You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to do it,
and still end up broke, alone, and homeless.
–– Bob Wells
I’ve found all space is hallowed ground,
If we will but look around
In our sacred search for the New Earth.
Queens of the Road!
–– Sylvianne Delmars
At last weekend’s Search for Meaning literary festival at Seattle University, there was a multitude of interesting authors speaking on “topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life.” The challenge was to select only one out of nineteen offerings per hourly session. That was tough for for an indecisively curious omnivore like me. Among the choices were “Rain: A History for Stormy Times,” “Spotlighting Forgotten Injustices Through Historical Fiction,” “Competing Fundamentalisms: The Violent Face of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism,” “The Tao of Raven,” “Writing on the Canvas of Eternity,” and “The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.”
I was a little surprised by where I ended up––in Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland: Surviving in the Shadow of the American Economy.” Instead of sticking to a well-hewn path of accustomed interests, I felt pulled aside by the strange and unfamiliar, like Moses yanked off course by the unlikely voice from a burning bush. The analogy may seem grandiose, but the session, and the book it led me to read, turned out to be a revelation which continues to haunt me.[i]
Jessica Bruder is a journalist who spent three years immersed in the alternative world of “vandwellers”––the “houseless” (not “homeless”) ascetics,[ii] mostly of retirement age, who wander the marginal spaces of America, surviving on ingenuity, grit and arduous seasonal labor. In her beautifully written book, Nomadland, she documents the daunting challenges and indomitable spirits of downwardly mobile elders who find ways to survive the hardships and cruelties of an economic system whose shocking inequality puts America near last place among developed nations.
The foreclosure crisis and the 2008 crash only accelerated the ongoing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Three American billionaires––Bezos, Buffet and Gates–– are now worth more than the bottom half of the whole U.S. population. Wages remain stagnant or falling while the system continues to suck money upward, stranding the majority in a barren waste of meager scraps. Nearly half of middle class workers contemplate a food budget of $5 a day in retirement, while one in six American households now spends more than 50% of their income on shelter (the recommended maximum is 30%).
As Bruder writes, the choices are becoming excruciating for many: “Would you rather have food or dental work? Pay your mortgage or your electric bill? Make a car payment or buy medicine? Cover rent or student loans? Purchase warm clothes or gas for your commute?”[iii]
For the elders who have played by society’s rules all their lives, the prospect of perpetual misery in their golden years has prompted them to go off the grid and live in the margins. They dump their biggest expense––housing––and take to the roads in RVs, vans and campers, for “a life just a little freer, a little more autonomous, and less anxiety-ridden, a little closer to their heart’s desires.”[iv] This rapidly expanding nomadic movement has been dubbed “the Old Rush.”
As Sylvianne Delmars, age 60, puts it in her “Vandweller’s Anthem” (to the tune of “King of the Road”):
Old beat-up high-top van,
Like livin’ in a large tin can.
No rent, no rules, no man,
I ain’t tied to no plot of land.[v]
Bruder describes vandwellers as “conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupted social order. Whether or not they choose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.”[vi] It is not an easy life; for many of us, it is almost unimaginable. In my youth I sometimes slept in my car outside of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, enjoying pleasant evenings of reading in its luxurious public interiors before retiring to my free lodging in the parking lot. It was hardly comparable to the rigors of nomadic life, but that tiny taste of slipping beneath the system’s radar returned when I read Bruder’s book.
Nomadland left me in awe of the enterprising can-do spirit of the vandwellers, who generously share their hard-earned survival knowledge both online and in tribal gatherings. “Boondocking” is one of the most essential topics: learning to be self-sufficient in the boondocks, without any hookups to electricity or water, using solar panels, gas generators and water tanks. “Stealth parking” is also a vital skill: how and where to park overnight or longer in towns and cities without getting the dreaded “knock” on your vehicle’s window.
Even such a radically frugal and improvisational lifestyle requires infusions of cash, which “workampers” earn through seasonal labor. They may flip your burger at a Cactus league game, take your ticket at NASCAR races, staff tourist traps like Wall Drug, run the rides at amusement parks, lift your Christmas tree onto your car roof, or guard the gate at a Texas oil field.
The three jobs which Bruder treats in detail are campground host, beet picker and “CamperForce,” Amazon’s motivational euphemism for shopping season warehouse temps. All three are physically hard and verge on exploitation. But since the work is temporary, the justice questions are not pursued. As long as the seasonal end remains in sight, there seems to be tacit agreement by both employers and workers to live with necessary evils.
“Get paid to go camping!” is a typical recruiting slogan for campground hosting, where you are paid for 30 hours a week even if the job really requires 45 long hours of cleaning, maintenance and managing. That leaves hosts little time––or energy––to enjoy the natural beauty. You work for a private concessionaire hired by government agencies who look the other way if you lodge a complaint, and you can be terminated at any time without cause. But the literature still insists that “retirement has never been this fun!”
Signing up for an autumn beet harvest in North Dakota, Bruder spent a short time working twelve-hour shifts, dodging beet bits and dirt clods flying off a conveyer belt while holding vinyl sacks to collect beets pouring down a vertical chute. “It felt like catching bowling balls in a pillowcase,” she says. Although she was 30 years younger than many of her co-workers, her whole body hurt at the end of every day.[vii]
Her experience at Amazon, though, provides the most harrowing reading in the book. It reminded me of the factory scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where workers are mere cogs in a rigidly determined mechanism. In an Amazon warehouse, you are constantly under the eye of your masters. Your scanner sets off a timer monitored by computers. Take too long walking to your next scan, and a supervisor will suddenly appear to deliver a reprimand. At the end of the day, you endure a 30-minute (unpaid) wait in a security line to be screened as a potential thief.
