Shortly after sunset, in a campsite just above an Olympic Peninsula beach, I flip a switch to engage the RV generator and think, “I’m that person now.” The person I’ve long scorned, who breaks the silence of a national park campground with a mechanical rumble to run my water pump. This lifelong tent camper always considered “generator” a bad word.
But on a chilly off-season night like this, analog camping would demand my hardiest expedition gear for even moderate comfort—or this propane-heated mobile studio apartment. I hurry through the dinner dishes so I can silence the generator and retreat to a queen-size bed that, though it folds in two for storage, beats my home mattress by a mile.
“What you can do in an RV and what you should do are two different things,” says John Higgins, owner of rental outfit NW Adventure Rentals in Lynnwood. Intrigued by the idea of a social distance bubble on wheels, I plan a modest, snow-free route loop around the Olympics in his shortest rental, a boxy, 26-foot Class C Jayco Melbourne. It sports graphics that recall early ’90s clip art, and is nearly twice the length of my Subaru. I pull out at 10 under the speed limit; sorry, Lynnwood.
Some say the recreational vehicle, or RV, dates back about a hundred years to carmaker Roland Conklin’s custom “Gypsy Van.” Or maybe to Roma caravans from nineteenth century Europe, according to national chain Cruise America. What was the Oregon Trail, after all, but a conga line of campers with abysmal horsepower?
Midcentury Airstream trailers led to Winnebagos, then to a growing association with, well, something less than refinement. (That Breaking Bad RV wasn’t supposed to scream “affluence.”) But RVs also went high-end, moving retirees up the Alaska Highway or along the Gulf Coast, untethered from hotels or timetables. In recent years, millennials made the camper van hot again—but a few vintage Vanagons and tricked-out Sprinters can’t account for the 82 percent rise in national RV sales from 2012 to 2017. Retirees, sure, but also families and festivalgoers, ski bums and digital nomads.
In a twist on the timeshare concept, John Higgins doesn’t own most of the NW Adventure Rentals vehicles but rents them on behalf of the owners. Rather than paying to own, park, insure, and keep tabs on an adventure vehicle, owners come out ahead—or at least break even. Higgins himself speedily purchased my borrowed Melbourne last summer around the same time one thing became clear: Pandemics mean big business for mobile isolation.
I hit three types of campgrounds on my trip around the peninsula. The first, a KOA outside Port Angeles, comes with a full hookup, a level concrete pad, and a paved patio. But for all its convenience and tidy landscaping, the $75 campsite feels inches off the highway.
Given the limited mileage included in my rental and a fear of parking lot sideswipes, the next day I stop only at a Forks barbecue stand in a large gravel lot. Kalaloch, halfway down the peninsula’s Pacific coast, delivers the sort of forested escape I’d prefer, though I struggle to level the vehicle on uneven pavement cracked by tree roots. For $22 I get no utilities; beauty, but a dead battery by morning.
Then finally a Pacific Beach State Park campground, a kind of middle ground. Most of the pull-ins offer electric hookups, but I waive the option to score a beachfront spot for $30. Chatty neighbors assure us that if not for Covid, we’d be invited inside their 30-footer for cocktails.
Comfort doesn’t suck, but I quickly sense how the four walls also offer accessibility. The queen bed unlocks camping to those who can’t sleep on the ground; the full kitchen opens endless meal possibilities. I curl on a pleather recliner during an intense downpour that would have drowned my pup tent, and shower beneath water pressure that would put my first apartment to shame.
My biggest takeaway: RVs simply don’t make much sense. Each is somehow bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Components feel either impossibly sturdy or strangely delicate, and I keep feeling like an escape room patron trying to puzzle out the use of an odd latch or errant curtain. I stare at the simple control panel, trying to remember the snarled loop of systems and tanks—the heater needs battery juice and ample propane, the generator gins power for the water pump. After three days, I sense the RV’s inherent promise that it can go anywhere only applies to destinations crafted specifically for them.
“They’re just a house on a car,” Higgins tells me, even though my outdoorsy self goes on vacation to escape both. But from my portable inside on the Peninsula, I read and I cook, I lounge and I watch the sunset—with more calm than on my last dozen self-powered adventures.
Despite studied conservation, I run out of heat on two separate nights. I could have fired up the generator in the middle of the night to replenish the dead battery; among other RV people, no one would care much about the noise. But to be honest, the bed’s too dang comfortable to bother.