On the road less traveled Anthropologists discover there's more to the RV lifestyle than wanderlust


October 11, 1998|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

And you thought owning an RV was all about collecting bumper stickers and driving slowly uphill.

Not according to Dorothy and David Counts, two retired professors of anthropology who applied their science to the world of motor homes and travel trailers and found a subculture that is more complex than might appear at first blush.

Rather than being a conservative group of old loners, the ranks of full-time recreational vehicle owners are full of a modern, highly social breed of beatniks or hippies, albeit with plusher wheels. Young or old, the Counts say, full-time RV owners are mainly those who have abandoned traditional stay-in-one-place homes for a life of freedom.

"What you're seeing now is more people in their 40s who have dropped out or been forced out," said Dorothy Counts, who formerly taught at the Waterloo University in Ontario.

"They're grasshoppers to our generation's ants," said David Counts, who retired two years ago from his job at McMaster University in Toronto.

The Counts, who turned their research into a book, "Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of Senior RVs in North America" (Broadview Press, $16.95), are on the road promoting it - in an RV. Their trip is underwritten by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, which recently launched a new campaign to boost interest in RVs.

The couple had spent 20 years in more traditional anthropological research in a small village in Papua, New Guinea in the South Pacific - work that generated little interest outside the academic world.

"Nobody much but our colleagues and our students to whom we assigned our work, and our parents were very much interested," she said.

They had noticed RVs while traveling and found that no one had done any anthropological studies on the recreation-vehicle population. David Counts talked his university into providing a few thousand dollars to allow him to gather some initial data for a few months in 1990; then came a 15-month study in 1993-1994 that took them to some sprawling RV parks in California, Nevada and Arizona, where as many as 1.5 million vehicles gather at a time in the desert.

They found doctors and small-business owners. A third of the people they sampled had some post-secondary education. Many had computers on board. Many, like the bikers in "Easy Rider," were in search of something intrinsic. And they were mostly glad for the anthropologists' interest.

Within the RV culture they also found rituals like food sharing, a behavior that takes form in many societies as a way of extending friendship. In the case of RV parks, it showed up in the classic potluck dinner invitation to newcomers.

And they found people with a sense of community, particularly when they get their initial "quest" out of their system. Many volunteer in the parks they stay at, doing work or entertaining.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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