COME IN AND STAY AWHILE
Denali Highway, a 135-mile, mostly gravel scenic drive closed from October through mid-May, Alaska (photograph by Bill Scott)
Denali Highway, AK

Long Gone and Gone Far

The Great Recession forced more than a million Americans into nomad land, traveling in search of seasonal work. Bill Scott chose that life forty years ago.

The red taillights of my brother’s camper receded out of the driveway. I swallowed my tears as Billy’s sinewy arm gave a last-minute wave out his window before disappearing. My mother and I turned to walk back into our kitchen, which, at the time, was painted an electric yellow. It was the late 1970s. I was fourteen, and Billy, eight years older than me, had been living on the road since he was a teenager.

More than four decades later, in 2020, a low-budget movie called Nomadland came along and proceeded to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by journalist Jessica Bruder, the movie explores the community of older Americans forced by the Great Recession to travel around the United States in search of seasonal work.

In the film, we follow Fern, a widow in her sixties played by Frances McDormand. Fern hits the open road after an economic crisis shutters the rural Nevada company town where she has lived and worked, her illusion of security and the American Dream shattered. As a modern-day nomad, she learns from her fellow travelers the survival skills necessary for a woman living alone in a van. She discovers life and work outside her once-conventional aspirations while wandering the roads of the vast, romantic, and unforgiving landscape of the American West.

My brother, Billy Scott, from Birmingham, Alabama, has been living that way for more than four decades.

Billy Scott, hitchhiking across Texas in 1975
Billy Scott, hitchhiking across Texas in 1975

Billy wasn’t the first member of my family to leave. After running through the family money, my father left home in 1977 when I was twelve. He moved to Washington, D.C, where his sister there found him a job. My mother was forty-one and broke, left to raise four kids, with only volunteer work on her resume. She believed my father would return, but he never did. They divorced, and he came back twenty-five years later to live in a nursing home only a few years before he died.

After my father left, Billy hit the road for good and my two other brothers went to college. The youngest and only daughter, I returned home to Birmingham after college. I married young and became the third generation to live and raise my family in an old farmhouse where both my mother and I had grown up. My idea of a good life meant staying put in my Southern suburban security. I believed establishing roots guaranteed safety. Billy’s idea of a good life meant the freedom of endless highways and rarely traveled byways. Now sixty-five, he has never stopped moving. I still don’t know where he might end up and when he might return.

Now sixty-five, he has never stopped moving. I still don’t know where he might end up and when he might return.

I’ve often wondered how Billy and I came from the same family in a conservative Southern enclave. But as a teenager, Billy fell in love with hiking, first on the Appalachian Trail on family hikes to Mt. LeConte, Tennessee, then hopping trains in the nearby freight yard in Irondale, and later hitchhiking out West with his merry band of one friend, Mark. I imagine my mother thought he’d outgrow this passion the same way he’d outgrown his love of streaking.

Billy finally stopped running naked in the streets. But his wanderlust never waned.

The Quartzite Yacht Club in Quartzite, Arizona, 2023, where Billy Scott typically works through every winter (photograph by Bill Scott)
The Quartzite Yacht Club in Quartzite, Arizona, 2023, where Billy Scott typically works through every winter (photograph by Bill Scott)

For the past ten years, around early September, Billy leaves the cool mountains where he parks about 10,000 feet above sea level for the summer to find his way back to his job in late October at the Quartzsite Yacht Club, where he acts as trouble shooter and light security. The regulars there refer to him as “Ninja Bill.” The Yacht Club is located nowhere near water in Quartzsite, Arizona, “the Rock Capital of the World,” a town a few miles off Interstate 10, situated halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Billy parks his camper in his select “hidey hole” at La Posa Long Term Visitor Area, 11,000 acres of land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management near Quartzsite. For $180.00, campers can dry camp—which means no hook-ups for electricity and water—on Long Term Visitor Areas between September 15 and April 15. Once spring hits and temperature rise or Billy gets restless, he’s on the road again, winding his way north to cooler temperatures in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, northern California, or wherever the spirit moves him.

Whenever I press him for a specific departure date, he says he doesn’t like to make plans. They feel too restrictive.

“I like to set intentions,” he says.

But in the fall before he starts working, he often drives southeast in his camper, to Alabama, for an extended visit with my mother, now ninety-one. His camper swallows her entire driveway along a row of red-brick, one-story garden homes.

