Lee Smith / Indio
The annual circuit
begins in November when a few hundred of them pull away from homes
in Michigan, New Jersey, Texas and a dozen other states and begin
the trek to Outdoor Resorts in Indio, Calif., about 25 miles east
of Palm Springs.
is, well, a motor-home camp. Not a trailer park, though, so banish
those images of downtrodden migrants from The Grapes of Wrath, of
clotheslines tied to dented and dusty vans, scruffy patches of grass
and malodorous toilets. That's not Indio. The 424 campsites wrap
around a golf course. At the center of the complex is a clubhouse
with an Olympic-size swimming pool, four tennis courts and a health
spa with masseuse. Gardeners tend a cheerful landscape of date palms,
bougainvillea, hibiscus and petunias.
Indio is one
of the premier watering places of an adventurous, uprooted, self-indulgent
subculture that roams America's highways in $1 million buses. That's
correct: $1,000,000 (give or take a few thousand).
How does the
price of a bus balloon to $1 million? It begins the same way a familiar
charter bus begins, as a $300,000 chassis, frame and outer shell
manufactured by Prevost Car of St. Claire, Que., and a 500-h.p.
Detroit Diesel engine. Then one of several companies known in the
motor-home industry as converters, such as Marathon Coach or Liberty
Coach, packs a remarkable apartment into the shell instead of fitting
it with seats. The electronics mimic those of a space station. When
the bus is parked and the time comes to picnic in the shade, the
driver presses a button, and a large awning unfurls and extends
outward from the roof. If the wind kicks up, sensors detect danger
and refurl the awning.
a top-of-the-line model. Aesthetes may smirk at the decor, which
crams a lot of tinkling crystal and frilly fabric into a small space.
But from front to back the components and appliances are first rate.
A 42-in. flat-screen television--this system alone costs $22,600--hangs
between the driver and the windshield and retracts into the ceiling
automatically as soon as the engine starts.
Behind the outsize
leather seats for driver and companion is a small salon with a couch,
a pair of swivel armchairs and a coffee table. Next come the kitchen
and dinette, equipped with a table for two, standard-size sink and
dishwasher, a 21-cu.-ft. refrigerator/freezer, including ice maker,
and a clothes washer and a dryer. The bathroom has a toilet, two
sinks and a full-size shower with brass fixtures. The bedroom, with
a queen-size bed, has a second TV set, and a satellite dish on the
roof keeps the bus linked to dozens of stations even while it cruises
on the highway.
reveals a new wonder. Pull the undercarriage of the bus, and out
rolls an electric barbecue and another television set, designed
for the chef who can grill steaks and watch Survivor II. With a
165-gal. tank of freshwater and other tanks for waste, as well as
a powerful generator for light, heat or air conditioning, a bus
can camp for a week without needing outside power.
who number no more than 3,000 at present, are growing by a couple
of hundred a year. They try to avoid attention, but that's difficult
in a vehicle that's about as subtle as a parade float. Curious highway
patrol officers sometimes pull them over just to get a peek inside.
Celebrity hounds, hoping to cadge an autograph off some rock star,
sprint across parking lots and bang on the doors, demanding that
the occupants identify themselves.
There are a
handful of celebrities among them, but overwhelmingly, bus people
are ordinary. They are mostly married couples over 50, either semi-
or fully retired. The one attribute that distinguishes bus people
from the crowd is that they are obviously rich enough not to worry
about tossing away money like bun wrappers.
be cheaper if we were hooked on cocaine than on these buses,"
admits Ron Pallin, 53, of Eugene, Ore. Unlike a condo in Tampa,
Fla., or La Jolla, Calif., say, a bus depreciates quickly, beginning
with the first turn of the wheels. It loses about 15% of its value
the first year on the road and an additional 10% every year following.
A set of tires costs $5,000, and a wash-and-wax job runs about $360.
On average a bus travels about seven miles on a gallon of diesel
fuel. To paraphrase J.P. Morgan on the subject of yachts, if you
have to ask which way fuel prices are headed, you can't afford to
own a bus.
Few bus people
were born rich. Some are retired corporate executives or professionals.
Largely, however, they are small-business owners, entrepreneurs
who struggled their way to success--and that experience, more than
anything else, seems to explain why they became bus people. They
toiled so hard early in life to establish the trucking company or
insurance agency that they never had time for excursions to the
Grand Canyon or Washington.
know what sunshine was," says Steve Ceccanti, 48, owner of
two restaurants near Portland, Ore. "My wife and I were on
the job every day at 11 a.m., and we closed at 10:30 p.m."
Those who traveled rarely had time to enjoy the scenery. Their memories
of America are of rental-car lots and airport gates, as they pressed
on from one assignment to another. They have vowed never to rest
their head on a motel pillow again.
were preoccupied with their jobs, bus people had little time to
make the commitments to the volunteer fire department or school
board that bind other people to their hometowns. Bus people have
children who are now old enough to take over their businesses. But
otherwise they are footloose. Their best friends are the other bus
people they meet again and again on the road during the annual circuit.
At Outdoor Resorts
in Indio, most of the sites belong to individual bus owners who
have paid up to $200,000 for a 75-ft.-long, 35-ft.-wide lot. (Transients
can rent an unoccupied lot for $50 a night.) There is not much privacy,
but that's OK because bus people tend to be outdoor extroverts.
"The difference between us and condo people," says Pallin,
"is that at 5 o'clock, condo owners go inside, and we come
out for cocktails."
Much of the
conversation at such gatherings centers on who has the fanciest
new device, a fascination that has earned Indio the nickname Out-do
Resorts. "There's a lot of competition over who has the most
'wow,'" says Manuel Ortega, 37, of Riverdale, Calif., whose
bus has six TV sets, including one that rises out of the dinette
table. This season, however, the biggest wow is elicited by the
three or four double slides that have rolled into camp. In this
configuration, two compartments, one in the parlor and another in
the bedroom, extend outward when the bus is parked. So with the
touch of a button the width of the bus swells from 8 ft. to 11 ft.
That feature will cost you an additional $300,000 or so--or enough
to buy a couple of Ferraris, if you were so inclined.
is an integral part of bus life. Want to go to Las Vegas for a week?
Bus people can unplug from Indio's water, sewer and electric lines
and be on the road in 15 minutes. Backing up can be tricky, so the
$1 million bus is equipped with a video cam in the rear end and a
monitor at the driver's seat. On the open highway a bus handles
as easily as a big, expensive car. At the end of the day, bus people
often turn into an empty mall parking lot to camp. Wide-open Wal-Mart
lots are a favorite resting place.
Is there anything
disagreeable about the bus life? "Think of living in your hallway,
parked in your driveway," poses Patricia Upchurch, a bus person
from Whidbey Island, Wash. Most bus people spend at least a couple
of months a year back home to stretch out. Occasionally a bus person
leaves the life permanently--one dropout became paranoid about the
risk of ripping the roof off under an overpass. Some other kinds
of motor homes have lost their tops that way, but the record is
not clear on whether a bus has. (If one does get stuck under an
overpass, the driver can deflate the air-suspension system and lower
the coach a few inches.)
aside, the bus life seems well suited to those looking to avoid
life's small annoyances. Take highway congestion. Chriss and Myrna
Crawford, from Missoula, Mont., were caught in a three-hour traffic
jam on a Los Angeles freeway several years ago. While the exasperated
car drivers around and below them craned their neck and cursed,
the Crawford's calmly cooked their dinner. In a generation or two,
maybe all of us will take the bus.
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