When you hear the word nomad, what do you think of? The Bedouin in the Arabian desert? Now, what about American nomad? Maybe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind, dust bowl families on a wagon heading to California to escape poverty. Or, maybe the famous image of the migrant mother with her children captured by photographer Dorothea Lange (1936). Or in more recent years, Jeannette Walls’ family when she was a child in The Glass Castle (2005).
Journalist Jessica Bruder has followed some modern-day nomads and chronicled their lives in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. These are van and RV dwellers in California, Nevada, Arizona and several other Western States. Many of them are fallout of the 2008 financial meltdown when they lost their homes, jobs and investments. In the book, Bruder stayed close with them for a year, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, LaVonne and many others, all in their 60’s and 70’s but still active as itinerant workers. What she has revealed in her book is eye-opening.
Linda is a sixty-four-year-old grandmother. She drives a salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Towed behind the jeep is her home, a trailer she calls the “Squeeze Inn.” It’s a “fiberglass relic” built in 1974. Inside dimension is ten feet from end to end and room enough for Linda to stand up straight. “It’s 5’3” inside and I am 5’2”… Perfect fit,” she says. A positive outlook is the sustenance of the nomads Bruder has come to know personally in her research in situ.
Linda has worked as a Camp Host, which pays $8.50 per hour for her to welcome campers, settle them in, clean toilets, maintain campground, and be a service person and problem solver at all hours. She also belongs to CamperForce, an Amazon labour source made up of mostly workers in their 60’s and 70’s living in vans and trailers parked on RV lots near Amazon warehouses. When not walking miles on the concrete field of these warehouses during her 10-hour night shift, Linda would find work at outdoor crop harvests or camp sites.
In 2011, United States Gypsum shut down its mine in Empire, Nevada. As a result, the USG company town was emptied as its whole population rented their homes from the company. Empire became a ghost town, its Zip Code discontinued. Seventy miles to the south of Empire was a convergence of a different kind of town around Fernley. They were itinerant workers living in RV, trailers, and vans parked on RV lots. They belong to a population described by the new term ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs for low wages.
In her book, Bruder points to Bob Wells’ influence on many of these homeowner-turned vandwellers. For twenty years, Wells has been preaching anti-consumerism. The guru of modern-day nomadic life spreads his message of simple and mortgage-free living on his YouTube channel and website CheapRVLiving.com, bonus is staying close to the land and nature, but above all, being self-sufficient. With the 2008 economic meltdown, many saw the positive message Wells was preaching.
Wells also created RTR, Rubber Tramp Rendevous, which takes place every January in Quartzsite, Arizona. It is a popular annual meet-up of campdwellers coming together for support, camaraderie, and education. There are seminars and classes to learn all sorts of essential knowledge and skills related to RV living or just general living. Some of these courses include solar cooking, get out of debt, living in small cars, and the art of stealth parking (puzzled? Google it)
Bruder’s book is a detailed coverage of a marginal population. It’s full of relevant statistics, background information and interviews, all approached and presented to highlight their humanity as she followed and befriended the vandwellers. We come to know them as respectable human beings seeking an alternative way of living away from the rat race. Unfortunately, their toiling inside humungous Amazon warehouses could well be an inevitable but poignant irony. It might not convert you to become a vandweller, but Bruder’s matter-of-fact reportage could have its effects in loosening our grip on consumerism and the necessities of living.
Now, can such a non-fiction book be turned into a movie? It’s been done and the feature film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in their scaled-down, Pandemic mode. Indeed, Covid-19 has made us re-think many basic assumptions of life and modern day living. Nomadland the film has the power to shake us to the core.
Directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017), a master in blending documentary and fiction, the film puts Bruder’s book subjects Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells onto the big screen. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017) mingles in with her self-effacing role as a vandweller, perfect casting in this inspiring docudrama. The cinematography is exceptional, the score soul-stirring. Look for it when it is released in December later this year.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 273 pages.