According to my YouTube history, the first time I saved a video to my “Best Vans” list was January 2018. The video was called “RTR 2018: Tour Karen’s Rig.” RTR stands for Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a sort of convention for people who live in their vehicles—or “out of” their vehicles, as RTR founder Bob Wells prefers to say. Wells, the RTR, and the van-dwellers who congregate in the Arizona desert each year are at the center of Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning third feature, Nomadland, a fictional narrative adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. I now have seventy-eight videos saved to Best Vans.
The format usually involves the vehicle-dweller (in this case, Karen) opening the doors to the van, bus, car, SUV, trailer, or RV she calls home, and showing the host the bed setup, the kitchen arrangement, the storage situation, the solar and/or electric power system, and—importantly—how and where she goes to the bathroom. Often the toilet is simply a bucket and some cat litter. Some have been living this way for mere months; others have been doing it for much longer. At the time of filming, Karen had been on the road for almost four years.
Many of the videos are hosted by Wells, who is also the creator of the site and forum CheapRVLiving.com. Wells, facing the financial and emotional wreckages of a divorce, started living in a box van in Alaska over twenty-five years ago out of desperation, found freedom and happiness in that choice, and has since helped create a movement. He’s dedicated his post-house life to empowering others in dire straits with information, community, and hope. He models a radical option for claiming some kind of dignity and freedom in the wake of crisis, whether that crisis is brought on by systems that fail to support people on the margins or by something more personal. In one of the many collisions of fiction and reality in the Nomadland adaptation, Wells plays a version of himself.
To say I was in a real crisis when I found his site and videos is an overstatement, but what feels to the body and mind like a crisis might as well be.
I was born into the economic instability of my family, and most likely will die in the economic instability of my country, and there’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t worry about money, never a time when I wasn’t driven by catastrophic thinking. Some of this has to do with the low-key but constant trauma of growing up in an alcoholic family system, as I did. There’s an actual psychological condition with the unfortunate name Bag Lady Syndrome that many people like me experience, the often-irrational fear that you’re going to end up destitute.
It’s not always irrational, though. Dysfunctional family or not, as I enter my fifties and see my social and economic value decline and the wage gap increase and the cost of housing relative to wages soar, this fear is at least a little bit rational and can be preoccupying. Though I don’t remember the specifics, there’s a good chance I found Bob Wells through an anxiety-fueled googling session with searches like: “how to live on no income” or “what if I become homeless.” The information on his site and the videos featuring women in their sixties and seventies and older, happily dwelling in vehicles of all sizes and living out their third acts free of attachments to things and all of the obligations that come with things, gave me hope enough to deal with my worst worst-case scenario.
I could do that, I thought as I filed videos to my Best Vans list. This is my backup plan.
I was born into the economic instability of my family, and most likely will die in the economic instability of my country, and there’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t worry about money.
Frances McDormand is the star of Nomadland and has collected numerous awards for her portrayal of Fern, who is in one way an imagined composite of the types of women found in Bruder’s book and, in another possible multiverse, a version of McDormand herself. In Zhao’s script, Fern checks into an RV park as an Amazon CamperForce worker. When the host can’t find her reservation, she says, “Try M-C-D…,” to which the host replies, “There you are!” And in a scene that’s in the script but not the final cut of the film, the following exchange occurs between Fern and a police officer telling her she can’t sleep overnight in a residential neighborhood:
Officer Steve: You look familiar.
Fern: People say that about me.
Officer Steve (hands her the ID): Alright, Frances. You take care.
There was also an odd moment in the trimmed-down 2021 Oscars ceremony, when Zhao called McDormand “Fern” while accepting her Best Picture award and McDormand retorted, “No, I’m not. I’m Fran.” David Strathairn’s character is named Dave. Dave’s son in the film is played by Strathairn’s real-life son, Tay.
What was Zhao getting at with this blurring of the lines between fiction and reality? McDormand was her muse, certainly, the person for whom she wrote the film. And just as Bruder had lived in a van herself while writing the book and attended at least two RTRs, the movie cast and crew filmed out in the desert and lived out of vans during production. The role of van-dweller Swankie is played by van-dweller Swankie. In the movie, Swankie dies. Per her wishes, friends throw rocks into the fire in her honor. In real life, Swankie was there at the Oscars, radiant alongside McDormand and Zhao and Linda May, another real-life person featured in the book and played by herself in the movie.
It’s as though the movie represents an alternate life for any of us. Take away a job. Take away a spouse. Take away an able body. Take away good mental health. How many of us could maintain our current lives for long before we’d feel the crunch, the walls closing in? Without some reserve of generational wealth to give us an assist, how long before we, too, would be looking for an offramp from the increasing pressures of capitalism and productivity and an economy that works for fewer and fewer people, pressures that sometimes seem like they’re trying to kill us?
Bruder’s book follows several people who have stepped into this alternate life and stayed. It is both a critique of a society that pushes those on the margins further and further out, and an ode to the dignity and empowerment that some have found through letting go of the buildings, the belongings, the signifiers of a successful adult life in America.
