Michael Dautel’s life was a model of success. He was married, held a $200,000-a-year job with a fiber optics company and owned a four-bedroom home in a pricey Atlanta suburb.
But, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, there was just one problem. He hated it. “I was living in an airplane and hotels,” said Dautel, 58. “I decided I’d had enough of that rat race.” So when his fourth marriage ended in divorce in 1999, Dautel put all his furniture into storage. He bought a 30-foot trailer and hit the road.
Nine years later, he’s still on the road.
“My family wanted to have me committed, because they knew what I walked away from,” said Dautel, who for the past several months has parked his newer, 40-foot fifth-wheel at Florida’s Tampa East RV Resort.
“The funniest thing was, I didn’t miss a bit of it.”
Dautel is part of a nomadic class of “full-timers,” as insiders call people who live exclusively in their recreational vehicles and travel trailers. About one million Americans fall into that category, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
Increasingly, they are composed of early retirees who are often supplementing fixed incomes by working at the parks where they stay.
They might winter in Florida or Arizona, then head to Maine or the West Coast. The lifestyle, which Dautel calls “the last friendly refuge,” appeals to several generations, from the elderly to aging hippies to newly retired yuppies looking for more.
A 2008 annual survey by Workamper News, a magazine devoted to the RV lifestyle, found a majority of readers within the expected older age groups, including 53% between 61 and 70 and 8% who are 71 and older. The survey also found 33% between 51 and 60 and 5% ages 41 to 50.
“You’ve got a lot of Type A personalities, a lot of folks who have had successful careers, whose dream was to call it quits in their 50s,” said Mike Gast, vice president of communications for Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA).
Younger full-timers, Gast said, relish the community of others in the RV lifestyle. “This is a generation that has a desire to belong,” he said.
The Times reported that it took Dautel five years to get rid of his storage locker, the last vestige of his former life. He has traveled across the country but often returns to Florida.
He typically supplements an Air Force pension with work, either for the parks where he stays or outside. He spent three years managing a restaurant in the Keys, despite having no experience.
Lately, he sells RVs at Bates RV, next door to Tampa East. “I sell the lifestyle,” he said. “I love the lifestyle.”
A recent trend backed by KOA and other RV parks encourages RV dwellers to work off all or part of lot rentals by doing seasonal work at RV parks or theme parks.
Those living the RV lifestyle tend to make good employees, said Steve Anderson of Workamper News, which posts job openings online.
“A lot of it has to do with the maturity of the individual,” Anderson said. “They’ve worked in positions where they have longevity. They understand what it means to say, ‘If I tell you I’m going to be here for six months, I’ll stay for six months.’ “