For the first few months of the Great Recession, I was glued to cable. When I got home from school, I would turn on the news, usually CNN, to check in on the financial collapse. The same people were on TV all the time: sobbing families and defensive bankers, Hank Paulson and Octomom. Reporters toured abandoned Las Vegas cul-de-sacs in search of the average American. Jon Stewart seemed always on the verge of tears. I knew I was witnessing history, but in middle school, watching the economy implode felt like watching anything else — a bad VH1 show, or a snowstorm.
The real collapse finally circled in on our town: Yreka, California, a small community in a remote valley just south of the Oregon border. When the first few businesses shuttered — the book store, the donut shop — it felt like walking onto a movie set. But before long, the feeling got old. The Walmart became a Super Walmart, and then it became the main store in town. The recession was no longer interesting, to cable news or to me. In high school, I’d sneak out at night and meet my friends at the abandoned, half-constructed subdevelopment in the grassy hills just outside of town. We broke into the houses and wandered around with our phone flashlights. Some were almost finished, complete with light fixtures and carpeting. In one house, we found a case of beer and drank it. In another, we discovered leftovers in the fridge and sprinted out. We didn’t come back.
A few years in, our own house was worth less than half of what my mom owed on the mortgage. Like one in four American homes at the time, it was underwater. Meanwhile, half my mom’s retirement savings disappeared. At the office where she had worked for twenty years, there was talk of eliminating her position. She spent a lot of time trying to convince the bank to reduce the principal on her loan, but the best it offered was an extension — a forty-year mortgage instead of thirty. She had done everything you were supposed to do, had bought a home within her means on an above-prime mortgage, worked a steady job with health insurance and a pension plan, and still she was trapped.
The hedge fund managers who had driven the economy off a cliff found a way to escape their debts, and so did my mom. It was simple: she stopped paying the mortgage. Millions of people across the country were fighting to keep their homes, but we were trying to shrug ours off. Online, my mom found forums filled with people who also wanted out. She learned that if she applied for any number of government relief programs, the bank was obliged to see each application through, no matter how futile. Once rejected, the process of foreclosure would start again. These efforts bought us time. When her job finally pushed her into early retirement, she took on a new role as a chess player against the bank. She planned it so the eviction would happen just after I left for college and made the necessary large purchases before her credit went south. It all proceeded smoothly enough that we could believe we were in control the whole time.
By the summer of 2014, we felt like squatters. We were under siege from stern letters and so many calls that we unplugged the phone. Every knock at the door made our breath catch a little. In July, our air conditioning stopped working, but neither of us bothered to fix it. We let the grass in the backyard grow up past our ankles and then our calves. We spent warm twilights on the back patio, surrounded by things gone to seed.
Finally the letter came, the important letter, and we had to be out by September 16th. We held a yard sale and haggled over our furniture. I left for college across the country; my mom moved boxes into storage. A week later, a town near ours burned down in a wildfire, and much of the county had to evacuate, but she was already gone by then.
She did what made sense at the time. She moved into an RV, and hit the road.
This year, people like my mom are in the national spotlight as the community at the center of Nomadland, the film that won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, won the Golden Globe for best drama, and heads into the Oscars as a favorite for Best Picture. Nomadland takes place a decade ago, on the heels of the recession in 2011. When my mom started living in her RV, the decline had not ended in any meaningful sense, but the doom of the early years had given way to a strange, throatless prosperity. In this atmosphere, rootlessness could be viewed not as a predicament but an opportunity. It was the era of Eat Pray Love, Wild, and Tiny House Hunters. On social media, the young and online catalogued the adventures of houselessness-by-choice under the hashtag #vanlife. The RV (or teardrop trailer, or sprinter van) became a symbol of inspiration, and a source of ad revenue. Women in wide-brimmed hats and linen shirts sold detox water or bluetooth speakers from the back of their Volkswagen buses, but the real product, of course, was the lifestyle. Living in a van represented a new, glamorous ideal, unburdened from homeownership and a steady job — unmoored, even, from the physical world itself. If owning a home was no longer possible, there was endless space on Instagram.
