In her recent book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the subculture of aging Baby Boomers who have been priced out of traditional (“sticks and bricks”) homes and apartments (by layoffs, ageism in the workplace, debt and bankruptcy, underwater mortgages, health challenges and the woeful inadequacy of a monthly Social Security check) and have found new lives wandering the nation and working short-term jobs while living in their “wheel estate” (vans, campers, RVs, old school buses and even compact cars). In between gigs as seasonal help at Amazon warehouses (ten to twelve hour shifts spent squatting, reaching and walking miles of concrete floors with a hand scanner), working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, and serving as “camp hosts” at remote state and national parks, they alternate between “boondocking” (camping in desert, mountain and wilderness middle-of-nowhere locations, sometimes legally, sometimes not) and “stealth camping” (staying overnight in their rigs at the far reaches of Wal-Mart parking lots, at 24-hour truck stops and gyms, or even on suburban streets). These kings and queens of the road meet other like-minded souls, forge friendships, form loose-knit clans, trade knowledge, help each other out, share their meager possessions, and follow each other to the desert Southwest in the winter, to the coolness of the woodsy mountains in the summer, and to annual gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (organized by longtime van dweller, Bob Wells) off Dome Rock Road, on the outskirts of Quartzsite, Arizona.
I am fascinated by this phenomenon on multiple levels. For one thing, I have more than a passing familiarity with many of the locations described by Bruder. Having lived and worked in Blythe, California for three years, I am painfully aware of the Podunk nature of Colorado River hamlets such as Ehrenberg, Arizona and the summertime ghost town imitation performed annually by “the Q.” The former is the place that everyone in Blythe goes to gas up their vehicles at one of the two truck stops, due to petrol prices often running 50 cents or more per gallon less than just across the bridge in California. The Flying J truck stop there became desert dessert heaven once they acquired a Cinnabon and a Carvel to go along with their Subway sandwich shop. Even with the cheaper Arizona gas prices, it would still cost me fifty dollars to fill up the gas-guzzling boat of a Mercury I was driving at the time. I would stand at the pumps watching my iPhone go crazy flipping the time back and forth an hour every few seconds, not quite able to decide whether this border location was in Pacific or Mountain Time. And I would find it hard to escape the premises without bringing home a cinnamon roll for my wife and a soft serve sundae for myself.
As for Quartzsite, about 20 miles east of Ehrenberg on Interstate 10, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time there. Bruder failed to mention the Friday night all-you-can-eat fish frys at The Grubstake on Highway 95 (the restaurant is still there but, alas, the fried fish pig-out is history; they sell it by the piece now). I have so many fond memories of that place, from the ghost pepper eating contests advertised on the menu to the NASCAR posters on the walls of the loo to the autographed dollar bills on the ceiling of the dining room to drunk coworkers attempting to recover their misspent youth by dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”
Bruder did, however, visit Silly Al’s, a pizza parlor and bar where I once witnessed the superannuated karaoke hoedown that she describes. I never returned, finding the food overpriced and mediocre. (Let’s be honest: When it comes to Italian food, it’s hard to satisfy a New York boy). She also dropped in on Paul Winer, the naked bookseller of Quartzsite (he does wear a knitted codpiece to cover his whoosie-whatsy) who has chatted with me a number of times, has entertained me by demonstrating his boogy-woogy piano skills on the old upright he keeps in the store, and has sold me a number of esoteric tomes that I unearthed like desert gemstones from the towering disorganized stacks representing shelf overflow and covering nearly every square inch of floor space. Paul’s bare skin resembles old tanned leather, which should come as no surprise considering that 120°F is a perfectly normal temperature at the Q.
As for the locals, we completely ignored the schlocky vendors hawking beads, polished stones and T-shirts, as well as the snowbirds and their cheek-by-jowl RVs crowding the campsites from December through February. We could reclaim the place for ourselves when the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark in March and the out-of-towners evaporated like snowflakes hitting the desert floor. For the next eight or nine months, it would just be us desert rats and our native companions, the lizards, rattlesnakes and cacti of the Southwest.
