(Source: www.wired.com)

In the spring of 1960, just after he turned 16, Chuck Stout went to work as a “garbage boy” at a McDonald’s in Toledo, Ohio. For 85 cents an hour, he swept and mopped the floors, kept the drive-in lot tidy, filled the shake machine, and washed dishes. Chuck loved the job. It was an escape—somewhere to go that wasn’t the Weiler Homes public housing complex, where he lived with his mother and sister. They were barely scraping by. “My mom drank so much,” he says, “she didn’t know what I was doing.”

Not only did Chuck love his job, the job loved him. He went from garbage boy to french fry maker to burger cook to cashier. He became a manager, then a supervisor, then a field consultant, then a professor at Hamburger University, where McDonald’s trains new franchise owners and managers. By 1976, Chuck was serving as a director of product development for the entire corporation. The next year, he was on the team that brought ice cream sundaes to the chain’s menu. For the effort, Chuck was rewarded with a handsome bonus and a personal letter from founder Ray Kroc, whose wisdom Chuck was fond of quoting from memory.

Chuck eventually got fed up with corporate culture and told his superiors he wanted to go back out “in the field.” When two planes hit the World Trade Center in 2001, he was 57 and running his own McDonald’s franchise in Columbia, Pennsylvania. He rushed to Manhattan, where for three days he loaded up Egg McMuffins, hash browns, and coffee, first onto a luggage trolley, then a golf cart, and hauled them down to the debris pit to feed rescuers. The experience felt like the capstone of Chuck’s more than 40 years with the company. It was, he believed, the most worthwhile thing he’d ever done.

Chuck retired from McDonald’s in 2002. Not long after that, he lost his wife of 25 years to cancer. And so at age 60, Chuck found himself starting over. He moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and bought a two-bedroom cottage with a hot tub on the 10th green of a golf course in a gated community. To stave off restlessness, he took a job leading open-air jeep tours of the Carolina Lowcountry. He began having dinner with a fellow guide named Barbara Gatti, then going bowling with her, then going to the local Unity church with her. In 2007 she moved in with him, and they started their own company, Carolina Adventure Tours. Chuck led most of the excursions. Barb, a church music director, gave lessons on the side. They were happy. They were not prepared.

Chuck still remembers the call from Wells Fargo that brought the 2008 financial crisis crashing down on his head. He had invested his $250,000 nest egg in a fund that supposedly guaranteed him $4,000 a month to live on. “You have no more money,” he recalls his banker saying flatly. “What do you want us to do?” Unable to think of a better answer, Chuck told him, “Well, shove your foot up your ass.” Then he hung up.

Barb had lost her savings too, some $200,000 in investments. And with the travel industry flattened by the Great Recession, bookings at Carolina Adventure Tours dwindled. By the time Barb and Chuck got married in 2009, they were upside down on their mortgage and grappling with credit card debt.

The couple was facing bankruptcy, which scared Chuck to death. It brought back the terror of growing up poor—the pervasive insecurity he’d stamped out by going to work at 16. But by 2012, they had run out of options.

After filing their papers, Chuck and Barb began liquidating their lives. They shuttered ­Carolina Adventure Tours and handed their 2009 ­Chrysler Town & Country over to the bank. They sold most of their possessions, including all of their appliances and furniture. What didn’t sell on ­Craigslist went to an auctioneer. Barb let go of her record collection and two pianos. Chuck ­surrendered his golf clubs. Objects they couldn’t bear to part with—including Chuck’s letter from Ray Kroc, framed and hanging on the wall—went to one of Barb’s daughters for safekeeping. (Barb and Chuck each have three kids.)

Whatever survived the purge had to fit in their new dwelling: a 29-foot 1996 National RV Sea Breeze motor home, which Barb’s brother sold to them for $500. The rig had dry-rotted tires, a dead generator, and a leak in the gas line. Back when the Stouts had money, they’d idly fantasized about becoming carefree vagabonds in a nice RV. Their current situation didn’t quite align with that dream, but they embraced it anyway. Perhaps, Barb reflected, this was destiny—the universe pushing them toward the lifestyle they’d wanted all along. She decided to call their next move “Barb and Chuck’s Great Adventure.”

