I've been so looking forward to sharing Ashlee Newman's story with you all here as part of our ongoing Caravan Stories series, as this lovely lady has had an important role in our story and means a great deal to both Ellen and myself, though we've never met her in person. Nearly three and a half years ago, after deciding to travel, we began researching and seeking out other folks who'd gone before us and were sharing their stories online. Even just a few short years ago, these folks weren't so readily found as we all are today, as this movement and community has grown considerably and quickly! While we reached out to some individuals who were reluctant to help us out, Ashlee was the exact opposite. Her open heart made us feel so welcome. She immediately rooted for us, not against us, which is just what we needed at the time: we had enough opposition to our plan in our real lives that we needed our new community to rally around us.
I found Ashlee by way of her old blog, which chronicled her school bus renovation and life in it. Early on in our planning, we thought we might go the Skoolie route, and I was ecstatic to come across Ashlee's website. She seemed like someone we'd want to hang out with: down-to-earth, outdoorsy, strong, and kind. Taking a deep breath and shaking out the nerves, I tapped out an email to this stranger online and hit send, hoping we could pick her brain about tiny living, renovating, and nomadism via written correspondence.
She responded and did me one better - she gave me her phone number.
One rainy spring evening, I mustered up some courage (again) and dialed her up. At the time, she was no longer living in her school bus and was traveling for her job in the outdoors industry as a sales rep. Through a spotty, crackling connection, she answered my questions and gave us the encouragement and confidence to take on turning our entire lives upside down to live small, downsize, build our own travelin' home, and hit the road.
To this day, Ashlee is still encouraging other interested individuals to live tiny and pursue the life of a nomad while calling her own 1955 "whale-tail" Airstream Overlander home. Ashlee, a 34 year old freelance lifestyle photographer, spends the majority of the year in Austin, Texas, while taking smaller weekend trips and camping out of her 4Runner, or escaping the Texas summer heat for longer trips up north with Dottie, her Airstream, in tow.
Ashlee tells us that around six months ago, she began to be approached by several folks in the Austin area who were curious about tiny and nomadic living. With her hands-on knowledge and experience under her belt, she decided to host a meet up for these curious seekers. The first meeting, eight people came. In just half a year, the group has grown into a regular, monthly meet up of over forty individuals.
"We’re Airstreamers, Vanlifers, Wannabes, Nomads, and those that are just identify with what tiny/nomadic culture stands for," Ashlee says. "It’s blown me away how fast this little community has grown - and I continue to meet people who are doing the same exact thing but haven’t found the community, locally, to support them. I’m excited to watch this grow and evolve as we connect in-person through pot-luck dinners, happy hours, work days for those currently renovating, and tours of local tiny home villages."
Ashlee's lovely heart towards her community is a reflection of the way she lives her life. She is deliberate in her actions and choices, and we see this in the patience she had when searching for the perfect Airstream - a three year search! The wait paid off, for Dottie is mostly all-original and in fantastic shape: a rarity for a sixty-two year old trailer. Ashlee chose a vintage Airstream for the timelessness, the aesthetic, and the solid build. For Ashlee, the ambiance of her living space is incredibly important. She noted that the feel of a trailer was more important to her than the modern conveniences that come with buying new.
The interior of Dottie is fairly intact, though Ashlee has upgraded a few necessary things, such as the flooring (she opted for peel and stick vinyl), a new fridge, and a Nature's Head Composting Toilet. In the future, there are a few customizations she'd like to make, but she also let on that this is something she's always debating.
"This is a constant source of internal struggle for me. I appreciate that the trailer is still intact, in it's original condition. There's a part of me that wants to preserve that. But I also live in this trailer, and plan on continuing this lifestyle for awhile. There are a few projects, such as converting twin beds to a full and the sofa to a dinette, that would make life in this tiny home more comfortable."
Visit any Airstream forum and see this very debate happening: the Airstream restorers vs. the Airstream renovators. To us, the debate seems moot. Restoration isn't for everyone, especially considering these old trailers were built to be campers, not homes. For us, it's about salvaging something in disrepair and making it work for the current purpose, instead of building something entirely new, we're saving something once lost. Making a home is a very different thing than making something fit for a museum, and converting the original sofa to a dinette would allow Ashlee the opportunity to more easily host her friends and spread out her work during the day.
