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A Rally Good Time

POLK COUNTY -- You have undoubtedly seen them: Roving factions cruising up the highway, destinations unknown, caution and normal life on the horizon behind them.

The Columbia River Escapees, Chapter 34 of the national Escapees RV Club, held a rally at the Polk County Fairgrounds and Event Center in Rickreall June 10-12.

Photo by Pete Strong

The Columbia River Escapees, Chapter 34 of the national Escapees RV Club, held a rally at the Polk County Fairgrounds and Event Center in Rickreall June 10-12.

June 25, 2013

POLK COUNTY -- You have undoubtedly seen them: Roving factions cruising up the highway, destinations unknown, caution and normal life on the horizon behind them.

They are akin to the posses and gangs of the Wild West, journeying where their fortunes take them.

Some have elaborate handshakes and name tags, denoting their affiliations.

For most, this is their "other" family. Friends who are closer than brothers; fellow travelers who are more devoted to each other than sisters.

All have the same simple goal: fun.

This is the life of RVers, free-spirited retirees and semi-employed adults living the dream of the never-ending road -- an endless adventure.

Almost a dozen times a year they congregate at the Polk County Fairgrounds and Event Center, each time bringing anywhere from 40 to 200 "rigs." Some groups camp out for just a few days, others up to a week.

The fairgrounds has a leg up on other regional venues when it comes to bringing RV rallies in. Its prime location on Highway 99W means RVers don't have to navigate through town.

Low rental fees and plenty of widely-spaced parking also help lure them in. RVers are sometimes forced to park end-to-end or get uncomfortably close to other ralliers at other fairgrounds and venues.

Most recently, Chapter 34 of the Escapees RV Club invaded Polk County's fairgrounds. The group's members are spread across southern Washington and the northern half of Oregon.

Polk County native Arlene Janssens has been a member since 1998. She has traveled to Alaska, the tip of the Baja Peninsula and Louisiana.

"You can go any place you want, you don't have to be stuck to a hotel or an airport," Janssens said. "You can sleep in your own bed every night and you have your kitchen."

Janssens is part of a growing trend in RVing. Her husband, and driving partner, died in 1997, but her love of the open road never ceased.

Janssens has been to RV rallies and taught classes on RVing that had large percentages of single women. The trend bucks convention that RVing is a men's- or couples-only activity.

Cal Belyeu of La Pine (left) tosses a pancake toward a target marked on the floor inside the Polk County Fairgrounds and Event Center

Photo by Pete Strong

Cal Belyeu of La Pine (left) tosses a pancake toward a target marked on the floor inside the Polk County Fairgrounds and Event Center's main hall on June 12 as Linda Dillon of Milwaukie (second from right) and Don Morin of Portland (far right) look on. Escapees RV Club rallies take on a summer camp feel once the members are settled in, as they find a myriad of ways to entertain themselves and each other during their stay.

"Last year in Idaho, I worked with solos," Janssens said. "Out of 100, 60 of them were women."

Groups like the Escapees play a pivotal role for the fairgrounds each year. The revenue brought in throughout each season helps keep the fairgrounds in the black.

When Tina Andersen took over as manager at the fairgrounds, there were four RV rallies. Now, she's having 10 to 12 per year.

"The Escapees only come every other year. Most of the other groups are here every year," Andersen said. "The Escapees are probably our smallest RV rally. When we do our 'Bus 'n' USA' rally, there are 200 rigs here."

The economic impact of having an average of 100 RVs at the fairgrounds each time a rally rolls through can be enormous.

When gas and diesel prices increased rapidly after 9/11, most RVers started purchasing groceries and essentials at each stop, decreasing weight -- and in turn fuel usage -- over long drives. That's a trend that continues now with prices hovering around all-time highs.

Like clockwork, when a rally pulls into town, women look for the best salon and men look for the best steak, Andersen said.

Area businesses have relied on the boost these rallies provide. When groups cancel, Andersen gets a few phone calls.

"This year we're missing our 'Bus 'n' USA' rally because their group of volunteers got tired of doing all the work," Andersen said. "I've had businesses look at our calendar and say 'What weekend are they? I don't see it on the calendar.'"

Each club and rally is different. Some travel hundreds of miles to get to Polk County; for others, it's just a county away.

However different each club may be, the similarities are more abundant.

Club members including Linda Dillon (second from left) and Barbara Clark(center) show off their "itsy bitsy bikinis" made from dish towels during a crafting class.

Photo by Pete Strong

Club members including Linda Dillon (second from left) and Barbara Clark(center) show off their "itsy bitsy bikinis" made from dish towels during a crafting class.

Once they pull into the parking lot, the games begin. Poker, pancake tosses, bean bag baseball, marshmallow golf, arts and crafts -- there are a multitude of activities.

For Escapees Chapter 34 president LeRoy Vick, the appeal is inherent.

"When we come back from being gone for three, four or five months, it's like a family reunion," Vick said. "If you're not a hugger, you have a hard time."

One of Andersen's favorite groups, the Oregon Trail Winnebago-Itasca Travelers, has a theme every time they visit the fairgrounds. They have also been known to have a wet T-shirt contest or two.

"They announced it and we just had to see what they were doing," Andersen said. "They put a T-shirt in a bucket of water and saw how far they could throw it."

Newcomers -- members of five years or less in the RVing world -- are sometimes overwhelmed by the atmosphere and take time to warm up. Some find the community to be just the thing they were always looking for.

"You learn new things every place you go," Patti Bacon said.

Patti and her husband, Dennis, have been members of the Escapees for three years. They were apprehensive upon joining but are now fully committed, leaving some of their more stationary friends scratching their heads.

"They're envious. They want to know," Dennis Bacon said. "They always say, 'We couldn't do that.' We say, 'Why not?'"

Check It Out

Upcoming RV rallies scheduled at the Polk County Fairgrounds and Event Center in Rickreall:

* Oregon Trail WIT RV Rally -- Sept. 23-29.

* Oregon Good Sams RV Rally -- Oct. 17-20.

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