the (often) meandering travels of a student anthropologist
Although I've discussed, on the home page, why I initially chose to limit my project focus to female nomads (rather than both men and women), now that my fieldwork has progressed, I would like to expand on those initial thoughts.
Surprisingly, I've been questioned often–even challenged–about the gendered focus of my project.
I was not asked 'why study this aspect of nomadic American subculture', nor was there curiosity about my exclusion of couples and families, but specifically, why would I limit my study to women only? The fact that the question was asked so often, and yet each time caught me unawares, should have caused my anthropologist-trained antenna to quiver.
Instead, I questioned myself. These last months I have befriended men as well as women–and all have stories. Narratives of courage, inspiration and humor are not limited to one gender. Additionally, during my interviews, when I would ask women if they felt their gender offered any special challenges to being a nomad, almost each one was instantaneous in their response. "Being a woman doesn't make any difference." This certainly gave me pause. If there were no distinctions, at least none of any depth, then why was I studying what was starting to feel like a too-narrow focus?
Then my professor queried "Who is asking you this question? Men or women?"
"Well, men, of course," I responded.
Aha. Face-palm moment.
The fact that (some) men challenged my project focus, and (most) women applauded it, demonstrated a contradiction in perspectives between genders. Maybe I was on to something?
In a move that echoed my own thoughts, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) organizers decided to hold an additional women's only event. They felt from past events that having a couple women-only workshops weren't enough. There was a need for a dedicated experience. While the majority of women that I talked to were pleased with the new event, the decision was met with dissension, and there were both men and women who felt affronted and even alienated.
In academic circles, my professor goes on to tell me, my choice to focus on a specific gender isn't questioned because gender bias is well-known, and how it plays out is well-understood as part of our cultural soup. In the field, however, removed from classrooms and university hallways, gender inequity is less understood. As Judith Lorber says "Talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water. Gender is so much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted assumptions and presuppositions is like thinking about whether the sun will come up."
So I had to wonder, do fish know they live in water?
I found if I rephrased that initial question in my interview, and instead asked my interviewees about their observations of other women, then the responses would change. Oh yes, as one woman told me, I see many women coming out here that simply don't have the skills they need. In what ways I ask? They've had men manage the finances all their lives. And take care of things like changing tires. They don't even know how to balance their checkbooks. I ask about safety concerns. Are women less safe on the road? No, it's safe out here, I'm told, but women should carry some sort of weapon, and they have to use their intuition. If it doesn't feel safe, then they need to turn their key in the ignition and leave. That's why they have wheels.
I find this is a conversation I will never have with men. Men don't consider themselves prey.
As I continue collecting interviews, another reason for focusing on women becomes apparent as well.
Women are hungry for a chance to tell their stories not as mothers, wives, or as participants in some other socially-prescribed feminine model, but as individuals.
As I researched and read, interviewed, and experienced, I realized there are few authentic road narratives for women. Thelma and Louise ends in tragedy, and just as I loved Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, I muttered impatiently through Kerouac's On The Road.
As Lopez writes in Flaming Iguanas:
"Ever since I was a kid, I’d tried to live vicariously through the hocker-in-the-wind adventures of Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Henry Miller. But I could never finish any of the books. Maybe because I just couldn’t identify with the fact that they were guys who had women around to make the coffee and wash the skid marks out of their shorts while they complained, called themselves angry young men, and screwed each other with their existential penises."
However, even as I cheered on Lopez's irreverent protagonist, Tomato, and felt this writing was more accessible to myself as a woman, it also still felt like a disaster waiting to happen, a messy coming into self that is not true to what can often be, in reality, mundane. Are road narratives, the nomadic life of rubbertramp women so dramatic? Perhaps. Some YouTube vloggers. create a whirlwind of locations, publicly aired cat-fights, confrontations with stalkers, and near-tragic accidents. I followed a blogger, a spiritual man and a vet, who was in so much pain from his injuries, and unable to get medications he needed from the VA, he committed suicide, scheduling his last words posthumously. In contrast, however, another blogger records the day to day life of quiet and solitary locations, the joy of birdwatching, the antics of her dogs, and muses about the small towns she passes through. It is a simple narrative, yet she gathers hundreds of committed followers. One women I've since interviewed has pointed out to me, life 'out here' is no different than life 'back there'.
Culturally, our tradition assumes the road narrative is one about questing.
Were these women I hoped to study 'looking for themselves' on the road? Were they looking for adventures? Were they looking to shrug off the status quo, inhabit the fringes, and challenge the patriarchy? What were they experiencing as women?
