After accepting the volunteer position with Imperial National Wildlife Refuge 40 miles north of Yuma, Arizona, for almost five months we would live among five other couples, all strangers to us, all experienced full-time RVers. Never having left home for more than a few weeks at a time, this was our first exposure to life on the road in a neighborhood of full-time RVers.
We were about to discover what constitutes a good neighbor in the RV world. Because of previous obligations at home, we arrived at the end of November, 2005, a few weeks after the other volunteers. The remoteness of the Refuge staggered us when we turned off highway 95 north of Yuma and drove 10 miles past the Yuma Proving Grounds to the tiny weekend community of Martinez Lake. From there, another three miles of winding dirt road led to Imperial’s visitor center. Driving past a sign reading “Private Residences — Do Not Enter,” we pulled the trailer into the volunteer campground and parked at the one remaining site.
“Someone lights a campfire every night,” said our new neighbor, Judy, after we’d parked our rig and attached the hookups. “Everyone’s welcome to come.” Fearing we might become enveloped in a closeness we were unaccustomed to, we were somewhat reluctant to extend ourselves socially this soon. Nevertheless, we joined the gathering for our first night at this remote refuge.
After initial greetings, dialog around the campfire ranged from the day’s work to comparing notes on full-time RVing. Occasional lapses in conversation allowed us all to admire the black velvet sky punctuated by pinpricks of light. No one inquired about our personal lives. No one questioned our choice of rigs. No one asked about our drive from Denver. In return, no one divulged their life stories or regaled us with tales of tribulations. We felt the sense of community, and we felt welcomed and included as if we belonged.
From the beginning, neighborliness ranged from friendly greetings from others to an introductory tour of Yuma with our neighbors, Judy and Jerry. It included the use of a neighbor’s chairs when we entertained friends who visited from out of state. But it also meant respect for our time alone with those friends.
As the days and weeks passed, we became comfortable with our new neighbors. The sense of community continued to revolve around the fire pit, a feature unavailable in most neighborhoods. Sometimes we attended the nightly campfires. Sometimes we sat with a glass of wine behind our own rig watching the quail scratch for seeds in the dirt beneath the creosote bushes. While our attendance at the fire pit was welcomed, no one resented our absence.
“This is our home, and we’re doing this 365 days a year,” Joyce Fairbank told us. “I kind of like people who are friendly but not in your face all the time. They give you your privacy, you know.”
Two of our RV neighbors at the Refuge traveled with dogs, but they appeared to value good canine manners as anyone does. “My appreciation of a nice neighbor,” said Dottie, one of the dog owners, “is not playing loud music and keeping their dogs from barking.” Indeed, the most racket we heard from her black Labrador was the thumping of a tail against a chair each time we passed their rig. The Fairbanks’ Doberman, Greta, curled in her owner’s lap by the fire most nights.
And because this RV neighborhood was home for its residents, everyone maintained their space in a tidy manner. Be considerate of others was the unspoken concept. This RV neighborhood was no different from our house neighborhood except that here we really did know all of our neighbors’ names and we all had the RV world in common. Yet in this neighborhood, you might not have a neighbor for years or even make a friend for life, but you hoped to see them down the road somewhere.
Images of home grew more distant as we immersed ourselves in our new neighborhood and work at the Refuge. But with news of freezing temperatures back home, nagging worries invaded our thoughts. Chuck decided to fly back to check on the house, leaving me alone in our new surroundings with our new neighbors.
“If you need anything,” John Fairbank told us before Chuck departed, “just let us know. This is family here.” Who in our old neighborhood would have come forth like this? There, everyone works. Any consideration of others could be an infringement on their limited time.
We were beginning to understand that the RV neighborhood is much of what we wanted in our home neighborhood. Here, without backyards and fences, we were often in contact with our neighbors for a friendly greeting, a natural bond, a common thread. Yet we had privacy. We had our own space. And we had others willing to lend a hand. here we had that sense of community.
As we became more comfortable with this new life, time passed at an ever quickening pace. More than four months slipped away before we were ready. It was time to go back to our stick house. To neighbors we barely knew after 30 years. To yard work we disliked. To the loneliness of aloof neighbors with their own agenda. With reluctance, we prepared to return home.
Then, suddenly, it dawned on us. We weren’t returning home. We were leaving home. And we hoped to see all our new RV neighbors down the road somewhere.
A similar version of this article was published in the July/August 2006 issue of Escapees Magazine.