The Current

Real-life nomad Bob Wells says the life you've been told to want is 'one great, big, enormous lie'

Bob Wells is one of the real-life van dwellers who appears in the Oscar-nominated drama Nomadland. He explains why he dropped out of society for a life on the road.

Wells took up life on the road in the 90s, now features in Oscar-nominated Nomadland

Bob Wells, who appears as himself in the Oscar-nominated film, 'Nomadland' says that the only way to have freedom in your life is "to reduce your dependence on the dollar." (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images) (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

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After economic circumstances forced him into a life on the road, Bob Wells came to believe that he never had any "true freedom" in the life he led before.

"The only way to have true choices on a daily basis over your life is to reduce your dependence on the dollar," said Wells, a real-life nomad who plays himself in the Oscar-nominated film Nomadland.

"And until then, you won't. You'll do whatever the dollar tells you you have to do," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Wells said that from a young age, people in the Western world are taught that living a "quality life" means getting a job, raising a family, buying successively bigger houses, and working most of your life to enjoy retirement in your final decades.

"You're going to give away the 60 best prime years of your life for the 20 poorest years of your health," he said.

"That's a quality life, that's what we're told. And that's just one great, big, enormous lie."

Wells is a leading voice among people who choose to reject that lifestyle and take to the open road. He offers advice and tips on how to do it on his website and his YouTube channel, CheapRVLiving, which has over half a million subscribers. 

He features in Nomadland, the film by director Chloé Zhao which stars other real-life nomads, alongside actor Francis McDormand. She plays a grieving widow in her sixties who loses her job and moves into a van, travelling across the states as a modern-day nomad.

Wells said he loved everything about the experience of making the movie, including the "incredible" cast and crew — but he probably won't watch the Oscars this weekend, even though the film has six nominations.

He has been living the nomadic life since the mid '90s, when he went through a difficult and "economically devastating" divorce. At age 40, he had spent 20 years working at a grocery store in Anchorage, Alaska, but was suddenly in a position where he couldn't afford to pay rent.

Every day on his way to work, he drove past a van with a "For Sale" sign. 

"I looked at that every day and I [thought], 'You know what? I could live in there,'" he said.

Wells had spent years camping and backpacking in the Alaskan wilderness, and transferred those skills into setting up life in his newly-purchased van.

He lives in what he calls a six-foot by ten-foot "rolling steel tent." It has a fridge, a stove, a microwave and everything he needs to cook and feed himself. 

It's also jam-packed with lights, tripods and electronics to run his YouTube channel. 

"Having a home out of this space is not all that hard. Having a business and a home, it gets exciting sometimes," he said.

From a last resort to love 

People of all ages and walks of life come to life on the road, attracted to the ability to move anywhere and follow the weather, Wells said. 

But he said the audience for the advice he gives is predominantly older, and in financial trouble.

"A lot of us that age can't find a job. Why would an employer hire us instead of a 20-, 30-, 40-year-old? They just won't," he said.

Many people he speaks with are surviving on social security benefits, which isn't enough to cover basic expenses in many places, he said.

"So I offer a way out. I say, 'Here's a way you can live on even your $800 or your $1000 a month.'"

Wells explained that many people are able to find work on the road. 

Campgrounds hire hosts, offering a free berth and minimum wage for four to five months over summer. As that comes to an end, there are opportunities on farms, particularly helping with the beet harvest, he said. The work involves loading and unloading the harvest onto delivery trucks. It can mean working in poor weather conditions, but pays well, he said. 

The majority of people who come out here, or are forced into it, would stay with it.- Bob Wells

Many people finish the year working in Amazon warehouses, which also offer free sites to park your home, he said.

"At the end of that season, [with] those together, you should have put a whole bunch of money in the bank," he said.

Wells said that some people do come to life on the road as a "last resort," but "very quickly they fall in love with the lifestyle." 

It's a sentiment Wells shares, explaining that his life before going on the road left him with a pension and social security.

"I could pay cash for a home tomorrow and move in and not have to worry about money," he said.

"I choose this because this is a higher quality of life and it's why the majority of people who come out here, or are forced into it, would stay with it."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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