Caravan Stories: Buffalo Argosy
I am so overjoyed to start our Caravan Stories series with the ever-strong and sure Sunny Cooper and her beautiful journey. I've been fascinated with Sunny from afar for quite some time now and have felt a certain kinship with her and her path in life. Perhaps at first it was single motherhood, something I myself have seen and experienced the hardships of, and then it was utter admiration for everything she was embarking on. Her strength and determination is unmatched, and her way of looking at life and how she writes about it are beyond inspiring.
Theres's such depth and breadth to the way she lives her life, and it translates so well to the page and through her imagery. Her journey to a nomadic life took time, and this is evident in how she has built and created her home. I appreciated that she waited to share the transformation until the end, it was as if she was keeping every bit of her space sacred and wholly theirs, which is something I can relate to - there are parts of our renovation I've held close to my heart and wait to share until it's time. Seeing Sunny and her beautiful son, Cole, and new puppy Pax appear in my social media feed is always a favorite moment of any day, and I'm always left ready to tackle more, but most importantly, to be more. Her wisdom and honesty transcends the rest of the hum on social media, the trends and the undercurrent of passive competition, a gentle and beautiful reminder that these Airstream dreams, dreams of travel and an intentional life, have started in very heavy and poignant places, transformed by a moment of clarity and light - this is it - a stumbling into something that changes us irrevocably and beautifully.
Sunny's intention and patience is written all over the interior of her Airstream Argosy. Each item, each chosen textile, each finish, from the copper hood to the ticking stripe, to the prayer bag by the door, is storied and carefully chosen and brought into the sacred space that is her and Cole's home. Initially, I planned to write a full story from Sunny's responses, but felt her words were too ideal, too wonderfully her to not share in their entirety, as she wrote them. Her heart, story, and sage advice are worth reading through to the end, squeezing every last drop of beauty and inspiration from, and the photographs of her home and life achingly lovely.
What did you renovate?
I purchased a vintage 1976 Airstream Argosy sight unseen, apart from three photos on Craigslist. I knew exactly what I was after, and Argosies were hard to come by, so I nabbed it when I found it. Argosy trailers were made by Airstream starting in 1971 and were discontinued in the late 70s, so she definitely came with a serious Kotter vibe, which I was eager to update. I chose the Argosy model for its iconic Airstream make, its twin bed layout, and 26-foot length. An elderly couple owned her before I did, and she quickly passed through a buyer’s hands whose wife quickly eschewed the “bread loaf” look of the Argosy, but I absolutely love it. Argosies are often called the “Painted Airstream.” I call ours the Buffalo Argosy because my life-and-work motto is to follow our buffalo; but the spirit of the Argosy is definitely equine. Our painted pony came to us rough-around-the-edges but solid-boned and ready to run.
Why did you choose to renovate your caravan? Tell us about your dreams, goals, reasons.
The idea never began with an Airstream, it actually started with the Aurora Borealis. I was sitting on my sofa during a late night writing binge and neck deep in what the Spanish poet Saint John of the Cross calls a “dark night of the soul” when I stumbled across a photo of glowing tipis beneath the Northern Lights. My son was sleeping beside me and something about that photo struck me to the core. Someday, I knew I wanted to be in a place like that with my son, pointing to the life humming right outside our door. I had traveled places throughout the world as a single woman, but a lot of life had happened between my big visions and sitting on that sofa. The metaphor of those glowing tipis soon translated into the idea of nomadic life with my son, though I didn’t know yet what shape it would take for me or how I would get us there. It was a slow-growing dream, but it surfaced in the idea that I would buy a vintage Airstream and prepare it for full-time traveling.
That meant I needed to answer a lot of questions, especially as a single mother. Could I care for and educate my son, provide a sense of home and stability, pursue my career, put bread on our table, and do the heavy lifting of this lifestyle on my own? Bit by bit, I began testing and answering those questions and found yes after yes. And still do. I consistently find myself in layers upon layers of Ah-ha moments. Every now and then, “What the hell am I doing?” slips past my lips; but overall, I’ve found all the best ideas for intentional living cooperate exceedingly and even bloom with a full-time caravan lifestyle. Since I was looking at vintage, I knew whatever I bought would need some degree of renovation, no matter how great of a condition it was in, due to its age. Beyond that, I had green goals and sustainability plans, which would definitely require thoughtful renovation. For example, the shag-carpeted bathroom with its black tank and flushing toilet would be entirely gutted and replaced with a compost toilet, fresh wood floors, and an energy-saving tankless hot water heater.
When did you start your caravan renovation project?
It really started at the 10-year mark because those glowing tipis not only mark the date the project birthed itself in my mind but it started the process of self-education: Where to start? What do we need? What to buy? How to work? How to budget? Who to work with? But between the time I actually purchased the Argosy in October 2015 and began renovation, I had it towed to Oklahoma and I had to pack up all our things in California and move back to Oklahoma to do it. I started the renovation early in 2016. My son and I took a few naps in the Argosy before renovation ever started because it was both exciting and exhausting to face what was ahead.
How long did you think your renovation would take when you started planning?
When I had the Argosy towed to Oklahoma, I was extremely ambitious. I wanted to slap a coat of paint on everything and take off. *Cue a Jonsi soundtrack* When I decided to renovate, I was still ambitious. I wanted it done in three months or less. Obviously, life informed me otherwise because I ended up in the hospital for an emergency surgery and my current contractors weren’t doing the job right. So our Jonsi soundtrack shifted from “Go Do” into “We Bought a Zoo.” For awhile, I felt like my buffalo had turned into a zoo, but as with all things worth waiting for, things have a way of serendipitously working out.
How long did/has it taken (so far)?
So, the three-month idea didn’t work out because I had to work through a lot of wrinkles with resources, contractors, unexpected delays, and my budget. It was a full year’s work for me – half paved with gopher holes and half full of progress. Everything eventually synchronized when I approached my renovation with the practice of mutual aid and when I found the right builder to partner with me on this project. From start to finish, that collaboration and effort took about four months.
Did you hire out for any of the process? Why did you choose to do this?
I hired out on nearly all of my renovation. I wanted skillful hands to attend to my renovation. My eco goals for a self-contained home needed a certain savviness and creativity. It was important to get the right people or person. I had fallen in love with Airstreams while living in California; I saw renovations and travelers everywhere. But in Oklahoma, the RV world isn’t rich with resources for modern travelers or renovators. My Dad was endearing in the way he puttered around the Argosy, caulking and cleaning her up, talking about pipes and grease with me. He was my right-hand man while I was tow car hunting and finding a great hitch – those are separate stories in and of themselves. But for the renovation, I needed a serious contractor who would get my eco-vision and work with my timeline and budget. And that guy turned out to be Evan Walker.
Funny thing, Evan used to be the treehouse-building kid right down the street from my parent’s house and now he was building eco-houses in Belize. We sat down at the Argosy table and talked extensively about the project and connected over buffalo stories, and I knew he was my guy. It’s important to find someone who shares a spark over your project, and I was extremely blessed to have found such an instinctively good builder and eco-conscious advocate in him.
What stage of the process are you in?
I’m in the second stage of three. Because I’m committed to a debt-free lifestyle, I needed to pay cash for each project, so I planned the renovation out in three doable phases. The first phase was sketching out the space, gutting nearly all of it, rebuilding, painting, and adding eco-updates such as the Nature’s Head compost toilet, LED light replacements, and a solar generator and solar panel. The second phase is where I am now. The Argosy is fully lodgeable and I’ve taken it on a couple of test runs on the road. In the process, I found a few things in need of fixing, such as replacing the manual jack with an electric jack and switching out the cabinet-door magnets to ones strong enough to hold the doors in place without requiring a Hulk arm to open them. All quick fixes, thanks to Evan. The third phase is adding a wood stove, renovating the dining area, and finally polishing up the exterior. My sister and I practiced a little mutual aid as well, and we swapped some services so that she could paint blackbirds and buffalo on the Argosy for me till I get it polished up somewhere down the road. For now, I’m appreciating its rough edges. It feels akin to the journey we’ve taken so far with this pony. The outside is a little banged up but it’s tough and well-loved.
If you’re finished, how long did your entire renovation project take? Any future projects that you’re holding off on? Why?
The long story is that it took ten years to dream it. The short story is that once I bought it and began renovation on it, it took a year. Once I found a partner in Evan, it took about four months. We communicated back and forth, I dropped by for visits and updates, and I just kept working to pay off the project, bit by bit. My big goal is to be entirely self-sufficient, but for now, I’ve left in options so that I have time to see how we are really using energy and our space. For example, I have three sources of energy: Solar, electric, and propane. After we’ve done some traveling, I’ll reassess how we are using our energy and I’ll add in a dreamy wood burning stove, which means I’m also going to reassess remodeling our dining space around it.
What is/will be the overall look, aesthetic, and style of your interior? Why are you drawn to this?
When I thought about our space, I wanted a sense of place like Georgia O’Keefe, and a sense of warmth like old cabins, but I also wanted that traveler feeling my son and I both love of walking into a fresh, clean hotel room. For me, the look is minimal with a bit of patina and lots of invitation for light. The patina came when I had Evan make a custom copper range over my stove. It is already taking on a beautiful burnish. Other patina includes nods to our family history from Cherokee to French. The red ochre and wheat fields of Oklahoma found its way into my vintage rugs from a market in Tahlequah. Striped ticking on the dining cushions was a nod to my French ancestry.
