- Written by Todd Moning
The senior living center in Burlington, Vt., was comfortable enough for Gail Hunter and her husband, Corliss ("Cor").
“We were there for one year and then we escaped,” said Gail, 79. “We decided we were not ready for that.”
The apartment in downtown Burlington, next to the waterfront, was nice, too, said Cor, 88. “We sat there for three years and said, ‘What are we going to do now?’ "
Living in an apartment or a senior living facility wasn’t their style. Neither was spending their golden years in the care of their grown children.
This is a couple who lived on a sailboat for four years, traveling the intracoastal waterways between Florida and Vermont to enjoy seasonal living. This is a couple who spent a year sailing from Florida’s west coast to New England, and chronicled the voyage for a daily newspaper.
The Hunters craved at least one more grand adventure. One last hurrah.
“We’re usually good for four-year stints,” Gail said. Then it’s on to another lifestyle.”
What would it be this time?
One thing was certain: They wanted to live in a place where it was warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
But how could they satisfy the dual desire for independence and two-season living? And do it on fixed incomes? Their best bet, they decided, was to buy a motorhome.
Two if by land
In February 2008, the elderly couple left everything — and everyone — behind to strike out by land full-time in a 36-foot 2004 National RV Dolphin LX.
And so far, so good, even though Gail is experiencing post-polio syndrome, having contracted the disease in 1955. Her back and legs are weak, but she has no trouble driving the motorhome and can even ride a bicycle.
They carry a walker on their bike rack and an electric mobility cart in a bay of the motorhome.
“We go as far as we’re comfortable and enjoy every minute of it,” Gail said. “I particularly love the camping and navigation. My husband just loves the life of ease, as captain of his ship with nothing more pressing than dumping and checking the oil.”
Gail and Cor have been married for 11 years. From their first marriages combined, they have seven children, f21 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“Motorhoming is how we can visit them without imposing on their hospitality and being awakened at 3 a.m. by the great-grandchildren,” Gail said. “Also, we don’t do well at packing, so this way we just bring it all.”
Cor shares Gail’s enthusiasm for the full-timing lifestyle. “It’s a change of venue all the time,” he said. “You have a different atmosphere today than you had yesterday as long as you’re on the road. You always see something new. You don’t sit there and stagnate.”
Shopping for a motorhome
Before buying the Dolphin, “We surfed the Web to learn about full-timing, the costs, the joys,” Gail said. “And then we were sold.”
Next, they combed individual manufacturers’ Web sites, comparing the features and pros and cons of motor coaches.
At Pete’s RV Center in South Burlington, Vt., they loved the extra-wide living space on a brand-new three-slideout model … until they heard the price. So, they turned their attention to previously owned motorhomes.
“Cor wanted a Class A — he liked the big window and full view of the road before you,” Gail said. “I kind of liked the Class C with its nice big motor out in front to protect me.”
They rented a Class C for a weekend and eventually settled on the Dolphin, which they dubbed Moby Who? One drawback to the coach: The previous owners were smokers, and evidence lingered. “In the long run, the great layout far outweighed the odiferous problem,” Gail said.
They set sail that month for Florida, unknowingly into a gathering storm …
They departed in the middle of a snow storm. “Our coach had been winterized, so we didn’t even know what we had until we got down to Georgia and all the water tanks thawed and we began living in it,” Cor said.
Their nautical experience eased the transition to motorhoming. They had lived on boats similar in size to their Dolphin LX, so adjusting to a smaller living space was nothing new.
“The electrical and the water systems are pretty much like a boat’s, so that wasn’t too bad,” Cor said. “But we had to learn about leveling because you never have to level a boat.”
Gradually, they learned the little things that motorhomers must internalize, such as closing bay doors and remembering to put the antenna down.
The disarray inside the motorhome after their first day’s drive taught them the importance of securing loose items. “Now we tie all the drawers and cabinets,” Cor said, “and we've learned to take stuff off the dinette. Boy, we're we green!”
Gail and Cor faced other challenges as they transitioned to full-timing.
When they bought Moby Who?, gas hovered around $2 and National RV was a respected company.
National RV promptly went bankrupt, and by springtime Gail and Cor were paying $4.49 for gas in Connecticut. It cost about $300 to fill up the Dolphin’s tank.