In lesser-known corners of the internet, a different set of people were discussing van life, too. Traffic to websites like CheapRVLiving.com boomed as mostly older Americans were planning their exits. A popular Yahoo message board titled “Live In Your Van 2” doubled its membership in the years after the recession, growing to over eight thousand people. Reddit’s r/vandwellers forum started in 2010 and quickly gained tens of thousands of followers. (Today, it has 1.2 million.) After the recession, sales of vans, RVs, and trailers skyrocketed as more people moved into them full-time. These were the nomads.
It’s difficult to find accurate statistics on the number of vandwellers in the U.S. In counts of the unhoused, they are often missed, as they don’t show up at shelters or sleep on the street. Many are perpetually in transition — living in a van for part of the year while they do seasonal work, looking for housing in a new town, or parking outside a friend’s house while they get on their feet. But many, like my mom, are in it for the long haul.
Her RV was a 1996 Itasca Sundancer, eight feet wide by 29 feet long. From the front cab, you could walk through the living room, kitchen, past the bathroom, and into the back bedroom in under five seconds. A small loft above the cab held another bed, where you could lay with a few inches of space between your nose and the ceiling. When I visited, I slept there or in a tent outside. The RV had a retro vibe, with purple furniture covered in white abstract shapes, the kind of print you find on bus seats. Faux-wood cupboards, drawers, and tables folded out from unlikely places, like origami. Every moving piece clicked into place so it wouldn’t fly across the vehicle when in motion.
My mom moved her address to South Dakota, which has few requirements for legal residency and is therefore popular with RVers. She visited the state only once in the next seven years, staying a single night in a motel before going to the DMV. She had her mail forwarded from a P.O. box in Rapid City to wherever she happened to be. And she started a blog. The week before she began, she wrote:
When I look back on my life, I realize that most of the major changes that have happened have been things that “just happened.” This time, it’s a choice. I’ve been dreaming about this change for over four years, and actively taking the steps to make it happen since 2012. It’s been a long time coming, and I couldn’t be more excited! I’d like to come up with a name for my new rolling home. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.
I invite you to follow me on this journey as I embrace the nomadic lifestyle and learn to prioritize experiences over things.
The nomadic lifestyle came with its own culture and its own language. Boondocking means staying on public land without hookups for utilities, while stealth parking means camping in cities or towns overnight without drawing attention. (Walmart often allows people to sleep in its parking lots — a practice called Wallydocking — but that’s changing as more people take up nomadic life.) Citizens of this movement go by many names — nomads, or rubbertramps, or vandwellers — but my mom preferred to be called a vagabond.
The people who not only lived in vans but also participated in the vandwelling culture mostly fit a consistent demographic type. They were, by and large, former members of the middle class. They were overwhelmingly white, had an affinity for camping, and could travel in rural parts of the country without fear. They were boomers, alienated by an economy that affords fewer and fewer protections to the elderly, often trying to live off the meager benefits of Social Security or a pension. Decades before, some of their peers had tried to break free of civil society, but most ended up taking steady jobs, having kids, and buying houses. Now, vandwelling harkened back to an earlier counterculture.
But far from the idealism of the ’60s or the blissed-out mentality of #vanlife, the tenor of nomadism tends toward the practical. Vandwelling forums are full of advice on how to live on $500 a month, avoid harassment by the police, and get cheap orthodontic work done in Mexico. The forums are also peppered with broader socioeconomic analysis. Bob Wells, the founder of CheapRVLiving, is the closest the movement has to a resident theorist. In a 2012 entry titled “Thriving in a Bad Economy,” he lays out the emergent vandwelling worldview. “It’s hard not to conclude that our world is changing, and not for the better,” Wells writes. “At one time there was a social contract that if you played by the rules (went to school, got a job and worked hard) everything would be fine. That’s no longer true today.” The community has a latent eschatology, oriented not just toward the end of one’s life but the end of the world. “Get out, as soon as you can!” Wells writes in “Vandwelling: A Path to Escape Society’s Abuse.” In another post, he explains, “I am a believer in Global Climate Change and in Peak Oil and I do think things are going to get very, very bad.” Some of the comments on the site express an eerie nihilism. “I am exploring my alternatives for the time when I finally escape all my obligations,” one person writes.
