It was a dark and stormy night. Really. That’s how this story begins …
It’s June 1980. An event for amateur radio operators is taking place behind the Byron, Ohio, cemetery.
A woman in her early thirties backs her raised-roof, fully self-contained van into a parking spot and plugs into a generator. She takes out a blender and makes a frozen daiquiri. Outside, the wind begins to swirl.
In an area next to her van, a man is trying to pitch a tent. The lady comes out and sits on the van steps, sipping her drink and watching the man, amusedly.
Later that evening, a storm rages. The man has not given up on the tent, but it is no match for the wind-backed torrent.
The woman, an avid RVer since the early 1970s, tells the man about RVing. Soon he becomes hooked on the lifestyle. And on the woman.
Paula Petty and Nelson DiGennaro married 17 months later.
Closing in on a dream
Paula, now 58, will never forget watching Nelson’s futile attempts at setting up shelter that fateful night in 1980. “It was then that he threw away his tent and came on board for an exciting future of travel and adventure,” she said.
The DiGennaros, FMCA members from Huber Heights, Ohio, have come a long way from tents and customized vans. By their late 40s they had traveled by motorhome in 49 states and all of Canada except Labrador and Newfoundland. “Hey, we had to keep something for retirement!” Paula said.
Now, after 26 years of planning, they’re on the brink of their dream: motorhoming full-time.
You see, after they married, they immediately began planning for their future retirement, which included full-timing in a diesel motor coach. Along with traditional retirement planning, they always kept full-time RVing plans in the picture.
“There’s a phase in our lives where we said I love my job and I can’t imagine not having it, not doing it,” Paula said. “But on the other hand, full-timing gave us something to look forward to.”
Their full-timing plans included buying into membership-based campground clubs while still in the income-producing age.
“When we retired we knew that we were going to have to go on a budget and that’s not the time to be going out and buying membership/ownership type things,” Nelson explained.
In 1983 they joined Thousand Trails, a private camping club that operates more than 50 membership-based campgrounds. Around the same time, they purchased deeded interests in Preferred RV Resort in Pahrump, Nev.
They also “invested” in Resort Parks International and Coast to Coast Resorts, all with the intent of retiring in 2008, though they retired in 2007. “We felt it was good to spend the money on these items while we still had jobs rather than after retirement,” Paula said. “Then we could enjoy the fruits of the memberships when we could during our working years and even more at retirement.”
The DiGennaros’ farsightedness created a legion of doubters. Even their financial consultant raised an eyebrow when he heard their plans, Paula said.
“We had friends who were older who said to us, ‘Don’t make plans so far in advance. You’re probably going to change your mind. You have a lot of time ahead of you to do it.’ But I got news for you, by the time we were said and done, we really used that time well.”
During their travels they encountered many full-timers who seemed to love the lifestyle. “We took it to heart when they said do it early, don’t wait, do it as early as you can,” Nelson said. “So that’s what we planned to do.”
In late November 2005 they purchased their retirement home in Florida — a 36-foot Itasca Meridian diesel-powered home on wheels — and drove it back to Ohio. They were delighted their future retirement plans were coming together.
Three weeks later, though, Nelson was in a Dayton, Ohio, hospital undergoing heart bypass surgery. At age 52, it was quite a shock to everyone who knew him, but fortunately he heeded the warning signs and recovered quickly.
“With a lot of people, that probably would have been a stopper from them going any further,” Paula said. “But instead for us it was more like, ah, we’re doing the right thing. We’re getting out of the work force and we’re going to have a great time.”
So two years later, when retirement was a viable option, there was no hesitation. In October 2007 Paula ended her 33-year career as a real estate agent. “I enjoyed it. It was wonderful,” she said of the job. “But it was time to do what I wanted to do. The great wild blue yonder was beckoning.”
On Nov. 3, 2007, Nelson retired as a civilian electrical engineer with the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He had worked in the F-16 System Program Office, which supports the F-16 fighter aircraft, for the last nine of his 30 years there.
“It was kind of hard leaving work, but it was time,” he said. “And it’s been fun getting the motorhome, remodeling it … I had a ball doing the electrical stuff as well.”
Outfitting the coach for full-timing
Before selecting a motorhome for full-timing — they were set on an Itasca by Winnebago — Paula and Nelson toured the factory several times.
Two toy poodles and a caged lovebird are their constant traveling companions, so they kept that in mind when evaluating floor plans.
They located a dealer in Homestead, Fla., that had the model they wanted: a 2006 Itasca Meridian with two slideouts.
“Paula insisted on having a wireless Internet connection and a big-screen TV, so I got to make sure we had a diesel pusher,” Nelson said.
