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'Nomadland' Tracks Rising Number Of Americans Living On The Road


Thousands of people in the United States are not exactly homeless; more like houseless. They live in vehicles - RVs, campers, vans. And they follow the work, moving from job to job. The journalist Jessica Bruder embedded with this community, traveling all over the U.S. Our co-host, Ari Shapiro, spoke with her about her new book, "Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century."

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Nobody knows exactly how many people in the U.S. are living the nomad life. It's literally a moving target. The author Jessica Bruder told me that many of the people she met are past what we think of as retirement age. Maybe they lost their savings in the Great Recession or they never had any to begin with. Now they do physical work for long hours, often earning just enough money to go the next mile.

JESSICA BRUDER: From harvesting sugar beets to working in Amazon warehouses to selling Christmas trees and pumpkins and roadside stands. Camping wherever they can, often on public land. Going off the grid, boondocking, using solar power. Getting together in groups and staying in touch on the Internet and basically forming a sort of mobile middle class.

SHAPIRO: I asked Jessica Bruder why these people decided to pull up roots and take to the road.

BRUDER: For most of us, housing is the biggest expense we have. And it's an expense that keeps going up even as wages stay flat. Once you leave a house behind, you know, you no longer have utilities. You don't have maybe a lawn to keep up. You don't have mortgage payments. You don't have rent payments. And for so many people, that takes such a gigantic chunk out of incomes that are in many cases stagnant. So in ways, getting on the road is actually a kind of ingenious hack.

SHAPIRO: You spent years in this world and met lots of people. The main character in your book is a woman named Linda. Tell us how she ended up in this community of nomads.

BRUDER: Her story is really the story of the economy over the past few decades - the prevalence of low-wage jobs, wage stagnation. She worked a register at Home Depot. She had done a bunch of other things even though she has a couple of degrees. She'd been a general contractor. She'd owned her own company. She really got stuck on this low-wage treadmill and realized that there was no way to get off it, and that she'd be walking that treadmill until the day she died. And that's when she discovered what some refer to as the mobile lifestyle. And she went out and bought a secondhand RV and started taking these jobs.

SHAPIRO: And did she find that that gave her freedom? Or did she find that that made her more or less kind of a homeless person?

BRUDER: Both of these things can be true.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BRUDER: I mean, I'm tempted to quote Janis Joplin here. But...

SHAPIRO: Wait, what's the lyric? I'm reaching for it.

BRUDER: Oh, the freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. I mean, that's the...

SHAPIRO: Of course.

BRUDER: That's the cynical take, right? But, yeah, I think she did feel free in some regards. You know, it was also an incredibly precarious existence. She - everything she owns for the most part is in her RV, which is ancient and prone to some mechanical troubles. And she's living in it at a campsite in weather that's, you know, going down to sub-zero. RVs are really not made for that sort of climate. So it's not an easy existence at all.

SHAPIRO: There's an element of romance to this and adventure, and there's also an element of desperation and economic necessity. And both come out in your narrative in this book. I wonder at the end of the day which felt most salient to you.

BRUDER: I think they're both pretty deeply intertwined. I think there is a large element of wanderlust in our culture. So people are pretty excited of - about the idea of the great American road trip. But at the same time, there are all of these financial forces that govern the choices people make. So when I first got out on the road and talked to people in 2013, the first thing so many people wanted to tell me was that I chose to do this.

And then maybe four days later, a week later, if I'm still hanging around as a reporter, that's when I hear about the foreclosure or the 401(k) that got wiped out, those other details. So people are eager to tell you that they chose this, but their options have narrowed quite a bit in recent years. So, you know, on the one hand, there is the I'm out there and I'm having an adventure. And on the other hand, this is sometimes the result of few options.

SHAPIRO: Did you find that life on the road provided an escape for people? Or did you find that it was just avoiding the inevitable reckoning?

BRUDER: Probably the latter in that it was an escape, but in so many cases temporarily. I know people - there are people I've interviewed over the course of the past three years who are no longer with us. There are people who are no longer on the road. There are people who don't know what they'll do when they're old enough that they can't drive. Some of those people have no plan at all. Some of those people talk about essentially driving out into the middle of the desert and calling it a day. So while I think it does feel like an escape and there's a degree to which people feel really liberated in the moment by it, it's not - it's not a long-term solution.

SHAPIRO: Jessica Bruder is the author of the new book "Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century." Thanks for talking with us.

BRUDER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE VASS' "QUIET VOICES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.