I was sitting in the captain’s chair of a big thirty-four-foot Executive, surrounded by all the plush comfort's due a man of significant corporate weight: rich burgundy carpets, vinyl-walnut cabinets, and dramatic scarlet curtains. In front of me was an instrument panel that looked as if it belonged on a 747. There were gauges for monitoring everything from the level of the black water-holding tank to the gray waterholding tank to the console TV. There were fog lights, courtesy lights, dome lights, patio lights, step lights, and a professional truck driver’s air horn. There were leveling gauges, a CB radio, a cellular telephone, and, my personal favorite, a combination thermometer-barometer-humidity gauge mounted on top of the dash.
I pictured myself out on the open road, exposed to the elements, where the slightest change in barometric pressure could mean the difference between life or death. I imagined I was at the head of a caravan, moving steadfastly through the hostile regions of Baja, radioing back humidity readings to my less well prepared followers, all of whom depended on me, the Executive, the proven leader of men, to guide them to the safety of Cabo San Lucas. I was confident I could survive where lesser men perished because I knew at a glance what my barometric readings were.
There was a line of men waiting impatiently to try out their own fantasies in the captain’s chair on the Executive, and most of them looked better prepared to afford their fantasies than I did. I slipped out of the captain's chair and quickly descended the corporate ladder, back to the world of the common man.
I’d never thought much about buying an RV before going to the RV show in Del Mar. I never thought I’d get that old. Like most people, I'd spent my time on the road stuck behind some land whale creeping along at twenty miles per hour up a forty-mile hill. I’d tried falling asleep in campgrounds listening to the drone of an RV generator while its owner watched re-runs of Gilligan's Island on TV and mixed strawberry daiquiris in the blender. And I’d seen and smelled the road turnouts where RV’s stopped to dump their waste water tanks. But at the same time, I knew I was rapidly approaching an age where the craving for adventure had to be carefully weighed against the desire for comfort, and even though I felt something like a spy in the enemy’s camp at this RV show,
I knew after my fantasy behind the wheel of the Executive that I was at least flirting with the possibility of buying my own land whale.
Everyone at the RV show seemed to know a lot more about RVs than I did. They were asking the salesmen rather technical questions about tubular steer frames, LPG tank capacities, and automatic generator switchover devices. Even though I was mostly ignorant about such things, I began looking about for a salesman who could tell me about the Executive, which had impressed me so much.
Maybe it was because the salesmen were all in a selling frenzy, like largemouth bass feeding on schools of shad, or maybe it was just because I didn’t look much like Executive material, but none of the salesmen seemed to be very interested in talking with me. After some effort, I finally was able to corner a salesman for the Komfort-34, a modest competitor to the Executive, and put the question to him: “What kind of gas mileage does this unit get?” I had noticed that everyone used the word “unit” when talking about RVs, and I quickly adopted this habit, hoping it would give me the credibility necessary to attract a salesman’s attention.
The salesman sighed wearily. Except for, “How much does this unit cost?” I had asked the most frequently asked question. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said, leading me to believe he had been lying to everyone else that day, but something about my shrewd demeanor made him realize he’d better be on the level. “You’ll get about six to eight miles per gallon.” I shrugged and nodded, as though that was about what I’d expected. “Sixty-gallon tank?” I guessed.
“No,” he said. “The thirty-four-footer has an eighty-nine-gallon tank. The bigger the unit, the bigger the tank.”
“Oh. sure,” I said, as though I’d been thinking of the thirty-footer instead of the thirty-four.
“Sure.” he repeated impatiently. “Anything else I can help you with?”
I wanted to come up with something really technical, something he wouldn’t be able to answer, so he would know I wasn’t just a looky-loo, that I was seriously considering buying whatever unit seemed to have the most helpful salesmen. “How much weight can it carry?” I asked.
“You can get about 1900 pounds in this unit,” he immediately replied.
I was stumped. All I could do was frown, as though I had been hoping for a unit that would carry something more on the order of 2000, or maybe even 2200 pounds.
The salesman was happily distracted by another customer: “Does the bottle of champagne on the master bed come with this unit?” the woman wanted to know.
“Certainly,” he smiled.
I wandered through the aisles between the long rows of RVs. There was a rather animated crowd gathered at the end of one row, so I went to see what novelty had caught their attention.
“Will you look at that!” someone said.
“Never seen nothin’ like that!”
I elbowed my way closer until I got a glimpse of what was causing all the excitement: a sleek new unit called the Starfire, which made the Executive look like something you might sell corn dogs out of at the county fair. The Starfire looked something like a space shuttle without wings. It looked as though it were designed by aerospace engineers working for the Good Sam Club and would someday be used for taking RV tours on the moon.
I took my place in line and filed through the unit, gawking at this glimpse of the Twenty-first Century. Everything inside was rounded and molded; there were no square comers. Even the price tag taped over the door was rounded off to an even $65,000 instead of $64,995.
I pushed my way through the galley, where a gaggle of women were talking microwave ovens and satellite-dish TVs, to the cockpit, where a crew of men were gathered, talking solar batteries and aerodynamic design. When it was my turn to sit at the controls, a jolt of static electricity crackled from the seat. The long nose of the Starfire loomed out in front of me, and I felt like the master of some intergalactic vacuum cleaner sucking up everything in my path. I felt like Darth Vader commuting to work. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and I quickly decided that someone who occasionally still likes to go backpacking wasn't ready yet for the Starfire.
