Women RVers Take the Driver's Seat
These “queens of the road” find community by going it alone
If it’s true that travel is the only thing you spend money on that makes you rich, then people like Jaimie Hall Bruzenak are as wealthy as royalty. You might call them queens of the road.
Bruzenak is an RVer, one of a growing tribe of women who travel the country full-time or part-time in their “galloping bungalows” — the original nickname for recreational vehicles, or travel trailers, when they made their debut in the 1920s.
Bruzenak, 67, began the RV life 20 years ago with her husband, Bill. With their four children grown, the Pennsylvania couple got into their station wagon and headed west to Yellowstone National Park, then south to the Grand Canyon. “We met full-time RVers and were astounded that people lived on the road," Jamie says. "It was at a critical time in our lives, when we were looking at relocating and possibly changing jobs (at the time Jamie worked as an administrative officer and Bill as a welder). We chose to do this instead. We sold our house and bought an RV. We voted at home in Pennsylvania on Election Day 1992, and then left for good. We traveled full-time for eight years, then part-time for another three-and-a-half years until Bill passed away."
Their decision to live the RV life led Jamie to unimagined adventures, like caravanning from Arizona to Chicago along Route 66 and kayaking among seals and whales in Alaska’s Glacier Bay. “I am certainly a different person than I would have been had I stayed in Pennsylvania in a regular house and job," she says. "What I gained were experiences and adventures I would never have had if we had not gone on the road.”
After Bill died, Jamie continuted to travel solo. "One of the neat things about the RV lifestyle is that it is fluid and you can define your own terms," she says. "Even when I had problems with the RV, I knew other widows who had continued to RV after their husbands had passed away, and if they could do it, so could I."
When Freedom's the Next Stop on the Map
But what is the “RV lifestyle”? According to Nancy Shoop of RVing Women, a non-profit, Arizona-based social and recreational organization, “It comes down to one word: freedom. It is very empowering. We can go anywhere, anytime we want."
"We have more than 2,400 members from all over the U.S. and Canada," says Shoop, who is volunteer president of the board of directors of the 24-year-old organization. "Women from all walks of life share their love of traveling. We have national events including a convention, driving and maintenance courses, and other RVing rallies. We have 16 chapters that provide many additional RVing rallies each year. We encourage, educate and provide fun times for all members. Women supporting other women!"
The only requirement for membership is that you be a woman between 18 and … whatever. "Don’t laugh,” says Shoop. “One member is already 104."
Shoop discovered the lifestyle as a way to vacation with her pets, which is a priority for her (and, as she discovered, many others). Now retired from a nursing career, she says her fellow RVers — human and otherwise — have given her a sense of belonging to a community of like-minded souls.
So maybe Janis Joplin had it wrong when she sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In freedom, these RVers seem to be saying, lies the promise of discovering that you have self-confidence, self-determination and a bunch of new pals to gain.
Variations on the RV Theme
Bruzenak believes this ability to go wherever, whenever, and do whatever is especially appealing to people who have tried to “have it all” for so long. "It’s a nice counterbalance to decades of juggling career, marriage and kids while trying to do one’s best Martha Stewart routine around the house," she says. "Women have often geared their lives to others — families that need raising. Finally, it is their time.”
Over the years, Bruzenack has become an authority on the subject. She’s the co-founder of the RV informational site rvlifestyleexperts.com, co-author of The Woman’s Guide to Solo RVing, and the author of Support Your RV Lifestyle! An Insider’s Guide to Working on the Road, which explains everything one needs to know about the lifestyle and lists more than 350 ways to make money while traveling.
There are many variations on the RV theme. Some folks do it full-time, while others travel part-time, keeping a residence somewhere, she says. But whichever camp you fall into, you do have to trade in certain things for the freedom of the RV lifestyle. No. 1 on that list: “stuff,” says Bruzenack.
If your possessions bring you great happiness, then life on the road probably won’t. "Space in an RV is limited," says Bruzenack, who has remarried and settled back into a part-time RV existence. “I think what I missed was being somewhere where I could take classes and go regularly to the library. Today you can download ebooks, but I’d probably blow the budget on that. Most things you’d miss, like community and gardening — you can find ways to meet those needs as you travel."
Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Costs
Exploring the country by RV is a relatively safe and inexpensive way to travel, but there are a few things to consider before setting out.
First, it might be less costly than other forms of travel — or maintaining a home — but it ain’t cheap, says Shoop, especially with gas prices what they are. (Big rigs average six to eight miles per gallon, while smaller units can eek out 12 to 15.) As a result, she says, many members are taking shorter trips and/or getting smaller vehicles.
Most people manage the costs just fine. Says Bruzenak: “I’ve polled my readers and found some can live on as little as $1,000 a month, if they work or volunteer in exchange for an RV site, but that’s on the very low end. At the other extreme is a couple who spends more than $5,000 a month, but they have a $2,700 monthly RV payment. Having no mortgage greatly reduces your expenses, as do fewer toys" — phones, satellite TV, etc. "Sixty-five percent of my readers reported they spent less than $1,999 a month.”
But what about the cost of getting yourself an RV in the first place? Used travel trailers can be bought for a few thousand dollars — or you could literally spend more than a million, says Bruzenak. Luxury Class A models can stretch to 40 feet long and include such amenities as granite countertops, a queen-size bed, a washer/dryer and an entertainment center. More modestly priced Class C motorhomes — which women tend to prefer to the bigger ones because they’re easier to drive and have fewer maintenance issues — are available in a wide price range, too. The popular Lazy Daze, toward the high end, costs about $100,000, but competing brands offer similar amenities for a fair bit less.
As for other expenses, Bruzenak explains that RVers have much more control over certain budget items than do home dwellers. “Take camping fees,” she says. “You can stay in a new park every night, with costs of $30 a night or much more. Or you can stay at one place longer and get a cheaper rate.” Typical monthly fees range from $330 to $450 — between $10 and $15 a night.
Bruzenak says another option is to work or volunteer at a place where you can obtain a free or low-cost site as part of your compensation. “Many solo women do this because it gives them a safe place to stay, structure, a way to meet people, and maybe even some added cash."
Better yet, whenever possible, plan to boondock — that’s RV lingo for camping without electric and plumbing hookups. “You can get your rig set up for boondocking with solar panels and a catalytic heater,” says Bruzenak. This way, you can spend extended time parking free in a national forest or on Bureau of Land Management land. Or, she adds, “spend some nights at a rest stop or truck stop or a Walmart parking lot. There’s no charge to camp there — though you might end up spending money inside.”
You've Got the Wheels, Now Where to Go
So if you’re free to go anywhere, how do you decide where to go?
Shoop notes that because families are often spread across the country, a lot of members base their travel trips on routes anchored by relatives. The RVing Women website — and others, like Escapees RV Club — offers meet-up and gathering schedules throughout the country.
While RVing, you’re only as alone as you want to be. “Even though I am no longer traveling full-time, my closest friends are women I've met on the road,” says Bruzenak. “The only thing I hear people say they regret about the RV life is that they didn’t start it sooner.”
Samantha Dunn is a journalist, writing teacher and author of several books.