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By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 1997; Page E01

We had six weeks. But time didn't matter. It seldom does in an RV.

We figured we'd drive from our home in Arlington to Key West, with a stop in Louisiana to visit family. And if Key West didn't happen, we'd tour the Texas Gulf coast, maybe spend some time on South Padre Island. If that tack failed, big whoop. America is a big country. We had a big rig. We could go anywhere. Reservations were no problem.

My wife and I had rented a $75,000, 33-foot-long Coachmen Catalina, featuring a fully equipped kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom -- and a queen-size bed. There were two TVs, one in the "living room" and another in the bedroom, both capable of receiving signals via cable or the Catalina's collapsible, roof-mounted antenna. We had a telephone and laptop computer, too; and an onboard generator to supply power when and where no electricity was available. And we had onboard holding tanks for potable and waste water, and another tank for sewage.

What we lacked was a schedule, with the exception of a loosely defined time for leaving and returning home.

We carried with us maps and RV campground guides. Sometimes we used them; other times we didn't. It all depended on what caught our fancy, and whether there was a safe place -- an RV camp, open land or a parking lot -- to stop for the night.

Chincoteague Island

Whim is the essence of RVing, which is why we went to Chincoteague Island, Va., on the first leg of what became a 5,300-mile trip.

Going from Arlington to Key West or Texas by way of Chincoteague isn't the most logical route. But we'd heard so much about that little strip of Virginia coastline, we just decided to go. Besides, it was only a five-hour drive, mostly via U.S. Routes 50 east and 13 south. We could've cut that time by about two hours in a fast car. But rare is the motor home built for speed, and the Coachmen Catalina was no rarity in that regard.

Signs along Route 13 boasted about Tom's Cove Park, "the finest resort on Chincoteague Island," one said. Another told about Tom's Cove's "waterfront camping." We checked the Wheelers RV Resort & Campground Guide, which gave Tom's Cove five stars, its highest rating.

We called ahead to make sure a camping site was available. We arrived before sunset, which is preferable for parking, or "docking," big rigs. Trying to maneuver one of those land yachts into a campsite in the dark can be a nerve-wrecking experience.

Tom's Cove lived up to its billing. It was a well-run park offering mixed camping, including "primitive" sites for tents and simple pop-up travel trailers, and "full-hookup" sites providing water, electrical, cable and sewer connections. Prices range from about $15 to $35 a night. We chose a full hookup. I mean, get real. My wife, Mary Anne, and I love the great outdoors. But we prefer to leave it outside when it's time to shower, eat and sleep.

The Learning Tree

I screwed up. It was a matter of ego undermining common sense. Mary Anne questioned the wisdom of tying to park our 12-foot-high RV beneath a tree. But I figured the campsite would not have been there if the tree were a problem.

I was wrong.

An overhanging limb scraped some rubber covering off the Catalina's roof. News of the mishap spread quickly throughout the park.

"A bit of bad luck," said one neighbor. RV campers call one another "neighbor," even though they just met. The camps are mobile small towns, which is why it helps to be polite.

Noisemakers and hooligans aren't welcome. Couples who argue loudly are a no-no. Neighbors avoid such people, and pray for their early departure.

Neighborhood Watch

Sitting and watching is a pastime in RV camps as much as it is anywhere else in Smalltown, U.S.A. Mostly, people watch neighbors coming and going; and they watch the "rigs," or the "units," as RVs are called.

And, Lordy! There's lots to see -- like the woman across the road from us who was setting up a wooden cow in her "front yard." She was white, like most people in RV camps, pleasantly plump and middle-aged. Her cow was black and white, with a water-hose tail that wagged whenever the water was turned on. It drew attention.

Several neighbors stopped by her campsite to inquire about the cow, and there ensued a conversation about all types of motor home gimcrackery, including awning lights.

Seems like no motor home is a motor home without awning lights, usually strung in Christmas-light fashion from awnings that fold down from the roof. Some lights are shaped like animals, others like stars or chili peppers. Others resemble Japanese lanterns, swaying in the breeze.

Illuminated awning lights generally mean neighbors are accepting visitors. But some neighbors leave their lights on well past bedtime, giving some campsites a holiday glow.

Finding Glen Maury Park

We quit Chincoteague after two days and headed toward Arlington. This was redundant, but there was a method to our madness. Continuing south along Route 13 would have taken us into Virginia Beach and, later, into North Carolina, where we could have picked up I-95 going to Florida. But I-95 is a lousy drive in a car. In a lumbering motor home, it's murder -- too many roadblocks, too many cars, too many dumb drivers taking potentially fatal risks.

