“I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless.”
This is Fern (Frances McDormand) talking, the central character in Nomadland, the film that explores the lifestyle of Americans who live on the road in vans, campers, trailers, and motor homes.
The line transported me back to the days I often said it myself. The first time was when I went to buy a toothbrush after my house burned down in a California wildfire. I’m not homeless, I remember thinking as I passed a homeless man sitting by the entrance to the drugstore. I’m just houseless.
After the fire, I lived “on the road” for what ended up being more than six years during the 1990s. So when Nomadland popped up on Hulu last week, I was interested. I will confess I was also glad I’d be streaming the film. I’ve never liked walking out of a theater, but it’s all too easy to do the equivalent with a flick of a remote. If Nomadland turned out to be preachy, boring, or irritatingly inaccurate, I’d cut my losses and switch to something else. I figured I’d give it half an hour at least.
France McDormand is easily the main reason I watched Nomadland all the way through, but I was also won over by the care the filmmakers took in crafting the script and choosing the locations. While the film doesn’t tell the whole story of American nomadism, it paints a credible picture of the part it showcases. For me, it was a trip down memory lane to see the encampments in Quartzsite, Arizona and the seasonal employees at work in places like Wall Drug, South Dakota.
While the film—to its credit—does not focus on it, the main difference between my years on the road and now is technology. When I hit the road, mobile phones were still mounted in vehicles. Email was an exciting new phenomenon, and modems were devices that needed telephones to work. People like Fern found employment by subscribing to print newsletters like Workamper News, which has united employers with traveling workers since 1987. They often joined groups like Escapees, an RV support club founded in 1978 that provides services like mail forwarding. These days, all nomads need are smartphones to go to workamper.com and escapees.com, the websites that have evolved along with technology and cell coverage.
While the movie, by including real nomads as fictionalized versions of themselves, projects a feeling of almost documentarian authenticity, it presents only a segment of the migratory population that travels the continent. Like birds, nomads belong to different flocks. One is the affluent group that travel in $300,000 vehicles and have no need for employment. Another includes professionals who have found they can work on the road as long as they have internet access. Yet another is made up of professionals whose work is transferable and who can accept short-term assignments around the country. Traveling nurses are a good example.
Right now, though I live in what nomads call a “stick house,” I enjoy following the travels of friends who live on the road. Take Ron and Patti Clements, for example. They’ve lived in an RV for three years now. Ron, a sports journalist, has written a book, A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66, that’s coming out in August. Patti works remotely full time. For as long as I’ve known them, I’ve admired Kimberly and Dennis Goza. They’ve lived on a roll for three decades. Their son grew up traveling the country with them as they performed in schools and libraries across the country as Act!vated Storytellers.
But back to the film. With Frances McDormand so capably inhabiting the persona of Fern, what emerges is a captivating story of personal and physical odyssey. After Fern makes her statement about being houseless but not homeless, she asks “Not the same thing, right?” The rest of the movie illustrates her point vividly, right up to the end, when Fern returns to the town she left when her husband died. Her old house is now an abandoned ruin in a ghost town. She can’t go home again, but by this time, she knows it’s not a place anyway.