In 2022, it was estimated that more 3 million people in the United States lived on the road. One-third of these traveled in a motor home or travel trailer, while the majority — including 5 percent of U.S. retirees — were dwelling in a car, van, hatchback or converted bus.
As the cost of living rises across the United States, so too does the number of people who dwell in their vehicles. Whether you call it van living, rubber tramping or a glomad lifestyle, the decision to “go nomad” is up to the individual. Some travel the country to look for work, while others, who discovered remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic, have determined they need never set foot in an office again to make a living. And sometimes the choice is a result of limited options and undesirable alternatives.
Betsy (last name withheld at request) had a career of helping others through a non-governmental organization (NGO), from which she received a small salary. Faced with a debilitating immune disease in her 60s, she could choose between living in a tiny apartment she couldn’t afford or a home for low-income senior citizens. Instead, she says she went on the road “in whatever direction my heart pleases.”
At age 72, her home is a 2013 minivan with 180,000 miles on it. She’s been traveling for seven years. Her spirit is soothed, and she is off her meds. She blogs and is writing a memoir, titled Driving Through a Rainbow.
Bob (last name withheld at request), also in his 70s, lives in a converted 12-passenger bus — a “skoolie.” In 2015, he sold his home in New York. “I was traveling six months of each year anyway,” he says. “At home, I spent most of my time repairing the house and preparing for my next adventure.” Now he enjoys meeting people and caravanning with Betsy.
Teaching others to travel
These men and women are a miniscule sample of those who choose to live as modern-day nomads.
The de facto guru of the nomadic lifestyle is Bob Wells, a YouTuber, author and advocate of minimalistic, nomadic van dwelling, who doesn’t like to be called a guru.
In 1995, he experienced a difficult divorce. He had two children and financial constraints. With his last $1,500, he purchased and lived in a box van. In 2005, after seeing a mother and her three children sleeping in a car, Wells created the website CheapRVLiving.com to provide tips, resources and strategies for living in a vehicle, with how-to videos, interviews with van dwellers, and philosophies by noted authors and thinkers. It has racked up more than 50 million views.
In 2010, Wells organized Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), an event held each January in a baseball field in Quartzsite, Arizona. It drew 45 nomads its first year and now draws 10,000 annually. The world’s largest gathering of “rubber tramps”— people who live in vehicles with rubber tires — it is free and lasts two weeks. Organized segments include presentations on subjects such as camp etiquette, road safety, basic vehicle maintenance and the philosophy of nomadic living. The first week is Women’s RTR, during which women network and develop skills that make nomadic life possible.
“I’m in the hope-providing business,” Wells has said. “Our society bases success on accumulating possessions and power. (But) you can live small and be happier and healthier than ever before. That’s a message some people really need to hear.”
Drawbacks and benefits
Too often today, nomads are viewed as inferior or unstable by more stationary folks who need to know the shortest route to the nearest grocery store, movie theater and fitness gym. As more and more people are taking to living in RVs parked on the streets of large cities like Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, the stigma has gotten worse. But nomads counter, “We are not homeless; we are houseless.”
In early 2023, Janet Douglas, founder of the Facebook pages Senior Nomads and Nomads Helping Nomads, posted that “a positive spin on Nomads is so important.”
An article on the Nomadic News website in 2021, titled “Nomads Get a Bad Rap by Most of America,” outlines the pros and cons of being a nomad.
The pros: It’s great fun, or at least not boring. It forces a person to downsize and can be a great way to practice minimalism and conserve resources. “Road schooling” is an excellent form of education.
The cons: Depending on the size of your rig and where you camp, living nomadically can be expensive (which is why low-income nomads live in cheap vehicles and boondock on national land). It can be lonely, especially for solo travelers (which is why nomads create their own communities). Vehicles depreciate while brick-and-mortar homes generally don’t (but there’s no guarantee the housing market won’t collapse either).
The article also examines why nomads get a bad rap. It says nomadic living, or nomadicity, was the primary way of life for our ancient ancestors: hunters and gatherers or pastoral nomads who moved with the changing seasons to find food or shepherd their animals. Other nomads were traders, such as those on the ancient Silk Road, between China and the Mediterranean Sea.
With the advent of agriculture, people put down roots, planted and harvested. These changes led to land ownership, deeds and titles, rents and leases, fences, territories and boundaries not to be crossed. People not of the local village were “outsiders” who were not to be trusted.
Those who continued to travel were labeled gypsies, troublemakers, thieves in the night. Even the American cowboy, now treated as a hero in Western literature, was once despised as a shiftless drifter.
Yet nomads are not an endangered species. The New World Encyclopedia estimates that 30 million to 40 million nomads roam the world today, about 10 percent of them traveling the U.S.
And despite the perception that modern nomads are retired snowbird types, nomadic life isn’t limited to people of retirement age. According to the website Statista, the number of nomads in the U.S. increased by more than 130 percent from 2019 to mid-2022, partially driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most are younger people, some with children, and tech-savvy. Generally living in an RV outfitted with a computer and internet connections, these are “digital nomads,” a spinoff from “work at home” or “remote office” employees. They tend to be freelancers within a niche trade rather than tied to a particular company.
Kristy Halverson is a digital nomad, mentor, coach, published author and speaker. In 2017, she sold her house and belongings and set out to wander purely by instinct. Her home is an Airstream trailer, which, she says, “is usually located deep in nature” as she “migrates with the seasons.”
