The Girl with the Airstream

I wrote this piece in 2016 for The Fernweh Collective, a travel magazine based in Germany that has since stopped production, and though I have a copy tucked away in a box in a storage unit in Indiana, given that the magazine is in German, no one I knew purchased a copy. Yet this piece was so close to my heart, and the magazine itself inspired the name of our business. It was staring at the copy of the magazine on my coffee table that changed everything about our lives. I want to share this piece here.

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The Girl with the Airstream | The Fernweh Collective, Vol. III, The Simple Life

For just six weeks more, I will call a 930 square foot brick-and-mortar house home. On what may be a blustery, almost-winter day in December, my family will be moving into a vintage Airstream trailer. The funny thing is, we’ll have only lived in this house for a year and we’ve already renovated and lived in a different Airstream: one that we called home for the better part of the year prior while traveling and exploring North America. 

When we share our story with others, we get mixed reactions, yet the three general responses fall under questions, opinions, and declarations. The questions are our favorite. When someone takes the time to genuinely inquire about our project, our lifestyle, and how things work inside the trailer, we are always excited to share. After all, we’re passionate about this. It means so much to us that we’re willing to shed layers of comfort and face judgment and dare to live differently than the norm. It means something when people choose to sell their homes, the majority of their belongings, and downsize into a tiny space. It takes guts to be different, to not succumb to peer and societal pressures, to jump into the unknown. 

I believe that my family and I have a unique perspective on tiny living and travel. When we were first preparing for road life, before we bought and began renovating our first Airstream, I’ll admit that we had a very romantic vision of what life on the road and living tiny would look like. As we dove headfirst into our dream, we began to recognize, bit by bit, that our choice was certainly not an easy one to carry out. If it was that difficult to just get to the starting line, actually taking off was going to be much, much more challenging than either of us could have ever anticipated. This proved itself to be true, over and over again, as we began driving westward and figured it out...while living it. Tiny space dwelling, in and of itself, especially as a family of three with dear pets, is quite an adjustment. Add in learning to live on the road, looking for a place each night to rest your head, constantly changing scenery, customs, and culture, and it’s beyond anything we could have ever prepared for or envisioned. We found a rhythm as time went on, and there was so much beauty that happened, sometimes in the thin places, sometimes in the expected, big, bountiful moments, but no matter where we were, whether in moments of painful truth or difficulty, or those where the light and air and scene before us so beautiful that we could barely breathe or understand it, we were being shown truth. Truth about ourselves, truth about the world, truth about life. 

As our time on the road came to a close, our life shifted in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We found ourselves living in a city that we knew, yet it wasn’t where we wanted to be. We weren’t just facing the loss of travel, but were mucking through the strained, stressful familial relationship that had brought us there. The city itself was tight and closed-in. We’d lost the sky somewhere, and when the weather shifted, we could no longer see the entirety of a storm as it rolled our way. As time went on, we recognized a very raw piece of truth. Having the ability to compare and contrast the two ways of life we had just experienced and were experiencing (as opposed to our imagined perceptions of what travel might be before we’d ever done it or what might have come) has shown us that we had to come back home to realize so much of what happened out traveling. As the months wore on, we began to understand, painfully so, that losing the road was akin to losing self. 

It took us less than two months after returning to my home city to purchase another Airstream and begin renovating it. As the months unfolded, we worked, unsure of the role the trailer was going to play in our lives, yet we trudged on. We spent months thoroughly stripping our little aluminum egg bare and tediously inspecting and repairing every inch before we began the build itself. The reason for buying the Airstream became very clear as we continued our efforts: we wanted to use it as a tiny home in the city to save money and pay down debt with the goal of returning to the road as soon as we possibly can. 

There’s quite a bit of emotional turmoil that has come with choosing to do this. While we’ve already done this once, it was under entirely different circumstances. We had the freedom to just take off, to roll down the highway with our little house following dutifully behind us. It was elusive. Friends and family back home didn’t visit, many people we deem close never stepped foot inside. We’d send letters from the West as we hopscotched about, never landing anywhere long, and only snippets of our lives were shared. Here, back home in the city, we aren’t the crazy nomads, we’re the crazy tiny house dwellers. The folks bucking the quaint house on the tree lined street (the one that comes with a hefty mortgage and crushing debt). The norm. When we began to publicly search for a backyard to park in, tentatively at first, testing the waters, I was terrified. What was everyone going to say? What would our neighbors think? What would our friends and family feel when they came to visit and we all packed into 160-square feet? What would it be like for my daughter when she invited friends from school over? 

I could never do what you are doing, they say. I don’t judge you for it, but I would never, ever. The declarations. The admission that giving up homes with two-or-three thousand square feet, ones that need cleaning ladies to keep up, rooms that must be filled with furniture and things, could never be done. Perhaps we are a bit crazy. Living tiny is often equated with simplicity, yet it’s not so simple. Tiny home dwellers choose to live with less, to downsize, to live with what they need and nothing more, yet what’s often overlooked is that while we have few possessions and have deliberately chosen to give up so many conveniences that most couldn’t possibly, we have so much. Living tiny as a family bonds us in unbreakable, beautiful ways that I can say, with certainty, that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Living tiny gives us freedom: in breaking away from the expected, in choosing to leave many comforts behind, we are actively embracing not only the challenge, but a life unencumbered by the desperation to consume, to keep up with the Joneses, to work all day to only come home, wearily eat and kiss our babies and our partners goodnight and rise again to do it over, to barely scrape by, to write checks to the bank, to toss societal norms put in place by commerce to the wind. 

Choosing to truly live life isn’t the difficult part of this. Looking inward, recognizing that this is all there is for me and my family, that was simple. There’s no other answer. The challenge is in the pressure. The declarations, the opinions, the laws against tiny houses, the constant surge of consumerist messaging...and the worst one: that being an adult in my country, in many first-world countries, means paying thousands upon thousands for that pretty house on the tree-lined street and the right things to fill it. Yet pause, just for a moment, to think about that. That’s our definition of a responsible adult? Since when is crushing debt a measure of responsibility? Why is it unusual to want to live debt-free? To travel? To experience true freedom? To live our lives for us and no one else? 

As a mother to a beautiful little girl, I choose daily to love her. In my waking moments, I show her love in my words, my tone, my actions. Shouldn’t this instead be a measure of adulthood? Or the folks who are waking somewhere new every morning, breathing in the air and being filled with gratitude for the amazing life they are privileged to live, who work tirelessly for the freedom of the open road, who piss outdoors and embrace body odor and wash dishes in streams simply to be exploring and to feel alive? Who drive not a commute, but to the mountains or the sea? The parents who travel with their children, who embrace their babies all day, who let the earth and life teach them, these children who meet so many human beings that they couldn’t ever possibly let status, money, the right clothes, the color of skin, who someone chooses to love, be a determining factor in their friendship and total acceptance of others. Aren’t these valuable? Aren’t these responsible? 

As I prepare our family to live small again, I write when I can, or linger over coffee a bit longer. I stand with a glass of wine at the back door of our current home as autumn rains usher in winter and let the weight of this beauty and truth wash over me, for just a moment. I return to my tasks, the never ending preparations of renovating and paring down our belongings with this understanding. We are striving, endlessly, bravely, for the life we want. We are walking against the crowd, the push and surge strong. The noise is deafening. The sights around us are lovely and enticing, yet in the distance, the sky is clear, waiting, reminding us. It’s there. It’s wide open.