Apart from dedicated RV parks, the geography of nomadism mostly consists of vast, empty parking lots where one can sleep unnoticed and public land where it’s free to stay for up to fourteen days. Because public land is more abundant in the Western U.S., nomads tend to remain on that side of the continental divide. This orientation, and its colonial perspective, seeps into the nomadic ethos, too. RV manufacturers, for instance, seem to have a passion for Indigenous tribe names: Itasca, Winnebago, Chinook. Sociologists have noted the tendency of RVers, in the face of local governments and residents who see them as homeless or destitute, to compare themselves to early pioneers. The biggest yearly gathering of the nomads, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, was founded by Bob Wells in 2010, and takes place every year on public land outside Quartzsite, Arizona. He modeled it after similar gatherings among fur trappers in the 19th century.
Like the early American settlers, the nomads express both a pessimism about human society and a deeply-held romanticism about the land. For many, communion with nature is what makes the whole thing worth it. Owning land is off the table, but experiencing it is free. “Like Thoreau,” Bob Wells writes in a dispatch from the Sierra National Forest, “our little group has gone to the woods to live deliberately, to learn what life really wants to teach us.” The great outdoors, for many vandwellers, holds salvational potential.
This is what drew my mom to RV living; she was never much for crowds. On the road, she spent her time photographing her surroundings — documenting the natural world, as she put it, while it’s still here. She sold prints of her photos online, which occasionally brought her some extra income. “And this time, it truly is new territory,” she began one blog post, like a pioneer diary. “So far, it’s been even better than I had hoped. And now I wonder why it took me so long to go ahead and live the dream.”
In 1874, following an economic crash that was called, at the time, the Great Depression, Charles Ingalls headed west from Wisconsin, crossing the Mississippi River into Minnesota. Three decades earlier, his father had set out from New York state in the midst of an earlier financial crisis. They called that one the Great Depression, too.
In Minnesota, hardship struck the Ingalls family yet again, this time in the form of a historically large swarm of grasshoppers that ate their entire crop. The family moved farther west to the Dakota Territory not long after. They were constantly uprooted. Charles’s daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, later wrote that her earliest memory was of staring out of a moving wagon at the vast, open prairie.
When the Ingallses arrived at De Smet, in what is currently South Dakota, the town was more a promise than a place — still just a worker’s camp on a parcel set aside by the railroad company as a bet on future commerce. In the prior two decades, the U.S. government had waged successive wars on the Oceti Sakowin, stealing much of their territory and forcing the tribes onto reservations. By 1880, the value of the newly-seized land was booming. After some months spent living in a shack in town, the Ingalls family claimed a plot of land through the Homestead Act, one of the country’s earliest large-scale social welfare programs, which promised free land to white settlers willing to cultivate it. After five years, if a family could “prove up,” showing they had built a profitable farm, they could keep it.
While the Homestead Act promised economic freedom for the average white American, it proved, instead, to be a minor appendage to a larger beast: the wholesale transfer of land, stolen from Indigenous peoples, primarily into the hands of speculators, railroads, ranchers, and corporations, as the historian Greg Grandin writes in The End of the Myth. The homesteaders, for the most part, got the dregs — arid, unfarmable property in places like the Dakota Territory. For every acre given to small farmers, more than two were sold to corporate interests, who often purchased huge plots as crop prices rose, reselling them in pieces to the smaller farmers at a profit. In 1893, the railroad bubble burst. The collapse spread to other sectors, including agriculture, and was compounded by drought on the Great Plains before creating a full-blown depression. Five hundred banks failed, and caravans of wagons trailed out of Kansas, Iowa, and the Dakotas, filled with families who lost their homes and were headed back east. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband sold their house for $350 and joined them.
While Western settlement was collapsing in on itself, Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian from Wisconsin, set out to recuperate the frontier myth. His speech at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” began with a eulogy. Three years earlier, the census report had declared the frontier dead; the West was finally settled. Turner mourned the end of the literal frontier but established it as a national symbol, a “fountain of youth” for the country, as each new group of settlers moving west nurtured a unique democratic spirit that filtered back east. The colonial endeavor, in Turner’s telling, was central to American identity. He had managed to locate a new source of value, not in the land itself but in the frontier’s narrative potential. His thesis, along with justifying genocide at home, would later be invoked to advocate for expanding the U.S. empire into Panama, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
Turner’s argument had a long half-life. Forty years after his speech, in the aftermath of yet another land bubble, the crisis we still refer to as the Great Depression was setting in. Wilder, at this point living in Missouri, was writing a memoir about her childhood on the frontier. Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, edited out Wilder’s more unseemly descriptions of pioneer life — poverty, drunkenness, death — and found a publisher for the book that would become the behemoth Little House on the Prairie series.
