Thoughts on Nomadic life as it buffers against societal norms.
As you may know, I am fascinated with Nomadic life. So in 2018, with the help of my friend Tom, I built out a Ram Promaster van and transformed it into Violet the campervan. With Violet, I have gone on many adventures. However, there was one that I delayed for years. That trip was to camp on desert BLM land and to attend the RTR or Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. This is a massive meetup for Nomads. I accomplished that goal this year, and I would like to tell you about some aspects of it.
The RTR attracts a certain subgroup of Nomads. I’ll call these folks RTR Nomads. However, there are other types of Nomadic travelers; I’ll list some of them below.
There are the RVers. These are often retired couples or individuals and homeschoolers who usually have financial resources. They travel in fancy 5th wheels and modern RVs.
There are adventure Nomads who may live in just about anything. These folks view their home on wheels as necessary housing as they pursue an outdoor passion such as skiing or rock climbing.
The Instagram crowd live in decked-out Sprinter vans and restored fancy Volkswagon microbuses. This group attracts young, good-looking couples who travel for fun and fund their touring through social media channels. If you see a thumbnail of an attractive woman taking a shower wearing a scanty bikini, you have found an Instagram Nomad.
The RTR group is different, more gritty, and more natural. Bob Wells didn’t start this movement, but his active participation in it has made him its defacto voice. It is helpful to understand Bob better to get a better feeling for RTR Nomads.
Bob was a typical guy living in Alaska with his wife and kids. He worked at a grocery store and made enough money to support his family. In 1995 he divorced and did not have the resources to keep two residences afloat. He moved into an empty box van. Bob admits that this was a move of desperation and that he was feeling pretty sorry for himself. He was depressed and thought that he was a failure. Alaska can be brutally cold, and Bob had to adapt quickly to his new life. Using previous knowledge and trial and error, he was able to transform his dismal housing into a workable habitat. Bob has lived in many different vehicles since 1995 and has a tremendous knowledge of what works and doesn’t work in van life.
Slowly, he realized that his new lifestyle was a gift that gave him a newfound freedom, made him more centered, and provided him with inner peace. In 2005 he started a website called “Cheap RV Living” to share his ideas. Later, he started a YouTube Channel where he offered practical tips and interviews with Nomads that included tours of their rigs. Some rigs were works of art; others consisted of a mat on the floor of a minivan. However, just like sticks and bricks homeowners, Nomads have pride in their domiciles. Bob always sincerely compliments rig owners, and they universally show their appreciation to him. Other YouTube channels share tips and tricks as part of their feed, but this has been a consistent objective for Cheap RV Living. Bob has helped countless travelers, including myself, with his practical and practiced knowledge.
He started the RTR gathering some years ago, and before the pandemic, over 10,000 people attended. During COVID, the RTR went digital, offering classes and community online. However, there is no substitute for meeting in person. The RTR has practical seminars on everything from traveling to Mexico as a Nomad to dealing with chronic illness on the road. The RTR is free and was solely funded by Bob. Several years ago, Bob and his friend Sue Ann created HOWA (Home On Wheels Alliance), which is a 501C with the sole purpose of helping Nomads. HOWA now organizes and funds the RTR and manages an army of Nomad Volunteers. The RTR is run by people who live in their vehicles and who are often separated from each other by a thousand miles. By the nature of their lives, they have few financial resources. The RTR’s logistics were as good as any expensive conference I attended. If I am being honest, it was run better.
RTR Volunteers monitored RTR message boards, directed parking, adjusted sound/video equipment, led panel discussions, provided security, and supervised the give-and-take tables where Nomads could leave things for others to take for free. Nomads have little but are willing to share so that others can have more.
Who are the RTR-type Nomads? I talked to many, but not all, so I can only give you my limited impression. It may dispel some preconceived views that you could have of them. Like Bob, many vehicle dwellers started their journey due to circumstances. They had few options. They live in every type of vehicle imaginable. High-top vans, old conversion vans, cargo vans, retrofitted ambulances, old school buses, SUVs, and small sedans.
The bulk of the individuals that I met were in their 50s and 60s. However, I did talk to some in their 30s and others in their 70s. The vast majority would blend in with any crowd. Think about the people you would see at a big box store, Walmart or Home Depot. Most would be wearing functional but not stylish clothing. That is how the vast majority of Nomads dress.
