When I wake, I stretch my legs to my right and plant my feet squarely on the aluminum wall. It's a strange habit to have, but there it is. I gauge the temperature outside pretty quickly this way, if it's not already apparent in the Airstream itself (it usually is). The inch and a half gap between the interior and exterior skins, though insulated, is still only an inch and a half gap sandwiched between thin sheets of aluminum. I have felt it icy, the same as I have felt it baking.
Yesterday, between the hours of 11:30-4:30pm, when the sun rose overhead and temperatures climbed from 93 (early morning) to 105 (midday), our AC tripped the breaker, per the usual. After a couple resets, I gave up and peeled off my clothes and plunked my kid in the shower and ran cool water over her and then myself.
Our current living situation is unlike other travelers in that we are in one set and predetermined location for our renovation jobs. We arrived mid-February and will finish the job in mid-to-late July, when temperatures in southern Arizona will climb to 120. We are parked in full-sun with no shade trees available, and do not have the ability to move on simply because the weather isn't to our liking (like other travelers can) until we finish our job.
While in some regards it is easier to be stationary (hookups!), we are at the mercy of our location until the job is done, which means we have to lean into the discomfort. There is discomfort on the road too, and that's what I'm slowly getting around to:
This lifestyle was never about being comfortable.
It's a strange thing to be a designer of caravan interiors sometimes, as my job is to create spaces that ultimately look far more comfortable than they actually are. When building, we also incorporate function for comfort and ease. Locking mechanisms on drawers to stay closed in transit, 12v pumps for water when off-grid. Yet no matter how stunning the interior, no matter how plush and luxurious it may seem: the facts remain. This is still a camper, it will still be hauled down the road and the insides will be shaken up like boots in a dryer.
Though we live in an Airstream, albeit an unfinished one, and we have what a lot of folks would consider bells and whistles, we are still living in a trailer on wheels that comes with limitation and discomfort.
It's part of the package. We knew what we were signing up for.
As we have learned more about ourselves and living tiny, we've upgraded our space quite a lot from our first Airstream, which was more like #vanlife in it's rudimentary amenity. We had a bucket and water jug for a toilet, one small sink in the kitchen, curtains to divide the spaces, and converting beds. We didn't have an oven, refrigerator, hot water, or heat/air-conditioning.
What we had instead were basics. The elements we needed to provide shelter and exist as a family. Our must-haves were different then:
- Ellen wanted to be able to stand up (she's 5'9").
- I wanted to be able to use the toilet in my own home, because public bathrooms creep me out and if we're being totally honest, my belly is SO sensitive and I want to be able to get sick privately.
- We both wanted a separate bed from our daughter, who might be the most violent sleeper there ever was. You'll lose an eye sleeping next to her.
- We chose a trailer as opposed to a small RV/bus/van so our daughter could be safely in a car seat in a truck and we could detach our home to go off road exploring.
That was it.
Those were our requirements when we built out Louise four years ago, for who we were at the time and what are our needs were then. Our budget played a huge role as well, we couldn't afford appliances, and got on the road without them with the hopes we could install them over time.
As our family expanded (we have not one, but two lab rescues now), and our daughter grew up, and we opened our business, our needs changed. We needed different things on board, as well as more space. Our business keeps us crazy busy - we're in the second quarter of year two - so we wanted to add some elements and amenities to cut down on time spent on daily chores so we could grasp at what precious little time there is to just BE. Here are some of the reasons we sold our second Airstream build, June, which we only lived in for seven months, and decided to live in a 1994 Airstream while we renovated it (outside of being crazy people, that's a given):
- Our daughter is 8.5 and we don't see giving up living in an Airstream any time soon. She has already started craving more space and privacy, and the pre-teen years are just around the corner. She wasn't a fan of having to convert the dining table into her bed every night. She loves lounging in bed with a good book in the morning, so we didn't have a space to sit with our coffee or laptops for our morning work meetings if the weather wasn't great outside. Having a separate space for her bed and our dinette will allow us to keep living in an Airstream as our daughter grows up.
- We have a ventless washer/dryer unit on board. Is this a luxury? Absolutely. Yet our reasoning for buying one was absolutely practical. We renovate Airstreams for a living and contrary to what some people (okay, mostly men who send us shitty emails) think, we do ALL the work ourselves. Which means we're often covered in polish and oxidization residue, grease, dirt, grime, etc., AND we live in 213 square feet of Airstream with very little space to store clothing, which includes options to wear while working, AND work 12 hour days because we're a new business and there's only two of us doing everything that's gotta be done for business and life. We have very little family time or self care time, so you bet your sweet ass that not having to drag our laundry to the laundromat multiple times a week has helped us get some precious family time back. Instead of someone or all of us sitting at a laundromat for hours, we pop a load into the unit every couple of days before we go to bed and wake to clean clothes. This has given us evenings and weekends back to be together as a family.
- We have a shower and a hot water heater. Same reasons as above. This work is DIRTY. When we're not renovating, we're happy as clams to go without showers for long stretches of time (our record is fifteen days while in Alaska three summers ago). Grease is different than dirt.
- We have a private bedroom with a door. Does this one really need to be explained?
