By Chuck Woodbury
What does this scene have to do with RVing? At first glance, you may say nothing. But I think it does, or at least it can.
I took this photo of a suburban housing development from my window seat on a Boeing 737 as the plane let down into Philadelphia. The thought struck me that 40 years ago, the same area was probably rural, a few farmhouses here and there, but mostly wide-open, unoccupied farmland. People who lived there lived in the country where life moved slow, neighbors were few, and when they gathered it was at the corner cafe, where everybody knew their name and their dogs, too.
Bye and bye, the local chamber of commerce decided to promote the area as a fine place to live, away from the problems of crowded, decaying cities. “Live in your dream home where the air is pure, where there’s room to breathe, and where everybody knows your name.”
And, one by one, people came. They loved it — the freedom, the peace, the clean air. “We never locked our door,” one woman once told me who lived in such a place in rural Missouri. “We never worried about anyone stealing anything. Sometimes we’d come home and somebody would have left a homemade pie in the refrigerator.”
FAST FORWARD 15 YEARS. A home developer arrives and begins building affordable tract homes. He builds 60 at first, which sell quickly, then 60 more. A freeway is being built nearby; residents can live in the country and easily commute to the city to work. And then another developer arrives, and another. The general store and corner cafe give way to 7-Elevens, McDonald’s and Taco Bells. Walmart arrives in the next town and decimates Main Street. The freeway is gridlocked half the day.
Before long, “rural” becomes “suburb.”
I watched this happen growing up 20 miles from Los Angeles, moving there as a child to a town of 4,000, leaving 16 years later when the population had swelled to 60,000. The orange groves were gone. The hillside where my buddies and I played became luxury view homes.
Could the local chamber in Pennsylvania continue today to promote country living as it had before? “Live in your dream home where the air is pure, where there’s room to breathe, and where everybody knows your name.”
HOW THIS RELATES TO RVing
And here is where I see a similarity with RVing: The RV industry continues to promote the freedom of RVing, even though another half-million RVs are unleashed onto the highways and into campgrounds every year. Years ago it was absolutely appropriate to promote RVing as a way to “go where you want when you want.” I know, I did it! I didn’t make a single camping reservation for more than 25 years.
The RV industry continues to promote the “freedom” idea, but it’s just not true, any more than living in the subdivision above is still akin to living in the “peaceful countryside.”
The population of the Unites States when I began RVing in the early 1980s was about 230 million. Since then it has grown to about 330 million. Those additional 100 million people are now sharing our public lands — our National and State Parks, National Forests, even the wide-open spaces of the desert Southwest. Anyone with a modern RV can easily live full-time in it (that wasn’t easy to do even 25 years ago), and increasingly that’s what they are doing; these people fill RV parks once available to drop-in overnighters.
Is it any wonder it’s harder now to find a place to stay on the spur of the moment?
In 1982, the year I bought my first RV, a total of 140,000 RVs were shipped to dealers. Last year, 504,000 were shipped. In all those years, I’d guess the number of available campsites has barely increased.
MY POINT IS THAT RVing TODAY is not the same as it was a few decades ago. It can still be wonderful, just as living in a crowded suburb can be wonderful. But the lifestyle in both cases is far from what it was before the crowds arrived.
Yet the industry does nothing of significance to address where to stay with the RVs that it continues to spew out in record numbers. Today, campground and RV park reservations are often required – often months, even years in advance – to secure a place to stay in popular tourist areas. A recent RVtravel.com poll showed that two-thirds of the more than 2,000 readers who responded make reservations all the time or most of the time rather than just “winging it.”
Here’s something the RV and camping industry associations could do, but don’t: Many small town entrepreneurs propose building RV parks in their communities. But misinformed locals complain to the city council: “We don’t want those lowlifes here!” And so the council denies the building permit. Why doesn’t the RV industry dispatch a skilled representative to the city council meeting to sell them on the benefits of having the park? They don’t! They are too shortsighted.
My point is that RVing has changed. How and where we use RVs has changed. We need to address those changes or our RV lifestyles will become as clogged as our suburbs and freeways. If change does not come, RVing will become increasingly challenging and eventually not worth the effort. At that point, RVers will sell their rigs and buy condos. Some RVtravel.com readers report they already have.