87 minutes, 2002, DVCAM

“This is Nowhere”
by Ray Young

Over thirty years ago, the Howard Zieff film, Slither, took a good-natured jab at “recreational vehicles,” then otherwise referred to as “RecVees.” (Today they’re simply “RV’s.”) This was back during the Vietnam-era of cynical Americana, when materialism and the excesses of the ‘50s and ‘60s were scrutinized by a culture suffocating under its own weight. One character in that film, played by Peter Boyle, personified the then-maligned “bourgeois pig,” touring around in a mobile-home gas-guzzler half-a-block long.

Boyle’s character now seems a humble visionary, prefiguring a subculture currently dotting the land. They’re the subject of a lively documentary, This is Nowhere, in which a handful of these self-styled gypsies extol the virtues of rootless privilege.

“There are two-point-eight million full-time RV’ers,” according to a traveler interviewed in the film. This erudite widower braving distant interstates and unknown towns with just his cat for company adds, “and we all love Wal-Mart.”

By “full-time RV’ers,” we’re looking at a small population of youthful, prosperous retirees who may use wanderlust as a means to dodge boredom. One thing’s indisputable: they’re not on some two-week vacation. Many of these people sell their homes and live full-time in the RV. Some come equipped with queen-size beds, full baths, and kitchenettes. One traveler, a self-described “rocket scientist” in his earlier life, pushes a button to expand the width of his rig by several feet. Another couple can watch four television sets feeding from four satellite dishes mounted on the roof.

These RV’s don’t come cheap. One particularly cost-conscious traveler—a recreational gold prospector and full-time critic of Mexicans and “Ay-rabs”—tells us his rig set him back $100,000. Averaging about seven miles to the gallon on an 80-gallon gas tank, $120 will take you 560 miles at $1.50 a gallon. And these folks drive every day.

No wonder they shop at Wal-Mart. Or “Wally World,” as it’s known in the loop. The discount retailer sells everything for life on the road—from food and shoes, to RV sewage lines and small walkie-talkies. One couple uses those walkie-talkies when they get separated inside Wal-Mart. It’s a big store.

Also at Wal-Mart you can buy a Rand McNally Road Atlas. We’re told these books usually sell for ten dollars, but this Wal-Mart edition is half that price, for it features an index listing every Wal-Mart from here to Timbuktu. It’s a crucial navigating tool for the RV’er who designates a Wal-Mart as the day’s final destination. Not necessarily to shop at (though they do)—but to sleep at. With dark highway rest stops attracting unsavory characters, and RV parks pricey and unkempt, the security of a clean, well-lit (and free) Wal-Mart parking lot is turning it into the nation’s new innkeeper.

Despite these intimations, This is Nowhere isn’t a lengthy commercial for the retailer and its clean parking lots. Directors Doug Hawes-Davis and John Lilburn, filming mostly in Montana (the picture is a presentation of Montana Public Television), serve a new reading of the American dream. And thanks to the unobtrusive style of the filmmaking, the viewer is allowed to contemplate a handful of factors concerning retirement, the economy, gluttony, and the inability of some people to stay planted.

Not to say that these are a physically-active folk. Our rocket scientist RV’er uses the journals of Lewis and Clark to plot his RV expedition. But while those explorers of yore walked upwards of twenty-five miles each day, our man admittedly gets winded hoofing it from one end of a Wal-Mart parking lot to the other.

Life inside an RV consists of sitting or sleeping, and those evenings in the parking lot are spent kicking back in lawn chairs. There are more than a few super-size waistlines and multiple-chins to behold. High cholesterol and high fat diets are obliged by roadside joints touting all-you-can-eat food and salad bars. This is Nowhere visits one such eatery, The Old Country Buffet, for a supper of clogged arteries and a side of obesity.

With each passing mile, one town bleeds into the next. Somebody points out the distressing conformity in this microcosm of globalization: “You go through a city and it looks like a prototype of another city . . . the United States is becoming one Wal-Mart next to one Costco next to one Home Depot.” These franchise giants have blighted small, independent retailers, and the cameras glimpse at the slums deteriorating in their dust.

Behind the masks of courtesy and friendliness, our travelers are a passionate bunch. “Back where we’re from, everything is a permit, everything is about getting permission,” explains the guy who doesn’t care for Mexicans and Ay-rabs, who has bought himself a life without “stupid people with nothing to do with their lives but make sure that you follow the rules.”

Juxtaposed with footage of a homeless mother and child begging for motel fare, our rocket scientist points out “It would be nice if everybody was equal, but everybody’s not. Everybody’s equal in concept, but in fact, no.” Another RV’er justifies her moneyed optimism as manna from heaven: “The Lord provides for us so beautifully that we just don’t worry.”

Nice work if you can get it.

“The trick is to remain invisible, and act like you know what you’re doing. Fact is, that’s the definition of the American Dream.” So says Ned Mudd in one song from his This is Nowhere soundtrack music. Over Midwestern truckstop blues, Mudd croaks out lyrics with a vocal manner reminiscent of Frank Zappa, or Robbie Robertson on a lazy day. The blend of guitar and trumpet lends a sleepy aura to this observation of people unstuck in time.

The end result of this existence of driving, shopping, eating fatty food, and watching television is summed up relatively early in the film. Describing the confinement of RV living, unsure of where they’re going, not one-hundred percent compatible with the companion she lives side-by-side with, one woman has found the key to happy living: “I take tranquilizers every night, he drinks beer—we’re fine.”