REVIEW: Pounding the road with America’s elderly workers Review of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Tony Sutton

Now here’s something to ponder as you munch your morning cornflakes: If the US economy is booming, if Trump is Making America Great Again, why are so many pensioners taking to the highways and spending their golden years living in parking lots while slaving for peanut wages in giant Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder, a journalist who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, has the answer to that and plenty of other questions in her book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, in which she reminds us that, although America has always been “a nation of itinerants, drifters, hoboes, restless souls”, a new kind of wandering tribe is emerging: “People who never imagined being nomads are hitting the road”.

It’s not a spirit of reckless adventure that is driving this elderly exodus, but helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. The majority of these wanderers – dubbed workkampers – are victims of the recession triggered by the financial collapse of 2008.

Unlike the financiers who triggered the crash, regular homeowners weren’t bailed out, but were left to fend for themselves. Many have been forced to abandon the comfort of now unaffordable houses and apartments to live in ‘wheel estate’ – vans, secondhand RVs, school buses, pickup campers, trucks, and cars.

“They are driving away,” writes Broder, “from the impossible choices that face what used to be the middle class”. Their plight is defined by questions such as, “Would you rather have food or dental work? Pay your mortgage or electricity bill? Make a car payment or buy medicine?” In the absence of pay rises or half-decent social security, the decisions often boiled down to a simple choice, “What about cutting your biggest expense? Trading a stick-and-brick domicile for life on wheels?”


Linda May, the central character in Nomadland, is one of these late-life nomads. When retirement came after 40 years in construction, as a cocktail waitress, and Home Depot cashier, the grandmother had no home or savings. Unable to pay rent, and tired of living in her daughter’s cramped California apartment, she took to the road in a battered Jeep, to which was attached the Squeeze Inn, a 10ft-long, bright yellow camper.

Her home was no longer defined by a suburban zip code; but alternated between Walmart parking lots, quiet suburban streets, truck stops, and a crowded trailer park, where she and her elderly workmates – enlisted by Amazon’s Camperforce programme – spend exhausted evenings recovering after pacing miles each day on unforgiving concrete floors in one of the company’s monster warehouses.

Why, you may wonder, does Amazon recruit so many oldies?

Well, Bruder points out, it’s hardly altruistic. As one of the workers explains, “The Work Opportunity Credit is the reason Amazon can take on such a slow, inefficient workforce. Since they are getting us off government assistance for almost three months of the year, we’re a tax deduction for them”.

And there’s another, probably more important, reason:

“They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up, work hard, and are basically slave labour”, says 77-year-old David Roderick.

Nor do the workkampers join unions or complain to management about the strenuous working conditions. But they offer some benefits; in a revealing insight, Bruder tells how campers’ trucks were “like mobile apothecaries…I was told that Amazon distributed free over-the-counter pain killers at the warehouses”.

Nomadland is not just about workers slogging inside Amazon’s vast, impersonal warehouses, however. Bruder also points to stresses inflicted on elderly workers at US Forestry Services campgrounds and at the nation’s sprawling amusement parks, which rely on the wheezing brigade of travelling oldies to keep them running efficiently – and cheaply – during their months of operation.

Despite their tribulations, the characters in Bruder’s book show amazing resilience, good humour and camaraderie as, exhausted at Christmas, the culmination of the hardest and busiest work period at Amazon, they pack their possessions into a motley caravan of dilapidated vehicles and drive away to converge on the winter-cooled deserts of Nevada, California and Arizona.

There, the weary tribe recharges aching joints, finds new pals, and learns new skills needed to survive their “houseless-not-homeless” lifestyles at gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous at Quartzsite, in Arizona – dubbed ‘Jurassic Trailer Park’ by a reporter for the Scotsman newspaper. There, camper-svengali Bob Wells and other experienced nomads teach newcomers the finer points of life on the road.


But driving big vans around the US can only be a short-term lifestyle option, as May realised when she began to suffer from repetitive strain injury. When she reached 62 in 2012, and her first slim Social Security cheques began to arrive, May knew she faced a very real dilemma:

“How am I going to live and not have to work for the rest of my life and not be a burden to my children?”