The Little House novels turned the colonial project into a series of moral fables for children. In the second book, a farmer gives his son a history lesson. “This country goes three thousand miles west, now,” he explains. “It’s the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son. Don’t you ever forget that.” While white settlers, through violence and coercion, had claimed the bulk of the country, almost none of it was actually owned by ordinary farmers. But in Little House, the pioneers were neither desperate, precarious squatters nor pawns at the mercy of a larger economy. Whereas Turner believed in the benefits of the frontier for American culture writ large, Wilder’s novels demonstrate the personal, emotional value of the frontier story as a way of narrating one’s life. Aside from the tangible, material benefits to white settlers, the frontier also gave them a story to tell, one that recast an exploitative economy as a stage for tales of self-reliance.
If her family’s homestead failed, Wilder’s books proved in retrospect, the land could turn a profit. To date, Little House has sold over sixty million copies in forty languages and inspired countless spinoffs. And in the decades after they were published, the books also proved a reliable vessel for the conservative movement. With the fortune earned from her mother’s series, Lane embarked on a long career in politics. In op-eds, she invoked her upbringing as a “malnutrition child” during the depression of 1893 as an argument against Social Security. In 1965, she flew to Vietnam to advocate for a more aggressive war. When she died, her political protege and adopted son, Roger MacBride, took control of the Little House copyright, using money from the books to fund a run for President in 1976 as a member of the Libertarian Party. MacBride also optioned Little House into a TV series, which aired from 1974 to 1982.
The show, which was even more conservative than the books, was a favorite of Ronald Reagan, himself a former B-list, onscreen cowboy. During Reagan’s presidency, Grandin explains, the frontier was often invoked in public speeches and popular culture as “a way to conjure an inclusive, boundless Americanism, organized around an inexhaustible horizon.” The frontier bolstered the rhetorical scaffolding for a host of reactionary policies. As the wealthy waged war on financial regulations, public welfare, and taxes under the guise of promoting individual liberty, their political project was refracted, in part, through the revisionist history of the frontier seen in the Little House series and elsewhere. At the opening of “The American Cowboy,” a 1983 exhibition at the Library of Congress, Reagan quoted the historian Henry Steele Commager: “Americans believed about the West not so much what was true but what they thought ought to be true.”
Empire is gone. This is the first thing we learn in Nomadland. The film’s title card informs us of the demise of Empire, Nevada, a former industrial town founded by the United States Gypsum company. The plant shut down in 2011, and the town of Empire slowly bled out as its residents, almost all of whom were employed by the mine, left. Chloé Zhao, a Beijing-born director whose previous film was about a struggling Lakota rodeo star, is fond of making films from a far outsider’s perspective. In the case of Nomadland, her position is not just outside but inverse; she’s the daughter of a steel magnate-turned-real estate developer.
Nomadland is the highest-profile cultural engagement with the nomad phenomenon to date, and it has been praised as a sort of definitive post-recession movie — “A Gorgeous Journey Through The Wreckage of American Promise,” according to The Atlantic. It has also been likened by many critics to a Western. Writing in The Guardian, Xan Brooks called the film an “anti-Western,” one that engages with the cinematic genre only to reveal its shortcomings. The film does borrow much of its visual language from Westerns, framing its subjects in stark isolation against wide shots of the landscape, usually at golden hour. (One of the final shots is a direct homage to the John Ford film The Searchers.) Frances McDormand plays the fictional nomad Fern, whom the story follows over the course of about a year of wandering around the American West in a sprinter van sometime after the death of her husband. The movie’s landscape is marred by the consequences of the right-wing policies advocated by Lane and her ilk: dotted with industrial farms, gutted small towns, and fluorescent big-box stores. This is a West with few places left for Fern to stay. In one scene, she attempts to sleep in a parking lot before a security guard loudly knocks on her door, telling her she can’t sleep there. “I’m leaving! I’m leaving!” Fern shouts instinctively.
