It is the dream of a lifetime," said Robert Cornett, 55, a rugged ironworker from the San Francisco area. As he pointed as his large recreational vehicle, a little child ran from the nearby bank of the Potomac River and took his hand.

"Grandpa, I see a fish down there!" said the child.

Cornett continued speaking with some emotion. "When we retire we want to tour this country and just live in our RV," he said."We'll sell our house. We want to stop and just spend a week here and there . . ."

The recreational vehicle phenomenon seems to be nourished by deep wellsprings in American culture: a hunger to drift across the expanse of our continent and make its rivers, mountains and forests truly a party of our lives.

In another sense, perhaps, the phenomenon is not so unusual, for it is often the case that we look for more in our vehicles than mere transportation. We seek some sense of fulfillment, or to project a certain image of ourselves.

Cars, motorcycyles, bicycles, mo-peds and recreational vehicles are all put to these uses. The psychological thread that runs from Robert Cornett to Sandra West, who was recently buried in her Ferrari, embraces us all.

"I'm quite concerned about the energy crisis," said Cornett. "This is the only recreation we have. This is what we do to get away from work and it gives us a chance to see our own country. That's what prompted us to come here this year because we didn't know if we could come next year or not."

The 1973-74 oil embargo and subsequent gas shortage led to a sharp reduction in RV sales in the U.S., but now the industry appears to be booming again and manufacturers expect to sell more than 500,000 units this year.

They expect sales to continue rising despite the possibility of higher gas prices as a result of President Carter's energy program.

Americans spent more than $4 billion on RV's last year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, with individual RV's ranging in price from a few thousand dollars to $50,000.

By 1981, RVIA spokesman Steve Hines said, some 948,000 more RV's are expected to be sold, although the rising cost of energy could throw a crimp into this expection.

Cornett and his wife have a handsome new 22-foot 6-inch Robin Hood "Sportsman" for which they paid about $17,600. It has two beds that sleep four in the spacious interior; a kitchen range, refrigerator and sink; and a small bathroom with shower fed from a 55-gallon water drum.

It also has a 75-gallon gas tank that costs Cornett more than $35 to fill with regular.

At 55 m.p.h. Cornett gets 10.3 miles per gallon, which he said is about what his full-size-1976 Ford LTD gets in city driving. If he drives the RV at 60, however, he gets only 7.3 miles per gallon.

Daryl Wigle, an RV salesman at Safford Lincoln-Mercury in Silver Spring, said that potential customers are concerned about gas mileage and emmissions when they come to look at RVs.

"That's hurtin' us," she said. "We've had a lot of people say. "We've going to wait and see what comes out of this energy situation."R

However the dealership's manager Rick MacAnanny said he tells potential customers that the Rv's get about 10 miles a gallon and has found that, "People are not that worried . . . The RVs are selling like hotcakes."

Cornett said he thinks that, "if we do go into gas rationing, people should be allowed a vacation ration to do this. It's just as important to go across the country and see the great country as to save fuel. I'm pretty proud I've seen quite a bit of it myself."

Cornett said he understands that there is an energy problem, but he is angered at the objections being raised to developments in the nuclear energy field.

"I'm not scared of that," he said. "We live near the Livermore (Calif.) plant. Down below us in Diablo Canyon they're putting in a (nuclear) plant." He said he is all for it."

Everyone agreed there is something special about people who travel in RVs.

"The people are much more friendly than the ones that come in to buy cars," said Jim Hadden of the Safford RV dealership. "People come into auto sales and at times they're a little hard to get along with, whereas when something goes wrong with an RV, the people take it in stride."

He described RV owners as "people who take time to relax.They take weekends off. They're easier to get along with than people who push all the time."

"It's a way of life," said saleswoman Wigle, who does a lot of RV travelling herself with her family. "There's no one type of person who does it. All types from the laboring class to your executive class will have anything from little pop-ups to your big expensive ones."

John W. koons Sr., who sells RVs in two of his Washington area dealerships, reported that large numbers of retired people are selling their homes and buying RVs. Koons himself has a bus converted into an RV that he uses to travel to Florida periodically with his family.

"It's thousands of retired people - you just can't imagine how many," said Koons. "I think this is wonderful for the people because it gets them away from the big cities. Everyone is scared to death in the cities."

"Koons said RV people are invariably clean and never leave a mess in parks where they stay.

"Doctors, lawyers, retired judges - this is the cream of the earth," he said. "Everyone is trying to help you in some way. They're very accommodating . . . It's like a team."

Cornett said he was on a three-week vacation with his wife and grandson.

"It's a real carefree life," he said. "You can just stop where you want. We park in roadside rest areas, campgrounds, and if we're hard pressed for a place to stay we'll stay in a store parking lot."

He talked about people he had met in Palm Springs and other places.

"You meet people and sit down and talk," he said. "They're going one way and you're going another and you exchange ideas . . . We've had a wonderful time.

