Nomadism - a way of life?
Not houseless, homeless
Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Nomadland, a recent film release (Disney) directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand has been littered with praise and awards. I watched it prior to writing this article. It’s shot like a moody western without the guns. The dialogue is sparse and McDormand not overly chatty. I suspect Clint Eastwood would have been rather pleased with the results.
It’s the story of the plight of Fern, (McDormand) recently widowed and out of luck when the local gypsum mine in her home town of Empire, US, closes. Given that it’s the town’s main employer, she and many others face an uncertain future when all the miners leave. Who wants a teacher, something she fell into, when there’s no one left to teach? She also can’t afford to take early retirement.
The homeless middle classes
The story exposes the plight of thousands of home-owning middle class Americans after the 2008-9 recession, who have taken the decision to maintain a level of freedom and autonomy by moving into ‘wheel estate’. As Fern reminds her friends and family, “I’m not homeless, houseless.”
The reason I watched the film is because I’d read about the plight of another woman, a story told by her son, who finally threw in the keys to her house and drove off into the sunset with the last of her savings invested in a recreational vehicle (RV).
Yreka, California, is situated in a remote valley, south of the Oregon border, one of many small towns across the US, which was unduly affected by the banking crisis or Great Recession, as Americans prefer. There was no immediate collapse, more the slow, pervasive erosion of everyday life. It started with the nice to have stores like the Yreka bookshop closing and continued relentlessly until The Walmart, now upgraded to a Super Walmart was the main store left in town.
Half price house
Within a few years, her house was worth less than half the mortgage. This was not unusual with one in four Americans suffering from the effects of negative equity post 2008. Despite having had steady employment, a sensible mortgage, healthcare and a pension plan, she now found herself trapped. The easiest way out was to stop paying the mortgage and apply for a number of government relief programmes, stalling tactics, all well documented online. The bank finally foreclosed on her property in 2014.
She’d felt like a squatter for a number of years so it must have come as quite a relief to pack her son off to college (now a journalist) and then leave herself. On her blog she wrote,
When I look back on my life, I realise that most of the major changes that have happened have been things that “just happened.” This time, it’s a choice. I’ve been dreaming about this change for over four years, and actively taking the steps to make it happen since 2012. It’s been a long time coming, and I couldn’t be more excited! I invite you to follow me on this journey as I embrace the nomadic lifestyle and learn to prioritise experiences over things.
There is an upside
The film and our houseless mother, capture the sense of freedom which comes from taking back control. The compromises of van life are outweighed by the opportunity to explore, discover and collect new experiences which were previously out of reach. Faced with some tough life decisions, they’ve taken the one positive road left which still holds plenty of promise and allows them to maintain their independence and dignity.
The bare necessities
The main overheads of traditional living may have gone but even nomads, vandwellers or vagabonds, still need to eat. This is well documented in the film. One of the biggest employers is Amazon, who run a programme called CamperForce. In the autumn, the nomads migrate to the campsites around Fernley in Nevada, employed as seasonal warehouse workers for $11.50 (now $15) per hour through the winter months.
Several of the characters in the film are genuine nomads. Bob Wells, a longtime vandweller who plays himself, runs a web site called Cheap RV Living dot com. He explains in detail how to live on $500 a month and why this way of life is truly open to everyone.
There is a whole sub-culture to this nomadic way of life. ‘Boondocking’ or ‘Wild Camping’ here, is staying on public land but not being hooked up to any amenities including waste disposal. This is living off grid, where the camper relies on their own power, via a gas supply or battery powered electricity. In the more expensive rigs, a solar panel might be included on the roof to recharge the battery and help keep the lights on. The other essential is water. Tanks on the average European RV are probably not much bigger than 100 litres. There may be a shower, but with an average flow of 10 litres per minute, a change of technique is needed or be prepared to brave the nearest river or install a rainwater capture system on the roof.
If you’d like to be a wild camper and explore your inner Bear Grylls, it’s also a lot easier in Scotland than the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Land Reform Act in 2003 has a guiding principle that everyone has access to the land for recreational purposes, as long as they’re sensible. Not so elsewhere.
Even if you are happy to stay on a campsite in the UK, you’ll be expected to move after 28 days. I used to camp with my children at weekends during the summer months in Bristol and struck up a friendship with a travelling family. They’d rented out their Bristol flat preferring to live on the camp site. Once a month, Paul had to move his modern Romany caravan off the site to comply with council rules. (One way to tell a Romany caravan is they often have a fireplace but no kitchen. Cooking is an activity for outdoors).
‘Stealthparking’, on the other hand, is remaining unnoticed in cities, camping without drawing attention, which sounds less enjoyable and more about surviving. This also runs the risk of a know-it-all knocking on your door when you’re nodding off with a sharp reminder that you need to go. Judging by Fern’s reaction in the film, this is an occupational hazard which happens often enough.
Where’s the joy gone?
I enjoyed the film but where was the laughter and the fun of it all? There are a lot of vagabonds in the US who travel well worn paths with a strong sense of belonging and community. They are mostly, professional ex-home owners, with similar experiences who’ve chosen to enjoy their golden years with a sense of freedom and adventure. It’s a recipe for at least a modicum of happiness.
Is Fern happy in the end? She realises that home is where she is and not a house, lying empty, given back to nature. What did you think?