Our nomadic lives have shuttered to a halt.
My husband and I are living in a 1972 Airstream Ambassador parked on a farm about 40 minutes outside of Austin, Texas. There are chickens, bees, and if you walk down the deer path, a creek. We are shaded by a mesquite tree and protected by Sampson, our campsite host’s Great Pyrenees, trolling the yard and barking into the night at coyotes.
It may sound quaint, but I never planned to be living here. Up until 7 and a half weeks ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic upended our world, I lived on the road with my husband, Marc, and three cats. We’d been staying in campsites and slowly making our way across the United States. Now, as overnight RV spots dry up and we adjust to a world where traveling is a life-threatening activity, our nomadic lives have shuttered to a halt.
We aren’t alone either. According to the RV Industry Association, there are about a million Americans living full time in recreational vehicles. They are traveling nurses, retirees, digital nomads, or just about any other career you can think of. They’re living on the road either by choice or because, as many have found, it’s cheaper to downsize and live out of a van or camper than be stationary. And as Covid-19 sweeps the nation, many of us are struggling to find a stable place to shelter, find a doctor, and stay employed.
Most nomads, contrary to what some people think, are not better suited for this pandemic than others. “This is ideal for you,” a friend joked. “You can go off in the middle of nowhere.” That is not exactly true — we do not live in post-apocalyptic rigs worthy of a feature in a Mad Max film. Water tanks and propane tanks need to be filled, food runs out faster since we stock a mini-fridge and cabinet, and trash needs to be dumped. Most of this setup is far from pandemic proof.
We bought a home on wheels for a reason. We weren’t convinced we were in a place we wanted to settle down — feeling both the allure of travel and yet a deep desire to own a home. Then on a drive one day, we saw an Airstream on the side of the road. We bought it for $600. We spent two and a half years on a full gut renovation and then moved in. In fall of last year, I finally had enough freelance leads and research to finish a book proposal. I quit my social work job, Marc transitioned his job online, and we left.
We’ve lived in families’ driveways as we’ve helped them renovate a dilapidated shed. We stayed at a campground next to where they filmed the movie Big Fish. When we’ve traveled more than six hours, we’ll pull into Walmart parking lots to sleep. Once, we stayed at a lakefront property in Georgia we found online. Some places we’ve stayed for a night and others for more than a month.
Some people are nomadic by circumstance, and others by choice. Many are retirees or work campers, people following the next seasonal employment opportunity. They work for Amazon, on farms, or on campgrounds that hire contract staff among other seasonal work you can find on the road. The reality is money stretches farther when you own your home that’s also your car, and don’t have to pay for rent. When we hit the road, Marc and I drove away from Wilmington, North Carolina — a city where the average rent for an apartment is about $1,050. By contrast, we had paid $350 a month to park our Airstream in Wilmington, and our Airstream cost $20,000 after all renovations were completed. That’s far less than your typical house.
To some, nomads conjure thoughts of millennials drinking coffee in front of a canyon and hashtagging. That’s true for us to an extent. Our nomadic life was always a choice with an expiration date — we are at that odd edge of our 20s, when friends are buying houses and having babies or finishing up graduate school, and we decided that we’d hit the road for a year and maybe along the way, figure out where we actually wanted to live. We’re on the road with others that were pulled into #vanlife by the dream of sloughing off the 9-to-5 that wasn’t really amounting to much anyway.
But others are on the road simply because they can’t afford another way to live. In Nomadland, which traces America’s RV living population, Jessica Bruder writes, “The last free place in America is a parking spot.” She writes about the retirees who saw their living savings evaporate in the 2008 financial crisis and can’t afford to retire, or those who worked their whole adulthood but never made enough to squirrel away retirement savings. Instead, they follow work across the country in mobile homes.
But in exchange for cheap shelter and the ability to move around for work comes lack of stability. And during a pandemic, that can be extra challenging.
The pandemic seemed far away to us until we arrived in Austin in early March. We were parked on a farm where we had reserved a campsite for the week when we learned that SXSW had been canceled and that shelter-in-place orders were likely coming soon. Suddenly, our lives of moving from place to place and relying on frequent trips to the store for supplies was not only dangerous but unfeasible.
Like other travelers, we desperately wanted to get off the road. The stresses of the lifestyle are magnified: Your shelter in place is dependent on someone else — a campground owner, a friend or family. If you get sick, all the more likely during this pandemic, it might be hard to find care in a new location. All your routines and errands, from where to buy food to where to pick up prescriptions or mail your packages, are up in the air.
Then there’s the reality of sheltering in place in a 188-square-foot home on wheels where there isn’t much personal space to begin with. While our mini fridge and slender cabinet hold a week’s worth of groceries well, it’s not great for stockpiling when you’re being told to limit trips to the grocery store. Our hot water and stove runs off propane tanks that eventually need to be refilled. We’re lucky in that regard — some people have even more systems pulling from their propane tanks.
As we tried to plan out the next few weeks from our Austin campsite, I wanted nothing more than to turn around and head back to North Carolina. Suddenly, I craved the roots we had worked so hard to pull up back. There was also a lingering fear of getting sick, far away from where we’re from or just not being able to get to family. I desperately wanted home. But traveling back seemed not only logistically challenging but irresponsible, and the idea of being asymptomatic and bringing something to our families or others on the road terrified us. So we decided to stay put.
Meanwhile, the RV Facebook groups we’re part of are packed with posts from other full-time travelers desperately looking for a place to stay long term. Nomads everywhere are being turned away from closing state and private campgrounds. In Moab, Utah, officials asked travelers to stay away because their rural hospitals only had access to four ventilators.
For some people, it’s been relatively easy. They went back to their stationary homes and began posting photos of past trips to look forward to other trips. For other travelers without permanent addresses, like us, this transition felt frantic. We had to have safe space for an unknown amount of time where it was unlikely we would be asked to leave. We booked our spot on the Austin farm through Hipcamp, a website where you can book farmland, driveways, even backyards from private owners. Our futures depended on our hosts.
We nomads are all living in this strange limbo, and things aren’t getting any less certain. Even when states ease restrictions and businesses begin to open back up, it may be a long time before it feels right for us or any other nomads to be on the road again.
The second week of staying on the farm, we walked down to our hosts. “We think we’ll be here longer than we thought,” we said. We had paid a monthly rate through the middle of April. “Don’t worry,” they assured, “You can stay as long as you need.” In the middle of April, we paid for another month.
Outside the Airstream, there’s more green on the mesquite tree than there was weeks ago. I hung a hammock on it. Over text, I talk to my nomadic friend Kate, who never thought she’d wind up settling in Kansas for the time being, about what’s next. We swap videos of our campsites and talk about how our homes seem so much smaller than they ever did.
I think we all are parked indefinitely, I tell her. But even when it’s safe to get on the road, I don’t know if Marc and I will even want his lifestyle anymore. Our home might be the same, but it’s beginning to fit us differently.
Laura Guidry is a writer who lives out of her 1972 Airstream.
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