Stories from the road

EDMONDS — Chuck Woodbury has just returned from his latest adventure and he’s brimming with descriptions of Iceland’s exotic scenery.

He traveled to the Scandinavian island country earlier this month as part of his life’s work — exploring the world by motor home and writing about it. The re

mote destination was the most recent leg of the RV blogger’s extensive travels. Though most of the miles have been racked up in the western United States, he’s also rented RVs in Iceland and New Zealand.

“I love to travel with the RV because it’s just like a little house and office,” Woodbury said. “My needs are simple.”

Rick Steves isn’t the only travel guru who calls Edmonds home.

Woodbury has been building a following for more than two decades. He’s always wanted to write and travel. That’s been possible thanks to the niche he found behind the wheel of a recreational vehicle.

The extended road trip started in the 1980s with magazine assignments and a self-published tabloid. He’s continued the quest ever since, with a pause here and there, into the digital age. These days, Woodbury writes RVtravel.com, where he says advertising demand is still strong.

For about a dozen years he’s also run RVbookstore.com. At his warehouse a few blocks from his downtown Edmonds condo, rows of shelves are stacked with books and DVDs. There’s a big spool of bubble wrap on a wall.

“Orders come in all day long,” he said. “We’re no Amazon but in this field, nobody has more titles than we do.”

With silver-white hair combed to one side and a neatly trimmed mustache, Woodbury jokes that he aged into his profession.

In the 1980s, when he bought his first motor home, Woodbury was one of the younger members of the RV set. Back then, the scene was dominated by retirees sporting bumpers stickers proclaiming, “I’m spending my grandchildren’s inheritance!” Another infamous sticker read, “Don’t tailgate or I’ll flush.”

Some of the Winnebago warrior stereotypes remain, but in reality, Woodbury said the demographics of RV owners are becoming more diverse. Nowadays, he said, the average age is about 49. He’s 64.

His passion for the road began while growing up in West Covina, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. His parents would set out for family vacations towing a 15-foot travel trailer behind their station wagon. By his mid-teens, he had been all over the West.

At California State University, Sacramento, Woodbury majored in business with an “unofficial minor in journalism.”

“I got C’s in business and A’s in journalism,” he quipped. “I should have known.”

In college in the early 1970s, he was already dreaming of a life of travel.

In late 1987, while still living in Sacramento, he began publishing “Out West,” a quarterly black-and-white tabloid. With his spirited writing, Woodbury made characters from his journeys jump off the page.

One dispatch from the period featured Big Nose George, a Wild West outlaw whose skin was used to fashion a pair of shoes that Woodbury found on display at a Rawlins, Wyo., museum. Another describes a “geezer fire brigade” in the retirement community of Ryderwood in southwest Washington. Another is titled, “Mysterious Mt. Shasta. Does an ancient society live inside?”

Soon, he signed a deal to distribute “Out West” stories through the New York Times Syndicate. A review in USA Today led to an avalanche of media exposure, sending Woodbury to make the rounds of network TV shows. The exposure boosted readership.

An early Macintosh computer helped him establish a newsroom on wheels. He even had his own mobile darkroom to develop photographs on board. At the time, he never used the term “RV.”

“I had grandmas and grandpas reading it,” he said. “I had a big following on college campuses.”

Circulation peaked at about 10,000.

In 1995, Woodbury moved to the Seattle area with his then-wife and 4-year-old daughter.

“I came up to Edmonds and saw the ocean and that pretty little town and said, ‘I like it. I’m staying here,'” he recalled. “I always like to come home as much as I like to travel.”

Family life did put a crimp in the itinerant lifestyle, though. It became harder to sustain a one-man-band publishing operation from the road.

In the early 2000’s, Woodbury did TV commercials for Poulsbo RV.

“Everywhere I went, people said, ‘Oh, you’re the RV guy,'” he said.

In the early Internet days, he had the foresight to buy web domain names, including RVbookstore.com and RVtravel.com. The site would help jump-start his travel writing.

Media outlets continue to seek out Woodbury as a go-to guy for all things RV. He’s become something of an expert on Wal-Mart’s policy of allowing RVers to camp in its parking lots, even though he’s never done it himself.

He’s been a guest on fellow Edmonds resident Rick Steves’ radio show, but said he doesn’t know the man behind the “Europe through the Back Door” brand all that well.*

“I admire him and I respect him,” he said of Steves. “But his goals are much different from mine. He’s built up a much bigger empire and I don’t have as much ambition.”

Woodbury extols the RV as a sensible way to take a vacation. While the vehicle itself and gas might put you back a few dollars, you save on hotel rooms and by being able to cook your own meals. Once you find a place you like, you can stay put for a while.

Woodbury estimates he’s driven at least 200,000 miles over the years in three motor homes. He’s only crossed the Mississippi twice — once to drive his daughter to school in New York City.

A misconception about RV enthusiasts, Woodbury said, is that they’re always driving around. Woodbury, for instance, has often started trips by going a couple of hundred miles the first day to “get out of range of things familiar.” He would stop, write and print photos for a day or two, then drive another 100 miles or so before stopping again.

Living in a motor home forces certain types of conservation such as getting by on 25 gallons of water a week, he said. When you need to crank up the thermostat, you’re only heating a hut-size area, instead of a whole house. He adds that he gets 15-16 miles per gallon from his diesel-powered Winnebago View.

“It’s not as dramatically piggish as some people automatically think or assume or believe,” he said.

For anyone interested in owning an RV, Woodbury suggests renting before buying.

“They’ll learn whether they like the lifestyle, they’ll learn whether they can get along with their spouse,” he said.

For his trips to Iceland and New Zealand, he rented a motor home in-country. In Iceland, he drove 830 miles on the Ring Road encircling the sparsely populated island.

“It’s the Oregon Coast one minute, it’s Mars the next, it’s the Scottish Highlands the next,” he said.

This coming year, he plans to travel and write more, “and try to find some other Icelands out there.”

A reader recently recommended RVing in Turkey, though Woodbury said he might want to explore Australia first.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Favorite spots

Chuck Woodbury has traveled by motor home in Iceland and New Zealand, but he says his favorite place is still the United States. Here are his favorite destinations:

1. Southern Utah’s red rock country: “Just amazing.”

2. Death Valley in the winter: “It’s just so breathtaking.”

3. The Oregon Coast: “I’d put that as a ‘must see.'”

Chuck’s past motor homes

His first was an 18-foot Class C motor home made by Casita. “That first little motor home was a mechanical disaster, but I loved it.”

The next motor home was a 24-foot Class C Tioga by Fleetwood. Bought new in 1991 and driven for close to 100,000 miles. Sold about eight years ago. Woodbury went about four years without a motor home.

His current ride is a Winnebago View, a 24-foot rig with a Mercedes diesel engine. Woodbury said it gets 15-16 miles per gallon. Bought in 2008. “It’s got about 45,000 miles on it now and should last me a long time.”

*Correction, Sept. 20, 2011: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rick Steves’ “Europe through the Back Door” series.

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