I grew up in a house on Wheatfield Drive in a northern suburb of Wilmington, Delaware. I lived there until I was 18 and then on-and-off during the next few summers while I attended college. Growing up, I never moved.
My experience growing up on a suburban street named after the rural vision of the Wheatfield may be one of the quintessential expressions of 20th century, middle-class. In this context, the RV, the mobile home, and the camper represented a respite from the banal conformity of suburban living. While my family never camped or had an RV, we nevertheless recognized the freedom to travel and live untethered to a single place – even the idyllic wheat field – as an appealing fantasy. My dad long talked about getting an RV and rolling across the American West, stopping wherever the spirit moved him, and seeing the sights and sites of the country. As recently as this summer, as my wife and I saw the campers lining the route of the Tour de France, we fantasized about renting a camper-van in Europe and touring. In fact, my wife did just this on a walkabout year in Australia when she and a friend cruised the Australian coast finding seasonal work when money ran low or opportunity presented. Life in a camper van was a temporary departure from the conventions of middle and upper class life. Life in the suburbs represented being part of the establishment – the modern equivalent of the yoeman farmer – who connection to a place demonstrated economically, physically, and socially his or her connection to a community.
Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st century (W.W. Norton 2017) and The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martin’s 2017) tell a different story. These two books tell the story of people who live in RVs, mobile homes, camper vans, their trucks and cars between short stints on the couches of friends and relatives. If Mathew Desmond’s Evicted sketched out the persistent challenges of housing for the urban poor whose constant struggles against eviction thwart their efforts to climb out of urban poverty and garner the social, economic, and political benefits of a stable life and address, Briody and Bruder present a group who have slipped downward from the stability of middle class life in suburban and rural homes in the U.S. and are living in vehicles designed for occasional and recreational uses or the transport of good or people.
Briody’s book explores life around Williston, North Dakota, during the most recent Bakken oil boom in The New Wild West. The cost of housing in boom time Williston made apartments and homes prohibitive for most people who came to the region to reap the benefits of the boom. As a result, Briody’s characters live in RV parks, public parks, camp grounds or most famously, the Williston Walmart parking lot. She joined them living in an RV while doing the research for her book. This paralleled the experience of our research team when we first visited the Bakken at the height of the boom in 2012. We had to plan well in advance and found that accommodations a modular man camp outside bustling Tioga, a more affordable and convenient alternative to a hotel.
The characters in the New Wild West lived in their RVs on a less voluntary basis and often without the security of a home somewhere else. They had come to the Bakken as a result of troubled lives, desperate circumstances, and, in many cases, the economic and mortgage crisis of 2008 which led to millions of foreclosures and contributed to the growing group of workers who lived in RV and other forms of temporary housing. For some of Briody’s characters, the Bakken was a chance to recover what they had lost. At the same time, the struggle to make a living in the Bakken is always present and optimism is a commodity far more precious and rare that the oil that fueled the Bakken boom. This doesn’t necessarily square with our research in the Bakken, where the optimism was so ubiquitous even as late as 2016 when the boom was well in decline that we called it Bakktimism. For Briody’s denizens of the Bakken, no matter how good the money, the American dream appeared increasingly fragile.
Bruder’s Nomadland tracks the fates of a group of older Americans who likewise lost the fixity of the suburban home and took to life on the road. Bruder’s work is a more subtle book than Briody’s The New Wild West. Her sensitive reading of the modern nomads is particularly evident in the tensions between kind of optimistic adaptability of these RV dwellers and the rough realities of life on the road. Many of Bruder’s character had lost their jobs and, then, savings in the financial collapse of 2008. They experienced the reality of the “jobless recovery” in the unforgiving job market for experienced and well-educated adults in their 50s and 60s. Then, they lost their homes. To adapt, they became nomads living in RVs, modified vans, cars and trucks and supplemented their social security benefits by traveling the U.S. managing campsites, staffing amusement parks, working at Amazon’s distribution facilities during the Christmas rush, and retreating to Quartzsite, Arizona each year winter to escape the cold and recharge.
Bruder describes this loose tribe brought together by circumstances who form communities through social media and share both philosophical and practical tips on the nomadic life through blogs, discussion boards, and listserves. Many of her characters maintain a fragile optimism about their golden years, and draw upon an anti-consumerist philosophy that sees their material losses as an opportunity to experience true freedom. Ironically, these modern nomads often survive by working for the ultimate purveyor of American materialism, Amazon, as well as other short term employers across the U.S. who value the optimism, adaptability, experience, and mobility of these modern nomads. The irony of this situation is further driven home by the practice of these nomad maintaining campsites for people who continued to see RV, campers, and tents as escapes from the fixity of everyday life.
One of the things that Bruder’s book helped me to see more clearly is the deep irony of my little book. Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. By intentionally ignoring the traditional tourist sites in the Bakken – for example, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park – and privileging RV parks and man camps, I transformed the temporary settlements in landscape of Western North Dakota and tourism from the space and experience of leisure to the space and experience of work. In the same way, Briody and, especially Bruder, demonstrate how the suburban dream is giving way to a more mobile reality.
Both authors recognize that the quiet growth of this mobile population represents a seismic shift in the structure of American democracy. It seems hardly ironic that the growing anxiety concerning “voter fraud” (as just one example) has led to policies and practices that will make it more difficult for mobile voters to have political representation. The anxiety about refugees and migrants represents the recognition of these same trends in a global context. I wish I had developed this connection a bit more in my little article in the most recent Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. (I’ve made a preprint available here.)