RV popularity revving up

Like most wide-eyed, wishful Americans, Dennis Soukup daydreams of someday hitting the lottery. Riches beyond compare. Genie-in-a-lamp possibilities.

Enough money to buy a spacious, playground mansion. To purchase a private jet to travel to exotic locations. To hold the gold key to buy anything he wants, do anything he wants, whenever he wants.

Well … not quite.

No, the 59-year-old chairman of the applied technology department at the College of Southern Nevada simply wants to hold the key to a new Tiffin Zephyr motor home – the Holy Grail of recreational vehicles.

Forty-five feet long, 8 feet 4 inches wide, 12 feet 10 inches tall, 500-horsepower engine, 150-gallon gas tank, six aluminum wheels plus two steel inner wheels, two-stage compression air brake, six air bags.

And that doesn’t include the interior creature comforts, highlighted by a home theater system with Surround Sound.

"Yes, that’s my dream," Soukup says of the luxurious home-away-from-home with a sticker price of approximately $500,000. "If I hit the lottery, I’m buying a Zephyr. I want to retire full time into one of them."

Retire, that is, into a senior lifestyle that is remarkably safe, according to a report from the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which showed that over a 10-year period from 1999 through 2008 there were only 97 RV fatalities nationally.

Special driving classes are not mandatory for RVers in Nevada. But owners of motor homes with a minimum 26,000-pound gross rating or tow trailers with a minimum gross rating of 10,000 pounds are required to have a special license endorsement, which comes by passing a Department of Motor Vehicles driving test.

Fourteen other U.S. states, including California, require some form of special license endorsement, according to the website changingears.com.

TYPICAL RVer IS 48 YEARS OLD

Soukup and his wife, Linda, are one of 8.9 million U.S. households that owns some form of RV, which includes every­thing from truck campers and pull trailers to fifth wheels and those shiny, rock-star-rich motor homes. Soukup currently owns a 2006 Tiffin Phaeton, the kid brother to the Zephyr at an approximate price of $250,000.

While it would seem that in the coming months almost all of those 8.9 million traveling households will be descending upon Southern Nevada as vacationing snowbirds – retirees who leave the northern cold to bask in the milder winters of the desert Southwest – the truth is today’s typical RVer, according to a 2011 University of Michigan study, is 48 years old, married and has an annual household income of $62,000.

One of the key reasons RVing has become so popular, es­pecially with younger families, is that the vehicles are essentially self-contained vacations. Just add gasoline. Or, for bigger rigs, diesel fuel.

"You can spend as little as $10,000 for a used pull trailer, to get started, and that’s pretty cheap," explains Pat Maloney, manager of Johnnie Walker RV on Boulder Highway. "A lot of families start small and then build as they go along and their income and interest increases.

"Believe me, there’s something suitable for everybody out there."

And RVing is incredibly safe, much more so than one would think looking at the size of some of these rolling homes. Once a first-time owner becomes accustomed to the difference in size, wider turning radius and increased braking distance, compared to that of a typical passenger vehicle, accidents are few and far between. Maybe the occasional scrape of a post or a tree limb while trying to park.

"It took me only about 30 minutes to become comfortable," Soukup says of his learning curve.

Adding to the safety of RVs is that their drivers tend to be more cautious and almost always obedient of the speed limit, while drivers of vehicles around them tend to be more respectful.

Simply put, RVers know their place and other drivers give them their space.

Even with the wealth of snowbirds in Nevada each year, "There are very few (traffic) violations with RV operators," says trooper Loy Hixson, public information officer for the Nevada Highway Patrol.

EASY TO NAVIGATE

Even at their largest size, motor homes are easy to navigate, thanks to conventional power steering, air brakes in the diesel models and, with newer models, rear and side guidance cameras.

Because of the safety amenties, the age or even the size and strength of the driver rarely becomes an impediment to RVing, Johnnie Walker’s Maloney points out.

Take, for instance, 82-year-old Bob Herry, a slight man who spent almost five decades as an RVer before giving up his 37-foot Tropi Cal "diesel-pusher" two years ago – not because of age but because he and his 63-year-old wife Penny had "pretty much covered" every­where they wanted to go.

They traveled across the United States and made two trips to Alaska. They traveled through Canada, all the way to Nova Scotia. They even took a 49-day excursion across Australia with a rented RV.

"We finally gave it up because we weren’t using it anymore. We had been everywhere there was to go in one," Herry, a retired department manager for government defense contractor EG&G, says of his retired RV.

Driving one only became an issue when his rheumatoid arthritis acted up, impacting his shoulders and arms. Then he turned over driving duties to his wife of 37 years, who easily took to the task.

"To me, they’re easier to drive than a car. You sit up higher, other drivers are aware of you and give you room. You quickly grow into them," Herry says, while adding that neither he nor his wife ever had an accident in any of their five RVs.

"But the best part is that you have the comfort of your home with you. You’re not home, but you have your home."

Soukup, who started his RVing at age 27 with a cab-over-camper, concurs. In fact, he moved the hobby forward in his family after purchasing a small travel trailer so his children and grandchildren can accompany him and his wife on some trips.

"It’s the luxury of having all of our belongings with us while we’re on the road and camping," says Soukup, as he prepared for a weekend excursion with 15 other RVers to Calico Ghost Town near Yermo, Calif.

"It’s the best way to vacation. Nothing beats it."

Contact reporter Joe Hawk at jhawk @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2912. Follow him on Twitter: @RJroadwarrior.

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