The Rise of the Rubber Tramps

Article by Elle Hardy

How more and more Americans are taking to the road and making a vehicle their home.

There’s a fireball sunset blazing on the western horizon of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. As a cool January dusk settles over this ashy plain outside the town of Quartzsite, two hours west of Phoenix on Interstate 10, I’m sitting before a campfire in this infinite land, being initiated into a tribe I only recently discovered but which has welcomed me.

All around us in the fading light, between the saguaro cactuses and creosote bushes, are a few thousand vehicles—our homes. We’re nomads. We’re people from all walks of life, from all over the country, who have chosen to remain in motion and live out of our campers and vans, our converted box trucks and school buses, our road-warrior RVs, and even our cars, the smallest of these mobile dwellings.

We’ve gathered for the tenth installment of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a convocation of highway roamers—“rubber tramps”—that began in 2010 with just 45 attendees, but now nearly doubles the 3,500-resident population of Quartzsite during its two-week run. 

Pre-Rendezvous, Quartzsite, the “Rock Capital of the World,” had been known for its winter gem and mineral shows, a desert mecca for rock hobbyists. But for those seated around this campfire, as well as for our neighbors inside or outside their vehicles, it’s this annual encampment that put the town, not far from the California border, on the map.

It’s time for campfire introductions. “Elle, wandering writer, gray Toyota Sienna,” I say on a rapidly cooling evening. More brief bios pour forth from trampers accustomed to meeting others on the road and sketching their lives in a few words. 

Julia is a freelance social worker and lifestyle “minimalist.” Easy is an itinerant agriculture worker, father to a pit bull. Brad is an unemployed van dweller. Polly Rose—whom I immediately decide is fabulous—is a full-time trailer tramp. Tabi? A former B-movie actress and free spirit. Jon is a grieving father. Hollywood is a rock hound, an amateur geologist. Footloose and house-free, J.J. and her partner Kevin are classic twenty-first-century rubber tramps.

With the country in the midst of the longest shutdown in government history, we’ve been left to our own devices on this tract of federal land. Not that it matters—America shut down for most of us a long time ago. The coming together, here, of road-hardened misfits shows the increasingly imaginative, and dedicated, lengths to which people will go to be free, in the land where freedom is supposed to be a given.

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