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Three Nomadland-inspired campervan road trips in the USA

It’s no surprise that off-grid camping has had a boom since COVID-19 swept into our lives. Camping – whether in a tent or an RV – is literally an escape from civilisation, which plenty of people have been craving lately. In the UK, leading caravan companies saw a 32% increase in orders for caravans in 2020 than in the previous year, and one in 10 Brits are considering booking a caravan holiday this year for the first time ever. With its combination of social distancing and much-needed time in nature, has there ever been a better time to take a campervan road trip?

So when director Chloe Zhao’s docu-fictional film Nomadland was released in the USA in February (hitting Disney+ Star on 30 April for UK viewers), its awe-dropping natural landscapes and themes of social isolation seemed perfect for the COVID era. But despite its captivating midwestern locations, the film is a social commentary rather than a travelogue. It focuses on a new and little-known phenomenon, of America’s 60- and 70-something generation who lost their jobs after the 2008 financial crash. A nomadic subculture arose, led by older people made homeless and roaming the country in campervans in pursuit of short-term work, in the likes of Amazon warehouses or seasonal agriculture, both depicted in the movie.

2021 docu-fiction film Nomadland
Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios

Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s powerful film sees fictional character Fern (Frances McDormand) meeting real-life nomads, and finding beauty, purpose and peace in a lifestyle that originated in hardship.

Make no mistake: the life of a nomad is a far cry from going on a campervan road trip. But Nomadland’s sweeping desert landscapes still hit us right in the wanderlust. Travel from the UK to the USA might be off limits for now, but it’s hard to imagine getting a greater sense of post-lockdown freedom than you’d get in an RV, exploring the open roads of Nevada, South Dakota or Arizona. Here’s how to do it.

Campervan road trips in Nevada

2021 docu-fiction film Nomadland was filmed in Arizona, Nevada and South Dakota
Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Kick off your campervan road trip in Reno. The ‘Biggest Little City in the World’ might be known as a mini Las Vegas, but it has a funky, arty side that sets it apart from the gambling capital. It’s the ideal place to pick up a campervan for your road trip, but check out the fast-developing Midtown District before you fire up the engine. It’s home to the city’s most exciting bars and art spaces, which cater to a friendly local community.

Fern’s hometown Empire, which sets the scene for Nomadland, is an hour and a half north of Reno – but now with just 70 residents, it doesn’t have much to offer visitors. But did you know that Empire is just a 10-minute drive from the basecamp for the world’s largest annual party, Burning Man? The town of Gerlach is the starting point for the creatives and revellers for the desert arts festival each Labor Day weekend. We don’t yet know whether Burning Man will be held this year or not – but Gerlach is your go-to stop-off point for adventures in the Black Rock Desert, which hosts the festival as well as the next part of your Nevada campervan road trip.

The Black Rock Desert, comprising 1.2 million acres of national conservation area and national wilderness area, has some of the most rugged canyons and beautiful hot springs in the state. It’s also home to some important US history: Native American communities have lived nomadically here for about 10,000 years, while 180 miles of emigrant trails used by early pioneers have also been protected here.

2021 docu-fiction film Nomadland was filmed in Arizona, Nevada and South Dakota
Real-life nomad Linda May. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © Joshua Richards

Drop by Gerlach’s museum and information centre before heading out, as you’ll need some advice and supplies for camping in the desert – as we saw in Nomadland – no matter how good your campervan is. The wind can be strong and the few, scattered camping facilities mean that you’ll need to stock up on water, firewood and shelter before heading out. Make campfires responsibly, especially in times of drought, and leave no trace. Spend your days exploring and hiking, and your nights gazing at the phenomenal night sky, which might be the best you’ve ever seen thanks to the absence of light pollution.

An amazing fact about Nevada is that it has more abandoned ‘ghost towns’ than actual inhabited towns – around 600. Throughout the region’s history, particularly during and after the gold rush, communities rose and fell in the area (not unlike what happened in Empire, which was largely abandoned after the closure of its mine in 2011). It’s worth checking out one or two while you’re in the state. One of the most fascinating is Unionville, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Reno. It’s actually still home to 20 people and one inn, where you can stay, if you fancy a night off from the RV. While you’re there, pop into the former house of Mark Twain, who lived here in the Wild West during the area’s gold rush heyday and wrote much of his semi-autobiographical travel book, Roughing It, in this area.