On a visit before the pandemic in 2020, we went to the Piggly Wiggly. When we strolled through the automatic doors into the air-conditioned store, a cashier glared at us and then resumed sliding a bag of potato chips across the scanner. I had removed my sunglasses, but Billy kept his on, adding mystique to the tall, thin figure, topped off by a camouflage baseball hat and a long grey ponytail snaking down his back. Despite his Barney Fife physique, his weathered face makes him look more like Clint Eastwood. High cheekbones. Wary stare. You might mistake him for a Proud Boy when he wears his camouflage gaiter to stave off the coronavirus. But Billy leans far in the other direction, watching the BBC and listening to Democracy Now. He’s as full of trivial knowledge as Cliff Clavin on Cheers. My mother says he’s the happiest of her four children; I’d argue he’s also the smartest.

Billy Scott and his mother, Joan Scott
Billy Scott and his mother, Joan Scott

Billy didn’t break his long stride as we walked down the aisle to buy his macaroni and cheese and collard greens. Women in Lilly Pulitzer skirts and men in lime green golf pants scooted their carts a little farther away from this stranger. He shook his head and said, too loudly, “These people look like they’ve never missed a meal.” Later, he reminded me about the tent cities of unhoused Americans, tucked away, hidden in plain sight across the country, like scenes from a 21st century Grapes of Wrath. In America today, as Nomadland so powerfully illustrates by using real-life nomads Swankie, Bob Wells, and Linda May, our economy has helped create a permanent class of itinerant people who live in their cars, vans, and rickety RVs.

When Billy left home in the ’70s, he first landed in Estes Park, Colorado, where he built a truck-bed camper from plywood. Before Google Maps, his atlas bled red, indicating routes he’d taken through the forty-nine continental states. One of the most harrowing journeys was the time he navigated the ALCAN, or the Alaskan Canadian highway, in the dead of winter, back to the lower forty-eight. He’s driven to the farthest points of America—north, south, east, and west. Now, he drops a Google map pin in a text to let me know his location. Today, he proudly refers to his camper as his “stay-free minipad.” When he replaces the engine of his seventeen-year-old truck, he renames the truck “6” in the tradition of mountain men and gold prospectors who used numbers instead of names to identify their pack mules in case the animals became food. That’s Billy’s theory, anyway.

Billy Scott's "stay-free minipad" parked in a grove of Aspen trees in Colorado (photograph by Bill Scott)
Billy Scott's "stay-free minipad" parked in a grove of Aspen trees in Colorado (photograph by Bill Scott)

When I was a young schoolteacher, my husband Hugo and I slid a camper into the bed of our Ford truck, and for several years during winter breaks, we met Billy in Laughlin, Nevada, then in Sedona, Arizona, and then Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for adventures. We always came home to Alabama. But wherever Billy parked, he was home.

Billy did return during the early years for various stints to paint our dilapidated family home when I was away in college, to nurse our Norwegian elkhound, Storm, who was riddled with heartworms, and decades later, to taxi my father to his favorite barbecue joint the month before he died. But when it came time for my father’s funeral, Billy—not one for ceremony, or for coats and ties—refused to go.

“I’ve said my good-byes,” he said.

After Billy saw Nomadland, he told me, “Those are my people.” In fact, some scenes in the movie were shot in Quartzsite, which Billy describes as “the widest stretch in the road.” During the summer off-season when the temperature never dips below ninety degrees, the population hovers around 3,000. From October until March, when snowbirds descend on the RV “boondocking capital of the world,” the population explodes to 2 million, and the desert becomes a sea of large, expensive RVs stretched for fifteen miles outside the perimeter of Quartzsite, known for its annual gem show and swap meets in January and February.

Billy's co-workers were convinced he was in the U.S. Marshals Service’s Witness Protection Program because he never talked about where he came from.

About halfway into Nomadland, there’s a dancing scene inside the real-life Yacht Club in Quartzsite. If you look carefully, Billy’s the blur of pixels working behind the bar. His boss, Mimi, whirls across the dance floor while the grieving and uprooted Fern (played to a Best Actress Oscar by Frances McDormand) tentatively agrees to dance with her new friend. The characters in the movie and the real-life nomads among us are sometimes forgotten, often discarded, and many times broken by life’s catastrophic losses.