Her entry point into this world is Linda May, a woman in her sixties, one of the many who feel “like they were caught in a vise, putting all their time into exhausting, soul-sucking jobs that paid barely enough to cover the rent or a mortgage, with no way to better their lot for the long term and no promise of ever being able to retire.” It’s worth noting that the movie has been criticized for not giving enough attention to the systemic problems and the corporate sector that are on either end of that vise, particularly Amazon, whose CamperForce program for seasonal nomadic workers is one focal point of Fern’s journey. Zhao doesn’t take that on explicitly, though it’s always there just outside the frame. There are scenes filmed inside an Amazon warehouse—a brightly lit, immaculate space for humans to interact with and, essentially, be robots.
Other scenes are filmed during the sugar beet harvest, where people are less like robots and more like pack mules. Fern’s main commentary on all of this is, “I like work.”
In the book, Bruder doesn’t pull her punches. She delves into the workplace conditions, the injuries, the pay, the instability, and the way people are exploited for their labor at every turn. The book is a careful work of journalism and personal narrative. The movie is a poem. In both, there’s more than a little of the prophetic in the lives and words of the nomads.
Linda May can’t draw nearly enough from Social Security to do more than rent a room, and her grown children and their families are also barely making ends meet. No one in the family has stable housing. Fern, our fictional lead in the film, is widowed and then loses her house when the Nevada company town she’s lived in for most of her adulthood closes down along with the company. The videos on my YouTube list feature people with chronic illness who can’t afford health care, people with mental illness who can’t hold jobs, people who suffered a great loss and were shocked into making a profound change, people who have been disposed of by employers. Bruder writes that Bob Wells’s mission and philosophy suggest “van-dwellers are conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupting social order.”
The ones on YouTube aren’t bitter about it, or they’ve moved through their bitterness by choice or necessity. A woman named Lisa, featured in one of Wells’s videos, has been living in a vehicle for over five years—often on just 250 dollars a month. She says, “I may not have wealth in dollars the way the mainstream people think about it, but I’m not missing anything.”
The Bob Wells of the movie, played by Bob Wells, says that as a society, “We not only accept the tyranny of the dollar. We embrace it.” He likens people to workhorses who are put out to pasture after they’re no longer useful. “If society is throwing us away and putting us out to pasture, we workhorses have to gather together and take care of each other, and this is what this is all about.”
These mothers and fathers, right here in our own American desert.
In both, there’s more than a little of the prophetic in the lives and words of the nomads.
When I was a child growing up in a San Francisco church that was a mix of Jesus Movement people, disillusioned hippies, and others, I heard early and often that money and Jesus didn’t mix. In one of the opening set pieces of the New Testament, we see John the Baptist out in the desert in a getup of camel’s hair, munching on locusts. His vibe does not scream middle class.
When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, the devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory if only Jesus will capitulate to him. When Jesus calls the first disciples, they are to drop everything and follow, leaving their nets—their means of making money. Then there’s the Sermon on the Mount. Store up treasures in heaven. You cannot serve God and money. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear. The message seemed very clear: a life of following Christ was an entirely different paradigm from the dollars and cents and comforts of the secure life most of us are striving for, consciously or not.
An informal survey of friends and acquaintances from the generation just behind me—church kids of the eighties—indicates that this messaging dropped off, perhaps due to the influence of the prosperity gospel and Reagan’s economic policies. Or maybe it was only part of city church preaching and not a popular message in the suburbs. Comfortable people don’t like to hear the story of the rich man trying to get into heaven—unless it’s turned into a metaphor.
All I know is that it resonated for my family in the throes of my father’s chronic unemployment and the ever-present sense—and reality—that there was not enough. Maybe spiritualizing our situation made it a little easier to bear. Bag Lady Syndrome notwithstanding, my economic situation has improved with marriage and career, yet I do often find myself asking in various ways and contexts: What is enough?
It’s not only a spiritual question. It’s philosophical, cultural, political, environmental. It’s personal and communal and always relevant, and complicated. Perhaps because of this complication and our fear of any feeling that reminds us of guilt, many Americans enter into this question through the easier door of minimalism as a design aesthetic and lifestyle. We’re in a post-Marie Kondo world where “Kondo” is a verb and getting rid of stuff that doesn’t “spark joy” is a trend with its own Netflix deal.
From the design of Apple products to the return of mid-century modern everything to the co-opting of Buddhist concepts like non-attachment, those of us inclined toward lifestyle minimalism think we value the idea that less is more. It’s easy to believe we’re making some moral choice that creates good when we pare down our belongings. But what does minimalism really end up looking like in Instagrammable common practice? Empty space. Perfect lines. A tidy, Kondo’d world where we don’t have to deal with the mess of ourselves and others.
In his 2020 book The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, Kyle Chayka writes that minimalist style is “another class-dependent way of feeling better about yourself by buying a product, as Spartan as the product might be. It takes a lot of money to look this simple.”
