Big Issue Vendor

This is what it’s really like being a nomad for 12 years

Many of the supporting cast of the Oscar-winning film Nomadland are real-life nomads playing versions of themselves. The Big Issue caught up with one of them, Swankie, who tells us what living and working on the road is really like

The Big Issue: I was amazed that you weren’t a professional actor. Do you have any acting experience?

Swankie: I worked for a time in 1983, at Conner Prairie pioneer settlement in Indiana, a living history outdoor museum as a first-person interpreter in costume, playing the part of an 1836 woman in a pioneer village. We had to stay in character all day, cooking, eating, any activities of daily living. So, not totally new to acting. 

What other jobs have you done – and did you ever think being a movie star would be one of them?

All my life I have done all kinds of jobs, most of the time as a single parent of two boys, doing whatever it took to survive and provide. I worked on farms and ranches, I began college and earned degrees, I spent the summers of 2012 and 2016 working as a camp host in Colorado. I never considered becoming a movie star. It was not on my bucket list.

Swankie, who has been a nomad for 12 years.

How did you enjoy the experience?

The hardest part of this movie for me was acting like I was sick and dying, as my health is better today, at 78, than it was 16 years ago when I got new knees. I found the movie business to be interesting, a once in a lifetime opportunity, but look forward to resuming my normal nomadic life, which I love.

What first led you to live a nomadic lifestyle?

I spent most of my young adulthood as an unpaid wife and mother, no money being paid into social security. When I did have paid jobs, they were minimum wage. As I got older, I was less able to do hard physical work. My knees failed. I recalled going for a job interview and having to follow a person up some stairs and I had difficulty getting up the stairs without them noticing I could barely walk. In 2005, I had bilateral knee replacements and was able to stay with friends while recovering. It took me nearly two years to learn to walk again.

It was a horrible period in my life. I felt like I was in a long dark tunnel and could not see any light at the end. A friend in California invited me to stay with her until I could sort out a new direction for my life. If you don’t have a reason to stay, you must have a reason to leave.

About this time, I learned if I drew my social security I would have about $900 a month to live on. You just cannot find a clean and decent place to live on that and still have money for utilities and food. But I could camp nicely on that amount, so I began to make plans to go mobile. It was about being free and having hope. Somehow I managed to survive. Now I thrive.

Being a nomad is about independence – but among people who are isolated individually, does a strong sense of community exist?

It does for me. I have never felt isolated or lonely on the road. It is very easy to connect to other nomad groups or tribes that you might have something in common with and travel with them for long periods of time. There are vegan groups, dog-lover groups, kayaking groups…  It is endless. If you wish never to be alone that is easy. If you wish solitude, that is more of a challenge.

Has it been good preparation for a year where the pandemic has turned the world upside down?

I have been a nomad for 12 years. I am self-sufficient and living off-grid, I have my own solar power, I have developed a small carbon footprint. I need little from civilisation. As a result, the pandemic has not turned my world upside down. Nomads were probably better prepared than people living in homes. I must mask up if I go to a town to get groceries, which I limit to once or twice a month.

Frances McDormand stands in front of Nomadland
Frances McDormand in the Oscar-winning film Nomadland. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios

Do you think more people will choose to live in Nomadland?

I think there will be a slight upsurge in people wanting to try it out. It takes a lot of work and determination to be successful at being a nomad. But there are many desperate older single women who don’t have the funds, for the same reason I didn’t have them, to stay in a home or keep an apartment, who have no choice but to move into a vehicle. Many are afraid. I was not.

The Cinderella dream was not for me. Walking off into the unknown life on the road was better, wherever that road might lead. I never could have imagined I would get healthy, have working knees, learn to kayak and end up a movie star. So never give up hope. You can change your lives. Never be afraid to try.

Most importantly, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it can be very bright indeed, almost blinding when you exit out the other end.

Nomadland is available to watch now on Disney+ with cinema screenings when they reopen in May