Drivers with an independent streak find strength in numbers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A woman in her mid-60s, wrapped in her down coat, bobbed slowly back and forth in an aluminum rocking chair before the campfire.

Just back from a motor-home trip to Alaska with a 78-year-old friend, she had joined a recreational-vehicle rally in Colorado sponsored by RVing Women (RVW), a fledgling organization of more than 3,000 recreation-vehicle enthusiasts whose median age is 57.

"When I saw her I thought, 'This is the new Whistler's Mother,' " says Lovern King, a retired college professor from Seattle, who, with longtime friend and travel companion Zoe Swanagon, founded RVW as the first women-only RV group. "We are constantly amazed at the fascinating, independent people like her in the organization," says Ms. King.

Ms. King and Ms. Swanagon, a retired business consultant, began the group so women RVers could find support and camaraderie. They recognized that other women were as concerned as they were about such issues as security, RV maintenance and finding service companies that treat women fairly.

Ms. King and Ms. Swanagon are veteran RV travelers and among an estimated 9 million Americans 50 and older who use RVs each year and make 72 percent of all RV trips.

"I had lived off and on in RVs when my husband was in the service," Ms. King says. "Zoe was always an RVer and had gone back and forth across the country with her kids. After we became full-time RVers, we rarely saw any other women.

"I think part of the reason we never met many women is because you don't let it be known you're traveling alone for security reasons," suggests Ms. King. She and Ms. Swanagon also found that RV parks and camps, activities and facilities were almost exclusively devoted to couples.

At a California rally in 1990, Ms. King and Ms. Swanagon decided to call a meeting for women traveling alone or with other women. "So many came that we had to have two sessions," Ms. King recalls. After that, they were convinced a niche existed for a women-only RV group.

So when they returned to their permanent RV site in Arizona in early 1991, they composed their first newsletter and sent it to friends and others they thought might be interested in forming RVing Women.

"Now we have about 3,000 mem bers from every state, Canada and Mexico, and receive 200 inquiries and letters a week," says ** Ms. King. "There is a big diversity of ages within the organization -- about 25 to 80-something. We've found that an instant comradeship develops, since you don't have to play roles or defer to the men as many in our generation were brought up to do."

Single women who prefer an RV organization open to both sexes can join Loners of America or Loners on Wheels. Those who don't mind mingling primarily with couples will find some 50 camping clubs and organizations for owners of particular brands of RVs.

In RVing Women, however, "a lot of our members are widowed, and aren't looking for another mate," Ms. King says. "Quite often their husbands did all the driving and took care of the maintenance. But they want to keep traveling. This gives them the support to do it."

Other members are married, with husbands who do not enjoy RV travel. "I am thrilled to learn about RVW," one new member wrote to the organization's newsletter. "I've been wandering around (mostly on my own) for the last eight years, chatting with all those 'helpful' male neighbors and thinking how pleasant it would be to find other women who didn't rely on the 'boys' to change a washer or fix a leak!"

Other letters show that some members join before buying an RV. They link up with an RV owner to try out the lifestyle or learn about types of rigs.

Ms. King and Ms. Swanagon structured RVW without local or regional chapters, elected officers or large national rallies. "RVW is not a hierarchical organization," they write in the RVW newsletter. "We were concerned that chapters could evolve into political hassles, power plays and forums for non-RVW agendas."

Instead, two staff members run RVW's administrative office, and two members handle the design and sale of such merchandise as T-shirts, coffee mugs and pennants. Four others lead rallies, 30 of which are proposed for 1993. Ms. King and Ms. Swanagon edit the bimonthly newsletter.

"Everyone has input," Ms. King says. The members choose the rally sites and suggest the activities. "They enjoy the smaller, more intimate gatherings possible through the regional rallies, which are one of the ways women network and organize their own get-togethers or mini-caravans."

The rallies always have an emphasis on educational seminars on such topics as personal safety and preventive maintenance, though they also include such events as potluck suppers, recreational activities, and sightseeing and shopping excursions.

In addition to rallies, RVW organizes get-togethers at such events as Albuquerque's hot-air balloon festival, and caravans, such as tours to Mexico and Alaska. All the events and trips draw women leery of camping or making longer journeys alone.

Concerns about security also are a reason why many members hope a women-only resort can be established.

"That's the big demand right now," Ms. King says. "It would be a retirement place for some and a vacation spot for others. We've been assured by attorneys that since it would be a private membership park with no federal funding, it's legally OK to have it for women only. We know that the funds are there for such an undertaking, and what amenities members want."

RVW's other services include a toll-free number to which members can subscribe. They can use it to connect with other members who want to rendezvous at specific sites to meet traveling companions. They can leave or receive messages from friends and relatives. RVW also offers a trip-routing service and discounts on membership in a nationwide system of 500 low-cost RV parks.

Ms. King believes that as RVW becomes better known, the organization may inspire more women to try traveling in RVs.

"I think that as they read and hear of women selling their homes and hitting the road, others will be encouraged to do it, too," Ms. King says. "Many women have been responsible all their lives -- to their husbands, children, jobs -- and now find it's time to free themselves up, to do what they want to do.

"It's like your things own you, rather than you owning them," she adds. "I'd done a lot of traveling and collected many things. I gave some to my kids, a lot of friends bought other items, and we had a month of garage sales. It felt like a burden being lifted.

"At rallies, many are strangers when they arrive, but they're all immediately talking as if they were old friends. We find a comradeship. An energy is really there."

INFORMATION

Annual dues for RVing Women are $39 for a single person and $45 for a two-member household. For more information, write RVing Women, P.O. Box 82606, Kenmore, Wash. 98028, or call (800) 333-9992.

An organization for single men as well as women is:

Loners of America, Route 2, Box 85E, Ellsinore, Mo. 63937; (314) 322-5548.

For a free packet of information about RVing, including listings of rental sources, camping clubs, campground and RV resort )) information and other subjects, write to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, Department SR, P.O. Box 2999, Reston, Va. 22090.

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