They’re everywhere we go. I see them clogging up the roads with rigs the size of train cars. When shopping, the same rigs are spread across four parking stalls. Inside the grocery stores, the aisles are swarming with pot-bellied men in white beards slowly shuffling behind their poodle-haired spouses. The campgrounds, RV parks, and state parks are crammed with their shiny rigs. Locals complain that they can’t take their kids camping because the best camp spots are reserved for months in advance. They’re all here from the northern states and Canada to escape the cold winters and bask in the gorgeous southern sun. They are the snowbirds. And we do not flock with them.
At least that’s what I tell myself as I look into our camper’s mirror at my white beard and growing pot-belly, grateful that Kat has not expressed an interest in getting a perm.
Yes, it’s true, I avoid hitting the 75 MPH speed limits on the freeways. Unlike the locals, I’m in no rush to get anywhere. I like the scenery, and anything over 60 MPH just burns fuel. Also, it makes it to hard to swerve across three lanes of congested traffic when we’re too distracted eating sunflower seeds and bobbing our heads to the Grateful Dead to look at what the GPS is telling us.
When we go shopping, we only hog two parking stalls. Not four.
And, as luck would have it, we always seem to get the last camping spot in a campground. I can only remember three or four times during our journey when I saw a family get turned away from the registration booth because the campground was full. I felt sorry for them, truly I did, but I figured that by the time I would chase after them and offer our space, they would be long gone.
I know many of the locals don’t like the snowbirds. The local papers are full of letters to the editor complaining about them. There are even blogs dedicated to snowbird hate. The complainers are usually silenced when someone reminds them of how many billions of dollars the snowbirds leave every year in the winter resort destinations like as Arizona, Texas, and Florida.
Still, I don’t like to be pigeonholed into the same group. Although we share similarities — most of us come from the north and most of us are living in our RVs — Kat and I don’t feel like we share the same culture.
Of course, from a less discerning perspective, we do look like snowbirds. Maybe our rig is smaller, and maybe we don’t stay at one spot for more than a few days at a time, and maybe, as I like to tell others, we’re “grey hairs”, and not “white hairs”, but in the eyes of the locals we encounter in the grocery stores, at the gas stations, and on the roads, I’m sure we probably do look like snowbirds. But in our hearts, we’re still spring chickens.
Most of the snowbirds we encounter are retired. Although we’re currently not working, that doesn’t mean we never will be again. We’re just taking a break from working. It may be that we’ll never work again, at least not at regular jobs. But we’re definitely not retired, even if it looks like we are.
And, unlike most of these retired snowbirds, we don’t “live” at RV parks for months at a time in houses on wheels with 55” TV sets and all the modern appliances including washer, dryer, and portable gym. Sure, we do stop at RV parks to clean up and do some laundry, but we’re a long way from settling down in an RV community.
More importantly, I think we’re still on a journey, a journey of self-discovery. We sold our home and bought a truck and camper last year in the spring on a quest to learn who we are, to create new identities and mythologies, to find inner peace, and to explore our creativity and art. Although we both left our jobs and careers because we thought we were no longer growing, and our lives felt stale, we weren’t running away from anything.
We weren’t trying to escape the northern winter either. Actually, I kind of like the changing of the seasons and I don’t mind hanging out indoors when the weather is crappy outside. Both Kat and I are perfectly happy writing, drawing, playing music, blogging (supposedly a favourite pastime of snowbirds…), composing our photos — basically creating — as long as we have a bit of space, maybe a nice gas or wood fireplace, and plenty of light.
Winters can be tough though when you’re living in a truck camper. To avoid cabin, or more specifically, camper fever, we prefer an expansive outdoors. So, us being in the south at this time of year just made sense considering we wanted to be on a minimum one to possibly two year journey, and hanging out in a snowbank in a truck camper the size of most people’s bathrooms would’ve forced us into experiencing more of an inward journey than we wanted.
We do like staying at the state and national parks. Not because of the camping facilities, although the amenities like showers, potable water, dump stations, and receptacles for our trash are always welcome. We like the parks because they’re usually located in scenic settings and we love to hike with our dogs.
Perhaps what differentiates us from most of the snowbirds we meet are that, once we hit the trails, we’re mostly alone. Maybe the snowbirds are happy enough hanging out in their house trailers. As we walk through the RV park, most of the rigs are filled with the blue glows of TVs. Lifetimes of habitual TV watching are so ingrained in most people that they can’t forego their TVs for even a day.