That’s when she decided to follow her dream of constructing an Earthship, “a passive-solar home built using discarded materials such as cans and bottles, with dirt-filled tires for load-bearing walls. The idea appealed to May because, “It’s like living in a piece of art, and it’s something I could build with my own hands”.

She hoped that one day she’d find a cheap plot of land with lax building codes where she could build her dream home, using free materials with volunteers to help build it.

That day arrived in 2016 she bought a five-acre patch of desert at Douglas, Arizona. “I’m 66,” she told Bruder. “I need to speed things up.”

She bought a $46 electrical generator, found an inexpensive water delivery service, and planned to start building after the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, at which a couple of pals agreed to head back with her to start the process. Awaiting their arrival, she found an excavator driver, to clear the access road and open a path to her land.

“Finally”, writes Broder at the conclusion of Nomadland, the excavator “starts working on the main construction site. Everything it touches yields: the gnarled bush, the hardy cactus, the heavy stone. These are obstacles standing in the way of Linda’s future. One by one, they get lifted away.

“The land is ready for her now – one perfect acre…”

The story continues:

To discover how May’s story ends, visit her Facebook page.

Read about Nomadland, the movie version of the book, which stars Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as May here.

Tony Sutton is the editor of ColdType, a free pdf magazine –http://coldtype.net. This article was published in the August 2019 issue. Contact him at [email protected]

can you spare $1.00 a month to support independent media

OffGuardian does not accept advertising or sponsored content. We have no large financial backers. We are not funded by any government or NGO. Donations from our readers is our only means of income. Even the smallest amount of support is hugely appreciated.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Bezos’s true achievement is that he has managed to speed up the re-introduction of Dickensian workhouses in this fabulous new cyber world.


Escape Velocity is a state of mind, but the people in this article are sadly limited in their impetus to really escape. Douglas Arizona? A short drive to Agua Prieta Mexico.
For the cost of a tank of fuel for their fuel-guzzlers, they can purchase a passport. A few months of savings will enable them to fly away to greener pastures, and where their social security / pension will be worth 2, 3, 4 times as much.
How do I know? I did it 2 decades ago, on the smallest pension imaginable. Since then, have enjoyed a normal life at a ski resort, historical cities and mountains of southern Europe, 7 years near the beach,
and now a good life in a Chinese city where the weather is pleasant for all of the year..

Bless their hearts, the older people mentioned here are certainly up against it, and are outsiders in their own country, but c’est la vie, as they say in Quartzsite. There is always an escape velocity.


Being a ‘nomad’ is a must for the consciousness of this world. To embrace the sickness of the world is to live in bad faith with ones own humanity. That is about my only point of agreement with Sartre: it is no longer possible to exercise ones freedom ‘ens causa sui’. We are no longer “condemned to be free”. We are now only “free to be condemned” into bad faith by choosing to consent to the neoliberal omnicidal reality forming.

Perhaps this can only be recognised if one is a nomad who refuses to conform? You cannot be well adjusted to a sick and eco-pathological worldview that is a moral contagion everywhere. The globalisation of the pathocracy in its biospheric contagion is simply inescapable. And believe me, if I thought I could escape – I would. In an alter-reality: I would retire to a Zen monastery and let the world get on with it. That “getting on with it” is way past being a clear and present existential danger to all life on earth. Well, maybe not scorpions and cockroaches. Particularly, the ones who are running the show!

But that is a joke: because all humanity faces the same tyranny. An auto-tyranny of language and conceptual Being. (I just addressed this on the next forum). Which is more dangerous than a definable ‘enemy’; or ‘group of enemies’. An abstract and indefinable enemy is the most difficult to encounter: how do you fight an idea? Answer that, and you will see why I became a nomad.

In my late ‘teens I identified as a ‘Dharma Bum’ with my best friend, Ollie. Later, I read “Difference and Repetition” …and went on to identify as a “nomad of the intermezzo” – in Deleuze/Guattarian terms. I always wanted to update that book as my Doctoral Thesis …but I rejected the whole ‘Western’ ‘onto-theological’ tradition instead …and never took the full course in philosophy. I’ve been studying in the ‘university of life’ ever since. From an ‘Eastern’ Yogacaran ecosophical perspective. Boy, if you ever want to be a philosophical and economic nomad in your own land …develop an antithetical ‘citta-matrata’ flow of consciousness. You would have no choice but to be a nomad. And I don’t.

