The road less taken

Couple enjoying retirement after embarking on new life in comfortable fifth-wheel

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— Richard and Marilyn Sanford always knew they weren't meant to spend their entire lives in a three-bedroom ranch home in Lakewood. Just the same, they probably could not have predicted 25 years ago that during their retirement years, home would be wherever they parked their RV.

The Sanfords, in their 60s, are among the growing legions of "full-timers" across America. The label does not imply they are fully employed, but just the opposite. Upon retiring a decade ago, the Sanfords sold their home, hitched a fifth-wheel recreational trailer to a big diesel pickup and set off on a new life.

"We had it arranged on closing day," Marilyn said. "The Realtor took us to lunch, then he drove us to the bank so we could deposit the check. Then he took us to the RV lot. We got in, drove east out of Denver and never looked back."

Along with their new lifestyle came a sense of freedom. Before the Sanfords could sell their traditional home, they had to winnow through a lifetime of possessions and decide what they could take with them in a 36-foot RV.

"Less is better, that's the whole trick to this," Marilyn said. "We do have things in storage photo albums, artwork things like that. But it's so easy to get bogged down in a lifetime's worth of things you've accumulated."

Richard summed it up nicely.

"I have one sport coat and one tie in there," he beamed, pointing at the bedroom closet.

For people who have only passed RVs on the highway and never stepped inside one, a tour of the Sanfords' "Carriage LS" fifth-wheel is a revelation. The Sanford residence is parked at Steamboat Campground on U.S. 40, as it is most summers while they visit adult children here.

The first thing one sees upon stepping through the screen door is a wall of immaculate oak kitchen cabinets framing a microwave and a small refrigerator freezer. The kitchen runs on propane. The stove top pulls out of the cabinets. Marilyn says she opted for the microwave over a convection oven. A small pantry pulls out of the room divider to the right.

Immediately to the left is a small dining table that fits four adults cozily. A cell phone plugged into a laptop is sitting on the table.

Beyond it are two full-size recliners and a love seat facing an entertainment wall. The picture window at the rear of the RV frames the Yampa River, flowing by not more than 30 feet away.

The full-size television, and computer, along with a miniature stereo fit into a wall that is one of three "roll-outs." Operated at the push of a button, they allow the RV to offer about 400 square feet when it isn't cruising down the highway. Richard demonstrates how the slide-out tray that holds the TV locks back into place for security while the RV is in transit.

The home is a fascinating case study in engineering efficiency. Everything in the home is thought out carefully. And there are tradeoffs everywhere, Marilyn said. If you want a little more space in the slide-out pantry, you have to give up a few cubic inches in the refrigerator. And yet, the bedroom is complete with a queen-sized bed.

Richard steps outside the fifth-wheel and points at the roof of the trailer where a satellite dish affords him more TV channels than he can surf in a week. Then he points to a modest bed of pansies ringing a small cottonwood tree.

"Like my garden?" he asked with a sly grin. He would rather be golfing at Steamboat Golf Course than caring for a large yard in retirement.

From the beginning

The Sanfords both grew up in Los Angeles. As a young man in the 1950s, Richard was a survival instructor in the Air Force. He led would-be pilots on dangerous slogs through the jungles of Okinawa.

"I remember climbing over ridges when the temperature was 105 and it was raining," Richard says of those long-ago days.

The couple met at a beach party in Southern California and already began a family when Richard was studying wildlife biology at Humboldt State in Arcata, Calif. Later, he earned his master's degree at North Dakota State in Fargo. The young family experienced trailer life with two children in that phase of their lives.

They landed in Denver, where Richard taught at Kennedy High School. Marilyn worked in the office of another school.

They bought the typical three-bedroom house in the suburbs and settled in.

"Those were our work years," Marilyn said. "But we knew we wouldn't be there forever."

Richard made a crucial decision during his career that helped him realize the retirement he is living today. When a colleague learned of his military background, he urged him to join the Army Reserve. Richard decided to view the reserves as a hobby that paid a stipend and launched his second military career.

The combination of his active duty and reserve duty gave him a second cash flow in retirement and medical coverage to augment Medicare. When his school district offered him early retirement at age 55, he thought about it and realized the decision was clear.

During their initial years in their fifth-wheel, the Sanfords used it to spend weeks and months in different parts of North America, from Florida to Nova Scotia. Their wanderlust has subsided and now they have settled into semiannual trek between Steamboat and Arizona.

They own an RV parking space in an RV resort west of Phoenix where they enjoy the use of a golf course, several swimming pools and a community center.

Richard and Marilyn profess they don't miss the traditional "home" in any regard.

"We just never put down real deep roots," Marilyn said. "I don't feel homeless. I don't need a big home and a bunch of stuff to feel at home."

However, Richard says it might not be for everyone.

A key to successfully making the transition to becoming a full-timer is an outgoing personality and a knack for making new friendships.

"If you're not a gregarious person, this would not be a lifestyle you would like," Richard said. "Because people are always moving in and out."

The Sanfords may watch new friends come and go from their lives, but the Christmas card list they've accumulated from 10 years of living in an RV is truly impressive.

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