Most people have seen the hashtag #vanlife on social media, and the image it conjures up is of young millennials in shiny, decked-out campers waking up to a sunrise in Big Sur.
But in Chloé Zhao’s new film, Nomadland, an older woman named Fern goes on the road after her husband dies and the company-owned mining town she used to live in is left abandoned as a casualty of 2008’s Great Recession.
Based on a book by the same name, the movie gives audiences a glimpse into the nomad community of America. To make it more realistic, the director chose to cast a lot of real-life nomads to play versions of themselves in the film.
One such person is nomad Bob Wells, the van vlogger and author who's arguably the most famous of these real-life nomads featured in the film.
But for those who aren’t initiated into the nomadic lifestyle, who exactly is the real Bob Wells? Here's what you need to know about him and his beloved van.
Who is the nomad Bob Wells in 'Nomadland'?
Before he became committed to a nomadic lifestyle, Bob lived in Anchorage, Alaska, where he worked as a union clerk. He enjoyed all the usual perks of modern life until his divorce at the age of 40.
Suddenly, Bob was paying child support and alimony, which left him in dire financial straits.
One day, as he was worried about his finances, Bob came across a van for sale. He bought it, gave his landlord notice, and started to live out of the van.
At first, Bob was devastated that his life had come to living out of a vehicle. But after a while, he had a change of heart, and “fell in love with the freedom, simplicity, frugality, independence, and earth-friendliness of the nomadic way of life.”
After the first month of not having to pay rent, his finances started to improve, and soon, Bob was able to customize his van. He also didn’t have to work as many hours in the week to keep up with his expenses and was consequently able to start spending more time with his sons.
Realizing the better quality of life the van had afforded him, Bob started CheapRVLiving in 2005 so he could share his valuable knowledge. He started to grow a loyal following and after the Great Recession, Bob realized the community was bigger than ever.
He went on to create a live meetup group called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a version of which is featured in Nomadland.
The event started out with 45 vans in 2011, but by 2018, it had grown to an estimated 10,000.
And Bob sees the nomad community continuing to grow in the years to come. “If the Great Recession was a crack in the system, COVID and climate change will be the chasm,” he told The Guardian. But with his YouTube channel and the Home on Wheels Alliance, Bob hopes to be able to guide many more people in their pursuit of a nomadic lifestyle.
Learn more about Bob Wells' van.
When Bob started out living in a van full-time after his divorce in 1995, he was living in a box van, which is a chassis cab truck with a box-shaped cargo hold area. He lived in that box van for six years, getting closer to nature and loving his new nomadic life more every day.
Bob then remarried and tried to reintegrate himself into a traditional non-moving home. He and his new wife planned to travel for the majority of their time, but while Bob wanted to spend as much time as possible on the road, his new wife “always wanted to go back to a house.”
Then, after the 2008 recession, Bob decided to restart his life on the road. Although he had gotten rid of his box van when he remarried, he did own a four-wheel drive truck that he outfitted for full-time living.
Bob lived in the truck for two years and worked as a campground host, which allowed him to afford a new cargo trailer. He used the cargo trailer to camp in while the truck transported him to and from the various campgrounds he managed.
Finally in 2011, Bob got a new van and has been living in it ever since. “Nothing beats a van,” he said. “You work everything out. You work out comfort versus mobility. Comfort versus gas mileage. All these things are opposites. Nothing beats a van.”
Stream Nomadland on Hulu.