Amazon loves the elderly plug-and-play labor force. They are conscientious workers, and few complain about the lack of benefits. But it’s grueling work for aging bodies: walking 15 miles a day on concrete in a warehouse the size of 13 football fields, going up and down stairs, lifting 50 pound loads in 90 degree heat, injuring arms, back and shoulders, or getting “trigger-finger,” a repetitive strain from operating barcode scanners.
The motivational newsletters are cheerful about “getting paid to exercise,” power walking the vast spaces to lose weight and get those “buns of steel.” But the ubiquitous wall dispensers full of free painkillers tell a different story. The 68-year-old former university academic advisor who begins and ends every Amazon workday with 4 ibuprofen is not untypical.
Although CamperForce recruiters advertise the fun of camaraderie and friendship with fellow workers (“worth more than money!”), Bruder’s own conversations during an “undercover” stint in an Amazon warehouse sometimes felt “like talking to prison inmates. It was tempting to cut through the pleasantries and ask, ‘What are you in for?’” [viii]
Some workampers take pride in surviving the ordeal of a demanding seasonal job, like the marathoner or Camino pilgrim who embraces physical hardship as a spiritual trial. Disparagement of “whiners” and slackers is not uncommon. But Bruder also records instances of joy and pleasure even in the rough stretches. “The truth as I see it,” she writes, “is that people can both 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.”[ix]
Nomads live for the day when the work ends and they can return to the road, where open space and distant horizons provide the allure of reinvention, or at least escape. Many of them are loners, thriving on solitude and detachment and treasuring their self-sufficiency. But like the Christian desert hermits of the ancient world, they also take genuine joy in the community of tribal gatherings, such as the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.
For two weeks every winter, thousands of vandwellers gather in Quartzsite, Arizona, to trade nomadic wisdom, share stories of work and travel, renew friendships, and bask in the love of a community that loves and accepts them. As veteran nomad Bob Wells has suggested on his popular website, CheapRVLiving, “In many ways we vandwellers are just like the Mountain Men of old: We need to be alone and on the move, but we equally need to occasionally gather together and make connections with like-minded people who understand us.”[x] Or as another nomad describes the experience of community where no one feels a stranger, “This is what family looks like.”
Another blogger, LaVonne Ellis, conveys the sense of melancholy when the Rendezvous ends: “One by one, they are leaving for other places. I will see some of them again, I’m sure, but this sadness is an inevitable consequence of nomadic living. People come and go in your life. You don’t get to hang on to them forever.”[xi]
Nomadland’s chief protagonist, 64-year-old Linda May, dreams of settling into a permanent home of her own, beyond the reach of consumer society, “something she owned free and clear, something that could outlast her.”[xii] Others resign themselves to endless wandering until they become “bleached bones in the desert.” And some hold dear the final image of Thelma and Louise––as if they too will one day vanish into an unimaginable beyond. But few seem to look backward, or dream about the day when they can return to their former life.
Perhaps, Bruder suggests, the vandwellers “are analogous to what biologists call an ‘indicator species’––sensitive organisms with the capacity to signal much larger shifts in an ecosystem.” Some even hope that this nomadic phenomenon foreshadows the emergence of “a wandering tribe whose members could operate outside of––or even transcend––the fraying social order: a parallel world on wheels.”[xiii]
Nomadland left me with so many questions about our unjust and damaging system, and my own participation in it. Can I ever buy another book from Amazon without thinking of the exhausted person who has to walk miles to retrieve it? Will I start to see the nomadic elders beneath the cloak of social invisibility? How will my own comforts and privileged insularity be challenged by these stories of struggle and pain? And are there any alternative to our nation’s passive acquiescence to the insatiable predations of the one-percent?
Bruder’s remarkable book is unsettling, but it is by no means a downer. She has given us a life-affirming, inspiring and often funny read, filled with engaging and memorable characters––not just survivors, but pioneers, pointing the way toward a world more free, more just, and more loving. Whether any vandwellers finally reach that future of human flourishing, or provoke the rest of us to try the same, their single-minded pursuit of something radically better cracks open the cave of our collective complacencies to admit the light of New Possibility.
It wouldn’t be the first time a desert drop-out performed such a divine labor.
[i] Jessica Bruder’s book is Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).
[ii] I employ this largely religious term because the nomads’ rejection of the dominant system, their practices of radical simplification, and their love of the desert seems akin to the monastic flight to the wilderness in the third and fourth centuries. I will say more about this in another post.
[iii] Nomadland, xii.
[iv] David A. Thornburg, Galloping Bungalows: The Rise and Demise of the American House Trailer (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991), q. in Nomadland, 76.
[v] Sylvianne K. Delmars, “Queen of the Road,” q. in Nomadland, 17. Her song is also quoted in the epigraph. Her blog is Silvianne Wanders: The Adventures of a Cosmic Change Agent.
[vi] Nomadland, 204. Bruder is paraphrasing Bob Wells, drawing on his book, How to Live in a Car, Van, or RV: And Get Out of Debt, Travel, & Find True Freedom (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).
[vii] Ibid., 187.
[viii] Ibid., 57.
[ix] Ibid., 164-5.
[x] RTR invitation posted in January, 2014, on Bob Wells’ website, cheaprvliving.com, q. in Nomadland, 136. I also quote Mr. Wells in the epigraph.
[xi] Posted on LaVonne Ellis’ blog, completeflake.com, q. in Nomadland, 157.
[xii] Nomadland, 235.
[xiii] Ibid., 247, 79.