We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

They hail from every state in the union and the far corners of the globe, but they share a common dream: to leave behind the wretched excess of the world and finally get away from it all. No hotels or motels or B&Bs or relatives’ homes for these bold voyagers.

Throwbacks to a pre–Comfort Inn past, RVers are interstate gypsies who roam for months and years at a time, making the open road their own, as long as the engine doesn’t overheat. They come in all sorts of forms: encased in hermetically sealed motor homes as big and fancy as condos, in pickup trucks pulling old-fashioned Air Stream trailers, or hauling dilapidated fold-out rigs behind even more tumbledown Hondas.

These restless hordes constitute a modern-day Chautauqua of people in pursuit of somewhere else. When they get to Washington, many of them put the blinker on for Cherry Hill Park, a mecca for recreational vehicles on the edge of the Beltway in College Park, Md.

It’s not easy to hear the call of the wild at Cherry Hill, a decidedly urban campground with rows of RVs packed as tight as in any mall parking lot. Even if you manage to ignore the roar from the perpetual rush hour of the adjacent Beltway and the exhaust-spewing Metro buses that stop here, you still have to contend with the relentless hum of the power lines—buzzing like gargantuan, radioactive Bug Zappers—that slash through the property. But despite the man-made industrial racket, the animal kingdom’s not entirely shut out: A kennel’s worth of dogs—many accustomed to months on the open road—arrive with their owners and stake out their new turf in a continuous round robin of yelps.

Don’t bother searching for the fresh scent of honeysuckle or wilderness musk out this way: Whiffs of burned diesel fuel mingle with the smoke from barbecue grills. Humidity rules here, and the horizon shimmers off the hot highway asphalt. It seems a long way from Ocean City, much less Yosemite.

But to the RV crowd, though, Cherry Hill is the sweetest pit stop of all, a convenient paradise where a family of six with extralarge dogs can make the nature scene while taking strategic daytime excursions into the sightseeing capital of the free world. It’s the closest RV park to the city, “A Monumental Experience!’’ as its billboard boasts.

Just minutes after a family rolls in from the northern reaches of New England, park employee Suzanne Barnett stops by in her rumbling, gas-powered golf cart to greet the newcomers. A petite, cheerful woman, Barnett lives at the park with her husband, John, who works as an RV technician.

“Tomorrow, when you go in, do the tour mobile,” she says in her Tennessee drawl.

“What do we do, take the train?” says Papa RV, surrounded by his wide-eyed brood.

“You get the city bus to the Green Line and ride the Green to the Red Line to Union Station. At Union Station, you get the tour mobile, and get your talking narration tour down to Arlington Cemetery, and see the changing of the guard—they do it every half-hour and the kids’ll love it—if you kids can get that guard to smile at you, then I’ll give you a dollar. Then get back on the tour mobile and ride it all the way back to Union Station and go downstairs and eat lunch—there’s like 50 different carry-out restaurants—and get you some french fries and put the malt vinegar all over ’em and tell ’em Suzanne sent you from Cherry Hill and they’ll give you an extra dose.”

For now, Papa RV seems more concerned about getting directions to the on-site laundromat—open 24 hours a day, including a hot tub and sauna—than seeing the eternal flame. But before he can do any of that, he’s got to hook up his rig to the water and sewer and cable TV lines. And the microwave oven’s still on the blink. Nobody ever said camping out was going to be easy.

A few doors down the cul-de-sac named Ozark Circle, Granddad has already set up his campsite; he’s at the picnic table stuffing sodas into a cooler. A gray-haired bear on a low-cholesterol diet, decked out only in shorts, the retired plumbing-supply dealer (“wholesale”) has been RVing with his wife for more than a decade. The couple drove their 30-foot-long motor home here from the West Coast, and their grandchildren flew in from California to join them for the weeklong expedition based at Cherry Hill Park.

“We’re here to see Washington, and this is the best place to do it,” he says. “Why anybody would want to stay anyplace else, I don’t know. But we’re RVing it.”

Like many RVers, Granddad regards his cohorts with the highest esteem: For him, these aren’t just thrifties who opt to sleep in their vehicles, but the very cream of humanity, a like-minded, gold-hearted bunch willing to help out when an awning pole breaks or the batteries on the TV remote runs down. You know, folks who come through in the clutch, whether it’s lending out a prized bottle-opener or generously parting with their copy of USA Today when the office store sells out.

Granddad surveys the sprawling park—bustling with elderly people sporting little clothing and middle-aged folks in muted, baggy sportswear and their children in neon, baggy sportswear—and he gets a faraway look in his eyes: God’s children, all come home to the RV park.

“These are special people,” he says. “In all my years on the road, I’ve only met one asshole at an RV park. It was some New York bastard in a rented RV. He was trying to show off and he didn’t know a goddamn thing.’’ Without getting too philosophical, he sums up the appeal of RV travel: “I’ve always got my own bed, and I don’t have to pack and unpack like you do at motels. I did enough of that when I worked.”

