Caravan Stories: Ashlee, Lucy, and Dottie

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. 

 I love being able to see the kindness of a human in their eyes, even through the stillness of a photo. 

I love being able to see the kindness of a human in their eyes, even through the stillness of a photo. 

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. 

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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.

 The original stove, which is in perfect condition. Ashlee loves cooking with it! A view of Ashlee's desk space and Lucy looking awfully cute under that chair. 

The original stove, which is in perfect condition. Ashlee loves cooking with it! A view of Ashlee's desk space and Lucy looking awfully cute under that chair. 

"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.

 The gorgeous sofa space that Ashlee would convert into a dinette. We have no doubt that whatever she does, she'll do it beautifully and intentionally. 

The gorgeous sofa space that Ashlee would convert into a dinette. We have no doubt that whatever she does, she'll do it beautifully and intentionally. 

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." 

 Mornings with Lucy.

Mornings with Lucy.

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. 

 Love the heart patch on Dottie and Ashlee's overall look (could be because we have the same shirt, ha!).

Love the heart patch on Dottie and Ashlee's overall look (could be because we have the same shirt, ha!).

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.

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Caravan Stories: Archive Argosy

The Archive of Creative Culture is a collection of books identified as being significant to the contributor’s creative practice. The books come from the personal libraries of revered artists and cultural figures including visual, literary and performance artists, designers, architects, curators, museum executives and cultural leaders. Each book has an Ex Libris - a handwritten note outlining the book’s role in their life. Many of the contributors came across this book at a pivotal moment and it changed their perspective in approaching their creative practice.

This archive uses the book as not only a source of knowledge and object of guidance but is a gateway to documenting the lives of the contributors through memories imbued on the book. The contributor’s use is reflected in the underlinings, notations and dog eared pages, offering a new insight into their life and history.

The Archive Argosy was created by Lacey Haslam, Director of Archive of Creative Culture and adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University, College of Art and Design. Lacey lives in Woodstock, Georgia, with her husband JC and cat, Nico (love that name!). The renovation of her 1973 Airstream Argosy to serve as a traveling museum for the Archive of Creative Culture began in December of 2015, and recently, Lacey did a TEDx talk on the project, which is yet to be released. We will be adding the link here as soon as possible. 

"I had high hopes that I could do it, singlehandedly, in six months," laughs Lacey. 

Fast forward to this past February, when Lacey finished up her Argosy (check out that two-tone, white and polished aluminum combo she's got going on - we love it!), and debuted her completed project at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco. The Argosy was on display while the Archive team installed their collection inside the museum, although the Argosy itself is just as much a work of art and a sight to behold.

 Image courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco.

Image courtesy of the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco.

In planning for her renovation, Lacey set an initial budget of $5,000, post the initial cost of the Argosy ($2500) and travel costs to pick it up several states over. A friend, Karen McKay, encouraged Lacey to fund the project through a $5000 Kiva Zip Loan – a crowdfunded, zero percent interest small business loan.

"For two months after a successful two week campaign," shares Lacey,  "I searched for the right vessel and began renovating right away."

"This project has been highly self-reflective for me. At times it has been a real challenge both mentally and physically. Mentally, I would go in circles trying to figure out the electrical problems when something wasn't working. Physically, I am 5’4” and those damn subfloors are heavy and hard to fit into place. My mallet became my best friend." 

Lacey admits to losing sleep, waking up in the middle of the night with her to-do list running through her mind (we can totally identify with this!). Mostly though, she would wake and contemplate the community her project might generate through connecting various subcultures, marveling at the way an object, this Airstream, could unite so many different kinds of people. There is so much truth to that statement, and having been part of the growing Airstream community for the past three and some years, I have seen so many different types of folks uniting over our shared love for these iconic aluminum trailers. 

Lacey recalls a moment where she stood in the Airstream after it was completely gutted: 

"I stood on the exposed frame, belly pan on the ground, knowing welding needed to happen, it was then that I fully understood why people quit at this point and sell it off as a shell." 

Yet Lacey forged on, not allowing fear of difficulty to take over. For certain parts of the project, due to deadlines, Lacey hired out certain services: she brought in a welder to repair the rusted-out frame underneath the old bathroom and an electrician to get the AC up and running for an event during the summer. The highlight of the space, however, is the work done by Eamonn O'Brien to build the custom countertops and cabinetry, which are an absolute work of art, and these same folks put Lacey in touch with a paint shop for the exterior white paint and a contact for new brakes, tail light housing, and axles. 

"Each of these things were monumental in the transformation," she says, "I also have incredible support from my friends and family and find myself reflecting on my gratitude for them each day." 

And support her they did. Lacey's community knew where to find her throughout her renovation project, coming over to chat with her and understanding when she wouldn't say much back as she worked. Some friends gave time and their hands for whatever Lacey needed that day.

"As an estimate, I was spending 20-30 hrs per week on renovations, not counting the hours searching for items, materials, researching how-to’s, sitting and dreaming. It has completely consumed my life for the better and I hope this feeling is embedded into the space." 

Lacey's Archive Argosy will likely continue to shift and grow as her work does, and aside from some minor repairs and some bookshelves left to be installed, she's happily in the decorating stage and planning for pop-up events, exhibitions, workshops, and talks. She is currently researching artisan-made goods to outfit the Argosy, building up inventory to sell. 

Lacey kept the interior minimal, allowing for the space to shift and progress as need be. The space will be used for multiple event types, including workshops, dinners, exhibitions, and discussions. The interior angles were based on a flag made by artist and vexillologist Cristina Victor. Lacey added a bio-ethanol fireplace and smoky plexiglass walls to divide the main space from the library collection. Underneath the custom countertops are drawers for the gallery collection and merchandise to be stored while in transit. 

