SUTHERLIN, Ore. — The Internet has given rise to a lively debate over whether information technology enhances or obstructs the development of community.
Internet enthusiasts tout its ability to bring people together via flexible and powerful electronic connections; critics cite the inherently antisocial nature of sitting in a room by yourself and staring into a computer screen.
There's some truth in each of these portrayals. But it seems clear that the Internet can be a great way to keep up with friends and family, or to meet new people with shared interests and otherwise foster community.
For proof, consider the unusual case of the Escapees, an organization of 48,000 members dedicated to a nomadic lifestyle. They live--or plan to live--in motor homes, trailers, converted buses and even vans, traversing the country's highways and byways and adhering to the philosophy that people enjoy life more and children learn more when moving around.
It's a lifestyle that's both heretical and quintessentially American: Heretical because it flies in the face of the idea that everyone should strive for home ownership and job stability, and quintessentially American because it's so closely associated with the frontier ideals of freedom and exploration.
The Escapees maintain 16 cooperatively owned parks in the United States for members and visitors. A survey conducted two years ago by Escapees staffers revealed that about half the members used computers, even back then. Cathie Carr, the Escapees club administrator, predicts the percentage will grow as more boomers join the group. "For a lot of our older members, this [technology] is all new. Our members' median age is 65," she explains.
We came to one Escapees park--Timber Valley, a 100-acre, 206-site preserve here at the edge of the pine-covered Cascade foothills--to meet some Escapees and to see how technology plays in their far-flung community.
Bud and Helen Stebbins, who used to live in Jackson, Calif., have been Escapees for 12 years, and they recently hung up their keys for a stay at Timber Valley.
"The Internet has become part of our lives now. I don't know what we'd do without it," says Bud, a warm, gentle man with an interest in his family's history. The former contractor is now using a desktop PC to write a book based on his great-great-grandfather's diary about his early experiences in this country.
Helen, gray-haired and lively, uses a second PC to do genealogical research on the Internet and to participate in online communities of people interested in genealogy. To keep in touch with their children, grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren, friends they grew up with, Escapees buddies and various chums they've made through their travels, Bud writes and e-mails 25 to 30 letters a month. And Helen, a retired bookkeeper for Cal Gas North, now uses an InfoSearch scanner and Picture Publisher software to swap photos with their correspondents.
Harold and Jackie McLaughlin, whom we also met at Timber Valley, spend six to eight months on the road. Like the Stebbinses, they use the Internet to keep in touch with loved ones, notably a granddaughter in London. They've remodeled the interior of their trailer to accommodate a desktop as well as a laptop.
Their custom-designed computer workstation also includes a specially built desktop PC.
"I had a motherboard problem with my Hewlett-Packard," explains Harold, a retired General Dynamics engineer from Rancho Cucamonga. "I had hard disk drives, floppy disk drives and a lot of memory, so all I really needed to buy was an updated motherboard and a desktop cabinet."
Nowadays, when Harold sits down to work he carefully fits his large frame into the compact workstation, where he uses a LogiTech hand-held ScanMan color scanner and two printers--a Panasonic KX-1124 for drafts and an Epson color Stylus printer for final copy--to produce the Oregon Escapees chapter newsletter.
Jackie, meanwhile, uses a Winbook XT laptop and a Star NX1000 printer to keep up with correspondence and pursue her genealogical investigations. Her research has turned up two second cousins--one from her side of the family, one from Harold's--that they never knew they had. All the cousins now keep in frequent contact through e-mail.
Before they were so plugged in, the couple kept in touch with friends primarily through conventional letter-writing, says Jackie, but "using the computer has made it so much quicker, easier and more enjoyable."
Both couples recognize the potential advantages of a cellular phone to travelers, but, like many RVers, consider them too expensive. "To get a phone line on the road, you can invest a lot of money into a cellular phone and deal with potentially inconsistent service," says Joe Lacey, director of marketing and public relations for the Escapees.