The start of November marks the start of winter visitors arriving in central Arizona’s Valley.
Among the early arrivals, Mary Lange, who was found this week lounging by the pool at the Desarama RV Park in Mesa, according to KTAR-TV, Phoenix.
“Feels pretty darn good. It’s about 86 degrees here, very nice,” Lange said.
She comes to Arizona from Iowa the last week of October each year and stays until the last week of April.
A survey by the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds indicates many parks are seeing more business this year. The Towerpoint and Good Life RV Resorts in Mesa said winter reservations are up 15%.
However, the Shangri-la Resort in Yuma said things are about the same as last year, and the Rincon Resort in Tucson expects a slight decline.
Lange believes people are coming. She said there were “a lot of travel trailers, a lot of motorhomes already on the road the second weekend in October,” when she was traveling.
Nancy Lou Fiumidinisi runs the Deserama RV Park and has been getting ready for the “Snow Birds” to return.
She said workers “have painted the clubhouse inside, the restrooms, resurfaced the pool. A new sign out front has been fixed.”
Fiumidinisi has a “Welcome Back” banner draped across the front entrance.
“From what I’ve heard from some of the residents who are coming to their home here for the winter, they said Interstate 40 was loaded with RVs headed this way,” Fiumidinisi said.
Lange keeps busy during her winter vacation.
“I work for Wal-Mart. I transfer down here, work down here for six months and work back up North for six months,” she said.
She believes she has the best of both worlds: “I can have the summers up home and the winters down here.”
Meanwhile, Valley hotels are hoping for a better winter.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Kristin Jarnagin with the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, although she said, “The most recent numbers we have, from September year-to-date, they show we’re still about 15% down in occupancy and about 30% down in revenue.”
Revenue is down because of discounted rates, she said.
She believes the worst is over and things have started to stabilize.
“Of course, it will rebound. It always does. People love to travel and they love to explore, that’s just part of human nature. It just depends on how long it’s going to take,” she said.
Jumping in the RV and driving off into the sunset is a dream for a lot of people.
Harriet and John Halkyard actually did it – and so did Mike and Terri Church.
This weekend, the two couples will be spinning tales about their travels at the Snowbird RV Show and Sale at Tradex in Abbotsford, British Columbia. And there are some very interesting tales, because they have been to some very exotic places, according to The Vancouver Sun.
The Halkyards, for example, claim to be the first people to drive an RV up the historic Tea-Horse Road between China and Tibet, where they camped at the base of Mt. Everest.
“The Chinese travel authority and the Lonely Planet [travel guide] both describe that road as the most beautiful and the most dangerous in the world, which I’ll second,” relates Harriet Halkyard over the phone from her home in Houston.
“It was amazing, and fascinating. The road was good and passable for a couple of horses, but that was about it. We were knocking boulders off 2,000- or 3,000-foot cliffs, like into the Grand Canyon. It was not a good road, to put it mildly.”
Were you scared?
She pauses and sighs.
“Aw, heck, if I’m going to go, that’s the way to go,” she said. “I don’t want to die in bed, you’ve got to take a risk now and then.”
The Halkyards achieved some renown in RV circles for a book they co-wrote, “99 Days to Panama.” It details how one day they quit their day jobs, hopped in a rig they had just purchased and drove all the way from Houston to Panama.
That sounds kind of dodgy, as well, but Halkyard says it was relatively easy.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, hardly even knew how to empty the tanks, but we decided to go,” said Halkyard, 63.
“I think my husband thought when I said Panama I meant Panama City, Fla. I didn’t know if we were going to make it back, I didn’t know if the vehicle was going to make it back, I didn’t know if the dog was going to make it back, but it was very easy. That’s the message I’m trying to get over to people.
“The roads (in central America), for the most part, are like country byroads — the Pan-American highway is two lanes. Yes, there are potholes, and yes, there are cows and donkeys and people all over the place, so you stick to about 30 miles an hour. Once you got into that frame of mind, of just going slowly and gently, it’s a piece of cake. There were no horrendous challenges at all.”
The Halkyards are part-time RVers — they still have a home in Houston, and John (an ocean engineer) still takes contracts designing offshore platforms.
The Churches, on the other hand, left their accountant jobs in Seattle in 1992 and haven’t looked back. Today home is a Fraserway RV hoisted on the back of a 2004 Chevy 3/4 ton truck.
“Truthfully we intended to take a year off, it was a sabbatical for us,” says Mike Church.
“But we liked the lifestyle a lot. We found it was much less expensive than we thought, so we decided we could continue to do it the rest of our lives if we wanted.”
The Churches are classic snowbirds — they mosey around up North in the summer, then split for Mexico or the U.S. Southwest for the fall and winter. They’ve written seven travel books aimed at RVers, and this weekend will be giving hour-long spiels on snowbird destinations.
“We’ve gotten around quite a bit,” notes Church, 58.
“We’ve been in all the states of Mexico at least six times, we’ve been as far south as Panama, we’ve travelled throughout Europe and into Greece and Turkey.”
Because they live full-time in their rig, they also are great at dispensing advice on the RV lifestyle. This is key, because given the current economic malaise, people are being more cautious about getting into recreational vehicles.
“(An event like) the Snowbird show is a great way to get familiar with RVs before you make a commitment,” he says.
“What looks good in the showroom or on the lot might not be the ideal rig for what you want to do. Do you enjoy the outdoors, do you want to spend time in the woods in government campgrounds? If you do you need a smaller rig, cause big rigs don’t work really well for that. But if you want to take your rig and sit on the beach in one place for three months, maybe you want a fifth wheel or a big trailer.”
There are also spots where you can park your RV for next to nothing, such as the land yacht mecca Quartzsite, Ariz. Located in the middle of the desert between Phoenix and Los Angeles, Quartzsite is almost unbearably hot in the summer – the average daily high is 108 degrees fahrenheit in July. But for the winter the weather is gorgeous, with normal highs of 66 in December and January.
“In the summer there’s nothing [there], but drive through Quartzsite in January and there are RVs as far as the eye can see, scattered around the desert,” says Church.
“All the land around Quartzsite is what we call BLM land, for Bureau of Land Management, which is a federal organization. They charge for camping on the land, but it’s roughly $180 for six months. So you can conceivably spend the entire winter there for almost nothing. You just have to have solar, so you have electricity, and you have to deal with the water issue, which isn’t difficult to do.”
Recession or no, there are still a lot of people on the RV trail — Church notes the Texas-based Escapees RV club that has 75,000 members, and Halkyard says there are an estimated 1 million RVers overall in the states, including weekenders.
“It’s like being in a bubble,” says Halkyard, who was a university lecturer and worked in a travel agency before she took up the RV lifestyle.
“You are cut off from all the annoyances of the outside world, and yet you can stop and pop that bubble any time you like. I just find it so relaxing, and educational as well, because you get to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, and go into places you wouldn’t normally go. For instance (last year we took a) trip to St. John’s, Newfoundland. If we had flown in, it would have been lovely, we could have stayed in a nice hotel and met all the other visitors. But we didn’t, we drove in and therefore met the people who are really there.”
Harriet and John Halkyard’s website is www.99daystopanama.com; Mike and Terri Church’s website is www.rollinghomes.com.