Or maybe they’re just too old. No matter how positive we are about keeping our bodies in shape, the older we get, the more we erode. Occasionally we do meet snowbirds — and perhaps more often than not, locals — on the trails who have fifteen or twenty years on us and look to be in great shape (probably because they are still hiking). But for the most part though, unless it’s one of the short trails that often encircle the campgrounds, we find ourselves all alone on the trails.
Now that we’re deep in the heart of Arizona, Kat is finding us many of the remote and empty campgrounds that were so elusive for the first part of our journey. Maybe eventually we can forego the crowded commercial campgrounds and RV parks completely, but for now, we’re still using them as pit stops.
The RV parks are particularly congested. We stay at one once a week or so to clean up and do laundry, dump our tanks, get fresh water, and take showers (it’s not exactly a luxurious experience showering in a truck camper). Occasionally we do find a treasure of a place. A couple of weeks ago we stayed at the Willow Lake RV Campground, an older, but full of character RV park outside of Prescott. As we wandered between the RVs and looked at the many pony-tailed seniors (all pot-bellied), I suggested to Kat that this was where the Deadheads came to retire. Everyone was super friendly, but no one was dancing.
But who needed to dance when the RV park was adjacent to some of the most incredible hiking we’ve experienced so far. We took dozens of pictures as we wandered amongst enormous granite and basalt rocks, rarely encountering another human being even though it was so close to the city. The landscape was like a hundred City of Rocks put end to end. We ended up staying two nights because the hiking was so incredible.
I do understand that, as people get older, they prefer the safety and company of close neighbours. We’ve all heard studies of how staying involved in social activities is crucial in helping fend off Alzheimer’s and dementia. But whenever we stay in an RV park, we can’t wait to get out. Usually there’s no place to walk our dogs and there’s no place for them to do their stuff.
And it’s not that the snowbirds are bad people. On the contrary, whenever we cross paths, I enjoy our conversations and sharing adventures and stories. However, it feels like we’re living in different worlds. Where we feel that we’re still on a quest for personal revelation, most of the snowbirds are simply enjoying life after work. I have yet to meet a snowbird who is on a quest for anything other than the continuation of what they’ve been doing for the past fifty years, but without that little distraction called work.
There is another class of RVers distinct from the snowbirds though. These are the modern gypsies. Often, they’ll be full-time RVers who live from one destination to the next. But unlike the snowbirds, they’ll seek out the more remote locations.
We encountered some last week, while boondocking outside Sedona (Arizona’s version of Kelowna). We picked what we thought would be a nice secluded spot with a great view of the red mountains surrounding Sedona. On our second day, after returning from a hike across the desert to Loy Canyon, we came back to find we had five RVs parked behind us. They were the big RVs and at first I thought they were snowbirds. But they turned out to be full-time RVers. Unlike weekend campers, they were not partiers. They were clean and relatively quiet. A couple of them ran generators when the sky was cloudy — I noticed a few of them still had big-screen TVs running — but the generators weren’t on for that long. When I met them, they apologized about the noise They made and said they were in the middle of converting to solar. They were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered and, for a while, I felt okay being a part of their community.
But after three days, we had enough. We were craving a more remote boondocking experience without feeling like we were being watched every time we stepped in and out of our camper. When we saw the sky darkening with heavy rains in the forecast, and knowing that we’d need to endure a chorus of three or four generators behind us, we decided to leave the caravan.
That night we stayed at another RV park in Camp Verde, Arizona. The RV park was so clean it felt like a hospital. Each campsite offered concrete pads, full hookups, spectacular showers, an exercise room, state-of-the-art laundry facilities, and dozens of snowbird rigs squeezed together like shopping carts in a Walmart parking lot. At night, we were forced to keep our double blinds closed to try and filter out some of the noise and light. The night was cool and rainy, which meant all the heat-craving seniors surrounding us kept their noisy furnaces on all night long.
The rain continued deep into dawn the next morning. As I lay awake, watching the water droplets converge and dribble off our slowly brightening skylight, I knew that we didn’t want to end up living for months at a time in an a huge Class A or 40’ monster rig at an RV park. I sensed that something else was still waiting for us. We got a taste of it near Sedona, at the City of Rocks in New Mexico, and way back in BC in the more remote forestry sites. Kat mentioned a place she heard of called Saddle Mountain, where we could get a sense of real boondocking. I wondered what it would be like.
When I got up, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. “I am not a snowbird,” I said to myself as I shaved off my white beard.
Here’s some more pics of our hike at Willow Lake. These photos are straight out of camera JPEGs and haven’t been doctored other than maybe lightened a bit and cropped. The Rocks really look like this!
Kat would love to share her own observations of our gorgeous hike at Willow Lake near Prescott, as well as our first “real” boondocking experience near Sedona: