The first time Mark Ritchie and Leah Hardy laid eyes on their new camper, it was after they'd bought it.
"It was like, 'Oh my God, it's tiny.' Which was great," Ritchie said recently while standing outside their home in Laramie, Wyo. "It made me feel actually more confident dragging it around. Because when I see people with giant trailers, I go, 'Thank God that's not me.'"
Ritchie and Hardy bought the vintage travel trailer from a seller in California, and then it was shipped to their doorstep. Hardy never thought they'd spend thousands of dollars on something sight unseen.
"That was because of COVID," she said. "Any other time we would have driven out and looked at it before we bought it."
Instead, there was a lot of back-and-forth with the sellers, including a few Zoom calls.
"She would hold her iPad and, you know, 'Can you see the toilet? Do I have it at the right angle?'" Hardy said. "They were really great and really accommodating with trying to give us the most detailed tour possible of the trailer."
This kind of camper is called a "Lil Loafer," known for its tin-can-like aluminum exterior. Ritchie and Hardy's new Lil Loafer was made in 1960, and was recently restored. They've named it Junebug. Inside, Junebug manages to contain a kitchen with a sink and three-burner gas stove, a marine toilet, a couch that folds into a queen-size bed, and plenty of cabinets and drawers for storage.
"It's like a tortoise, right?" Ritchie said. "It's bigger on the inside than the outside."
Campers like Junebug - and also much larger and more expensive ones - are in high demand these days. Ritchie and Hardy inquired about several campers online only to find they'd already been sold.
"Only when we started looking did we realize we were part of what I'll call the pandemic demographic of trailer buyers, because they were really selling quickly," Hardy said.
While air travel is down and hotel occupancy remains low, the RV business is booming. A recent survey conducted by the RV Industry Association found that 20% of respondents are more interested in RVs since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
"It's very clear that people want to get back out there," said Monika Geraci, a senior manager with the association.
She sees RVs and other towables as essentially extensions of the socially distanced bubbles we have at home.
"You are able to bring your own bed, bring your own kitchen, bring your own bathroom," Geraci said. "You have the freedom to go where you want, whether that's close to home or maybe venturing a little bit farther."
The association's data shows that RV sales have been up significantly over the last several years. This year appeared to be continuing that trend. Then the pandemic hit. The entire industry - manufacturers, dealerships, campgrounds - shut down. But the economy's reopening has brought a surge in activity, partly thanks to first-time buyers like Ritchie and Hardy. Low gas prices help, too.
"We're cautiously optimistic because with this large influx of first-timers who maybe hadn't thought about RVing before, it could bring a lot of new customers to the RV industry, who will fall in love with us and be RVers for life," Geraci said.
Ritchie and Hardy said they're happy with their purchase. But it has come with a bit of a learning curve.
"We have been doing some...adult parking-lot trailer driving self-education," Hardy said with a laugh.
Parking challenges aside, they say they're in it for the long haul.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Maggie Mullen, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.