Van Life Nomads Seek Economic Refuge On Open Road : The Indicator from Planet Money Living on the open road is more than just an Instagram photo opportunity; for many it's both an economic necessity and a countercultural movement. Just ask Bob Wells, the evangelist of nomad life.

Seeking Refuge On The Open Road

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:

Would you describe yourself as an influencer? Or how do you describe what you do?

BOB WELLS: Well, I make YouTube videos, and people seem to like them. A few people do. I have 467,000 subscribers, so yeah, I'm an influencer.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But Bob Wells does not look like your typical YouTube influencer. In fact, with his flowing white hair and bushy beard, Bob at 65 looks not unlike Santa Claus if Santa had decided to close up shop at the North Pole and move permanently into his van.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

And start evangelizing about how great it was.

WELLS: Yeah, I consider myself to be a bearer of good news.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: If you had to boil down the good news that you're bringing, what is it?

WELLS: That life doesn't have to be monotonous drudgery. And you don't have to be broke, wondering if you're going to make it next month. You can actually save money. All you got to do is own a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek-Smith.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Today on the show - the story of how thousands of Americans ended up living in their vehicles on the edges of the economy and how many of them, with the help of people like Bob, are reframing that predicament into a lifestyle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: When we reached Bob Wells, he was camped out off the grid in his white GMC Savana van in the middle of the California desert some 25 years into his experiment in mobile living.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: How did this whole journey start for you? What was your life like before you discovered this lifestyle?

WELLS: Well, I was either very, very lucky or very, very unlucky, depending on your point of view.

VANEK SMITH: It was the winter of 1995. Bob was living in Anchorage, Alaska, where he'd worked for over two decades in a union job at a Safeway - same job his father had worked until his retirement. At the time, Bob was going through a divorce. And after alimony and child support payments, he says he was no longer making enough to clear his rent. He was desperate.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And that is when he noticed an old beat-up box van for sale on the side of the road for $1,500. And he decided he had to go for it.

WELLS: That was all the money I had left in the bank, (laughter) but I had to have a place to live. And so I bought it. And that night, I threw a backpack or a sleeping bag down, and I began my van-dwelling adventure in the winter in the cold van. And I - that first night, I cried myself to sleep. I literally cried myself to sleep. Of course, when you're going through a divorce, you cry yourself to sleep on a pretty regular basis. But...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Sure.

WELLS: This was, of course, greatly compounded. Here I was a homeless bum, living in a van on the streets. And how much lower could my life get?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But Bob had done a lot of camping in his life. He knew how to make a small space cozy. And after a few weeks, he'd figured out how to cook and stay warm. He built a bed and cabinets, used his gym membership to shower. He figured out how to make it sustainable. And the money he was saving on rent meant he didn't feel like he was always on the knife's edge.

WELLS: It slowly and subtly shifted from, I despise my life, to, this isn't really that bad, to, hey, every month, I keep the money and put it in my pocket, to, I kind of really, really like this. And that's the way it's been ever since.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Was it difficult at all to kind of switch grand narratives about what trajectory you're supposed to take as a productive member of the economy?

WELLS: Absolutely. It was a traumatic transition. You know, we are trained from birth to death, our purpose in life is to be good, productive citizens. And so it made me question everything. I had done exactly what society had told me to do. I'd gotten a job. I bought a house. We had kids. I was following the American dream to the best of my skill level and ability as I could. And then I was forced into living what society told me was the life of total failure - homeless in a van. And for the first time in my life, I was happy. Well, that raises a lot of existential questions. And when I looked around at all the people I worked with - work, eat, sleep; work, eat, sleep; work, eat, sleep - I said, what society has told me was not true. I finally found a way that's happy for me. Let me try to understand that for my life and for the life of others.

VANEK SMITH: A few years later, Bob had saved up enough to quit his job at Safeway. And by supplementing his union pension with seasonal stints as a campground host, he was eventually able to take to the road as a full-time nomad.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In 2005, about a decade after he moved into the van, Bob decided to pay forward some of the techniques he developed. He started a website called Cheap RV Living to serve as a kind of online resource for other people interested or, in many cases, forced to move into a vehicle.

WELLS: I started it with the sole intent of letting people know there was an alternative. You didn't have to live under the tyranny of the marketplace. And the way to do that was to eliminate your biggest cost in life, which is your housing. Live cheaply. Live frugally, and then you can live well.

