The Oscar-winning best picture of 2020 shows what some national park travelers give up to live the life so many of us dream about.
What image does the word “vanlife” conjure for you? Is it some fancy Mercedes Sprinter, decked out with a solar shower, queen-size bed and SubZero fridge? Maybe you picture a TikTok or Instagram personality who adventures across the United States in her tiny-house-on-wheels, gamely smiling at the camera with her golden retriever in Yellowstone. Or maybe you picture yourself on the road with no real responsibilities.
Many of us glamorize the idea of #vanlife because it represents an existence free of the everyday strain of a 9-to-6 job. The rent is going up, your 30s are looming, or maybe your 50s, and what have you made of life so far? Are you happy? I am lucky to have a job I love that keeps me outdoors often, but even I sometimes daydream of a life off the grid, exploring every national park.
But the dark, staggering truth is that many of the people who are living in vans and trucks are not doing so out of choice, but out of necessity. In the film “Nomadland,” which won Best Picture at the 2021 Academy Awards, the main character Fern is a sharp contrast to the shiny image many of us have of van dwellers. Fern’s not a young influencer with a selfie stick and a dream; she’s in her 60s, and a string of bad fortune has left her a jobless widow in a dying mining town in Nevada. She is too independent to rely on the kindness — or pity — of wealthier relatives and friends. So she wanders around the country in a beat-up Ford Econoline, sleeping in gas station parking lots and RV parks.
Fern meets many like-minded nomads, generally older Americans who slipped through the massive gaps in our country’s social safety net. Faced with the prospect of working until the day they die or trying to cover a mortgage, food, medicine and more on measly Social Security benefits, they got on the road instead. Like Fern, they’re essentially homeless, relying on bucket toilets, cans of SpaghettiOs cooked on hotplates and their old white panel vans.
These nomads find work wherever they can, as seasonal employees at Amazon fulfillment centers or industrial beet farms. Some of the most promising jobs out there for folks living on the road, however, are at national parks.
It’s not glamorous; Fern finds herself scrubbing toilets at Badlands National Park. But she gets to keep her van there, too, and spends her days off gazing in awe at the rugged rock formations. She saves money and drives to Redwood National Park in California, wandering among the massive trees in complete serenity and solitude.
Fern is a fictional character, but most of the people in the film are real nomads playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. Across the country, many seasonal workers depend on our national parks for their livelihoods and even their homes. Some people live nearly year-round in campers and vans parked outside or on public lands. When we think of national park visitors, we often romanticize them the way we do vanlifers – happy, smiley people with fancy gear, climbing peaks and posting pictures all day. These people have seemingly unlimited money and resources, paid time off, not a care in the world.
The truth about who visits and works in our parks is much more complicated. It’s a luxury to have the time and financial resources to explore our parks, much less to search for and find ourselves in the wilderness. For many people, having the freedom to have those experiences comes with major tradeoffs, ranging from having to scrub toilets in the campsite to having no home at all.
Volunteers will travel to parks and work seasonally — for free — in exchange for a spot to connect their van to water and power in some of the most priceless real estate in the country. As rapid gentrification spreads throughout the West, particularly in California, a van and public land become a lifeline rather than a pleasure cruise. These volunteers can work and stay near or in a national park at a cost, or in national forestland for free — which has led to some controversial clashes between people experiencing homelessness and land managers.
Writing for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson captures the nuanced issue of romanticizing people like Fern and journeys like hers. She may get “the sunset and the plains and the mountains. But there’s nothing inherently noble about why she’s living this life in the first place. If her experience on the road is part of an ‘American tradition,’ it’s a tradition of finding yourself struggling because you no longer fit into a young, productive workforce, and choosing the only alternative that still feels like living.”
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I watched “Nomadland” from the comfort of my warm apartment, with a glass of red wine in my hand and the company of a loved one. I watched as Fern covered herself in mountains of blankets in her unheated van at night, watched as she celebrated New Year’s by walking alone through an Amazon parking lot with a single sparkler.
It left me with a greater appreciation for what I had, and an understanding that, particularly for the least privileged in our society, economic and housing stability can be lost in just a few short, bad days. It gave me a new wariness about the way we talk about vanlife and wanderlust. But most of all, it left me with the distinct impression that we should be kind to all our neighbors wandering in our national parks, because we don’t know what they had to give up to make the trip.
About the author
Kyle Groetzinger Senior Communications Manager, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Sun Coast, Texas
Kyle Groetzinger joined NPCA in June 2019 and is Senior Communications Manager for the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Sun Coast, and Texas regions, as well as NPCA's national cultural resources team.