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Meet the Retirees Who Live on the Road, Exploring the US by RV

Amber Day

This is part of a collection of stories celebrating the many shapes retirement travel can take. Read more here.

Jenell Jones (64) always felt the itch to travel, but a government career kept her rooted. “I was raised in a family of seven kids, so we moved a lot,” she says, having gone to 12 different schools in 12 years as a child. “It’s in me to move. I thought that’s what people did.” But after working for 26 years in the same Texas county, the wanderlust became too difficult to ignore. “As soon as I retired [in 2015], the first thing I did was think, ‘How can I travel?’” She sold her house, put her stuff in storage, and packed her life in two big suitcases: one for warm clothes and one for cold. She set out to hike the Amalfi Coast, and went on a cruise to Alaska. Still, though, something was missing. “I realized I liked traveling, but I want my stuff with me,” she recalls. Jones discovered the appeal of RV retirement, a lifestyle that would afford her endless travel and minimalist living on a budget. For her, moving from her “sticks and bricks” house to a Class-A motorhome meant the chance to venture on her own, save money, and continue to discover and learn.

Jones, who now runs the Wandering Individuals Network as a resource for fellow solo RV-ers, is finally free. “I hear it’s winter in some parts of the country,” she mused on a February call from her 36-foot Class-A RV in Southern California. “I’m in shorts. I haven’t turned my heater on. Basically, I don’t do hot or cold anymore.” When she decided to make the switch to life on the road, Jones took a map of the US and thought to herself, “I’m retired, I have no commitments. Where do I go?” She blindly placed her finger and it landed on Maine. “I had never been, so I went to Bar Harbor. The next summer, I drove to Alaska.” Along the way, she rode her bike atop the Grand Canyon, hiked Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, and bought lobsters directly from a Maine fisherman—boiling the crustaceans in the parking lot of an RV campsite, and eating them with butter dripping down her hands. “That memory has summed up this lifestyle,” Jones says.

“Untethering” is the word that Kim Kelly Stamp (64) uses to describe the transition—and the facet of RV living that appealed to her and her wife when they purchased a teardrop-shaped RV, a Little Guy Max, in 2021. “To go from a career where things are very structured to a moving home, where we can choose to go anywhere and do whatever we want on any given day, is a really freeing thing.” There’s no lawn to mow, no home to take care of, but they are constantly sharing new experiences together. “We’re doing things that we’ve never done before, and learning skills,” Stamp says, recalling her first time learning how to tow a trailer—or how she unexpectedly fell in love with hiking. “As we get older, that’s something that we value, being able to continue to learn, so that we don’t get mentally sluggish.”

Initially, Stamp viewed RV life as a way to travel and live inexpensively, and save money for continued retirement. “We never really pictured ourselves in an RV,” says the Olympia, Washington native. “We had preconceived notions of what RV-ers are like. It tends to be a pretty conservative community.” But after finding their dream RV, reducing from their 2,000-square-foot home to their 100-square-foot RV, and hitting the road, they found the lifestyle proved more inclusive than they'd expected. She recalls their first trip across the country, as they traveled warily through the South, and they met a friendly couple in Texas Hill Country. Two older women at a restaurant flagged them down and made them feel right at home. “It was a lesbian couple, and we ended up sitting with them and having great conversation,” she describes. “It was completely unexpected, to meet people like us in the middle of Texas. A lot of experiences like that have been positive.”

“One of the things that surprised us is how much we enjoy doing this. I was willing to do it, and felt I could do anything for a year or two, but I ended up really loving it.”

Kim Kelly Stamp

For folks like Stamp, who are new to full-time RV-ing, adapting to a lifestyle of unexpectedness is well worth the effort. “While on the road, we have a loose plan that we make, but we give ourselves the freedom to change plans,” says Stamp. “One year, we realized we were about 50 miles away from Laurel, Mississippi, and that’s where they film the HGTV series, Home Town. We both love that series, so we decided to make a spur-of-the-moment detour and see the places that we see every week on TV.”