The dealer worked with the DiGennaros on several options to make the Meridian more suitable to their needs, Paula said. For instance, a booth dinette was replaced with a custom-made computer workstation.
Then, Paula and Nelson went to work.
Across from the sofa, they replaced the overstuffed recliner with a 32-inch widescreen high-definition TV. And in place of the TV overhead in the driver’s compartment, they built bookshelves.
“We remodeled the bathroom too,” Paula said. “There weren’t enough medicine cabinets.”
Throughout the coach, they removed mirrors to allow more wall space for hanging items. Pictures are up. Community service awards are up. Die-cast cars, autographed by race car drivers, are on display. “It’s home now,” Paula said.
In all, they spent a year and approximately $10,000 to customize the coach to their liking.
Nelson drives the motorhome while Paula prefers to work on the computer or tend to the pets. But on the way home from buying the motorhome, up in the mountains of West Virginia in their brand-new coach, a stark reality shook her.
“We’re driving along and Nelson comments, ‘You know, I really ought to talk with the doctor about the problems I’m having’ and I’m thinking, oh, maybe an infected toenail or something and he says he’s been perspiring a lot and having these pains in his arm. Within three weeks he was in the hospital having five bypasses.”
Nelson recovered, but his illness made Paula realize she should at least know how to stop the motorhome or get it off the road safely.
“It’s the idea that that’s how quick something can come up,” she said. “It was kind of scary in the hills of West Virginia to think, oh, this is good, we just bought a $200,000-plus unit and I don’t know how to stop the thing.”
At the Florida dealership, Paula had completed the written portion of a driving class. She never took the road test because she and Nelson had an appointment to sign the final paperwork completing the sale of the coach.
The length of the DiGennaros’ motorhome, with their black storage pod attached to the hitch, is about 40 feet. And much of the time, they tow a 2007 Saturn VUE using a tow bar.
Paula said she’s considering signing up for the RV Safe Driving Course, which is offered at FMCA international conventions and many FMCA area rallies.
Motorhoming to Alaska
Prior to the Itasca Meridian, Paula and Nelson traveled throughout North America in three smaller motorhomes.
In 1989 they took their 21-foot 1984 Winnebago Phasar, which had a four-cylinder engine, on a 45-day trip to Alaska. “I took all of our provisions, all of our food,” Paula said. “And let me tell you, we were overloaded. But we had a great time. The storage pod was a savior.”
During the trip, on the way to Dawson City in the Yukon, they came across a road called Dempster Highway. “Believe me, it was not a highway,” Paula said. “It was a two-lane, gravel, washboard road. There was a sign there that said, ‘No medical facilities for the next 450 miles.’ And Nelson and I looked at it on the map and said, ‘Next trip, we’re doing that.’ ”
Nine years later, in 1998, they did.
Dempster Highway begins about 25 miles east of Dawson City on the Klondike Highway and extends 457 miles to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. It was definitely a more rugged journey.
At this point they were traveling in their second coach, a 1989 Winnebago Chieftain. Twice they ferried across rivers. Once they had to be towed after getting stuck in a remote area; it took three days for an emergency road service truck to reach them because of a forest fire 10 miles away.
“Nelson kind of learned through me, vicariously, that going from point A to point B is not the most satisfying part of traveling in an RV. It’s the journey in between. That’s something RVers just have to get used to.”
Paula and Nelson plan to return to Alaska, but not all the way back up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. They don’t want to put their new motorhome through that rugged type of terrain.
“We left a sign up in Sign Post Village [Watson Lake, Yukon, Canada], but we left room on the sign to add on dates of at least two or three more trips,” Paula said.
Planning an Alaska trip is half the fun, she added. “We planned our Alaska trips for years. The second one, in ’98, took a lot of planning. We didn’t carry as many provisions because we kind of knew the ways to do it at that point. “But the planning was just as exciting.”
The Winnebago Chieftain served them well on the Alaska trip and many others. All told, they logged 136,000 miles on it and replaced the original engine. When they traded it in the dealer told them it was the most mileage he had ever seen on an RV.
“Our belief was, and still is, if you have an RV you should use it,” Paula said. “Don’t let it sit by the garage. Get it out there and have fun with it. And we did.”
After trading in their Chieftain, Paula said they moved into “an interim RV” for five years, a 32-foot Fleetwood Southwind Storm.
Fond of Canada
Paula ranks a trip to Nova Scotia, Canada, in the early ‘90s as their second-best trip, behind Alaska.
“We love the Canadian people,” she said. “They are so wonderful. It’s how you treat them, and it comes back to you, in droves. We go up there and we have fun and the people are just great.”
Halifax Citadel National Historic Site in Nova Scotia is “absolutely phenomenal,” she said. It’s the site of a mid-19th-century fort built to protect the British harbor city of Halifax from an American invasion.
