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Living in a van: Nomads find adventure in ‘workamping’

Ron Williams and his two dogs, Bella and Sadie, will soon hop into their camper and tear out of the Jefferson City campground they have called home for the past four months, joining a growing number of recreational vehicle dwellers seeking work on the open road.

He and his dogs are living in a 26-foot Springdale camper.

During the day, he dons his scrubs and assists surgeons at the local hospital. At night, he returns to the campground at Binder Park, where he might grill dinner before tucking into his bunk.

When his contract at St. Mary’s Hospital is complete, Williams and his cheagles (a chihuahua-beagle mix) will pack the camper and move on to another job in another town.

“It’s a whole lifestyle change you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself for,” he said.

Williams is part of an American movement that blossomed after the financial crisis of 2008 and seems to be growing. It’s called “workamping,” a mashup of work and camping for those who want to make their home on the road.

These vehicle-dwellers find part-time work in campgrounds or, in Williams’ case, itinerant jobs that are conducive to moving around.

As a traveling surgery technician for 15 years, Williams bounced from apartment to apartment. He visited more than two dozen states and discovered the country’s natural splendor while pursuing job opportunities.

But Williams, who turns 51 this month, is ready to settle down and purchase a house. To do that, he needs to save money, and workamping is the ticket.

Journalist Jessica Bruder brought the workamp subculture to national attention in her 2017 book, “Nomadland.” In the book, she described workampers as a “new kind of wandering tribe.”

“People who never imagined being nomads are hitting the road,” she wrote. “They’re giving up traditional houses and apartments to live in what some call ‘wheel estate’ — vans, secondhand RVs, school buses, pickup campers, travel trailers and plain old sedans.”

“Nomadland” was selected by the Daniel Boone Regional Library as the subject of the 2019 One Read program, a communitywide book club with related discussions and events. The events will be announced this month.

Celebrated on social media and YouTube by users like “Drivin’ and Vibin'” and “Follow Your Fernweh,” workamping is the gig economy for adventurers.

Some see the lifestyle as a minimalist revolution, an escape from the monotony of the corporate world and the traditional “sticks and bricks” suburban house. Others, like Williams, see it as a means to an end.

Though workampers gravitate toward campground hosting, they can also be found piling produce at the annual sugar beet harvest in Minnesota or packaging Christmas gifts in an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky.

RVs are the most common type of highway home, but some workampers live in modified vans and “stealth camp” — parking on the sly in residential neighborhoods or commercial lots. Showers are usually available through gym memberships.

Part travelogue and part expose, Bruder’s book explores the world of older transient adults who, after the financial devastation wrought by the Great Recession, poured their savings into RVs and modified vans and took to the road, forming a new subculture of nomadic workers.

In a phone interview, Bruder said she viewed workamping as part of a larger trend in America toward precarious labor, often as a contractor rather than a steady employee.

Many of the gains made by the labor movement in the 20th century are gradually eroding, Bruder said, leaving people increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent economy of high risk and low pay.

Though many of the workampers profiled in the book have suffered economic misfortune, Bruder said they did not want to be regarded as victims. They could have moved in with relatives or settled for substandard housing, but they made the choice instead to hit the road and find adventure.

Although you wouldn’t guess it by scrolling through social media, the median age of workampers is 53, according to Workamper News, a job resource for RVers.

In sun-kissed photos of sandy beaches and verdant forests, #VanLife is pitched by smiling young couples as an escape from the workaday world of suburbia, an opportunity to #DiscoverAmerica and #FindYourPassion.

Bruder said workamping is sold like a brand on social media, which disguises the fact that many young people are drawn to the lifestyle for the same reason as older adults: financial hardship. For younger people, that may mean crushing student debt and rising housing costs.

“We live in an era where style is valued over substance, image over reality, and, because of that, a lot of people try to market this experience, even though they don’t want to talk about the less camera-friendly aspects of the life,” Bruder told the  Columbia Missourian .

Williams is more fortunate than many who find themselves embracing a life on the road. He is an experienced traveler with a well-paying job.

It is, for him, an opportunity to save money. In addition to buying a house, he also wants to start his own business detailing vehicles, installing aftermarket electronics and performing minor repairs.

He said he took over payments on the 26-foot camper from his mother and has learned how to adapt to it over the past four months.

He plans to leave Jefferson City once his contract ends at St. Mary’s Hospital and head for the next opportunity with the greatest income.

He admits it has been difficult transitioning from a house to a small camper, but he learned a lot from watching videos on YouTube.

Living in an RV means learning to utilize every inch of space, Williams said. It is also important to evenly distribute the weight to ensure the vehicle does not sway on the highway.

Williams said he was not anxious about the adventure.

“My parents raised me — pretty well raised me — to believe it’s not the situation; it’s how you deal with it.”