The Stouts set off in early 2013. First they drove south to Pensacola, Florida, where they stayed for a month in a downscale RV park. Next they moved into a New Orleans trailer court wedged between a rail yard and a highway. Then to Memphis, Tennessee, then on to South Dakota and Mount Rushmore. By the time they settled in for the summer at Palisade State Park in central Utah, the adventure was already wearing them down. Whenever it rained, water began leaking into their RV from all sides; the rubber seals surrounding the windows and the bathroom skylight were shot. The Stouts named their rig “TC.” On a good day, TC stood for “Totally Comfortable.” On a bad day—when the furnace failed in freezing weather or the turn signals died—it meant “Tin Can.”

The Stouts’ food rations dwindled to two cans of black beans, a can of corn, and some iced tea. Their account was down to $8.

In Utah they worked as campground hosts—welcoming visitors, cleaning toilets, shoveling out fire pits, running an office—but the job didn’t pay; it just gave them a free spot to park TC, with hookups for water, electricity, and sewage. Cash was getting tight. Chuck was receiving $1,186 a month from Social Security, and Barb got some money each year from her family. Neither of them had health insurance. That summer, while waiting for a check to arrive, they watched their food rations dwindle to two cans of black beans, a can of corn, and some iced tea. Their account was down to $8.

They wondered how anyone managed to survive on the road. Then someone told them about a website called Workers on Wheels. There they found a sprawling employment network for job-seeking RVers, a community whose members called themselves “workampers.”

A few weeks later, the Stouts were back on the move, driving west to Nevada, where they’d finally secured three months of full employment. For Chuck, the job meant he would occupy the lowest rung of a major corporation’s ladder for the first time since he was a garbage boy at McDonald’s. He didn’t mind, though. All that mattered was that he and Barb were together. And that Amazon would pay them.

Inside the Stouts’ RV, which they named “TC”—”Totally Comfortable” on good days, “Tin Can” on bad ones.

Cole Barash

Barb decided to call their move to the vagabond life, “Barb and Chuck’s Great Adventure.”

Cole Barash

In the mid-2000s, Amazon had a problem. Every year, the company scrambled to find temporary workers during the peak months of hectic commerce leading up to Christmas. In some areas of the country, reliable on-demand labor was so hard to come by that it resorted to busing in workers from three to five hours away. Then, in 2008, a staffing agency came up with something new: inviting a team of migrant RVers to work at the facility in Coffeyville, Kansas.

Pleased with the results, Amazon brought in more RVers the following year, expanding the program to warehouses in Campbellsville, Kentucky, and Fernley, Nevada. Amazon gave the new initiative a name—Camper­Force—and a logo: the silhouette of an RV in motion, bearing the corporation’s “smile” logo.

Many of the workers who joined Camper­Force were around traditional retirement age, in their sixties or even seventies. They were glad to have a job, even if it involved walking as many as 15 miles a day on the concrete floor of a warehouse. From a hiring perspective, the RVers were a dream labor force. They showed up on demand and dispersed just before Christmas in what the company cheerfully called a “taillight parade.” They asked for little in the way of benefits or protections. And though warehouse jobs were physically taxing—not an obvious fit for older bodies—recruiters came to see Camper­Force workers’ maturity as an asset. These were diligent, responsible employees. Their attendance rates were excellent.

“We’ve had folks in their eighties who do a phenomenal job for us,” noted Kelly Calmes, a Camper­Force representative, in one online recruiting seminar. He elaborated: “You guys have put in a lifetime of work. You understand what work is.”

In a company presentation, one slide read, “Jeff Bezos has predicted that, by the year 2020, one out of every four workampers in the United States will have worked for Amazon.”