“The only places in Canada we haven’t been,” Paula said, “are Labrador and Newfoundland. That was supposed to be our retirement trip, but the way things fell together, we’re out West and it’s not the time of year to be up in Nova Scotia, so we’ll do that when we’re full full-timers.”
In November 2007 Paula and Nelson embarked on a five-month pre-full-timing “shakedown trip,” as Paula calls it.
They had committed to attend a NASCAR race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. “Once there, we decided we didn’t want to go back north over the mountains again,” Paula said. “So we headed west.”
They spent Dec. 6 to Jan. 31 at Preferred RV Resort, watching NASCAR preseason testing sessions nearby at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
In early March they arrived at a campground at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., for a weekend race, with plans to proceed to Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.
They plan to return to Huber Heights, which is about eight miles northeast of Dayton, in April or May and begin final preparations for full-timing, including selling their house. In the meantime, a friend is living in their home during their absence.
A co-worker with Paula’s former company, Irongate Realtors, will list the home. “All that stuff I’ve pretty much got in order and under control,” she said. “The big thing is going to be getting rid of furniture.”
They’ve already determined which items they want to put in storage. “Everybody says you just sell everything or you don’t sell at all. Well, you have to keep some things just in case you get off the road and want some warm fuzzies. So we have to go through all that.”
Between preparing their home for sale and traveling to auto races, it’s going to be a busy summer. Plus, they plan to attend the Life on Wheels Conference, an RV education program, in Bowling Green, Ky., in May. “There’s been a lot of plans already made and a lot of tickets already bought for things,” Paula said.
Tickets already bought include tickets to auto racing events. They are serious fans. “I introduced the sport to Nelson on our second date by taking him to the Indy 500,” Paula said. “From there it just kind of blossomed.”
They travel to about 16 race venues per year, including NASCAR and open-wheel circuits, and that number figures to increase after they start full-timing.
NASCAR’s Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya are three of their favorite drivers.
At the races, normally they park their motorhome within a quarter- to a half-mile from the track entrance. Because they have pets, they’re not allowed on the infield.
Of the oval race tracks, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee is their favorite. “Once you have tickets to Bristol, you better keep them because you don’t get them otherwise,” Paula said.
Nelson drove a NASCAR stock car at Bristol through the Richard Petty Driving Experience, and Paula went on a ride-along with a professional driver. “Once you do that you kind of have a whole new respect for the track,” she said.
The DiGennaros parlay their enthusiasm for auto racing into another one of their interests: animal welfare. Since 2002, they have organized racing-related fundraiser for the Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals (SICSA) of Dayton, Ohio. The annual SCISA Red Dogs Racers Charity Auction is held at Quaker Steak and Lube in Fairborn, Ohio, near Dayton.
In addition auto racing and animal welfare work, amateur radio, often called ham radio, continues to be one of the DiGennaros’ pursuits. After all, they did meet at that ham event in 1980.
For 25 years, Paula and Nelson used their amateur radio background as volunteers with Dayton SKYWARN, a severe weather observation network. SKYWARN volunteers provide the National Weather Service (NWS) with first-hand weather spotting observations during severe weather events.
“When the NWS paged us, we would leave our home and go to a designated operating site,” Paula said. “We could be there up to six to eight hours at a time. And with all the tornado activity that Ohio and Indiana get, it kept us pretty busy.”
For 15 of the 25 years, the DiGennaros served as SKYWARN coordinators for west central Ohio and the White Water Valley of Indiana. They helped to train spotters to identify tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.
Paula and Nelson retired from SKYWARN in 2007, but they’re still willing to help other locations when SKYWARN is needed.
“Amateur radio has been a part of our lives since the mid-1970s and it will continue that way,” Paula said. “As full-timers, we will be traveling extensively all over the U.S. and Canada. We plan to be on all of the amateur bands whenever our travels permit.”
Paula and Nelson, despite being ardent planners, aren’t sure how long their full-timing lifestyle will last. “Hopefully we can throttle all our expenses and do it for a long time,” Nelson said. “I keep kidding Paula that she needs to win big at one of the casinos or start writing a book.”
All kidding aside, actually she could. Three major casinos are within one mile of Preferred RV Resort in Pahrump, where they often spend time. And prior to working in real estate, Paula held positions in broadcast radio and print journalism. Eventually, she’d like to try freelance writing “to make some spending money.”
Well, full-timing is bound to generate plenty of story ideas.
“We’re both in our 50s and we've got a lot to enjoy ... the people we meet along the way, the friends we left behind, nature and of course each other,” Paula said. “It's so exciting and we can't wait. There's something new around every corner.”
For Paula and Nelson, full-timing is not the finish line; it's just the start of the race.