Sixty-three-year-old Julia walked to the edge of the campsite and yanked on the rope that held her food in a tarp off the ground. Outside her trailer, she placed folding chairs, a small camp table, and a Coleman stove, with an old-fashioned coffee pot heating on it. She measured the coffee, turned it on, and thought of what she would make for breakfast—maybe, an omelet with the sourdough bread she’d picked up from The Food Emporium at the nearby riverside market town.
Her neighbor from the next trailer Connie Thrush would be here soon for their morning yoga session. Today she intended to talk to Connie about the next park she was planning to visit. Maybe, Connie, a craftswoman, would come with her. Last week, she and Connie, and Roy had sat outside Connie’s tiny car crammed with yarns and boxes of donated used clothing and blankets, the coffee pots and fixings placed on top of a rack attached to the roof of the car. Before they knew it, she had both her and Roy holding crochet hooks and making granny squares.
She stretched her arms over her head and said quietly, her voice a whisper on the morning breeze, “I am a nomad, and I love my life.”
For a year now, she’d lived a long, peripatetic life on the road. Last year was a hard one for her not only because of the pandemic but, her husband left her, she had to sell her house, and her youngest son went to college. She realized very quickly she had no marketable skills—her college degree was decades old. Since she didn’t have a place to stay and was very confused about what she should do in the future, she’d first started visiting national and state parks. She stayed in cabins, tents, boats, trailers, and inside her car.
Three-hundred sixty-seven nights, in more than 31 states—she washed her clothes at Laundromats and joined cheap fitness clubs to use showers. To keep her belly full, she worked for long hours at hard, physical jobs. Six months ago she’d got a battered silver-gray used RV with the last of the sale proceeds from the house and fixed it up. That was her home. In all those miles, she wandered with no goal. She wasn’t on a trip, vacation, or pilgrimage. She had no list of set destinations or set sights to see. Someone whose destination was the journey itself, someone who just picked up and went whenever and wherever they pleased.
All the years she’d been married to Bob, they didn’t travel. Bob did the hippy thing after college, sleeping in German wheat fields and partying around Europe, but by the time their son was born, Bob’s long hair had disappeared right along with any wanderlust he had. Instead, life became defined by the 9-to-5 cycle of work on a fixed mortgage.
She’d met so many people and become friends with them. In Iowa, Joe, a former cab driver, 67, who’d labored with her at the annual corn harvest. They’d worked from sunrise until after sunset in temperatures that dipped below freezing, helping trucks that rolled in from the fields disgorge multi-ton loads of field corn. At night Joe would sleep in the van that had been his home since Uber squeezed him out of the taxi industry, making the rent impossible. She’ll see him again later in October this year.
In Campbellsville, Kentucky, a 60-year-old general contractor, Maggie who showed her how to merchandise during the overnight shift at an Amazon warehouse, pushing a wheeled cart for miles along the concrete floor. It was mind-numbing work, and Julia had struggled to scan each item accurately, hoping to avoid getting fired. In the morning she would return to her RV, moored at one of the several mobile home parks that contracted with Amazon to put up nomadic workers like her. She didn’t think she was returning to Amazon anytime soon. Not until the company allowed their workers to be unionized.
In San Marcos, California, a thirty-something couple in a 1975 GMC motorhome, running a roadside pumpkin stand with a children’s carnival and petting zoo which they had five days to set up from scratch on a vacant dirt lot. They’d given her a fair price for Connie’s crochet doilies and scarves. In a few weeks, they were going to switch to selling Christmas trees, but they’d assured her that they would be happy to accept Connie’s handmade offerings for sale.
9200 miles, which unspooled like a filmstrip of America. Fast food joints and shopping malls. Fields dormant under frost. Featureless plains. Auto dealerships, dead factories, subdivisions, and mega-churches. Snowcapped peaks. The roadside reeling past, through the day and into the darkness.
Now, Julia unfurled the map and carefully marked the route to Yellowstone National Park. She folded the map and put away her Magic Marker.
Later, sharing a glass of Walmart’s red wine with Connie, she would tell her, “I still don’t know what I’ll do in the future, but even though it’s been hard traveling by myself, I feel much stronger and happier now. There’s hope on the road, a sense of opportunity, as wide as the country itself.”
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