“Despite a lack of hard numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests the ranks of American itinerants started to boom after the housing collapse and have kept growing.” (50)
I’m not sure how I first stumbled on the Youtube videos, but I love camping and traveling. I was intrigued and excited when a video showed me how to build a plywood bed so I could comfortably sleep in my Rav4 (with storage underneath!). It’s amazing to see the creativity and ingenuity of how people have turned their vehicles into adventure mobiles or homes: whether it’s a Prius, a tricked-out Sprinter van, or a luxurious fifth wheel.
It wasn’t long before I found Bob Wells’s Youtube channel, CheapRVliving. Wells has a collection of helpful videos showcasing people’s homes on wheels and giving helpful hints for the road, including bathing, solar power, and bathrooms. I’ve seen many older women on his videos showing off their car, van, or trailer from which they’ve been living. Some of them have only a scant social security or disability check for all their expenses, and they’re making it work with as little as $600 per month. They often say that they are much happier seeing the country and living primarily on public lands than spending all their money on a dingy apartment.
So, when I saw Nomadland (2017) by Jessica Bruder, I was already pretty familiar with many aspects of this nomadic lifestyle. However, I was interested to see whether she had a broader perspective. Bruder primarily focuses on Linda May and her dog Coco as she sets out to work nomadic jobs around the country and live in her trailer, which she calls “The Squeeze Inn.” Linda May had been living on her children’s couch, but they were having their own problems and Linda May was desperate for her own space.
What was most disheartening was seeing what kind of work Linda May and other retired-age workers were doing to get money for their lives and travels. Common jobs often include campsite hosts, Amazon warehouse workers, and beet harvesters. It is very physical and demanding. And because they are temporary workers, they have no health care or protection. One woman slipped and fell, hitting her head at an Amazon warehouse. She was sent home without pay and went back to work the next day because she needed the money.
Bruder also discussed the RTR. Short for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, this is a gathering in the middle of winter in Arizona. It is organized by Bob Wells from CheapRVliving and has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years. Since many of Wells’s videos are filmed at various RTR’s, I was already very familiar with these gatherings. Bruder uses them to show the camaraderie and assistance that this group of people provides for each other.
On the whole, I found this book interesting. I’d seen many women like Linda May on Bob Wells’s videos, and it was helpful to understand a little better where she came from and what challenges she faced. I was familiar with many of the work camping jobs, but I did not realize so many older people were doing such hard physical labor to make ends meet. (Amazon apparently gets a tax break for hiring older people). However, I did find Bruder’s attempts at working these various jobs somewhat off putting. She didn’t have to work there, and she would quit after only a week or two at each job. It definitely allowed her to describe the jobs in a more detailed and personal manner. However, choosing to do something difficult or unpleasant for a week is very different from having to do something for months to survive. It reminded me a little of “Common People” by Pulp.
It should be mentioned that this cheap RV living phenomenon and this book is almost exclusively about older, white people. It is probably not surprising that many minorities would not feel comfortable living out of their vehicles as they traveled through the small communities that surround public lands. Bruder mentions the lack of diversity but does not examine it closely. It would be interesting to see how some older minorities in similar financial straits are dealing with their lack of a safety net as they age.
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