Their retirement nest egg had started to erode. A package of their beloved Oreo cookies had even doubled in price. To top things off, their refrigerator didn’t work for several months while they waited for a back-ordered cooling unit to arrive. Fortunately, the fix was covered under a four-year extended warranty they had purchased.
“We’re on a very limited budget,” Gail said. “We’re both retired, on fixed incomes — social security and Cor’s pension. So money is a real problem and we’re trying to do this on the best budget that we can.”
Through the adversity, Gail’s optimism shone through. “Thank God for our McDonald's senior coffee, the National Handicap Access Pass and a positive attitude,” she said.
Part of her upbeat attitude stems from the philosophy of her mother, who was widowed during Gail’s teen-age years. “My mother had no qualms about spending money on travel. She always said it was the one thing ‘the government can't take from me.’ I guess she figured travel was the best way to cope with me. And did we travel! Maybe that’s why I have gypsy feet.”
Cor spent most of his business life in Boston, Mass., serving as a commercial manager for New England Tel. He retired in 1974 after 30 years with the company. “He’s afraid they’re going to put out a contract on him, for collecting a pension for more years than he worked there,” Gail quipped.
He served in the Navy from 1941 to 1945 and then completed his business studies at Northeastern University.
Gail, who majored in history of art at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, taught art in a boys’ country day school in Connecticut. That was her first career.
In 1971 she and a partner invented an herb-garden-by-number kit and formed a company called Off the Beaten Path. “We did very well. We were selling even internationally. But back then, nobody understood what herbs were, so finally we gave up because it was a losing battle.”
In the late ‘70s she and one of her two sons, Charlie Shafer, formed the Architrave Company, which built energy-efficient homes in Fairfield, Conn. After the stock market crashed in October 1987, the company went out of business.
“In 1989 I ran to Venice, Florida,” she said. She worked at an art gallery and at a travel agency — she loved the free air travel perks there. She also taught art, mostly painting, and the Microsoft Windows operating system to senior citizens.
“Teaching art to older retirees was probably my favorite. Getting them to express themselves, getting them to loosen up, to understand that it doesn’t matter what it looks like, just get it down on paper, was very rewarding."
In Gail’s younger days, golf was one of her favorite hobbies. She took up the sport in the late 1950s, about a year after contracting polio.
“I was thinking I was doing great therapy, but it turns out that now, my back muscles are totally shot. They figured out that any muscles I’ve overused, they’re gone. Of course they didn’t’ know that at that time.”
She served as president of the Connecticut and New England Women’s Golf associations. "I was playing four and five times a week and now I’m paying for it. But I had fun while I did it.”
How they met
Gail, who has two sons and a daughter from her first marriage, is originally from Connecticut. Cor is from Massachusetts. He has twin sons and twin daughters from his first marriage.
The Hunters met while living in Venice, Fla. “I used to have a houseboat down there,” Gail said. “We’re both boaters, so we kind of got together that way.”
Cor owned a condominium in Venice, and Gail was renting one. Instead of condo living, they opted to buy a 40-foot Irwin cutter sailboat. They named it Andiamo, Italian for “let’s go.”
At that time, Cor was working for the Venice Gondolier newspaper. “The editor knew we were going to take this cruise from Venice up to New England, and asked if we’d be interested in documenting it,” Gail said. “We said sure.”
Gail’s weekly articles appeared in the newspaper, accompanied by an online travelogue that included photos and video.
They spent a year at sea on board Andiamo and had a wonderful time. “I have about three quarters of a book written about the experience,” Gail said.
After the New England trip, the Hunters downsized to a 36-foot Albin trawler. “For several years, we lived on it in summer in Vermont and then took it back down to Florida for winter,” Gail said.
By 2003 they were growing weary of traveling back and forth by sea. And Vermont, where each of them had lived at one time or another, beckoned.
“We’d see pictures in the winter of the fireplaces and the snow and thought, we have to get back there,” Gail said. "So we made one last cruise north, sold the boat up there, and then went into a senior living community.”
Staying in touch
When Gail and Cor started selling off their furniture and belongings to prepare for motorhoming, it raised a few eyebrows.
They worried about their families’ reactions to their new lifestyle. But when family members saw the motorhome, they couldn’t believe their eyes, Gail said.
