Joe and Michelle Hempel

Joe and Michelle Hempel, formerly of Colerain, Ohio, were headed out west for Year 2 of RV retirement. Now, though, they’re in limbo because of the coronavirus outbreak, camping at Tanglewood for now.

Joe Hempel wasn’t taking any chances. A retired firefighter, the 58-year-old knows protective gear and how to minimize environmental risks.

So before launching into the morning’s to-do list, Hempel carefully pulled on a pair of black rubber gloves and set to work.

In the age of coronavirus, a man (or woman) can’t be too careful.

“These?” he said, holding his hands up in response to a question — posed from a safe distance — about precautionary measures. “I’m doing the sewage. ... I’d be wearing these anyway.”

The sewage he was referring to was running through a hose attached to his 35-foot RV in the campground at Tanglewood Park — his home.

Behind the numbers

Tanglewood reopened its campground to RV’ers a few years back during a large-scale overhaul.

A little low-level grumbling by nickel-biters about spending money — some might call it an investment in public facilities — was shouted down by cooler heads that realized such a venture might at least pay for itself. Or perhaps even turn a little profit.

And the numbers, such as there are, bear that out.

In 2019, from the opening of the season in March through closing in December, RV’ers booked 8,324 nights in the campground. At $38 per night, that adds up to $316,312.

Not too shabby.

Behind the numbers, though, exists a small, friendly and closely knit community of kindred spirits bound by a love of adventure, the open road and experiencing the country one mile and one park at a time.

For the Hempels, in a normal year, that means driving 200-250 miles per trip and setting up shop in campgrounds like Tanglewood, which are equipped with electric and yes, sewer, hookups.

(This is the point to let loose with your best Randy Quaid/Cousin Eddie imitation from the cinematic classic “Christmas Vacation.” Go ahead. We’ll wait.)

Joe Hempel, an outgoing, amiable sort from southern Ohio, and his wife, Michelle, took immediately to the lifestyle as soon as he was able to retire from the Colerain Fire Department.

“Two years ago,” he said. “This was the dream.”

The Hempels sold their house in Colerain — it’s near Cincinnati; Go Bengals — and bought the 35-foot RV, aptly named Solitude. They pull it with a Ford F-350 pickup and follow a schedule entirely of their own making.

In 2019, their first year on the road, they managed 29 states in 11 months moving roughly once a week. To maintain a semblance of a home base, they keep a winter spot in Oriental on the North Carolina coast.

This year, they’d just set out for a dream 2020. The plans included an extended visit with one daughter, an active duty U.S. Navy sailor based in Washington state, and a once-in-a-lifetime Alaska cruise.

Then the coronavirus crashed the party.

Abrupt change in plans

Everyone’s lives — yours, mine and theirs — were thrown into a scrambled state of flux.

The Hempels had just settled into stop No. 1 in Asheville in early March when plans changed abruptly.

“We started hearing that (campgrounds) in Texas, Las Vegas and other places were shutting down,” Joe Hempel said.

Put another way, RV’ers were looking at stay-at-home recommendations and, in some cases, orders. And for those who lack brick-and-mortar fixed addresses, that presents a conundrum.

“Three counties we have to drive through have lockdowns,” Hempel said. “Will we get pulled over?”

As of 5 p.m. Friday, that list includes Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, as well as many counties along the Interstate 40 corridor. The rest of the state follows on Monday.

It’s unlikely they would get pulled over — cops have more sense than that — but being in an RV makes the Hempels uneasy. Not nervous per se, but a little unsettled.

“What we don’t want is for people to see us driving down the road and thinking ‘Look at those people, out on vacation having a good time. They don’t give a damn about anybody else,’” Joe Hempel said.

“They don’t understand,” Michelle Hempel added. “This is our home. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

For now, that includes following the same rules as everybody else.

They’re headed back to their home base in Oriental, washing their hands frequently, avoiding crowds and practicing good physical distancing.

“Spaces (in campgrounds) are wide enough for social distancing and self isolation,” Joe Hempel said. “But you can see people and still talk to them.”

The Hempels, like the rest of us, aren’t immune from the fallout caused by a pandemic. The daughter serving in the Navy is under orders not to move; another daughter just lost both her jobs.

Still, they’re blessed by the gift of perspective. Joe has his pension, and they have their health, a solid plan for their future and their gleaming home on wheels.

“We’re lucky and we know it,” Michelle Hempel said. “We understand that a lot of people are far worse off. We’re doing OK.”

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