One year, after Billy left Quartzsite, he landed in the small town of Angess, Oregon, where he worked until the wildfires choked the air. His co-workers were convinced he was in the U.S. Marshals Service’s Witness Protection Program because he never talked about where he came from. One spring, once the Yacht Club closed for the season, he temporarily relocated to Ehrenberg, Arizona, where he bought a second generator. Now wherever he may go in the future, when he goes to work, he can leave his dogs—at that time, that meant Uh-Oh and Oops, and later Chaco, all rescue dogs—to live in the height of luxury, his air-conditioned camper. Today, Oops and his new puppy Shonto, whose name means “sunshine” in Navajo, luxuriate in the camper’s cool cabin.

In the Seven Devils Mountains of Idaho, Billy's dogs, Uh Oh and Oops, take their daily hike (photograph by Bill Scott)
In the Seven Devils Mountains of Idaho, Billy's dogs, Uh Oh and Oops, take their daily hike (photograph by Bill Scott)

Billy’s text messages are filled with humor, philosophical musings, and people-watching observations from life on the road. Most are entertaining brief sketches from the more mundane moments, pictures of his latest campsites, views from his daily hikes, or pictures of his dogs. Whenever he has truck trouble—or any trouble, for that matter—his standard line is, “It’s just further proof my life’s harder than everybody else’s.” When his truck broke down on the way to Agness and he found himself in Yuba City, California, he wrote:

Luckily the nice Ford lady with the fake smile that doesn't like her week to start with a dirty longhair from out of state who didn't previously schedule this breakdown has been advocating on my behalf and we're probably fine here. Survival of the adaptable and all. Agness can wait. We just keep on doing what we do here instead of somewhere else for now.

I was checking out the shopping carts though when we were out meeting the neighbors. They like me. I give two dollars for a smoke and if it's your last one I buy it anyway and let you smoke it for me. We been around trying to collect some fresh good karma after 2 blown engines.

We love it here. A park behind the Ford dealer for dogs and a grocery store just across from the far end of the car lot for a steady supply of canned dogfood and chocolate milk. Life is good . . . Of course we are suddenly like CA street people or something right downtown here but I see why they like it for the conveniences.

“I was checking out the shopping carts...when we were out meeting the neighbors. They like me. I give two dollars for a smoke and if it's your last one I buy it anyway and let you smoke it for me. We been around trying to collect some fresh good karma after 2 blown engines.”

Like I always tell the po-po, can't roust me if I'm broke down. Might could use some serving and protecting though, being CA and all.  

Here are some recent quips that came as he made his way from Alabama through Texas on his way back to Quartzsite for the current seasonal work:

Came rocking into Texas with ArkLaTex country one-oh-three-one The Pig, serving god, country and family in that order before we got rowdy on the (Red) river with one-oh-three-nine The River coming out of the Paris of Texas where Green Machine Rentals was the business of the day on this money-making Monday. They want to make our lawnmowing journey as smooth and enjoyable as possible which I thought was really nice of them.

We're getting lots of culture traveling the 82. Floydada on our mind.

Gainesville TX Walmart on US 82 275 miles or so from the Wayne Russel Free RV Park in Floydada where we vacation.

High wind and high-profile vehicle warnings up ahead so we only came another 60 miles today. Our free time was up at the Wayne Russel RV back in Floydada so now we're in Littlefield at the Waylon Jennings Free RV Park until the front blows through. We like it better than the Ray and Donna West Free RV Park up in Muleshoe.

And here in Littlefield they have a full selection of pickled products at the Alsup gas station, and the hard-boiled eggs are always fresh. We cut across on the Farm 54 and they must remember us from last time since everybody waved. 

When Billy goes off the grid, I never know what might or might not happen. I do know a lot happens alone in the woods, and I have visions of Chris McCandless, who was stranded by the Teklahika River’s high waters in the Alaskan wilderness in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. He ultimately starved to death. I imagine Billy alone in his camper having a heart attack and no one knows for days. Or he’s hiking alone and falls. There’s no safety net for flat tires—or heart attacks—beyond the range of the cell towers. I urge him to wear his Personal Locator Beacon when he hikes with his dogs, but I have no idea if he ever does.

A different type of danger lurks at truck stops and in Walmart parking lots, where he sometimes parks. He felt compelled to buy a gun during the height of the pandemic and political unrest when more and more people were crowding the “hidey-holes” where he’d previously lived alone.

A lot can happen in the weeks that go by without a text or phone call. One time, Oops was bitten by a rattlesnake, and they were hours from the nearest town.  When Billy contracted Covid, no one knew. He was extremely sick, in a feverish, painful haze, alone in his camper. I found out after the fact. I’ll never forget the time he called me, stranded with his grief and the bitter wind on a lonesome stretch of desert road where he buried his beloved dog, Possum, somewhere he’d never see again.

