A world, if not exactly a whir, of wheels set up camp this week in Perry, Ga.
Eddies of expiring pear blossoms swirled across roads at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter like drifts of snow, the only wintry touch on a clear Monday that was otherwise the textbook definition of spring. Upon that bucolic scene rolled the most random collection of wheeled transportation — golf carts, bikes, wheelchairs, scooters, cars, tractors, buggies, trucks, trailers — all moving to a slow-motion sway that perfectly matched the lazy tone of midday, the Macon Telegraph reported.
Only the motorhomes sat still. Thousands of them, packed into well-ordered rows, their residents temporarily becoming Houston County’s fifth-largest community.
Judging from the in-jest placards on many of those rolling homes, the area is also likely housing Middle Georgia’s largest gathering of least fearsome guard dogs. One security volunteer carried his K-9 team alongside in his golf cart, a pair of lightly leashed, sub-10-pounders with curly hair and low-key disposition lolling in the sunshine.
The mood was tangible — relaxed, friendly and fun. Leisurely, but with a purpose.
The Family Motor Coaching Association (FMCA) made its seventh trip to Perry this week, its first since 2009. The event is expected to draw about 2,800 motorhomes and as many as 10,000 visitors by the time it draws to a close Thursday evening, according to an FMCA spokesperson.
Allen De Jong was forced to take a break.
The man from Calgary, Alberta, leaned casually on a welded steel trailer, painted black and hitched to a tractor. An assistant on one of the eight tram lines that crisscross the fairgrounds, he had a simple explanation for why his rig sat still in front of Reaves Arena.
“We went too fast,” he said.
Fast is relative here. The trams travel at a speed best described as idle-plus.
As an FMCA volunteer, De Jong spends three-hour shifts making sure everyone gets on and off the trams safely. He was working the Orange/Black line Monday, a cog in Houston County’s most extensive, and only, mass transit system.
De Jong is one among hundreds of volunteers who make all the little things — transportation, seminars, even ice cream socials — work in the temporary city.
“There are probably 600 to 700 volunteers, and they can come from all around the country,” said Robbin Gould, editor of Family Motor Coaching magazine and spokeswoman for FMCA. “We have a parking and layout crew, that when coaches first come in, they measure out the spaces, they get them in the spots they are going to stay in for the week. They generally come to all the conventions. You have some of the security crew, they’re here at all of them.”
Gould said many of the volunteers at this week’s event come from FMCA’s Southeast Area group. Many of the regional crew are working seminars, security and doors to the various halls.
And while there are ancillary benefits — clothing store volunteers Tom and Sandra Horn from Gurley, Ala., exulted in their luck at a prime location when they arrived late last week — Gould believes the spirit of giving is built into the crowd.
“They get to come in early, and they generally probably get a better spot. But I don’t think they really do it just for that. They want to be here,” Gould said. “I think a lot of them have come from backgrounds where they volunteered at their church, or for their kid’s school. … So what’s a few hours driving a shuttle?”
Gas prices, economy take a toll
There is, however, a price to be paid. The cost of the traveling roadshow can be high.
With gas prices trending up, it just costs more to get to the rally than in the past.
According to fuel prices tracked by national auto club AAA, as of Tuesday afternoon the average price of a gallon of regular gas in the United States had risen 76.6 cents over the past year. A gallon of diesel was up just over a dollar.
Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South, said gas prices have dropped slightly over the past week due to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the world’s third-largest oil consumer.
“We expect to see demand drop drastically at a time when the U.S. is already seeing lower demand,” Brady said.
Nevertheless, gas prices are likely to continue to creep higher as the weather warms.
“We haven’t seen the spring or summer yet, when demand typically heats up, and we’re entering that at a time when gas is already high,” Brady said. “It is likely when we get to that time, we’ll see prices increase.”
Rex Gambill, Internet sales manager for Mid-State RV Center in Byron, said the industry standard for a Class A diesel-powered RV — the ones that look like tour buses — is 10 or 11 mpg, while a smaller Class C diesel RV could range as high as 15 to 18 miles to the gallon. Diesel RV engines are generally more fuel efficient than those that run on regular gas, Gambill said.
Regardless of the mileage, the reality of rising costs was not lost on those at FMCA on Monday.
Gene Goles stood inside shady, air-cooled Sheep Barn 1 watching a game of card bingo from the back of the room. His wife of 50 years, Shirley, was somewhere among the tables playing a game that made no sense to Gene.
The Goleses drove their motorhome from Baltimore last week and are staying outside of the fairgrounds. They drove their towed-along car to the fairgrounds Monday, just as on previous days they took trips to the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, and up to Macon to “see how the people lived.”
