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SPECIAL REPORT: Into The Land Of Nomads

QUARTZITE, Ariz. (KYMA/KECY) - It was once Luke Skywalkers home of Tatooine in 'Return of the Jedi' another time the combat zone during The Gulf War in 'Jarhead', needless to say, the Desert Southwest has a hefty
amount of Hollywood film credits.

’Nomadland’ is one of the recent stories shot in Yuma and Quartzite, it follows Fran (Frances McDormand), a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

The docu-drama has now snagged several awards and is nominated for several Academy Awards including 'Best Picture'.

Bob Wells, is the man behind CheapRVLiving.com, he was one of the real 'nomads' used in the film who shared their stories. He's also the organizer of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), a yearly gathering of van-dwellers, RV'ers, and 'nomads' in Quartzite, Arizona; many start their life on the road at the RTR.

During the pandemic, the RTR had to be moved virtually.

“We build a community to learn and meet people, it's been working well for most of its history," said Wells. "Frances and Chloé had a commitment to the integrity of the story and they just were so careful to make it very authentic."

'Director/Writer Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Production for the film took place across several states including California, Nevada and Arizona. Brownie's Cafe was used for a short scene but nonetheless, the experience for employees of the eatery is unforgettable.


"It's the atmosphere, original booths from the ’40s, the old pictures of Yuma and the vibe is friendly too," said Jonathan Brooks who works at Brownie's and ponders why Brownie's was scout for 'Nomadland'. "They didn’t tell me who but then when we finally saw it was going to be Frances (McDormand) we were like oh snap thats cool!"

'Director/Writer Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of NOMADLAND at Brownie's Cafe in Yuma. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Driving up north on Highway 95, passing one of the U.S. Army's largest testing grounds, are open plains of desert. This is where many real-life nomads set the brakes and camp out for a night or even weeks.


"In 1979 I got my first van,” said Mark Monson, a part-time Nomad from Minnesota. “I am choosing sunburn to frostbite, I might be aggravating to people because you can never pin me down as to when and where but that’s life.”

Every nomad's origin story is different, but they all agree that the experience on the road is why they continue to live out of their vans every day.

“We are independent people that love our independence and freedom," said Wells. "The numbers will grow enormously with people that are disenchanted, that are disillusioned.”

In 2021, history might be repeating itself.


“The American dream is an American nightmare,” said Wells. "It hasn’t really hit home since the government has pumped so much money to keep it afloat but some have no choice to survive than to eliminate their house payment or rent payment."

With rent moratoriums still in place and stimulus checks still rolling out, it's too soon to know how many people will leave it all and hit the road. For context, the economic recession of 2008 is still showing its ripple effects in 2021.

According to The Pew Research Center, 1 in 10 young adults moved out of their living situation due to COVID-19 in 2020.

In November of 2020, 33% moved because of financial reasons.

It's a hot trend amongst younger couples as only 4% of van-dwellers report being retired. It's also a fairly inexpensive living accommodation, the average cost to convert a van is $5,000. Instagram has also seen a jump of 312% (7 million) in posts tagged #vanlife since 2017.

"Go camping see if that speaks to your heart, said Wells. "You’re gonna sleep in the van, go travel, go let nature speak to you see if it says anything to you.”

News / Video / Yuma County

Christian Galeno

Christian Galeno joined KYMA/KSWT in July of 2019 as a Weekend Anchor and multimedia journalist.

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