Our Retroactive “Nomadland” Vacation Memories

Frances McDormand and friend in "Nomadland"/

“We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood / And these Badlands start treating us good…”

It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know this time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. One of my few accomplishments in 2020 was at long last filling a gap in my list by catching the elusive 1996 nominee Secrets and Lies, which had been out of print for ages but of course is just now scheduled for a Criterion physical release at the end of this very month. Regardless, having crossed that off, I can now say I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1988 to the present, many of which were worth the hunt, Secrets and Lies enthusiastically included.

The eight nominees for Best Picture of the Pandemic Year may pose more of a viewing challenge. In a standard Oscar season, the Best Picture nominees would be re-released to theaters for a limited time, I’d run out and see each one, and that would be that, a bit costly but easy-peasy. Since March 2020 I’ve walked into theaters exactly twice (which each left me frustrated and disappointed) and haven’t been eager to test those revolutionary new air filtration systems or the other patrons’ pandemic manners. Using my four-step listicled viewing method helped calm my fears and, I think, helped not to get myself or my family killed, so it wasn’t all for naught. I’m not sure how many more times I feel like tempting fate. Getting fully vaccinated would allay all remaining concerns, but as my schedule happens to be working out, I won’t reach peak immunization (i.e., 14 days after my second Pfizer shot) until literally the day before the Oscars.

By the end of 2020 I’d seen Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 of my own accord. Two weeks prior to the nomination announcement on March 15th I caught a third nominee in advance, certain that it was a lock for a nomination based on its universal critical acclaim — Nomadland, the one with Two-Time Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand, from the director of Marvel’s eventually forthcoming Eternals. The Powers That Be were kind enough to release it on Hulu as well as in theaters. I appreciated the humane gesture, and was surprised to see several scenes were filmed in locations familiar to me and to longtime MCC readers who’ve followed along on our road trip experiences.

In a sense the film is about a woman whose very life has become one nonstop road trip, if only because circumstances untethered her from all the usual trappings that many of us prize, or at least take for granted as mandatory tethers. Fern (McDormand) and her husband once lived idyllically in a New Mexico company town where everyone worked at the local sheetrock mine and life was good. Then the company collapsed, the town lost its purpose, and everyone moved away. Worst of all, Fern’s husband died. She finds gainful employment elsewhere, but comes to realize for herself “elsewhere” could have a fluid definition.

When we meet her, she’s part of an Amazon distribution warehouse crew. Coworkers love each other and they’re fine with the job at hand and let’s all pretend this is not a bought-and-sold Amazon recruitment ad. Fern fits in, gets along, and finds communal harmony as One Of Them till she feels it’s time to move on with her journey, one that’s more about direction than destination. Her house remains left behind. Much of her stuff remains locked up in a rather large storage shed that couldn’t possibly be cheap. She crams her needs and a modicum of prized possessions into her van, makes a few tiny-house modifications to compartmentalize and optimize her limited spaces, and embarks on life on the road. She’s determined to adapt to a different mode of living, and meets up with fellow long-term travelers who teach her their ways and customs — when not to bother each other, which auto repair needs are highest priority, what YouTube channels offer great DIY lessons and travel tips. Most come from actual nomads invited by director Chloe Zhao to participate, each playing a version of themselves that exemplifies the lifestyle.

Fern isn’t rich, but she isn’t struggling. Sometimes she has to ask for help with major pitfalls (see: “auto repair”), but there’s no sense of fear or desperation in her choices. She drives wherever the work is, seasonal or otherwise. Sometimes landing a new job takes some patience; once she’s in, she’s an “exceeds expectations” kind of employee. Hers isn’t a struggle for survival, so much as it’s a quest to live a satisfying life in a different form after her old identity has been stripped away. She balks at anyone who offers to anchor her with new attachments (including David Strathairn, the only other Hollywood face in sight) in a way that’s tantamount to claustrophobia minus the anxiety. The mere thought of staying indoors too many days in a row has lost its appeal, let alone opting for a new permanent mailing address.

