When David and Dorothy Counts told their anthropologist colleagues that they were proposing to do a study of people who live in Recreational Vehicles (RVs) as a retirement alternative, they ran occasionally into "lightly veiled (and sometimes explicit) suggestions that we were not doing research at all"; that they might even have "fashioned a clever scam to spend part of a Canadian winter in warm places." They paid no heed and got on with their work, which followed nicely on their earlier investigations into how the people of Kaliai in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, understood the processes of aging and dying. They got themselves a rig and went into the field.
Their research generated a lot of publicity, leading ultimately to an offer from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association to tour as their media spokespersons. The RVIA was interested in raising public awareness of the benefits of travelling in RVs; the authors wanted to "publish our research findings-publish in the broadest sense of making them public knowledge," while also continuing their study. The RVIA gig allowed them to do this, and they signed on.
The result of their investigation is Over the Next Hill. In it the reader discovers who these people are, why they become RVers, and how they spend their time, the pros and cons of the RVing way of life, the types and etiquette of RV parks, what it is like to be a single RVer, and how RVers of different subcategories (usually defined by age or marital status) see each other. One learns something of the rigs RVers call home (and what home means to an RVer), the skill and ingenuity it takes to live in such confined quarters, and how RVers cope when they can no longer unhitch their own rigs or perform the various other tasks demanded by life on the road.
The authors examine the images and stereotypes that attach to RVers, from the pejoratives "gypsy" and "white trash"-as people who have abandoned all responsibility towards family and society, and perversely chosen to be registered on the census as either "homeless" or "slightly affluent street people"-to the more admiring "pioneer", the preferred self-characterization of most RVers, with a dash of the more positive connotations of "gypsy" thrown in.
We are given a lot of sound advice on how to conduct ourselves as seniors-remain active and interested, seek friends, vary your routine: the sort of day-to-day habits to which RVing conduces. Alerted at the beginning to the importance of "the native voice" in anthropological research, we are duly treated to quotes by actual RVers and numerous mini-profiles of people who exemplify the points being addressed. The book is simply and pleasantly written and its subject intrinsically interesting.
The trouble with the book is that it was written by anthropologists, not novelists
or feature writers or anyone who is free of the constraints of "science" upon his or her pen. As the authors explain: "Anthropologists make everyday things unfamiliar in order to emphasize their uniqueness and to turn them into appropriate subjects for study and critical appreciation." This process is a drawback, ensuring a degree of overkill in some of the discussion. Moreover, the phenomenon of retired RVers is not something that most North Americans, at least, can't imagine for themselves-if not in all its detail. The Countses have not quite succeeded in making the everyday sufficiently unfamiliar and unique.
True, issues such as "the contradiction.between the value placed on freedom by RVers and the commitment to community that society demands" are important to RVers, for whom whether to RV into the sunset or not is a difficult decision. Yet we are not surprised to find that RVers form a community unto themselves, or that their community is subdivided, just like everyone else's; that RVing seniors are a mixed lot ranging from those who can't afford to live otherwise to retired professionals trying to avoid the consequences of stress.
The sight of RVs as far as the eye can see at a parking ground is indeed astonishing; line-dancing and pot-luck suppers at the social centre are merely drab, when presented as the fruit of "participant observation". It is to be hoped that a Larry McMurtry or Roddy Doyle comes along and fleshes out the sound bones of these roaming seniors, who remain too much, as the Countses point out, "like us."
Claire Gigantes is a freelance editor who lives in Almonte, Ont. She has written on some other quasi-nomads, namely, the Gypsies of Canada.