Our love for the West showed up in my son’s request for blue – reminiscent of the Pacific Ocean and that particular gradient of desert sky that we love in California. I really weighed the pros and cons of an all white interior but decided in favor of it so that it would invite the light in and utilize designs that kept the eye moving to give us a sense of more space, such as the use of stripes. I only purchased pieces that were meaningful, whether it was eco-conscious textiles, art, or acquired pieces from our travels.
I’ve left a lot of canvas for that to happen, but certain pieces came to me right away: An old copper kettle, a soft buckskin prayer bag, and an amazing window art installation by Karina Puente. She and I are another example of practicing mutual aid. I met her through AROHO, a wonderful organization championing women’s literature and art. In exchange for a writing project, she created this amazing piece for me that incorporated Cherokee symbols and migratory creatures that were meaningful to us, including our own profiles.
What purpose will your caravan serve? Stationary home? Weekend travel? Full-time travel?
We are going to be full-time. The digital age has afforded me the freedom for writing, consulting, and schooling while traveling. I don’t take that lightly; I have something my parents and grandparents didn’t have. I can still remember my dad renting a satellite phone so that we could take a family vacation together. My work studio, my son’s studies, and our household living will all happen full-time in this space or wherever we roam. The plan is to travel full-time for two years and then decide where to go from there.
What was your budget for your project? Have you stayed on budget or did you/have you gone over?
I bought the Argosy for $6,500 on Craigslist, and that is a negotiated price. Even though I hopped on it right away, I still asked a ton of questions about the prospect before making the purchase. I had a knowledgeable friend weigh in on it for me, as well. Well-prepared questions helped me negotiate on the price, as well as be fully informed of what I was purchasing. I planned on spending an additional $3,000 on it for renovations, but I spent twice that. So, the entire Argosy plus renovations to this point cost me approximately $12,500.
Time and again, I’ve found much comparison between what I know to be true in publishing projects and what is true in renovation projects: It’s important to go into a project knowing the difference between a dream budget and a shoestring budget, and that you are really going to land somewhere in the middle once you gain an informed budget. All in all, I got a great deal on a tiny home we love, and I’ve earned a few stripes in the process.
Did you do a gut renovation, or were you able to start on building right away? What were your reasons?
Once the Argosy was in my hands, everything but the outer walls in the bathroom came out, and everywhere else, everything but the walls and the floors came out. From there, the rebuilding began. For me, it was simply a matter of assessing what was necessary and what wasn’t.
How much time did/do you spend on the renovation (per week)?
I’ve talked this over with Evan before, and I know between the both of us it took time every weekend and hours after-work. It is rather remarkable to me that the Argosy was gutted and completed to this stage within four months under those circumstances.
Do you find that renovating affects your personal life? Social activities, family, marriage, sleep, stress levels? How do you manage your renovation schedule around real life?
Admittedly, I’m a self-professed hermit and, while I enjoy people and frequently take my son out for adventures, I’m usually the one hanging out in the corner of the library. So I never really felt my personal life was affected as much as I knew that my son’s would be. I made a ceremony of looking for our caravan with my son. His friends in school had big houses and yards, and while we were used to living in smaller, and often uncommon spaces, I was still asking him to downsize to something the size of a bedroom. As a mom, it was important that I involved him in the process from the very beginning and that it was a positive experience for him. We’d cuddle up on Sunday afternoons scouring through Craigslist and Airstream forums together, and that went a long way towards our team attitude during the renovation and planning for full-time travel.
As with anything I’m sure, the challenge to doing this also held the beauty of it. The challenge was that I was asking my son to trust me, and the beauty of it was that he completely did. The challenge was that I was the sole decision-maker, and the beauty was that the decisions were mine to make. My son’s wishes for the Argosy were so simple and few, that I was able to easily work them in or compromise where needed. I can imagine how two sets of expectations can compound astronomically. Once Evan came on board, he had informed ideas for me to consider and again, I found myself comparing this project to publishing projects. There’s a time to push for deadlines and scour over tiny details, and there is a time to relax and trust that it is all working out the way it’s meant to.
Are there any resources out there you’ve found and have been inspired by or learned from that you found extremely valuable and want to share with the community?
Instagram is the most helpful resource I have found when it comes to Airstream renovation, and the caravan community in general. It was through Instagram that I found my most inspiring Airstream renovators, including Birch & Pine/The Modern Caravan: I learned generously from following your journey. Several times, I pointed Evan towards Instagram photos and notes during the renovation project to help clarify ideas.