Now, I have nothing to lose but to declare: everyone needs to be a nomad – each in their own way. Only the wholesale rejection of the pathological normalcy and crass stupidity of conforming to the world-as-it-presents can effect change.

Perhaps it is only the nomads who can see, looking back, that the world is an illusion. A mental creation that is causally effective, psycho-active, and psycho-sexualised. An illusion that has guns and can kill, in other words. But further explication leads to conflict and ontological confrontation, perhaps only fellow nomads can see what I mean?

The world-as-it-presents – the psycho-political world – is a psychological overlay on the real world. If one takes the overlay as ‘real’: it is ‘real’. That is why nomads are nomads: because they can see the real without the unreal psychological overlay? And that is what sets us apart. Where that ‘apart’ is an illusion too.

The world-as-it-presents is dominated by a single philosophical idea: Being. An idea that is unreal and refuses to persist in nomads. Deleuze – following Rousseau and Bergson – was well on the way to exposing this. As were the process philosophers following Whitehead. But the Buddhist’s and Yogacaran’s were millennia ahead of those in the West. Theirs was the ‘Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel’. Now there is talk of a ‘Fourth’ – the mythical East/West paradigmatic synthesis of thought. A move from fixed, determinative, ‘univocal’ Being to flows. ‘lines of flight’, and ‘rheological’ processes of Becoming and change.

All good things come to an end. The hidden tyranny of psychological Being will either cease in its power and ontological dominion over consciousness – thanks to the nomads – or it will end us. That is what nomads see. That is what makes nomads nomads. I know, I’ve met a few. It is not just about pensions and the economy that drives one outside, or into the ‘in-between’ strata of the intermezzo. The nomadic space is a smooth space …free of striations; the only space one can become imperceptible or inhabit the plane of immanence. Nomads will know what that means.

No special jargon or esoteric terminology is necessarily required. But plain words such as “the entire political paradigm is ‘vikalpa’ …imaginary” fall as psychobabble on ontological ears. Perhaps I should write that thesis? Unfortunately, you cannot decipher ‘nomadese’ so long as you think words have fixed meanings. Or carry the full signification of the ‘thing-in-itself’. Compare the word ‘rose’ to a rose. Nomads know the differance between the actuality of the experience and the ontology of its description. The entire deficiency of the world-as-it-presents in all its lack-based desire-production of violence is in this difference and its repetition into Being.

Do not try too decipher this. If it begins to make sense you …you are already on societies outside; in the intermezzo with me. Not so bad, is it!

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum

Jesus (one of the most enlightened spiritual masters), described it well:
‘I am in the world, but not OF it’


The unenlightened – but nevertheless lucid – philosopher Deleuze would probably disagree. He would say that nomads are in the world and of the world. It is the rest of the world that is cut off from the realities of the world: by the intentionality of their own perception. The sanskrit word used to describe the unexamined human condition is ‘samskara’ – which carries the connotation of ‘closing off’ from reality. As does the word ‘vijnana’ imply a splitting off of consciousness from reality. This cognitive closure into a self-absorbed solipsism characterises the world-state. Being in the mind is not being in the world.

Elsewhere (in a “Thousand Plateaus” I think): Deleuze and Guattari correctly identify that difference precedes identity. This is pure Yogacara Buddhism. Cognition is difference. It is repetition that creates worlds behind the world of difference. Repetition makes these imaginary worlds ‘real’. But they are only reified mirages of identity, generalisation, categorisation and univocal Being.

As one realises that ‘repetition for itself’ distorts reality: one merely ceases to repeat by becoming attached to the imaginary notions of thought. As if by magic, the world appears from beneath the conceptual categorisation of identity. A world without the monolithic ontology of Being.