Campervan road trips in South Dakota

2021 docu-fiction film Nomadland was partly filmed in the Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Anyone who’s seen Nomadland will recall Fern’s trip to Badlands National Park, South Dakota, which draws in her nomadic peers with its seasonal work in tourism. But this is still one of the USA’s least-visited national parks, with far fewer people visiting than at the likes of Yosemite and Yellowstone. That means no traffic jams, fighting for parking spots or running into many others on the hiking trails. Even as a traveller who hasn’t adopted a fully nomadic lifestyle, there’s incredible peace to be found in the vast landscapes here.

Got your RV? You might as well start your campervan road trip at Wall Drug, the famous tourist stop and roadside attraction in the town of Wall that features in Nomadland (Fern works in the kitchen, wearing one of Wall Drug’s infamous paper hats). Get your photo taken next to the 80-foot dinosaur statue and stock up on food, water and amenities before taking your campervan into the Badlands themselves.  

A great introduction to the national park is to drive the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway – a 39-mile round trip that you can start and finish in Wall, via the other local town of Cactus Flat. Get ready to see what people come here for: miles of native grasslands filled with grazing wildlife, and the peach-and-pink sedimentary rock formations that provide Nomadland’s greatest visual spectacle – and the focal point of any visit to the region.

2021 docu-fiction film Nomadland was filmed in Arizona, Nevada and South Dakota
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

You’ve got your bearings, first aid kit, camping stove and water – so now it’s time to venture into the wilderness. You don’t need a permit to camp in the Badlands National Park, and back-country camping is permitted anywhere, as long as it’s half a mile away and not visible from any roads or trails.

While you’re exploring and staying in the park, keep an eye out for bison and prairie dogs (just keep your distance and don’t feed them!) and make sure you catch the sunset at Panorama Point. One well-trodden trail to check out is the 1.5 mile-long Notch Trail, which climbs up a log ladder from a canyon, and leads along a step path to a cliff edge – steer clear if you’re scared of heights!

Once you’re ready for human contact again, Deadwood is just an hour and a half away from Wall. This is where Fern goes for the beet harvest (and the TV show of the same name is set), but it’s more than a movie pilgrimage site. Deadwood is a historic Wild West town, once home to Calamity Jane and the site of Wild Bill Hickok’s murder, over a poker game. The hand he was allegedly killed over – two pairs, black aces and eights – is now known as the dead man’s hand. You can even visit a Wild West re-enactment there, if that’s your thing.

Campervan road trips in Arizona

2021 docu-fiction film Nomadland was filmed in Arizona, Nevada and South Dakota
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Where better to begin an Arizona road trip than in the so-called Sunniest City on Earth? Yuma, another Nomadland filming location, boasts sun and warm weather for at least 91% of the year, making it hard to beat for an active, outdoorsy excursion in an RV.

Arizona is one of the USA’s most RV- and traveller-friendly states, with its accessible roads and multitude of water, fuel and camping services. There are plenty of public land options for free camping, perfect for anyone who wants to go off grid. The Arizona desert has a climate seemingly designed for campervan road trips in springtime and autumn (even in the winter, snowfall is low), as well as some of the USA’s heavy hitters when it comes to natural wonders – Grand Canyon, we’re looking at you.

2021 docu-fiction film Nomadland was filmed in Arizona, Nevada and South Dakota
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

But Yuma is a six-hour drive from there, so start by exploring the lesser-known Sonoran Desert, which is much closer and open to free desert camping. You can hike or horseback ride across four designated trails, passing three mountain ranges and wide valleys – plus a whole load of cacti along the way. Other outdoor activities in the region include kayaking or paddle boarding in the Colorado River watershed, which stretches for almost 40,000 miles but begins just north of Yuma, where you’ll easily track down hire companies.

Then, an hour and a half north of Yuma is Quartzsite – which is perhaps the region’s most famous RV camping ground. If going off grid freaks you out a little bit, just hole up here for a few days and vibe with the RV community that congregates here year-round. It’s so popular, you’ll likely encounter impromptu theatrical performances, pop-up flea markets, parties and all-important RV repair services. You can always go off grid tomorrow.

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