In 2017, I was given the opportunity by W. W. Norton to read an advanced reader’s copy of Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. Before I had a chance to read the book, a sibling’s health failed requiring my immediate and later long term assistance. The book slipped into my too-be-read pile. With all the hype of the movie deal and Academy Award nomination, I remembered I had the book. Much to my surprise I found myself relating to many of the characters. The plights of the women covered in the book felt like déjà vu from my personal life when the rug was yanked out from under me years ago.
It was a hard book to read. It was a painful eye-opening experience. The houseless seeking refuge all around us hoping to be hidden in plain view. Look for that older RV that has been parked at the back of your Walmart parking lot for days. The campsite in the forest with a clothesline and a popup port-a-potty shelter that has been there for weeks. Everyone hoping to be seen as normal. All dreading that “three hard knocks” on the door from authorities ordering them to move on like a stray dog.
So how did Jessica Bruder become aware of the Nomadland subculture of “houseless nomads”? Purportedly it all began after reading a Mother Jones cover story that featured an undercover reporter in an Amazon warehouse. An elderly man, working a seasonal job for Amazon, revealed that he lived in an RV full time, “I can’t afford to retire and there’s a whole program [called Amazon Camper Force] for people like me.”
After three years of immersive research, Jessica Bruder has exposed, in Nomadland, a growing number of “houseless” seniors 50+ to 70+ most unable able to pay mortgages or rent and still buy food and prescriptions. These are folks that bought into the American Dream. They believed if you got an education, worked hard, invested wisely, and purchased a home that build equity over the years you could count on cozy retirement years.
These are people in their “golden years” now struggling to stay independent and self-sufficient. They live in outdated RVs, SUVs or tents finding temporary work at low paying and physically demanding seasonal jobs. Extended families like the Walton’s no long exist. Times are gone where adult children could help their aging parents. It went the way of the rotary phone and milk delivery man. There children, too, are caught up with rising costs and stagnant incomes.
These gas-powered prairie wagons crisscross the country working the Christmas rush doing 12-14 hours shifts at Amazon warehouses; hired as seasonal camp hosts at campgrounds dealing with rowdy campers and daily toilet clearing routines; recruited for backbreaking jobs on beet farms or blueberry harvests; working as carnival staff collecting tickets and manning the tilt-a-wheel ride in the blistering heat.
You would think that reducing your life to the interior of your car or a 10 foot tear-drop trailer would make you dark and dismal to be around but that is far from the truth. It is a vibrant and caring sub-culture that finds joy and peace in the simpler life. They gather annually in Quartzsite, Arizona for a convention of sorts. Friendships are renewed, new comers to the life style are given guidance, vendors offer products useful to campers, and nationwide companies offering flowery descriptions of backbreaking work opportunities. Smart phones provide internet access to the “normal” world. Youtube videos and Facebook sites offer guidance on simplifying your life and some creative entrepreneurs have thriving online businesses working from the front seat of their vehicles.
And yes, some of the people have the means to live in luxury RVs. They have chosen to live a downsized existence freed of “things” and traded in lawn mowers for lawn chairs beside a beautiful lake.
Nomadland has pulled the Band-Aid off this growing subculture growing within our aging population. Bruder has shown strong comradery and supportive help within the caravan family for each other. But burrowing down to the individual level, each harbors a dreadful fear of future. What will happen to me when I can no long work?
No one at this time has an answer for them.