When speaking with Lacey about this project, I asked her about her choice to renovate a vintage Airstream to expand the Archive of Creative Culture. Her response: 

"Moving from place to place is part of my history. As a child, my family moved all over the country so it is only natural that I was attracted to this iconic vessel not only for its function but also design. The front windows offer a lot of light in the space and double as a projection screen for displaying video and new media works (see image below of the Argosy at Wave Pool in Cincinnati where artist Marc Governanti created and projected a new work using the books in the Archive). The term Argosy means a merchant vessel or rich store with synonyms including mother load, treasure trove, and gold mine. This concept plays directly into the spirit of what I envisioned for the moving museum space–a traveling vessel working to acknowledge creative minds, create new connections and tap into undiscovered ideas. The Archive Argosy is also designed to offer a shop with artisan made goods. We are currently building our roster of artists." Lacey goes on to describe another key piece of literature that has made it's way into the space.

 Argosy at Wave Pool in Cincinnati. 

Argosy at Wave Pool in Cincinnati. 

"Incredibly, the Argosy came with a 4” 3 ringed binder put together by the previous owner who passed away. This binder contains the history of the caravan, from the original manual to repair documents to printouts from Airstream Forums, to the original advertisement for when they purchased it. I will be adding "after" images to the many "before" images now that it is finishing up. It is a key book/document that connects the Archive with the vessel."

Many thanks to Lacey for sharing her incredible Argosy transformation with us all, it really is a work of art. 


Learn more about Lacey and her Archive Argosy:

Caravan Stories: Silver Sequoia

Cynthia Tuan and Shane Beers began renovating their 1958 Airstream Overlander not too long after finding one another and settling into their relationship. The pair, both single parents, were attracted to the idea of creating something together, creating a self-imposed design challenge: honoring the Airstream's original intent, yet streamlining a plan for efficient tiny living and creating a vacation rental for folks to explore their home city of Portland, Oregon. 

When interviewing Cynthia and Shane (we share mutual friends, the ever-lovely Peter and Kate Schweitzer, who renovated and lived in a vintage Airstream for years), I loved their down-to-earth, cool responses to our questions. Their take on the work they've done and will continue to do was wise and rather pragmatic, starting with their expectations from the get-go. Knowing their responsibilities ultimately were to their jobs and parenting, they understood that their Airstream renovation project would have to be something they'd slowly chip away at. They honestly admitted to, at times, feeling that the work itself was insurmountable, yet they continue to plug away at it, pulling late-night work sessions after the kiddos are in bed. 

Shane and Cynthia began work on their Silver Sequoia, named for the 75-foot tree she lies underneath, in April of last year. In the last eleven months, they have gutted the entire space, with the exception of the rare and lucky sound subfloor and frame. They've spent the near-year sourcing materials, running new electrical, planning the design, and begun what they called 'the seemingly never-ending build and fabrication phase'. They've done the majority of the work themselves, outside of a few minor tasks, such as moving and rebuilding their property's fence for the trailer's parking space under their sequoia tree, it's namesake. They also hired an electrician to install an exterior circuit breaker to power the Airstream, jokingly calling it the 'Umbilical Cord', and had a local laser company custom cut aluminum patches with pre-drilled rivet holes (so smart!). 

The design goal for the Silver Sequoia was simple: they were seeking function, as well as a modern approach to the aesthetic. In trading out the original twin beds, they are creating a space well suited for couples who'll stay in their Airstream. Cynthia elaborated on wanting to maximize the feeling of expanse despite the actual square footage using clean lines and a neutral and light color palette. Later on down the line, they will layer in textures and elements with the hope that their guests will feel they are unwinding in their favorite homey nook. While the pair's immediate goal is to create a short-term rental for out-of-town explorers, they've also considered the weight and type of materials that will deem the Airstream road-worthy as well, hoping to one day take a road trip or two.   

They've leaned into the Instagram community quite a bit. They've shared their own story and have found knowledge and inspiration in those of us going through similar trials and tribulations. Seeing that others don't have it all figured out has helped them through moments of being stuck, and have likewise contributed their own lessons and ideas, such as their gorgeous hardwood floors and their aluminum framework they are using for the build out (side note: we almost used this same system and likely will sometime in the future!). 

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One of the challenges Shane and Cynthia have faced in the last eleven months of renovation are location, yet also noted that their location is also a great thing as well! Living and renovating in the often wet and cold climate of the Pacific Northwest, much of the build has to be completed inside the Airstream trailer, requiring a bit of acrobatics and shuffling to complete tasks. However, the plus side of living in progressive, often-walkable Portland has given the couple access to the tool library just down the street, the Benjamin Moore paint store up the street, and a local neighborhood hardware store for the countless last-minute runs us renovators all know so well (too well). Managing the renovation around their children's schedules has also kept the two juggling. They sagely noted that at times, external life really does play into the renovation's clip. Weather, job loss, political climate, kids - all of these things can hinder and spill over onto progress, but these things always inevitably shift and everything begins to move along again. 

The two hope to be complete with their Silver Sequoia by late spring or early summer, yet I'll finish this piece with not my words, but theirs: 

"Even though we’re still in it; the process of creating, and journey that comes from stretching when you’re learning something new has been sweet and enduring. Often it means being pushed outside our comfort zone, but the small celebrations that come from completion has allowed us learn so much about each other." 

To Follow along with SHANE & CYNTHIA'S RENOVATION,

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