Nomadland by Jessica Bruder is an authentic piece of journalism about Americans fed up with our social systems which consistently rob middle-class Americans of things they felt were part of the ‘social contract.’ In a land where our Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), we assume that our government would not legislate against our rights.
Although governing is complicated it seems clear to most of us ‘bottom dwellers’ that our laws have been skewed to advantage the wealthy. When the wealthy play with the stock market and the economy to tweak it so they can get wealthier it hurts those whose finances are least secure. We are taught that consumption is good. We are dazzled by credit card offers that allow us to live well.
But when the rich go too far and we land in the Great Depression or the Great Recession people at the bottom, perhaps those very folks who believed the promise of credit as a road to comfort, fall off the economic scale.
They lose a job, they age out of the job market, they can’t pay their mortgage, they can’t afford health insurance and a major health crisis hits, their long time employer goes bankrupt and they lose their pension, or they are a widowed housewife who now has to live on the abbreviated Social Security they get from their dead husband’s account.
These are the people who sell their homes or lose their homes, who refuse to be homeless, who can find employment but not unless they travel to where employers are hiring. They buy a van or an RV, new or used depending on how much they were able to salvage from their previous life.
They outfit their RV, or van, or bus, or even just their car using lots of advice from those who have set out on this journey before them. They make places to bed down, they deal with how they will get electricity and water if they end up at a campsite with no amenities, they add solar panels hiding them if possible because they are not allowed to have them in some places where they camp, and they figure out what to do about showers and wastes.
There are websites for this. On Reddit there is a thread called ‘vandwellers’. There are searchable maps on a site like FreeCampsites.net, Allstays.com. There is a Wallydocking app. There are websites for Workampers who are seeking jobs to pay for their expenses, to possibly save up for a more comfortable van experience.
Jessica Bruder is a journalist, a writer. When she decided to write about this population she had a hard time getting vandwellers to speak to her. The media had not been kind; they tended to eventually get around to using the word ‘homeless’ which is offensive to vandwellers. These nomads tell the author that they have nothing against the ‘homeless,’ they are just not at all homeless. They have a home; it just is not anchored in one place.
Because the National Park Service allows campers only fourteen days on a site, vandwellers have to move frequently. You can work as a camp host, cleaning bathrooms and campsites, checking in campers, stay for an entire season, and get paid, but these jobs are being eliminated.
Amazon hires workampers at Christmastime but these jobs are difficult for seniors as they involve walking for many miles on the concrete warehouse floors, bending and rising, and hefting a weighty scanner that keeps track of your every move. Workampers consider the challenges worth the rewards, although some do not make it in these physically taxing jobs.
Bruder makes friends with a camper named Linda May and she finally outfits a van of her own, which she names Halen, and joins Linda at sites vandwellers frequent, such as Quartzite, Arizona (The Gathering Place) and the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. She gets to listen to and learn from many vandwellers when she actually lives the life. Swankie Wheels is one of her sources, Bob Wells who started the website CheapRVLiving.com, Silvianne the astrologer, someone called Ghost Dancer.
One of her sources tells her, “[w]e’re facing the first ever reversal in retirement security in modern US history. Starting with the baby boomer, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards…” (pg. 62) Another source says, “[b[y moving into vans and other vehicles people could become conscientious objectors to the system that had failed them. They could be reborn into lives of freedom and adventure.” (pg. 75)
Bruder writes, “[w]hile it’s human nature to put on a good face in turbulent times — and to present that face to strangers – something else was also appearing among the nomads. The truth as I see it is that most people struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning, and kinship when confronted with adversity. In other words the nomads I’d been interviewing for months were neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers” (pp. 164-5)
Linda May is an especially interesting and aware vandweller. Beset by adversity she still has a grand plan to build an “Earthship” of dirt-packed tires and to get off the grid on her own land. As Nomadland ends she sets foot on the property she has saved for, searched for and purchased, and she is getting ready to build. She has made friends along the way who have promised to help.
The author finds it hard to leave the vandwellers and return to her own life to write the book she has researched and she concludes in this way:
“The most widely accepted measure for calculating income inequality is a century old formula called the Gini coefficient. It’s a gold standard for economists around the globe, along with the World Bank, the CIA, and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. What it reveals is startling. Today the United States has the most unequal society of all developed nations. America’s level of inequality is comparable to that of Russia, China, Argentina, and the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.” (pg. 247)
Obviously, I also have had some trouble leaving the vandwellers behind as I continue to digest the details of life on the road and the philosophies that maintain those whose lives have become nomadic. I worry that this could happen to me, or indeed, anyone I know. I have a friend who chooses to be nomadic for a portion of the year, but he and his wife own two expensive properties. Not the same thing at all.
The fact that women are safe and able to pursue this lifestyle if it becomes necessary helps lift my spirits a bit but the thought of 10-hour shifts at an Amazon warehouse to keep me in groceries has the opposite effect. It’s as if we are playing a game where colorful ‘peebles’ are lined up on a shelf and as new ‘peebles’ are added at the front end of the shelf, identical looking ‘peebles’ are falling off the shelf at the other end. Are you ready for Nomadland? Check out more of what Jessica Bruder learned and do a bit of soul-searching.