WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — It's 9:30 at night, and a small truck is pushing a 30-foot motor home into its appointed slot at the Watkins Glen KOA Campground. A crowd of motor homers has gathered. Through the windshield, they see the gleam of the driver's white knuckles as he grips the wheel in impotent silence. Almost all of them have been in the same position as this driver. Often.
"You know what mine does?" a tall, gangling man asks, not bothering to wait for an answer. "It conks out on me. I mean, I have lights and all, but the engine won't do anything. You think I can figure out what's wrong with it? Nobody can fix it."
"Motor homes are so delicate," one woman complains. "They sit all winter, and all kinds of things go wrong."
All kinds of things must go right, too.
Because most motor-home owners report long, trouble-free lives from their vehicles. And, even though repairs can be expensive and cumbersome (since you're likely to break down on the side of a mountain or in some remote national park), motor homing must offer great compensations.
After all, 25 million people (owners, relatives, guests and renters)--an industry estimate of the number "involved in the life style"--can't all be wrong.
Hit the American highways any time from June to September and you'll have a hard time keeping count of the mobile homes that pass in both directions. Renting, buying, or borrowing these rolling motel rooms has become the vacation of choice for families, newlyweds, retirees, loners, you name it.
According to a new University of Michigan study, there are 7.8 million motor homes on the road. Last year, 398,200 recreational vehicles were sold--a far cry from the all-time high in 1972 of 526,300, but a good bit higher than the industry low of 181,420 units in 1980.
Motor homers are paying anywhere from a couple thousand dollars for a well-used vehicle to $350,000 for unimaginably plush and roomy models.
Right now, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn., the motor-home business is picking itself up after two devastating bouts with gas shortages and high interest rates in 1981.
Although hard numbers are scarce, motor-home rentals appear to be booming these days as well.
Why? What are the motor homers getting for their money? What's it like to park one of those things between two mean trees in the dead of night and then plug them into an electrical outlet that is attached to a water faucet? Is it worth it?
"The most of what you get out of it is the friendship of the people that you meet," offers Chuck Mogg, an inveterate motor homer and Michigan state director of the Good Sam Club, an association of campers and motor homers. "The full-time camper who goes out all the time, people who own and maintain their own units, go up to the lake to meet the guy who will be camping next to them."
What about the fellow who decides to just go and rent one of these things for a summer vacation?
"Well, 85% to 90% of the people who rent don't have any knowledge of motor homing. They get in and turn the key, and then they're surprised that it wouldn't do what the family car will do."
That explains it, then. Because this reporter leaped last summer into a motor home just that way, and with just those expectations. Six weeks and half a dozen breakdowns later, the vehicle was left, devoid of power, in a vacant lot outside Marysville, Ohio, as reporter and family returned home in a nice sleek vehicle from Hertz that bore a much closer resemblance to the family car.
Comforts of Home
There were others on the road at the time with less than happy experiences.
In northern Michigan, a man with his wife and four-year old son had been chased by weather for almost two weeks. First, down into Ohio and Tennessee; then, back through West Virginia; now, up here in a rain-drizzled campground outside of Mackinac, Mich. On a Saturday morning, the last of his vacation, they bundle up their things as they leave for home.
The promise of a big, well-furnished motor home seems to be that, when the weather is bad, you have all the comforts of home, and then some.
Well, not quite. No matter how big your modern Conestoga is, it quickly gets cramped and narrow. Besides, the places you go beckon you outside. Like it or not, you are a captive of the weather. Children want to swim and play in the playground, and if they can't, there usually isn't a city-style cornucopia of things around to take them to.