It's nothing like the rigidity of a 9-to-5. Susan and Norm (56 and 61, respectively, who declined to share their last name) were a couple anchored by office hours for the majority of their 36-year marriage. Prior to retiring from her career in the dental field, Susan says her husband used his experience working in RV tech to take the leap into self-employment five years ago, renting out RVs in western Colorado for work. With enough demand, they were both doing that full-time within two years.

During the pandemic, they decided to hit the road themselves, as a way to pare back from work while still logging on remotely part time. It's a way to explore what retirement might look like for them. “I’d say within the next five years, we’ll be buying property, or we may go live in Mexico for retirement,” says Susan. “But I don’t think we’ll ever live what most people consider a traditional lifestyle again.” For now, they live in a 125-square-foot cargo trailer that’s been retrofitted as a mobile tiny home, complete with aspen walls and a cedar roof. “RV-ing is something that you can do extravagantly or minimally. It’s opened us up to getting outside of our box, and you get to reinvent yourself constantly with this lifestyle.”

For all its freedoms, the lifestyle does have its pros and cons. While Susan says the RV community is expanding in terms of age (“when we’re on the road, we meet people in their 20s and 30s, with kids, that are at a totally different stage in life, but yet you find common ground in the lifestyle”), there’s still a lack of diversity.

That's what inspired Brenda Huynh (47) to start the Facebook group Asian American RV Adventure, along with her husband, Tiger Doan (50). The two still work and live in California, but as frequent RV-ers (they average 15 trips per year with their two daughters, 13 and 15, in their 25-foot Class-A motorhome) in a space typified by heterosexual white travelers, they're passionate about sharing their experience with others—including older generations in the Asian-American community for whom RV'ing can be a tough sell. “Tiger and I are very rare,” Huynh says of the still-lacking diversity in the RV space. “It's rare to see Asians on the road.” There are also preconceived notions to break—the glamour of RV'ing isn't obvious to everyone. “We took [my parents] tent camping, and later we rented an RV, and my mom said ‘Why do you spend so much money to live like in a refugee camp?’”

“I grew up in a lifestyle where we didn’t even know there was life beyond a house and kids. I wish I had learned to think outside the box so much earlier than we did.”

Susan of @silverbadgeradventures

By using the group to share campground reviews and tips, encouraging national parks as a form of education, posting photos from their trips to inspire others, and hosting rallies, Huynh hopes others will see the beauty into getting closer to nature through RVing. Since the pandemic they’ve crossed paths with more Asian Rvers, but it still feels like a niche. “Things break, shit happens," says Huynh. "But the flip side is the benefit as a family, and being closer to nature instead of flying somewhere and staying in a hotel.” And when they do bump into fellow Asian American RVers, there's an instant connection.

Finding common ground on the road, be it at a Hill Country bar or a parking lot lobster boil, is what fuels this lifestyle. For Jones, who travels alone, she knew she still wanted to be part of a group in some capacity, hence her role in Wandering Individuals Network. There's solidarity. “My family freaked out when I [made the switch to RVing], but in the club, they’re like ‘why wouldn’t you do this?’" says Jones. "Likeminded people can help you realize you’re not weird for doing this. Just because you’re not married doesn’t mean you don’t get to travel like everyone else."

“I’ve met the most wonderful people through this lifestyle,” notes Susan, for whom RV living is a means of shifting gears into retirement after 33 years in her field. “I grew up in a lifestyle where we didn’t even know there was life beyond a house and kids. I wish I had learned to think outside the box so much earlier than we did.”

For travelers from all walks of life, RVing can make it possible to maximize the time offered by retirement. “I would strongly suggest, encourage, and hope for a retiree to look at this lifestyle,” says Jones. “I realized when I was in my house after I retired, do I want to spend my last years looking at this same house, and this same backyard?” Venturing out, and embracing the unexpected, makes memories that linger for a lifetime. “I have been face-to-face with a moose that looked me straight in the eye in my RV,” Jones recalls. “I’ve ridden my bike 30 miles [straight]. I’ve seen the tops of mountains. This is a real life.”

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler