Monday, October 25

Off the Road, Off the Grid: Modern Nomads Roam America’s Interior | Life and Style

If you take a closer look at city streets, campgrounds, and stretches of desert run by the Bureau of Land Management, you’ll see more Americans living in vehicles than ever before. It was never his plan.

“I was not prepared when I had to move into my SUV. The transmission was on. He had no money saved. I was really scared, ”said April Craren, 52, wrapped in blankets on a cot inside her new minivan, a 2003 Toyota Sienna.

He turned on the camera on his phone to show me the camping stove he uses to make coffee and his view of the sun rising over the Colorado River. It has no toilet, shower or refrigeration.

After separating from her husband, April found herself homeless in June 2020, exacerbating her depressive disorder for which she receives $ 1,100 a month in disability benefits.

“I could have gotten an apartment but in a shitty unsafe place with no money to do anything at all,” he explained.

Last year, where April lived in Nixa, Missouri, the average rent for an apartment was $ 762, slightly less than the national average. I like almost half of American renters, she would have been paralyzed by the cost.

April and Cliff, a veteran nomad, camped side by side on the land of the Bureau of Land Management.
April and Cliff, a veteran nomad, camped side by side on the land of the Bureau of Land Management. Photography: April Craren

It’s no wonder, then, that job loss, divorce, or, say, the sudden onset of a global health or financial crisis can push so many over the edge.

“If the Great Recession was a rift in the system, Covid and climate change will be the abyss,” says Bob Wells, 65, the nomad who plays himself in the film. Nomadland, an early Oscar nominee starring Frances McDormand. Bob helped April adopt the nomadic lifestyle and change her life in the process.

Today he lives exclusively on public land in his GMC Savana equipped with 400 watts of solar power and a 12-volt refrigerator. His mission in life is to promote nomadic tribalism in a car, truck or RV as a way to prevent homelessness and live more sustainably.


Before becoming a nomad in 1995, Bob lived in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife and two children. He worked as a union secretary at the same Safeway where his father had worked until his retirement, only to die two years later.

Bob didn’t want his father’s fate, but there it was. As the days turned into decades, he went to a job he hated, worked with people he didn’t like, to buy things he didn’t want. According to himself, he was the living embodiment of Thoreau’s “silent despair.” He knew he was not happy, but it never occurred to him to live otherwise.

After all, this was the American dream, right?

Then, when he was 40, the divorce occurred. After paying alimony and child support, he took home $ 1,200 a month, of which $ 800 went towards rent.

Bob Wells: 'According to himself, he was the living embodiment of Thoreau's' silent despair'
Bob Wells: According to his own accounts, he was the living embodiment of Thoreau’s “silent despair.” Photography: Bob Wells

One day, worried about impossible finances, he saw a green truck for sale and thought, “Why don’t I buy that truck and move into it?” The idea seemed crazy to him, but with the prospect of homelessness looming, he spent the last $ 1,500 in his savings account and bought the truck that was simply “too spent” for its previous owner. He tipped off the landlord that night, threw a sleeping pad in the back of his new home, and cried himself to sleep.

Then the first of the month came and something clicked: I didn’t have to pay the rent. As her finances improved, she installed insulation, a suitable bed, and even a PlayStation fortress made real for her children. She started working just 32 hours a week, and since each weekend was three days long, she spent more time camping with her children, which “helped tremendously” her mental outlook on life.

Finally, I was really happy.

Realizing that he had something valuable to share, he bought the domain name. Cheap RV life in 2005. He posted tips and tricks on better vehicle housing, but what he was really offering was a roadmap to a better life.

Four years later, when nearly 10 million Americans were displaced after the Great Recession, traffic to his site soared. Finding himself at the center of a growing online community, he decided to create a meeting in Quartzsite, Arizona. He called it Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), and in January 2011, 45 vehicles turned up. Eight years later, an estimated 10,000 vehicles gathered for what was said to be the largest nomadic gathering in the world.

