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Leader of the nomads: The amazing journey of Bob Wells

When Bob Wells decided to ditch his former life as a grocery-store worker to head out on the road as a real-life nomad, he knew he was embarking on an unpredictable journey.

But he could never have guessed where he ended up Sunday night: Gathered with his fellow highway wanderers to watch the film Nomadland win the best-picture Oscar.

It’s a movie in which Wells has a memorable role, playing himself alongside the celebrated Frances McDormand, who took home the Oscar for best actress.

“I was thrilled and happy,” Wells told me in an interview from his specially equipped van somewhere in the Nevada desert.

“It will be etched in my memory forever.”

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Wells came to the attention of filmmaker Chloe Zhao (who won best-director Oscar) after he was featured in the 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century.

The book tells the story of the “van dwellers,” a subculture of transient Americans living in their vehicles, trekking across the country in search of good weather, temporary jobs and free parking.

Many of these modern-day nomads are older, poor people seeking an affordable lifestyle on fixed incomes.

It’s a description that fits Wells, 65, who quit his day job in Alaska after the failure of his marriage left him broke and miserable.

“I would drive into work every day past this old van that was for sale,” he told me.

“I thought, ‘I could live in that! It would solve all my problems. I wouldn’t have to pay rent anymore.’ So I bought it and moved in.”

That was in 1995. Little did Wells know that he was on the cutting edge of a new social movement that’s documented daily on social media under the #vanlife hashtag.

Sensing the growing interest, Wells started a YouTube channel called “Cheap RV Living” that has gathered half-a-million loyal followers.

He also started an annual gathering of nomads called the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous” that has attracted thousands of fellow wanderers to the Arizona desert.

“You don’t want a lonely life out here,” Wells said.

“You want to live rich full life. And part of that is other people. So I’ve worked to build a community.”

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Along the way, he has come to embrace the nomad lifestyle, something that was originally a source of shame.

“Society tells us what life is supposed to look like,” he said.

“We call it the American dream and I’m sure it’s similar in Canada: Go to college, get an education, find a career, get married, have kids, get a house, work for the rest of your life and then retire in the golden years.

“But I was forced into a different choice. At first, there was a sense of shame attached to it. Then I discovered it was a choice that made me really happy.”

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His experience on the road has given him insight into America — and Canada, too.

“I’ve driven across Canada,” he said. “British Columbia may be one of the most beautiful places in the world. And the Canadian Rockies are just breathtaking.”

He said the lack of universal health care in the United States is one of the most glaring differences he has noticed.

Unexpected health-care crises — especially for under-insured Americans — are among the many stark aspects of life he sees up close in a nomad community he will never leave.

“We’re living an alternative to a failing society,” he said.

“I would never go back to my old life. It’s my goal to never live in a house again.”

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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