“Our schedule is based on fishing,” Christine said. “We follow trout, then in the winter we want to escape cold weather and snow.”
They had been fishing dorado and ballyhoo for several weeks when the United States and Mexico agreed to close the border to nonessential travel, and the Spencers realized they would have to head north to avoid getting stuck.
But back stateside, with campgrounds shuttered nationwide, it was nearly impossible to find a place with an RV hookup to park for the night.
After many phone calls, the operator of a 55-plus mobile home community in Yuma, Ariz., offered them a two-night stay. They used that respite to connect with friends in Mesa, Ariz., who agreed to host them in their driveway. “I assume the welcome mat is getting a little worn,” Christine said. “Thank gosh I’m a good cook for earning our keep.”
The past two months have generated significant upheaval for retirees who had hoped to spend their golden years traveling North America by RV.
As the spring travel season got underway, such popular destinations as national parks were gated. Now some parks are reopening with restrictions. The borders with Canada and Mexico are still closed to nonessential travel, and private RV parks are keeping such shared amenities as swimming pools shuttered.
Thirty state park campground systems remain closed, have delayed opening or are open to state residents only, and 37 percent of campsites nationally are still shut down, according to online RV resource Campendium. Gas may be cheap, but the recent bear market has hurt retirement portfolios.
And as social distancing and other restrictions loom, couples such as the Spencers are considering whether to turn off the ignition for part of the year.
The RV Industry Association, which collects annual data on RV sales, does not inquire about retirement status. But it estimates that roughly 38 percent of the over 9 million RVs registered in the United States are piloted by people age 55 and up.
RV owners are the type to wave to each other from the highway and make friends at campgrounds. From decades-old established travel clubs to online communities that cater to specific makes and models, they form a close-knit community that meets up at rallies — something else that is temporarily off the table — and trades tips on maintenance and spare parts.
As a retirement lifestyle, RV ownership offers budget options with entry-level travel trailers towed behind a vehicle available for as low as $10,000. At the higher end, Class A motor homes, which are self-contained living units that can come with finishes and fixtures nicer than the average house, can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Spencers eased into full-time RV life slowly, starting with a pop-up camper in the 1990s and upgrading to a travel trailer in 2007. They embarked on several cross-country road trips lasting up to six weeks, traveling as far as Vancouver, B.C., and hitting such marquee national parks as Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Yellowstone, always with an eye toward where the fish were biting.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the trailer and sent three feet of water into their 200-year-old post and beam house on the Jersey Shore. Repairs, including raising the house against future storm surge, dragged on for five years.
After their daughter died of an opioid overdose in 2016, Christine’s father sold the family-run auto collision repair shop in Jackson, N.J., and Samuel, who has been paraplegic for 30 years since a ski racing accident, retired from a disability education position with the Ocean County Freeholders.
The couple briefly moved back to Vermont, then set out for Alaska in a new RV in July 2018. Through a combination of phone calls and faxes from the road, they completed the sale of their home in October 2018 for just under $1 million in cash.
They set out for the open road in search of prime fly-fishing across the American West. But those spots remain in jeopardy amid the rolling closures and reopenings occasioned by the pandemic. Their next expected destination, the Green River in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area in northeastern Utah, has been overrun with anglers looking to fish in one of the few river destinations still open in the intermountain West.
They are holding onto their reservation at one of the two private campgrounds in the area, but the U.S. Forest Service has warned that even a single case of the novel coronavirus will lead the agency to shut down the recreation area.
“With covid and not having anything to do because we can’t go do the activities we normally like to do, you start thinking of having a home again,” she said.
As the stock market went topsy-turvy, the couple withdrew some money from equities but still took a 25 percent hit to their retirement portfolio. Browsing for a new Newmar RV in the $350,000 to $450,000 range is on hold.
“We put the kibosh on purchasing a new coach because we think we might be buying a house,” she said. “We want the liquidity to have both the RV lifestyle when we want to get up and go but also a place where we can settle during better weather.”
Others are also confronting the idea that their dream of a full-time RV lifestyle would remain merely that — at least for the foreseeable future.
