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Enthusiasts hooked on camping, with some luxury

Sunday, September 15, 2002

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- A backache from sleeping on the ground can lead an aging nature lover ultimately to this: 38 feet of fiberglass, steel and custom oak cabinetry on wheels.

The Holiday Rambler Endeavor Diesel has two televisions, two air conditioners and two owners, Paul and Bernice Beard, retirees in their 70s who are quick to point out that they're RVers, not campers.

"We're comfort-oriented, I'll put it that way," Bernice Beard says.

If the Beards are sometimes reluctant to leave their $159,000 motorhome, with its white leather sofa and ambrosia rose valances, who can fault them? Not their neighbors, the Helds, who also own a recreational vehicle but consider themselves campers.

"It's a mindset," said 46-year-old Cheryl Held. "The difference is in the person, not the vehicle."

She insists that she and husband Marc, 9-year-old son, Hunter, and daughter, Madison, who is 7, stay focused on the outdoors during their frequent trips despite the comforts of their new 25-foot travel trailer.

A microwave oven, for example.

"One of the challenges is not to revert to eating processed food," Cheryl Held said. "We do lots of grilling."

On this night, at a campsite along the Potomac River near the western Maryland town of Sharpsburg, the entree is kebabs of chicken, sweet peppers and onions cooked on a portable gas grill.

The Beards typically microwave frozen dinners or drive to a restaurant -- "helping the local economy," Paul Beard calls it.

At night, the Helds cluster on folding chairs around their portable outdoor fireplace. The Beards like to relax in their RV living room, watching satellite TV.

Cheryl Held thinks the difference is evolutionary: "As we age, we RV more than we camp."

RV industry statistics suggest she's right. The aging baby boom generation, ages 38 to 57, accounts for the fastest-growing segment of the RV market, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. Currently, 6.9 million -- or about one in 12 -- vehicle-owning households has an RV, with the median age of owners at 49.

Cheryl, a school crisis counselor, and Marc, who sells windows and doors to building designers, had never gone camping as a family before buying a used, 19-foot pop-up camper trailer last year for $3,500. It was fairly fancy, with a refrigerator and air conditioner. But when they started planning a cross-country trip, they decided to upsize.

"The cranking of the roof got a little old," Marc said, and the kids didn't like sharing a bed.

The new trailer cost $15,000 and required a bigger vehicle to pull it. It was time for a new car anyway -- the minivan had accumulated 200,000 miles -- so they bought a used GMC Suburban.

Now the children sleep in separate bunks while their parents share a queen-size bed. Marc figures the trailer will suffice -- for a while.

"We anticipate keeping this for at least eight years -- but if you would have told me a year ago that I would be moving up to a 25-foot trailer, I would have told you you were nuts," he said.

The Beards entered the RV world in 1987 by renting a 27-foot motorhome for a week. They bought their own later that year, a 34-foot luxury model that they drove all over North America. "I felt like Cinderella when I stepped inside," Bernice said.

She also found a second career. Bernice, who had worked as executive assistant to the president of Western Maryland College, started writing books about RV travel. Last year, she self-published her fourth, "301 Ways to Make RV Travel Safer, Easier and More Fun."

Like the Helds, the Beards make frequent RV trips, alone or in caravans with others from their church camping group. They even enjoy their RVs at home, often sleeping on board the night before a trip.

"Sometimes I pull it up in the back yard and camp on the grass. That's how much we love it," Marc said.

Their friend Miller Davis, another church member, has a 27-foot travel trailer. It's his fourth RV since 1971, when he went from a tent to a pop-up, but he still counts himself among the campers.

"The most enjoyable camping I've done, frankly, is tent camping and cooking over an open fire," Davis said.

He and his wife, Connie, do most of their cooking inside the trailer but there's one camping tradition he hasn't abandoned: a hearty breakfast of French toast, bacon and potatoes cooked outside -- on an electric skillet.


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