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It seems a bit mean spirited to say that Reading, Pennsylvania feels like an RV kind of town, but that’s what I honestly thought as I pulled up to the Greater Reading Expo Center for its 2009 RV Show.

There were several reasons for this. Some were simply aesthetic. The Expo Center itself is part of a former manufacturing facility, and pipes and tanks crowd the view immediately to the right of the entrance. Looking back out over the parking lot, you can see the Reading Pagoda on a hilltop in the distance. A former owner of the land built it there in 1908; criticized for defacing the hillside with a stone quarry, he didn’t restore the natural landscape but instead built the seven-story pagoda after seeing one on a postcard from the Philippines.

Other reasons were more intuitive. Once a thriving link between the anthracite coal region to the north and Philadelphia to the southeast (think Monopoly’s Reading Railroad), the city today feels like a place that’s seen much better times. The beautiful streetscape downtown now houses discount electronic and clothing stores. John Updike even used the place as inspiration for the hometown of Rabbit Angstrom.

The weekend of the RV show, the public paid $8 each — $7 if they printed out a coupon from the show’s Web site — to tour dozens of motor homes and trailers. The facility was pretty bare-bones, even by convention center standards. Metal grates covered the windows, so that if you looked out over Reading, a dull metallic sheen filtered the already cloudy view. The unused rear third of the center was dark and covered with dead leaves. The food “court” was really just a long carpeted room with a few tables of snacks set up at one end. Standing in line for coffee, I heard a woman complain to one of two teenagers working there that the mustard had gone bad. Another woman ordered two hot dogs, and the teenager working the cash register told the other, “Use the ones that look like they’re about to explode,” in a voice so loud it was clear she was more worried about being reprimanded for wasting hot dogs than she was about giving a customer food cooked so long it was on the verge of disintegrating.

The RVs were a different story. RVs seem so common, yet when I entered my first — a little thing called the r·pod that looked like a cheese wheel cut in half and turned on its side — it was as if I had stepped onto another planet. There’s no way to describe the r·pod but as adorable. On the left was a table and an upholstered booth that converted into a bed. A tiny closet across from the entrance housed both a shower and a toilet. To the right, a two-burner stove and sink with faux brass fixtures sat on wood cabinets, next to a small wood-fronted refrigerator. A tiny flat-screen TV and DVD player were mounted to the bottom of a shelf. Tiny nets for books and spices and toiletries were stretched across nooks and crannies. I was smitten. It was no Walden, but the r·pod contained everything a modern American might need — with a pricetag of only $12,500, I could have owned the thing outright with the little I’ve saved for just the downpayment on a house!

Things only got bigger from there. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, the “RV Family” is divided into towable RVs — a category that includes traditional trailers pulled by a vehicle, as well as pop-up trailers and campers affixed to a pick-up’s bed — and motor homes, which are self-propelled. As anybody who’s driven an American interstate knows, some of these babies are huge. The Reading show had RVs with vaulted ceilings and ceiling fans, RVs with elevated bedrooms that you had to climb stairs to reach, and RVs with not one but 1.5 baths.

Some RVs take the names of fierce, dangerous predators, as if they weren’t meant to glide blissfully through nature but to dominate it. I saw RVs named for wildcats, cougars, silverback gorillas, kodiak bears, grey wolves, and tigers. Others had names that seemed more hyperactive — the Zinger, the Fuzion, the Fun Finder X (“Xperience the Xcitement”) — which suggested that these were intended not for travel to national parks and family campgrounds, but to skydiving competitions and alligator wrestling matches.

Tour enough RVs and you begin to glean the field’s design rules. Bedrooms, for example, tend to be located at an RV’s ends, and are usually separated from the kitchen and living room by a bathroom. Television sets (flat-screens, usually) are a given. And almost every RV window is topped with a valance.

Yet individual touches remain. Sometimes these are the work of the dealers. Several RVs were “staged” with plastic food on the table and plastic flowers in the bathroom. Radios played Latin music or smooth jazz in some. I saw three small dog statues on the shelf above the master bed in one RV, and a swan statue on the kitchen windowsill of another. One RV had a framed photo of Harry Connick, Jr. below the TV, while one had a Happy Gilmore DVD sitting alone on what was, clearly, a shelf for DVDs.

Other details are more pronounced, and are the things that can make or break a sale. Some showers stalls open to the bedroom. Some interior doors don’t extend all the way to the floor and ceiling. Some sleeping capacities include a mattress thrown on the floor under two other bunk beds. Some have a cooking grill that attaches to the exterior. A few come with electric fireplaces that crackle and glow between plush recliners that can spin.

RV shoppers seem to know what they’re looking for. I saw one woman pause at the door of an RV ahead of her husband, peek in, and say, “Nope. Not for us,” before turning around and walking away. I watched another one look at a gigantic motor home with three of those pockets that extend from the RV’s side, so as to provide additional living space. “Triple slides,” she observed as she climbed up its stairs. “This should be interesting.”

