The sun drifted lazily toward the west as Sondra and Mel Hartz settled down in their recliner chairs for another afternoon of reading, chatting with friends and gazing at the mountains.
Behind them, was their home for the summer: a 40-foot recreational vehicle equipped with a washer and dryer, flat-screen TV and full-size refrigerator.
This is our summer condo, said Sondra Hartz. (The park) is nothing fancy, but its friendly here.
The Hartzs was one of dozens of RVs that have filled the Alpine Rose RV Park almost to capacity the last couple of weeks. With the still-weak economy, the year started out slowly for the park but has steadily picked up the pace, said park manager Joan Beverly.
Despite diesel prices topping $4 a gallon and the economic recovery still sluggish, the recreational-vehicle industry as a whole is starting to pick up, with a 6.2 percent increase in total RV shipments and a 16.9 percent increase in motor-home shipments compared with the same period last year.
Shipments closely correlate to sales and overall demand, said Kevin Broom, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Associations director of media relations.
The trend is one that Brad Tarpley, a co-owner of Tarpley RV in Durango, is optimistic will continue as the industry enters its biggest months for sales, June through September.
Sales at early spring shows in Florida, California and Denver are up from last year and had good foot traffic, said Tarpley, which is encouraging news for smaller businesses like his.
Our inclination is optimism, which is different from the last few years, he said.
RVs seen as affordable
The rise in large discretionary purchases such as RVs is a good indicator of where the economy is headed because it shows consumers level of confidence in the economy, Broom said. If they see economic instability, consumers will hold off on such purchases, which usually require credit, he said.
RV sales for the last several recessions have dipped before the recession and have come back early, too, he said.
The biggest factors driving up RV sales right now credit availability and rising consumer confidence are themes in the broader economy, as well, Broom said.
High gas prices seem not to affect whether or not people want to buy an RV, but it affects how people want to use it, Tarpley said.
Theyre not taking as many trips, and theyre not going as far, he said. People stay longer in one place.
In one sign of tightened budgets, Tarpley said he has seen an increase in demand for used vehicles. People want to use their money to purchase in full rather than put a down payment on a new RV, he said.
Over the last several years, there is no question that business was hit hard by the recession, Tarpley said. He employs half the salespeople he did in 2006.
But the industry also has been fairly resilient because people still view it as a more affordable alternative for traveling and spending time as a family, he said.
They still feel like its a bargain, he said.
If theyre frugal, traveling in an RV is something people can still afford to do, even if they have less disposable income, said Eugenie Schlittgen, owner of Westerly RV Park.
Go RVing, www.gorv ing.com, has taken up that theme as well with a new motto, Go Affordably. Go RVing.
A home away from home
Convenience is another draw, many RVers said.
We can take the kids and the dogs, Sondra Hartz said.
The couple, now retired, has owned their RV for 40 years and uses it to visit their children around the country.
When Nicole Gooch and her husband bought their RV last March, the convenience of being able to travel with their own food and on their own schedule trumped the cost issue.
One of her boys has food allergies, and the RV makes it easy to feed everyone, Gooch said.
For other people, RVs are a less-expensive, easier alternative to owning a second home or even owning a home at all.
David Carter and his wife, Mary Ann Carter, spend every summer at an RV park in Durango.
Their 38-foot RV is cheaper than a summer home in Durango and an easier way to travel than flying and staying in hotels, David Carter said. As for the price of gas, the couple will cut costs somewhere else, he said.
Meanwhile, Henry Bunting ditched his Texas home altogether and now lives full-time in a motor home.
I got tired of taking care of a big home, he said. This is less responsibility and more freedom.
Life becomes simpler when all of your stuff is with you, said Jennifer Liddell, who has been living in an RV with her husband for 2½ years.
Where to go and what way those are my two biggest questions, she said.