Adventures in Nomadland: Exploring the American Midwest landscape captured in the Oscar-tipped film


There’s a beautiful scene in Nomadland in which dawn comes up over a campsite where the protagonist, played by Frances McDormand, is working as a host. 

As she heads off to share her coffee with other campers, the camera lingers on the spectacular scenery.

I didn’t just recognise the location but even the campsite. It’s where, nine years ago, the intrepid but possibly foolish Leonard family spent what we thought might be our last night on Earth, as a monstrous storm swept through the Badlands of South Dakota and gave our tent such a pounding we were convinced we were going to be blown away with it.

Tom Leonard writes: ‘You pretty much know what you’re going to get in California, Florida or the North-East – the usual destinations for British and other foreign tourists – but the Midwest is full of surprises, and invariably pleasant ones’ 

Frances McDormand in Nomadland. The movie is what a U.S travel magazine hailed as a 'love letter to America's wide open spaces'

Frances McDormand in Nomadland. The movie is what a U.S travel magazine hailed as a ‘love letter to America’s wide open spaces’

The award-winning film (heavily fancied to pick up an Oscar or two) explores America’s dark underbelly.

Recently widowed and now jobless Fern (McDormand) travels around the American hinterland in a van as she encounters a burgeoning subculture of those whose lives have been ravaged by a recession and, too poor to retire, find themselves living like modern nomads. They go between temporary jobs while living in their vehicles.

However, looked at another way, Nomadland is what a U.S. travel magazine hailed as a ‘love letter to America’s wide open spaces’. It was shot across five states — South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona, Nevada and California — but it’s South Dakota that provides the film with its most memorable backdrops.

‘Fern’ doesn’t actually go to South Dakota and the Badlands, with its lunar landscape, in the book on which Nomadland is based, but film director Chloe Zhao — who won the best director Bafta — is a devotee of this part of the Great Plains. She also used the Badlands as the central setting for her previous film The Rider.

You will soon see why. The Badlands — most of it contained within a 244,000-acre national park — looks like it was painted by a Hollywood set designer.

The prairies are spectacularly interrupted by a huge expanse of colourful rock spires, canyons and jagged buttes where you can find the bones of sabre-toothed cats and camels.

The Badlands — so named by French-Canadian fur trappers who once travelled through and found them unbearably exposed, arid and hot — perfectly encapsulate how West and East Coast snobs who dismiss the Midwest as the ‘flyover states’, as in you simply fly over them to get to and from the good parts of the U.S., couldn’t be more wrong.

The Badlands — most of it contained within a 244,000-acre national park — looks like it was painted by a Hollywood set designer, writes Tom

The Badlands — most of it contained within a 244,000-acre national park — looks like it was painted by a Hollywood set designer, writes Tom

The Badlands was named by French-Canadian fur trappers who once travelled through and found them unbearably exposed, arid and hot

The Badlands was named by French-Canadian fur trappers who once travelled through and found them unbearably exposed, arid and hot

We’ve done a lot of American road trips, but the one we took in 2012 from Rapid City, South Dakota, to Bozeman, Montana, has to be the most memorable.

You pretty much know what you’re going to get in California, Florida or the North-East — the usual destinations for British and other foreign tourists — but the Midwest is full of surprises, and invariably pleasant ones.

Who would have thought, for example, that the nearest town to the prehistoric wilderness of the Badlands also happens to be home to a unique manifestation of American consumerism — Wall Drug Store, a 76,000 sq ft kitsch-filled mega-store where, incidentally, McDormand’s character also gets a job in Nomadland?

The Black Hills (black because they are heavily wooded) and the cowboy town of Deadwood are not far away, as is Mount Rushmore, America’s most imposing presidential monument.

Not far from the Badlands is Mount Rushmore, pictured, America's most imposing presidential monument

Not far from the Badlands is Mount Rushmore, pictured, America’s most imposing presidential monument

The key locations in America's Midwest

The key locations in America’s Midwest

However, those supposed must-see attractions now register less in my memory than far more mundane Midwest encounters, such as going out for dinner on a Saturday night in a cattle town in the high plains of Wyoming (due west of South Dakota) and finding pretty much every other man was wearing a stetson — and at the table, too. 

It was like something out of the TV series Dallas, only genuine and completely unaffected.

But then Midwesterners have a reputation for being as down-to-earth and unpretentious as the inhabitants of Los Angeles, Manhattan and Miami have for being, well, the opposite. 

Folks here still use quaint phrases like ‘slow as molasses in January’ without irony.

‘Yes, yes,’ wail my American friends in New York, ‘but they’re all hardcore Trump supporters out there.’

Some of them certainly are — last summer we managed to flee the city and drove to the eastern side of the Midwest in the Great Lakes region. 

On our first night, this time briefly under canvas in a campsite in Michigan, we found ourselves surrounded by an extended family so Trumpian they could have come straight from Hollywood central casting.

