Palaces on wheels

RVs: For some, combining the thrill of the open road and all the comforts of home is the only way to travel.

September 13, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In four decades as a truck driver, Sherman DeWitt logged 3 million miles, the equivalent of six round trips to the moon. So when he retired from Giant Food in 1994, he was, at long last, free to do what he really wanted to do.

Hit the road.

In an RV.

"Every once in a while, my left foot, my clutch foot, starts to shake," says DeWitt, 70. "I get very contrary and cranky. I have to get out on that highway."

So DeWitt is a happy man, surrounded by acres of gleaming white recreational vehicles at the RV show at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium yesterday. His wife, Alice, in tow, he's ready to trade up. He's ready to leave behind the spacious $20,000 trailer he pulls with a pickup truck to Texas every winter and invest in a serious motor home.

He's dickering over a Winnebago Adventurer, priced at $99,995 just for the show. But he's bowled over by the 38-foot Newmar Dutch Star across the lot, slashed from $181,000 to a mere $159,000. As DeWitt settles into the leather driver's throne and checks the little screen that can ask a Global Positioning System satellite just where you are or offer live video of what you're backing up into, he's looking sorely tempted.

It rides on eight tires. It gets 8 miles per gallon. It's a "diesel pusher," meaning the noise of the diesel engine is at the back, far from the driver and passengers. It sleeps six. It has maple cabinetry and large-screen televisions in both the living room and the bedroom. The rooms are "slideouts" -- they slide out on silent electric motors to add a few feet of living space.

"Oooh, this is nice. This is quality," DeWitt says. Alice, 65, a retired nurse, rolls her eyes.

The creation of the American recreational vehicle may date to the first time some pioneer steered a covered wagon off its westward course to park for a while and enjoy the view. But no covered wagon had a full kitchen with icemaker and microwave or full bathroom with skylit shower and flush toilet.

The modern RV is dedicated to two contradictory notions: that when you want to get away from it all, you can take it all with you. It is a fitting symbol for a big, prosperous country where some people cannot choose between mobility and luxury -- and do not have to.

Advertisements for the autumn RV show -- which resumes for a second weekend Friday through Sunday at the fairgrounds -- claim it is the biggest RV expo in the East.

Well, maybe not.

"That's questionable, I guess," admits Richard T. Albright, 72, who has organized these shows since 1969.

But with 225 RVs on display, from $3,500 trailers with pop-up tents you could pull with a large motorcycle to 40-foot luxury liners that can top $200,000, it is an opportunity to contemplate what Albright calls "the RV lifestyle."

Albright understands this phenomenon, having helped his uncle build some of Maryland's first RVs from scratch in his grandmother's Overlea backyard in the late 1940s.

"They were 27-footers, and they were made to live in," says Albright, who did the wiring on those first models of the Custom Coach Co., the Pulaski Highway RV company that he took over and passed on to his son, Bob, two years ago. "My sister lived in one of them for many years, raised two kids in it. The others we sold."

Family travels

An RV brings families together and cuts out the cost of airline tickets and motels, he says. It frees travelers from schedules and reservations and gives them freedom to explore.

He tells of piling the family into a trailer in 1963 and taking off for a month across the country with his wife and four children, ending up at Disneyland. "If not for the RV, we never could have afforded to take that trip," he says.

Albright's son, Ken, is manning the Custom Coach accessory booth, selling "tablecloth clamps" for keeping breakfast from sliding off the dining table, parrot-shaped outdoor lights, and screw-on bubble levels to help keep a rig riding smooth. He was 10 when they took that trip.

"I remember crossing the desert when it was 113 degrees at night," Ken says. "All of us good and sick. The tumbleweeds crossing the road. But Disneyland does make quite an impression when you're 10 years old."

Not for everyone

Ken Albright allows that despite his heritage and his job, he does not own an RV and, given the cash, would probably buy a boat instead. "I love being out on the water," he says.

Indeed, the RV lifestyle is not for everybody.

It's not for David Irani, of Hampton, who is pushing an empty stroller through the blazing sun behind his wife, Laurel Moore, and their children, Kate, 5, and Dan, 2, who are clambering giddily in and out of every RV.

"These things are so big, it's like pulling your house," Irani says. "But we've got a really nice house. It kind of defeats the point. Why not pitch a tent, unroll a sleeping bag and light a campfire?"

His wife says she grew up in a road-camping family, beginning with a pup-tent, moving on to a pop-up trailer and finally graduating to a 28-foot motor home.

"We traveled for a month every summer and really saw a lot," Moore says. "We visited all 50 states and all the Canadian provinces."

Her husband is not persuaded. He turns to young Kate, who is standing in her pink dress in the doorway of a spacious $75,000 Marquis II.

"Kate," he asks, "do you like this better than our house?"

Kate thinks for a moment.

"Yep," she says, very certain. "I like this better."

Pub Date: 9/13/99

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