Numerous websites have referred to Nomadland as a depiction of poverty. Nomads live pretty cost-effectively compared to, say, me, but the film’s depiction gives no sense that their vans or RVs represent corners they’ve been backed into by a cruel or uncaring society. Some of them definitely have more advantages than others; all those depicted deeply want to be where they are. One of the main players, whose film version goes by the name Swankie, was recently interviewed by our local media and (in their spoiler-filled article) discussed some aspects of her life that reduce her nomadic complications, such as excellent lifelong health insurance (courtesy of her late husband) and solar panels on her van. She’s kayaked in all fifty states, which adds up to many, many gallons of gas. In the interview she advised Social Security has been a major financial boon as well, which really only works if you put a decent amount into it for decades prior. So, Nomadland as a tale of poors getting shafted by The MAN? I don’t buy it.

Among the film’s many pleasures — McDormand’s genteel yet determined performance, a supporting cast clearly enjoying themselves, all those majestic American panoramas — were complemented by my memories of our own travels to some of Fern’s stopovers. The film takes an extended leave in South Dakota, where Fern manages a campground for a spell at Badlands National Park. If you haven’t been there, once it’s safe I highly recommend making plans to come see geological wonders up close, at ground level, and in large, overwhelming quantities. Our 2009 road trip took us into the Badlands for a couple hours of wandering and gallivanting. We previously posted photos not once but twice, yet the next three pics are among the plethora of outtakes from that particular day.

Badlands Wide Open!

Probably the widest Badlands shot we didn’t previously post.

My son in the Badlands.

My son finding something interesting known only to him.

My wife in the Badlands.

My wife Anne modeling summertime fashions of a different era.

I used this one in a different entry apart from the 2009 Road Trip series. Note our slightly slimmer pre-pandemic figures.

Last year I nearly clapped with joy at my phone when I read that the film also shot scenes at famous Wall Drug. A few exits east of our Badlands stop, Wall Drug is…well, quite a thing. As I previously wrote:

We’d spotted our first Wall Drug billboard back on Day 3 in faraway Worthington, Minnesota: 355 MILES TO WALL DRUG. Beyond the Minnesota/South Dakota border, Wall Drug billboards outnumber mile markers. Signs every 20 to 1000 feet promise everything from homemade donuts to the Secret of the Universe only at WALL DRUG. All this and a bag of chips, and the kitchen sink, and everything in between available at WALL DRUG. As seen on TV: WALL DRUG. As featured in any number of magazines and newspapers: WALL DRUG. Open 24 hours year-round: WALL DRUG. 5-cent coffee: WALL DRUG. Free ice water: WALL DRUG. Did we mention the donuts?: WALL DRUG. There’s a snake in my boot: WALL DRUG. See previous sign: WALL DRUG. Every so many miles it was only so many miles to WALL DRUG. 355 miles of signs signs everywhere signs: WALL DRUG.

The original business plan was simple. Once upon a time there was a drugstore in a town called Wall. In the 1930s an aspiring pharmacist moved into town with his wife, opened for business, and didn’t do too well at it. One day, the wife, noticing Dust Bowl travelers driving past without stopping, got the idea in her head of giving them a reason to stop by offering free ice water. By the time the owner got back from putting up the signs for free water, they had a store full of customers. After Mount Rushmore opened, the attraction grew bigger and bigger until the once-basic Wall Drug had stretched into a tourist trap surpassing the proportions of even the tackiest Ripley’s Believe It or Not Emporium…

Nomadland captures a fraction of that tourist-trap wackiness when Fern and her pal Mr. Strathairn get jobs working in their restaurant, whose cafeteria seating looks in the film exactly as it did when we sat there in 2009. Same renowned donuts, too, though I wager the cast liked them more than we did. I was surprised to find at least one major film critic who seemed unfamiliar with Wall Drug, which is a shame. I don’t know that our family needs to plan a return visit there, but if you’re driving through South Dakota for any length, it’s impossible to ignore. I’m glad Fern enjoyed her stay before she moved on to wherever life led her next.

Wall Drug, South Dakota.

The uncropped version of our original Wall Drug establishing shot. It’s even bigger on the outside.

Mini-Rushmore!

Wall drug features that made it ont the film include this miniature Mount Rushmore.

Wall Drug animatronic lawman.

Our only unused outtake (whose file I’d thought was corrupted) starred this animatronic lawman showcasing some of the Wall Drug decor.

T-Rex!

Their animatronic T-Rex activated slightly more often than Old Faithful and probably roared about as loudly.

Jackalope Rider!

Nomadland gets docked a full letter grade for failing to show Fern riding this giant jackalope. COWARDS.

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