We just watched Nomadland.
Frances McDormand always makes me feel her characters. Maybe it’s the way she’s tough and prosaic but then suddenly smiles and lights up, maybe it’s because I relate to her look and the way she moves, or maybe it’s just her pure skill — anyway, Fern really hit home.
Early in the film, I started shouting, ‘Pair up with Dave!’ because I couldn’t bear to see her loneliness and vulnerability, and Dave is a nice man. Then I wondered why I felt so uncomfortable watching another, older woman taking risks and travelling alone?
When I was 18, I hitch-hiked from New York to Seattle and back. I sat in a truck (or ten) and watched the vast plains and mountains of America roll by. It was dusty, hot, dry, welcoming, unwelcoming, scary, safe, and exciting.
The people we met traveling welcomed us into their communities. We felt the friendship of strangers and also a crazy-intoxicating freedom that I wouldn’t taste again for a decade. I remember the heady rush of excitement, and I remember exquisitely the moment at the side of the road in upstate New York when I had to choose: to go home to college, or to roam the globe as a nomad?
I chose to go home and ended up with the family I wanted, but the decision wasn’t instant, and I’m not sure I’d do that if I were sixty… When I was watching Nomadland, I wondered, why would anyone give up the mountains, the freedom, the sense of one’s own little nest on wheels? The horizon?
I remember the policeman who gave us a lift in a car full of guns, convinced we were runaways. I remember sitting in a truck at 2am, the driver rattling on speed as we roared through the Winnipeg traffic lights, screaming, ‘Stay green, motherfuckers!’ I remember the guy in the cadillac who took us to an all-you-can-eat buffet, then let us stay at his home and play with his poodle puppies. I remember the Vietnam vet spaced out on lithium and weed, who drove us a hundred miles in some random direction, and we had to fill up his car to get him home. I remember the alcoholic who drove us up a remote track to tell us how his life had fallen apart, and he showed us the meds that wouldn’t let him drink any more (he wrote to us later, from a happier place, to let us know he was OK). I remember the pagans on the hill who handed us binbags full of laughing gas, and let us sit around their fire and drum all night. We did a lot of talking and we made real connections. Some of the guys stayed in touch after. Some years later, I went back to say hi.
On our trip, we also spent a couple of weeks with my partner’s granny in Seattle, for me an episode of trying to live with a loved one’s family in their home, with their rules and expectations, and even though they were genuinely lovely, what did I do? I left.
I remember sitting on the side of the road, on my nineteenth birthday, scooping creamed corn out of the tin in the sunshine. I was painfully hungry and the creamed corn disturbingly delicious and revolting at the same time. I remember feeling happy.
Now I’m getting older. I can see the end of my working life ahead of me, maybe ten, fifteen years away, and I’m not sure I want that end; not sure I want to be forced into everything that old age, in our culture, imposes. The loss of colleagues and career and choice. The enforced exclusion and vulnerability. The becoming voiceless.
If I’d been Fern, what would I have done? Would I have picked Dave, or the dog, or both? I think I would have wanted to share the journey. But that’s only maybe.
I would’ve definitely swum in the river. I would’ve definitely shared my coffee. I would’ve definitely given my van a name.
What a story of loss, freedom, escape, and choice.