Book Buzz: Nomadland

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century by Jessica Bruder

“CamperForce. Your next RV adventure is here.”

Thus promises Amazon’s CamperForce website in its seasonal labor recruitment pitch to “enthusiastic RVers who help make the holidays bright for customers of Amazon.com.” Based on several years of corresponding and camping with these travelers, in Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder shares the stories of these retirement-age seniors who, as casualties of the Great Recession, have been forced into a new migrant labor pool.

CamperForce began as an experiment in one of Amazon’s far-flung warehouses that was struggling to recruit enough temporary workers for the holiday season. A temp agency brought in RVers for holiday staffing at a warehouse in Kansas, and the result was so successful Amazon branded the program CamperForce and expanded it to other warehouses.

Work in the warehouses is strenuous, with long shifts and miles of walking on concrete floors. There are no benefits and pay is about $10.75 per hour, slightly more for returning hires. Posters warn the workampers, “Prepare to be sore!” and “Lil’ Medic” wall-mounted machines dispense free generic pain relievers. Workampers stay in nearby RV parks, returning mostly to take ibuprofen and sleep before their next shift begins. Bruder met people living in everything from RVs to Priuses. Panel vans are popular, with white being the color of choice as they blend so well with company fleet vehicles (usually white) in parking lots.

CamperForce workers pick, pack, stow and receive merchandise, and Bruder (who herself worked a brief stint as a workamper) describes the insanity of looking for bins to “stow” incoming inventory in a warehouse that is stuffed full of every manner of cheaply produced product, most of which she imagines coming to rest in a landfill in the not-too-distant future.

In what can be likened to a new tribe formed by economic hardship (or “vanilies” as they like to call their family-of-circumstance groups), when the CamperForce stint ends on December 23, many of the workampers move on to the next destination. The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous is a loose gathering in the Arizona desert, “like Burning Man for seniors,” quips one camper. At RTR, resources are shared and they help each other with home improvements, all while piecing together their next bit of employment, often campground hosting for the U.S. Park Service.

In between jobs, there is the struggle to find a place to park and “stealth camp” without being harassed. Many use apps that help those living on the road find camper-friendly places like Walmart parking lots; the modern-day version of hobo signs that were marked with chalk or coal on walls or doors. These nomads bristle at the notion that they are homeless, preferring the description of being “houseless.”

Bruder concludes that for Americans doing the math on the lower edge of the income spectrum, the question hangs: What part of life are you willing to give up to keep on living? How many people need to resort to desperate choices in order to survive before we change the model and address rising housing costs and income inequality? In the meantime, the Rubber Tramp ranks continue to grow.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System where she selects adult nonfiction, eMaterials, and Hot Picks for county readers.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 24, 2017.)