87 minutes, 2002, DVCAM

“This is Nowhere”
by Arthur Stamoulis

There are about 2.8 million people that live full time in motor homes and trailers? and we all love Wal-Marts!” This one line from Doug Hawes-Davis latest documentary, This is Nowhere, just about sums it up perfectly. The 87-minute film brings you an inside view into the lives of retirees who travel around the country in RVs, hopping from Wal-Mart parking lot to Wal-Mart parking lot in order to “camp” for the night. The film paints a disturbing, almost tragic, portrait of people looking for something different, yet wanting everything to be the same… People yearning for simplicity and adventure, without wanting to give up comfort and convenience… People trying to get back in touch with nature, while driving around monster vehicles that get seven-and-a-half miles to the gallon. And while it’s easy to laugh at the inconsistencies and near hypocrisy found in the lifestyle choices of people introduced in this documentary, it’s unfortunately just as easy to identify with their motivations. This is Nowhere does an excellent job of helping viewers understand just where these self-described “Wally Worlders” are coming from. Basically, they’re coming from the suburbs. These are the former NASA engineers, the small business owners-the living personification of the American Dream. Thus it’s upsettingly obvious that their lives, and the entire film, provide a metaphor that can be extended to American culture and American aspirations at large. It’s a point we may rather forget by the time the film is over. The biggest reason one couple featured in the documentary gave for RVing was their love of American landscapes. A theme raised by many people in the film, it sounds perfectly reasonable, perhaps even enviable. The irony is in the fact that this couple was explaining their rationale from within a huge Wal-Mart parking lot that could be just about anywhere. I, for one, kept thinking I recognized the Wal-Marts featured, until the camera panned back, and I realized that, no, that’s not where I’d been before. It’s something that the Wally Worlders themselves came to recognize, and even appreciate. The fact that Wal-Marts are “all designed the same” means never having trouble looking for something you need to buy. “The traveler has needs, and Wal-Mart supplies those needs,” one explained. As another RVer said, “Consistently, wherever I go, a Wal-Mart is a Wal-Mart.” People in This is Nowhere complained about the closing down of small stores, the lack of character and charm in strip mall after strip mall after strip mall-but on the other hand, they also loved that Wal-Mart convenience. Advocating having to visit more than one store to find camping supplies would be something akin to heresy to the people interviewed in this movie. And it’s not just the shopping convenience that people were looking for. Their mobile homes put the “homes” in mobile homes. People had televisions, VCRs, CD-players, washers, dryers, tubs, refrigerators, stoves, ovens, queen size beds and even more televisions packed into recreational vehicles with brand names like Mountain Aire, Wilderness and, of course, Komfort. One RV had a button that doubled its width. Another was equipped with four different satellite dishes, so that two separate television sets would always get crystal clear reception. “Elegant simplicity” one person called it. Beyond a love of nature, one couple said it was the “special features” of an area that got them to stop at any particular location. Disney World, Disney Land and “other theme parks” were the features they mentioned. On-the-road adventure could be found in the “unexpected things,” several explained. Examples given included having breakfast, watching television, listening to books on tape, deciding what’s for dinner, or even taking the motorcycle over to the next Wal-Mart. People honestly wanted to enjoy the great outdoors, but that option seemed uncommon, even for them. In one particularly sad story, a man told of following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. As the accompanying video revealed, most of the wilderness they explored has now been paved over to make room for more automobiles. People spoke of wanting to “Get out and see different things,” but did so from inside massive steel, glass and plastic boxes-technologies that make the space needed for “different things” less-and-less possible. This is not to say that those featured in This is Nowhere didn’t ever realize the irony of their situations. Some, for instance, brought up the fact that we are living in a “throw-away society.” One man explained how, after buying one pair of canvass sneakers from Wal-Mart, he received ten additional free pairs one-after-the-other because the soles kept falling off. He found this somewhat baffling, but noted, “We can make it cheaper than we can repair it.” In his mind, this was not necessarily a bad thing, but rather, a sign of progress. Only the images of endless landfills that were shown on screen while he spoke served as a reality check. Tied in with notions of waste surrounding Wal-Mart products were, of course, issues of wasteful land use. To make room for cars, trucks, RVs and strip malls, nature has to go. One Wally Worlder described the process by which Wal-Mart is buying up land near its current locations, erecting brand new Wal-Mart Superstores, and then closing down the only slightly-older stores, potentially leaving all that paved-over space abandoned. The film left little mystery why RVers have to take to the road to see mountains, trees and rivers. All in all, This is Nowhere serves as a powerful warning about how our choices as individuals help contribute to monoculture, urban blight, suburban sprawl and obscene trash flow-problems that are making our lives less enjoyable and that are contributing to the overall destruction of nature. One only hopes that This is Nowhere won’t soon become ‘This Is Everywhere’. That is the road we seem to be headed down.