“Nomadland” Portrays The Dark Side of RV Life

Now and then, a movie comes along that is so real and so full of truth that it almost seems impossible that it could be fictional. When you add an actress so brilliant that she can tell an entire story with her eyes, and a beautiful band of real-life nomads whose own stories are richly non-fictional, you have a recipe for an authentic masterpiece.

But as authentic as the Nomadland movie is, it uncovers some dark and uncomfortable truths about the RV life.

What is the Nomadland Movie? 

The movie Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder entitled “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” We recently listed this book as one of our top 10 RV books to read

It stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman suffering tremendous loss. She grieves her husband’s death to cancer. She also loses her job and home to the United States Gypsum plant’s closing during the Great Recession. Following the plant’s closing, she ultimately loses her place in life as the town of Empire, Nevada falls.

The movie, written and directed by Chloé Zhao, introduces fictional characters played by actors and real-life nomads. Zhao alters the stories here and there, but in truth, there is a whole lot more that is real in the movie than there is fiction.

Nomadland Shines a Light on Homelessness and Grief

Nomadland tells the story of a woman left adrift when the love of her life and the life that she loves vanishes. It is also the story of those who age out of the American dream and can no longer support a life lived within the bounds of society. These are the people for whom the American dream ultimately shows itself to be just that – a dream. A promise, and no more. 

Many have worked all their lives. But when they arrive at a certain age or lose their health and can no longer work, a “social security” system provides them with anything but security. Others struggle with joblessness or poverty from which they have never, and will never, recover. This is because they have never been offered much in the way of opportunity.

Hard Opportunities Found On The Road

In the movie Nomadland, we see Fern and many others struggling to find a way to make enough money to eat. They drive to an Amazon warehouse where they work long and hard through Amazon’s busiest seasons. They receive $15 an hour while the net worth of its leader – one man – approaches $200 billion. 

Amazon expects them. They call them the “CamperForce” and make camping areas available to them to park their vans or RVs while they work hard for a few months to survive. 

Next, the working campers, or “workampers,” can move to the sugar beet harvest. This is a grueling outdoor job involving physical, on-your-feet labor over 12-hour days with no days off for two weeks. 

Why would anyone do this? 

Well, if, like the character Fern in Nomadland, your van breaks down and you need $2500 for repairs to the vehicle. Remember that it is not only your transportation but your home, so the sugar beet harvest can offer the opportunity. 

However, you’d better be strong, healthy, and in good physical condition overall. Otherwise, this job (and most others) will not work for you.

The Full-Time RV Life Choice

It’s important to note and respect that some folks choose to live on the road in RVs and work these types of jobs because they desire and enjoy this lifestyle. 

Others choose to live on the road. These are often so-called “modern nomads” who have the opportunity to work remotely in jobs that pay well. Some bring growing children with them and show them the country.

Still, others choose to live as nomads because they don’t want to spend their days doing menial work for a company. They strive to escape the grind of working all day, coming home exhausted, grabbing a bite to eat, watching television, going to bed, and getting up the following day to do the very same thing. 

For some people, a real existential crisis emerges. They realize that they’re working to sustain a life they’re unable to live.

Some younger nomads don’t have to come to a crisis point to recognize they need a change. Some choose to live a life that defies the consumerism that owns the lives of many people around them.

Others have a true wanderlust and choose not to live a static lifestyle. They’re happiest on the road.

Data from the RV Industry Association suggests over a million Americans choose a full-time RV lifestyle. They live in comfortable mobile homes, have downsized on purpose, and live on the road seeking adventure and a new way of life. The RVIA data doesn’t include the many people who live intentional nomadic lives in converted school buses and vans. 

Nomadland, however, is not about these people. 

Nomadland is about people struggling to exist as older Americans, poor Americans, or both. It tells the story of people lost to American society’s promises. People who cannot pay rent or afford health insurance, heat, or a trip to the dentist.

Vanlife and Homelessness – Not Everyone Chooses The Nomad Lifestyle

Some folks are forced into a life of nomadism. They literally can not sustain a lifestyle that involves paying a mortgage on a house or rent for an apartment. 

Most of these people can’t afford a decent RV to move into when forced into nomadism. Many live in old vans or even in cars. They fix themselves a place to sleep in the vehicle, a makeshift table, and some semblance of storage for the few possessions they own. They cook cheap canned foods on a small propane stove.

The Difficult Lives of Some Older American Nomads

Many senior citizens in America live on a stark fixed income – or no income at all in some cases. Even people who have worked for 40 years find themselves with precious little income when they’re no longer desirable workers. Many are forced out of the workforce due to age, compromised health, or reduced strength. 

The promise of social security – a system paid into week after week after week for decades, becomes $800 a month, a significant portion of which pays for Medicare. 