I found it very valuable to have some travel experience under my belt, and then to have tucked some travel and camping experience into my son’s pocket before we moved full-time in the Argosy. In the process of camping and traveling as often as we could, I connected with campers from around the world from mountain backpackers to tent campers to car campers, which is a community I’ve found to be very parallel in knowledge and generosity to the Airstream community. My best friend, Michelle, is a camper extraordinaire who works at REI and she took us on overnight backpacking trips, weekend trips, and overall exposed me to that trademark zeal and brawn that I’ve found in most California adventurers. I picked up useful information along the way from this community, such as smart ways of planning out my camping spots and checking in with local rangers. REI offers some great outdoor classes. I’d love to see the Airstream community come up with hands-on experiences like that.
I was also manifestly inspired by Stephanie Smith and Jay Babcock. I came across an article on their experimental homestead and farms in the Mojave, and I knew I wanted to connect with Stephanie. She is a Harvard-trained architectural designer doing brilliant, green things in Joshua Tree. We’ve visited over eco-choices for the Airstream and tiny homes in general. She is the one who inspired me to approach my renovation by practicing mutual aid wherever possible. I’ve still got a lunch scheduled with her once I make it back up to J-Tree, just so I can pick her brain. Her cabins are available on Airbnb. Book a stay at one of them to try out living with solar-powered energy or a compost toilet.
If you’re already finished, how does it feel to complete such a difficult, time-consuming project?
When I envisioned buying my Airstream, I imagined a very marked day of departure whilst I drove off into the sunset on our new adventure. It didn’t pan out that way; it was more of a slow unfolding of petals – sometimes damned thorns –from one transition into the other. Life often has other plans for us, and because I had learned to be flexible in the process, it served me well as I found myself taking one step forward and two steps back for awhile, rather than sprinting out the door. But I did have a moment. It came for me in a quiet, wet morning in the Buffalo Argosy. While bundled under Pendleton blankets, I listened the rain to the pattering on our roof and my son cuddling with his puppy, talking about all the places she was going to go with us. And I remembered the Argosy was never the end goal, it was always the conduit, a container. It shelters us, supports us, and moves us toward our horizons. That is a powerful feeling for a mother. More than once, I’ve whispered thank you.
If you haven’t yet finished, what are you looking forward to most when you do complete your project? How do you think you’ll feel?
I’ll be feeling the cherry on top when that wood stove goes in. If I’m going to be self-contained, it just makes sense to go all the way with the concept. And nothing beats the smell of sweetgrass tossed on top of freshly chopped wood.
What's your living situation or what will it be when you complete your project? Are you stationary? Mobile? A bit of both?
After the winter passes, we’ll be moving onward. This painted pony will be taking us to California and eventually toward those Northern Lights.
What is life like, today, in your caravan?
At the moment, we’re in the throes of winter and puppy land. Much like the Argosy, our Aussie pup requires a certain pace for us right now. We love our slow mornings with Pax, books, and hot tea. When we have a fire ring available, I cook breakfast bacon and eggs in my Lodge skillet outside over a fire because nothing tastes better than campfire bacon. In the Argosy, we wake up with the sun and go to sleep to each other’s conversations. The light shifts like water across our blue linens when we wake up and splays shapes from our Migration curtain on our walls in the evening. Reading, praying, and talking together in the mornings before we dive into laptop work or studies or go do life sets our entire day on a more peaceful trajectory, like taking a snapshot.
In every way, the fact that it is just the two of us has always given us a strong bond, and the Argosy slowly became a third character in our family. Now that Pax is here, we are experiencing a new character in our story, and it is fun to see how she fits into our lives and how we are teaching her to fit in ours. It’s not perfection, but thank God for wood floors during potty training and for an ever-changing backyard. And of course, our privacy is next to none, but the bathroom has a pocket door and we have privacy when we need it. And for now, that’s enough.
Argosy living just demands a mindful habit of paying better attention to each other, as well as to our home and to wherever we are. We pick up after everything we do right away, and that means Cole’s Lego goes right back into the bin whence it came. The dining table is the hub of our workaday and while we’ve padded it about with sheepskins and pillows, the front door is right beside the table making the world outside a natural extension of our space.
When I’m working away on my laptop and Cole is doing his studies across from me and the tea kettle is whistling, it feels like every other home we’ve ever been in with one big exception. A house has a way of insulating you. It tells you to get comfortable, stay put. Our Argosy offers us the constant invitation to pay attention, to migrate, to see new horizons.
Sunny, Cole, and Pax, we can't thank you enough to be the folks to start off this series. Your words and your lives are such beautiful reminders and examples to live with truthful intention, to surround ourselves with beauty and purpose, and that our actions are the only honest reflection of our words. That with patience, an earnest heart, and hard work, dreams can be realized so beautifully.
For more of Sunny's story: