Traveling & Hiking in the US SW #5:  So Many Ways to Do It  (Spring 2011)


Snowbird Varieties

As we embarked on this, our first snowbird vacation, we knew we had a lot to learn about the culture, about the lifestyle, about the people. We didn’t know any snowbirds and we didn’t really know what they did other than head south beyond the snow belt. We were joining the migrating flock to explore spring hiking in the SW as an alternative to biking in the rain in Europe or the US NW, but we didn’t know what the others in the formation were really up to.

Our first take on classifying the lifestyles of the snowbirds was to decide that they fell into 1 of 2 basic groups, like the peoples of the Neolithic era: the nomadic hunter-gatherers and the more stationary, community-dwellers. We included ourselves in the nomadic hunter-gatherer group.

The modern nomads, like the predecessor hunter-gatherers, were usually on the go: they paused long enough to pluck the best from an area for themselves and then moved on. We and other nomads stayed at a campsite until the weather became undesirable or until our interest in the local resources was exhausted, and then it was time to pack-up and move to the next campsite to see what the new neighborhood had to offer. Many nomads covered many more miles in much less time than we did; some repeated the same migratory pattern every year.

The nomadic snowbirds like us had 1 basic type of camping situation, which was usually an oversized parking lot with well-defined slots for each vehicle. The services ranged from as little as a shared water spigot and pit toilets through full hook-ups plus cable TV and wifi.  The wilderness campgrounds might have more elbow room and some trees but generally, the more complete the services, the less greenery there was.  Some of the stationary community dwelling snowbirds would park themselves for months at the campgrounds with hook-ups that were catering to snowbirds on the fly.

The stationary, community dwelling snowbirds had 2 types of compounds catering to them:  mobile home parks and mobile home resorts. Both options were a little perplexing to us at first because their rigs were packed in like sardines at a single fixed location for months (or years) on end. Slowly the distinction between the community-dwelling snowbird options became clear as did the reasons for choosing them. 

Freeze-burned palms, packed like sardines, but loving the lifestyle.

Both the mobile home parks and the resorts were usually gated residential communities with swimming pools but the resorts also had an extensive activity program. At first I brushed-off the resort format as being rather silly but a closer look in the morning at the first one in which we overnighted had me doing an about-face.

These RV resorts are essentially horizontally organized senior living communities instead of the vertically organized one’s like our parents had resided in. The main difference between the familiar vertical and this unfamiliar horizontal format was the depth of services offered--and the outdoor ambiance.

These mobile home resorts targeted active seniors and as soon as ‘active‘ dropped out of your title, it was time to move on. The resorts in which we were overnight guests provided piles of entertainment and social connection but zero assistance. There were no bus trips to the supermarkets, no dining room for those who don’t want to cook, no onsite nurse for some immediate care--just a sign to call 911 if you had an emergency.

It appeared that access to a car was essential for residing in these resort communities because there were no markets or shops in easy walking distance and no apparent city bus service. In contrast, the vertical apartment building type senior living communities with which I am familiar provide shopping trips from a private bus and second, perhaps third, tier care and support as a person loses their independence.

Immediately upon identifying these mobile home resorts as a viable layer within the stack of senior living options, “Why this, why here?” came to mind. “The weather and price” rapidly followed as answers.

Snow had just dropped out of the forecast back home and the 10 day outlook was for showers everyday with highs of about 50 degrees. In Tucson where we were parked at a mobile home resort, the highs would range from the mid-60’s to 80˚ with no threat of rain for the same period.  Hummm, outdoor shuffleboard, bocci, horseshoes, a few laps around the pancake flat park on a bike, courtyard coffee-klatch, and a dip in the pool sounded a lot better than mall walking, chair exercises, and layering on another sweater while indoors. Think “outdoor living room” if the mobile home and lack of yard feels too cramped.

And oh my, you can be a horizontally-packed sardine in a lovely mobile home park or resort in Arizona for very little money. The nicer of the 2 resorts we parked in for 3 nights charged $4250 per year to rent a lot, all utilities except electricity included, and full participation in the extensive activities. A man from Michigan had just bought an older mobile home on the property for $6,000 though he said the fancy new (overpriced in his mind) one’s ran $40,000-60,000.

Oh my gosh! For about $10,000 the first year and maybe $5,000/yr thereafter, he and his wife could live at the resort year round or for as many months of the winter as they chose. It didn’t appeal to us but crunching the numbers and factoring in snow/rain/cold vs sun/warm/sun/warm was a quick task. We were already committed to living in smaller spaces with less stuff so the closeness of it all was fine but we still needed to be on the move with the other hunter-gatherer nomads--we’re not yet ready for a stationary senior living situation but were glad to have had our eyes opened to the possibilities.

Different Sizes & Shapes

The community-dwelling people in mobile home parks and resorts often were in a mobile home that had grown roots, as in skirting around the bottom, perhaps a secondary roof on the top, and often an added “Arizona” room that had them looking much like a regular house. To legally qualify as a mobile home or RV, it still had to be towable. A few people, presumably newcomers, rented a lot and lived in the giant mobile homes that look like trans-continental buses to us.

