Thoughts from a Nomad on Nomadland

Critically acclaimed, released into a post-Covid movie theater reality, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d not seen or even heard of the Academy Award nominated movie, Nomadland. The film follows a fictional vanlifer named Fern as she travels on a numbing quest through the shadowlands of a little explored side of the USA – the wastelands of the Great Recession.

Formerly employed in a factory town and married to a husband lost to illness, Fern has taken up the life with which I am intimately familiar. On her journey she meets other fellow nomads often played by real people caught up in their own endless, melancholy road trip.

There’s an alcoholic who’s addiction led to burnt bridges with his family. A terminally ill woman searching for a quiet place to die. A wandering campervan messiah preaching the way of the road and telling deeply sorrowful tales about his lost son.

Throughout her journeys, Fern processes beets, cleans toilets, shuffles Amazon packages alongside tireless robots, and hosts at one of the bleakest campgrounds I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen quite a few…). All the while, she’s constantly on the move not by choice, but as a means to escape her personal demons.

It’s a decent flick. And it gets many things right about nomad living. Some people do take to the lifestyle out of necessity, not choice. There are some deep inequities in our system many Americans would rather not face. Medical expenses can absolutely devastate a person or family’s finances and as much as the runaway stock market wants to hide it, we’re still all paying for the downstream effects of the Great Recession where many people fell through the cracks and never surfaced.

I’ve also seen the exploitative side of nomad living with the movie showcases. Seasonal or transient workers absolutely get taken advantage of by employers. You have to be very careful about who you agree to work for and very clear about the compensation.

You’re often trading your time for their profit, only earning a parking spot and utilities at best. Many unscrupulous owners will take full advantage of the situation, making unreasonable demands or using you to provide skilled labor which they’d rather not pay for.

You have to be clear about the limits.

In Oregon and California, I’ve also seen the vast encampments of the homeless. People who maybe once had a house or a van or an RV and who now have nothing. The fine line between living on the road by choice and by circumstance breaks down into a indistinguishable blur.

There is absolutely a darkness there. A truth most Americans would rather not acknowledge. Nomadland relentlessly tours that fine line.

If a person with no understanding of the nomad life walked away from this movie believing the lifestyle was a hellscape, I’d forgive them. There are bad aspects, just as in every human endeavor.

But for me, this isn’t some tragic happening. For me this is and has always been a choice. I am living my best life on the road. Not some mobile haunting of my former existence.

Maaike and I planned this. We intentionally sold our two story house and most of our possessions to buy a house on wheels. We spent two years in a smaller rental house to transition. We even tried to start a business which we could run remotely to ensure we had as much time and money as humanely possible to enjoy our journey.

That business failed. And yes, it cost us a large sum of money. This wasn’t a catalyst forcing us onto the open road though, just a minor setback.

Instead of being able to completely abandon traditional work, I volunteer and she works her old job remotely to make this life possible (a pre-pandemic insight we both shared about the inevitability of telecommuting.)

We aren’t facing tragedy or hardship. We’re living life to the fullest and discovering just how out of balance the world we left behind is.

One scene in Nomadland alludes to this when the vanlife messiah addresses his gathering in the nomad mecca Quartzite, Arizona. He makes references to the unsustainable lifestyles society asks us to lead – economically, ecologically, and personally. All of these motivators for my own journey and things I’ve only come to understand more deeply as the odometer spins.

A sliver of hope in an otherwise depressing film. Not that those sorts of movies can’t be good, but as a window into my life, it fails quite miserably.

Of the fellow nomads I’ve met, only few seemed to be victims of circumstance with no other options or little hope. They’ve been excited about their lives on the road. Many planned the switch or came into it from stable jobs where pensions and travelling or telecommuting work was the norm. They’ve been young, old, married, and single. Millennials, Boomers, Gen Xers. All generations. All walks of life.

All of them excited about where the road will take them next.

Watch Nomadland for some hard truths. Realize though that it isn’t representative of everyone’s experience out here on America’s highways. We have quite a ways to go, certainly, but I’ve got a full tank and plenty of freedom to figure out how I get there.

Categories: Journeys

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