The boat harbor in Homer, Alaska

Sunset over the 4.5-mile Homer Spit

Unloading halibut in Kachemak Bay

The end of the road on the Homer Spit

Billy has worked over one hundred different jobs, from apple picking in Washington State to working on a fishing boat in Homer, Alaska. He met his second common-law wife while they both were working in the cannery in Homer, and they eventually lived in a house they built by hand. (Billy likes to say, “I lost my first wife to indoor plumbing.” Which he did when she decided to stay in Laughlin, Nevada, to work in the casinos and live in an apartment.)

During the 1990s, he and his second wife also ran a sawmill after the spruce beetle decimated millions of trees all over Alaska. At about the same time of his second separation, his childhood friend Mark was dying of cancer, so Billy traveled with Mark while he sought a cure in various places in California and Mexico.

He met his latest lady friend, Mikki, at the Yacht Club, of course. He says with a bit of wonder in his voice, “She’s a real person,” because most of the year she lives outside Chicago in a house except when she travels in her “Barbie Dream House” to Quartzsite to sell the leftover inventory from her jewelry store. Her only fault, Billy says, is that “she has poor taste in men.”

When he applies for a job, Billy doesn’t fill out an application or give anyone a resume. Before he’s hired, he sets his terms.

“I’ve never been one for roots,” he’d told me earlier in that same visit. He said, by way of explanation, “Long gone and gone far.”

“My one simple rule is you can’t raise your voice or look at me funny,” he says without a trace of humor.

One day when he’d had enough at his job as a cook, he was walking out the kitchen door when one dishwasher said to the other, “I guess he’s quitting.”

“But I didn’t hear any yelling,” the other guy said.

“Must have looked at him funny,” the first dishwasher said.

Billy has made a living as a photographer, painter, dishwasher, line cook, liquor store manager. He’s worked in canneries and casinos. You name it, he’s done it, always with a camera and pen in hand. Because he carries his camera with him wherever he goes, he’s taken thousands of pictures of the people and places he’s known the past forty years and sells many of his photos to the stock company designpics.com where you can search for his images under Bill Scott. Because he’s written in a spiral notebook every day of his life since he started traveling, he has decades of journals.

Bald eagles roosting for the winter on the Homer Spit (photograph by Bill Scott)
Bald eagles roosting for the winter on the Homer Spit (photograph by Bill Scott)

When he returned to Alabama right after Covid to help tend to things after my mother’s hip surgery, the heat and humidity became unbearable to him, and he started preparing to leave. He excavated rotted wood—or as he calls it, “camper cancer.” He checked his engine and tires. On every visit, when I ask when he’ll be leaving, he never says until he wakes up one day and decides to depart.

When I told him I was writing about him, he said emphatically, “I’m no Fern.” And he’s not, but like Fern, he chooses the open road as home.

“I’ve never been one for roots,” he’d told me earlier in that same visit. He said, by way of explanation, “Long gone and gone far.”

On his most recent visit this fall, as he checked the trailer hitch one last time on the morning of his departure, I asked him why he had to leave.

“I’ve always been leaving,” he said.

When Billy leaves, my mother and I stand in the driveway and wait for the taillights to fade around the corner and strain for the last glimpse of his arm until she sighs and leans a little forward on her walker beside me.

When Billy leaves, my mother and I stand in the driveway and wait for the taillights to fade around the corner and strain for the last glimpse of his arm until she sighs and leans a little forward on her walker beside me.

“Well,” she says. “There he goes.”

We commune in silence for a moment, knowing this could be the last time we’ll ever see him. But watching him go, I know now—after surviving the Great Recession, health challenges, and a pandemic—that I was the one fooled by the false sense of security and safety I thought living in one place my entire life afforded me. Staying in one place couldn’t protect me from the inevitable life changes and losses we all endure no matter where we are.

This last time, when Billy left, I turned to my mother with tears running down my face.

“Are you going to be okay?” I asked.

She looked at me, dry-eyed but tired. “I have to be.”

Billy’s favorite expression to sign off a phone call or email, summing up his life on the road?

“Stay tuned for further episodes.”

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About the author

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Lanier Isom is a journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama, coauthor of the award-winning memoir Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond. The film Lilly, based on her book, starring Patricia Clarkson, is in post-production. Her work has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Los Angeles TimesThe Lily and Huffington Post. A frequent contributor to al.com, she is an Alabama Library Association Nonfiction Award recipient and a 2023 Alabama State Council on the Arts Fellow.

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