Now, if we could all just ditch the imaginative construction of worlds that are only ‘real’ inasmuch as they are repeated – to the point of inculcation and reification – and do politics from that perspective …the world would change instantaneously. From what you have told me, I suspect that you are living on the outside too …waiting for the world to realise what is in front of them is more precious than all the capital ever created. Can you buy a rose? Of course you can …but can you really buy a rose! We buy and sell identities, generalities, and catgories we commodify and value hierarchically. In reality: we buy and sell nothing at all …but an imaginary concept. If we do not wake up to the meaninglessness and futility of all this commodified symbolic transactionism …it’s not going to end well.

We have it all: and we give it away …for nothing. Nomads are nomads because we know that entering the marketplace to find oneself requires leaving any chance of finding oneself behind. Forever. That is simply too much of a price to pay. After all, we have the world.

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum

The barrier of language and concepts leaves all philosophers floundering.
We are not made of words.
We are flesh and blood.
Of the Earth.
It is the flesh and blood that smells the roses and it is Being that is in awe of the roses.
Or, as Ramana Maharishi said: ‘Be as you are’

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum

“Daddy, why are those people living in their cars and those broken down trailers?”
“That’s Capitalism son. It’s every man for himself and the rest be damned”
“But it’s so cruel Daddy, so cruel”
“Shut up and finish your Mc Muffin”

Gezzah Potts

Short, succinct, and completely on point FD. The whole planet is becoming one giant McMuffin, or Starbucks. Whatever tickles your fancy, its yours. As long as you got the money to pay for it….


Getting one of those ideas is a blessing. And May retired herself with her futuristic approach.


How do people in the US do this?

In the UK vehicles must be taxed and insured and registered at a permanent address.
The drivers licence must also be at a permanent address.
No permanent address, no state benefits.
Yes state pensions and company pensions are paid directly into a bank account, but you still need a permanent address for the bank to send replacement credit and debit cards.

look forward to replies from the US


In the US, you are aware of the expiration dates of both your vehicle, insurance, and drivers license, so any address supplied to an agency will do, as you normally have a year to pay these fees in advance.. Postal addresses become irrelevant..
US Social Security accepts postal box numbers overseas, as well as direct deposit to an approved country..
Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but no longer required a car, etc, when reaching Europe.. ( a car, but why)? or China ( a car? in this mysterious puzzle?)


Hi Eddie, thanks for the info.
In the UK you have to inform the DVLA [Driver, Vehicle, Licencing, Authority.] if you change your address. [they do not accept PO Boxes] Insurance companies may decline, or cancel your insurance cover.

But as you say, in Europe, or the UK just use public transport and have a mail forwarding service does work for most other things.


The main point is the system no longer works for 99.9% of the population.
Though of course it’s not intended to.
And it is visibly disintegrating day by day.
It’s like when you’re driving an old banger and bits are falling off it as you go along.
Trump, Brexit, political collapse in the EU, you wonder if you can cover a few more miles before it just conks out.
I reckon we’ve got another four months at most.

Gezzah Potts

Fully agree with your sentiments Mark. Mentioned the other day to you, I see more and more empty shops in very ‘middle class’ suburbs, more people begging, more people obviously struggling, its like a slow motion collapse now, but if a giant financial institution like Deutsche Bank collapses, it’ll be one massive domino effect. Even 1929 may look like a picnic in comparison.


DB has literally trillions in bad paper. It has been bankrupt for years. It has just transferred $50 billion of worthless paper to a “bad bank.” The situation with the Italian banks is probably even worse.

What’s happening is that the middle class is being ground down with the working class into a new generalised serfdom. A few years ago MI5 brought out a report predicting that the middle class would become the new revolutionary class, not by storming barricades, but just by doing…………. PRECISELY NOTHING. A modern economy and society can’t function without the active involvement and participation of millions of people. Managers, technocrats, supervisors, skilled workers, people with knowledge and experience to get a job done and make the system work. But those very people had lost everything that gave them any stake in the system, reasonably well paid jobs and benefits, job security, pensions, maybe some status. They would collapse the system through complete indifference, apathy and lack of interest. Just shake your head, shrug your shoulders, go home and drink your beer. Don’t get involved.