He points to a map of the continental U.S. on the open door of the motor home: About half the nation is plastered with colored stickers—one for each state he has RVed in his extensive travels. The color-coded maps, always displayed prominently, are the trophy cases of the RV set—the maps show where the travelers have been and where they might be headed. He says that some people cheat by including states they’ve traversed in several different RVs—a misleading track record. “These states I’ve only been to in this RV,” he says. “I’ve done a lot more states in other RVs we’ve had.”

Then comes a call—more like a screech—from inside the motor home.

“Aren’t you ready to go yet?” shouts a woman’s voice over some kids’ wails: A trip to the National Zoo beckons.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” he mutters, closing the cooler and climbing inside.

At midday, the Cherry Hill RV park is nearly deserted. The putt-putt golf course sits empty, its 5-foot-high replica of the Washington Monument threatening to wilt in the summer sun.

The rows of hulking RVs, many flying the Stars and Stripes, seem less recreational vehicles than fully equipped fallout-shelters-on-wheels for survivors of some suburban Armageddon. It’s a select bunch—only the big ones were apparently strong enough to withstand the disaster. Now they’ve found roadside refuge here, perhaps to try to build a new society based on RV courtesy instead of English common law.

But where are the people?

In one massive RV with Idaho plates, a bulldog sits salivating behind the steering wheel, apparently abandoned by his former caretakers and now left to fend—and to learn how to drive—for himself. The AC has obviously been left on, though, and the dog seems quite comfortable getting acquainted with the dashboard controls.

Near the power lines, a group of tents are huddled on a grassy knoll—maybe the temporary lodgings of those banished from an RV after some family squabble. But then some tousle-haired, sunburned damsel pokes her head out and shouts something in German to a nearby tent. It seems like a bad omen.

I meander down the park’s main street, Appalachian Trail, to try to find out what happened. Along the sidewalk, in the mulch bed, a series of rocks and small boulders would seem to provide some answers: The stones have all been inscribed with sayings, from Aesop to Oprah Winfrey. While some are as inexplicable as a fortune-cookie message (“What is a ten-letter word that means gas?”), others offer soothing advice (“Book lovers never go to bed alone”), perhaps the last scrawlings of those now gone. I finally hear a voice.

“You can always tell the new people, they stop to read the rocks.’’

The chuckling comes from an old man slouching in a lawn chair outside a trailer and a pickup truck. Nearby, under the shade of two small trees, his wife relaxes in a lounger; she’s reading a book about religious prophets.

I ask where everybody is. Has the final reckoning already come?

“Oh, all the day trippers will be coming back from sightseeing by 5 or so. and this place comes alive,” he says. “People that left here in the morning with a spring to their legs will be dragging themselves back home. I just sit here and laugh at ’em.”

Though they have a house in Connecticut, Jimmy and Cynthia Toolin have lived in Cherry Hill Park for two years now, while Cynthia studies theology at Catholic University. Next May, she hopes to complete her dissertation on Hispanic pastoral teachings; until then, they’ll reside here at Lot 703.

“This is our home,” says Jimmy, a retired commercial truck driver. “We’re very comfortable here.”

They bought their 24-foot-long trailer for $30,000 a couple of years ago; last summer, on a break from Cynthia’s studies, they took it through the Midwest. “If you really want to see the U.S., this is the way to do it,” says Cynthia. “You could never afford to see the things we’ve seen staying in motels, unless you’re rich.”

The couple attends Mass every Sunday at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, but for the most part, when Cynthia’s not doing research at Dominican House of Study, they stay right here. Jimmy’s got the barbecue grill ready for tonight’s supper: “This time of year the outdoors becomes like the extra room, but in the winter…” But Cynthia says that in the cold season, when the park is nearly empty, there’s still a strong sense of community. In fact, the permanent residents—about 20 families—gather regularly for potluck dinners, and the women meet on Wednesday nights for crafts and conversation.

The Toolins have become accustomed to—and quite happy with—making do with little in the way of material possessions: “When I think of what we got down in the basement—you don’t need that stuff,” he says. “You get comfortable with an awful lot less.”

“You learn how much you don’t need,” says Cynthia. “We don’t really need the seven rooms [in their Connecticut home], and we clearly don’t need three TVs we have there, though we may think we do.”

Recently, Cynthia underwent a big operation, and while she recovered, the women of the park cooked the couple’s meals for the entire two-week duration. “This is like a little village,” she says. “Everybody helps each other out.”

Up the hill from the Toolins, Margie Kendall has lived in a trailer—complete with front-yard flower garden—for four years; she moved here after her car was stolen outside her Laurel apartment. That was the last straw in a series of events that led her to call Cherry Hill home: “I feel safe here,” says Kendall, who works at the park.