VANEK SMITH: For a long time, the site just kind of moseyed along, picking up, you know, a few page views here and there.

WELLS: Then 2008 happened.

VANEK SMITH: Bob says in the wake of the financial crisis, he was inundated with desperate messages.

WELLS: I have lost my job. We moved in with my family. Now my family has lost their job. Now we're all losing our home. What are we going to do? And that was the question I got over and over and over again.

VANEK SMITH: Bob says even after the economic recovery started to pick up, the number of inquiries and page views and people in the community continued to grow, fueled partly by the rise of social media.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bob started his Cheap RV Living YouTube channel in 2016 and has since become just one of many popular nomad influencers. But unlike a lot of the glossier, more glamorous content associated with the #vanlifecrowd (ph), Bob's videos are all about helping people struggling to keep their head above water financially. And they're filled with the nitty-gritty details of living behind the wheel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

WELLS: Today we're going to talk about heat.

Today we're going to talk about taking showers.

The topic of today is poop. You know, there are a lot of corners you can cut. Your behind's not one of them. You want that thing to be clean all the time.

VANEK SMITH: Bob also does these little interview profiles of people living in different kinds of vehicles - cars to trucks to buses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WELLS: Welcome back, fellow nomads. Today we're going to meet a new friend of mine. Jo (ph), say hello to everyone.

JO: Hello, everyone.

WELLS: They're really out there. It doesn't look like it.

JO: Yeah, I know.

WELLS: But there's a bunch of people out there (laughter).

JO: I know because I've been one of them. Yeah.

WELLS: Oh, good. Good. Thank you.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That video, for the record - 2.5 million views and counting. Bob says his videos have become so popular that he's now making more money than ever before.

WELLS: You'd think eventually this thing would break. But it gets great reviews on Amazon, which is why I'm recommending it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Ads and affiliate marketing help him bring in over $150,000 a year.

VANEK SMITH: Bob makes enough to have two full-time assistants helping him with his work. And because, he says, he never plans to live in a house again, he makes a very healthy profit.

WELLS: I make much, much more money than I ever thought I could possibly make in my life, and I live in a van. My expenses are pretty darn low.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: With that extra money, Bob started a nonprofit, Homes on Wheels Alliance, to support people transitioning into living in their vehicles. They've started to outfit and give vans to people in dire need of a new vehicle. And Bob says he's saving up to buy a plot of land for an in-person resource center.

VANEK SMITH: It isn't clear how many people are living on the road at this point. But back in 2010, when Bob started this annual gathering of van and car dwellers in the Arizona desert called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, it had a few dozen attendees. By 2019, they had an estimated 10,000 people show up.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And as a central node in this growing community, Bob has had a kind of front-row seat to the massive economic disruptions of the past decade. And he's watched as certain demographics have borne the brunt of those changes.

WELLS: It's a surprisingly large female contingent - older women in their 60s and 70s. When they were girls, they were told, get married; stay home; raise a family. And so they never built up Social Security. And then now they're living on $500 to $800 a month in Social Security, and you cannot live in this country on 500 to 1,000 a month in Social Security and live in a house. You just can't do it. And so they all desperately needed a solution as well. And I told them all, if you move into your van, you can live reasonably well on that. You won't be rich, but you won't be eating dog food. And there's hope.

VANEK SMITH: Bob says he has seen an uptick in views and inquiries about van dwelling over the last year. But so far, he says, the stimulus checks and the nationwide moratorium on evictions have slowed the number of new nomads.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Still, he says, as the baby boomers continue to age into Social Security and as the effects of climate change intensify, Bob expects the movement towards van life to surge. And he sees it as his mission to try to help however he can.

WELLS: I've got a string of lifeboats, and I want to get as many as I can into the lifeboat. And I think the hammer blow of 2008 really put a crack in people's confidence. And I think when you combine that with this year's natural disasters and then the epidemic, I think people are just going to be abandoning the American dream in droves. That's all I'm trying to do is get people out of a dead and dying system.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: If you want to learn more about life on the road, check out the book "Nomadland" by Jessica Bruder. A new film adaptation of the book is also out now.

VANEK SMITH: Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and fact-checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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