1989 - me, on the road

Watching Nomadland, remembering America


e just watched Nomadland.

Frances McDormand makes me feel her characters. There’s an uncanny mix of toughness and vulnerability, and then she lights up when she smiles, or maybe I just relate to the way she moves — anyway, Fern 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.

Later, I wondered why I felt so uncomfortable watching another, older woman taking risks and travelling alone? Is it because I equate home and company to happiness? Or because I can’t bear to think of the griefs and loneliness that may haunt my own future? In our Western culture, we know we don’t treat our elderly well; often less as revered elders, more sidelined inconveniences.

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.


Approx route


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?

On our trip, we met a lot of people, but 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.

Fern rocks.

What a story of loss, freedom, escape, and choice.

Me in 1989, in the days before mobile phones, with all the choices in front of me.

map thanks

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