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What Now: Kings of the Road

Fall Line
By David Rocks
posted: 03/10/2002

Like ski-home owners across North America, Grant and Joan Bamberger wake and look out their front window each morning to check the weather and mountain conditions. When it's not snowing, they can gaze across the Blue River Valley to the slopes of Breckenridge, Colo., as they sip their coffee and eat their eggs and toast. But unlike most folks with ski homes, if they get tired of the view, they can pack up their coffee, their eggs, their toast and their front window and wheel them all down the highway in search of a better one.

The Bambergers' ski chalet is a 39-foot-long motor home. And more skiers nationwide are following in their tire tracks. Call them powderbirds. Unlike the snowbirds who migrate every year to Florida or Arizona, this new breed of skiers—mostly retirees, but some young families, too—sees the RV as the perfect ski home.

There aren't any official statistics, but owners of RV parks near ski resorts from Taos to Tahoe report that winter business is booming. The Tiger Run RV Resort, three miles from the lifts at Breckenridge, has seen its winter business triple in the past five years. At the Village Green RV Park in Truckee, Calif., with postcard views of the Northstar-at-Tahoe slopes, business has doubled in three years. Space at Utah's Park City RV Resort—across the highway from the Olympic Sports Park—sold out 10 times last winter. "There are a lot of people out there who want to ski but don't want to spend $600 a night for a hotel room, says Doug Sorensen, owner of the Park City RV park.

Sorensen and other park owners cringe at the persistent image of the RV lifestyle as one of overweight retirees lounging in aluminum lawn chairs next to dented trailers. A new generation of motor-home enthusiasts, fueled by the first wave of retiring—and often wealthy—baby boomers, want the freedom to go where the action is, the savings of bringing their lodging with them and the tranquility of avoiding the work involved in vacation-home ownership. And they don't want to rough it, so comfort is the name of the game.

The biggest motor homes stretch to 45 feet, cost more than $1 million and have up to four "slide rooms—sections that accordion out to create more interior living space. They have full kitchens with granite countertops, heated tile floors, convection ovens, double-door refrigerators, gas ranges, dishwashers and washers and dryers. Many sport seven-foot ceilings, and some even feature fireplaces and dining-room tables big enough for eight. Shower? Sure. Satellite flat-screen TV? Pick up the remote. High-speed Internet? The best parks offer it.

Companies such as Arctic Fox, EarthRoamer and a handful of others specialize in all-weather vehicles suited to long spells in subzero weather. U.S. racer Bode Miller credited the convenience of living in his customized motor home as he traveled through Europe last season with helping him win the overall World Cup title. (Teammate Daron Rahlves opted for a similar setup this season.)

The Bambergers paid $150,000 for their 360-square-foot 2000 Allegro motor home six years ago, and now they lay out $580 per month to park it at the Tiger Run resort and hook up to water, electricity, cable TV and phone service. "We're not really warm-weather people, says Joan, 66, a retired nurse. "When we first came out, I figured we'd be the only nuts here, but we weren't, and each year there are more.

The Bambergers' winter neighbor at Tiger Run, Tom Braum, retired from his job at MCI in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 2004, and spent $200,000 for a 40-foot Foretravel motor home to live in while skiing. He and his wife, Marion, a retired insurance underwriter, have taken their rig to Taos, and have trips planned to Whistler, Tahoe and Utah. "It's not as comfortable as a house, but it's very nice, Braum says. "And we know that, come spring, we can take our home and move it wherever we want to be. [NEXT]Park operators see gold in winter visitors, and they're spiffing up their facilitiees to serve them. Tiger Run, for instance, has an indoor swimming pool, two hot tubs, a game room, a clubhouse and gym, and a big common area where winter residents gather for cocktails in front of the fireplace every Wednesday. Manufacturers are "building motor homes much better than they did in the past, says Jeff Smith, owner of Tiger Run. "That's made them a lot more livable, even in 20-below-zero weather.

At Park City, Sorensen has put in a gym, a pool and hot tubs, and is planning 100 more sites. "We're really trying to cater to winter visitors, he says. "They're a whole different breed of people.

That's not to say there aren't moments when winter RVers feel a bit like ski bums living out of the back of a van. The Bambergers, for instance, discovered the hard way that they needed an extra heater in their closet when they woke up to find clothes frozen to a wall. Ron Phelan, the manager of the Village Green park, says a couple of visitors every year forget to keep the heat on when they head for the slopes and end up with frozen pipes. "If you break your pipes, you're in for a major pain in the butt with these things.

But one of the advantages of the RV parks is that there's almost always a friend on hand to help you out of a jam. The Tiger Run crowd gets together once a month for dinner, and many of them ski together at Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone, almost daily. They often return year after year, happily greeting each other at the start of the season.

The Bambergers have been coming to Tiger Run for seven years. Ellen Brown, a retired policewoman from Florida, has been visiting for three seasons. "We're all a family now, she says. But unlike a member of a real family, if she gets tired of the vibe—or the view, or the snow conditions—she can pack up her rig and hit the road in search of something better.

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