Camper­Force hired aggressively. Representatives went on scouting missions in more than a dozen states, setting up recruiting tables at popular RV destinations like Yellowstone National Park and the motor home mecca of Quartzsite, Arizona, where tens of thousands of RVers camp in the desert each winter. They wore Camper­Force T-shirts and handed out “Now Hiring” flyers, along with swag bearing the smiling RV logo—pads of sticky notes, beer koozies, handheld fans. They created a $50 referral bonus—later increased to $125—for existing Camper­Force workers who convinced friends to join them. In a company presentation, one slide read, “Jeff Bezos has predicted that, by the year 2020, one out of every four workampers in the United States will have worked for Amazon.”

Warehouses in other cities—including Haslet, Texas; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Jeffersonville, Indiana—began using Camper­Force workers. And as Amazon’s network of fulfillment centers expanded, the company hired trusted Camper­Force veterans to be “away team associates,” responsible for training workers at some of its new facilities.

Since it began, Camper­Force has enabled Amazon to fill thousands of seasonal warehouse positions. The company is notoriously tight-lipped, but when I asked a Camper­Force recruiter in Arizona about the size of the program, she estimated that it encompassed some 2,000 workers. That was back in 2014. And newer anecdotal reports suggest the demand for Camper­Force jobs has continued to grow. “We can really look back at the last couple years and see how applications have come in earlier and more often,” said Calmes, the Camper­Force representative, during a recruiting seminar in May. “Response this year has been just really overwhelming.”

Amazon does about a third of its business in the last three months of the year, aka Q4. It needs many more warehouse workers during that time, which is where the Camper­Force comes in.

Source: US Securities and Exchange Commission

When the Stouts arrived in Fernley, Nevada, in 2013 to start their first season at Camper­Force, they didn’t know what to expect—apart from the wage: $11.75 an hour plus overtime. They landed at the Desert Rose RV Park, a gravel patch along Highway 50 dotted with cottonwoods and bisected with high-voltage wires that crackled overhead. It was the most popular of the half-dozen or so trailer courts that worked with Amazon to provide space for workers. All were filled up with Camper­Force workers and their rigs, which ranged from colossal RVs to tiny travel trailers and camper vans. One worker had only a tent to live in.

The Stouts reported to the warehouse on October 1 for orientation, training, and a period of half-days called “work hardening,” meant to help newcomers adapt to the physical stress of the job. Then the 10-hour shifts began.

Chuck was a picker. His job was to take items down from warehouse shelves as customers ordered them, scanning each product with a handheld barcode reader. The warehouse was so immense that he and his fellow workers used the names of states to navigate its vast interior. The western half was “Nevada,” and the eastern half was “Utah.” Chuck ended up walking about 13 miles a day. He told himself it was good exercise. Besides, he’d met another picker who was 80 years old—if that guy could do it, surely he could.

Barb was a stower. That meant scanning incoming merchandise and shelving it. Stowers didn’t have to walk as far as pickers did, though Barb’s muscles still ached from the lifting, squatting, reaching, and twisting motions that her job required. Much of the strain was mental. With the holiday season nearing, the warehouse’s shelves were crammed, and one day she wandered around the warehouse for 45 minutes—she timed it—looking for a place to stow a single oversized book. Barb murmured, “Breathe, breathe,” to herself to stay calm.

When Bob looked around the RV park, he recognized it as a place where the Great Recession had never ended: “This is a whole band of housing refugees!”

On days off, many of Barb and Chuck’s coworkers were too exhausted to do anything but sleep, eat, and catch up on laundry. But the Stouts were gregarious and managed to rally new friends for excursions. They went on a tour of the Mustang Ranch, a legal brothel, and organized a Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people at a casino. Chuck and Barb found that they had a lot in common with their fellow workers, who came from all corners of the United States. Many had seen their retirement savings vanish in the stock market or had lost homes to foreclosure. Others had watched businesses go under or grappled with unemployment and ageism. A larger number had become full-time RVers or vandwellers because they could no longer afford traditional housing—what they called “sticks and bricks.” They talked about how Social Security wasn’t enough to cover the basic necessities and about the yoke of debt from every imaginable source: medical bills, maxed-out credit cards, even student loans.

