American Nomads: Documenting Restless Lives

Have ninety minutes to spare? Questioning your commitment to the Norman Rockwell ideal? Feeling the pull of the road? You just might appreciate American Nomads, a documentary about modern day vagabonds wandering the Southwest that was broadcast byBBC4 on November 16, 2011 .

Eight years in the making, American Nomads is a ninety minute documentary film written and hosted by Richard Grant, and inspired by his book American Nomads (Ghost Riders UK). The film takes the form of a 6,000 mile journey around the American Southwest in search of modern-day American nomads. Why have they chosen to live a wandering life, and what do they gain and sacrafic? Characters include rodeo cowboys, a traveling preacher, punk kids riding freight trains, a Wall Street drop-out, a wild man of the mountain backcountry, and retirees in motorhome. (

American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders (by Richard Grant)
American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders (by Richard Grant)

Richard Grant took up the wandering impulse in his 2003 Grove Press book American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders (which was published in the UK by Little Brown under the name Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads.)

Several reviewers have referred to the book as a meditation. That’s an appropriate way to describe the documentary as well. Grant’s unabashedly working through his own wanderlust, his own struggle with settling down and living a “normal life”. The hodgepodge of wandering souls he interviews may not accurately represent the overall nomadic population in the southwestern United States, but they mirror his own curiosity and the trajectory of his film seems to chronicle his personal quest to understand what is happening in his own brain and body. In the prologue he asks questions that shape the film.

  • What drove a man to spend his life in motion?
  • Was it a natural human impulse, recognized and obeyed, or was it a disease of the soul?
  • Why was the type so prevalent in America…?

Searching for the answers leads Grant into sometimes beautiful, sometimes challenging encounters, but he never seems to flinch from the motly cast of characters. Sure some of the American Nomads he confronts are from more privileged circumstances (Exeter, Princeton, Wall Street).

Some of these nomads are true Escapologists: people who’ve abandoned affluent lives at various points and for various reasons. (New Escapologist)

Maybe this is the world that shaped Grant? Maybe. Despite the more buttoned up world he seems to represent as the narrator, he’s surprisingly comfortable and familiar. And welcome. Even when the stories and lives around him are unwelcoming, unfamiliar and completely uncomfortable.

I’ll shut my gob so that you can watch American Nomads. And when you’re done, you can scan through these insightful quips.

American Nomads Review

Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads (by Richard Grant)
Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads (by Richard Grant)

America lost its nomads in the nineteenth century, when the Plains Indians were destroyed by European diseases and condemned to reservations. But beneath the sedentary surface of the present-day US, Richard Grant has discovered a country crawling with nomads of every variety – bikers, truckers, migrant workers, hobos, the ‘Rainbow Family’ of acid casualties, cowboys, Comanches and those, like himself, who simply can’t stay still. As he admits, the proper definition of nomadism specifies only pastoral herders, but the idea of nomadism inspires a far wider spectrum of wanderers, dreamers and misanthropes. (The Guardian)

For, although modern nomads are marked by their reluctance to participate in civil society, they are, Grant maintains, living out a central tenet of the American dream, which clings far more tightly to the idea of the Road than it does to the abstract symbolism of the Statue of Liberty. (The Guardian)

Grant’s scholarship is erratic… but his talent for storytelling is unarguable… [and] he always keeps one ear open for his travelling companions’ tall tales. Grant manages to keep a straight face (albeit eyebrows raised) in the presence of incredible myths… The chief wares of the nomad are stories and Grant has a carload of these. (The Guardian)