Now, imagine an elder American who has to get by little more than $350-600 a month to cover the basics of life. These bills include rent or mortgage, medications, other medical expenses, car expenses and insurance, a telephone, and food. Can you figure out how to cover the basics of life on $600 a month? 

Many American elders are facing precisely that question. 

For some, the only option is removing the “rent or mortgage” slice of the pie and living in their vehicles. And even then, they can barely get by. These are our elders. Many are veterans. This disparity of wealth in the richest nation on Earth is stunning. It illuminates what we see portrayed in the movie Nomadland.

Bob Wells and the Cheap RV Living YouTube Channel

An “RV YouTuber” and author makes an appearance in the film. His name is Bob Wells.

Bob Wells is a man who, when he found himself divorced and unable to sustain the financial burden of rent, moved into an old box truck. He lived there for the next six years while working at a local grocery store in Anchorage, Alaska. After his father passed in his early 60’s, he realized that he didn’t want to live a life like his dad’s. His father worked hard for decades toward retirement and then dying before he could enjoy it. 

Bob Wells has been living in a van ever since.

In 2015, Mr. Wells started a website and a YouTube channel called “CheapRVLiving.” He offers support, instructions, and videos explaining how to modify a vehicle to serve as a home on wheels and how to live in a vehicle. He also conducts interviews with other van dwellers.

This channel gained popularity over time. People intrigued by life on the road or desperate to find a way to live without paying substantial amounts of money for rent turned to CheapRVLiving for guidance. 

To this day, Mr. Wells is a champion of nomads and serves the community in myriad ways. A leader and a coach of sorts, Bob Wells has found purpose and meaning in helping others to live a life of nomadism, whether out of desire or necessity.

The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous and Community

In Nomadland, Fern travels to Arizona for a desert winter gathering organized by Bob Wells. 

In 2011, Mr. Wells started a community for nomads when he founded the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (often referred to as the “RTR”). Mr. Wells organized a gathering that would educate those looking to live the nomadic lifestyle, by need or by choice, in the ways of life on the road. He did so to open the possibility of nomadic life to people who needed or sought that possibility.

In the first year, the RTR found less than 50 people gathered, but in the subsequent year, upwards of 3,000 people came together to learn how to embrace the nomadic life. 

The next year, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous outgrew its original location in the desert area known as Scadden Wash, east of Quartzsite. Thousands drove to Arizona in their homes on wheels to experience the RTR, in search of the like-minded, the ones who understand the nomadic life and will show the ropes to those who don’t fully understand it…yet. 

Most relevant, however, is the sense of community the RTR offers to nomads, as we see clearly in the movie Nomadland. They learn from one another. They share tips, and meals, and talents, and even possessions. And they build friendships that last well beyond the days of the RTR. For people who live mostly introverted lives as nomads, that community can be the difference between desperation and desire, irrelevance and significance.

About The Home on Wheels Alliance

Bob Wells came to discover the vast number of people who need to find a way to live safely in their vehicles. He began to think about how he could use his influence to obtain suitable vehicles for people who need to live in them. In 2019, he formed The Home on Wheels Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. 

The organization provides safe and secure homes on wheels for its beneficiaries and improvements to dwellings they already have that require repair. Mostly nomadic volunteers run this organization. They also provide transitional assistance into the nomadic lifestyle, and they connect new nomads with other nomads for support and friendship.

Bob Wells, President of HOWA, explains the organization’s mission, in part, in the following words:

“With those who come to us, we are honoring a person who has made a hard decision to no longer be resigned to a life of quiet desperation. While it’s true that for nearly all of our new friends, there is an element of running away from a bad situation, there is also an excitement of running toward something that is worth the risk.”

Nomad Life Isn’t Always a Choice, But There Are Resources to Thrive On The Road

As the movie Nomadland portrayed, not all nomads choose to be nomads. 

Some are thrown into the lifestyle (as the fictional Fern and the real-life Bob Wells were) due to hardship. But the beauty of Nomadland happens in the friendships Fern forged in her path and the sense of community she found in the middle of the desert with other nomads. 

And the beauty of real-life nomadism is found there as well. It’s found in people who understand one another in a meaningful way. In people who share their belongings, their food, and their stories. In people who lend one another a hand and teach one another how to be comfortable in their new way of life. 

These people genuinely care for one another, don’t pass judgment on one another, and listen by the crackle of the campfire at night. Then, they pledge to see one another down the road the next morning.

Through The Darkness, Light Emerges

Nomadland may be a movie that serves to portray a different side to the nomadic lifestyle. 

But is it truly a dark side? 

Perhaps what the movie does best is show us a dark side of life that becomes bright with a communion of hearts shining through the desert dust.

How To Watch Nomadland

Nomadland is available to stream on Hulu. Click Here to Watch on Hulu

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