The 2020 film Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, is dedicated to "the ones who had to depart," which includes part- and full-time RVers and van dwellers. McDormand plays Fern, a woman who lives in a converted van and travels the country in search of seasonal work after her husband dies. The movie is heartbreaking and raw in its unvarnished look into the life of people who may not have necessarily chosen to be nomads—but somewhere along the way they've recognized that, even if its just for the briefest of moments, there is beauty in the Badlands.
Whether you call the road home or you're just taking a short trip, here are eight of our favorite stops inspired by the film.
Fern and her late husband Bo lived most of their lives in Empire and Nomadland opens with the following explanation: "On January 31, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, U.S. Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years. By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued." United States Gypsum sold the town and mine to the Empire Mining Co. in 2016 and today it has less than 100 residents.
Empire, Nevada, United States
Fern spends a good chunk of the movie in Quartzsite, Arizona, called "the Woodstock for RVers" for good reason. Every winter thousands of RVers and vanlifers descend on this small community located along Interstate 10 in western Arizona to dry camp in the desert, peruse the many vendors who set up shop here for the season, and visit with old friends they have met during their travels. In mid-January, a major RV show takes place in Quartzsite, drawing even more seasoned or wannabe-nomads.
Fern works several different jobs over the course of the movie, doing a stint at a rock shop out West. While the shop is never identified, there are hundreds of similar souvenir shops along Route 66 in Arizona and New Mexico. Jim Gray's is one of the largest—after perusing the enormous selection of geological wonders you'll be amazed there is any petrified wood left to see in nearby Petrified Forest National Park. Don't forget to say hi to Wild Bill, a fossilized alligator skeleton, advertised on billboards as being 2.9 million years old.
National Grasslands Visitor Center
Just like in Zhao's previous films, several South Dakota locations feature prominently in Nomadland, including the National Grasslands Visitor Center. Here you'll find educational displays, a gift shop, and information on recreational opportunities.
In the movie, Fern works at a campground in Badlands National Park. The park is famous for its otherworldly, dramatic landscapes that feature fossil beds, rock formations, canyons, and spires. Bison and bighorn sheep roam the park and can often be spotted from the main Badlands Loop Road.
Fern and David spend a rare afternoon off work at Reptile Gardens. But even if you're not a fan of getting close to a boa (or watching an alligator eat skinned rabbits), this South Dakota attraction—listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest reptile zoo—features botanical gardens, tropical birds, rare orchids and minerals, and wildlife shows.
Wall Drug Store—often called simply Wall Drug—is a classic tourist attraction that includes a drug store, gift shop, restaurants, art gallery, and various other stores. The restaurant and an 80-foot-long Apatosaurus sculpture—built by Emmet Sullivan, who also built Rapid City's Dinosaur Park—are featured in several Nomadland scenes.
Open to the public since 1936, Dinosaur Park is a free attraction that contains seven dinosaur sculptures on a hill with sweeping views of the South Dakota Badlands. Created to capitalize on the tourists coming to the Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore, the park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 21, 1990.
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