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Life On Wheels: RVers enjoy the friendships, relaxed pace

By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS

See this article at the Traverse City Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY — Before they left Denmark, Kirsten and Mogens Hermansen dreamed of buying a boat and sailing around the world.

Instead they settled in the U.S. and bought a 45-foot motor coach — the “big rig” of the RV world.

“This is our sailboat,” said Kirsten Hermansen, an amateur artist whose summer “studio” is the windowed storage shed on the couple’s lot at Traverse Bay RV Resort in Williamsburg.

More than 8 million households own RVs, according to a 2005 University of Michigan study commissioned by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. For some, it’s a way to travel without breaking the bank. For others, it’s a grown-up form of camping, with all the comforts of home.

“You start out with a tent, a pop-up, a little camper. Then it’s a motor home,” said Dennis Sheridan of Rochester Hills, owner of a sleek 40-foot motor coach. “I used to laugh at people who have boats that are more expensive than their houses. Now I hang around people who have RVs that are more expensive than their houses.”

Prices for new RVs range from $4,000-$13,000 for folding camping trailers to $58,000-$400,000 for “Type A” motor homes like Sheridan’s and the Hermansens’.

“You can say it’s expensive, but it’s like buying a second home,” said Mogens Hermansen, a global manufacturing director for International Paper. “People say, ‘Why do you spend all that money on this?’ It’s investing in your lifestyle.”

Ray and Maggie Russell went from a 19-foot camper to a 40-foot motor coach that easily pulls their “toad” — a car or other towed vehicle in RV lingo. Then they bought two lots at Traverse Bay RV Resort, a luxury RV park complete with clubhouse, fitness center, tennis courts, pool and spa, cable, satellite and wi-fi.

“To me it seemed like a good investment,” said Maggie Russell, a retired high school teacher who enjoys the park’s planned activities, from potlucks and wine tastings to movie and card nights. “We love the people, the relaxed atmosphere, the environment.”

The Highland couple’s pond-side lot includes neat landscaping and a concrete patio with iron patio set, grills, gas fire pit and swing. It’s where park friends often gather when the Russells aren’t cruising the neighborhood in their golf cart or taking in a Beach Bums game or an Interlochen concert.

“It’s a nice life,” said Russell, who prefers a Florida RV park in the winter. “We’re very fortunate, especially at our age.”

The Hermansens put 57,000 miles on their Honda Gold Wing motorcycle while criss-crossing the country before buying their first RV.

“While we were on the road, my husband saw these monsters and said, ‘Wouldn’t that be nice?’” said Kirsten Hermansen, who gave up her dental practice in Denmark to come to the U.S. with Mogens. “After two years, he convinced me.”

Now the couple divide their time between their home near Memphis and RV parks in Traverse City and Gulf Shores, Ala., where living quarters is a jumbo motor coach with a 525-horsepower engine. Amenities include a king-size bed and a cherry-paneled kitchen capable of cooking a whole turkey.

In northern Michigan, Kirsten likes to Roller-Blade, knit and take art classes at Artcenter Traverse City while Mogens indulges his photography hobby. Together they take frequent day trips around the area.

But Mogens said the biggest reward of their RV lifestyle is the opportunity to connect with people.

“We’ve been living in Memphis for 10 years and I don’t know my neighbors,” he said. “But here it’s natural; you meet people and hear where they’ve been.”

“Everybody has a story,” added Kirsten, “and I think that’s fascinating.”

Socializing is an important part of RVing, agrees Sheridan, who worked in financial services before retiring.

Besides meeting up in different parts of the country for club rallies and other events, RVers are known to gather daily for drinks and dinner at one another’s “fancy tents.”

“When you come up here, you chill out,” he said. “Everybody waits for 4 o’clock and happy hour. Everybody has an excuse to get together.”

Ray Russell once met NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson in a Wal-Mart parking lot, where both were “dry camping” overnight, said Russell, a retired Ford engineer. The driver even offered to pose for photos.

“RV people are like campers,” Russell said. “They’re just wonderful.”

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