Jean Hardwick had good, stable career, health, and life insurance for four decades and a home in Sarasota, Florida that she owned and loved. Then, in 2015, disaster struck. After a near fatal reaction to a prescription drug, 60-year-old Hardwick underwent heart surgery, suffered seizures, and faced medical bills of more than $ 500,000.
“There’s government support, but it’s loaded with Catch-22,” Hardwick said. “They say, ‘We can’t help you because you own a house. Call us back when the property is no longer in your name.’ It takes about two years to apply for a disability. In the meantime, sell your furniture and clothes to make ends meet. “
While Hardwick was finally on the way to recovery, she lost her home. After her disability payments were received, she decided to make a change and live a nomadic life, driving from one temporary work place and location to another.
“In December 2019 I was lucky with an older motorhome [a van equipped as a traveling home] and everything is sold or given away, ”she explained.
Hardwick is not desperate about her new life. She says she sees it more as “processing, figuring out how to get ahead, trying to find silver linings”.
Who lives in nomad land in America
Hardwick is just one of many Americans over 60 who, in the face of soaring debt and exorbitant house prices, have decided to pack everything. In their van or small RV, that is, they work odd jobs on the street and live in Nomadland, the name of the new, acclaimed film starring award-winning actress Frances McDormand, who is now on Hulu and in theaters.
“Nomadland” is a fictional story based on the real people who appear in the bestseller of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder. (Richard Eisenberg of Next Avenue wrote of the book in his 2017 article: “The rough life of elderly Americans in nomad lands. ‘”)
The Golden Globes nominated film follows a middle-aged woman named Fern (played by McDormand), who, like Hardwick, faces extreme financial challenges. Fern is a rural widow who loses her job at the U.S. plasterer factory in Empire, Nevada and chooses to live in her van. She works short-term as a seasonal worker in the Amazon camp and in a mobile home park as a camp host.
“Nomadland”, written and directed by Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao (the first woman to receive the Palm Springs International Film Festival Director of the Year award), features real nomads Linda May “Swankie” and Bob Wells, the creator of popular film CheapRVLiving YouTube channel. All are over 60 years old.
Twenty years ago Wells – a former grocery worker – was also forced to live in a van after a divorce that left him little money to pay rent and other expenses. “I drove past a shop with a large green van for sale and thought, ‘I could live in it and then I wouldn’t have to pay rent and I could keep my own money,'” Wells said.
At first, Wells said, he felt like a failure and life in a van took a blow to his self-esteem. But he noticed that when he changed his thinking, things changed.
“I just acted like I was camping,” Wells said. “I’ve adjusted and it felt very comfortable. Plus, I saved a thousand dollars a month by not paying rent. “
Wells also found freedom as a nomad.
“Our society and our values are all centered on things and money and power and prestige,” he said. “If you live in a van, you have none of it. But I also had more time to spend with my family and I had peace of mind. “
In Nomadland, filmed in camps set up by real nomads, Fern faces her own van life stigma. A former neighbor comes up to her and says she heard Fern is homeless. “I’m not homeless, I’m homeless,” Fern replies.
Wells believes the country’s current economic struggles will force more boomers to join him on the streets.
“Especially women in their 60s and 70s who were told to stay home and raise the kids and they would be fine. Then the husband died or they divorced and the wife’s social security is not enough to pay her rent, ”he says.
To research her “Nomadland” book, Bruder spent three years learning about this subgroup of RV and van travelers who are working.
“It was a whole world I didn’t know about,” she says. Brother started her coverage by emailing someone at a RV park who introduced her to others who lived and worked on the street. There she met Linda May, who can be seen in the film.
“I also heard from a gentleman who was vice president of research and development at McDonald’s Global and who lost everything in the world  Crash and other people who had low or minimum wage jobs for most of their lives and lived on the streets, ”she recalls.
Brother, like Wells, fears that the pandemic-fueled economy will lead more Americans to nomadic lives.
“Now you have this big wave of unemployment and people who can’t pay the rent,” she says. “The scale of the situation is simply unprecedented.”
The multilayered look of the “Nomadland” movie
Although the film brings to light difficult financial struggles of elderly nomads in the US, Zhao Farns presents struggles in a delicate and powerful way.
In an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Zhao said she wanted Fern “to be a guide who can lead us into this vast, truly rich world of nomadic life. What I’ve learned is that you need to anchor the audience in a person’s intimate experience so that they can be comfortable, to experience everything else and without getting lost. So that’s always the plan from the start to find that balance. “
McDormand’s portrayal of Fern has earned her a ton of awards and nominations, including a Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild nomination for an Actress in a Leading Role.
“Fern had a very prescriptive set of rules about living in an empire and once she takes to the streets the options open up and her sense of self-sufficiency is tested,” McDormand said at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I think we were really hoping that the audience wouldn’t care about them, just be amazed at the opportunities to see what was coming around the next corner.”
Describing Fern’s journey, McDormand said, “Personally, I think she was always a true nomad and when she finally left it took a little time for her to find out who she really is. And I hope that when you see the movie at the end you say, “Oh, she’s on the street. It will not be easy. But that’s where it is. She seems to be at home there. ‘”
Lisa Iannucci is the founder of The Virgin Traveler, a travel blog for those who finally have the chance to travel. She also writes for Travel Pulse (travelpulse.com) and writes about film festivals for FF2Media.com. She is the author of “The Film / TV Lover’s Travel Guide” and “Road Trip: A Sports Lover’s Travel Guide”.
This article was reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2021 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
More from Next Avenue: