the (often) meandering travels of a student anthropologist
The RTR officially kicks off my fieldwork and the next two weeks pass by in a blur of activity and exhaustion.
It doesn't take me long to realize that this gathering is, in some ways, an anomaly in the nomad existence. To varying degrees, these are people that like their 'space', if not outright solitude. There are fears among the group I camp with in Ehrenberg, prior to the event, that the expected crowds will be more than they can handle, even knowing it's temporary.
Their concerns are not unfounded. The expected twelve hundred attendees swell to an unofficial estimate of twenty-five hundred by some counts, perhaps three thousand, by others. Over 3800 vehicle permits are issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camp host at the entrance to Scadden Wash, where the event is held. However, there are other groups, claiming their own space in the limited camping area, such as an Escapees meetup. The RTR however, takes up the bulk of allotted roads that finger in between the washes. The frustration people feel searching for an acceptable spot to camp, and the equal amount of frustration felt by existing camps–as their self-determined boundaries are infringed–continues through the entire event.
There is a sign-in book, but the actual count still remains a rough estimate at the event's conclusion. The numbers that have signed in are less than the number either organizers, or BLM, are claiming are there. More typical to nomadic life, attendance to the event, and to its numerous seminars, is fluid. People arrive early and leave before the event ends, others arrive after it starts, even through the last days. The volunteer staff, who work the table where the sign-in book is kept, believe that only half the people in attendance signed it. They think this is either out of ignorance of its existence, or perhaps many, wanting to be left out of all things smacking of officialdom, preferred not to 'register', not the term the organizers would use. The organizer of the event, Bob Wells–the introverted and reluctant promoter of this burgeoning van, car, school bus and RV-dwelling nomadic movement I am here to study–needs this count however. He wants accurate numbers for future event planning.
For example, he had estimated that the portable toilets he rented for the event need only to pumped out every few days, however, the BLM, which assumes 2.5 people per vehicle has insisted they be pumped out more often, creating an unexpected additional expense of several thousand dollars. There is no charge for the event and the proverbial hat is passed around at seminars. A plastic Tupperware style container sits on the button table. I am volun'told' (as Beth, one of Bob's volunteer staff) puts it, to help with getting people to sign in the first day and watch as donations, which we assure attendees are 'whatever they feel they can donate', range from spare change to two $20 dollar bills. In return colored paper and plastic name buttons are churned out, and there is a pile of previous Cheap RV Living stickers available. I expect there are more generous donations I don't see, and expect there are just as many more that are unable to contribute at all.
Parking 'on top' of your neighbor is almost an inevitability in order to be within a reasonable walking distance to the main camp where the seminars are held.
I am told there is more room further down the 'music' road. Despite the attempt, however, to segregate those that like to play music and run generators into areas segregated from those seeking quiet, it is a lost cause. There are simply too many people trying to settle into land that is largely unmarked creating something akin to the boarding house reach. Whoever has the longest fork gets the biggest piece of meat. One night karaoke, played across a sound system, booms across the desert late into the night–prompting calls to the rangers, the sheriff and to Bob. Another nomad complains to me of people camping so close to her door she barely has space to access it, and when she complains, and they move over to the other side of the road, they commence walking their dog around her rig at night, leaving unwelcome and smelly deposits in retribution. I am at the button table a few days in when a woman complains that another nomad has camped next to her and strewn a trailer load of bicycles around, and that it ruins her view.
Eyes roll at that one, but someone is sent out anyway, if nothing else, to ensure the newcomer knows he cannot sell any merchandise at the event. BLM restricts commercial activities without a permit. The few nomads offering services are clear that their services, such as welding and tarot card readings, are free, and that they accept donations, but that they are not expected nor required. There is a sense of generosity overall at the RTR including an organized and managed 'free pile'. Everything from clothes and DVDs and food (not expired please), to unused poop buckets, to rolls of silver reflectix used for insulation, to solar ovens, to inverters that convert 12v battery power 120v power needed by appliances with standard outlet plugs, to carpenter's hand tools all make their way on to the blue tarps laid out on the ground by the bulletin board and bordering the seminar area.
A PA system, with microphone and speakers, is set up in the main area as upwards of eight hundred people attend the more popular events on solar and boondocking. There is a sense of casualness and trust as many often leave their camp chairs haphazardly strewn about in the seminar area to avoid taking them back and forth during the ten days of the main event. A community campfire is set up. Several of the staff park their vans around the back of clearing to keep an eye on things and both semi-permanent and temporary handicap places up. The former are for those that want to park for the whole event, the latter for those driving in from their camping spots further out. No handicap placard is needed, staff informs me, just a reasonable and most-likely, demonstrable, issue with walking.
I make a deliberate decision to not carry my camera with me. I take only the few pictures you see here from my roof one morning near the end of the RTR to get a feeling of the setting. Bob requests no videos of the seminars. He is putting on the event and will be posting them on his channel (which is monetized and he derives income from). The Women's RTR , that will follow the main event, allows no audio, video or pictures to protect attendee's concerns about their privacy. As YouTubers, both known and unknown, walk through the less formal events, and up and down roads, filming I see that while some people are open to it, just as many frown, turn away and a few become angry. Several even run towards the camera shouting and waving hands "no video! no pictures!" they insist. When I ask different people about it some tell me they don't want to be "plastered all over Facebook" while others say they don't care about someone's home photo album, but "damned if I'm going to let someone use my image to make money".
My choice not to take pictures ultimately arises from my training as an ethnographer. I am not a photo journalist that reports to an editor, nor do I have an obligation to create content for a social media channel. I am here as an academic, and while the event is held within public space this is not a public event–anyone can be asked by the organizer to leave, he holds the permit, and so it is, at least to my mind, a private event, albeit with an open and public invitation. Critically people are here in their homes. Morally that requires a higher degree of consideration and respect for privacy. The line I chose to draw, of course, can be debated, and I certainly feel the loss of not having the visual data for my project. Ultimately, however, it is about respecting the communities I want to understand.
Talking to my group in Ehrenberg, those I meet at the RTR, those who hold up their hands when asked at the following three-day Women 'only' RTR, and seeing the explosion in attendance, it is probably safe to estimate that anywhere from 70-80% of attendees are 'newbies'. This is the word used within the community for those who are new to being on the road, and/or being full-time, and seems to encompass the first year of travel. For many I talk to this is their first RTR. I wonder if it is a rite of passage? After attending, and having made the usual novice mistakes, do newbies graduate from the term? Do others label us, or do we use it define ourselves?
I wonder if I am still a newbie? I have now renovated my own rig, crossed half the country to get here, crossed the border to Mexico as a medical tourist, camped by myself for a week out under the stars with the coyotes, wild burros and unknown neighbors in the distance for company, built my first campfire, installed (albeit with help) rooftop solar, cooked over the coals, traveled both alone and with others, made good friends I hope to keep a lifetime, negotiated both BLM land and LTVAs as well as abandoned parking lots, Walmarts, and Casinos. Yet, I have not gotten stuck in sand yet. I have yet to go out into the BLMs so far I can't see another RV. And, more critically, I am not full-time. In the spring I go back east to a sticks and bricks house. Perhaps I can't ever leave that term behind until I'm fully rootless.
During the RTR I read a book called Nomadology: The War Machine by Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari. It posits that "The war machine is exterior to the state apparatus...It is the invention of the nomads...The very conditions that made the State possible...trace creative lines of escape." This is what, at the core, makes the RTR an anomaly to my mind. Certainly nomads gather, and in groups, and even in organized events, but the sheer size of this event has created the need to organize, to set rules and boundaries in addition to the man made (and I would discover, officially mutable) roads, physical washes and BLM signs that limit camping areas. The event has merged into, and become the state in a limited but undeniable, and somewhat ironic, fashion.
Most attending the event want to be good neighbors, but as I am reminded in conversations, there are always "those." Those that are "ignorant", those "without common-sense", those that "have no respect for others", those "that think the rules don't apply to them", and those that feel "entitled". There is nothing different in these statements than found in the reasoning that is bandied about to support zoning regulations in our traditional rooted communities. Dogs are required to be on leashes (BLM rule). No smoking in the main camp/seminar area (RTR Rules). Drive slowly as to create no dust, if you want to play music then camp on this road, don't run your generator after the dinner hour, observe nomad rules–take care of your own trash and pack out whatever you pack in, bring your own plate and utensils to potlucks–pick up after your dog, and don't burn plastic in the firepits.
Of course none of these rules are fully followed and staff become chiding nannies. Creative ways of 'escape from the state' blossom. Despite repeated admonishments at the seminars, people put trash down the porta-potties, or as we joke, make not 'direct deposits', but instead use them, under the cover of darkness, as a place to empty their personal poop buckets or portable loos. To understand this, it is important to clarify we are four to six miles from town down a washboard road that would make your dentures fall out, and that dumping sewage at the places set up for it in town, costs money (the fee varies, but commonly $10-$12). Depending on their setup, a nomad may be having to empty a loo daily. The temptation to not pack up and move, and to not spend the money on gas, create wear and tear on their vehicle, or dip into fixed incomes probably feels like justification to break the rules. After all, they just didn't make the trip on their feet each time to the porta-potties, but it's all the same, isn't it?
And, of course, there are those that chafe at rules. They adopted this life 'to be free' and unencumbered of the restrictions that they feel plague traditional communities. And, as another nomad puts it as we stand around the campfire on the last evening, faces in the firelight around me haggard–all of us ready to move on to find our equilibrium–griping about the outliers, the 'others' who are not us, who are not of 'our tribe', that there are some people here that 'just want to party'.
Is this new type of nomad on the American landscape also an antithesis, in opposition, to the institution of state like the pastoral nomads studied by Deleuze and Guattari? I find myself wondering how does the state restrict, control and in doing so, unwittingly create creative escapes? One day I push Beth a little as we sit behind her van, the women's RTR having come to a close. She's been traveling and living as a nomad for years and each winter helps with the RTR's organization. I ask her, in light of recent politics, what if the government took away these public lands and no longer permitted camping? Or, shut down access to the necessary resources such as water? I have come to wonder if this isn't a precarious lifestyle dependent more on the whims of others, both private and public, than is acknowledged. She considers her answer and responds in a sweet voice, as if she were a grandmother patiently reviewing the finer points of a cookie recipe with an unfocused child. There is an undertone of authority, and certainty, that doesn't allow room for ill-thought-out argument. "We tend to be very unpolitical out here. We don't want to have to arm wrestle with big government and, um, I think government will try to push back. I don't think they will be wholly successful, because I think we are inventive enough at alternative lifestyles that they try to push in one direction and we'll just go around them."
The overall atmosphere of the RTR was kind, friendly and energetic. While some came expecting Kumbaya, as they put it, and instead found dissension, others came expecting it to be a madhouse and found unanticipated days of camaraderie. They found their promised tribe.
I met not just women I wanted to interview, but people who may become pen pals, or whose path I would enjoy again crossing. Our impromptu camp included a couple who shared both stories of traveling adventures and wine, another couple whose wife gifted everyone hand-knitted scrubbies the day before breaking camp, two solo men, one from Chicago, and one an artist from California, who gifted me a beautiful necklace he'd made after I passed on an inverter to him that wasn't working for my needs, and a group of three platonic friends, two men and a woman, that traveled through the night from Boise, Idaho, in a borrowed Class B, to see if the lifestyle might be for them. Our evening campfires were filled with lively conversation, curious interest, jokes, stories, and a few misadventures. One late night my neighbor, walking back to her rig, and not seeing my portable solar panel, tripped over and on to it. I spend the night worried that she might be more seriously injured than she realized, and admittedly the thought crossed my mind I could be sued, to only find the next morning the couple offering to pay for a new solar panel if it was broken. Which it wasn't. We both ultimately agreed to take equal responsibility for the incident. I shouldn't have left it out in such close quarters without some sort of marker, and in hindsight she should have been carrying a flashlight. Another night a woman, who had locked herself out of her van, joined us and although unable to help, we offered ideas and flashlights and moral support while she located someone with an appropriate tool to get her out of her predicament. Although it ended up not being needed, I also offered my dinette to sleep on overnight, and another offered sheets and bed linens.
In conclusion, there was a feeling, seemingly in opposition to the crowding, constraints, and moments of discomfort, that we were all of one mind.
There was a sense that we were all friends that just hadn't met yet. And, repeatedly in my interactions, I heard the opinion expressed that an exciting adventure lay ahead for those new to the lifestyle, and then, for those that gave the seminars, staffed the event, led the ARTcamp, and organized the women's RTR, there was a belief that their role was to help the newbies be successful nomads, and thereby could go forward to live more fulfilling lives. There was a sense of purpose, of community, and pleasure in both.
Organizer's video offering a quick snippet of a seminar and drone footage. It does show while the amount of land is vast, viable camping spots are limited to areas carved out around the roads between the washes (where from above you see vegetation - these are low areas that water runs through during rainy seasons). There is a seminar being held so the central camp area is identifiable. Find many more videos on the channel.