Trin and I have been nomads since 2016. Maybe that is why we were so curious to see the new Nomadland movie. It premiered in Sept 2020 and won the Academy Awards prize for best picture in 2021 along with a ton of other awards.
Nomadland is based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.
I met a few people who said I should watch it, everyone seemed to love it. Trin and I were intrigued, so when my sister suggested it for Friday movie night, we brought the popcorn and joined them in their living room for party night. We are all far past our teenage years, so party night is quite calm these days.
Fern, the heroine of Nomandland, loses her job and home when the factory that had sustained the town closed. On top of this, her husband dies and so Fern decides to purchase a van, build it out as a camper, and wander America. She picks up seasonal work for Amazon during the winter, and odd jobs during the other seasons.
The whole story felt like loss and defeat. Maybe this was due in part to the dark dreary days on which it was filmed. Fern’s situation plunges into new levels of desperation when her van breaks down and she could not afford to have it fixed. It did not look like a fun way to live.
The movie was not what I expected. I was hoping to see the freedom and joy of living in a van. Instead, the movie seemed more like an act of survival and it was depressing to me.
About a week after I watched Nomadland, the movie was mentioned on a conference call I had with my Atomic entrepreneurs’ group. I found myself explaining that we did not live like that. We enjoy our exploration, lifestyle, and the freedom it brings us.
The most beautiful thread of the story however was how nomads worked together and helped each other out. There is something to being a nomad, something that ties us all together no matter the means or the reasons we wander. There is a freedom that walking out on “normal” or what we are “supposed to do” gives us. It was this thread that I could identify with.
A different story
I suppose the stories behind every nomad are just as wide and varied as the story behind any CEO. We all started from different places and have different reasons for the lifestyles we live.
In Nomadland thousands of van dwellers convened in Quartzsite for an annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Trin and I have also heard about Quartzsite from other travelers here in the states. The town would be right in our path when we head to LA to visit family so it was an obvious stop.
Pulling up roots AGAIN
On May 20th, Trin and I hit the road again. Our first stop was at Quartzsite, Arizona where Fern from Nomadland stayed during the winter.
We had been holing up in the little cottage in my sister’s backyard since the end of January of this year.
During our almost four-month stay in Phoenix, we bought a wrecked Mazda 5. It was a project for Trin and our future home for a short USA Roadtrip.
While we were COVID stationary Trin spent his days on the van project. He replaced the struts, control arms, axles, and the A/C condenser among others. Here’s one of the videos he created of one of his repairs: How to Replace Wheel Bearings Without a Press.
I stayed busy during this time volunteering twice a week in addition to purchasing software to up my game with blogging. It was a learning curve to figure out the new options but I had fun redoing our homepage, the about us page, and upgrading some of our global settings. It also gave me a chance to do an interview on the 4BAM podcast.
Too busy to go
We found that our schedule became busier and busier the longer we stayed in one location. My sister and I got to know each other better than we ever did before which was a great thing. Trin and I spent meaningful nights with friends from the ChooseFI community. It’s amazing how we can meet someone in a coffee shop or under a bridge one day and find ourselves sharing a meal in deep conversation talking about the substance of our lives. We went deep fast and the connections grew strong.
I guess we found it amazing how quickly we were growing roots. When it came time to leave it felt like it had all happened too fast. Were we ready to get back on the road?
Our first few years of nomad life were lived out of a backpack as we wandered around South America. Then we upgraded to a converted bus while exploring Australia. This trip across the USA will be just as different still. We will now be what they call in Australia “whizbangers.”
So far, only a few nights in, we have not parked close enough for anyone else to hear the whizz and bang of our sliding doors, but we also try to leave all the doors open till we close them for the night. That way it’s not a constant open and shut that would indeed annoy anyone within hearing distance.
Fitting out our van
In the days leading up to our departure I was feeling totally unprepared for this trip. I had given myself some hefty deadlines that I was struggling to meet. It left me minimal time to research our trip or whittle down our supplies again. It’s crazy how much stuff we accumulated in just four months staying in one place.
Four days before our departure Trin decided to build out a bed frame in the back of the Mazda for our journey. Our original plan had us sleeping on the flattened back seats and moving all our belongings to the front two seats at night.
Trin scoured the internet looking for a few good deals to beat the sky high cost of lumber right now. He found a bed frame on OfferUp, plywood on Facebook Marketplace, and a King-size memory foam mattress on Craigslist.
Thankfully Uly and Sandra, Trin’s brother and his wife, graciously let us use their backyard and tools to convert the van.
Trin cut up the bed-frame to fit into the back of the Mazda 5 and fitted the plywood on top of it. We also cut down the King-sized foam mattress to fit in the back exactly. We had enough extra pieces to make two pillows. Total cost of the new fit out was $14.40 including the screws he purchased from Home Depot.
It was this build-out that made me excited about the trip. Now everything could be organized. I’m finding that it is not the size of the house that makes me comfortable but the organization of it. Moving everything from the back to front every night and shoving it all in big bags sounded like a nightmare.
With the new build out everything has a place and we can easily access our storage.
After loading up the car and saying goodbye to our families we pointed our van west towards Quartzsite, Arizona.
Quartzsite and the region around it has many areas under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that allow free camping. Trin and I choose a site called Gold Nugget about 10 miles east of Quartzsite.
The pavement ends pretty quickly after exiting the highway. There are no services off this exit or even buildings for that matter. We navigated slowly over the corrugated road back into the hills away from the highway.
A little secluded spot beckoned us and we parked the van.
We opened all the windows and the hatch then rolled our magnetic bug screens onto the side windows. Trin had sown magnets around the edge of screens cut to fit the windows of the van. They were similar to the screens I made for Lil’ Beaut. Trin’s sewing job looked a lot better than mine.
We had a cool breeze and a little piece of desert in the hills all to ourselves. It was a peaceful night of sleep. We were now both happily back on the road.
The following morning we explored Quartzsite. Turning off I-10 onto I-95 we passed acre after acre with hookups for RVs and signs for campgrounds. A few of them were packed with row after row of RVs.
As the campgrounds grew more primitive the number of fences and signs decreased till we reached flat open desert. Then we saw the sign for the Hi Jolly BLM grounds. It was dust and sparse scrub brush as far as the eye could see. This is one of the gathering points for van-dwellers in January.
In January and February nomads and campers from all over the USA and Canada also convene here for annual gem shows and swap meets. We drove around the open plane to get a feel for the land.
Back in town, we stopped at the dollar store for a few things. An older man and who I believe was his adult son squeezed past me in the narrow aisle and then asked if I was local.
“No, just passing through, and you?”
“Yes, as of yesterday,” the older gentleman said proudly.
“We love it here, everyone is so friendly,” the younger guy chimed in.
“Just in time for summer,” I said.
“Yes, it averages 125 here in the summer,” the older man said.
“Now that’s very hot,” I said immediately thinking of Marble bar, the town that claims it is the hottest spot in Australia.
“I hear it’s quite the gathering here in January,” I added.
“Yes, the town explodes to over 75,000. It’s so cool!”
Quartzsite has a record high of 122°F (50°C). July, the hottest month, has an average high of 107°F (42.1°C).Wiki
The population of Quartzsite is 3,354 (2020 consensus). Approximately 1.5 million tourists visit Quartzsite annually mostly during Jan & Feb.Wiki
The camaraderie was palpable, a common ground that comes from living a little differently. It was the thread from Nomandland, a knowing smile of the shared joy in an untethered life. This is a life that finds pleasure in simplicity and the unconventional.
It is not how others see us that matters. Somehow most nomads share this thread. We know that we are all equal no matter the rags or the suit on our backs.