Besides, backtracking to Arlington allowed us to do some packing corrections, such as dumping unneeded Tupperware. And it increased the likelihood that we would travel the Blue Ridge Parkway, which we wanted to do.

God knows, we weren't in a rush; and it wouldn't have mattered if we were. The Catalina was equipped with Ford Motor Co.'s monstrous, gasoline-powered, 7.5-liter, 245-horsepower V-8 engine. But with cargo, two occupants, 19 gallons of fresh water and about 70 gallons of gasoline, the motor home weighed nearly 24,000 pounds.

The engine was strong, but the mountains were stronger; and the higher the mountains got, the slower the Catalina went, sometimes dropping to 45 mph. That meant staying in the right-hand lane, where most motor homes tend to travel.

The sun was setting near Buena Vista, Va., where we saw a sign for Glen Maury Park. It was a municipal campground -- a genre that runs from pitiful to sublime. This one, nestled in the Blue Ridge foothills, was sublime. It was a full-hookup camp, for $16 a night!

But where to park? Glen Maury has lots of trees with overhangs that rival those found at Tom's Cove. And many of Glen Maury's campsites require backing in, a tricky maneuver in a motor home in the dimming light.

But a man who looked like Willie Nelson after a bad tour came to our aid.

"Whoa! That's a big one," he said, referring to the Catalina. He was bearded, wearing a baseball cap and dirty jeans. He came from a small travel trailer across the way from our chosen site. He appeared to have been keeping company with beer.

He called himself Will, and said little more than that, other than to shout directions to help me dock.

We thanked him for his assistance. He tipped his hat. We settled in, and slept with the windows open.

KOA, Dickson, Tenn.

Dave Drum, a real estate developer, founded Kampgrounds of America in 1962. Drum was literate. He knew how to spell, but the courts wouldn't allow him to copyright the name "Campground." So he switched to "k," which is why all KOA guests are kampers, all KOA locations are kampgrounds, and all the kamping spots thereon are kampsites.

Today, there are nearly 600 KOA Kampgrounds in 48 states and eight Canadian provinces. There are even a few in Mexico and Japan. One of the best is in Dickson, Tenn., about 350 miles west of Buena Vista, Va. Wheelers gives Dickson four stars, meaning that the kamp is "above the norm in some respects." Five stars, the guide book's top mark, means "above the norm in many respects." Three stars means "the norm, what most campers expect at a camp or RV park."

We suspect that Dickson missed a five-star rating because of its location next to railroad tracks. But crossing those tracks into the Kampground is akin to entering another realm. The buzz of traffic along nearby I-40 is hushed by groves of trees. There are pretty flowers in the Kampground's kourtyard, which also features a well-maintained swimming pool.

As in most RV parks, quiet settles over the Dickson KOA Kampground bay about 10 p.m., a silence broken only by the occasional bee-bump-dee-dump, bee-bump-dee-dump rumblings of a passing train.

Integrated Housing

I awakened at 7 a.m., an hour before the official end of the Dickson KOA's "quiet time," which runs from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.

In most small towns, it's easy to distinguish poor from rich neighborhoods. But in RV camps, everybody's right next to each other. For example, a young family from Denison, Tex., was camped next to us in a small travel trailer. Next to them was a Fleetwood American Eagle motor home, a Class A bus-type that costs about $200,000.

There were Class B campers, van-type motor homes with modest accommodations; and there were Class C models, fully equipped motor homes mounted behind truck cabins.

"Everybody's just a camper here," said the man of the campsite next door. He said he had just purchased his unit, a small Jayco travel trailer, for about $15,000. He was working as a chemist in the oil industry. He said he could have afforded more.

"But we're just getting into camping," the man said. Perhaps, at some later date, "I might buy one of those," the man said, pointing to an Allegro Bus, another luxury unit, produced by Tiffin Motor Homes Inc. in Red Bay, Ala.

Mary Anne was at the kitchen window in our motor home, listening to the conversation.

"He's jealous," she whispered to me when I came inside.

"Yeah," I said. "But at least he owns his. We've got to give this one back to Coachmen at the end of our run."

A Bumpy Ride in Arkansas

President Clinton comes from a state of hard knocks. Anyone doubting that should drive through Arkansas on Interstates 40 and 30 -- a collection of speed bumps masquerading as highways.

