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TIME BONUS SECTION / GENERATIONS

Home On The Road. Aesthetes may smirk at the decor, but these condos
on wheels contain every amenity your heart desires.

 
By 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.

Outdoor Resorts 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.

Step inside 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.

Every niche 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.

Bus people, 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.

"It would 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.

"I didn't 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.

Because they 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.

Indulging whims 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.)

Low overpasses 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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