In contrast, the hunter-gatherer nomads lived and traveled in a huge range of rigs. At the big end, were the trans-continental buses or motor coaches, usually towing a small or full-sized car for sightseeing and shopping ease. At the small end of the spectrum were an assortment of very creative pop-up rigs, that ranged from vans with pop-up roofs to low trailers that twisted and flexed into something 3-4 times larger, to clever trailers that flipped open to form enchanting A-frame chalets. And in between were variously sized truck campers, trailers, and 5th wheels (trailers that hitched into the bed of a truck rather than on the bumper hitch).

Lurking Hazards of RV’ing

Of the various lifestyle choices being made among the RV’ers, the most dangerously seductive of them all appeared to be for those nomads choosing the huge trailers and bus-like rigs that were often 30’-40’ long. The lifestyle hazard came from the fact that for many people, these became thinly veiled TV salons.

One of the first people I spoke with about RV’ing was at Lake Mead. The couple (in their 50’s) had just bought a 33’ motorhome and she was looking forward to their new big screen TV being delivered that day so they could “continue doing what they did at home: watch TV.”

Later, at the RV show in Albuquerque, our mouths were gaping at the sight of big rigs sporting giant TV screens under a protective door on the exterior for outdoor viewing, plus 2 additional TV’s inside of the unit.  While at the show, we also picked the brains of a couple who owned a 5th wheel and a camper that were contemplating buying a larger truck camper with a sofa slide-out specifically for more comfortable TV viewing. We were stunned that the TV salon phenomena extended into the largest campers too.

For us, the RV was a terrific spring-board for outdoors activities.

Discovering the frequency with which RV’s were turned into portable TV salons was juxtaposed with reading an article in a cardiology journal in February, an article that revealed an increased risk of dying from a cardiac “event” for people who invest more than 4 hours per day in entertainment oriented screen usage, whether it was in front of a TV or a computer. Four hours per day substantially increased one’s risk of dying from cardiac problems and the risk started increasing at the 2 hour point. And I had thought it was just the kids damaging their brain development with too much screen time but it turns out that their parents in the other room are poised to stroke out from too much time with their own screens.

It seemed like the stationary RV resort folks, rather than these nomads, were in a healthier setting because they had a string of social and recreational activities to draw them away from their screens--ready-made activities that the nomads lacked.

The deadly temptations of excessive TV viewing was one clear hazard of the RV lifestyle; just plain not moving around much was another. Several times we heard “I use to bike/cyclotour/walk but I don’t now...I don’t know what happened.”  We knew too well--they just stopped doing it ‘cause it was too uncomfortable to do and so tempting to not do. We surmised that some people moved around less when in their RV than when at home. The fewer square feet to mill about it, single-level living, fewer repairs, and no garden or yard conspired to making them increasingly sedentary. It looked like walking the dog was the only thing getting some of these people at the door at all.

Nomads Forever?

We were drawn to the RV world because of the opportunities the home-on-your-back concept created. We liked to think of a nomadic-styled mobile home as being a spring-board from which to more readily do outdoor sports. And in less than 2 weeks in a rented RV, we were making preliminary decisions about the type of rig and truck to buy to support the next iteration of our traveling lifestyle.

A nomadic life in some kind of mobile home seemed like the best way to support our fitness-focused lifestyle outdoors in the US. Having our shelter on wheels would allow us to follow the sunny, mild weather we prefer for hiking and biking since we’d no longer be making extended cyclo-tours overseas.

”American Spoken Here” was the iconic bumper sticker.

Though short on storage space, a truck with an over-cab camper seemed the best choice for getting us to the trailheads.  While it was hard to determine the best rig for us, we were quick to decide on the interior details. Corelle dishes like in our rental looked perfect: durable and tightly stacking though a bit heavy. We’d be happy with a single burner gas stove if that was available rather than the standard 3 burner. A big freezer for our breakfast berries and dinner broccoli were more important than a frig as not eating much meat or drinking milk made our perishables pretty durable.

A queen bed was best, a “wet” bathroom in which showering soaks the entire bathroom would be an acceptable trade-off for more storage space; solar panels would be a nifty alternative to a generator; a huge gray water tank was essential though the black water and fresh water tanks could be relatively small; and on and on. Living the life made it easy to decide what we wanted.

It didn’t take looking a many rigs from the inside or outside to be perfectly clear as to what was negotiable and non-negotiable for us. Getting to the trail heads with greater ease was key but we couldn’t be too cramped. Sitting fully upright in bed, sitting at a table top with our dueling computers, the ability to stretch-out on the floor for our exercises; and being able to move about simultaneously were essential for an extended stay in a portable home.