You see a lot of signs of this. Nobody really gives a toss any more. Trade unions used to have millions of members. Now they are a joke. They might as well not exist. The Tory Party in the UK used to have 2 million members. Now it has about 150,000 OAPs, average age about 110. Whatever you think of those institutions, people were once willing to join and give some time to them. Nobody cares any more. They just want to bang away on their X Box. A lot of people used to attend church (whatever you think of religion.) Now half the churches are derelict or car parks. Same story with sports clubs. Even things like Freemasons, Lions Clubs. These things still exist but they are dying on their feet. The whole system will finally grind to a halt with a deafening yawn. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Gezzah Potts

You’re always really perceptive, aye. The vast majority don’t want to know, they just look away, or pretend there’s no homeless person or Big Issue vendor standing 12 feet away. Invisible.


DB’s derivatives exposure is $49 trillion.4
If DB goes down certainly at least 4 giant US banks like Morgan and Citibank go down as well.

Gezzah Potts

Jesus, Mary and Joseph in heaven….. (sorry, had an Irish Catholic upbringing). And if that happens, the whole fecken ponzi scheme will go, a chain reaction. Just that figure alone shows the mind boggling insanity of it all. Greed, greed, and even more insatiable greed after that. Thanks for the info.

Gezzah Potts

Appreciate your article Tony, coz I can relate to the characters in this book, although am probably not as ingenious as Linda May, the main character. My factory job got offshore to China in 2009, and apart from several temporary paid jobs, now sell The Big Issue mag as my only source of income. Its tough, and you’re reliant on other peoples goodwill and empathy which are dwindling qualities in this dog eat dog Neoliberalist ‘society’.
The large city I live in has 321 suburbs, so jump on trains, buses, trams, going to a different location each day just to keep up sales, just treading water all the time. Its a tough gig, and when you get to my age (56) the chances of finding paid work again are very slim, espec with no trade or qualifications. And no, there’s no Amazon warehouse in Melbourne either. So yes, I related a lot to this.


There is an Amazon warehouse in Dandenong right on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Gezzah Potts

Didn’t know that Jen, thanks. Will fire off my CV, tho I live out in the western suburbs, quite a long way from Dandy.


Gates, Buffett and Bezos own more between them than the bottom 50% of the population, 165 million.
51% of the population have less than $400 in cash and savings.
You get millions of these geriatric gypsies mooching around, trying to scratch a living, like a scene out of The Grapes Of Wrath.
Officially half a million homeless in cardboard boxes. God only knows what the true figure is. Diseases like TB, diptheria and tapeworm coming back in a big way.
Healthcare unaffordable for most of the population and completely beyond the reach of 50 million.
Drugs costing 10 times as much as in Canada. Diabetics dying because they can’t afford $1,300 a month for insulin.
Cities like Detroit losing half their population, down from 1.5 million to 750,000.
Crumbling infrastructure.
A “booming” economy, with 4% unemployment and 2% inflation (real figures 15-20% and 10%.)

But hey, you have to look on the bright side.
Wall Street is booming.
The Chosen Folk who rule the roost have just got another $38 billion for Israel.
Raytheon, Lockheed and Boeing are doing just fine.
A military budget of $1,134 billion helps keep the wolf from the door.

Some say the Garden of Eden was in America.
The people there went around naked, they had to steal food to eat, and they still insisted they were living in paradise.


Fair enough: an eloquent and shrewd contribution to an important discussion.
Except for one line: “The Chosen Folk who rule the roost have just got another $38 billion for Israel.”
The suggestion that US Imperialism is ‘ruled’ by Israel turns the entire analysis into nonsense.
The truth is that Israel is an Imperialist outpost, Rhodesia or South Africa in the Levant; the people who live there do not rule the United States and thus much of the world, they are, willy nilly, part of its terrorist domination of the oil rich and strategically crucial Middle East. Without the United States supplying them, financing them, apologising for them, Israel -red handed, as Francis Lee reminds us, dripping with the fresh blood of innocence- would be in a desperate situation, forced to conform to International Laws and moral norms.
Thus mark, like so many others, actually serves the interests of the zionists that he so obviously detests, firstly by enormously exaggerating the puny strength of a colonial settlement full of cowardly opportunists with airline tickets ‘home’ in their wallets. And secondly by providing yet more evidence that our friends, neighbours and colleagues who have ancestral links to Judaism are regarded as aliens in our mixed and multicultural communities.
Anti semitism is the zionists best friend. They virtually invented it, they cherish and nourish it, when left to itself it would wither away.
When Bebel said that anti-semitism was the “socialism of Fools” his intention was not to denigrate the many working class critics of capitalism who blamed Jews where Capitalism was to blame but to urge them to look more closely at the world, to analyse more rigorously the source of oppression and exploitation.
It isn’t Israel. It is the Imperialist system, headquartered in the United States and the capitalist class.l They are the enemy. Some are Christians, Muslims or Buddhists, Hindus or Jews-all are by definition hypocrites and evildoers- but they are tiny minorities, small percentiles of every community or faith group. And to focus upon any one of them is to ignore the target, and let the enemy off the hook.
Is that what you mean to do, mark?


