By Peg Aloi
Director Chloé Zhao evokes the refreshing experience of freedom felt at the end of a nomad’s typical work day.
Halfway through Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, viewers realize that the presence of actual “nomads” as characters is not a gimmick. They are part of the film’s obvious celebration, via immersion, into an all-but-invisible American community. The already award-winning film, which still is not in wide release, stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who loses her husband, her job, and then her home. She decides to outfit a van so she can live in it and travel the country in search of seasonal work.
That work’s not glamorous. Long hours packing boxes and operating forklifts in an Amazon warehouse. Harvesting and packaging potatoes. Picking up trash and cleaning restrooms at national parks. Cooking eggs and burgers at touristy restaurants. Assisting at construction sites. Fern has some marketable skills, a sterling work ethic, and simple needs. But she doesn’t have pets, intimate relationships (other than friends she is briefly reunited with once a year at her regular gigs) or a bank account. Arguably, however, she has a home (her van, which she has lovingly and painstakingly tricked out for an optimal, if rustic, existence) and a community (hundreds of “nomads” who gather for regional festivals to share food and stories).
Several years ago I listened to an NPR interview with Jessica Bruder, a journalist who had studied what was at that time a little-known American subculture she referred to as “nomads.” Her book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century (which Zhao adapted for the screen) became a best-seller. It dove deep into the lifestyles of people who, via misfortune or choice, decided to live in vans and RVs while they traveled the US in search of seasonal work. Living in campgrounds and parking lots (Walmart, for example, allows overnight parking of RVs at their stores), the nomads eke out a living and forgo the comforts of home and hearth. Most of them are middle-aged, or older. In the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, which resulted in many losing their homes to foreclosure, Bruder’s book was a well-timed examination of how the American economy had left many people behind.
Listening to Bruder, I recognized many of the people she described; they’re friends of mine. I’ve been going to a seasonal campground in the Northeast for over 20 years now. It is open from May through October. A number of the “residents” have been staying there as full-time seasonal inhabitants for years, mostly in camper trailers, RVs, or small cabins. I’ve considered doing this myself because I can work wherever there is Wi-Fi. But I have a dog and two cats and pets are not allowed. There’s a scene in Nomadland I found rather heartbreaking: Fern considers but rejects the idea of adopting a sweet dog another camper leaves behind. It’s hard to say why she said no; later scenes show her shivering beneath blankets in her van: a dog would have been a warm sleep companion. But Fern’s determination to be mobile and self-sufficient leaves no room for pets.
Like Fern, the season-long campers I know don’t have permanent mailing addresses. For most of the year they either relocate to a warmer climate (perhaps another seasonal campsite in Florida), or travel to find seasonal work where they can park their vans in campgrounds or rent temporary quarters. Some are retired with pensions, some collect disability, some still work when they can find it. Their gigs range from packing boxes at Amazon warehouses to cooking in restaurants, selling stuff on Ebay or at craft fairs, or employment as live-in caretakers in vacation homes. Some of them rent cheap apartments near the campground and work at the local ski resorts in winter, or the restaurants that cater to them. The seasonal rent to live at the campground is very reasonable and so most of these folks can make enough money working part of the year to enjoy their leisure time in the summer months.
The campground I normally spend a few weekends at in the summer was closed during the pandemic this year. At first they just canceled their larger summer events, which draw up to 2,000 people. That amount is the exception to the rule: most weekends the camp has fewer than a tenth of that many people around. Then it was determined the campground would not open to the public at all because of COVID. I wondered what some of my “nomad” friends, who normally counted on living there for a few months, would do. Would they consider “staying,” which is what Fern accuses her friend Dave (David Strathairn) of doing when he visits his son’s family for an indefinite period and lets his van sit on a flat tire? “Staying” for Fern implies trading the life of the road for the comforts of a house, the stability of a steady address. Despite his open-ended invitation, Fern’s visit to Dave is cut short when she finds it nearly impossible to sleep in a comfy guest room, preferring instead her cramped but cozy van. I wondered if my friends, who looked forward to the calming nature sounds and peace of the seasonal campground, were faring less comfortably wherever they have been this past year. Were they sleeping okay? Were they making ends meet, possibly having to shell out more for rent than usual? Were they missing their camper community?
I look forward to my time at the campground as a respite from urban life, a place where, among other escapes, I can see the stars at night, draw solace from nature, and enjoy deep conversations with friends old and new around campfires at night. The relatively low cost of renting a seasonal campsite (I own a vintage trailer) has made the campground my go-to vacation spot. A freelancer and gig worker, I rarely enjoy such benefits as paid vacation. When I first saw Nomadland I thought the film might be romanticizing the economic plight of the people who find themselves living out of their vehicles and traveling considerable distances to work odd jobs. But I changed my mind. The film’s shots of glorious sunsets and gorgeous natural landscapes, its lulling moments of peace and quiet, felt organic and true. Zhao evokes the refreshing experience of freedom felt at the end of a nomad’s typical work day. Existence isn’t elbowed aside by nerve-wracking issues of ownership and debt; there is none of the stress that comes with the bedevilment of deadlines and too many belongings. Indeed, Fern’s whittling down her remaining possessions from her storage unit causes her to imbue physical objects with almost talismanic nostalgia, like a small set of vintage plates similar to the ones her mother had. It is enough, Nomadland suggests, to work hard, to have a satisfying meal, to sleep in a warm bed, to connect with fellow travelers. I confess to yearning for a simpler, more thoughtful, less anxious life. The past year’s privations and mandated solitude have reminded me of the preciousness of peace and quiet, of nature’s beauty, and of cooking a simple dinner for one.
Ezra Haber Glen‘s review of Nomadland.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.