Another thing that fascinates me about the modern-day nomads described by Bruder is the sociological implications thereof. That these folks often stick together in common cause is no surprise; in some respects, it is no different than the Scrabble subculture that has become so familiar to me. But the eerie, post-apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthyish wandering from place to place, the living from one Social Security check to the next, the maximum 14-day stays on federal lands, the fear of “the knock” from cops or security guards, it all strikes me as the anti-American dream. I certainly don’t blame anyone for attempting to eke out what joy and camaraderie is available in survival mode, but my gosh, is this what the United States has come to? I admire the pride the nomads take in their way of life, even if forced on them rather than freely chosen. It reminds me that the line between dystopia and utopia can be fuzzy indeed.
The nomads refer to themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.” As Bruder acknowledges, “the H word” has become a loaded term, fraught with some implications that don’t necessarily apply (alcoholism, drug use, mental illness) and some (poverty) that may strike a little too close to home. It’s as if the road has become the new diaspora. The dispersed keep in touch via websites, blogs and Facebook pages, accessible courtesy of free wifi available outside Starbucks, truck stops and restaurants. And a little voice inside of me says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” I can’t forget how, as a child, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in a car. My mother and father were horrified. But being able to go anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice, with just a touch of the gas pedal, seemed like nirvana to me. It sure beat taking baths and doing homework.
These days, as I approach the age of sixty, I have to remind myself to be careful what you ask for. Your dreams might just come true, and they might turn out to be nightmares. One wrong move, I think, and I, too, could end up living in a van as an alternative to living on the street. Even worse, the people who Bruder met remind us that not even a wrong move is needed to face this fate. You can do everything right and still end up with nothing. The current low unemployment rate notwithstanding, the fickleness of the economy and the realities of growing older are cruel indeed. “Part-time at Burger King is not enough money to live on,” says one of Bruder’s new road friends. We are seeing the underside of the leaf we call capitalism, and it is covered in worms.
I must admit that I got quite a kick out of Bruder’s story about her first experience taking a shower at a truck stop, which happened to be at the Pilot off I-10 at the Q (another place I am very, very familiar with, although I’ve never showered there). She headed up to the register to pay for her shower, carrying soap, shampoo and flip-flops in a plastic bag. Only then did she learn, to her consternation, that a shower costs $12. In her case, she got lucky in that a trucker at the next register paid her tab with his rewards card (usable only once every 24 hours), concluding that, heck, he hadn’t had a shower in a week, so what’s waiting one more day.
A few weeks ago, the hot water heater that serves our rented tiny house went kaput. This meant we had no heat, no gas for cooking, and of course, the delightful experience of taking ice cold showers every day. This untenable situation was complicated by the fact that we have become accidental subletters. We had been renting from the owner of the big house in front of the property — that is, until he sold his business and decamped to Arizona with his family. Now he rents out the big house to two women and, while they are certainly nice enough, we are more or less at their mercy. Even worse, they were out of town, about nine hours away dealing with a family emergency. We ended up on the phone, back and forth between the renters down south and the owner in Arizona, trying to figure out who was going to do something about this. Eventually, the water heater was replaced, but not before engaging in the folly of making three fruitless attempts at finding parts and repairing the old unit.
The first day wasn’t too bad; apparently, there was still some hot water left in the lines, so a lukewarm shower was still possible. After that: Ice, ice, baby. Showering became impossible by anyone other than a member of the Polar Bears Club. Resigned to realities, I went to work without a shower.
