“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… Nothing outside you can give you any place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”
― Flannery O’Connor
My Memorial Day weekend double feature explored two popular accounts of drifts to the edges of civilization on the road in the American West. First, I reread Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, the young man who died in a remote Alaska van in the early 1990s and was immortalized by a Jon Krakauer book and a later film. Second, I finally got around to the most recent Best Picture winner at the Oscars, Nomadland, a loosely fictionalized version of an award-winning work of non-fiction on people dislocated by the Great Recession who took up a wandering van life. Their adventures tap into a very American thirst for the road, one I ruminated on while road tripping out west last year.
One could draw a sharp distinction between McCandless, a child of suburban privilege who rejected his well-off parents and his Emory degree to go look for something else, and Frances McDormand as Nomadland’s Fern, a woman who, penniless, has just lost both her husband and the employer that was her small town’s raison d’etre. But in each case, the wanderers are haunted by certain scars, and there is an obvious element of agency both in the decision to strike out in the first place and, more weightily, in the decision to stick with an itinerant life despite ample available off ramps. These people are destined to wander, either because they have rejected anything that used to hold them to a place or because whatever that thing was is no longer there.
To strike out like these late capitalist nomads takes a certain headstrong confidence and a rare dose of independence, plus a yearning desire for something that the familiar motions of life cannot offer. No more will they be chained to anything other than a short-term job, and they strip down their possessions to the essentials. Forget any pursuit of wealth; getting by is just fine. In place of a mortgage or rent, a van or even just a tent. Any family they have is ripped from them, and the most wrenching moments in these stories come from the perspective of those who love them: McCandless’s parents and especially his sister, or in Dave, the tender fellow wanderer who asks Fern to join him when he finally settles down. Sadly for their loved ones but grippingly for those of us drawn to their stories, the call for these nomads is too powerful for them to settle down.
There is plenty to admire in the life they choose. Both stories paint a laudatory portrait of the support networks that emerge along the edges of civilization, among the fellow travelers and the kindly souls who take in our vagabonds. Both McCandless and Fern find genuine companionship among fellow itinerants and simple folk who live in scattered outposts across the West. The stray jobs that our protagonists work, in greasy diners and for seasonal harvests and as campground hosts, while low-paying and each offering their own unique indignities, do not come off as hellish: they offer community and stray sources of amusement and sustain the wandering lifestyle. When Fern visits a well-off sister and endures the scorn of her husband and friends, the sister rises to her defense: Fern is taking her place in a long and noble American tradition, freed by her wanderlust to do as she chooses and make the best of a difficult situation. Who are we to judge?
Accounts like Into the Wild and Nomadland can glaze over the risks of a life on the road: robbery, rape, the mental instability that often comes in groups of those on the margins. Most people living some version of the itinerant life do not have fallbacks like Emory degrees or Dave with his well-off son, and some have children or ailing family members or other burdens that shed a different moral light on their wanderings. These stories run the risk of romanticizing an economy built on grueling manual labor for meager returns: Nomadland’s look into Amazon warehouses and farm work is one of light-touch neutrality, with only a vague sense of how backbreaking it can be and not a hint of the immigrants who make up a large chunk of these workforces. There is triumph in making the most of difficult situations, yes, but are we okay with what got us here in the first place?
And sometimes the wanderers wind up dead. McCandless’s story still courts controversy: is he a naïve idiot who wandered unprepared into the Alaskan backcountry, or a folk hero who had the boldness to do what he wanted to do? Krakauer, who had his own bout of youthful wanderlust, is sympathetic to his impulses, if not to all of his actions. For everything modernity has achieved, it has flattened the acceptable outlets for human self-expression and soul-searching, of any experience that goes beyond certain moral and rational bounds that control a society’s definition of a responsible life. This is especially burdensome for the idealists, and for whom a responsible life has given only suffering. Deadened by the world around them, Fern and McCandless look for a shock that goes to the edge and contemplates mortality, that adds urgency back and purpose back into a bourgeois life. Human connection feels rawer here, more meaningful, a chosen community of people who have all taken some version of the same leap. A society that allows for such informality and freedom of movement for those who choose it does not strike me as a bad one, even if the choice of that life can sometimes have grave consequences.
I write these words right before I start in on another summer with its share wandering with tents, of voluntary renunciation of creature comforts for a thin air mattress far from cell service or indoor plumbing. This all happens after a year of extensive nesting into a new home that I am very fond of; the wandering road is one I have now closed off for myself. Perhaps this is because the questions that motivated a McCandless have inserted themselves into my life in other ways and found different answers, or perhaps I am merely intrigued by stories of people who do things I would never be inclined to do.
But there’s still a hint of that tug, which is part of the allure to a northern Minnesota weekend warrior. There is peace in knowing that all that matters is making it to the next camp and then completing the mundane tasks of food and shelter before moving on and doing it all again. The endless to-do list and scheming of next moves is gone, or viewed from a comfortable distance and penned in a notebook. It is not unlike the life of some friends who now have small children: the needs are simple and straightforward, a semi-regular schedule of meeting basic desires and making the rest work from there. The tyranny of choice recedes, though knowledge of other paths may still loom. It is a return to an earlier state of fewer expectations and fewer burdens, disconnected from the hyperactive hive mind of modern work.
It was hard not to see these two works through a lens of another book I just read, Annalee Newitz’s Four Lost Cities, an account of how people in a few great cities of antiquity adapted even as natural and political disasters upended their worlds. The era of monumental construction and close quarters living may have been over, and emperors or local elites may have fallen, but the people mostly went on with life, reverting to earlier forms of subsistence and steadiness to get by. Whether through preparation or necessity, modern-day nomads learn a bevy of essential survival skills, and in the event of any coming ruin, would be among the better guides. A nomadic life is an insightful return to the past in more ways than one.
It is harder and harder to get off the grid now. Even in the early 90s, McCandless was within easy walking distance of civilization if he’d bothered to bring a map with him; his decision not to was both a manufactured act of rebellion and, ultimately, a death sentence. Now, one can trace his whole route meticulously on GoogleMaps, and in 2020, Alaskan authorities airlifted his old bus out to a museum in Fairbanks because too many clueless pilgrims were risking their lives visiting it. A mysterious monument that appeared in the Utah desert in the past year, its location kept intentionally secret, was located within days by enterprising satellite map explorers. We now have the ability to fill every last blank space on a map, to be surveilled every step of the way. But the actual taste of those worlds outside the confines of social expectation and economic perpetual motion, the rawness that can meet some deep animal need in both the ambitious and the bloodied: for those among us who need to look beyond to find ourselves, well, that is something no map can contain. The road beckons.