Take to the water by canoeing in Michigan’s Great Lakes. Tom explains: 'The Great Lakes take some getting used to - sandy beaches, warm and clean water, even waves and a perfect sea-like horizon - except that you're at least a thousand miles from any sea'

Take to the water by canoeing in Michigan’s Great Lakes. Tom explains: ‘The Great Lakes take some getting used to – sandy beaches, warm and clean water, even waves and a perfect sea-like horizon – except that you’re at least a thousand miles from any sea’ 

Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, pictured, which according to Tom feels like Cornwall, with 'pretty fishing villages selling cherry pie (this is cherry country)'

Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, pictured, which according to Tom feels like Cornwall, with ‘pretty fishing villages selling cherry pie (this is cherry country)’

TUCK IN TO AMERICA’S ‘BREADBASKET’ 

  • The American Midwest usually refers to 12 states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
  • It occupies land sandwiched on plains between the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Appalachian Mountains to the east.
  • Chicago in Illinois is the biggest city (population 2.6 million).
  • The Midwest is also sometimes referred to as America’s ‘breadbasket’ and its agricultural areas as the ‘Corn Belt’.
  • The phrase ‘will it play in Peoria?’ — as in Peoria, Illinois — is a rhetorical question to ask if an idea/policy will appeal to America.
  • In the 17th century, the fur trade between French and Native Americans was huge.
  • Railroads (railways) were built across the region in the mid 19th century.
  • Detroit in Michigan became a motor industry HQ with Ford setting up in 1903.
  • Motown Records was established in Detroit in 1959.
  • Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 24, 1941 (his birth name was Robert Allen Zimmerman).
  • Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson) was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 7, 1958.
  • Michael Jackson was born in Gary, Indiana, on August 29, 1958.
  • British involvement in the 18th century led to the Seven Years War between Britain and France, won by the British.

They had the pit bull terriers on chains, the fleet of vast flatbed trucks with Trump flags attached, and even the intention — amiably but firmly communicated to us before we’d even brewed our first cup of tea — that they intended to have quite a party that night.

In the event they did no such thing and were quiet as mice long before we were. 

They even took commendable care to ensure their dogs didn’t murder our little puppy, and the next morning one of them was utterly charming when I asked him for directions. 

He insisted on giving me his list of the state’s must-see attractions.

Midwesterners also have a reputation for being super-friendly and helpful.

Ellen and Cris, the couple who ran the Airbnb where we stayed further north in Michigan, didn’t just provide accommodation but, completely gratis, took us out kayaking and allowed our son to rumble around their woods on their quad bike.

In the summer, the Lakes — particularly Superior and Michigan — are idyllic. 

In places like Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula or Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula it feels like Cornwall, with pretty fishing villages selling cherry pie (this is cherry country).

The Great Lakes take some getting used to — sandy beaches, warm and clean water, even waves and a perfect sea-like horizon — except that you’re at least a thousand miles from any sea. 

While one might not rush out there in the frozen winter, even that drawback isn’t going to last. 

Global-warming forecasts project that the Great Lakes region will eventually have the best year-round climate in America.

Only this week CNN reported on this trend and identified Duluth, a small and surprisingly cool ‘Rust Belt’ Minnesota city that sits on the westernmost point of Lake Superior, as particularly desirable.

Superior contains 10 per cent of the world’s accessible freshwater and the world is going to get progressively more parched.

Some are already hailing Duluth as the San Francisco of the Midwest, which I hope for Duluth’s sake isn’t true.

We stopped off in Duluth for supplies for our actual destination: another lake — or rather lakes — further north.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is some million acres of forests, lakes and streams only accessible by canoe. 

You get your boat, supplies and entry licence from an outfitter who loads everything on to a motor boat that takes you to the edge of the beautiful wilderness.

And then you’re on own. 

You have to find somewhere to camp, and get between the 1,100 lakes with the canoe on your shoulders — a delightfully uncomfortable system known as portage. 

Bald eagles circle overhead and the feeling of solitude is overwhelming. This is another type of Nomadland.

The city of Duluth in Minnesota, which sits on the westernmost point of Lake Superior. Some are hailing Duluth as the San Francisco of the Midwest

The city of Duluth in Minnesota, which sits on the westernmost point of Lake Superior. Some are hailing Duluth as the San Francisco of the Midwest

After three wonderful days and less pleasant nights (when the mosquitos appear just before sunset in a dense cloud which you hear before you see, and territorial beavers demonstrate their annoyance by slapping their tails on the water with such force it sounds unnervingly like a gun going off) we left with a genuine sense of achievement.

And then we met a party of students heading out there for an entire month.

Americans like to say their country has lost its pioneering spirit, but it’s still out there — somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and Disneyland.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Delta Airlines (delta.com) London to Rapid City, via Atlanta, from £589 return. Cedar Pass Campground in the Badlands has pitches for three nights from £53. Boundary Waters canoe trips can be organised at williamsandhall.com. More details at visittheusa.co.uk. 



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