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  • Motor Home, Know Thyself

    A hybrid is a compromise. You give up one attribute to gain another. The motor home is a hybrid of vehicle and shelter. It's roomy but sluggish, mobile but bulky. It represents a compromise of attributes in exchange for a hybrid value. So it's odd that the exterior graphics of motor homes almost always express a shame about the compromise. Virtually every motor home sports waves, whips, swooshes, dips, crescents, ribbons, curls and stripes, all meant to suggest speed, agility, lightness and grace—those very attributes surrendered in the transformation from motor vehicle to motor home. The graphics strive to convey an illusion of what the thing itself can no longer deliver, and no longer intends to deliver.

     

    Two RVs with custom paint jobs by Carrera Designs

    Two motor homes with custom paint jobs by Carrera Designs.

    Motor homes roll across the country all year long, but I tend to regard them as a summer species. It's during the summer months that I take long trips on the highway, the natural habitat of the motor home, and so maybe I see them more not because they're out more, but because I am. The parents of two friends own and operate their motor homes all year long. They travel to new cities and landmarks, but also return to the same places year after year. They develop seasonal communities with other motor home travelers. They meet in Phoenix this time of year, Florida that time, and Maine when it's warm. They're like extended families reuniting in the temporary neighborhoods of RV parks, forming and reforming alliances and potluck themes. It's a social thing, familiar and comforting, to return to a community of like-minded friends with stories and tips and shared complaints, but it's also pragmatic. Motor home owners face a host of difficulties. They have to plan where to get fuel, where to eat and where to spend the night, making sure the motor home has space to park and enough asphalt on which to turn around. So I'm sure they appreciate knowing that at least several times a year they are safe among sympathetic friends and plentiful sewer lines.

    The subculture of motor-homies must be like many subcultures, proud of its eccentricities and resentful of being teased for its quirks by the larger culture. (Check out MotorHome Magazine.) Like a tribe, it celebrates its virtues and defends its honor. These virtues include what is contained in its descriptive name: motor plus home. Home is where the odometer is. Depending on the make and model, an owner may have more motor and less home or less motor and more home. Either way, an owner makes a sizable commitment to a mobile lifestyle. A cruise is not a vacation when you own the ship.

     

    Winnebagos over time: the 2008 Vectra (left) and 1967 Coach (right, © Frederick Weiss, from fmca.com).

    So, why the ubiquitous graphics of light swoop and airy dash? If you're proud of your big bad self, so much so you just ransacked your savings and uprooted your life for the call of heavy duty on the open road, then why pull a punch on the paint job? Imagine bolting upright in your recliner one day, jamming the remote control into the cup holder and shifting into Drive. With a spin of the steering wheel, you've wrenched your house off its foundation, wheels popping out like a humongous version of those Heelys shoes that kids wear, and your panicking spouse is surfing the funhouse kitchen floor while you're rumbling down the subdivision street, giggling like a mad person, waving at the kids, and flipping off the neighbors. Where in this re-enacted drama comes the loss of nerve? At what point do you hit the brakes, flick on the blinkers, and step out to brush on humble lines of brown and apologetic ribbons of blue on the vinyl siding? “Sorry, everyone. It's a, it's a car. Really. A little, you know, shelter utility vehicle. Don't mind me.”

    Some motor-homers defy convention and opt for airbrushed scenes of naturalism and patriotism, expressed as a timber wolf howling in a forest, an eagle soaring over mountains or a grizzly swiping at a salmon. Others have recourse to the many custom graphics shops that cater to motor homes, new and used (which still overwhelmingly offer variations on the wave). For the most part, however, manufacturers sell the motor homes with the whip-doodle graphics already on them. I can sympathize with the separate argument for the conservative treatment in color, the browns and whites, tans and beiges, mochas and maroons. Motor homes resemble regular homes (and often cost as much). Today's suburban homes are typically roofed, walled and finished with subdued earth tones, mainly along the spectrums of brown and white. It's easier to keep up with the Joneses if your houses are indistinguishable. Same with motor homes. You have to live in and with and around this lug for a long time, and it's easier to live with neutral colors and simple patterns than with pink and yellow drop-shadowed, pixie-sparkled polka dots. I get that. The graphics are also a gesture of camaraderie. You identify yourself to your fellow flocking motor-homies by sporting similar plumage. “Make no mistake,” one says with these conservative colors, “I am not a mobile home, a trailer, a camper or a fleet bus. I am a motor home.” And I get that, too.

     

    Swooshes and swirls adorn the 2009 Damon Essence.

    I just don't get the graphics. They often look like a timed exposure of one of those rhythmic gymnasts describing the air with a ribbon on a baton. Maybe the graphics are supposed to evoke air currents and the slipstream of wind tunnels. Maybe this is the sentimental art of aerodynamics. The way T-shirt graphics represent the attitude of the wearer, motor home graphics represent the aspirations of the inner vehicle: I want to go faster. But the effort seems wasted—and sadly comical—on these massive vehicles of hybrid purpose. They are homes, and they are vehicles. Something's gotta give. The Class A motor home can be 24- to 40-feet long, weigh 15,000 to 30,000 pounds, and be outfitted with kitchen, bathroom, shower, heat and air conditioning, dining room and entertainment center. So the little brown waves on the sides of a vehicle this luxuriously large remind me of the kite-tail waves on a pair of XXXL swim trunks: graphics striving hard for a slimming effect. “So, like, listen, Swooshes and Swirls,” I want to say. “You're not fooling anybody.”

    Few other vehicles express this kind of identity ambivalence in their graphics. I rarely see any big rig trying to pull off vector swoops and crescent moons to compensate for its hauling mass. I usually see the opposite: graphics that emphasize size, strength and power, like great horizontal bands of color running front to back, or nothing more than a logo and the blank massive wall of reinforced steel. Okay, yes, nowadays I see those poor trucks covered in a 360-degree wraparound photo of 6-foot Concord grapes or 16-foot pork kabobs, and while I understand that form follows function there, I do feel bad for the truck, the way I pity poodles in knit sweaters with pictures of their owners stitched on them. (The motor home equivalent would be, what, an airbrushed picket fence all the way around?) On the flip side, I rarely see, on public highways, sports cars that resort to stripes and waves and accents, most likely because they don't have to. Yes, you can paint a flaming skull on your Scirocco, but a Ferrari looks like it's going 45 when it's parked.

     

    The 2007 Airstream Skydeck (left, from travelizmo.com) and a 1960s Brill converted coach (right, © Frederick Weiss, from fmca.com).

    I mean, if you really wanted to suggest speed or depth or create a limber illusion that distracts from rugged reality, you have any number of other options, from those Photoshop-layered rock-candy stock images used as abstract brochure backgrounds to a trompe l'oeil rendering of a whole other highway mirrored on the motor home's side, complete with an acceleration-blurred 1965 Ford Mustang convertible and a cruising pair of Indian Roadmaster motorcycles. A motor home pits you against the world of convention. You are the stranger coming to town—and sometimes you are the town coming to the stranger. You are the fish out of water that drives its own bowl. You are the dream of the boy I used to be when I was cramped in my parents'hatchback during the grueling drive to an off-season Orlando motel. What I wouldn't have given to play Boggle in a Winnebago. Life is a canvas, and so is your motor home. You've already made the hard choice, to own one. Now, please, stick to the right lane, and show us you have no regrets.

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