Luke Brokaw lives in a school bus, and he does it by choice. The 36-year-old left Michigan three years ago and set out West. Landing in San Diego, he worked as a delivery driver for Amazon. But he wanted even more freedom, so he started freelancing as a graphic and web designer — and roaming.
When I reach him, he’s outside Zion National Park, using his cellphone as a hot spot. “There’s so much red,” he says of the bluffs and canyons around him. “Everything is red.” Living on the road, he says, “does get stressful from time to time. But it’s still a lot better than working a nine-to-five somewhere.”
After buying his “skoolie” in 2018, he built it out, putting in a full kitchen and solar panels. It was painted like an American flag. He painted it black — a choice he later came to regret. “When I parked in residential areas, it looked creepy,” he says. So he repainted it teal and added a landscape of mountains, trees and a sunset. Now random strangers knock on the door, saying they recognize the bus from his YouTube channel. He goes by “The Digital Nomad Guy” on Instagram and sometimes wraps his long red beard in rubber bands.
Millions have embraced this lifestyle since the advent of COVID-19. As companies responded to the pandemic by making office jobs remote, they also untethered their employees from geographic limitations, at a time when housing costs are skyrocketing. According to a report from MBO Partners, a company that recruits independent professionals to do contract work for businesses, 7.3 million Americans described themselves as “digital nomads” in 2019; a year later, that number increased by half.
Digital nomads have become a common sight across the West, especially in small towns near national parks or ski resorts, where they rely on a hot spot or cafe Wi-Fi to get through the workday, then explore the outdoors once 5 o’clock hits. They’re part of a growing class of transient professionals who use the internet to work remotely and travel at the same time, eschewing traditional roots and responsibilities. But that kind of freedom does not come without a cost, or an impact on the places they visit.
Culturally, they occupy a space between “Zoom Town” movers (similarly remote professionals who’ve resettled in smaller or cheaper towns) and #vanlifers (wealthy hobbyists who might sink $100,000 into a decked-out Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and retire early.) A quick Instagram search reveals millions of images tagged #vanlife or #digitalnomad, showcasing customized vehicles replete with light wood cabinetry and string lights. The glamorous images can be unnerving in a time when many are living in their vehicles out of economic desperation, with ingenious modifications made out of necessity. Each group adapts in its own way.
Aside from the mode of transportation, this lifestyle is not exactly new. In 2007, Timothy Ferriss published a book titled “The 4-Hour Workweek,” which promised to teach disenchanted corporate denizens how to “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.” The idea was embraced by a generation of globe-trotting entrepreneurs, creatives and young professionals. Even if they didn’t find wealth, they found they could work anywhere, settling down for months at a time in “hubs” like Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Mexico City — places with the infrastructure they needed, where their dollars went further. By 2014, a website called Nomad List offered an online community and advice on the best destinations. Bali was a favorite.
Sociologist Rachael Woldoff flew to the Indonesian island in 2016 to talk to digital nomads. They weren’t hard to find. She went to an open-air lounge. A thin man with a shaved head, billowy white pants and a skin-tight white shirt sat beside her. Soon he was telling his “Goodbye to All That” story, she says. In the book “Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy,” she and co-author Robert Litchfield — her husband — describe a subculture of people who value sharing, positivity, minimalism and freedom from societal norms.
Some readers may see echoes of other alternative lifestyles that are common in the West. Anybody who skis enough will interact with a “ski bum,” someone so obsessed with the sport that they build their life around low-paying jobs at resorts, trading creature comforts for free lift tickets. “Dirtbags,” on the other hand, tend to alternate intense periods of work with vagabond intervals, spending their days rock climbing and their nights at crash pads to make their savings last until they have to surrender to another temporary job. Even some sponsored athletes live this way, repping outdoor brands from the back of a van.
But this past year, van life has become an option for many who don’t want to quit their jobs.
Rather than pay Bay Area prices during lockdown, Brant Hysell left Oakland for the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas. He found he could do his job in food product sales from a bedroom he rented in Truckee, with plenty of free time to snowboard the surrounding backcountry. Then he took that freedom on the road, spearfishing in Southern California, rock climbing in Denver and camping for months in Yosemite, without burning vacation time. For about a third of the past year, he slept on a bouldering crash pad in his Chevy Equinox, a small SUV crossover.