- Our fridge runs off DC and AC power and will keep our food cold while in transit. It's 8.1 cubic feet, has a separate freezer, and we are able to go grocery shopping for longer stretches of time (one to two weeks instead of every couple days). Once again...we are busy. For those of you that have done Airstream renovations, imagine condensing it into 3-5 months and then add in running a business on top of it...and then add in renovating another Airstream on top of that. We are all about finding time wherever we can so we can feel like humans (not robot builders, which is how we feel most of the time).
- Last but not least, our Airstream isn't just our home. It's our mobile on-site office. We have clients come inside for ordering, for explaining how things work, as a showroom, etc. I have a desk that is separate from where we eat and where we sleep so my laptop is always out and available. The desk cabinet holds samples for client project designs, files, receipts, sketchbooks, business cards, etc. Having a designated space from which to run our business has changed the way our business runs. It's become much more efficient to have everything accessible and in one place...all the time.
Yet that doesn't mean we're without discomfort. Once again, you could have every luxury on board and you're still living in a vehicle/trailer. There are still limitations to what you can do that are bound by the confines of your camper. Campers, in and of themselves, are supposed to blur the line between indoors and outdoors.
There will be dust and dirt in every nook and cranny. I dust off my desk and laptop every single day before I sit down to work. In hot temperatures, though the AC is on (we do not have a heat source, by the way, outside of cheap electric space heaters, and try to avoid cold temperatures like the plague) and the thermostat is set to 72, the inside temperature is still 90+. As I write this, the breaker tripped again and the temperature inside is a wonderfully stagnant 105. The single pane windows and 1.5" thick aluminum walls don't do much to block the scorching sun in Arizona in May (Reflectix in the windows and skylights, along with extending all the awnings and keeping the rock guard down on the front panoramic windows does help some). When we go to shower, we have to run the water for about 15 minutes to get the scalding hot hose water out first, or wait until late at night to grab showers when the hose water has finally cooled. Why write all of this? I'm not complaining, I'm sharing the truth about what it's like to live this way: quite simply, it asks of us to continue to live and thrive amidst uncomfortable circumstances and situations.
A few years ago, we traveled/lived out of the back of our 4Runner (we've actually done this twice). We just wanted to be on the road again, and took off and zipped west as fast as we could. We built out the back of the 4Runner with a couple pieces of plywood, creating a platform for a bed up top, with storage underneath for a "kitchen". We installed drawer runners on a piece of plywood to pull out and create a counter, since we knew we'd largely be boondocking and wanted a place for food prep.
Over the course of those weeks living out of the back of our small SUV, we realized for certain that traveling in that small of a vehicle really wasn't for us. We'd tossed around the idea of a van occasionally in the past, but it's just really not for our family. If I was single? I'd totally do it.
The trip we took in the 4Runner was a few years ago when our daughter was a lot smaller (though still a violent sleeper), and we brought our then one dog, who is older and calm (we now have a 1.5 year old pup). We were able to leave our cat at home with a friend, but we travel with him now and his litter box is tucked away under our bed. Though I was able to dig a hole and shit in it with the best of 'em, and was able to prepare meals on the plywood, and able to (sorta) sleep at night and had no qualms about changing clothes outside (even in 25 degrees), it wasn't my preference. I was much more comfortable and able to feel like my best self with more space. My introversion, my ability to focus on my work, my desire for privacy...all of these things add up to wanting a bit more space, not to mention the reasons listed above.
I like the ability to compare and contrast the different experiences we've had, because I don't see that many differences between living out of the back of an SUV and living in a 213 square foot Airstream. Oh, they are certainly there. Instead of peeing on the ground or into a water bottle, I instead pee into a composting toilet urine bucket that we then have to go dump once a day (mmm...urine scents). Instead of sleeping in a 52" wide bed with my head a few inches from the ceiling with a 55-pound dog and a kid and 5'9" woman, I sleep with a 70-pound dog and cat and 5''9" woman in a 60" bed and I don't hyperventilate at the claustrophobic feeling and sometimes sleep through the night (until the dog kicks me in the head). I still get outside and want to be outside, even with more space and "luxury". We don't sit inside all the time just because we have more space to do so.
Everything is always dirty, just the same as it was in the back of the SUV. I pull out clothes from the bin under the bed and they're covered in dust. So while this may seem like luxury to some, Pinterest worthy or not, it's still a camper that is meant to blur the line between indoors and outdoors. It still means sacrifice, one which we make willingly (gotta bold that word, because someone inevitably will think I'm complaining about my life, when I'm actually so fucking grateful for it). It means discomfort. Choosing this life means choosing inconvenience. It means things won't work all the time. If you renovate yourself, or even have someone do it for you, the work doesn't end once you move in. It is continual. You can have the dreamiest, most Pinterest-worthy home on wheels, but it's still a camper, meant to blur those lines and get you outside. The air and the dirt will get in, so you get out and actually breathe it in and sink your feet into the earth.
It really doesn't matter how luxurious you make your rig out to be. The whole point is to shake things up and challenge yourself, to live outside of expectation, to work to keep the dream of living on the road alive. So while our home may seem dreamy and luxurious or ostentatious to some, let me be the first to say...we're very much happily blurring the line between indoors and outdoors, accepting discomfort, fixing broken shit, peeing in a container, and we're hot when it's hot, cold when it's cold, and willingly making the sacrifices necessary to live tiny, to be mobile, to work for ourselves, and to live for ourselves.