By Nanci Dixon
The movie “Nomadland” came out this week on Hulu and in select theaters. I thought it was well worth the time and energy to watch. The film tells the story of Fern, lost in the last recession when the town’s gypsum wallboard factory closed and her husband died. As the town of Empire, Nevada, fades around her, Fern puts her stuff in storage and leaves in her van to find work. Along the way she becomes a nomad and, in the end, begins to find herself.
“Nomadland” is a narrative of displacement in a recession, marginalization, and defining what is important in life. It is doubtful that this rather sober movie is going to lead to increased RV sales or more campground crowding. The story feels almost like a documentary. It gives insight into the life and struggles of today’s modern “nomad,” both young and old. The movie does not glamorize the lifestyle but rather documents both the pain and transient moments of happiness. It deals with the timely issues of death, suicide, deep loneliness and financial hardship. However, it still showcases beauty in the landscape and connection, however fleeting, with others.
It is inspiring to see an older woman, award-winning actress Frances McDormand, at age 63, in the leading role of Fern. She does so with honesty and unabashedly looking every bit her age. And yes, as others have commented, I had an almost irresistible urge to comb her hair. When I said that out loud, my husband pointed out that she was safer looking like that in her lifestyle. The reality of her lifestyle does put her at risk.
Many RVers will relate to “Nomadland”
As an RVer, it is easy for me to relate to many of the aspects of the movie. This includes camp hosting, seasonal work at Amazon and the sugar beet harvest, connecting with people on the road, and her pilgrimage to Quartzsite, Arizona. There was talk of hookups and the lack of waste tanks. I realized that not all viewers would even know what that was. As camp hosts our duties are similar to Fern’s and, believe me, the toilet cleaning looks a whole lot worse on film than in person!
I was a van dweller in my college days and could easily identify with stealth camping. For example, it includes trying to stay warm, being asked to leave places and taking mini showers in public restrooms. I had no money either – and few jobs. However, it was a brighter, more hopeful time. And, of course, it was an adventure. Being at the beginning of the journey rather than the end certainly colors the view.
While in Quartzsite one year, we asked a police officer if they had any issues with the young people we saw that were living similar lives as in the movie. He told us no. The officer mentioned that they had no issues except perhaps a little panhandling. He said that the vast majority of the young people had just graduated college. They were taking a year off and some even have a trust fund waiting for them back home. They called themselves “travelers” and said they were taking time to “find themselves.” I guess that is very similar to the hippies of my era.
Fern lives her life her way, as do most “nomads”
As people offer Fern a place to stay, thereby ending her time on the road, Fern is resolved to live her life her way. It is easy as full-time RVers to understand the question Fern’s niece asks: “Are you homeless?” Fern answers, “No, I am houseless.” Our children have asked us the same question – except they wish we hadn’t sold the house…
Bob Wells, a Nomad guru with a huge following and a YouTube channel, also appears in “Nomadland.” He reminds me once again that instead of “Goodbye,” it should be “See you on down the road.”
I am so grateful to have our lifestyle, which is over-the-top glamorous by comparison to Fern’s. The one thing that drew me into the movie and rang true is all our collective experience of goodness and the friendliness in the people we meet. It is that sense of community, whether a van nomad, tent camper or RVer, we feel when making fleeting or lifelong connections with other people in a campground or on the road. So, perhaps, someday we will meet and I can say in parting: “See you on down the road.”
Watch the trailer for “Nomadland” below.
Will new movie about RV van living fuel nomad lifestyle?
Get the book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” on Kindle or Paperback.