Nomadland, A Book about Van-life Today

Over the last months, while I was researching travel memoirs, I came across Nomandland, by Jessica Bruder. Not a memoir, still this triumph of personal journalism hit a cord with me because it reveals van-life as it is today.

I am aware of the trend of adventurous youth to spend some years living in a van or camper on the road.  Some time ago, I read about the upswing of interest in van living that was highlighted in The New Yorker Magazine (“#Vanlife, The Bohemian Social-Media Movement,” April 2017 issue).  Instagram reveals dozens of hashtags about this lifestyle, including #vanlife (266,126 posts), #vanlifediaries, and #vanlifeexplorers. 

Jessica Bruder’s brilliant and fascinating book explores a different aspect of life on the road. The author interviews, intimately gets to know, and becomes friends with men and women who turn to the nomadic life-style for serious financial reasons.  She makes clear in the very beginning that these travelers are not homeless.  They have shelter and transportation.  The nomads of the American 21st century prefer the label “houseless.”

It was the aspect of living in a van (or a camper, truck, or sedan) that first caught my interest.  I could identify with many of the issues confronted on a daily basis by the people the author meets and introduces to readers.  The real people of Nomandland deal with issues of space, storage, hygiene, power, car repairs, and how to find a safe place to park for the night. These are the same concerns Tom and I dealt with during two years living in a Volkswagen minivan in the early 1970s.

I especially enjoyed the details that reminded me of those years.  How do today’s van-dwellers wash clothing and hang it to dry? I had to nod in understanding when I read of damp laundry strung across the inside of the vehicle. How do they handle hygiene and water supply?  Gyms and truck stop showers. And what about that all-important safe sleeping spot? Modern day vanners in the US look for Wal-mart parking lots, undeveloped public lands, and side streets in commercial areas.  These are the places they hunker down after dark, pull the curtains closed, and turn off the lights.  They sleep, often knowing they must be up and out in the early morning hours.

For modern van dwellers, entertainment consists mainly of the internet, socialization at camp areas, and reading, including the constant sharing of books. Jessica Bruder writes that Travels With Charley, “John Steinbeck’s tale of road-tripping in a pickup camper . . . [in the 1960s] was popular among the nomads and dog-eared copies passed from hand to hand.” Steinbeck’s memoir was one of our (Tom and I) main inspirations to travel by VW camper-van.  I love that Steinbeck’s writing still helped travelers.

Today’s “houseless” enjoy a few advantages that Steinbeck, Tom, and I did not:  internet and cell phones to stay in touch with family, solar panels on their roofs to bring in more electricity, the ease of finding a truck stop with hot showers or a local laundromat. Still, I’m sure they would gladly trade these conveniences for the financial security Tom and I possessed.

The emotional stress felt by financially struggling nomads today is very different from the bliss of my van-life years. They don’t have savings waiting for them at home or a strong union to help find a well-paying job at the end of the adventure.  Twenty-first century nomads see no end to their lifestyle.  They work long, physically taxing hours doing seasonal work at Amazon warehouses, in agricultural fields, and as camp hosts at public campgrounds. Most are of social security age and they worry about their health and how they will manage in ten years.

Besides the descriptions of van living, Bruder’s book covers in depth the social issues of our time that have sent so many people on the road, living from paycheck to paycheck, and ending each day sleeping in their vehicles. Nomadland is an important read for anyone concerned with our growing numbers of poor—both the homeless and the houseless.

To quote the back-cover blurb: “Nomadland tells a revelatory tale of the dark underbelly of the American economy—one which foreshadows the precarious future that may await many more of us.”

I highly recommend Nomadland, Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder, 2017, W.W. Norton & Company.




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