An alternate way of life

Joey with his van. Known by his friends as Little Joey - Singer/Song Writer

Martin Banks
March 15th, 2021

Have you seen Nomadland with Frances McDormand yet? It is an Oscar contender in a lot of ways. It tells the story of the people who did all the right things throughout life - and were left behind when retirement came. These people reinvent themselves by taking a chance to live a nomad's lifestyle on the road, as freely and as cheaply as possible. It's a touching story that shines a light on a sub-culture most of us know little about.

I fell down the rabbit hole of learning about the nomad lifestyle, and related ways of living in America. It's a natural for me since I have enjoyed traveling and camping all my life. Now I am finding out there are so many ways to live a nomad life, and boondocking is just one of them.

A short definition of boondocking is to travel with the seasons, living in an RV, van, or car, off-grid, in remote locations that don't have fees. Romantic, isn't it? Boondocking is primarily done by an older generation that had looked forward to retirement and found they couldn't travel the world as hoped for. So they make do and travel the U.S. instead. It's a rugged lifestyle.

But let me back up for a sec and introduce Nikki Delventhal. Nikki was a contestant on The Bachelor and has an extensive resume from modeling and other fashion industry accomplishments. She was killing it professionally in NYC. These days, she is living with her dog in her car. She creates YouTube videos about her travels and chosen lifestyle. Nikki falls into a subgroup of the nomads and boondockers. She travels the U.S. in her Toyota Prius, with her dog Camper, and earns an income (I assume) from YouTube videos and endorsements. What she is doing is quite remarkable. And she is a remarkable person herself. You can watch Nikki's videos here.

I stumbled across Nikki's videos by accident. I had great fun watching them, dreaming about the next time I would hit the road for an adventure. Now, YouTube is suggesting videos for all sorts of hacks for living on the road and off the grid. The idea of converting a minivan or Prius to an RV of sorts has its appeal as well. My Landcruiser is set up for me to spend a night in it. Beyond a night, it would get cramped - fast. I prefer sleeping out, or if not that, a motel room is a good option.

I do travel around the American southwest quite a bit, and I favor out-of-the-way places. Also, since I'm a guy and people don't mess with me, I sometimes end up in places I probably shouldn't be. No worries, but I see things that most people don't usually see. Or if they do see it, it doesn't register.

On my most recent travel adventure, there was a difference in some of the places I passed through. There were cars with tarps draped over them. Not everywhere, but here and there. In a vacant lot behind an industrial area, a parking lot near a park, on the street by a shopping center, or on the side of the road in a rural area. If it wasn't a tarp draped over the car, towels and blankets were covering the windows. It became easy to spot these cars.

This brings me to another personality in this story, Joey. I don't know Joey's last name, but I have met him several times. He's a nice guy and acts responsibly enough. Joey lives mostly in his van. He sleeps and eats there and figures out how to take care of his other needs. I met Joey when he was staying in a vacant building at a church. He had volunteered to help keep the church grounds clean, hoping to be allowed to remain at the facility. The church gig didn't last long, and Joey is living in his van full-time again. It's not that he likes living in a van; instead, it's what he can handle on his own right now. It's the circumstance of life, not a choice.

Wow, from the romantic life on the road to surviving in a car in a parking lot somewhere. Martin, why such a buzz kill?

I feel the need to acknowledge a subculture here in America, growing by the day and not always by choice. It may be a crisis in the making. For a lot of people, it is already a crisis. Deciding to convert a van into an RV and living on the road sounds like a lot of fun. And it is - if you have a home to return to. Many of these people had a house, saved money all their lives, and planned for their dream retirement. As the savings dwindle, selling the house and finding another way to live is one of their very few options. I fear that the American Dream has become just that, a dream.

As for Nikki, it seems that she is in a good place. I can't imagine how scary it must be for a woman to be living solo in a car. I cheered when she picked up a stray dog and named him Camper. Nikki is smart and knows that she is making a choice for an unconventional lifestyle. It seems to be working for her, and at the very least, she will have some amazing stories to tell.

I hope that Joey is in a good place too. I just don't know. Joey is near the other end of the nomad spectrum from Nikki. Living in his van more out of necessity than by choice. It seems that he is making it work. There is no way to understand what he is struggling with internally, though. We all have an inner dialog, and it can be quite harsh. Sometimes it's hard to be kind to ourselves.

Among the many differences between Nikki and Joey, one stands out in stark contrast - technology. Nikki grew up with the internet and all of the associated things it brings, including a way to earn money online. It's still work, but making money online is a real thing. On the other hand, Joey (and myself, for that matter) grew up when work meant showing up somewhere and getting your hands dirty. Back in the day, blogging or being a YouTuber wasn't something people did at all. These two different concepts of work are difficult to translate for those of us who grew up with a dial phone and three channels on TV.

There is no way to end this essay by coming to a conclusion and neatly tying it up with a bow on top. After a year in social isolation and a a lot of known and unknown economic damage, the looming question is, where do we go from here? I went to visit Joey and asked to take his photo. Joey didn't know the answer to the "what's next?" question either. Joey is optimistic and is looking forward to working again. He has tentatively been called back to his job in the events industry on a part-time basis. It's a start. Most of all, he is looking forward to getting back to work and being productive again. It's been a rough year.

Do you know a boondocker? What do you think of this lifestyle? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or send me an email. I would like to know what you think.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate you.