“Work and fun now intermingle through conversations and connections. A common thread is helping people find the simplicity to live their dreams and realize success in their own special style without sacrificing happiness along the way,” Halverson says.
Halverson’s theme word is “coddiwomple,” which means “to travel in a purposeful manner toward a vague destination” and which she interprets as “to live in wonder, embrace the unknown, and trust life while waking up to complete freedom.”
Nomadic life isn’t just limited to traveling the interstates and backroads of your home country. “Global nomads,” aka “glomads,” are people who vacate their homes to live and travel abroad long-term, generally not in hotels or with planned itineraries.
Many glomads choose a work experience as part of their travels, such as volunteering with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an international grassroots organization that has paired agricultural volunteers with host farmers since 1971.
Called WWOOFers, these volunteers work four to six hours a day up to six days per week in exchange for room and board, thus receiving a close-up view of people, food and cultures in foreign lands.
Numerous websites offer other overseas volunteer opportunities such as to aid the environment, teach or work in a medical field or social endeavor, although these tend to be well-planned and for shorter durations.
Michiganders Josie Schneider, 69, and Conrad Knutsen, 82, for example, rent out their condo in Ann Arbor while they serve as international housesitters, staying in any one location from three months to a year. Their first step into this lifestyle began in 2008. While at a B&B in Australia, the host told them, “I’m not the owner. I’m just housesitting for them.”
“We immediately knew that was for us,” Schneider says, explaining that international housesitting “is based on trust. No money changes hands. Homeowners gain peace of mind knowing their home and often pets are looked after, and travelers have free lodging.”
For Schneider and Knutsen, the benefits include “finding admirable homeowners, many of whom have become lifelong friends”; living in a variety of residences, from “a remote, off-the-grid home in Southern Spain to a multi-million-dollar home near the sexy Sydney, Australia, beaches”; and “generous neighbors whose kindness, local knowledge and cultural lessons we will remember always.”
True glomads travel for months or years at a time, generally moving about the planet aboard planes, trains and ships.
Kim O’Leary and Paul Blaha, in their mid-60s, left their home in Lansing in January 2021 and took a cruise ship to Sydney, Australia. Kim says that on land they travel by train because it’s “more relaxing. We can see the scenery, walk around and not worry about the weight of our luggage.”
They have spent multiple weeks in Lisbon, London, Paris, Helsinki, Seattle and various cities in Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. Kim says they “love being in cities.” She says they stay in apartments even though they are “at the mercy of the furniture or the kitchen supplies or space constraints.”
Lynda and Robb Kinney, formerly of Detroit, say they are “slomads” because they “normally spend a month or longer in each country.” They also downsized slowly: from a 3,000-square-foot home in 2014 to a two-bedroom apartment and then to a one-bedroom apartment.
They hit the road in 2019. “We sold everything except a few precious things that are now in storage,” Lynda, 62, says. In their five years of travel, they have not owned a car and have lived in numerous nations around the globe.
The logistics of moving about are challenging.
In most states, it is impossible to get a driver’s license, register a vehicle, apply for auto or medical insurance, open a bank account, pay taxes, and register to vote without a physical address in that state.
Most states, including Michigan, require that a person live in that state at least 183 days of a tax year in order to be considered a resident.
Some states allow people to establish an address if they are registered in an RV campground for a shorter duration, such as one month.
South Dakota is a lenient state. There, residency can be established with a stay of only 24 hours, vehicles can be registered by mail from anywhere in the country, a South Dakota driver’s license is good for five years, vehicle insurance rates are low, and there is no income tax.
Some nomads establish a legal address with friends or family members who also agree to receive their mail. They vote via absentee ballot.
Some U.S. post offices will accept “general delivery” packages to be picked up by the recipient at a service counter. Mail can be forwarded to an RV park. Amazon will ship to Amazon lockers. Walmart and other large retailers have ship-to-store service.
For a monthly fee, commercial mail-forwarding companies will provide a postal address, accept mail delivery, open letters confidentially, scan the contents, and send electronic files to a nomad’s email address.
The values of nomadicity
From April 2019 to October 2022, I was a nomad. I lived in a travel trailer and visited most of the Lower Forty-Eight states. I camped in traditional RV parks and national and state parks and boondocked for free on federal land, where I met and interacted with people who live as nomads.
In regard to travel, I see two kinds of people: those who are rooted and those who have wings. Both are valuable. The winged ones bring stories from afar to those who are rooted, and the rooted ones provide a place for the winged ones to roost.
I am some of both. Having traveled extensively, primarily to India with a backpack and without a fully planned itinerary, I appreciate the “travel angels” who have taken me under their wings. I’m also grateful to have often returned to Kalamazoo, where I have many friends and strong connections.
I treasure the wisdom of a friend in Spain who told me, “A tourist goes with a fully planned itinerary, while a traveler goes with a destination from which he or she might not return.”
I’ve come to believe that nomadicity involves a certain mental state as much as a physical presence in various places. Nomadicity involves being fluid and open. It requires accepting others for who they are, regardless of where they came from or what they look like. Nomadicity increases our neural plasticity, that magnificent capability of our brain and nervous system to modify, functionally and structurally, in response to new experiences.
The New World Encyclopedia concurs: “Those who live this (nomadic) way often have knowledge and traditions that are of value to humankind as a whole.”