“Of course, they had pictured no slides and everything and suddenly, they got in there and we put out the slides and their eyes widened. I have a 12-cubic-foot refrigerator, and we have a glassed-in shower with a seat in it, and suddenly now they’re all thinking it’s great and I think they’re all wanting one.”
Gail maintains a Web log, http://www.gypsyfeet.net/, of their travels, making it easy for family and friends to stay in touch.
“I’m hoping that we’re putting them at ease that they’re not having to look after us and make sure Mom and Dad are comfortable and happy. They can relax, not worry anymore.”
Gail has a laptop computer and uses a Verizon AirCard for Internet access. “This has been totally successful,” she said. “I can even get online in places where the cell phone isn’t working. It’s expensive but it’s totally worth it.”
Camping and travel
Gail has noticed one glaring difference between the boating and RV lifestyles. “In boating, you go into a marina and you’re all talking and having fun immediately, whereas in a motorhome, it isn’t quite that congenial that quickly.”
The Hunters like to camp at national and state parks, but one of their favorite campsites is Frisco Woods. It’s a private campground on Pamlico Sound within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “We backed right up to Pamlico Sound, which we had traveled in the boat, so that was very exciting,” Gail said.
In October they were camped in Santa Fe, N.M. “I had come here years ago sketching with a friend of mine from Venice,” Gail said. “It’s just so beautiful … all the architecture and everything, so I’m eager to get out and do some painting.”
They intended to rent a car for a few weeks so they can “really do up the sights” Gail said. “I do want to get up to Durango [Colo.] to see my grandson who is at college there, but to get the motorhome up those mountain roads is a bit much.”
The Hunters have been looking for a suitable vehicle to tow behind their motorhome, and were eyeing a Mini Cooper in the campsite next to them. “Towing a car is almost a must,” said Cor. “We have a Chrysler Pacifica, but can’t tow it because it’s four-wheel drive and it’s a lease.”
Their base for winter will be Camp Venice, on the Myakka River in Florida.
A tasty quest
The Hunters have been motorhoming for less than a year, but they already know their favorite destinations.
From a campground, they’ll often venture out, Cor on his bike and Gail on her electric Go-Go cart, to find a location nearby. Or, they’ll search for one online and then set out in the motorhome.
“We’re always trying to find the perfect cinnamon doughnut,” Gail said.
This quest started at Price Chopper in South Burlington, Vt., where they used to meet a friend for breakfast on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. “It’s a supermarket that has a coffee bar,” Gail said. “They had the best cinnamon doughnuts. They were crispy and fried and very good. We’ve never found one as good.”
Then one day, the service manager at Pete’s RV, where they bought their motorhome, brought them a cinnamon doughnut from Jana's Cupboard in Jeffersonville, Vt. “It was very good, too, and we just couldn’t find one to match either of those,” Gail said.
Until they reached the Outer Banks.
“There’s a town there in the north end called Duck, N.C.,” Gail said. “Cor picked up a tourist book and there was a little article about Duck Donuts.” So off they went.
“The women who owns the shop knew we were writing it up on the Internet,” Gail said. “She kind of disappeared for awhile and then out she came with a hot, fresh cinnamon doughnut. It was delicious and we said, yup, this did it. They make all their doughnuts to order, and they’re fried.”
Up to that point, Duck Donuts, Jana’s Cupboard and Price Choppers had pleased Gail’s and Cor s’ palettes the most. Since then, they have added Kip’s Donuts in Santa Fe to that distinguished list.
“We may end up buying a Fry Daddy and making our own, using the Fanny Farmer Original 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book," Gail said. “Both Cor and I inherited one; thanks to our mothers.”
Despite RV industry setbacks and fuel price increases, Cor still advocates full-timing.
“We think it’s great and we’re always amazed at the number of people of all ages … the second we say we’re full-timers they all heave a great sigh and say, ‘Oh, that’s my dream.’ If you can afford it and you don’t mind being a nomad, and if you can put up with the minor or major things that you might encounter when traveling around, I say go for it.”
Gail knows their meandering will have to stop sometime. Probably, it will be somewhere between Florida and Vermont. “We’ll go as long as we can, and when it becomes too difficult, hopefully we will have found the place where we want to remove the wheels and sit back to enjoy the sunset.”