Many Nomad men sport bushy beards or have a few days of stubble. Many Nomad women don’t wear makeup. Both of these positions are likely due to the practical nature of van dwelling. Everyone I met looked clean, and no one smelled bad. I mention these facts as some may be wondering. And yes, folks brushed their teeth.
Speaking of teeth, that was heartbreaking. It wasn’t uncommon to run into older Nomads who had prominent missing teeth or no teeth. I have worked with low-resource individuals for much of my life, and I can assure you that poor dentition is almost always because of a lack of funds. I recently had a simple filling replace-it cost me $300. Later this month, I’ll have my teeth cleaned- which will cost at least $150, likely more if anything extra is added. When you are living on a limited income, you can’t afford dental care, and the older you get, the more significant the impact this lack of regular maintenance has on your teeth. The ability to chew is paramount to good health. However, only some insurance policies cover this type of healthcare. I think that is criminal.
Naturally, there were some outliers in the group. I saw several people living in vans that were wheelchair-bound. What incredible courage to live an independent Nomadic life without the use of your legs. These folks were traveling in regular vans; no chair lifts or other accommodations. One, by the name of Kat, was volunteering at an information table.
Some individuals were tremendously overweight. A few others were on the eccentric side. Some wore mismatched clothing, others sported unusual hats, and one donned a homemade fez and a bathrobe made of that felt-like material that people made blankets out of a few years back. The eccentric were in the minority and likely represented a percentage no different than the general population.
I talked to one man who was able to live in an apartment by sharing costs with his wife. She became ill and died and he became homeless. A tiny older woman (under 5 feet) had been an overland truck driver. She lives on less than $700/month of social security. She has been boondocking in Quartzite since November, and despite her financial woes, she volunteers at a local church’s free meal program providing food for those who can’t afford it. Other individuals suffered from debilitating chronic illnesses (physical and mental). They found that leaving the rat race gave them the peace they needed to start the healing process. Still, others rejected the expectations of society that demanded that they work a meaningless job until they died. Some individuals worked seasonal jobs or made a living with small online businesses. One man, living in a Prius, bought local gemstones to resell.
Every single person that I talked to was kind. Most seemed intelligent and chatty. All seemed willing to help. I liked my interactions with them. Were these misfits of society? That question leads me to Bob Well’s talk on his philosophy of being a Nomad.
Bob’s talk covered many different areas, and I will only focus on a few. Mainly the needs of the individual vs. the needs of society.
Bob believes that early humans lived the way wolves and elephants live today. They liked to socialize and work together, but they retained their individuality. They accepted nature and adapted to survive in it. They only used those resources necessary to live. They lived within the confines of what nature offered them. They did not try to alter nature for their own will. They were generous with each other, and in doing so, they built connections that would help all. He believes that this is the way that we were meant to live.
Society has different expectations of the individual. Society wants us to live more like ants or bees. In essence, there are no individuals. Instead, we are all cogs in a bigger machine. Society wants us to produce for the betterment of society. Most of us are expendable. The more we produce, the more we are expected to produce. Jobs can be meaningless to the individual as long as it benefits the greater progress of the group. The focus is on productivity rather than relationships and personal growth. Most individuals are stuck in the class that they were born into. If you are a worker, you will most likely remain a worker. As productivity is king, the individual’s well-being is unimportant. Endless unfulfilling work leads to stress-related illness and addiction. Purchasing things is necessary to fuel the economy and becomes an artificial and unsatisfying reward for the worker. Social relationships are difficult to maintain due to the intrinsic stress of long work hours spent in unsatisfying jobs. Power and money need to be kept by those in control and are not shared with others. Generosity is discouraged. Consumption and wealth are glorified. If you have something, you want more of it.
Society does not promote harmony with nature; it demands the opposite. An example is modern farming. To successfully farm a field, the intrinsic life in the area must be killed. Insects, animals, plants. These things become pests and weeds. Society does not live within the confines of nature; it tries to rule nature-often with terrible consequences.
For many, modern life promotes mental and physical illness secondary to endless and meaningless work stress, the breakdown of social connections, and the disregard for the greater ecology (nature). People who question society are labeled negatively as misfits-they don’t fit in. The need for compliance is so great that misfits must be shunned and their lifestyle ridiculed.
