Meet Bob Wells, the godfather of van living who stars as himself in 'Nomadland'
- Bob Wells is a real-life nomad and van dweller who stars as himself in "
- Wells moved into a van after a divorce and now runs a popular how-to blog called CheapRVLiving.
- Wells shows people how they can find happiness, freedom, and financial security by living in a van.
Bob Wells is an icon among van lifers.
Traveling the US in his GMC Savana 4x4, he preaches the benefits of life on the road. He also stars as himself in the Academy Awards best-picture winner "Nomadland."
But Wells didn't always believe in van living.
Wells became a van dweller at one of the lowest points in his life.
In 1995, he was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and had just gone through a financially straining divorce.
Unable to pay rent, he bought a van to live in. His first night in the van, he cried himself to sleep, he told Insider.
But over time, as Wells learned how to stay warm, cook, shower, and otherwise adapt to his new
Now, Wells spends his days teaching others how to find that happiness through van living.
Wells became a godfatherlike figure for those looking to escape the rat race
After seven years on the road, Wells moved back into a house in 2002. But by 2008, he said he realized he missed traveling and never wanted to live in a house again. Wells has been a full-time van dweller since.
"I have reached the conclusion after decades that the American dream is a nightmare, and everyone that can should get out of it because true happiness lies on the other side of getting out of it," he said.
In 2005, Wells founded CheapRVLiving, a blog turned YouTube channel with more than 500,000 subscribers on which he shares tips and interviews with people about how to live in vans and RVs on a budget.
Then, in 2011, he founded the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), an annual meetup in the Arizona desert where van dwellers can connect with and learn from one another. It grew from 45 attendees in 2011 to more than 3,000 in 2018, Wells told The New York Times.
Recently, Wells starred in "Nomadland," Chloé Zhao's film about a woman named Fern who turns to
In "Nomadland," the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous is where Fern finds her footing as a van dweller. She arrives to find Wells speaking to a crowd of attendees.
"The way I see it is that the Titanic is sinking and economic times are changing," Wells tells RTR attendees during a re-creation of the event in the film. "And so my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can."
Later on in the film, Wells has a powerful one-on-one conversation with Fern about managing grief and finding a community among van dwellers.
'Nomadland' parallels Wells' story
"Nomadland" has cast a spotlight on the lives of van dwellers facing loss and economic hardship.
While it's not the story of every van dweller, Wells told Insider, the film has parallels to his life.
In 2011, Wells' son died by suicide, something Wells talks about in the film.
After his son's death, Wells said he entered a dark place and, at one point, planned to kill himself.
"For a very long time, I would wake up every morning, and I would ask myself: 'How can I be alive in a world where my son was dead?'" Wells said.
But with time, he said he found his reason to keep going: helping others change their lives.
"The joy of service has overcome the grief," Wells said.
Grief "is still there," Wells added, saying: "I find it regularly, but it's not all-dominating in my life like it once was."
"And I have come to the point where the service and the compassion bring me so much joy that I want to do it," he said. "I don't have to do it to stay alive another day."
Wells believes van life can offer true freedom
Wells tells prospective van dwellers that what they give up in comfort - not having a flushing toilet, shower, or light switches, for example - they gain in freedom.
Freedom, according to Wells, is the ability to choose what you do each day, as opposed to living your life according to the demands of your boss and landlord.
By living in a van, people can erase the need to work a 9-to-5 corporate job to afford rent and mortgages, he said.
Most van dwellers still need to work to support themselves, but Wells said they can opt for jobs with more flexibility than a traditional 9-to-5. Photography and working as a campground host are two jobs he suggests on his website.
"I think all of us know in our heart that a life based around buying more crap is not a quality life," Wells said. "Something is wrong with that. The idea of working 40 years of your life for 20 good years is just a bad idea."
When you can "break the power of money over your life," Wells said, that's when you're truly free.
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