The Catalina shook and rattled. Some drawers wiggled opened in the kitchen area. An overhead cabinet door sprung loose. The steering wheel became a vibrator.

The torture continued until we reached Texarkana, Tex., just across the Arkansas border. By 8 p.m., we were in Marshall, Tex., Mary Anne's home town.

"How was the trip?" asked my sister-in-law, Joan George.

It was a setup question. People in the region know about the I-40/I-30 bump-a-thon. Joan and her daughter, Heather, started laughing before we could get the word "Arkansas" out of our mouths.

Boondocking in Marshall

Boondocking, in RV parlance, means camping where you happen to stop. In Marshall, that meant setting up for dry camping -- no hookups -- in the parking lot of Marshall Middle School, across the street from the home of my mother-in-law, Omadel Fowler Reed.

This wasn't total happenstance. Mom spoke with the Marshall Independent School Board and the Marshall Police Department before our arrival. Both agencies okayed our request to park in the lot overnight.

Boondocking well done is boondocking carefully done. For example, parking an expensive motor home overnight on a lot in a high-crime area might not be the smartest thing to do, although I know some people who have done so with no problems.

For example, veteran RVer and RV historian David Woodworth boondocks in inner cities all across the United States. "Never had anything stolen," he said. "Never had any trouble with the police or anybody."

Because boondocking usually means no hookups, it's wise to check your generator, if your motor home is so equipped, and to make sure that you have an adequate on-board water supply before you pitch camp.

On-board fresh water is used for bathing and toilet-waste disposal. Best-health practices favor the use of bottled water for drinking and cooking. But keep in mind that it all goes down the drain and into the motor home's waste-water and sewage tanks, which is why you should make sure that those tanks are less than half-full when you boondock. We finished dry-camp preparations and set up for the night, which passed peacefully, more so because we could run the generator without worrying about disturbing campsite neighbors.

Docking at the Riverboat

Mom came aboard for the trip to New Orleans. She had never been in an RV before, and was agog. "It's a house!" she said. She saw the overhead TV screen in the front cabin. "My God!" she said. "You don't drive with the television on, do you?"

Nope. You can't raise the antenna when the motor home is in motion. No antenna. No reception.

She checked out the propane-fueled cooktop stove and oven. And, "My God! It's a microwave!" But it consumes lots of amps, which means it's best to use it when you're hooked up to regular electric power.

"And a toilet?! A shower?!" Yep. But there are no seat belts on the toilet, which means it is safest to use when the motor home is parked. And slipping and sliding in the shower when the motor home is in motion isn't such a good idea, either.

We buckled Mom into a bench seat that, at night, folded out into a comfortable bed. We proceeded to New Orleans via U.S. 59 south, I-49 south and I-10 east. The route took us through Louisiana swamplands -- beautiful, dangerous, bountiful in their offerings of alligators, snakes and Creole food.

But clearly missing on the route were enough rest stops, especially along U.S. 59 and I-49.

We parked and used our toilet in a gas station lot. "This is much better than using their restroom," Mom said, nodding toward the station building. "At least, I know you people. It's like using the bathroom at home."

We reached New Orleans by 7 p.m., about 10 hours after leaving Marshall. There was no doubt about where we would camp in the city of my birth. We went straight to the New Orleans Riverboat Travel Park, exiting at Chef Menteur Highway off I-10 east.

The Riverboat is a postage stamp of a place with 67 campsites. It is a rectangular lot, with a slab of concrete running down its middle. Gravel-covered campsites, all full-hookups, are on either side of the slab. There is a neatly kept shower house, used mostly by people whose RVs lack showers, or by campers who sometimes arrive with tents strapped to the top of passenger cars. A smell of freshly roasted coffee beans permeates the air night and day, the gift of nearby coffee processing plants.

There is a small swimming pool on the premises, as well as the ubiquitous camp store. There are few other amenities, which is why Wheelers gives the Riverboat a three-star "Norm" rating.

But the evaluation misses the soul of the Riverboat. It is a funky, fun, safe, well-run place, largely because of the group of unusual people who run it.

Lucy and `Granma'

Lucy is a big woman with a big heart. She's New Orleans Irish, which is unlike Irish anywhere else. It's Irish Channel Irish, the Irish Channel being the back-o'-town section of New Orleans where many Irish people live.

Lucy is a high school dropout. But she is one of the diesels behind the operation of the Riverboat. "How ya' doin' babes?" she asked upon my arrival. "Your wife with ya?"