“I can manage my life better if I have the flexibility,” he says.
Many digital nomads are young professionals and outdoor enthusiasts, talented people who love to climb, ski, fish or bike, and have jobs they can honestly do anywhere with internet access. Living your life in the most beautiful places you can drive to has an undeniable romantic appeal. Even Nellie Bowles, a tech reporter for The New York Times, found herself dreaming of “getting rid of all my possessions, breaking the apartment lease, and moving with my dog and my girlfriend into a tricked-out van.”
I, too, was swept into the craze, building out the back of my Toyota Tacoma into a rolling hotel room and striking out across the deserts of Utah and Nevada. For many nomads, the West is a vast and sublime playground. But in March, I found I wasn’t the first to wash up in Escalante, a southern Utah town with less than a thousand residents, and a de facto base camp for visitors to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I wasn’t even the first at the natural grocery store with outdoor seating and public Wi-Fi.
A 20-something man typed away on his laptop. An older couple from Miami peppered him with questions. “So, are you a digital nomad?” the woman asked. “I try to avoid the term,” he replied, but went on to tell them he’d been living off chicken fingers and Wi-Fi, spending as little money as possible, and driving across the West.
Down the street at Escalante Outfitters, I saw a woman with gold-rimmed glasses and long blond hair taking a Zoom meeting in the corner of the restaurant’s sunroom. It’s odd to find the same dynamics that play out in city cafes transplanted to the desert — to places that I once considered an escape from the daily grind but are now becoming a scenic backdrop for it. I felt sheepish when I, too, had to ask for the Wi-Fi password to file a story before heading out on a weekend backpacking trip.
Bryce Clendening, who’s lived in an RV on and off for nine years and loves it, warns that the images on social media don’t match reality. “It’s not even close,” he says. Harrowing breakdowns, weeks without showers and improvised meals for days on end complicate life on the road. One nomad put in a full workday from the front seat of his Chevy, caught in a snowstorm. A couple parted ways after two years in an RV, because she was ready to settle down, while he was not. Just figuring out where to sleep each night can be exhausting, and sometimes a good spot must be sacrificed to search for a reliable Wi-Fi signal.
“You’re not buying a house and laying down roots,” says Alex Autran, a 29-year-old information technology consultant who has been living in a vehicle of some sort for the past four years. You can’t own many possessions if you don’t have anywhere to store them, and it’s difficult to develop relationships — although he’s continued to date his high school sweetheart who doesn’t seem to mind his time on the road.
This summer, Autran will be parked outside a coworking space in Bellingham, Washington — an area renowned for its mountain biking trails — but he’ll still be passing through. “You’re much less part of a community.”
Perhaps that’s what drives a wave of pickups, vans and RVs to descend on Quartzsite, Arizona, every January for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of vehicle dwellers of all classes. Among them, Brokaw arrives in his teal schoolie.
“As far as making friends,” he says, “that’s a little tricky to do.” He once got stranded for a week outside of a Walmart in Missouri, repairing his broken-down bus, but loneliness can be a bigger challenge, if somewhat mitigated, he says, by the fact that he’s not much of a people person to begin with.
Cautionary tales about the nomad life arose early on, reflecting the pitfalls of constant relocation and a much-longer-than-four-hour workweek. As far back as 2013, Mark Manson — who once traveled to 17 countries in a year — wrote “The Dark Side of the Digital Nomad,” bemoaning what he described as unchecked narcissism, vice and a strained social life among his global cohort. But mostly, he missed having friends. “The price of overwhelming freedom is often my isolation,” he wrote.
It’s hard to reconcile that with the sheer volume of remote workers who cycled through Bali over the past decade, but their impact is visible to someone who lived a remarkably similar lifestyle before it had a name or a hashtag. In a recent piece for Lonely Planet titled “Digital nomads are ruining travel,” Geena Truman called her recent return to Bali the “most harrowing experience” of her life. While the local economy benefits from tourism, there are trade-offs, from environmental degradation to kerfuffles with ill-behaved influencers and dilution of the local culture. Now “trendy Instagram cafes serving smoothie bowls and eggs Benedict lined the streets.” Bali is overrun, the city of her memories gone forever.
But the American West is still an open field, for better or worse.