Swiss couple hits road in ber-RV
October 13, 2007
ASPEN Ruth and Riton Grab live on the open road, but they bring their native Switzerland with them.The retired couple, both 62, has been traveling for five years in an 18-ton Unicat – a four-wheel-drive German army vehicle turned deluxe RV.Wrapped in 7 millimeters of bulletproof Kevlar, and protected by a high-tech alarm system and security cameras on every side, the Grabs spent their first two years in Africa, traveling the roads of Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. Later, they spent a year in Scandinavia, hopping from Finland to Norway and Sweden before more than six months in Iceland.And since March, the two have driven some 18,000 miles in the U.S. and Canada – from Nova Scotia to Alaska. They stopped in Aspen last week to visit a friend on their way to a winter in Mexico.”Europeans are a little bit different,” Riton Grab said.The Grabs meet other American and Canadian “full-timers” – RV drivers who live in their vehicles – but few who would venture to Africa or even to nearby Mexico.”Ninety-nine percent of Americans only travel in the United States,” Riton Grab said. “They’re always afraid.” The couple has a home in Flims, Switzerland, a small mountain town near glitzy St. Moritz. Their 38-year-old daughter lives in Switzerland, and they go home between trips, but Ruth Grab said, “We don’t have to be back.”
Like Swiss clockworkThe Unicat is completely self-sufficient, with solar panels on the roof and a retractable windmill that generates all the electricity they need. They have a diesel generator and can plug in to fill batteries, but they rarely need to.”I don’t need anything,” Riton Grab said.The vehicle can carry 260 gallons of water and just as much fuel.”A campground for us is a nightmare,” Riton Grab said. They enjoy meeting other RV travelers, but they don’t need the hook-ups and often-costly camping fees. On the road, the two often camp in Wal-Mart parking lots. And because the 480-horsepower truck can go anywhere, they also camp on “boondock” roads.The couple cooks most meals and keeps a budget of about $3,000 per month for all expenses. The interior of the Unicat is a model of Swiss efficiency, with appliances and intricate wooden sleeves that fit cups and saucers in special locking drawers.The walls are white, and the cabin is immaculate. The master of the house even makes a joke about his penchant for precision.”I like to have it clean and precise,” Riton Grab said with a smile while brewing a cup of Swiss coffee and adjusting his deluxe watch. “This is not a Timex.”Riton Grab, a retired electrical contractor, worked for Unicat briefly and helped build the $750,000 RV the couple now calls home.He customized the interior of the vehicle himself. Teak frames the windows. And there’s every modern amenity, including a flat-screen TV with satellite connection, a spacious sitting room and roomy loft area that folds down for driving.The Grabs carry a BMW motorcycle on the back of the vehicle and make lots of side trips – including recent rides along the Gunnison River and over Independence Pass – and they enjoy hiking and fishing.
Life on the roadThe bulletproof German military vehicle helps keep them safe in places like Africa. But when things go bad traveling, you don’t have much control, Grab said. A friend of his was murdered while traveling in Africa, he noted.”But you can get shot in the U.S.,” Riton said.Crossing the U.S. border ranks high in the hassles of their long journey. The Unicat arrived by ship in Nova Scotia in March. When they crossed to the U.S., the vehicle had to go through a stem-to-stern inspection, including X-ray and near-seizure of all the meat and produce the couple bought in Canada.A friendly border guard eventually waved them through, and they tossed the guard a Swiss chocolate bar to say thank you.Hearing about a homeless couple living in Aspen, the Grabs were shocked.”Homeless? In Aspen?” Riton Grab said.But it’s an impression that has stood out in their travels in the U.S.: the wide gap between the very rich and the very poor.
Riton Grab said he runs into some narrow-minded Americans sometimes. And many have told him that the U.S. is the best at everything.”It’s not true,” Riton Grab joked. “You don’t build the best cars.”Grab said the vehicle is like a boat.”Take care of it and it will last 30 years,” he said.That’s about a million miles.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org