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Destination: The Southwest | RV-ing

Test Drive to Retirement

Scouting for a future home in the comfort of a house on wheels

June 28, 1998|GRACE LICHTENSTEIN | Lichtenstein is a former chief of the New York Times Rocky Mountains bureau and the author of six books

NEW YORK — Bambi was agog. For the first time in her 12 years, this thoroughly urban cat was in the middle of a forest in the Rockies, with strange sights, smells and sounds all around her. She sat motionless, her eyes wide, atop the dinette table in our 23-foot RV, peering out at the new environment. Bo, her feline older sister, took in the view from the dashboard. My friend, Sandy, and I, their equally urban human companions, were only slightly less enthralled.

It was early August. One year earlier, Sandy and I had been in this same campground in a tent, freezing our noses off as we awaited the annual Perseids meteor showers in the night sky. Now, we were cozily ensconced inside a movable house, complete with a heating and cooling system, a microwave, a bathroom and real beds with sheets on them. We were able to observe the shooting stars from the picture window and enjoy the company of our pets.

We were in the midst of a 7,000-mile odyssey, test-driving our future. Neither Sandy, a high school teacher, nor I had driven an RV before, but our summer-long journey was proving that a motor home is an ideal vehicle for sampling different parts of the country. Our reconnaissance trip was aimed at investigating possible retirement locales in the Southwest and enjoying an economical vacation at the same time.

Our round trip from home in New York City included stops in the Great Smokies and at Elvis' Graceland, the hometowns of Willa Cather (Red Cloud, Neb.) and Amelia Earhart (Atchison, Kan.), a boisterous Indiana state park on Labor Day, and Las Vegas, where our parking slot was so narrow, we almost could grab dinner from our neighbor's dinette.

Some RV-ers cover 500 miles a day and more, stopping just before dark. We limited our daily driving to about 350 miles, or five to six hours. Thus we were able to stop each afternoon with plenty of time to find a pleasant campsite, stretch our legs with a hike or a bike ride, cook dinner, see some sights and chat with people. When we found a place that seemed to have promise as a retirement spot, we stayed for as long as a week.

That's how we hit the animal jackpot: Turquoise Trail campground. This wonderfully pastoral spot high in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque, N.M., was home to Greta the goat, a llama and some rabbits. A few spaces away from our motor home sat a redheaded woman in a lawn chair with a parrot on her arm. "Her name is Gracie," the woman said as we were walking by. "Hey, so is mine," I replied. Soon Beth was showing off the rest of her menagerie: a second parrot, two cockatiels and a bowlful of goldfish. A former nurse from West Virginia, she, too, was thinking of relocating in the Southwest.

Before our week outside Albuquerque was over, we had made a number of new friends. We shared dinners with Beth, exchanged life stories, used her temporary phone line to send an e-mail message from my laptop to her sweetheart back home, and enjoyed the relative spaciousness of her slide-out living room. (A slide-out is an extension of living space that can be opened when the rig is parked.)

We got in touch with Gina, an acquaintance of some California friends of mine, who took us on an exhilarating mountain bike ride near Tijeras Canyon, a few miles down the road from the campground. On a ranger-led hike through nearby Cibola National Forest, we met Steve and Ann, two recently relocated Easterners. They invited us to share their picnic lunch, and we quizzed them on how they had adjusted to their new environment.

Once we had settled in at Turquoise Trail, we contacted two real estate agents and explained our mission. They were happy to give us tours of the Albuquerque area, where adobe houses came with price tags half that of similar homes in Santa Fe, an hour's drive north.

*

After rambling through several neighborhoods in Albuquerque proper that were too suburban for our taste, we zeroed in on Corrales, a village of about 5,000 just north of the city. It was only 30 minutes from the Albuquerque airport and 10 minutes from a huge shopping mall, but it felt uniquely small-town. It had one main thoroughfare with only a few small shops, a 25-mph speed limit and more dirt roads than asphalt ones. The climate was dry but the soil was rich enough for trees to shade many homes and for orchards to flourish. The view of the Sandias to the east was stunning. And the people were a diverse economic and ethnic mix of Anglo and Latino.

We were intrigued. Corrales shot to the top of our list of possible retirement sites.

Having spent plenty of time in the Southwest, I thought I was familiar with that gorgeous patch of American desert, but there were fresh experiences ahead of me. At El Morro National Monument, a few hours west of Albuquerque, we walked around the huge sandstone bluffs upon which travelers have been inscribing their names since the 17th century conquistadors came through.

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