Many of you who are reading this may object to this observation. You may believe that society is necessary, and you may now list all of the great things that society has created. It is also true that Nomads depend on society to survive. Nomads are not hunters and gatherers. They drive vehicles that need gas. They shop at grocery stores. They wear clothing woven in factories.
The idea here is balance and the idea that one type of lifestyle does not fit all. In many ways, Nomads are less misfitted than those who comply with societal rules, as they live in better harmony with themselves and the world around them. They consume less, pollute less, and spend less. They live more in nature and accept what nature offers. They are more generous with each other. They help each other. Roles and positions of prestige are dramatically reduced. At the RTR, everyone was treated equally. No one was judged based on possessions, physical appearance, age, or health. People were accepted for who they were, and everyone was allowed to be heard.
All of this made me reflect on my life and whether I was a misfit or fit. There are many ways that I am a misfit. I’m dyslexic, I have other processing problems, I’m blind in one eye, I have terrible coordination, I have a fear of heights, I’m a shy introvert, I think differently than most people, and I’m an obsessive problem solver. Although I am different, I have always wanted to fit in, so I have adopted behaviors to make that happen. I know how to talk, interact, and dress to blend in. Many times, I hold back my opinions as I don’t want to appear “too smart.” Intelligent people are often viewed with suspicion. Overall, I have been successful in this charade.
One area where I have been less successful has been in my weight. I have always been overweight and have spent (literally) tens of thousands of dollars to control my weight. As a result, I have lost hundreds of pounds through the years, only to regain them. Our society hates fat people. This is odd to me as most individuals in the US are now considered overweight. I have always been self-conscious of my weight and work hard to have people see me as a person, not a fat person. However, it has not been easy.
Among the Nomads, I had no such concerns. If I would accept them, they would accept me. Acceptance is one of the most important gifts we can give another person. However, many are better at passing out judgment.
Yes, I’m a “misfit” who has successfully faked being a “fit.” But that experience has made me acutely aware of others who are in marginalized groups. Our society places the highest value on healthy white Christian males. Other groups are now included, but they still hold lesser positions. Women come to mind, and there is some marginal inclusion of racial groups such as blacks and Hispanics. However, that inclusion is very conditional. If you act like a white Christian male, you may be given a seat at the table.
The less power a group has, the more it is rejected. Asians have contributed immensely to our country but were easily villainized during the COVID pandemic. Religious groups, like Muslims and Jews, may be openly mocked. It is acceptable for individuals with any imperfection or disability to be ridiculed or even attacked without provocation.
However, the most minor and most vulnerable groups are always targeted for the most hate. There are many examples, but one of the most obvious is the heterogeneous compilation that we identify as LGBTQ+. Overall, this is a small group in society. Most LGBTQ+ individuals are just trying to live their lives, and only a few are bad actors. However, the amount of propaganda against this faction of the population is astounding. It is even more shocking when legislators are allowed to subject a group of citizens to laws denying them the freedoms everyone else accepts as the norm.
Highlighted here is the act of marriage. Why is same-sex marriage such a big deal? Marriage is a legal (and sometimes religious) covenant between two people. It affords certain rights and benefits, and it signifies a willingness of both parties to commit to each other. There have always been laws that prevented people from marrying someone based on someone else’s bias. Laws outlawing marriage between blacks and whites come to mind.
We hold the act of marriage in high regard. However, traditional marriage can be far from that. Individuals break their vows to each other—individuals divorce. Physical violence, addiction, psychological torture, obsessive control, and many other abominations occur in traditional marriage, yet we accept these unions as somehow driven by God. We use our personal religious beliefs to restrict the rights of others who may not hold those same beliefs. We interpret (with emphasis on interpreting) our holy writings to fit our needs-even if those interpretations are against the basic concepts of Christianity. Christianity is about love, acceptance, forgiveness, and inclusion. Why are so many Christians focused on hate, rejection, exclusion, and damnation? Why do we have to be so “special” that only we can have rights that we deny others?
I saw the opposite among the Nomads. Everyone was accepted on their merits. Women traveling together as couples, toothless men, morbidly overweight Nomads, it didn’t matter. People were not prejudged based on some synthetic construct. Instead, they were accepted or rejected for who they were.
I think I’m not the only misfit out there who is good at pretending to be a “fit.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could be who were are and be accepted for that? The world might be much more creative and balanced. Diversity always leads to new ideas and growth. A lesson understood by a random pack of Nomads but still rejected by a society that should know better.