A few miles outside of Livingston, which lies an hour or so north and slightly east of Houston, it’s 4 p.m. at the Rainbow’s End campground, home to the Escapees RV Club. Monday through Saturday this means it’s time to socialize, and dozens of retirees who live full-time in the park have gathered to meet and greet, swap news, welcome visitors, and send off those hitting the road with wishes for safe travels.
Known collectively as Escapees, they come together in a large community hall filled with folding chairs and long tables decorated with yellow silk roses tucked in bud vases. There’s a dry-erase board the size of a schoolroom chalkboard, and the calendar grid on it is jam-packed with activities. There is not a single empty day. In the back is a poolroom. Another room houses gym equipment.
George Overton, aka “Lonesome George,” is a standout with his black leather jacket featuring an American flag on the back, his none-too-subtle Christian Motorcyclists’ belt buckle and his own brand of “bling,” including a chunky gold bracelet, a diamond pinky ring and a Harley Davidson ring. Asked to explain to an outsider just what the club is about, George, who’s been a member for nine years, instantly responds with a sentiment that will later be echoed by many other members: “It’s my second family.”
In 1978 when club co-founder Kay Peterson was traveling full-time in an RV with her husband, Joe, she wrote a regular column for a travel magazine. In one column, she asked whether anyone would be interested in a club to help maximize the RV lifestyle. A handful of folks responded, and, thus inspired, Kay and Joe started the Escapees RV Club. Now, nearly three decades in, there are over 34,000 member- families around the country. Not every member can tell you every location (there are eight Rainbow Parks, 11 co-op parks and two other related parks), but they all know about Rainbow’s End, which became the club’s headquarters in 1984.
Sam Houston Electric Cooperative serves Rainbow’s End, and club members are enthusiastic attendees of the co-op’s annual meeting. In 2006, some of them waltzed in the aisle during the musical entertainment.
George introduces the snowy-haired Lovie Curtis, who is 85 and has been in the club “forever,” as she puts it. She’s wearing crocheted earmuffs and a big grin, and she talks a bit like Katharine Hepburn.
Originally from St. Louis, Lovie was a Navy wife who followed her career military husband, David, all around the country until he retired in 1960. They then settled in Sacramento for 30 years so he could work for the California Highway Patrol. After that, they went straight from CHP to SKP, an acronym for Escapee members, who receive “Support, Knowledge and Parking.” Typically, members refer to themselves as SKiPs.
“When he retired from that job in 1982, he said to me, ‘Baby, people told me where to go my whole life.’ He wanted to go where he wanted to go.” They joined the Escapees in Washington state and traveled in their Airstream, life on the road rounding out their 53 years together before David’s death.
Now Lovie lives in a brick house on one of 220 deeded lots in the park (there are an additional 167 campsites). Her home is big and cozy with two bedrooms on opposite sides of a living room with a nice fireplace. She shares the space with her daughter, Monya Curtis Lyon, who came to stay after Lovie fell and hurt herself in 2000. Now Monya is recovering from surgery, so Lovie takes care of her.
Like Lonesome George, Marv Butz is quick to point out that the reason he and his wife, Lois, are full-time Rainbow’s End SKiPs is because of the extended family feeling the group exudes. They met at Lois’ automotive shop outside of Toledo, Ohio—he was a mechanic, she was his boss. When they retired, they sold their home and set out for the highway.
Back when they were on the road all the time, he and Lois were VCRs—volunteer club representatives—traveling to different motor home rallies to sing the praises of SKiPs and urge others to join. It was at their first rally, in Alaska, when they realized they were onto something bigger than they thought. They had expected 18 other RVs but, Marv says, “57 rigs showed up!”
For 10 years, they traveled full time. “We traveled wherever we wanted,” says Lois. “Neither one of us wanted to be anchored.” They’ve been east to west and drove to Alaska twice. When Marv started experiencing health problems, they decided to settle down finally, and Livingston was the perfect place for them.
As a tribute to their beloved on-the-road lifestyle, they took the wheels off their fifth-wheel rig (a motor home that, in tow, rests on top of a pickup bed), set it on a base and then added a small, permanent living room (decorated with, among other beloved objects, Lois’ socket-wrench set) to add a bit more space. But not too much. “We’re perfectly happy with what we have,” says Lois. “We had a big home, but we’re past that.”
Even if they had a mansion, there would be little time to spend in it. There are so many opportunities for community gathering that many SKiPs are fully immersed in social activities seemingly around the clock.
There are two huge annual gatherings where thousands of SKiPs come together to take and teach workshops. There are 50 Birds of a Feather groups catering to SKiPs with similar interests, from computers to quilting. Head Out Programs (HOPs) gather members together to attend special events like hot-air balloon launches and NASCAR races. The group has a website, www.escapees.com.
But in the end, more than any of these things, concur George and Marv and the rest of the SKiPs, what members treasure most about the group is that sense of family. It’s a sense that extends to bad times as well as festive occasions. The Livingston headquarters houses CARE (Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees). This is an adult daycare center licensed by the state of Texas to provide care for ailing SKiPs and respite for the caregivers. With many SKiPs being advanced in age and sometimes brought down by health issues, it is a comfort to know that, if they do fall ill, they can park their rig at CARE and have meals and love delivered directly to their (motor) home.
As one member put it, unlike some travel clubs where you say you’re a member of the club, with this group, you say, “I am an Escapee.”
Spike Gillespie is an Austin-based essayist whose work appears in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.