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David Bouchier: The Call Of The Open Road

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

The sales of recreational vehicles rose dramatically last year, and it’s easy to see why. The recreational vehicle is the apotheosis of America's love affair with comfort, convenience and freedom — a domestic paradise in miniature. Modern RVs come equipped with computerized automatic leveling systems, so that even the wildest campsite can be made as flat as a suburban lot. They are air conditioned, fitted out with refrigerators, microwaves and every convenience of modern life. When RV owners want to get closer to nature, they can watch a wildlife program on public television. Most camp sites offer hook ups, where they can plug into electric power, water, waste disposal, cable TV and dry martini lines. A fully hooked up RV looks like a hospital patient in intensive care.

Our local state park is a favorite RV destination on Long Island. It has a large and beautiful campsite, divided into two parts, like Germany before the Berlin wall came down. On one side, hundreds of austere souls — direct descendants of the Puritans — are vacationing in a motley collection of tents. On the other side, safely established in a separate area, are the travel trailers and big recreational vehicles.

The relationship between the two halves of the camp is friendly but distant. The tent campers feel frugal and superior. Americans still equate outdoor life with health and virtue, and people in tents are living very close to nature. They don't believe that the RV owners are “camping” at all. "I don't know why they bother to come here," said one bearded camper, peering out of a tent the size of a dog kennel. "They could stay in hotels all their lives for the price of one of those things." But a hotel room doesn’t move, and certainly doesn’t have all the comforts of home.

At night, when it rains and blows, the RV owners can batten down the hatches and settle down snugly with TV and a dry martini, while the tent campers cling to their flapping canvas like Scott of the Antarctic. Small rivers and medium sized animals run through their tents, and they have the satisfying sense of living just as our ancestors lived before the invention of roof shingles and aluminum siding.

As fall approaches, the divide between the RVs and the tents gets sharper. In the end, comfort wins over virtue, and the tent campers retire, defeated by the weather. For a few weeks after Labor Day, the motorhomes stay on in isolated splendor, like whales stranded on a green beach. Then, when the temperature falls with the leaves, they pull out their umbilical lines, fire up their 300 horsepower engines and sail away, westwards down the island and then south, following the temperate zone from gas station to gas station.

These latter-day nomads have created an enviable lifestyle. They can always move on, avoiding floods, wildfires, hurricanes and COVID hotspots. With luck, the mail and the IRS never catch up and, the lawn never has to be mowed. It fulfills some primordial American dream of freedom on the expanding frontier, with none of the inconveniences of the real frontier. If you're going to live the simple life, it's best to do it in style and above all, like the frontier itself, to keep moving.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.