"This year a lot of our sales is the new married couple, the married couple that needs something to stimulate their relationship," said Tom Heyser who as the owner of Heyser Cycle Sales in Laurel operates one of the largest motorcycle dealerships in the U.S.

Heyser has been a careful observer of changing social trends for many years. He described the kind of married couple that he said now constitutes 20 per cent of his customers.

"You see them come in with a kid maybe. Maybe the husband's a little bored. They're buying cheap bikes; that's an excuse for the buy. He says, 'Honey, I'm gona ride this to work and save money.' The other day a couple came in with a list of mileages. He proved to his wife how much money he would save."

Heyser said he sells many motorcycles to people who are recently divorced.

"That's the first thing a guy's got to do after a divorce - he's got to do something to keep his head together," said Heyser.

He said that in one case a divorced couple came in together, the man buying a motorcycle for himself and his former wife buying a small motorcycle for their child to race on dirt tracks.

Heyser said that about 10 per cent of his customers are men in their late 40s or 50s who are seeking to break out of old patterns an find a new, more exciting way of life.

A good number of his younger customers are repeaters, he said: young men who owned motorcycles when they were in their late teens during the 1960s and who are now in their early 30s.

He said that a majority of his customers are middle-income, professional and semiprofessional people.

A large black motorcycle market has developed in recent years. Heyser has noticed. He said there are a score of black clubs in the Washington area and that their long field trips and racing meets tend to be more exciting and lively than similar events held by white clubs.

perhaps one of the biggest changes in the motorcycle market. Heyser said, is the loss of the traditional youth market - the high school and college students who contributed to the motorcycle sales boom during the 1960s.

We've lost the youth market of 16 to 18-year-old kids," Heyser said. "The charisma of the motorcycle macho trio is gone for them. Now the youth is back into dope, cars, making out. He impresses his girl friend not with his roaring machine but with his stereo."

Motorcross racing using small motorcycles on dirt tracks and fields has also absorbed a good deal of the youthful interest that used to be poured into street machines, Heyser said.

Motorcross racing is highly organized. Its sharp rise in popularity in recent years seems to place it somewhere between the Soap Box Derby and Little League in the American scheme of things.

Heyser said that there are more than 4,000 motorcross riders in the Washington area, many of them as young as 8 years old.

"This has brought a lot of parents back together," said Heyser. "It's a good thing for our society. The parents support it, they're out there with the kid. It gives the family something to do together."

While Heyser has watched these social changes, he said he has also been concerned at the way he thinks Japanese motorcycle manufacturers a manipulating the U.S. market and over charging.

"This business isn't fun any more," he said. "It's gotten so it's very difficult to be fair to the customer.

For example, Heyser said that a certain valve that cost $1.49 in 1966 costs $10 today.

"The Japanese go in and buy a market and force the competition out with low prices, set up a very heavy dealer network and commit these businessmen to a heavy investment. Then they make all their money through obsolescence. They change their products so rapidly now that no one can get into the after-market. The average motorcycle is obsolete now in 3.1 years."

Wilfred V. Farnham, 49, has been in love with motorcycles all his life, but it was only when the gas crisis hit in 1974 that he finally bought one.

"When I was a 10-year-old kid in Memphis, N.Y. my sister was eight years older and had a boyfriend who had an old police Harley, " recalled Farnham, now a computer systems analyst with the Veterans Administration.

The boyfriend gave Farnham rides on the cycle and Farnham never forgot that big seat covered with sheepskin, that tremendous surge of power.

Then when Farnham got out of the Army in 1947 he planned to buy a motorcycle and ride across the U.S., but the plan fell through. That disappointment gnawed at him for two decades, until the gas crisis hit and he bought a moderate-sized motorcycle. He told himself it would save fuel.

Now Farnham, who has gray hair, a moustache and long sideburns, is motorcycling with a vengeance.

He has one of the biggest, fanciest bikes imaginable: A Suzuki rotary-engine RE-5 that cost him $3,000. It is equipped with a windshield, air horns and other extras that make the riding pleasant.

Farnham even has an intercom system that hooks from his helmet to the helmet of his passenger so they can converse while riding.

"It's freedom," said Farnham of his motorcycle. "It's a - Jeez, I can't explain it. For one thing it gives me great pleasure to see people saying, "Who rides this?' It's an ego trip."

Farnham has a car that he uses for shopping, but he uses the motorcycle for commuting and weekend trips to the country.

He's a little worried about motorists who seem to resent motorcycle riders.

"What they'll do is get up beside you and flick the steering wheel in your direction," he said. "I've had people chase me: I think I'm going down the road nice and peaceful and the next thing you know you got a guy tailing you."

Farnham thinks some people may be jealous. "If you can't join 'em, kill 'em."

Keith Miles, 27, who works in the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service and who has been a motorcycle rider for much of his life, has the same fears of car drivers that Farnham has.

Miles grew up in Washington but went to college in the northwest where he underwent a kind of psychological depressurization.

He didn't want to return to Washington and "play the polical game," but when his job required it, back he came.