- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

Meet John and Jane Woodman, modern-day nomads. Their home is a 10-year-old recreational vehicle with mud flaps and a retractable awning. Their address is anywhere they happen to park it, which at the moment is behind a concert-staging platform at the end of an unmarked athletic field in a college town on the Kennebec River in central Maine.

They’re hardly roughing it. On the roof, a retractable satellite dish taps into the Internet. Inside, Ms. Woodman sits by a desktop computer near the windshield and evaluates essays sent from her distance-learning students. With this arrangement in mind, the Woodmans last year sold their home in East Flat Rock, N.C., deposited the modest proceeds and hit the road full time — all without disrupting her teaching career.

“I love living this way,” Ms. Woodman says. “Sometimes I get a charge out of the fact that no one knows where we are unless we tell them. … It’s kind of like being a child and hiding in the closet.”

A growing number of adventurers plying the nation’s highways in RVs are doing the same thing — deciding never to return to what they term a “sticks and bricks” house. To save money, avoid property-related annoyances or simply maximize good times, they’re choosing to live in their rolling rigs year-round in a world where many jobs and creature comforts no longer require a permanent address. For some baby boomers, the RV has become the new Harley Davidson — a symbol of nomadic freedom.

No one knows the precise number of “full-timers,” but they are believed to make up a significant tribe. The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds estimates that about 200,000 Americans qualify as full-timers. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), a trade group, puts the number at closer to 1 million but admits that’s a rough guess.

Full-timers represent just a fraction of the 30 million people who use RVs, but experts who follow the subculture agree that the ranks of full-timers are growing steadily as baby boomers reach retirement age.

Dealers are catering to the full-timer by outfitting RVs with full-size refrigerators and bigger electrical systems, says Richard Coon, president of RVIA.

Full-timing has been a niche lifestyle for more than a decade. In “Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America,” anthropologists David and Dorothy Counts point out that millions of retired full-timers were already joining the itinerant subculture by the early 1990s. Now information technology is making the nomadic life more feasible, even for non-retirees. Cellular phones and wireless Internet services enable some business owners to thrive in a mobile office.

In June 2005, Daniel and Traci Bray of Carmel, Ind., packed up their belongings and their 8-year-old son for a year of home-schooling and traveling the country in their RV. Ms. Bray’s book about the odyssey — “Vicariously Yours, Letters and Lessons From the Ultimate Road Trip” — came out in July. As a budding travel writer, she writes off the RV as a business expense.

For the Brays, saying goodbye to homeownership led to a net reduction in family expenses of more than $1,000 per month — even with the RV’s hefty fuel bills. Plus, Mr. Bray, a telecommunications broker, saw his sales increase.

“The customers loved it. They thought it was really cool that we were doing it,” he says. “I’m not exactly sure sometimes whether they bought from me because of my talent or because they wanted to support the trip.”

Cutting expenses by as much as $1,500 per month isn’t unusual, full-timers say, when utility bills, property taxes and household maintenance costs aren’t siphoning family finances.

Still, it is nonfinancial factors that often propel people to go full time. For Brenda Comire, living in a 40-foot, $225,000 RV guaranteed that she and her husband, Roger, wouldn’t become sedate in retirement.

“I didn’t want to spend all my retirement [just at] home in one place where we’d just sit and look at each other,” Ms. Comire says.

Natives of Manchester, N.H., the Comires are parked for the summer at an RV park in Salisbury, Mass. In October, they’re off to Florida.

Full-timing can be as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. The Comires’ white coach is outfitted with four televisions, a gas stove, convection oven, oak cabinets and washer-dryer. The couple keeps wind chimes on a side mirror and photos of their grandchildren on the dashboard.

Guests relax on a cream-colored leather couch in a slide-out wing that extends, at the push of a button, almost four feet beyond the side of the coach. It’s like a retractable living room.

The campground furnishes hookups to electricity, cable, water, sewer and wireless Internet, most of which is free (as is rent) for the Comires in exchange for their working a few shifts in park maintenance and administration.

In Maine, the Woodmans are taking a thriftier approach in their 34-foot Fleetwood Bounder, a secondhand unit they bought last year for $23,000. “The house,” as Mr. Woodman calls it, gets 8.5 miles per gallon. They drive only a few miles twice a week to a wastewater treatment plant, where John dons bright blue latex gloves to empty the septic tank.

This week, they also need to find somewhere to park for a few hours. The Colby College trustees are going to picnic on the field they have called home while Ms. Woodman has been working on campus as a math camp administrator. The rest of the year she teaches essay writing online to seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders from around the world through a Baltimore-based center for gifted youth.

It’s a way of life that requires flexibility, but also can be rewarding. Mr. Woodman says he thinks his health has improved since he quit his stressful property-management job and went on the road full time. “We realize that if we had a medical emergency, it would wipe us out” because Mr. Woodman lacks health insurance, his wife says. “But that’s also true for people with a lot more than we have.”

The lifestyle comes with trade-offs. The Woodmans say they miss singing in local church groups. Ms. Comire has had to deal with anguished questions from a daughter: “How can you abandon the family?” The Comires also once found themselves parked indefinitely in a daughter’s snow-covered New Hampshire driveway after Mr. Comire was hospitalized.

“I was asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Ms. Comire says.

Within a month, they were back on the road.

For the most part, full-time RVers find life on the road far more therapeutic than onerous. The Woodmans, for instance, shed most of their possessions when they went on the road, which they say left them feeling unburdened and calm.

Once they settle in a new place, they rely on two bicycles and a Dodge Neon for local transportation. The move has helped them reduce their carbon footprint — and get a little more exercise.

“It’s liberating,” Ms. Woodman says, “to know exactly what’s enough.”

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