Outside of any neighborhood or standard driveway, often hidden in plain sight with only curtains hiding their presence, live thousands of Americans in vans, cars, and RVs. More people are hitting the highway as permanent residents than ever before, particularly those unable to afford retirement or burdened by financial disaster. Far different than the lifestyle seen in luxury “glamping”-style campgrounds, these mobile nomads go by many names.
Perhaps most self explanatory, “vandwellers” typically live in a converted van rather than RV, while “workampers” reside in any sort of vehicle and pursue often challenging seasonal work around the country. Many popular RV conventions host these permanent mobile residents in large gatherings, mostly throughout the southwestern United States.
But make no mistake, vandwellers and workampers do not come from the recent wave of remote workers in WiFi-enabled careers traveling in luxury while they work out of different high-end RV parks. Nomadland by Jessica Bruder tells the stories of people driven to living in vehicles out of necessity, embracing the very real effects of rising rents and stagnant wages. Published in 2017, many of the people Bruder followed had been living in their vehicles since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, with no plans to ever stop doing so. The weight this lifestyle carries is emphasized in one of the book’s many powerful quotations: “The last free place in America is a parking spot,” Said Linda May, a grandmother and former contractor living in a van that Bruder followed throughout the book.
“Some call them “homeless.” The new nomads reject that label. Equipped with both shelter and transportation, they’ve adopted a new word. They refer to themselves, quite simply, as “houseless”. Bruder wrote. The question of what makes someone homeless and the different view society has for people who choose how they live vs. people trapped in a living situation is a grey area explored throughout the book.
Linda May and several other featured vandwellers in the book went on to play fictionalized versions of themselves in the 2020 film Nomadland by Chloe Zhao, which streams on Hulu. The film went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, receiving high praise for its acting, screenwriting, and direction.
One of the more famous vandwellers in Nomadland is Bob Wells, a longtime vandweller who founded the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a yearly gathering of vandwellers in Quartzsite, Arizona where many are taught important techniques about RV living.
Wells is also a popular YouTuber and author who started the website CheapRVliving.com, which has inspired many on the fence about nomadic living to jump into life on the road.
Not every RVer is a vandweller or a workamper, but most RVers would be interested in this book. Camping appeals so naturally to outdoor enthusiasts that even a quick weekend in a travel trailer by a lake has many dreaming of full time RV living and exploration. The next time you’re in camp after a day on the road, this is a great travel book for many interests.