It’s not for everyone. And if you’ve seen the movie Nomadland, you might think living in a mobile home in the American southwest is mainly something itinerant Amazon workers do when they’ve fallen through the cracks of the Boomer wonderland.
Not so. The numbers are surging and it’s younger people leading the way. The cost of housing, ridiculous in America as it is here, has prompted some to buy an old school bus or an RV and head for the desert. Covid-related unemployment and health scares did the same.
But the biggest cause is the climate crisis. Hurricanes have become more frequent and ferocious. Each fire season in California is worse than the last, or threatens to be. States like Nevada, Utah and Arizona are in a “megadrought” more severe than anything experienced in the last 1200 years.
The US Census Bureau estimates the climate crisis drove 3.3 million Americans from their homes last year.
Even so, not all nomads have been forced into their transient lifestyle. Many are choosing it, with a radical rethink of how their values apply to their lives. They might start by investigating tiny homes, but then they think, what if we add some travel? #vanlife, here we come. It’s very big on social media.
In the desert, a home on wheels forces you to adopt a strict regime of when and how to use water: sponge baths and spray bottles when you clean your teeth. Solar panels on your roof give you power for small kitchen appliances, computer and phone, although possibly not all at the same time. You can’t buy things just because they catch your fancy, because where would you put them?
You learn to live a simple life. It’s a commitment and it feels like the right thing to do. Many people discover they like it a lot.
In Arizona, school bus owners have a special weeklong festival called Skooliepalooza. It’s kinda like Coachella or Burning Man, only without all the exceptionally rich people.
They make and sell things, hold concerts and teach each other everything from desert cooking to engine repairs. The sense of community is stronger than many of us experience living on a suburban street.
This is not the beginning of the end of cities. But through necessity and choice, living on wheels is only going to get bigger.
It doesn’t even need to be a permanent thing. I have neighbours who live in a small apartment but spend most weekends in their campervan, parked up in some new slice of heaven. They love it. Especially because, unlike all those people in their RVs in Arizona, they don’t have to worry about snakes, scorpions or not having enough water to clean their teeth.
Design for Living appears weekly in Canvas magazine.