You’re confusing the monkey and the organ grinder, the servant and the master.
It’s not Jews in Israel who have to swear loyalty oaths to America on pain of instant dismissal.
Criticising America is not punishable with a 20 year prison sentence and $250,000 fine.
It’s not Israeli politicians who grovel and kowtow and prostrate themselves before US billionaires.
You can perform as many mental gymnastics as you like but it does not invert reality.
Just follow the money.


I would say you were bang on the mark there, Bevin. This persona also allows it to make disgusting comments about the injuries to Palestinian children by the cowardly IDF under the guise of – oooooh, I bet this is what the jews say, blah blah blah.


The injuries are disgusting, not the comments.

Francis Lee
Francis Lee

My apologies for inserting a piece of news so off-topic but it was so utterly callous and barbaric that it needs the widest possible audieince.

From the Israeli Newspaper Haaretz

The Protest Dispersed. Then an Israeli Sniper Shot a 9-year-old Palestinian Boy in the Head
From 100 meters away, an IDF soldier shot a boy in the head in the West Bank village of Kafr Qaddum. The bullet exploded into dozens of fragments in the child’s brain and he’s now in an induced coma

Gideon Levy
Alex Levac
21.07.2019 15:31 Updated: 3:32 PM

Just another day in the Promised Land. A little sport for the IDF’s R&R . Animals, barbarians!


I am sure people will understand. Your post reminds me of a scene from Sclindlers List
The German commandant of the concentration camp wondering out on his balcony. Below starving Jews going about their daily work. The commandant raises his rifle, picks out a woman and shoots her in the head from a 100 metres – and casually walks back inside.


All in a day’s work for the Jew kiddie killers.
Pop a Palestinian Untermensch with the British sniper rifle and dum dum bullets.
Makes you proud to be British.
Kill a pregnant woman next time and get the “two for one bullet” T shirt.
Must post off the subscription to the Labour Friends of Israel.


Your ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ response to this horrendous attack on a child leaves a nasty taste.

Your disgusting glee at being able to ‘make your point’ puts you well within the description of untermensch.


I expect it left quite “a nasty taste” for that little kid when his head was blown off by your bloodthirsty Jew buddies.

Gezzah Potts

Saw that last night Francis on If Americans Knew. I just feel disgust and anger that this keeps happening and much of the World looks away, or as virtually all slime politicians in Australia robotically proclaim: ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’. Against a 9 year old child? Truly sick. Apologies Tony for going off topic


this is so off topic that it wouldn’t even be comfortable on Mars


America is blessed with these patriotic old morons, willing to work till they drop for the freedom to swap a glorified shed for a trailer park full of similar clones.

JR sadf
JR sadf

So being old, broke, and “houseless” makes you a moron? Try looking in the mirror daily – and repeat, “I’m a moron. I’m a moron” because that is exactly what YOU are. You have NO idea why these people are in their situations, but assume that you do, which makes you a useless “know-it-all”, a moron filled idiotic bag of useless bones.


Yes, a lot of them are decent people who have worked hard all their lives with absolutely nothing to show for it. But Lundiel is right. I met many of those people living in America. Working 2 or 3 jobs to try to get by, living in houses like wooden shacks, no car, using the bus, paying well over the odds for even basic food items. No passport, never been abroad, knowing less about the outside world than The Moon or Pluto. But resilient, uncomplaining and not at all prone to self pity. I liked them.