Nomadland by Jessica Bruder


Back in high school, I used to spend hours scrolling Tumblr, reblogging countless #vanlife photos. Stuck in my room with hours of work and nowhere to go, those pictures of vintage Westfalias and gorgeous landscapes all rendered in creamy film tones were an escape. I wanted to cruise the evergreen forests and cold beaches of the PNW, stargaze in the California desert, adventure over snowy roads and golden fields.

(Images from,, and somewhere on Tumblr I can’t remember)

In the years since, I’ve indulged myself a bit in various ways: car camping road trips long enough to feel semi-nomadic, a spring break in a rental camper van with Sharlene exploring Washington State. For me as a tourist, always with a fixed home to return to, the feeling of life on the road day by day and mile by mile felt exciting and freeing. We dreamed about one day fitting out our own van to go on more trips… A self-contained vehicle is freedom, home wherever you go.

But since moving to the Bay Area, it’s hard not to notice another kind of van life, the RVs and vans street parked on so many of the roads here, the political tension over these non-housed inhabitants of the city in Measure C. But I guess that always felt distinct to me from the #vanlife I used to dream about – that life was freedom on the road, this was just another form of homelessness, not much more than survival, the only similarity being the vehicles.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I recently finished reading the book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder and really liked how it connects those two stories of life on the road, coloring in the blank space in between and painting a portrait of the people for whom this life can be both freedom and survival.

There’s a whole world that feels mostly hidden, but is really surprisingly big and intricate, comprised of nomadic “workampers”, many elderly, living on the road in RVs and vans and picking up temp work where they can find it. Bruder draws on a couple years spent on the road to take us from the hellish insides of huge Amazon warehouses (did you know that Amazon has a whole program called CamperForce for nomadic temp workers??), to the messy frenzy of the annual sugar beet harvest, to annual gatherings in the Arizona desert.

Living paycheck to paycheck, forced by a tough job market and/or rising rents and/or personal circumstances to pull up roots and be the cheap labor for entities like Amazon… it can really feel like there’s a lot of darkness in this side of America. In particular, this book made me ponder how fragile our economic lives can be – many people mentioned in the book once led stable middle-class lives, but fell out due to maybe a bad divorce or losses in 2008, and were just never able to climb back up the ladder. And yet for many, life on the road is a way to take back control, to declare independence from a broken system and to make one’s own luck.

I especially liked this bit from the chapter “Halen”:

The truth as I see it is that people can both struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather, it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning and kinship when in adversity… It’s possible to undergo hardships that shake our will to endure, while also finding happiness in shared moments, such as sitting around a bonfire with fellow workampers under a vast starry sky.

But there’s a lot more to the story than what I can convey here, so I definitely suggest reading the book.