitriol?? Quite a generalization. Kind of reminds me of Hillary calling Trump voters “deplorables” (that might be a stretch, but got my dander up). I would ask the author to investigate and do some research on why they choose not to get a vaxx or wear a mask. You won’t get this info from the general censored media.

Rey L.
1 month ago
Reply to  Suzanne

Amen to that sister. I was enjoying the article until he started spewing the venom. Sheeple are what sheeple do.

Kit B.
1 month ago
Reply to  Rey L.

Was thinking of purchasing the author’s book. Not any more. A writer too blind to realize he’s giving a prime example of the exact behavior and attitude he is castigating really isn’t likely to have any wisdom to share.

Uncle Swags
1 month ago
Reply to  Rey L.

My thoughts also and was wondering where the editor was napping.

Tom
1 month ago
Reply to  Suzanne

👎

John Zurflueh
1 month ago

As a kid in the 50’s and into the 1960’s, I loved western tv shows and movies. Cowboys and Indian’s are what we played. I still watch those reruns of Gunsmoke, Bonanza and others. One day about seven years ago I was watching Gunsmoke and a drifter rode into Dodge looking for a new start. People have been exploring for a new life or just curious about new places they hear about, for centuries. That hit me immediately in that with an RV I could explore new places and enjoy the freedom of travel, with an RV and not a horse! 2015 was the beginning of full time RVing and don’t regret one minute. Great article Andy.

Jim Prideaux
1 month ago

The old TV show “Route 66” embodies this spirit. Driving around the country in a corvette is cool but with limited space for storing your gear.

bill
1 month ago

Sold my excellent colorado built Hallmark pickup camper to the ex wife of Edward Abbey a few years ago. She had re-married.

David Needham
1 month ago

When I was a kid,65-70 yrs ago, I used to watch a TV showed by the name of “Then came Bronson” about a young man living on the city snd ditching it all and nomading on his motorcycle across the U.S.
It became my goal in life.
The came along “Easy Rider”
It magnified my dream.
We had horses, camped on them.
We are now fulltimers in our 2001 Bounder DP!
Love the life style, not bound by any fences, just finances, but its a Great life and have met Awesome people and finally living our dream, yes we still have motorcycles (stored) and drag our toad behind us, lol!!
70 yrs old and living the Dream!!!
All you Nomads keep cutting fences!

Glenn
1 month ago

Thanks for a well written editorial.

Fred
1 month ago

I swear this article was written specifically about me. It describes me to a “T”. Even the last name of the Kirk Douglas character is the same as mine. I’ve been a loner all my life & was always drawn to singular sports, like hunting, fishing, backpacking, etc.. Never participated in team sports. My wife & I have been wandering fulltime for 12 years now & always prefer remote boondocking sites to a campground. But we get along just great with others when we do stay in a campground, & have developed many friends over the years. I enjoy helping others with tasks or problems, but also greatly value my alone time. Fortunately, my wife feels the same, so we make the perfect soulmates.