The Stouts’ Camper­Force social circle included a couple from Beaverton, Oregon, named Bob and Anita Apperley, who lived in a 2003 Cardinal fifth-wheel trailer. Like the Stouts, they were new to full-time RVing and were doing Camper­Force for the first time. When Bob looked around the Desert Rose, he recognized it as a place where the Great Recession had never ended. “This is a whole band of housing refugees!” he exclaimed.

Before the crash, the Apperleys had been doing all right. Bob worked as an accountant for a timber products firm, and Anita was an interior decorator and part-time caregiver. They thought they would retire aboard a sailboat, funding that dream with equity from their three­bedroom house. But then the housing bubble burst and their home’s value tumbled. Neither could imagine spending the rest of their lives servicing a loan worth more than their house. So they bought the trailer and drove away. “We just walked,” Anita says. “We told ourselves, ‘We’re not playing this game anymore.’”

Bob blamed Wall Street. When he spoke about his decision to abandon the house, he’d rush to add that, before that moment, he’d always paid the bills on time. He’d kept good credit. His downfall had been his faith in the gospel of ever-increasing home prices. “I never had any expectation that a house would drop in value,” he says, shaking his head. Bob compared the “slow-dawning reality” of his new life to waking up in The Matrix: learning that the pleasant, predictable world you used to inhabit is a mirage, a lie built to hide a brutal reality. “The security most people take comfort in—I’m not convinced that isn’t an illusion,” he says. “What you believe to be true is so embedded. It takes a radical pounding to let go.”

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For the Stouts and their coworkers, the camaraderie of the RV park made Camper­Force bearable. Other stuff helped too: comfortable sneakers, Epsom salt baths for sore feet, Icy Hot for tired muscles, daily rations of Advil, Aleve, or the free generic pain relievers on offer in the warehouse. None of those things, however, was a surefire preventative against job­-related ailments. As the season wore on, people complained of plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, and repetitive stress injuries, including a condition called trigger finger, which came from using a handheld scanner gun over and over.

The weather made things worse. By the end of October, snow had already come to Fernley. Below-freezing temperatures left many denizens of the Desert Rose struggling to stay warm in RVs built for warmer climes. TC’s pipes froze, cutting off the water supply. Then its pump broke. Problems like this were common enough that Amazon created a Camper­Force web page titled “Winterizing Your Rig.” It advised covering windows in shrink-film and putting reflective insulators over roof vents, and provided links so readers could purchase both materials on—where else?—Amazon.com.

A chalkboard hung on TC’s wall. The Stouts used it to count the days until their three-month Camper­Force tour ended. Finally it showed a triumphant zero, which meant the Stouts were free to leave Fernley and venture back into the unknown.

A map hanging in the Stouts’ RV shows where their travels have taken them, often for seasonal jobs.

Cole Barash

Most of the year, the town of Quartzsite, Arizona, lies dormant, a lonesome outpost between Los Angeles and Phoenix with a couple of truck stops and temperatures high enough to make you hallucinate. In the inferno of summer, it has fewer than 4,000 inhabitants. But every winter, when days grow mild, nomads stream in from all over the US and Canada, turning the area into a pop-up metropolis. It’s estimated that more than 40,000 RVers dwell in the desert near Quartzsite from November through February, in an annual pilgrimage that has been called Burning Man for Geezers, Spring Break for Seniors, and America’s Largest Parking Lot. Rather than paying for amenities, most “boondock” on the public lands outside of town, using solar panels and gas-powered generators, hauling water in jugs and tanks. During the frigid months in Fernley, Barb and Chuck had heard longtime RVers speak longingly about Quartzsite. So they decided to give it a try. It felt like a rite of passage.