Academics, like Alexandra Ganser write:
"...social gender differences persist...it is a fact that everywhere in the world, women still earn less than men, that poverty is predominantly female, and that women experience physical abuse much more often than men....postmodernist discourses have had to acknowledge...that normative models of femininity in the West are continually constructed as tied to home and hearth. If this ideal is disregarded, women get punished for their transgressions...By leaving home and hearth, many traveling women exemplify such a transgression and consequently are met by obstacles generated by the gendered construction of space on patriarchal terms. This is a major source from which road narratives by women proceed with their spatial negotiations...They find themselves as “prisoner[s] of the white lines of the freeway,” as Joni Mitchell put it in her legendary road-song “Coyote” of her 1976 album Hejira, and as such are not liberated by motion, but confronted with spatial limitations not much different from those encountered at the hearth." ~On the Asphalt Frontier: American Women’s Road Narratives, Spatiality, and Transgression
What I have found is complicated. As I turn to head east on a rainy morning in February, my active fieldwork behind me, the tall saguaros are mere shadows in the heavy mist. A well-fed coyote, dun-colored and nothing more than a flowing ripple of movement against the desert backdrop, crosses my path. The coyote in folklore is the trickster who changes faces, bodies, and gender at will. I know that gender is a construct. It is a way of relating to the world around us. We are born into different biological sexes, but how we relate to the world around us is predefined for us by our culture.
If we are born into American culture, and want to dance, to nest, and to emote, we are feminine. If we prefer pants, long to reach out beyond the cocoons of hearth and home, and to challenge the unknown, we are masculine. No matter what body we were born into. To be otherwise is aberrant.
Certainly I have always felt the black sheep in my own skin. I never married or had children, and what woman eschews the comforts of financial comfort and family? I wondered as I traveled out west to find this new breed of rubbertramp nomad woman, would I find the land of misfit toys? And, when I first arrived in Ehrenberg last November, I thought so–gleefully. Here were women that more often than not took to the road despite the criticisms of friends and angered offspring. They left the resources and support communities provide. They had strong personalities and opinions and had no difficulty expressing them, toe to toe with men, around the campfire.
As time has gone on, however, and I've talked to more women, I'm beginning to think that it is our cultural skin that became uncomfortable.
I have discovered stories both of plenty–women that have the resources to purchase reliable vehicles and can afford to indulge in RV parks, and the gas to travel at their whim–and of poverty. The women I interviewed come from all parts of the country, and from all walks of life. Almost all are older, ranging from late forties to well into their seventies. Most have families. Some rely solely on social security or disability, some have pensions or investments, some still work, moving from job to job. All consider themselves, and are truly, very different women.
What I find in common, is that these women often use the word "freedom" and talk about living a "simpler" life. While they don't say they are escaping, that is the overarching feeling that comes across in their stories and their language. When they tell me "I left that all behind" and use phrases like "out here" and "back there" they are referencing a leave-taking. When they talk about making this choice despite familial disapproval, they are referencing a struggle to do so. But are they escaping from something, or to something? An escape can be the act of escaping, like an escape from prison, but an escape can also be a calming retreat, like a vacation that gets you away from the stress of everyday life.
Overall, most women would say, upon first being questioned, that they are escaping to–look at this beauty out here, I am often told as they reference the sunrises, sunsets and the stars overhead. Who wouldn't want to live this life? What I would soon find out, however, was that despite the popular mythos, this is not an easy life. Time is spent constantly negotiating the spatial and physical restrictions that lie between both the traditional and nomadic, and within 'free space' the fluid emotional boundaries of community and relationships. There is the need to constantly obtain and replenish resources, manage possessions, and attend to an ever growing list of "things that need to be fixed". It can be terribly uncomfortable as weather runs from hot to cold on a daily basis, and dirt coats everything. When I comment on this, our conversation soon turns to a different sort of language:
I no longer have to...
And, here is where the narratives of these vastly different women start to coalesce into one of escape. The language of freedom and simplicity underpin stories of the need for independence: liberation from caretaking, the need to not depend on charity, the desire to live in space of their own–no matter how small–and desperate for the ensuing emotional space that allows them to make unquestioned choices.
Unlike the Cheryl Strayed's Wild, these women don't consider themselves on a quest to find themselves. In fact one woman tells me it was battling cancer that transformed her, and it was that experience that would push her into nomadic life. She chose a life on wheels because it allows her to live now, not wait.