06/22/2007 06:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Invasion of the Killer RVs

Class warfare is coming to a campground near you.

In their home communities, suburban Americans have largely segregated themselves according to real estate prices--your neighbors stand on the same rung of the economic ladder as you do, more or less--and thus overall, the rich, the poor, and those in the middle really don't have to intermingle much on a daily basis. That's probably one reason many national pundits can continue to ignore that American society has become increasingly stratified during the Bush years, and such ostrich-heads-buried- in-the-sand commentators still get away with their blithe assessments about the widening gap between the rich and the commoners.

But, for the time being, America's public campgrounds are visibly showcasing our huge disparities in wealth because they are uncharacteristically attracting some very well appointed visitors who currently have few overnight parking options.

Let me explain. I just returned from a weeklong camping trip with family and friends. Nothing too strenuous--not one of those 5-mile hike-in high-exertion campgrounds. Instead, we took our kids to one of those all-too-convenient drive-in state-sponsored campgrounds, complete with decent restroom facilities and hot showers. We pitched a tent. We cooked wienies and s'mores over the campfire. We stared at the stars. The usual summertime or weekender drill--not exactly a full-fledged wilderness experience, but at least an attempt to eat, sleep, and interact outdoors. We weren't really roughing it, but we weren't exactly pampering ourselves, either. I thought I was making a concession to extravagance by bringing along a Coleman two-burner propane stove in order to make some quick coffee and pancakes in the morning. Boy, did I ever lose my innocence fast.

In my experience heretofore, I've witnessed public camping as an exercise in middle-class ingenuity in pursuit of a relatively cheap vacation, with some slow creep upwards toward bringing more and more creature comforts from home than before. You graduate from the pup tent into the REI dome tent. You leave the kerosene lantern behind in favor of a battery-operated fluorescent. An air mattress eventually replaces the foam pad underneath your sleeping bag. If you become a regular camper, you might at some point decide to leave tent camping behind altogether, and so you proudly purchase a Class-B pop-up tent-trailer or even a modest Class-C RV. The escalation can indeed continue after that: you start bringing along tiki torches, lawn chairs, Astroturf, and a shade canopy. Yet even at this stage, with your living quarters now on wheels, nothing seems way out of line with the original spirit of pitching a tent out of the back of your car. You haven't fundamentally violated some implicit honor code or clause in the post-Boy Scout Camping Manual.

But all of that has changed, I discovered on this recent trip. Enter the luxury Class-A 40+ foot motor home coach. As I was slicing an apple with my Swiss army knife, I felt in my bones the rumble of one of these massive diesel-powered Behemoths ambling onto the campgrounds. A disturbing number of fellow travelers soon followed, as if the campground had become a Greyhound bus station. I watched with some amusement as these wannabee Teamsters each took a half hour or more to back their massive RVs into carefully partitioned campsites that were originally designed for no more than two pup tents, a picnic table, and a campfire. Once upon a time these mobile McMansion RVs would have been large enough to take the entire Lawrence Welk Orchestra on tour, but apparently they aren't large enough for today's tourists: They all have expandable "side-outs" that increase their square-footage inside. So their dwellers squeeze even more space out of their campsite reservation, and if there's anything left, they flip a switch releasing a retractable awning overlooking the next fifteen feet adjacent to their vehicle.

I watched as they set up camp: First, you hit the button to erect multiple antennae on top of the vehicle: satellite TV, satellite radio, GPS navigation system, wifi reception, and a weather monitoring station. A few luxury RVers unfurled Persian rugs on the ground immediately outside their doors. I saw one such "camper" who had brought her own potted plants with her to decorate the campsite. But these luxury RVers didn't hang outside very long. The ones I saw quickly retreated back indoors, cranked on their massive (and noisy) generators, and apparently made dinner in their fully appointed kitchens. I didn't see any of them barbequing outdoors. I didn't see any of them conversing with nearby campers. In fact I didn't see any of them doing anything remotely outdoorsy. On one of my walks through the campgrounds, I couldn't help but notice one luxury RVer playing poker on his computer at the console near the front of his coach. In others, you could see, after dusk, the flashing blue light emanating from TV sets inside.

It seems to me that the whole point, the on-the-ground reality, of investing in a gas guzzling luxury RV is to insulate oneself from Nature and Society while maintaining the pretense that you are doing quite the opposite. Then there's also the whole conspicuous consumption dimension, the over-the-top display of extravagance, which strikes me less as feverish consumerism reflecting rugged marketplace individualism than as mindless conformism and irrational economic behavior at the highest spending levels. These are folks who fell hard for the notion that adventure vacations can be fully bought and paid for in prepackaged deals. They convinced themselves that the more you spend on something, the better it surely will be. These are folks, sadly, who apparently never caught the humor in Albert Brooks' Lost in America or the scatology in Barry Sonnenfeld's RV. Once the initial exuberance of owning a luxury RV wears off, how do you live with yourself and such a large mistake?

On my return I googled a 2003 piece in the New York Times about the then-emergent popularity of the luxury RV motor home. Most models start above $200,000, many cost about $500,000, and several are priced in the $1.5-$2 million dollar range. Options can include 40" LCD HDTV, leather recliners, leather sofas, walk-in wardrobe closets, central vacuum systems, sub-zero refrigerators, fine wood cabinetry, heated ceramic tile floors, marble countertops, washer-dryers, surveillance cameras, and much more. Retirees are not the only ones purchasing them; they are becoming popular with the well-to-do middle-aged crowd. The New York Times reported that private Luxury RV parks have been sprouting up in various places across the country. For $100,000 or so, you can even purchase your own permanent campsite in one of these newly gated campground communities. Evidently the Well Heeled On Wheels don't want to suffer the humiliation of having to rub elbows with the Less Fortunate in public or KOA campgrounds (though they never had to share the restroom facilities and hot showers, and their generators drowned out nearby conversations). Anyway, I probably won't see much longer the stark contrasts and juxtapositions of camping styles that I observed this year--once again the wealthy will find ways to segregate and wall themselves off from the rest of society. If they don't, I predict real clashes will occur in those close-quartered campgrounds. Sleeping on a fluffy king size bed while the guy ten feet away is sprawled out on the hard ground in a mummy bag is, at the least, just plain rude.

Even as gas prices rise, there's been no decline in sales for these luxury RVs. These gargantuan and costly vehicles--basically SUVs taken to the nth degree--need to be driven, parked, cleaned, stored, and de-pooped. They cannot be used for off-freeway or urban sightseeing (hence you often see an extra car in tow behind them). Many campgrounds cannot accommodate their size whatsoever. And they burn gas and more gas, as they chug along. What are people thinking?

Are the wealthy of this country going buggy?