It did not go so well at first. Another couple they’d met on the road had invited them to join a large, shared campsite. When the Stouts arrived, they saw that the campers staying there all had vehicles of the same type—luxury Blue Bird Wanderlodge motor homes—parked in a circle around a large bonfire pit. The Blue Bird owners, who generally seemed more well-to-do than Barb and Chuck, called the Stouts’ vehicle an “SOB,” slang for “Some Other Brand.” It was not invited to join the grand formation. So Barb and Chuck parked behind the Blue Birds. Some nights, they had their own bonfire.

It was as if the world the Stouts had begun to explore on the internet over the past few months had materi­alized in front of them.

They soon connected with a more welcoming tribe—one whose bonds had been forged by hard labor. One afternoon, an unofficial Camper­Force reunion sprang up on a patch of desert called Scaddan Wash. The gathering included nine Amazonians—Bob and Anita Apperley among them—one retired police officer, and one writer: me. I was staying in a tent not far from the Stouts’ campsite. I’d been interviewing Camper­Force workers for months by that point, so Barb—one of the organizers of the gathering—invited me along. That night, we sat in camp chairs and the CamperForce alums reminisced about warehouse work while munching on pork rinds, tortilla chips, baby carrots, and Barb’s homemade vegan “egg salad” sandwiches. They sang “The Twelve Days of Amazon,” a mocking parody of the holiday classic that Barb had cowritten with a friend. Then they drew names from a hat to award door prizes: Camper­Force-branded key chains, bottle openers, lanyards, and flash drives.

A few weeks after they arrived, the Stouts visited a sprawling RV expo that comes to Quartzsite every year, which folks around town call the Big Tent. Barb and Chuck wandered aisles where more than 200 exhibitors sold all manner of RV services and supplies. But just as conspicuous were all the recruiters. Workampers seemed to be in demand all across the US. Amazon had representatives stationed at a recruiting table for Camper­Force; several booths were hiring campground hosts for various national parks; a staffing agency sought workers for the annual sugar beet harvest in the Red River Valley region. (Its flyers read: “Be part of an ‘unbeet­able’ experience!”) There was also a booth for Adventureland, an Iowa amusement park where workampers helped run rides, games, souvenir shops, and food courts while living in a company-owned campground. For the Stouts, it was as if the world they’d begun to explore on the internet over the past few months—the online job boards that connected RV dwellers with work in all corners of the country—had materi­alized in front of them.

Pete and Sarah Francis, Camper­Force workers staying at a campsite in Clarksville, Indiana.

Cole Barash

A trailer at the same campground.

Cole Barash

Over the next two autumns, the Stouts reported for a second and third tour of duty with Camper­Force. In 2015 they joined a convoy of Camper­Force workers headed to the Amazon warehouse in Haslet, Texas, near Fort Worth. Chuck was now 71. Barbara was on the cusp of 59. I was 37. The Stouts arrived at the warehouse in September, and I was hired by Camper­Force to start working in Haslet two months later, in early November. After hearing so many stories about their jobs, I wanted to experience the work firsthand.

Due to a shortage of trailer park space near the warehouse, the Stouts ended up at a Kampgrounds of America site 34 miles north of the facility. Heavy morning traffic around Fort Worth meant they had to wake up at 4 to arrive on time for their 6 am shift. “We went to work in the dark, and we came home in the dark,” Chuck says.

The 1.1 million-square-foot Haslet warehouse was just two years old. It was gigantic and state-of-the-art, the paragon of Amazon’s modern, hyperefficient distribution chain. But Haslet had never used Camper­Force labor before—so it was just beginning to incorporate an army of senior citizen nomads into the system. Miles of conveyor belts wound through the facility, ­rumbling like freight trains as they shuttled tubs of merchandise between stations. Paths marked in green tape told workers where to walk to avoid smacking into a belt, making the warehouse floor look like a giant board game. A horn kept blaring over the din, signifying that a jammed belt had just been fixed and was starting up again.