It was an open question, quickly answered in the affirmative, which made Lucy laugh. Mary Anne and I had stayed at the Riverboat before, and were delighted by the borderline bawdy nature and easy familiarity of the place.

Lucy turned serious.

"No matter how long you stay, you can't leave here without talkin' to Granma. You got that?" I nodded.

Granma is Mae Robin, who is in her seventies and ailing. She has emphysema, diabetes and other illnesses, none of which has stopped her from smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Granma has ideas about spiffing up the Riverboat. She wants to paint the main building coral with white trim, and she wants a blue roof on top of that. And she wants to raise the Riverboat's sign another 30 feet; and she wants to put a slogan under that sign: "Home of the Deep South Cajun Country Vacation," or something like that.

But she wants to talk to me about gays.

Many of Granma's friends are gays who say they have trepidations about staying in RV parks, most of which are geared to heterosexual couples and families.

"Whattaya think about an RV park that served both groups fair and square, with nobody messin' with nobody and ev'rybody havin' fun?" she asked.

I told her that the heterosexual couples and families who stayed at the Riverboat probably wouldn't mind, since it takes an open mind to pitch camp in New Orleans (a k a "The Big Easy") anyway.

She took a considered draw on her cigarette, blew smoke at the ceiling of her aluminum-sided mobile home, and asked: "And you think we could keep both groups happy?"

This, I was sure of. Granma and her clan are concierges par excellence. If you're at the Riverboat during Mardi Gras, for example, Granma's brigade will organize a caravan to get you to the parades and to the other sites of revelry. They'll find babysitters, if you need them. And they'll act on most of your legitimate requests quickly and cheerfully.

And finally, in New Orleans, where crime has been something of a growth industry, you don't have to worry about your personal or property safety at the Riverboat.

"We have guards," Granma said. "We know who belongs here and who don't."

I have reason to believe she's telling the truth. A neighbor at a campsite next to ours went off and left expensive mechanic's tools and a portable radio sitting on a picnic table. He returned four hours later to find the items exactly where he left them.

Bad Weather

We stayed longer than planned in New Orleans, thanks to stormy weather kicking up in the Gulf of Mexico along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts. That nixed any hopes of going to Key West.

No matter. The good thing about RVing is that you have instant options. We checked the weather forecasts, and found the climate in the Texas Gulf clear and sunny. We charted a course to the Dellanera RV Park (a full five-star rating in Wheelers) on Galveston Island, Tex.

The Good Life at Dellanera

We could see the Gulf in all of its glory from our perch at Campsite 14 at Dellanera. We clearly had chosen a high-rent district. There was another Fleetwood American Eagle parked to our right, an expensive Gulfstream to our left, a to-die-for Monaco Dynasty Signature across the road, and several vintage versions of the Bluebird Wanderlodge.

You want fancy? Lordy, let me tell ya! The Monaco Dynasty had solid walnut cabinetry throughout. It had hardwood floors -- not the linoleum or workaday carpeting found in lesser motor homes. Danged thing also had a built-in, all-in-one washer-dryer -- and a full-service bar.

Some of our neighbors climbed aboard their "dinghies," tow vehicles, en route to Moody Gardens and other sites on Galveston Island. But we stayed around the campsite, sipping favorite beverages and waiting for the sun to fall, whereupon we repaired to the beach and watched night overtake the waves.

A Rose

Jack Rose stopped by for a visit and a chat. We'd just met him hours earlier but felt as if we'd known him forever. He was a garrulous fellow, a self-described Rush Limbaugh "Dittohead." Our paths never would have crossed in the real world. But you meet and talk to a lot of people in camps, and the talk, despite political and other differences, is mostly civil.

Jack wanted to talk about the news: Actor Carroll O'Connor's troubles with a drug dealer implicated in the death of his son, and actor Bill Cosby's troubles with an alleged love-child who tried to bribe him for $40 million.

And, of course, Jack wanted to talk about RVs and travel and how it all rolls into what he called "the great ball of life."

I didn't quite get the connection, the way he was trying to put it; but I learned that he was 74 years old and had been married to the same woman for 53 years. He was born in Alexandria, La., but was reared in Fort Worth, which he still calls home.

He was a career Army man, which he said explained his penchant for camping and travel. He was pulling a Nomad travel trailer with a 1985 Dodge Ram Prospector Crew Cab pickup -- "the last of its kind," Jack said.

"I don't see any sense in buying a new one. I'm not going to be around long enough to amortize the cost of buying a new one. At 74, I don't think I have too many years left," Jack said, speaking about his truck.

