People do not buy RVs because they're fun to drive. In fact, one could say it's the principal detractor. After Vehicle Testing Assistant Mike Magrath piloted the Ford F-450 and Terry (our RV trailer) to Palm Springs, now it was time to experience the RV lifestyle. Would we burn the thing down? Would such close quarters cause two mild-mannered automotive journalists to propagate a Jerry Springer-style trailer park brawl? We'd soon find out.
"You Jackknifed Pretty Hard Back There"
I was given the unenviable task of piloting our rig into port for that evening. Missing the entrance into the Outdoor Resort near Palm Springs, we had to make our first U-turn. As I successfully made it across the two lanes of traffic, there was a loud beep. The TowCommand display began flashing, and the words "Trailer Disconnected" came up in the trip computer.
We whipped around to make sure Terry wasn't careening down the road into oncoming traffic. It wasn't. Rather, the cable that transmits braking and indicator light signals from truck to trailer had come undone.
"You jackknifed pretty hard back there," said Bradley Roney over the telephone. Bradley was one of our Ford comrades-in-travel who witnessed the U-turn from the Fiesta. "The cable's too short. Normally there'd be a cable outlet inside the truck bed [rather than plugging it in next to the hitch]."
"These are the things I would've liked to know instead of how the refrigerator works," Magrath quipped.
How quickly we change our tune. The cable would come undone several times throughout the journey — all during left turns — but knowing to expect it encouraged us to make gentler turns.
That would be the name of the game as I began the difficult task of backing into our trailer spot. Sometimes when you turn the wheel right, the trailer goes left. But then you turn the wheel to the left and the trailer still goes left. The trick is to forget about what direction the truck's wheels are going and just react to the trailer. Trying to get it straight is key — if it's at an angle to the F-450, who knows where it's going?
With Terry in place, we began transforming it from trailer to small home. We hooked up the water pump to "city water" and connected the power line, while skipping the "black" water (or sewage) line, since the tank was empty and it was virtually impossible for us to fill it. Next step was expanding the three slide-out panels, which are truly remarkable in their ability to create a rather spacious living area. After hooking up the Super Nintendo we brought along, it was time to enjoy our first night in Terry.
If the RV's a-Rockin'...That's Perfectly Normal
As I slept in Terry's bedroom behind its gray accordion divider, I awoke at about 5 a.m. to the sound of the outside door opening and then later the bathroom door. Magrath was sick. The wine he drank the night before was my first thought, but at two glasses, that would've made him the biggest lightweight from Boston since Ally McBeal. He was actually seasick.
If you rock side to side in a car, it will rock right along with you. An RV trailer is no different, which is why it comes with four stabilizer legs to make it feel less nautical when you're moving about inside. Problem was, we thought there were only two stabilizer legs and only dropped the front ones. Even my slightest movement in bed (located above the truck bed) would cause the trailer to sway back and forth. Magrath slept on the pull-out couch that was perched parallel to the tires in one of the slide-outs. Several hours of that and heave-ho.
The next night we made sure to lower all the stabilizer legs, which prevented any seasickness, but it was impossible to forget we weren't in a typical structure. So it makes sense that, when folks drop anchor for an extended period of time at an RV park, they adorn their trailer with side skirts and additional stabilizing techniques.
One such trailer was being rented by Bill, our neighbor at Outdoor Resort, who rented it for three months with his wife (and Chihuahua-like dog) as part of their yearly trek down to the California desert from Vancouver, British Columbia. He used to rent a condo in the area, but said he prefers the RV park because there were fewer "weekenders" from Los Angeles who would leave the place a ghost town from Monday to Friday. Outdoor Resort, by comparison, was vibrant on this Friday morning as folks enjoyed the tennis courts and swimming pool across the street from our trailer's parking slot.
Bill wasn't completely sold on RVing, though.
"It makes no sense to buy one when they lose so much of their value," he said. "A friend of mine down the street bought one three years ago and it's already lost $200,000. If I bought a house or condo in Vancouver or Whistler for the money he spent on that RV, it would go up in value. I'll keep renting."
So, What's the Attraction?
Turns out, Bill was on to something. Indeed, the average new RV will lose an estimated 30 percent of its value as you drive it off the lot, followed by 10 percent its first year and 6 percent every year thereafter. Then take into account RV park rental fees (ranging from $45-$150 per night), maintenance and fuel, and your wallet will start feeling rather light.
Still, an increasing number of Americans are buying new. Sales were off slightly for 2007, but that followed a 52 percent sales increase since 2001. In total, an estimated 8 million Americans own an RV — a stunning one in every 12 vehicle-owning households. Despite the apparent demographics at Outdoor Resort, a majority of those households do not consist of senior citizens. A study conducted by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center found that more RVs belong to Americans ages 35-54 than any other age group, with the average owner being 49 and married, with a household income of $68,000. This could certainly have something to do with rising (non-wheeled) home costs, but with baby boomers retiring, RV ownership and the aggregate age is nevertheless rising.
Judging by how many RVs we passed throughout our journey, none of this is surprising. In Quartzsite, Arizona, they're haphazardly strewn about the desert with owners staking claim to their own indeterminate plot of sand and shrub. During RV season, these new-age nomads make Quartzsite the third largest city in Arizona. In Lake Havasu, we passed at least five RV "resorts," and we weren't making any effort to find them. Along California Highway 62 and Arizona Highway 95 it seemed like the only other vehicles we passed were self-powered motor homes or heavy-duty pickups attached to fifth-wheel trailers (none as impressive as the F-450 and Terry, though).
So what's the attraction? Well, it depends on where you've parked. The Outdoor Resort was lovely, but the RV parks in Lake Havasu and Goodyear, Arizona, were less impressive. They were like living in a big parking lot with only a gravel pit and small tree to call your own. And that's an improvement over the Quartzsite desert or a Wal-Mart parking lot.
With an RV, you'll never forget something in a hotel because you're bringing the hotel with you. Along those same lines, you're eating in the same kitchen and sleeping in the same bed every day regardless of whether you're outside Phoenix or Philadelphia. No shady motels, no expensive breakfasts, no rental cars. But no maid service either.
Although we greatly preferred driving the F-450, motor homes like the Fiesta have an advantage (especially for families with kids) in that there's no need for food or bathroom breaks — the kitchen and toilet are both operational in transit. Just make sure the latter is utilized on a straight, well-paved strip of road.
What Would Bruce Wayne Drive?
We got used to the RV lifestyle pretty quickly, because as the trip wore on, fewer wacky things were happening. Sure, I had to shower at my parents' house in Goodyear when I discovered that my 6-foot-3 body is a tad taller than Terry's shower stall. Other than that, smooth sailing.
We barbecued, sat in our twin recliners playing Super Mario Kart and checked out some of the park's other rigs. Our personal favorite was a ginormous $1-million-plus silver motor home adorned with Batman logos that was towing a matching trailer much larger than Terry. We assumed it was Adam West in town for the Super Bowl.
Oh yes, the greatest spectacle in sports — and quite the spectacle it was, as Magrath's Patriots were brought down in dramatic fashion by my temporary favorite New York Giants. It was tremendous to be sure, but never once did we consider living in the RV for four days "a catch." Far from it. In fact, the RV thing was starting to grow on this pair of city slicker 20-somethings.
We had explored the land of the RV and didn't blow the thing up. As we drove away from Terry Monday morning, I looked back with a smile and thought, "Yep, we pulled that."