Many of the freshly arrived Camper­Force workers were curious and strangely excited to work alongside the robots that threatened to replace them.

The walls featured murals of Amazon’s warehouse mascot, a bloblike orange character called Peccy, along with Orwellian slogans like “Problems Are Treasures” and “Variation Is the Enemy.” Wall-mounted dispensers labeled LIL’ MEDIC offered free pain relievers. A poster told workers to prepare to be sore. Everything was regimented. Handheld scanners tracked workers’ progress around the warehouse. Inside bathroom stalls, charts showing a palette of colors ranging from light yellow to terrifying puce instructed workers to examine their urine and drink more water.

The most futuristic thing about Haslet was that it operated a fleet of industrial robots, one of 10 Amazon facilities at the time that did so. The giant Roomba-­like machines transported merchandise around the warehouse, essentially abolishing all the legwork that had been done by pickers like Chuck. Many of the freshly arrived Camper­Force workers were curious and strangely excited to work alongside the robots that threatened to replace them.

But the Stouts didn’t get to work with the much-touted bots. Instead they were assigned to the receiving department. Day and night, semi trucks backed up to the loading docks, disgorging their freight onto conveyor belts. Large boxes traveled down the line into the warehouse, where workers like Barb opened them, scanned their contents, and transferred everything into yellow bins called totes. Barb marveled at the tide of weird, meaningless junk that swept past her in the course of each long shift. She decided that the year’s most inane product was something called a potty putter : a tiny golf set with a green, a flag, and two balls, designed for use in the bathroom.

Chuck became a “water spider,” a catchall position—sort of like garbage boy—that entailed pushing carts, resupplying stations with totes, emptying garbage cans, and other odd jobs. He was in constant motion, walking about 15 miles per shift, pausing only on rare occasions. One such occasion came when a box flew off a conveyor belt and knocked him flat on the ground. The sound of his head hitting the concrete floor was terrifyingly loud; in an instant, he was surrounded by worried coworkers and an Amazon medic. The medic held up a finger, asking Chuck to watch as he moved it slowly back and forth. Soon he had good news: Chuck hadn’t sustained a concussion. So he went back to work. (Amazon declined to comment on the incident.)

When I arrived in Haslet in November, it took me a long time to cross paths with the Stouts; we were staying in different campsites more than 40 miles apart and were assigned to different departments, and different shifts, in the vast warehouse. At my orientation, I was the only recruit under 50. Our trainer—herself a Camper­Force veteran—said that Amazon was thrilled to welcome the RVers, adding that they were known for “the camper­ effect”: a can-do work ethic that rubbed off on younger, less experienced laborers.

My job assignment was in a department called Inventory Control/Quality Assurance, which meant scanning merchandise so it could be matched against inventory records. It also meant working with the robots. The 350-pound orange contraptions were called drive units in official Amazon parlance, but most people called them Kivas, after the name of the original manufacturer. They scooted around inside a dim fenced-in area—after all, robots don’t need light to see—on a floor nicknamed the Kiva field. Their job: ferrying open-faced shelving columns full of merchandise to stations operated by humans like me along the perimeter. No one, except for members of a labor unit called Amnesty, was allowed to enter the Kiva field, even when products tumbled off the shelves.

One CamperForce worker stared and demanded, “How’d she get that job? I’d rather do that! I’d rather clean toilets.”

I’d read a lot of hype about the Kivas: They were supposedly the harbingers of a jobless dystopia in which manual labor would be obsolete. The reality was more slapstick. Our trainers regaled us with tales of unruly robots. They told us how one robot had tried to drag a worker’s stepladder away. Occasionally, I was told, two Kivas—each carrying a tower of merchandise—collided like drunken European soccer fans bumping chests. And in April of that year, the Haslet fire department responded to an accident at the warehouse involving a can of “bear repellent” (basically industrial-grade pepper spray). According to fire department records, the can of repellent was run over by a Kiva and the warehouse had to be evacuated; eight workers were treated for injuries and one was taken to the hospital. Amazon, for its part, says it “can find no record of an employee being taken by ambulance right after the incident.”

