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The Real Burning Man

“He doesn’t like to get hot,” one woman whispered.

A man raised his hand. “I’m an introvert,” he said softly. “You’re an introvert. So what are we doing here?”

Mr. Wells nodded and asked all the introverts in the crowd to raise their hands. Mostly everyone did.

“Good question,” Mr. Wells said. “Why have we driven thousands of miles to be together? It’s because we need each other so much. Even the most introverted of us knows that. We’re looking for like-minded people who will let us be our authentic selves. Together, at a distance. Humans are funny things. Don’t worry. The RTR is going to end, and you’ll be alone again soon.”

These days, Mr. Wells does break his solitude occasionally to camp with Carolyn Higgins, 50, a two-year road veteran who left her marketing business in San Francisco and is now, like Mr. Wells and others, a YouTube star. They met last summer, and their bond — much remarked upon — has made them the mother and father of the movement.

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Carolyn Higgins, a former marketer in San Francisco, has been on the road two years, and is an inspiration to other solo female travelers. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
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She’s a YouTube star to the nomads, as is her dog, Capone. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

“Are you dating?” a woman in the crowd asked.

They are not, though they like to tease their audience.

YouTube is the glue and engine for the road-bound. Stars like Nomadic Fanatic (a full-time RVer who travels with his cat, Jax, and has 130,000 subscribers) provide inspiration and technical advice, along with a forum for a tribe that can feel isolated from each other and society. It is also a revenue model, albeit a modest one.

This is a community that has no relation to the social media phenomenon known collectively as #vanlife, for the Instagrammable adventures of attractive young white couples in their atmospheric vintage VW vans, doing yoga, surfing and accruing sponsorship from the makers of hipster products. (Though the odd festival fan will show up at the RTR, having seemingly confused Quartzsite with Coachella, only to be confounded by the lack of swag and services, like the guy who came two years ago and complained on an online forum that there was no sound stage or bathhouse.)

The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous is a different kind of van-dweller mecca, said Jessica Bruder, whose 2017 book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” followed a small posse of retirement-age women forced into the van life through economic hardship, part of a new — and growing — labor force of older Americans working seasonally as campground hosts and Amazon stockers.

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Ken Martin spends part of the year traversing the country as an emergency expediter with Beanie, a Hahn’s Macaw. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

“The world stigmatizes people who live differently,” Ms. Bruder said. “The RTR is full of kindred spirits, like a non-blood family. People there feel heard and understood and valuable. There can be a sense of isolation out there in the world. When they get to the RTR, it melts away.”

While van culture may be growing because more and more people are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of flat wages and rising home prices, Ms. Bruder added, “I also think people are frustrated by consumer culture and what they are supposed to want. People who are constrained by economics are also saying, ‘I can opt out.’ I think that can be tremendously liberating.”

For her research, Ms. Bruder bought a white GMC Vandura, named it Halen, for the 1980s hair band, and learned to correct for its sideways drift on the highways. Despite aching shoulders from keeping it on course, she loved being out in her van, she said. “There was one day when we were driving in a caravan, like horses galloping across the desert. I was following a 70-year-old woman named Swankie, and we were on our way to see an ancient earthwork in a petrified forest. My heart was in my throat. That sense of constant motion on the road, when everything feels new. The mythos of the desert landscape. It got me.”

Ms. Higgins, who cashed in her 401(k) to buy a balky RV named Matilda after a month hiking on the John Muir Trail erased any lingering attachment she had to the apartment she was renting for $1,600, now has over 50,000 YouTube subscribers: “Patrons” who pay from $7 a month get extra content.

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Mr. Wells gave seminars on how to live on the road. “I believe we’re at the tip of a tidal wave of people who are going to be living in their cars or RVs,” he said. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
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Many RTR attendees are introverts, who want to come together, but at a distance. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
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Bikes are a handy travel accessory. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times
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Nomads flock to this dusty desert town in the winter for the boondocking and the community. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

“I think a lot of women my age have a feeling they’d like to take control,” Ms. Higgins said, noting that her videos seem to have struck a chord. “Maybe they are recognizing that mainstream society doesn’t feel safe anymore. For many of us, we’ve been fed the lie that we have to have the heels, the makeup. That we aren’t complete without a man. We’ve been fed the lie we have to get married and take care of everyone. I think women are saying, ‘What about me?’”

Perhaps more of an introvert than Mr. Wells, Ms. Higgins has struggled with her YouTube fans, who crowd her at campsites — “Imagine it being Halloween for two weeks straight,” she said — clamor for her autograph and send her marriage proposals. At the RTR, she was parked so far away from the action that this reporter nearly got lost among the washes trying to make her way out. But Ms. Higgins gamely led a caravan of nine rigs with her to the Women’s March anniversary rally in Las Vegas, and to a meet-and-greet with Mr. Wells at the RTR.

“This event has changed my life,” she said then, tearing up. “I’m very proud that I found my voice, and that it matters.”

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