Even for the non-rich among us, it’s a lot easier to think about giving away and getting rid of things and trying to be “conscious consumers” than it is to take a hard look at the space our lives take up. How many square feet do we really need to live? In a world where housing costs continue to rise while incomes stay flat, and global climate change decreases the inhabitable corners of the planet, empty space is the biggest luxury of all.
Empty living space and uncluttered surfaces aren’t a thing for the van-dwellers of Nomadland. The key to successful living in a vehicle is using every square millimeter available, and van life typically involves enough clutter to make any aesthetic minimalist flinch, though people living in vehicles might be the most truly minimalist among us. They have only the minimum of belongings and space that they need to live.
Some vehicle-dwellers do enter this lifestyle for spiritual or philosophical reasons. In the videos, they describe a slow-dawning realization that they didn’t have to keep living the way they were, with soul-crushing jobs that only served the burden of things and debt.
Many are boomers who have long related to the idealism of Thoreau’s Walden and always wanted a simpler, more contemplative life.
Others have what feels like a more modern take. These are often younger people coming to the conclusion that American capitalism is a bad deal and you can follow all the rules it lays out and still be crushed in its gears. They’ve seen what hustle culture has done to their peers. They’re opting out.
Some—and these make up the majority of those spotlighted by Bruder’s book—are forced into it by how the particular circumstances of their lives interact with the systems and structures of society, making it impossible for them to live the way we’re told, indirectly or otherwise, we’re supposed to. Yet even many of those who initially came to vehicle dwelling out of desperation say they wish they’d done it sooner.
Nomadland’s fictional Fern is driven to the lifestyle through such circumstances, but she also has options that real-life Linda May doesn’t. Around the midpoint of the film, Fern stays with her sister while her van is repaired. Their relationship is loving but contentious and gives us a chance to see Fern outside the singular world of her van life and community. The visit is uncomfortable for Fern and for the viewer; we get the sense that she may have turned a final corner where she’ll never reintegrate into “sticks and bricks” society. Her room feels too big, the dinner conversation is for normies, and she palpably misses her van and the life she has through it. A friend of the family admires what Fern is doing, but points out, “We can’t all take the plunge, right? What kind of society would that be?” Her sister tells her, “You’ve always been the eccentric one.”
This scene gets at a fundamental truth about the vehicle-dwelling community. It is a tiny subculture. Most people don’t want to live this way, and many of those who do can’t gather up the will to do the hard things required to pull it off. The lifestyle depends on a certain kind of resourcefulness and determination that may ultimately be just one more version of bootstrapping and is not a solution to the housing crisis, or any of our other crises, for any but an unusual few.
Yet even many of those who initially came to vehicle dwelling out of desperation say they wish they’d done it sooner.
Still, there’s something about these modern desert nomads that calls to me, to that seventies Jesus Movement kid who was taught that the way to follow Christ was to drop your nets and walk away from conventional living, toward something much different. Whatever their professed faith, Bob and Swankie and Linda May and others in their vehicles all over the American West and elsewhere are radically rejecting ideas that most of us take unquestioningly as the rules of life: that land can and should be owned, that people should live in buildings, that a poverty-level lifestyle is evidence of failure. Meanwhile, it’s increasingly clear to so many of us that these rules aren’t working. They don’t produce justice; they don’t create flourishing. Millennials trying to make them work and Gen-Z kids just catching on aren’t giving their trusting consent the way previous generations were inclined to.
I keep going back to the videos, folks living in broken-down cargo vans in the deserts and in our neighborhoods. Many of them are living as simply as monks, living in community and mutual support, living imaginatively against societal norms. It feels to me like a kind of embodiment of the purported tenets of the faith I grew up with.
Or maybe, like Fern, I’m eccentric.
Maybe it’s my particular dysfunction and my poor-kid anxiety leading me to find comfort in the videos and in fantasies of whittling my belongings down to what would fit in a few plastic tubs from Walmart and driving out to a harsh landscape to get away from a certain kind of comfort that (I have this fleeting sense) is hurting me. What I know is that the older I get, the more sadness I feel that what the world asks of us is so narrowly defined, and that what religion requires can be, too. I’m missing the friction that should exist between a faithful life and accepted normalcy. Maybe I miss the weirdness of my poor, Jesusy, hippie childhood when my faith felt uncontained. Fern, in her guest quarters at her sister’s house and, later, at a friend’s, feels that the walls are too far apart, the ceiling too high. There is too much space; existence is static; there’s nothing to move toward or push against. She looks longingly out the window at her van. Another way of life is calling. I’m familiar with that sense of being out of place in this world, and though I’ve long left church, a part of me still believes that for people of sincere faith, that discomfort is how it should be.
In the coda of Bruder’s book, Linda May has begun the early stages of building a type of passive and sustainable shelter known as an Earthship. She’s working toward a home that’s permanent and live-giving for herself and for the “friends who have become family.”
In the final shot of the film, Fern has gotten rid of the last of her things in storage and drives her van through a wintery desert landscape. She drives herself away, and also toward.
This essay was published in Issue 110 of Image under the title “The Uncontained Life.”