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Home on the Road : Leisure: The happy wanderers of the country find fellowship and fun with a family-type bonding in clubs that understand the "empty nest syndrome." All it takes is a recreational vehicle and a feeling of adventure.

October 21, 1989|BOB HOWELLS | Howells is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to The Times.

B. J. and Alta DeGarmo could hardly wait to go to Bakersfield.

Now, Bakersfield isn't generally one of Southern California's more compelling destinations, but the DeGarmos weren't headed there for sightseeing. They were planning to maneuver their motor home among 1,200 other recreational vehicles--motor homes, trailers, vans and campers--park for the week and "party down," RV-style.

The event was the annual Southern California State Samboree earlier this month, and the DeGarmos of North Hollywood wouldn't have missed it for the world. They are among 750,000 families in the Good Sam Club, the world's largest recreational vehicle club. Whenever Good Sam members gather, the fun flies.

At least a million individuals, couples or families belong to one or more RV clubs--proof that, if nothing else, folks don't just buy RVs to travel.

The RV industry tends to sell a message of freedom and adventure when it promotes its products, as it will during the RV show at Dodger Stadium, Nov. 3-12. But for the legions of RV club members--most of whom do enjoy travel, freedom and adventure--it's the social connections they make through their clubs that's their primary raison de voyage .

The DeGarmos were so eager to reunite with fellow members of the Good Sam Club that they planned to arrive Tuesday for an event that would begin Friday.

"I need to get in as much visiting as I can," Alta DeGarmo said, explaining that the people she has met through the Good Sam Club "have become like family. They're closer than brothers and sisters. It gets in your blood. The more you go out, the more you meet. Some we see only once a year at a big international Samboree, but when we do, we greet each other, hug. . . . It's just great."

Most of the dozens of national RV clubs have local or regional chapters, stage rallies and caravans and provide a framework for making social connections. Good Sam, based in Agoura Hills, has 2,200 chapters nationwide and in Canada, each of which has its own social and travel programs.

Each state holds rallies called Samborees, like the one in Bakersfield. The major international Samboree, held last summer in Sedalia, Mo., drew 2,146 rigs and 4,600 people. International events are also held each year in conjunction with the Rose Parade in Pasadena and the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta.

K. W. Stevens, director of the National RV Owners Club based in Pensacola, Fla., lists four reasons to join an RV club: "Friends, fellowship, fun and food." Stevens also cites security as a draw. NRVOC stages 20 or so caravans annually.

"Caravans give people a sense of security, so they're not always out on the road by themselves," he said.

Sue Bray, executive director of the Good Sam Club, calls the popularity of RV clubs "the empty nest syndrome." As with other RV clubs, about half of the Good Sam membership is retired. "Their children are grown up and out of the house and they at last have time to travel. But time isn't always enough. They miss the family feeling. The club helps provide that.

"People seem to have a longing for a way of life where people would chat with neighbors on the front porch, or just sit and watch the grass grow. Modern life doesn't allow that. But going to an RV rally, meeting fellow club members, going to a potluck dinner or an ice cream social--it replaces something that has been lost in recent years."

"Good Samers love to eat a lot," Alta DeGarmo said. Hence potluck dinners are always popular at a Samboree. Jell-O mold salads are alive and well. Ditto games such as bingo, seminars covering technical and life-style aspects of RVing, commercial exhibits by RV and accessory manufacturers, crafts shows, flea markets, square dancing and nightly entertainment.

Good Samers at a Samboree typically sport waistcoats festooned with commemorative patches and badges from previous RV rallies. They spark instant conversations among strangers. Alta DeGarmo recalls being asked to remain in line at a potluck: " 'Wait,' this woman said, 'don't move. I'm not through reading your vest yet.' "

The Family Motor Coach Assn., for motor home owners only, is the second largest RV club after Good Sam. FMCA staged its 26th annual national rally in Sacramento the last weekend in September. According to Pamela Kay, editor of FMCA's magazine, Family Motor Coaching, about 2,000 motor homes filled the Cal Expo fairgrounds for the rally. By day, FMCAers attended seminars in everything from chassis maintenance to microwave cooking, and rocked out to such entertainers as the Osmonds and Carol Lawrence by night. An RV show at the rally included about 600 new motor homes.

"Club members are the people most committed to the RV life style," says Karen Mason, a spokeswoman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn. "They already own an RV, but they're likely to trade up to better units."

Most major RV manufacturers sponsor a club for owners of their brand.

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