Nomadland is based on a 2017 nonfiction book of the same name by the journalist Jessica Bruder, who situates vandwelling within the rise of the gig economy. While the nomads were saving money by not living in houses, corporations realized they, too, could save money by hiring permanently mobile employees. It was an old tactic facilitated by new technologies and lax labor laws. On the vandwelling forums, lists of recommended jobs for nomads offer a survey of the companies most responsible for this development: Uber, Amazon, Fiverr. In the movie version, Fern spends much of her time onscreen working tedious, low-wage jobs — as part of Amazon’s CamperForce (the company’s temporary, seasonal workforce), as a campground host in the Badlands, and harvesting sugar beets in Nebraska.
If Nomadland has a pioneer subject, it’s missing an object — there’s no land to settle, no future to work toward. It has the emotional texture of a frontier story, divorced from that story’s original source of meaning: property. Instead, Fern has brief experiences communing with nature, brushes with the romantic sublime. For much of the movie, her character is emotionally withdrawn, but she comes alive in the natural world, gazing up at a redwood in childlike wonder or running along an oceanside cliff, overwhelmed with emotion. But these moments occur in periodic bursts, interrupting the drudgery of hard, physical work. Earlier pioneers might have made claim to the land, but the most Fern can do is visit it, briefly, before heading to her next gig.
The jobs the nomads work, the locations they visit, and the details of vandwelling are pulled directly from Bruder’s deep reporting. The film also borrows the book’s subjects — real nomads — to play supporting characters. Bob Wells makes a brief appearance as himself, playing a kind of mentor to Fern in her new life. So does Swankie, an eccentric nature lover (who has cancer in the film, but not in reality), and Linda May, who dreams of building an Earthship house in the Arizona desert. The CamperForce sequences were shot inside an actual Amazon warehouse, but otherwise any attempt the film makes toward honestly documenting the nomads, or the post-recession economy they inhabit, is somewhat derailed by the singular fixation on Fern’s character and Frances McDormand’s onscreen presence. Largely left in the background, the film’s real nomads are called onscreen to provide advice or to monologue about their lives — usually in the form of a lesson about the hardships nomads face — only to be whisked away so that Fern can stand, alone, in the desert.
Fern herself is a strange avatar for the nomad experience she’s asked to exemplify. She is largely passive throughout the film, whereas Bruder’s book is filled with passionate, lively people with vivid dreams and ambitions for nomadic life. They’re chatty, while Fern often feels dissociative. As time passes, and vibrant early scenes at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous give way to Fern’s increasing solitude, her character is increasingly defined by grief for her husband and longing for her old, stable life. These are all reasonable things to feel, but her characterization rings truer to the expectations of a well-meaning liberal audience than to the way nomads understand and describe themselves. The resulting melancholy — mourning a steady job, marriage, and homeownership — misses the point. The point, as Bob Wells would put it, is that those things were unsatisfying to begin with.
Nomadland shies away from overt politics, a conscious choice on Zhao’s part. “I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal — the loss of a loved one, searching for home,” the director said in an interview last year. (More recently, she described one of the monologues in the film as “the most socialist speech I’ve ever heard,” although she admits that politics mostly remain subtext.) In the book, the strains of libertarian conservatism — as well as overt racism — that often pervade vandwelling communities are given attention, but in the movie these beliefs go unseen and unexamined. While Bruder interrogates the whiteness of the nomad community, Zhao seems to treat it as just another part of the landscape. In the entirety of the film, only one non-white person appears onscreen.
Though it attempts to spin a Western out of economic hardship, Nomadland keeps running into the eternal stumbling block for pioneer narratives: prioritizing what their characters symbolize over what they have to say. Fern, like the protagonists of many frontier stories, is called to represent nothing short of the national project itself — its triumph and, in the case of this film, its decline. These narratives have always been de-politicized, their origins in genocide rubbed clean, their most reactionary elements tucked away. We are asked to empathize with the pioneer as a universal American subject in a way we are not asked to empathize with stories about more banal forms of poverty, or homelessness, or the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous land. Frontier stories are like the public lands the film relishes — pretty, but rooted in a violence that their prettiness only obscures.
