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Collins and Clark’s Big Adventure in ‘Nomadland’

Mar 3, 2021

Amy Collins and Tim Clark and a very large friend in Cabazon, California.

Since departing Rochester in November, in search of warmer weather and an outdoors environment where COVID-19 might pose less of a threat, Amy Collins and Tim Clark have drawn a circuitous route through the South. Now these high-tech nomads have parked their RV trailer for a week or so in Southern California.

In this third installment of “Collins and Clark Across America,” the cross-country odyssey taken on by the two singer-songwriters has unexpectedly evolved into a truth-seeking expedition. They express amazement at a roadside attraction in Cabazon, south of Palm Springs. Two giant dinosaurs, constructed of steel and concrete. A Tyrannosaurus rex and a brontosaurus, whose film credits include “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

This was once the site of the Wheel Inn Restaurant, now closed. The hollow belly of the brontosaurus serves as a creationist museum. As one sign proclaims, “The fossil record does not support evolution.” Here, truth is put to the test. The 150-foot-long sauropod, Collins says, has five clawed toes. “I was horrified,” Collins says. “Dinosaurs do not have thumbs.”

More truth reveals itself with each mile of the journey in their comfy trailer. For many of the fellow nomads, the journey is being undertaken in rougher rigs. Cramped vans, even.

Vans such as the one driven by Fern, as played by Frances McDormand in the film “Nomadland.” At Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, it won for Best Director and Best Motion Picture-Drama.

“Everybody in the RV community is talking about it,” Collins says. The reactions are split: Some believe it’s an inaccurate depiction of the American nomad life; others find it very affirming.

The split actually reflects how these nomads are not a homogenous group. Collins readily admits that they are among those who choose to tour the country in “$60,000 worth of vehicle and two almost-new Harley-Davidsons.” For them, inspecting anatomically incorrect brontosauruses is an adventure. They park their trailer at what some people might define as retirement resorts, although neither Collins or Clark seems close to retirement. There’s access to a pool and a hot tub as they watch the older folks tooling around in golf carts. “Last night for dinner we had octopus and steak,” Collins says.

Their two dogs have adapted well. Lucy has figured out how to unlock the trailer door while Collins and Clark are gone; Locksmith Lucy wanders the trailer park until she’s saved by a pair of RV neighbors.

“And so that’s why people are so divided about the movie,” Collins says. “Because they’re not forced into it, like Fern was in the movie.”

Fern opted for the life of the nomad. Traveling, enduring a series of survival-level jobs and van-repair issues. She can be socially difficult, but she’s tough, and a survivor. She has joined the Americans who live in the gray economy.

Collins and Clark reflect that economic dichotomy of the nomads. Collins grew up in a world where “you’re supposed to drive a Volvo, you’re supposed to go to college.” A place where “the point of life is to buy the biggest house you can afford, and the best car you can afford. And that drives you to put your life and your purpose, and to put time, into achieving those things, or getting those things. As opposed to spending your time and your efforts, and creating your purpose, to do the things that give you joy and don’t deliver stuff.”

The gray economy is where Clark was living some years ago. Divorced, he played in bands, worked at the old downtown club Milestones, and traveled to see concerts and visit friends. He lived cheap in the Hungerford Building on East Main Street before it evolved into the artist colony that it is today. He’d left the “workaday mortgage lifestyle,” he says, to be living gray. The “cash-based lifestyle.”

“I never really fell into that trap of having a j-o-b with a mortgage, you know,” Clark says. “I kind of skirted around that. So essentially … free! I wasn’t burdened with a lot of possessions and locked into a lot of credit cards and credit vehicles, and I had some savings.”

The characters of “Nomadland” -- and some of them are real nomads -- are seeking that kind of freedom.

“Start by defining freedom,” Clark says. “You’ve got some conservative guy who has got a mortgage and car payments and college loans and all these social conventions he has to adhere to. What he looks like, what he talks about, what kind of music he listens to. And that guy says freedom is the most important thing to him? He’s not free.

“And he can’t even allow others to be free.”

An opinion piece he recently read has lit Clark’s fuse. Something about how Americans value freedom ahead of equality. For some people, that may be a question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg. But for Clark, this riddle has an answer.

“So you’ve got to define freedom first. And then you say equality. Well, to be that person, whether you’re trans or whether you’re a Trumper, whether you’re anybody, without being judged, without being limited to where you can go and how you can go, what you can say, what you can do, you have to have equality. All of those people have to be able to do that stuff before you have any freedom.

“So when I read that, my head exploded.”

“Nomadland” helps clean up that mess. There is no freedom without equality. Just as we see in the film, and the real-life nomads who see themselves as equals. Whether your vehicle is recreation, or the bare essentials of life. “Freedom, you still need each other,” Clark says. “You still need that lesbian married couple to see Lucy and save her.

“We can’t survive out here, alone.”

The balance of freedom and equality is revealed in “Nomadland” when Fern visits her sister and brother-in-law at their nice home. “As she made her way through the movie,” Collins says, “there was nothing more that someone could take from her. She was completely free from the kind of life that her sister and brother-in-law had. They weren’t free.

“How scared are people when they can lose a home? Or where they can lose a job? And once you don’t have a home to lose, and once you don’t have a job to lose, once you’re participating in the trade economy and you’re just out here going from gig to gig, there really is a freedom to giving up the social trappings that a lot of people around here have just decided to lean into.”

Collins admits she’s a “luxury junkie.” She loves a nice chair. “I’ll give up all sorts of my freedoms so I’ll be comfy,” she says.

“The people out here, they do the opposite. They are willing to give up their -- what society thinks of as respectability -- and they’re not as comfortable as I was when I was living in a 17-story high-rise in Philadelphia, OK? Not as physically comfortable. But man, they’re emotionally far more comfortable than my Philadelphia-habitating butt ever was.”

When they first hit the road, Collins and Clark left behind many things. Perhaps most importantly, they left behind the kind of baggage that doesn’t fit in a suitcase.

“A lot of that emotional baggage, it sticks with you when you stay in one place,” Collins says. “There’s an amazing amount of emotional freedom that comes with leaving a place every few days, every few weeks, and constantly arriving at someplace new.”

Frances McDormand in Nomadland.
Credit Searchlight Pictures

In “Nomadland,” Collins says, Fern confronts the unimportance of assumptions and attachments. And she drives on by, like she’s ignoring a stop sign.

“What I saw in that was a woman who had lost everything,” Collins says. “She got married really young, her husband was taken from her, her job was taken from her. Her home was taken from her…”

Clark cuts in: “Her assumptions were taken from her.”

“Everything was ripped from her. So she bought a van, where she could be completely self-sufficient, and nobody could take anything from her ever again. That is a very different story than what Tim and I are living.”

When left to your own devices, she says, “There is no room out here for the mindless distractions that were part of my everyday joy living on Illinois Street in Rochester. The mindless stopping at a large-scale, big-box store to go shopping. The pedicures, and the -- not that Tim got pedicures, I’m talking about myself -- the trips to Record Archive and hearing new music…”

The trendy neighborhood? The new Volvo? “You’re free to engage in that,” Clark says. “But to let go of that is the kind of freedom, that’s pretty breathtaking.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.