Goles was frank about the cost of coming to Perry.
“Let me put it this way … if we couldn’t afford it we wouldn’t do it,” Goles said. “But it’s getting harder and harder. You just have to do without certain things.”
“Hunting and fishing, I have to cut my trips shorter,” he laughed, giving new hope to fish and fowl throughout the greater Chesapeake Bay area.
Despite the rise in gas prices, Gould said the recreational vehicle industry has seen positive signs recently.
“I think in terms of the very recent gas price increase, we don’t really know how that’s going to shake up, but the whole RV industry did take a definite downturn, and RV groups, such as ours, were affected,” Gould said. “It seems like as the economy started picking up, so did the RV industry.”
Gould said sales reports from winter RV shows were positive.
“I think all that pent-up energy of the last couple of years, people didn’t buy and they’re ready to buy,” Gould said. “Here, we’re seeing exhibitors are bringing more of their RVs to display and to show. So, hopefully, that will translate to more sales.”
Gould said the cost of owning and operating an RV was more likely to affect the types of trips owners make, staying closer to home rather than driving cross-country. She pointed out that, after the initial investment, the cost of taking a trip in a motorhome was not necessarily more expensive than other modes of travel.
“Once you have the investment in a coach, you really can save money,” Gould said. “Airfare is so high these days, too, and that’s going up. Hotels are going up. Everything is going up. It’s not just the RV prices. So you make your choice to do this, and it’s all good.”
Major FMCA event
The Perry event is the 85th major event put on by FMCA, which typically hosts two such events each year and boasts nearly 100,000 active “member families,” in FMCA parlance. The group’s second major event in 2011 will be held in August in Madison, Wis.
“Family reunions we’re starting to call them, because it really is a reunion,” Gould said. “So many of these folks travel from event to event.”
Gould said the group tries to alternate north and south, east and west. Last year’s events were held in Albuquerque, N.M., and Redmond, Ore.
She described the fairgrounds in Perry as a “remarkable” venue for FMCA.
“It really has everything that we need in terms of the facilities, and the parking, and for the Southern hospitality, too,” Gould said.
A major part of the event is the wide range of seminars, with 134 scheduled in Perry. Topics range from uber-practical (two hours of “Microwave-Convection Cooking for One or Two), to borderline fanciful (“Motorhoming in Australia”), to the just plain sensible (“RV Packing Tips”).
There can be a bit of wishful thinking, too. On Monday at 3:15 p.m., a sizable group gathered in Heritage Hall for a seminar titled “Look 10 Years Younger in Less Than 5 Minutes.”
One unidentified man in the crowd, his face partially obscured by a fresh-looking Stetson, expressed skepticism at the claim.
“If you look 10 years younger in five minutes, how come it takes them 75 minutes?” he grumbled about the 1 hour, 15 minute presentation.
As the seminar rolled on, a passel of men quietly killed time on the bench outside the doors as those in the darkened room watched slides of someone pressing eyelashes.
Jokes aside, the seminars play to the audience. There are numerous seminars on RV maintenance and repair, a hot topic for a crowd depending on those mammoth vehicles to get them to their next destination. Other seminars focus on Internet and computer technologies, getting attendees up to speed on social networking, photo sharing and keeping those oft-finicky wireless connections up and running.
A sense of camaraderie seeps into everything in the soon-to-be-rolling-again city. There are no strangers, only people yet to be met.
Tom and Sandra Horn haven’t seen Gurley, Ala., since Thanksgiving. They miss their “church family,” but they clearly have family — by blood, faith and common interest — all over.
On sunny Monday, Sandra sat in front of her motorhome crafting wooden figurines, located just 100 yards away from the center of the action and feet away from hard pavement. In 2007 — at least, the Horns think they remember it was 2007 — it rained so hard in Perry their RV got stuck in the mud. Close to the road is primo as far as the Horns are concerned, even if the weather forecast is mostly mild.
White-bearded Tom was a Navy pilot, served his country for 37 years, got out in 2003. He got colon cancer, but beat that more than three years ago. He wears a big name tag, so you know who he is and where he lives. Sandra has family in Florida, which they visited on a swing through the state earlier this year, passing through Tampa, Brooksville, the panhandle.
Sandra does all the driving these days. Tom says that is because she thinks he makes bad decisions ever since he had chemo. Neither feels bad about missing a winter full of worse-than-usual weather in north Alabama.
“Everyone kept e-mailing, ‘You’re missing all the snow!’ I was like, oh no we’re not,” Sandra said.
“Keep it!” Tom added without a moment’s pause.
They are heading home after Perry. Go ahead and ask them. They’ll tell you the whole story.
There are no strangers in the rolling city.