…we are lost, so naked and so lonely in America. Immense and cruel skies bend over us, and all of us are driven on forever and we have no home.”
Thomas Wolfe, Of Time & The River, 1935
The American Paradox – an immense, engulfing land, so rich in its diversity and beauty, a nation which proclaims its wealth while people sleep in doorways.
The land creates jobs and opportunity, Saturday smiles light the night with the paycheck cashed and the spirit relaxes with barstool camaraderie or a quiet night at home, surrounded by love ones.
What happens when the land’s promise ends, the door locked and the paycheck disappears?
In 1923 Pacific Portland Cement Company opened a gypsum mine in northwest Nevada’s high desert. Eventually 750 people lived in Empire, Nevada in company houses, with a school, pool hall, nine-hole golf course, a church, day care, convenience store and a post office. In 2011 U.S. Gypsum closed the mine. Employees were given six months to vacate the property.
Nomadland tells Fern’s (Frances McDormand) story — a former resident of Empire, her husband now dead, she is evicted with nowhere to go. Now she’s living in a van working at an Amazon “fulfillment center,” stuffing boxes during the pre-Christmas rush. Where to go when the rush ends? A fellow worker tells Fern that in Quartzsite, Arizona there’s a winter sun gathering, an itinerant camp where van and RV roamers live. These are not snowbirds – these are poor people, living day to day off disability checks and hardscrabble jobs, seeking refuge from harsh winter.
Bob, a gentle soul with a flowing gray beard, is the camp’s prophet. With COVID and economic collapse he encourages the gathered throng to learn survival and build their own community. Around the campfire the stories spill out – illnesses which meant bankruptcy, a veteran suffering from PTSD, lost jobs, divorces, suicides. Gathered together they free share belongings and food, offered vegan or “carnivore” chili. Almost all white and over 50, some are lost hippies still searching for their starship home, others economic victims eking out a living.
They share skills – fixing tires, how to handle sanitary needs when living in a van, whether a five or seven gallon bucket is one’s best portable toilet, and rudimentary vehicle repairs. Young wanderers pass through on the camp’s edge, their faces already lined from sun over exposure.
When spring comes the camp breaks. Fern moves on, working at campgrounds, South Dakota’s Wall Drug and shoveling sugar beets in the fall harvest, before returning to Amazon a year later.
Fern and her cohort are victims of an economic system that discards people. Yet she and her fellow travelers display resilience and agency, making their own way, building a community, telling a young acquaintance that she is not homeless, just “houseless.” Spiritually nurturing them is the great American West, the flowing rivers, pounding Pacific surf, towering redwoods and desolate Badlands.
Yet disaster and heartbreak are always one step away. “You can’t sleep here” in a truck stop parking lot; a three figure vehicle repair bill does truly mean homelessness.
Throughout the film, Fern is torn. Dave is a fellow traveler, obviously interested in a long-term relationship, but Fern bristles at constraint. She’s offered long-term shelter – from a well-off sister who pays her van repair bill, and enticingly from Dave, who has settled out in a beautiful Pacific Coast home with his son and new grandchild.
Fern can’t sleep in a bed; her van is her home, her secure space. It is also a conduit to freedom, to dance at the pounding surf and touch a fallen redwood. She’s walking a delicate tightrope, if she can maintain her balance, she owns her freedom; one slip and it could mean destitution or death.
What lends Nomadland its authenticity is that its key actors are real nomads. Gray bearded prophet Bill Wells, a former Alaska union grocery store clerk, is sharing his own story as he and Fern talk. His road survival videos attract hundreds of thousands and he helped found a 501c3 charity, Home On Wheels Alliance, https://homesonwheelsalliance.org/ to assist destitute travelers. Fern builds a deep friendship with Charlene Swankie, her spirit nurtured by her nature quest. Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland explored this territory and introduced the real life characters to the film makers.
The film’s fault is that it makes living in a van an extended vacation. The Amazon fulfillment center work is relaxed, with Fern strolling the aisles, waving to people, taking her time to wrap boxes, enjoying camaraderie in the break room. The economic insecurity is ever present but a caring family network provides a safety net.
In many ways, Americans are nomadic people – sometimes by choice, often by fate. After the Civil War, itinerant workers were known as hoboes, perhaps many suffering from PTSD before it had a name. The Great Depression drove another generation to the rails. The green salad on American tables is picked by migrant workers, the steak butchered by packinghouse immigrants.
Everything has a price – even freedom. Keeping a stable home means mortgages, childcare and a consistent paycheck. The nomads portrayed enjoy a freedom from those expenses, but the open road has its own toll booths of economic insecurity. Nomadland is a unique story, worth viewing just to meet those faces around the campfire and to walk Fern’s exhilarating but dangerous tightrope with her.
- Mike Matejka