One Camper­Force worker, a white-haired septuagenarian, told me that she was on the verge of quitting because she found the robots so maddening. The Kivas kept bringing her the same shelf to scan. After it happened to her three times, the shelf began going to her husband, who was working 25 feet away. He got it six times. She told me this outside the break room, as we walked past a cheerful-looking member of the cleaning crew. Trailing off from her story, she stared at the worker and demanded, “How’d she get that job? I’d rather do that! I’d rather clean toilets.”

At the start of each of my own shifts, a ponytailed manager in her twenties said “Helloooo, campers!” while her assistant coached us through stretching exercises. Then I spent hours scanning barcodes on whatever the Kivas brought me: everything from gun accessories to dildos (Cloud Nine Delightful Dong). On one occasion, a Kiva carrying 18 boxes of patchouli incense rolled toward my workstation—and then returned twice more to be ­rescanned. When my shift was over, my coworkers could still smell the incense on me. “Saturday Night Fever!” exclaimed a retired minister.

One evening, I managed to meet up with Barb and Chuck at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Denton. They cracked up when I told them about my experiences with the Kivas. But our reunion was brief; I had to report to work for the overnight shift.

A few hours later, a manager asked me to scan items in “Damageland,” where all the broken merchandise gets exiled. But the readout on my handheld scanner insisted I was supposed to be driving a forklift. (I do not know how to drive a forklift.) After much futzing with the scanner, I finally made it to the land of damaged goods. After a few hours taking stock of dented cans, broken boxes, and a novelty gift called a BUTT/FACE towel, it was time to clock out. And with that, as if to confirm Amazon’s impression that younger workers are less reliable than older workampers like Barb and Chuck, I quit. I’d made it through all of one workweek.

A campground in Clarksville, Indiana, which hosts workers for an Amazon fulfillment center nearby.

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A picnic table kitchen at a campground in Clarksville, Indiana.

Cole Barash

After they finished their stint in Camper­Force that year, the Stouts returned once again to Quartzsite—this time as veteran nomads. Barb had a job in the Big Tent, selling Bloody Mary mix to the Spring Break for Seniors set. One night, they invited me to take part in a small ritual: They were going to burn their old bankruptcy papers.

Near a crackling bonfire, Chuck opened a Miller Lite for himself and one for me. Barb sat on a cooler with a glass of wine and offered a benediction over the event. “I’d like to give thanks to the universe for this very poignant moment, where we can get on with our lives,” she said.

Chuck rifled through an accordion folder, pulling out individual documents. He inspected each one with a flashlight before dropping it onto the pyre. A batch of invoices flared up brightly. “Those were some hot bills!” he cracked.

They talked about how they hoped to upgrade to a newer motor home that didn’t leak. Barb mused that she never wanted to own a credit card again. They marveled over the past few years. Chuck found a letter they’d written to their creditors before declaring bankruptcy in 2012, back when he was seized by terror at the thought of backsliding into poverty. It seemed like another lifetime. He read a couple of sentences aloud. “We have done everything in our power to make ends meet but have fallen short due to the economy and our circumstances in owning our own business. It is our full intention to pay our creditors,” he intoned. After a pause, he added: “We tried.” Then he slipped the paper into the fire.

When most of the papers were gone, Barb brought out her guitar and improvised a ditty:

When we signed in 2012,

We didn’t know what the future held.

My brother gave us this piece of shit,

And now we’re living in it!

It was our destiny

To be living in TC,

And now we’re moving down the road.

The song was short, but she held the last note long and clear, as if it were already pushing them into the future.

Jessica Bruder ( @jessbruder ) is the author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century , from which this story is adapted, to be published by W. W. Norton & Co., September 19, 2017.

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