On its Web site, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association has compiled quotes from celebrities and other well-known figures who extoll the benefits, and in some cases the virtues, that come with owning an RV. Take Cheers‘ John Ratzenberger: “RVing changed our family for the better. Instead of playing video games, my son was out learning new things in the RV.” Or the guy who played Radar on M*A*S*H: “After a while, you think of it as home. It’s a terrific way to live.” Or even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: “Being an RVer helps me do my job better. The RV world gives me a chance to balance things out. It allows me a sense of freedom.”

But in an economy where house and car sales are all but nonexistent, who’s buying a house and car rolled into one? Very few people, it turns out. According to RIVA, RV sales fell 33 percent in 2008, 52 percent in the second half of the year alone. The association predicts that 2009 will be even worse as unemployment rises, wealth disappears, credit grows tighter, and people generally continue to feel that there’s just something…not quite right…about buying an RV at this particular moment in time.

Help may be coming, however. The stimulus bill recently signed by the president was careful not to include any funding for zoos or golf courses in the wake of public outcry over such seemingly frivolous spending, but it does contain tax deductions for RV buyers. Spurred by members of Congress from Indiana — the Rust Belt center of RV manufacturing — the legislation provides deductions for taxes paid on the first $49,500 of a new home on wheels.

The Reading RV show showed signs of life as well. One dealer put neon pink signs on the windows of every RV he sold. “A DREAM COME TRUE FOR: ERIC + PAT. Now! Watch this Family Have Fun!” they read, in hopes of convincing shoppers that even in this dismal economy, dreams and family and fun remain worthy investments.

Spend so much time in RVs and among the people thinking about buying them, and they all begin to feel a lot less déclassé than they may have when you started.

How’d they come to feel this way in the first place? It’s due in part to the conception of the RV as a means of exploring and interacting with the natural world. An authentic experience with nature, we like to imagine, does not involve fake fireplaces and plush couches and repeat viewings of Happy Gilmore, or the desire for comfort that such things suggest. That perception is also likely due in part to the fact that the people who like to think of themselves as the arbitors of what’s déclassé live in cities, and it’s hard to keep to keep RVs in cities and therefore even harder for anyone who lives there to encounter RVs and the people who drive and vacation in them.

I’ll admit that I felt this way. I live in a tiny city apartment above a vacant storefront, with a pizza place on one side and a watch repair shop on the other; there’s a hospital loading zone out front, meaning you can’t park a car on the street, let alone an RV. When I go into nature, I want to leave pizza and watches and parking hunts behind.

But walking the floor of the Reading Expo Center, I began to think of RVs in a different way. It’s true that part of their appeal is their ability to bring all the comforts of home out into nature. But in doing so, they carry a lot of the baggage of home, too. In fact, the perks in an RV are the same things that, at home, are chores. Having a washer and dryer means you can’t excuse the funky smell people get after a few days of camping, and that someone maybe needs to do a load or two of laundry while vacationing. The kitchens are spacious and well-appointed, but that just suggests an expectation for someone to cook something that’s more complicated than putting hot dogs on a stick and holding them over a fire. A toilet is nice, but having one means, well, there’s a toilet for somebody to clean.

Some people travel to Paris or Hawaii, and think how different, how much better, life would be if they could just pick up and move to to Paris or Hawaii, and sometimes they go home and search the Internet to see what kinds of jobs are available there, and what housing costs. Other people take weekend wine tours through Napa or fishing trips off Cape Cod, and they wonder what it would take to hang it all up and open a winery or captain a charter boat. It’s nice to have the illusion that an alternate reality exists for you, because sometimes when you’re home and in your life, you feel like a hot dog that’s been spinning on a grill so long it’s about to explode.

I think RVs are selling their own version of the illusion — in their case, that of an idealized home life. Maybe some people don’t mind cooking or cleaning or doing laundry, but wonder what it would be like to not have a mortgage to pay or a lawn to mow or a wrestling practice to drive the kids to.

Everyone, it seems, needs that. Before leaving the RV show, I walked down the row of anicillary businesses that had set up tables by the main door. Among the campground chains and carpet cleaners and a snack company called The Jerky Hut was a business that finished basements. Its salesman looked to be in his 70s, and he stood outside a carpeted, paneled trailer that served as a mobile showroom.

The man told me I could enter a drawing to win a free basement finishing, but I told him that I lived in an apartment, and therefore didn’t have a basement.

“Well, you’re still more than welcome to go and take a look,” he told me.

It seemed like a strange business to be at an RV show. But looking around the trailer, I realized that if someone came to the show but couldn’t afford to escape in an RV, a finished basement might be the next best thing. • 20 February 2009