Making a home is exactly what Ashlee has done. Her morning routine in Dottie is her favorite, a ritual of rising and lighting candles, burning sage, and settling in a patch of early sun on her front sofa with her coffee and journal. This is what many of us imagine when we set out to minimize our lives: time spent reflecting, taking a slower pace, and being intentional with our actions, even down to things we buy and bring into our lives.
When describing her home and the things inside, it is clear that Ashlee has allowed the space to organically and simply become.
"I love that every single purchase or acquisition is well thought through," she shares. "My consumption is much more conscious now than it has ever been."
One of the most beautiful things about living in a tiny space is that it allows us to do what Ashlee has done: have possessions that speak to our souls, that bring beauty, joy, and purpose, and add value to our lives. When Ashlee was first considering a tiny lifestyle, she moved into a miniature apartment (a converted one-car garage!), and put her things into a storage unit. The items sat for a year before Ashlee went and sold them all.
"Looking back," she begins, "paying for a storage unit, which I overall believe is a waste, is a great way to test the waters to see if tiny living is for you. I realized after that year that I didn't miss living in a standard sized American home and sold it all...dressers, beds, et cetera."
Ashlee continues to purge her belongings, and we can attest that it is a continual process. What might serve you now may not serve you in a year. Minimalism is ever-evolving and is fine-tuned to the individual or family. Ashlee regularly gifts what she can, donates what makes sense to donate, and sells bigger ticket items, such as furniture. The items she keeps are ones that she truly loves and have found a home in her little trailer, such as handmade wooden utensils bought in Gruene, Texas, a Tibetan singing bowl found at a secondhand shop in New Braunfels, handmade kitchen towels from Hico, and dishes made by a local potter.
Ashlee is a girl after our own hearts, sharing with us that she loves natural textures: wood, metal, cotton/linen/wool, wood-fired clay, and greenery, and that you won't find a lot of plastic in her home. Her style continues to evolve, and her home is a sweet mix of her own desert/southwestern style and the retro vibe that comes with having an all-original vintage Airstream! Her friends describe her space as cozy, warm, mellow, earthy, and inviting, and so do we.
We asked Ashlee about what her friends and family think of her lifestyle, and though she said that initially some folks thought it might be a phase, eight years later, she's still at it and embracing it wholeheartedly. She feels that the people in her life respect what she's doing, and she has continued to build up the community around her, the very community that keeps her grounded in Austin. Dottie is even parked in a friend's backyard, which lends itself to gathering...a patio between her home and theirs is the site of many a pot luck "family" dinner.
"I think we're a rare breed - the ones that actually thrive in small spaces."
While there are always downsides to any lifestyle choice, Ashlee maintains a positive spirit about them all. She misses her large, framed art pieces, which are currently housed with a friend. There are holes and the trailer isn't perfectly sealed, and when hauling, the single-axle makes her nervous. "One blown tire," she says, "and that entire side of Dottie is on the pavement. I don't take her above 55 miles per hour." One other thing? "Dating," she candidly states. "Tiny and nomadic living isn't for everyone, and it's been funny to navigate the dating world having to explain to people why I choose to live this way. However, when someone gets it, they're automatically vetted. I think we're a rare breed - the ones that actually thrive in small spaces."
She goes on, "I've found my happy place in this simpler way of living. I love the idea of being able to move my home wherever I choose, whenever I choose. At some point, there's a strong possibility I will choose to have a piece of land, build a home, have a family, learn to keep both little people and plants alive, and keep the trailer as a guest house. But for now and the next few years, this lifestyle is serving me."
We are so inspired by Ashlee's life and story, but what makes us truly grateful for Ashlee is the real-life work she's doing to grow this diverse community of tiny-living nomads. The stories we share here at The Modern Caravan are shared in hopes that we can all unite and lift one another up selflessly, whether we are living in an iconic Airstream, a vintage VW bus, a traditional RV, a fifth-wheel, a car, a sticks-and-bricks tiny home, or just have a tent, bike, and backpack. Bridging the gap and divide, what's deemed cool or uncool, put to rest the judgment of what some of us prefer and need compared to what others prefer and need, and recognize that we're all striving for similar things, and most importantly, a life well lived, just like Ashlee.