"This truck has been pretty good. And if I'm going down the road and I blow an engine, what the heck? I'll just replace the engine.

"What the heck, I'm getting there myself," Jack said. "I'm not going to be able to stay on the road forever."

Black People

We saw them coming up the stairs of the Dellanera Pavilion, which houses the camp store and registration office, as well as a Laundromat and several other services. They saw us, too. Black people! No way they were going to pass us without stopping and speaking. No way we were going to let them.

For a variety of reasons too numerous to discuss here, black people are a rarity in RV camps -- which is why Bob and Sandra James, as "full-timers," are even more unusual. They sold their brick and mortar home in Beaumont, Tex., and decided to hit the road. Sandra is a retired nurse and Bob is a retired Air Force career man, though both appear too young to be retired. They're in their early fifties.

"We just decided that we could live with less stuff," Sandra said. She must've been kidding.

The Jameses roll around the country in a Pinnacle wide-body motor home, made by Thor Industries of Jackson City, Ohio. It's a motorized mansion, with two slide-out rooms that enlarge living space; elegantly appointed dining, bathing and sleeping quarters; two full-size televisions, a VCR, generator, stereo system, personal computer, the works.

Full-time RVing is the ultimate freedom for people who can afford it, and who have the discipline and organizational skills to exploit it, Bob said.

We talked for hours.

South Padre Island

We had time for one more fun stop before beginning the long trek back to Marshall, Tex., and thence to Virginia. We chose South Padre Island, the tropical tip of Texas. The weather was balmy, and made even more enjoyable by breezes from the Laguna Madre on the western side of the island and from the Gulf of Mexico on the east.

We camped at the Destination South Padre Island RV Resort, directly overlooking the waters of Laguna Madre. It was a beautiful spot, in easy walking distance of the Gulf's beaches, hotels and restaurants.

Aiding mobility was island cab service, which was quick, cheap and invariably courteous. And when we tired of land, we chartered a boat -- also cheap, at $35 for a group of three.

The boat outings essentially were nature tours -- dolphin watching, that sort of thing. But they also offered panoramic views of the island that were stunningly beautiful.

And the good part about all of this was the overall price, though the campsite charge on South Padre was the highest we paid during the entire trip, $45 a night. That included electrical, cable, telephone, computer, water and sewage hookups, as well as access to the camp's swimming pool and other recreational facilities, and access to the adjacent Sea Ranch Fishing Pier.

We spent much of our time in South Padre with the family of Daniel and Marge Lopez, from Flint, Mich., who occupied a campsite next to us. Dan is a retired auto worker. Marge still works for the Michigan state employment office. They were a fun group. We left the day after their departure.

Miles to Go

We left South Padre Island en route to Fort Worth/Dallas, an estimated 14-hour ride that would require at least a five-hour stopover for dining and rest.

We spent a day in Dallas with family and left the next morning for Marshall, 120 miles east. After depositing Mom, we headed toward Arkansas. But this time, we used back roads.

Much to our pleasant surprise, the back roads were smooth and lightly traveled; and they revealed an Arkansas completely missed on our drive along the interstates -- a beautiful land of mountain ranges, rolling hills, fields and many friendly, helpful people.

A case in point was Crater of Diamonds State Park, along state Route 301, some 35 miles northwest of President Clinton's home town of Hope.

Adjacent to the park was a neat little RV camp, the Miner's Camping & Rock Shop, operated by Charles and Joyce Goodin and their 12-year-old son, Charles Jr. We didn't check any camp guide directories for this one -- didn't have to. The camp was pretty and obviously well kept. The Goodins were personable, easy-going people. It was a cinch.

Baptism at Lake Fairfax

My RV instructor, Ed Hicks, once told me that I'd learn some RV truths the hard way. I found out what he meant. I was baptized. It happened like this:

A basic rule of etiquette when using any rented or borrowed vehicle is to put it in as close to pristine condition as possible when returning it to its rightful owner.

Accordingly, we scrubbed, shampooed, washed and polished the Coachmen Catalina, which had served as an enjoyable home away from home for six weeks and about $1,500 worth of gasoline (about 9 miles per gallon, plus the use of gasoline to run the generator).

Anyway, the last motor home ablution involved dumping the tanks at a public dump station in Lake Fairfax Park. I was nervous about this. The sewage outlet hose had slipped off twice during the trip, luckily during soap-water discharge.

That should've signaled me to be extra careful during the final dump. I wasn't. The sewage hose slipped off the discharge nozzle, again. But this time, what came out wasn't soapy; and it came out all over me.

That is why public discharge stations are equipped with high-pressure water hoses, and why it is important to keep disinfectants nearby whenever releasing motor home wastes.

Hicks was right: "Some things you'll learn the hard way," he said. "But once you learn them, you'll never forget."

Details: Renting an RV

Recreation vehicle prices range from about $5,000 for folding camp trailers to more than $1 million for the most expensive, Class A, bus-type motor homes. But regardless of the type of RV equipment used, first-time and casual RVers are better off renting.

The logic is simple: Returning a rental is a lot easier than retiring a loan, if you decide RVing is not for you.

But even renting comes with caveats.

For example, many people believe that RVs, particularly Class A motor homes, are the jumbo travel equivalents of multi-seat, full-size vans.

"Some people come to us thinking that they can put 15 people in a motor home. Others want to bring their entire families," said Mary Jobe, RV rental manager at Recreation World Inc. near Annapolis.

Fact is, the number of available seat belts determines the number of people who can travel in motor homes. Three seat belts, three occupants. Six seat belts, six occupants.

Also, RVs are living units. It's hard to feed, bathe and sleep 15 people in most brick-and-mortar homes. It's impossible in the biggest of RVs. So limit the number of people who will travel with you, and rent accordingly.

WHAT TO RENT: Couples camping in mild climes might might consider a folding camping trailer, also called a pop-up, for about $250 a week.

Traditional, fixed-body travel trailers go for about $400 weekly. Keep in mind that you usually supply the tow vehicle if you plan to rent and tow a trailer. That means you must be sure that your prospective tow vehicle is designed to pull heavy weights.

Most likely, you'll rent a Class C motor home -- a mini-motor home, with a cab-over bed, built onto a truck chassis. Class C rentals also start at about $400 a week. Some companies offer weekly discounts for longer rentals.

Class C models offer more usable living space and more amenities than most Class B RVs, which are van-campers; and Class C motor homes usually are easier to drive than the often bigger Class A bus-types

The bus types, almost always fully equipped, are the royalty of the RV road, and are priced accordingly, withweekend rental rates starting around $400 and weekly charges starting at about $750.

WHAT TO PAY: Rental prices and terms vary, depending on the company offering the lease and the season and region in which the rental originates. Here are some things to consider:

- Insurance. Check with your auto or home insurer to determine if your RV rental is covered under an existing policy. Most RV rental agencies require a certificate of insurance. If you don't have one, they are willing to provide coverage -- for a price.

- Reliability. Both for the company and the vehicle, especially if you are renting from a stand-alone regional shop. An RV breakdown on the road is no fun under the best of circumstances. It's a nightmare if you're hundreds of miles from home with no dealer or bona fide service agency to help you.

For this reason, I favor renting from national RV rental firms, such as Cruise America Motorhome Rental & Sales (1-800-327-7799).

Large companies often have 24-hour service hot lines and multiple service outlets. However, some regional dealers offer on-the-road emergency assistance through associations such as the Good Sam Club, a kind of AAA for RVers. Check.

- Service charges. Many motor homes are equipped with generators to provide power in places where there is no electricity. Generator use is monitored by an onboard timer. Some rental companies charge a fee for using the generator. Others don't. Check.

Also, there's the matter of waste dumping. Many RV camps have campsite sewage outlets. Use them to dump your toilet and waste-water tanks. There are also public dump stations that charge a modest ($15 or less) dumping fee. Use them. The alternative is to pay the equivalent of a fine, ranging from $100 to $200, to have the RV rental agency dump your tanks.

- Make sure your rental agency provides you with at least a 45-minute RV orientation session before you drive off. RVs, unlike rental cars, are motorized residential systems. Nothing at all intimidating. But it helps to know things like which tank to dump first, and that you should never, ever pull into a gas station without first turning off all of your propane-fired appliances.

INFORMATION: The Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, 1-800-336-0355, can provide, for a fee, several publications that list rental companies all over the United States. One of the best among these is "Who's Who in RV Rentals."

Other useful guides include "Free-wheelin' USA," a Fielding Worldwide publication by Shirley Slater and Harry Basch; "Full-Time RVing: A Complete Guide to Life on the Open Road," by Bill and Jan Moeller, published by Trailer Life Books; Woodall's '97 North American Campground Directory (; and Wheelers RV Resort and Campground Guide, both of which list campgrounds that also rent RVs on-site.

-- Warren Brown

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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