If you’re driving west and your route takes you through South Dakota on I-90, a stop at Wall Drug is a must.
For the free ice water, of course:
But also for the jackalope:
And the 5-cent coffee:
Heading out on a road trip this summer?
You might stay entertained on the highway playing Punch Buggy, a game in which passengers slug each other in the shoulder whenever a Volkswagen Beetle goes by.
But to learn something about trends in the economy while out on the highway, watch for a different type of vehicle.
“I’m starting to see a lot more RV products on the road. And it’s not just because it’s summer,” said Kathryn Thompson, CEO of Nashville, Tennessee-based Thompson Research Group.
“An RV is as discretionary a purchase as you can think of,” she said. “So if someone is buying an RV, something must be working.”
According to Thompson, sales of recreational vehicles in the United States hit a low point during the recession, bottoming out in the spring of 2009 with the bankruptcy of two large motor home manufacturers—Fleetwood Enterprises and Monaco Coach.
Yet these days, RV sales have improved along with the economy. Lower priced towables and trailers, with price tags that can start at around $10,000, led the recovery. Sales of the more expensive motorized RVs, including motor homes that can have price tags well over $500,000, caught up later.
“In North America sales were was running over 300,000 units a year until 2008,” said Tom Walworth, president of Statistical Surveys in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “In 2009, sales dropped to 206,000 units. By 2013, they went back to 303,000 units. So in four years it came back 47 percent from the bottom, which is very impressive as an economic indicator,” Walworth said.
During that time, sales of towable RVs (including folding trailers, truck campers and travel trailers) rose 46.4 percent, while sales of the more expensive motorized motorhomes (categorized as Class A, B or C) gained 51 percent from the 2009 low.
This year, shipments of new RVs to dealers will total 349,400 units, an 8.8 percent over 2013, said RV analyst Richard Curtin, director of the Consumer Research Center at the University of Michigan. In 2015, he expects shipments to rise another 3.1 percent.
Who’s buying all these RVs?
“Boomers are the largest demographic of RV owners,” said Mac Bryan, vice president of administration at the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. “But those age 35-54, the younger consumers who want to be active and outdoors, are the fastest-growing demographic.”
And when friends and family members go along on RV trips, or just hear about them, “that introduces even more people to the RV lifestyle,” Bryan said.
“We have an increasing number of friends and acquaintances ‘of a certain age’ who have chosen the RV lifestyle full or part-time,” said Richard Eiswerth, president and general manager of a Cincinnati public radio station who is in his early 60s. “If and when I retire, who knows?”
Longtime tent campers, Eiswerth and his wife, Susan, last May dipped their toes in the RV ownership market with a small, retro-style, teardrop trailer they bought in Wisconsin before heading west for a trip to Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
The couple has large dogs, so they also bought an attachable add-on tent to cover the crates the dogs sleep in at night.
“We didn’t want to simply have another, more expensive, version of home on wheels with all the frills and luxuries of our actual home. We wanted to be able to travel to and camp in a variety of locales, not just asphalt RV compounds,” Eiswerth said.
He lists the advantages of the small camper as better gas mileage than a larger RV, ease of maneuverability, speed and convenience of set-up and tear-down and heat and air conditioning, when necessary.
And best of all, he said, “Much like a tent, this has a connection to the outdoors.”
(My story on recreational vehicles sales increasing first appeared on CNBC Road Warrior).
Travel between Yakima and Sunnyside, Washington on Interstate 82 and you’ll come upon a turnout for the town of Zillah, home to a 15-foot-tall teapot complete with sheet metal handle and concrete spout.
It’s a classic 1920s bit of roadside architecture that for many years served up gas to motorists and a history lesson to everyone.
The story goes that Jack Ainsworth decided to build the teapot after a night of drinking moonshine and playing cards. Ainsworth and his buddies were appalled over the outcome of President Warren G. Harding’s decision a year earlier to transfer the control of naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming and Elk Hills, California from the Navy to the Department of the Interior.
It seems that the then Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, had leased those oil fields to two businessmen who had given him what ultimately were deemed to be illegal ‘loans.’
Investigations ensued, fines were paid, folks ended up in jail, and the oil fields reverted to government control in 1927.
Ainsworth built the Teapot Dome Gas Station to poke fun at the whole situation
while the trials were underway and, until it ceased commercial operation in the early 1990s, the station was said to be one of the oldest functioning gas stations in the United States.
Even though it was boarded up and forlorn-looking on the edge of town, the teapot had a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now it’s going to have a place of honor in Zillah’s tiny downtown.
The city of Zillah raised funds to purchase, re-locate and re-purpose the teapot as an information booth and last week, minus its spout and its shingles, the teapot was packed up and trucked into town.
When it is all put back together, repaired and refurbished, the Teapot Dome Gas Station, along with its old “Gas” sign and outhouse, will sit next to the Civic Center in Zillah, WA.
Could there be any better excuse for a road trip?
Sometimes you need to leave the airport and get on the highway.
Here are a few more photos from the Route 66 slide show I put together for Bing Travel.
Legendary and large, the Big Texan Steak Ranch is a restaurant and motel complex (for people and horses) best known for its steak dinner challenge. Finish off a 72-ounce steak and a baked potato, salad, dinner roll and shrimp cocktail in an hour – and it’s free. Formerly on Route 66, The Big Texan is now on Interstate 40, just east of Amarillo, Texas.
Of course you wear a seat belt and never text while driving. But no matter your faith – or your driving skills –extra protection on the road can’t hurt. That’s the idea behind the Shrine of Our Lady of the Highways, which has been watching over travelers since 1959.
The shrine is in Raymond, IL. Litchfield, 16 miles south, is home to the Ariston Café, which may be the oldest Route 66 restaurant.
Here’s a sneak peek at the Route 66 slide show I had a little too much fun putting together for Bing travel.
Seat belts on?
The Gemini Giant is the official greeter at the Launching Pad Restaurant in Wilmington, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. A former fiberglass “muffler man” statue designed to show off an oversized automotive part, the Gemini Giant now wears a pointy space helmet and holds up a rocket ship advertising the restaurant’s name.
The Fanning 66 Outpost is a general store with a taxidermy shop, archery range and wide-range of Route 66 souvenirs. Out front, and impossible to miss at a smidge over 42 feet tall and 20 feet wide, is what the Guinness World Records has declared to be the World’s Largest Rocking Chair.
Hugh Davis built this smiling, 80-foot long blue whale in 1974 as an anniversary present for his wife, Zelta and, not long after, the whale became Catoosa, Oklahoma’s most popular public attraction. The creature fell into disrepair in the 1990s, but it’s been rescued and revived by the Catoosa community.
I’ll circle back with some more kicks from Route 66, but in the meantime, there are lots more photos – and links – back on the Route 66 slide show on Bing.