A new passion for life on the road, awakened by the pandemic, can help Americans get to know one another.
As recovery from the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion is running a series of columns looking at crisis-inspired innovations that promise better living over the long run — from more resilient economies, cleaner cities and healthier offices to five-star meal kits, better telemedicine and no more airline change fees.
I can’t understand why people are pouring their hard-earned money into cryptocurrencies instead of campers. The RV boom that began last year shows no sign of slowing down. Shipments are expected to reach record levels this year, and buyers are snatching up units as soon as they hit the lot. Inventory for used RVs is just as tight, and the stock price of two of the leading manufacturers — Winnebago and Thor — has more than doubled. But to me the most compelling reason to choose campers over crypto is pure utility. Sure, Bitcoin can now be used to buy a Tesla, but it won’t get you into a National Park.
To be clear: I have no idea whether either the crypto or camper market is in a bubble. I’m not an investor, and I don’t own any stock in RV companies. I’m just a guy who, as I write this, is living in a van down by the river.
Last summer my wife and I bought a 25-foot 2017 Winnebago, and since September we’ve been traveling while working remotely. It’s been an absolute joy, even when it’s seemed like a total calamity, which has been often enough — like the time the toilet pedal broke. That was hardly the only natural disaster that threatened to ruin the trip. The wind in Wyoming nearly blew us over as it ripped apart one of our canopies. The wildfires in Colorado kept us inside, and the tornados in Alabama kept us up all night. The historic deep freeze in Texas killed our battery and froze our water pipes. But we’re from New York, so we’re used to tough winters. At no point did we consider flying to Cancun.
Living on the road in a RV is not for everyone, of course, and the scenery is not always something out of America the Beautiful. But that’s the point: It’s a chance to experience areas of the country we think we know from the news, and to speak with people we think we understand from red and blue maps. I’m not suggesting that more RV-ing will magically eliminate our deep national divisions, but I do think it can help soften some of the hardest edges.
At RV parks and campgrounds, life happens outdoors and people tend to be chatty — about their lives, their travels, their vehicles, and on occasion, of course, their politics. Conversations with strangers flow easily, and those interactions can help us see one another as something more than Democrats and Republicans, allies and enemies.
The only trouble is: The neighbors we came across at campgrounds didn’t, as a group, look like America. RV-ing tilts old and white — lots of retirees. We saw hardly any Black, Latino or Asian campers. I can’t say whether we met any Jews, but one man in Pittsburg told me his last name, Markowitz, was Yiddish for “no camping.”
The RV community would benefit enormously from more diversity. And as people find themselves parked next to neighbors from different backgrounds, so would the whole country. We recently stayed at a Black-owned RV park in Georgia that a young couple opened a few years ago, and I was surprised to learn that it is one of only about a dozen in the country. But maybe that’s changing. Another will open in Talladega, Alabama, this spring. And the young families and couples driving the Covid camper craze are more likely to value and seek out diversity.
Of course, it may be that the RV boom goes bust, and Bitcoin soars ever higher. But if I’m going to risk burning money, I’d prefer to do it while sitting around a campfire sipping my neighbor’s moonshine.