The explosive growth of the event is undoubtedly a reflection of America’s growing interest in the life of vans in response to the affordable housing crisis, an idea that Bob made accessible on his YouTube channel, also called Cheap RV life, created in 2015.

Whether you are sharing a philosophical exploration, as in Why i live in a van, or explaining the mechanics of Pooping in a car, truck, or RVBob’s videos are a treasured free resource, making him a beloved celebrity in the nomad community. With 460,000 subscribers, videos also make you money through ads and affiliate sales. His most popular video, Living in a car with $ 800 a month, has more than 4m of views.

Fame, however, is not Bob’s problem. You don’t like the term “follower” and you definitely don’t want to be considered a guru. Rather, he is driven by a quieter demon-angel. After the devastating loss of his eldest son in 2011, he was plagued with despair and, for the first time, suicidal thoughts.

“Why am I alive when my son is not?” he wondered obsessively.

With a desperate plea to a higher power, he finally found the will to endure pain by serving and building community.

“If I’m going to be alive, there better be a reason, and this is the reason. You are the reason, ”he told a crowd on the RTR in 2020, in what was later published as video about mental illness for your online audience.

The culmination of this drive to serve is the Home on Wheels Alliance (Howa), a 501 (c) (3) non-profit charity that he founded in 2018. With the help of his team and volunteers, Bob helps clients who are being driven out of traditional housing from a state of crisis to stability financial support to finally contribute members of the mobile community.

To date, funded by sponsors and donations, Howa has given away seven minivans, two trailers, a skoolie (a converted school bus), and too many tents, brake pads and tires to count.

April had been watching Bob’s videos for years when a nomadic friend online suggested that she ask Howa for help.

“That’s really for someone else in need,” he replied.

April's car.
April’s car. Photography: April Craren

At the time, she was living in her car with a faulty transmission.

“I don’t know, April, you are so needy,” her friend urged.

April accepted and applied.

“When I found out that they gave me the minivan, that changed everything,” he said.

To join the Howa program, April had to sign a three-year contract, demonstrate that she had sufficient income to regularly maintain her vehicle, and agree to deposit $ 200 a month into an escrow account until the value of the minivan was reached, after from which the vehicle title and escrow account would be given to you.

“Most of Howa’s applicants are older women. Are disabled or retired and divorced without enough SSI [supplemental security income] because they were housewives or they just didn’t earn enough to pay the rent, ”explained Bob.

By learning to save money and live rent-free on their vehicles, Howa clients preserve their independence, self-reliance and dignity while making friends within the larger nomadic community.


Today, April is camping on public land alongside Cliff, a veteran nomad and volunteer from Howa. Together, they race to a nearby laundry, a grocery store, and a gym where she works out and showers. She has lost 20 pounds and feels healthier, thanks to eating fresh food at Cliff’s urging and living a more active outdoor lifestyle.

“I’m not just surviving, I’m thriving,” he said.

After Covid, she would like to volunteer and join a caravan, a popular program Howa organized to help nomads stay safe and defend themselves from loneliness. Howa vets set up camping spots and then members use Meetup to find out where groups are going. Some caravans are small, while others have reached 45 trucks.

“Heard it’s like a party,” April chirped.

With the expectation that the number of homeless people will continue to rise, in part due to the climate disaster, Bob’s dream for the tribe is to see the expansion of the Long-Term Visitor Land (LTVA), including areas in the national forests. Most public lands allow visitors to camp for only two weeks, but LTVA campers can stay for up to seven months. These camps don’t offer hookups (most nomads use solar power, anyway), although some have dump stations and fresh water.

“Thousands of nomads could overwinter in the south and spend the summer in the forest for longer periods,” he explained.

While Bob recognizes the limits of his solution (it doesn’t address post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness, or drug addiction, the top three causes of homelessness), he does see it as a way to reduce our footprint. carbon and become more financially resilient in the tough times ahead. .

“I want to leave a world that is livable. For every person I can help get into a vehicle, there is one less person in a house, ”he reasoned.

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