Debbie and Craig Green had been debating the attractions of full-time RVing for more than a year before the pandemic hit.
Debbie Green, 64, retired in December 2018 from her position as executive assistant to the city manager in Carson, Calif.
Craig Green, 63, retired 12 years ago from working as a UPS package car driver.
In January 2019, they purchased a 2016 25-foot Winnebago Navion in Georgia for $80,000 in cash after saving for 18 years. They named it Shorty and spent three weeks driving it home to California.
Debbie had been clamoring to try full-time RVing for a year, while her husband was more resistant. But she admits she is reconsidering after witnessing fellow RV owners send out SOS messages on social media, desperately looking for places to park as RV parks closed and told travelers to leave.
“We would have a lot of pause going full time right now,” she said. “When you get tired of being that wanderer, we have a home base to hang out in the backyard, have a bonfire, tend to the garden and watch veggies grow.”
Their 25-year-old granddaughter sheltered in place with them, and more recently they picked up their twin grandsons from Arizona, with plans for a family trip in August.
In late April, the Greens packed up Shorty for a “date day” jaunt to Santa Barbara, Calif., where they found an open beach parking lot offering a place to watch the waves. Those kinds of trips may become the norm for the time being, with bucket list plans of hitting all 50 states — they have checked off 17 — on pause.
“I feel like I have the best of both worlds right now,” she said.
The Greens’ new habits are likely bellwethers. “Some of the research that we’ve seen in the travel space is indicating that people are probably going to choose to stay closer to home,” said James Ashurst, executive vice president of the RV Industry Association..
With outdoor recreation among the first activities that governors have approved as they ease back on stay-at-home measures heading into the summer months, Ashurst sees an opportunity for retirees and for the industry.
“Across this country, there are local campgrounds and state parks, which are going to be open and provide opportunities for someone to get out and recreate in the confines of an RV,” he said.
And with Americans leery of air travel and cruises, he expects a potential boost from retirees choosing the self-contained sanitary environment of an RV. “There are advantages to being in your own vehicle as opposed to other travel options out there,” Ashurst said. “You control the cleanliness.”
Others share his rosy view. When not on the road, Don Humes runs Americas Mailbox, a combination mail forwarding service, vehicle registration center, insurance office and RV campground in Box Elder, S.D., that offers a one-stop shop for RV owners.
South Dakota is a popular state for full-time RVers to establish residency because there is no state income tax and it has lax residency requirements.
“Long term I don’t anticipate major changes,” Humes said. Residency application kit downloads from his website remain steady even though South Dakota’s DMVs are closed until June.
“There’s no doubt that this virus thing is affecting people making plans to start this lifestyle, but I believe when this is over we’re going to see a sudden onrush,” he said. “For a lot of our customers, this is the realization of a lifelong dream to travel and see the country while they still have the wherewithal and health to do it.”
For now, though, there is no escaping some element of uncertainty surrounding RV life.
For the past 13 years, Ken and Lida Carpenter, both 78, have split time between Texas and Minnesota, where they serve as campground hosts at St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park, logging tens of thousands of miles and relishing scenery along the way.
“I refer to it as windshield therapy on the days we get to travel,” Ken Carpenter said.
The couple were hunkering down near their son in the Dallas-Fort Worth area when they set off on their annual trip north at the request of the Washington County, Minn., parks department, which plans to open the park this summer to campers. Instead of the Carpenters’ leisurely 2½ week meandering to see new parts of the country, they drove there in three days, made minimal stops and took extra hygiene precautions when pumping gas.
Carpenter acknowledged that their normally freewheeling kind of RV lifestyle might become less common. As chairman of the member engagement committee for the Family Motor Coach Association, a national RV travel club, he has fielded many anxious queries about what is life going to be like after the pandemic. “People will still use their RVs, but they will be less inclined for long-distance travel,” he speculated.
That description fits the Carpenters. They own a condo in Rockwall, Tex., where they eventually plan to settle down. But for now, they are enjoying the solitude, with the campground’s opening pushed back to June 1. “We tell all our friends we have a 500-acre place on the St. Croix River,” Ken said.