“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
~ William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
You may call them full-time campers or nomads but never, ever, refer to them as homeless, or you will get an “earful.” They are not homeless; they have homes. Their homes just happen to be vans, RVs and camper trailers – houses on wheels.
Nomads are growing in number each year. Some work remotely; others have no other option than to live in a wheeled home such as a van or car. And some prefer full-time camping to life in the suburbs with a secure job they detest.
A career national park ranger who has seen a lot of campers come and go in her day once told me, “Bad luck and ill fate force some people out on the road, while for others, indulging in wanderlust is a luxury.”
But who chooses to leave the assurance of comfort, and why?
The new American nomad comes in all ages, ethnicities, professions, religions, politics, beliefs and genders. That said, we can narrow down some of the common motivations for the recent growth of this subculture that, until recently, was under the radar.
For most of us, voluntarily cutting our cord to a secure job, house and family would be difficult. For others, the whole idea of breaking away from the responsibilities that come with a conventional lifestyle may offer adventure and the fulfillment of a dream.
The financial meltdown of 2008 set the stage for a huge increase in bankruptcies and homelessness. Wealth inequality was more evident than ever – remember the Occupy Wall Street movement?
The most accessible jobs today are low-wage positions, generally part-time. Our social safety nets are fraying at the edges. Few jobs offer much in the way of benefits, particularly medical, and pensions are now a relic of the past.
The United States has been ripe for a resurgence of people packing it in and hitting the road for a least a decade.
Like those associated with the oil and gas industry, remote workers account for many of the full-timers who live in RVs and camping trailers. When their current job winds down, workers simply move their home to the next job site.
The movie Nomadland is a fictional account of Jessica Bruder’s superb book on the nomad phenomenon. The migrating workers depicted in the film seek temporary jobs to resupply their coffers before moving to another location and another job.
Fern, the protagonist in the film, becomes homeless when a major gypsum company in Nevada shuts its doors, leaving her community a ghost town of only windblown tumbleweed.
To survive she lives in a van and joins a community of others living the same lifestyle.
Working temporary jobs at an Amazon fulfillment center and maintenance work in private campgrounds keeps her afloat financially. Yet, she does not stay anywhere long, and as we see in the movie, she wishes it to stay that way.
One senses that Fern’s life is one of searching for something that she lost along the way, something that may not be waiting for her at the end of the road. The movie and book are very worthy of your time.
Those who choose the road for a better life:
On a road trip to British Columbia in 2015 to pick up a new camper, I found the perfect opportunity to strike up conversations with the new nomads of America.
I targeted the private campgrounds, ones like KOA, Good Samaritan, and a host of mom and pop operations. Unlike public campgrounds, these facilities have an area set aside for permanent campers, who often have jobs at the campground.
In a Montana KOA, I met a couple in their late 50s who shared their story with me. They hailed from Des Moines, Iowa, and they had three adult children and several grandchildren still living in Iowa.
They told me that they both had careers, he was an X-ray technician and she was a nursing home administrator. Their jobs, they said, were unsatisfying, but they were too young to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits.
After much discussion, they decided to try something that their children thought was batsh** crazy – their words, not mine!
Tired of suburban living and all of the trappings that come with it, they sold their 1,800 square foot home in favor of one with 350 square feet of living space, including the slide outs.
In describing their financial strategy, they said that they happily sold the house for a bit above market value and put the money in certificates of deposit and money market accounts.
They kept out enough cash to purchase a comfortably designed 30-foot camping trailer, “and the rest is history,” they said.
When I met this couple, they had been happily living in their camper for four years. They told me that they have no intention of giving it up, much to the chagrin of their children, they added.
They both work part-time jobs at the Montana KOA where they live each summer. Working there allowed them a free parking spot, and management coordinated their days off so that they could explore the area together.
In early October, when the campground closes for the winter, our couple heads south to a San Diego KOA where they have the same arrangement waiting on them there.
For this couple, there was no choice. Do they want a retirement where you spend the summer in one paradise and the winter in another or spend hours in Des Moines rush-hour traffic arriving home just in time to mow the lawn before dark?
Some folks are just gypsies by nature. (Not the Romani kind, there’ll be no ethnic slurs in the Watoga Trail Report, ever.)
Although dormant for many years, a 30-something woman I first met in a campground located here in West Virginia finally gave in to her wanderlust. She bought a comfortable-sized camper and moved to Virginia Beach. That was three years and three states ago.
This unmarried nomad, we’ll call her Jenny, represents a growing number of people under 40 who are ignoring the conventional wisdom of buying a house and working one job for life.
The economy and housing costs have forced younger people to look for other working and living options. It’s no coincidence that the concept of “tiny homes” and full-time camping arrived on the scene at about the same time.
Nomads like Jenny willingly take advantage of the so-called Gig Economy, exchanging permanent jobs for the freedom of short-term contracts and freelance work.
In discussing her choice of full-time camping as a lifestyle, Jenny cites philosophical reasons as her impetus to take to the road.
Seeing others around her falling lockstep into responsibilities of owning a lot of “things,” she knew that freedom and experiences were to be her guiding light.
She shared with me her profound sense of being unburdened following the purchase of her camper. She donated all of her furniture and most of her belongings to a women’s shelter and instantly felt relief.
Jenny is happier with fewer material possessions, saying it simplifies life in so many ways. She does maintain a scrapbook of her journeys. Other than that, she owns a small rock collection and several succulent plants that grace her camper.
An extraordinarily talented horse trainer, Jenny has no problem finding demand for her talent anywhere in the country. She can also fall back on jobs like bartending and food delivery services like Door Dash between horse training gigs.
Jenny and the couple from Des Moines represent a new breed who are pushing the boundaries of lifestyle. They won’t allow others to dictate how they live their lives. For many younger folks, experiences outweigh security, or at least the illusion of security.
I must admit to a certain attraction to living on the road. I took an eight-month sabbatical in 1985, living out of the back of a Toyota pickup. I loaded the vehicle with climbing gear, cross-country skis and a mountain bike.
I had many adventures and collected fascinating stories from 40 of our 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii.
I chose four books to take with me that reflect my love of finding out what lies around the next corner or over the next mountain range: Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Kerouac’s On the Road, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and of course, Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.
Maybe, like Jenny, we all have a bit of gypsy in us.
In next week’s Watoga Trail Report we will investigate the seldom-seen mysterious and exotic surprises of nature.