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.
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.