This narrative is not always satisfying, even for the nomads. There’s a scene, toward the end of the film, where Fern stays with her sister in the suburbs after her van breaks down. (Fern, like my mom, like many other nomads, still retains a web of connections to the middle class she left behind.) Over dinner in the backyard, Fern argues with one of her sister’s friends, a realtor, about how he sells people houses they can’t afford. “We’re not all in a position to just chuck everything and hit the road,” he tells her. Fern defends herself — “Oh, you think that’s what I’ve done?” Here, the film briefly gestures at our cultural fascination with the nomads, and the way they dramatize the tension between “freedom” and dispossession. Has Fern rejected a middle-class life, or was she cut out of one? Before we can ponder this question, Fern’s sister jumps in. “What the nomads are doing is not that different than what the pioneers did,” she says. Fern seems to bristle. Perhaps that label doesn’t wear well, either.
We’re encouraged to root for the happiness and well-being of the nomads in the film, and against their ongoing exploitation by corporations and their harassment by police. But Nomadland’s populism is a pioneer populism, the kind that has historically furthered the colonial project. If the film has a strong emotional allegiance, it is to Fern’s nostalgic longing for her old life, when she had a good job in the mining industry, and a house on the edge of a vast, Nevada valley. “It was just desert, desert, desert all the way to the mountains,” she says at one point. “There was nothing in our way.” Unlike so many of the nomads, Nomadland doesn’t interrogate this nostalgia. Instead, the film chooses to reproduce Fern’s longing, quite literally, for Empire.
“I thought it was too sad,” my mom told me after she watched Nomadland. She had signed up for a Hulu free trial just to see it. For both of us, it felt rare, and special, that there was a mainstream representation of her life. But to her, the movie wallowed too much in the sad parts of nomadism and included little of the joy she’s encountered on the road. On CheapRVLiving, some reacted positively to the film, but others agreed with my mom. “The movie I found depressing, lonely, uninspiring, lacking in story line,” one user writes. “Not one person or character made you want their lifestyle or gave you the sense that they were happy doing what they are doing.” At least, the poster concludes, the movie won’t further crowd the RV parks by inspiring more people to take up nomadic life.
My mom admits she was naive when she started living on the road. Within a few weeks, she told me, she realized how many people were not living in their vans by choice, but out of desperation. All told, she’s been lucky. She has not had to stealth park for any long stretches or had trouble with the law. She has not had to work for Amazon or at a factory farm. She has worked at some wildlife refuges in order to park there for free. This meant hours of unpaid labor, but she could photograph the wildlife on her days off. If all the nomads, my mom included, live on the blurry border between independence and exploitation, she has had far more choice than many.
Watching Nomadland, I wanted Fern to accept the offers she receives for a place to stay. For years, I wanted my mom to settle down, too. I was convinced her story was one of false consciousness, of not seeing or refusing to see, that she was entering what I saw as a much less forgiving life. That her choice was not an escape at all. But that’s too easy to say from the outside. Most nomads don’t imagine themselves solely as victims, nor should they. They’re reaching, I think, for what’s available to them, for stories that allow them to feel, even temporarily, free. Stories in which something like autonomy can flourish outside the bounds of property, like a weed in an abandoned lot. If there is a lesson to be learned from the nomads, perhaps it is in this rupture of the age-old frontier myth that owning land is what makes you a person.
What the nomads find, instead of property, is each other. This is the life my mom has come to know, and the one I’ve encountered traveling alongside her. The richest parts of Nomadland linger in the nomad sociality of the kind Bob Wells cultivated on his forum and at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. My mom never attended the RTR (“too many people!”), but once, I joined her for New Years in Benson, Arizona. We went to a party in a big dining hall at the RV park and met dozens of other nomads, who had all shown up in costumes. We took shots of Fireball and linedanced. At 8:45, for the benefit of the older folks, we counted down the seconds to midnight in Newfoundland.
About a year and a half ago, my mom decided she wanted to stop traveling. She felt tired, she told me, of the constant moving and crowded campgrounds. She wanted to take a bath in a bathtub. She parked her RV in a rural place in southeastern Oregon where houses are cheap, and where she is fond of the surrounding nature — a river basin teeming with bald eagles, grebes, and red-tailed hawks. She wanted to use her remaining retirement savings to buy a house on an FHA loan. The houses there were supposed to be cheap, but last year, she couldn’t afford any; the pandemic has led to a surge in rural property values, and the real estate market is booming, all over the country. She’s trying again this year. We joke that, with any luck, the wildfires might bring property values back down.
Mitchell Johnson is a writer and radio producer living in Minneapolis.