Bill even stumbled upon a small, portable satellite antenna and service without start/stop fees that we figured would work in the balcony of our Vancouver apartment as well as in our camper. We don’t follow regular TV programs but would need a TV to cover gaps in internet service to track storms, floods, forest fires, and other perils while in more isolated areas.

The Pleasures of RV Living

Hmmm, nothing quite like tucking ourselves into bed, pushing up the shade, and looking out our big window at the moon and the stars--a better view than we ever got in a tent because we always had to have the rain fly on because of the dew.

We instantly fell in love with the our big windowed dinette area.

One of the other aspects of RV’ing that we instantly loved was always having a comfy and pleasant lunch venue (unlike when cycling). It didn’t matter if there were 40 mph winds blowing outside or it was time to eat when at Walmart’s parking lot, the ambiance was always tranquil. It was very relaxing to sit at our big dinette, perhaps with our feet up, look out the big window, and munch our lunch.

Sitting much higher off the ground in our RV dinette than when in a car took away the oppressive feelings of all that asphalt when dining in parking lots. And looking at each other rather than out the fishbowl windshield of the driving seats was more relaxing too. We loved always having shelter from the heat, cold, or winds.  And the necessity of parking on the  perimeter of any parking lot because of our size meant that we always had some kind of view.

The ‘Not So Great’ Aspects of RV’ing

Our biggest regret with the RV was not being able to leave the living quarters behind. Anywhere we went with wheels meant all 25’ of the rig came with us. If we’d had a trailer, we could have ditched it at campgrounds and easily visited city centers, hiked on trails with rough access roads, and been more impulsive about our shopping.

Lucky for us: a wide spot on the road because there was no room at the trail head.

Our bloated rig often didn’t comfortably fit in traffic lanes, making driving a very high-alert activity. Speed was an issue, as 45 mph was a common speed for us on road posted at 65 or 75, so we were a nuisance to others and it took a long time to get anywhere. And we couldn’t always find a place to park at trailheads, which then required some meticulous maneuvers to turn around. But despite our lack of experience, we seemed to be unusually courageous as we were usually the only big-rig parked at any trail or even at suburban supermarkets. The even bigger rigs towed a car so as to do their errands with ease.

Exercise/Eat; Exercise/Eat

Our RV trip was for the purpose of increasing, not decreasing, our physical activity and it wasn’t long before we laughingly described our new life rhythm from the RV as Exercise/Eat; Exercise/Eat....

We’d put on our long johns while under the covers around sunrise, often with our room temperature in the low to mid-30’s. Then we’d pop out of bed, layer on our outerwear, and dash to the toilets, pit or otherwise. Having only urine going into our onboard toilet saved us time, money, and hassles, so it was a race against the sense of an exploding elimination system that propelled us out the door each morning. If there was hot water at the washhouse, I’d also wash my face before slowly returning to the RV while admiring the changing colors at sunrise. 

The next race was to get our morning exercises completed so we could eat breakfast. The chill of the morning was quickly shed during our 10-15 minutes of mixed jogging and walking. Once we warmed up a bit, the usually low humidity air made it compelling to perform our exercise routine outside on a nearby concrete pad or a smooth spot in the gravel.

A lack of morning rain or snow invited lingering as the sun warmed us before the winds picked up. Both Bill and I found that the pleasure of doing our strength and stretching routines outdoors meant that those routines got longer and longer. Why not do more more activity before going back inside the chilly RV? Even if we turned the heat on, it was more fun to look at the surrounding hills than a familiar interior.

Ah....the second round of “exercise-eat” for the day.

An hour or more after rising, it was at last time for Phase II, which was the eating part of Exercise/Eat. It didn’t take long before a multigrain cooked cereal with walnuts and a pound of frozen berries added to it was heaped in our bowls and, if it wasn’t too windy, we’d bundle-up to eat outside. After cleaning up and perhaps packing up the rig, it was time to drive to a hiking venue or begin a walk from the campground--the second round of Exercise/Eat. Of course, lunch was packed on our backs and soon it would be time to eat again. By mid-afternoon we’d have done little more than Exercise/Eat; Exercise/Eat and were grinning from ear to ear with the sense of well being.

There was barely time for anything else before we’d have to eat again, but we crammed in what we could. It varied from time on the computers for trip planning, writing, culling photos or other chores; driving 1-2 hours to a new location and grocery shopping along the way; or getting little more done than talking to the neighbors or doing laundry. What wasn’t there to love about living like this? Yes, the biting chill of the mornings and nights was annoying, as was learning the juggling routine with our fresh water/gray water/black water tank capacities but they were small prices to pay for so much expansiveness around us and so much tranquility inside of us.

Next Up: Now you probably know more than you needed to know about the motivations for living in an RV and some of the challenges of the lifestyle. The upcoming piece covers some of the unexpected perils we encountered or were concerned about during our 2 months while hiking and being on the road in the southwest.

             Yellow-headed blackbirds at Roper Lake, AZ & a hike in the nearby mountains:

           Near Albuquerque: a derelict sod house and other scenery.