Cherry Hill Park is a family-run operation, the latest business to stem from a pre–Depression Era chicken farm, general store, and gas station. During the housing shortage after World War II, Norman Gurevich’s grandparents ran Cherry Hill Mobile Home Village on family property a mile away on U.S. 1. By the ’60s, his parents had opened the place up to tourists, and Cherry Hill Campcity became one of the busiest campgrounds on the East Coast before the family finally sold the property.

In 1989, Gurevich opened the RV park on the sprawling site of a former tree farm between the Beltway and the meadows of the National Agricultural Research Center. It boasts 400 RV and tenting campsites (about $34 a night), including air-conditioned “country cabins” and rental trailers. The office building contains a convenience mart and RV superstore, featuring everything from replacement parts to lawn chairs. There’s also a playground and a conference center that includes a cafe, video arcade, swimming pool, and a laundromat with wide-screen TV, among other offerings. Pets are encouraged: There’s a dog-walking service available.

Despite the staggering array of amenities and its hot-spot location at the junction of Interstate 95 and the Beltway, Cherry Hill Park nonetheless aims to provide an old-fashioned family getaway. Not exactly Yellowstone, but at least a place where you can burn firewood and roast marshmallows in between channel surfing.

“Our customers want the camping experience,” says Joan Gurevich, who’s helped her husband manage the family’s mobile-home parks for 31 years. “They want not only quality time but quantity time. You can’t look at this like it’s just a cheap vacation—that isn’t the only reason people go camping. They want the cooperative lifestyle of a family working together and being together and not all split up and going their own way. Plus, there’s a certain amount of safety in a campground—it’s more like a neighborhood. If you go to a hotel in Ocean City, you’re not going to turn your kids loose outside like you can here.’’

Later that afternoon, the rush-hour traffic on the Beltway is at a snarling standstill, but Cherry Hill Park is bustling with activity. Metrobuses pour into the park entrance, dropping off groups of weary sightseers.

The scene resembles any suburb after the commuters come home, with RVs substituting for houses: Children bicycle down the streets; couples walk hand in hand down the sidewalk, sometimes pausing to read the cryptic messages scrawled on the stones.

Down by a grungy, weed-choked, watery hole called Crater Lake Pond, a family of five from Illinois sets up camp in a tent outside their station wagon; they crowd around the picnic table and devour some buckets of takeout chicken.

At the scrub-pine edge of the property, just an errant hubcap-toss from the packed eight-lane Beltway, a man sits in a white T-shirt and work pants outside his trailer, his back to the traffic, just taking it all in. Robert Wack has been staying at Cherry Hill Park for nearly a month. He lives in Pennsylvania, but he’s got some work in the D.C. area, inspecting boilers, pressure vessels, and air conditioners, mostly for local school systems.

Every morning he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and heads to work in his pickup truck; he’s usually back at Cherry Hill by 4 p.m. Though he’s pushing 70 and could retire, Wack says he wants to stay busy.

“A lot of people just stop; they just sit there and watch TV all day. My next-door neighbor says he hasn’t read anything in 20 years. Nothing. He used to read those old cowboy books, but now he doesn’t even read the paper.”

Wack got into the RV scene with his wife years ago; they used to take their 30-foot trailer out for weekends in the woods when they lived in West Virginia. Now they’re separated, and Wack hits the road on these work details with his two English sheep hounds, Trey and Vier. They’re barking in the trailer now, over a tape of Johnny Cash that’s drifting from the open door.

“I call it home—as long as I got the dogs here, it’s home,” he says. “They’re like my children.”

Most RV parks, he says, are just pieces of land out in the middle of nowhere, places for people to come to and commiserate and not do a goddamn thing. In West Virginia they would all just sit and stare at the woods until it got dark and then everybody would go to sleep.

“A lot of RV places, you’ll find that you just sit there—you just go there to relax and that’s it, but here, everybody’s going to Washington. At most places, people will just sit at the park all day cause there’s nothing else to do.”

“I like nothing better than to sit here and read the paper when I come home from work and watch everything. It’s an escape from the humdrum of everyday life….I went to sea for years with the Merchant Marines, and this is just like going to sea: When you leave the dock, you didn’t worry about anything back home ’cause you couldn’t do anything about it. You come down here and you forget about your troubles and cares and trials and bills.”

Then he watches as a massive mobile home as big and sleek as a boat—emblazoned with the word “Minnie”—backs its way in; an elderly couple emerges like aliens from a spaceship that’s crash-landed on some despicable planet; in minutes, the vehicle is hooked up to the water and sewer and TV lines, and they climb back in, without so much as a wave for greeting.

“This is not a classless society here,” says Wack. “A lot of the mobile-home people look down at the tent people.”

He points at the neighboring campsite; it’s a dinky, decrepit, pop-out trailer, clothesline hanging from the back, sinking under the weight of wet laundry.

“Look at these people here, they’re from Texas. They’ve got the mother, the father, and three kids in that little thing—no air conditioning. I mean, that’s roughing it.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.