I wandered through the indoor pavilion, where RV accessories and RV tours were being promoted. At one booth, a woman was selling a blue solution guaranteed to take the odor out of your chemical toilet. At another booth, a fellow in a cowboy hat was giving a folksy promotion for an oil additive that could increase your gas mileage by ten percent. Somebody else was riding up and down the aisles on a folding bicycle small enough to stash behind the driver’s seat of your RV. Another fellow was wandering around with a mini-generator in one hand and a portable TV in the other — apparently the ultimate solution for armchair adventurers. I stopped to chat with a retirement-age couple dressed up like dead ringers for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. They were selling memberships in a chain of RV country clubs where you could park your unit amid the luxury of golf courses, tennis courts, heated pools, and flush toilets. If you got tired of your neighbors, you just unplugged your extension cord and headed on down the highway to the next country club. I had a problem convincing the couple I was interested in such a lifestyle, since I didn’t even own an RV, but they invited me to come see them when I did.
Another fellow wearing ten pounds of gold chain around his neck was selling campground memberships. He said he traveled all over the West, looking at privately owned campgrounds that might be suitable for membership marketing. I asked him what qualities he looked for in a campground. He winked and leaned closer, so only I could hear. “I’ll tell ya,” he said, “the thing that keeps most people close to home is the comfort of a familiar toilet. Americans gotta have a clean john.”
I’d never really thought of it that way before, but maybe the whole point of owning an RV was so you could take your toilet with you.
“What I don’t understand, though,” I said, “is why somebody with an RV would pay to stay in a membership campground. I mean, if you’ve got your own plumbing, electricity, and TV, you’re self-contained.”
He shrugged. “The one thing you don’t have is security. A campground gives you peace of mind.”
“Kind of like the pioneers circling their wagons at night.” “Exactly,” he said.
I moved on to the other booths, where salespeople were hawking cellular telephones, collapsible satellite dishes, water filters, and RV burglar alarms. For every imaginable inconvenience of going on the road, there was a gadget invented to eliminate it. Some of them were very clever, and I was trying hard to keep an open mind about all this. But my own experience with camping has always been that the more luxuries you take along, the more uncomfortable you are. Every gadget that possibly can break, eventually will break, and the frustration will drive you crazy: the pilot light on the propane refrigerator will go out, and your five-dollar steaks will rot; the trail bike will break down, and you’ll spend all weekend trying to fix it; the air mattress will leak, and you’ll have to get out of your sleeping bag in the middle of the night to blow it up again. The only camping gadget I ever owned that didn’t break when I needed it most was a Swiss army knife, and I lost that.
I headed outside the pavilion again, where the crowd seemed to be gravitating toward a unit I had missed my first time through. It was called the Classic, and I could tell by the crowd’s enthusiasm that it must be something special.
There was a saleswoman posted at the door of the Classic, controlling the flow of traffic in and out. She smiled faintly as she patiently answered questions.
People only wanted to know one thing, and the poor woman’s answer was always the same: “Two hundred seventy-seven thousand dollars.’’
After watching her repeat her one answer at least a dozen times while I stood in line, I decided to take pity on her when my turn came. “What’s it powered by?” I asked.
“Chevy 454,” she answered gratefully.
The Classic, I quickly discovered, made every other RV look like a movable slum. It had real oak cabinets and parquet floors, leather power-adjustable chairs, a VCR and TV both fore and aft. It had a hundred-gallon deep freeze, fireproof safe, computerized leveling system, rearview TV monitoring system (for backing up and changing lanes), six-way, heated, power-adjustable exterior mirrors, solar battery chargers, and a musical horn that could play more than 200 tunes.
“Will that generator pull that air conditioner?” one fellow asked a salesman. He was wearing a powder-blue RV jump suit, which seemed to increase his credibility considerably with the salesman.
“Not only will it pull the air conditioner but it will pull the TV and the microwave at the same time!” the salesman beamed.
“What about the tax laws?” another man asked. “I was thinking maybe I could use an RV to entertain my customers a couple of times a year, then use it myself the rest of the time.”
“Well, I think you’re gonna lose those entertainment write-offs this year,” the salesman explained. “But you can still depreciate it,” he quickly added.
“How does it handle?” his wife wondered. “I’m no truck driver.” “I’ll be honest with you,” the salesman crooned. “I’ve never lost a sale after getting a woman behind the wheel. You’re gonna love it.” After my tour of the Classic, I went outside to sit on the grass and look through the armful of RV literature I had accumulated. One of the pamphlets was the winter catalogue — the “snowbird edition” — of Camping World. I flipped through the pages of RV pet dishes that won’t spill. Astroturf carpets big enough to cover every inch of dirt within walking distance of your RV, and an RV baseball cap with a solar-powered fan mounted on the bill. There just didn’t seem to be any end to the accessories needed to make life comfortable out on the open road.
After searching through the Camping World catalogue for a ' while, I found an item that appealed to me: a clever little folding picnic table that looked as if it might come in handy for keeping the groceries out of the dirt. And the deluxe model only cost $79.98.
Maybe that’s how it starts, I thought. You start worrying about keeping the groceries out of the dirt, and the next thing you know, you’re working so hard to make payments on your $277,000 Classic, you never even have time to go camping.
I carried the whole armful of RV literature to the nearest garbage can and chucked it all. I didn’t trust myself. Once I decided to be comfortable, who knows what miseries I might endure?