By the end of the day, I realized that I was beginning to give off a faint odor of body sweat. By the next morning, I was smelling really funky, and I had a big meeting to attend. Just me, a lawyer and all of my bosses, three levels up. Just the five of us sitting at a tiny round table while I gave a presentation. After two days of no shower, my deodorant had decided to give up the ghost. I tried to keep a straight face and hoped no one would notice (as if!). Later in the day, I filled in my immediate supervisor about what was going on, just in case one of the higher-ups had something to say. I sat in my cubicle and stank myself out the rest of the day, trying to stay as far away from people as possible.
My wife texted me at work. Want to go to a hotel and shower? Yes! Oh, yes, please. As I alluded to above, I hated to bathe when I was a kid. Luckily for me, my parents were usually too preoccupied with other things and rarely forced me to take a shower. Being unwashed for weeks (um, months sometimes) didn’t bother me a bit. When my grandparents would come to visit, Grandpa would be appalled. I would tell him that he must be mistaken, because I couldn’t smell anything. “You can’t smell yourself!” he would yell.
Well, now even I could smell myself. This was getting bad. My wife said she couldn’t stand it anymore. I thought the hotel was a really great idea, but by the time I got home from work, she had come up with a cheaper alternative. We could go to the ‘49er Truck Stop and, like Jessica Bruder, shower for $12. But we had to get there by 6:00, after which the showers were open exclusively to truckers. That only gave us a few minutes to drive way out to the west end of town. Neither of us thought we would make it, but to my disappointment, we arrived just in time. As much as I reeked, stripping down to my bare tokhis in a grimy truck stop was nowhere to be found on my 2018 wish list. And just like Bruder, we carried in soap, shampoo, even towels. The truck stop provides a towel, but, eewww, a truck stop towel?
We had to wait about a half hour for a shower to become available. By that time, it was well after six, but no one seemed to care. I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I leaned against an electronic pinball machine that was wedged into the corner. It happened to be Ghostbusters. Goodness, have we gone retro or what? That’s the kind of pin I would have gladly loaded a roll of quarters into in my younger days (and probably would have made change to get a second roll of George Washingtons after that).
Wow, what a blast from the past. I remember seeing the movie in the mid-eighties with a young lady who was home from a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire. I knew her from college and hoped that perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Africa. She did, and I never heard from her again.
At the truck stop, I marveled at all the flags and gates and flashing lights on the machine. Along with the high scores, a message on the LED indicated that the now ubiquitous phrase “You’re toast!” was coined by Bill Murray for the original Ghostbusters movie. I poked the flippers and was treated to clips from the movie. “Either I have a monster in my kitchen or I’m completely crazy” and “it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”
Then a shower became available. My wife asked if we had to pay $24 because two of us needed showers and the clerk asked us whether we needed two shower keys. One key, just $12. Good news. We could each take a shower, one after the other.
The shower room was tiny, but it contained a toilet, sink and a little bench. Both of us are big people and we barely fit without tripping over each other. The hot water felt great after a few days without, but the steam was so intense that we had to crack the door open to avoid suffocating. I could barely fit my fat rear on that bench and my wife had to help me put my socks on. But, by gosh, I felt clean! And the next day at work, I didn’t smell like a sewer.
Two days later: Still no hot water at home. I had to go to work in San Francisco for a couple of days, but I was stinking again. Back to the truck stop we went. Another twelve dollars and another shower for two. I waved to the pinball machine on the way out. A trucker was pounding the flippers and racking up the points.
Meanwhile, I prayed that maybe, just maybe, we’d have hot water by the time we got back from the City by the Bay. If not, I knew where we’d end up to de-stink ourselves.
Who ya gonna call?
For further reading:
Arlie Russell Hochschild, “In ‘Nomadland’, the Golden Years are the Wander Years,” New York Times (Nov. 17, 2017).
Paruhl Sehgal, “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 2017).
Timothy R. Smith, “’The Last Free Space in America is a Parking Spot’: On the Road with a New Kind of Workforce,” Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2017).
Jessica Bruder’s website: https://www.jessicabruder.com/
Bob Wells’ blog: http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/