Post image for 7 Lessons Learned from Living on the Road

For five months my partner and I have been on a perpetual vacation, living off-the-grid in our Toyota 4Runner as modern vagabonds of the American West. That’s right, we said goodbye to the house, ditched the trailer and downsized to a truck (AKA our teeny tiny house), pictured above in central Nevada.

Camped out in New Mexico

Our makeshift RV
Michael removed the backseat and outfitted this 4-wheel-drive SUV with a cozy sleeping platform, privacy window shades, and a Thule roof box we affectionately call “upstairs.”

Sunrise at the end of the road (Carrizo Badlands, California)

Boondocking
We carry with us a large cooler of fresh food, a box of dry food, and two 6-gallon water containers so we can be boondocking out in the middle of nowhere for a week or two without having to resupply. 

Inspired by Leo Babauta’s 38 lessons learned, I wanted to create my own message for anyone inspired to travel the way we do. Here are the 7 most valuable lessons I learned from 5 months of living on the road:

1. You don’t need as much stuff as you think you need.
Really. If you have very little stuff it’s easier to move, clean up, pack up, and keep important items at arm’s reach.

2. Go slow.
There’s no reason to rush. Don’t make concrete plans. Engage with where you’re at rather than worrying about where you gotta be next. If you have stumbled upon someplace pleasant, stay an extra day or two. Why not?

3. Go the opposite direction everyone else is going.
OK, so we have our biases (my sweetie and I are both rather introverted) but I think everyone could appreciate the outdoors a little more if they had it to themselves. We often pass up campgrounds and weekend crowds to make use of remote dirt roads and startlingly quiet public lands.

4. Leave a place better than you found it.
Carry out an extra bag of trash, even if it’s not yours. It’s good for the ecosystem and your karma.

5. Be nice to strangers.
Ask questions. Talk to the locals especially. They often have the inside scoop on the places you’re headed, and maybe even a good story or two. On the loneliest highway you never know when you might need their help.

6. Reward yourself with small pleasures.
When you are away from modern conveniences for so long, it’s important to treat yourself well. For us we splurge on good, healthy, fresh food at the grocery store (and a fair amount of chocolate too). We also figure in plenty of leisure time for reading books.

7. Get creative.
Get lost. Make it up as you go along. It’s not about where you’re going, but how you go.

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Post image for The Tiny House Movement is Growing…

A year ago I was just settling in to calling it a “movement” and before that it was just my weird obsession. Now it’s in the New Yorker: The rise of the tiny-house movement. Creative downsizing is taking hold in the hearts and minds of Americans these days, if nothing else than by necessity.

I like how the author Alec Wilkinson makes a distinction between the various types of people who are moving into tiny spaces. In my own words I’ve condensed the categories here:

  1. Young people who cannot conceive of being able to afford a “real” house or supersized rent in a big city.
  2. Older people who are done with home ownership, trying to keep some semblance of savings, or are empty nesters.
  3. All idealists who are seeking a lighter footprint and privileged enough to design their own lifestyle.

In combination, this movement is made up of some fascinating people, some of whom are mentioned in the article. Photo above is Jay Shafer with his wife and son and Tumbleweed House, photograph by Jeff Minton.

But I want to highlight a couple of folks who do not get as much press attention as Jay. These are wonderful women whom I am pleased to call my friends.

Tammy Strobel, rowdykittens.com

A couple of years ago Tammy was a new blogger on the tiny house scene. Now she is one of the top. Last year she was featured in the New York Times, on the Today Show, and other major media outlets.

Tammy and her partner Logan had us over for dinner recently in their small Portland apartment and showed us pictures of their tiny house being built. Less than 100 square feet, the work of art they’ve commissioned should be finished this fall.

Cheers to Tammy and Logan for their commitment to social change and their personal follow through. Tammy has even been able to earn a living through her writing. I look forward to hearing more from them as they move into their tiny house and explore simple living as a couple.

Photo credit: The Oregonian

Dee Williams, portlandalternativedwellings.com

A true hero, Dee is the lay-person who built her own 84 square foot house and has been living in it for the past 7 years. Affectionately called “The Little House” she opens it up for tours and speaks to kids about voluntary simplicity and sustainability. Positive change begins at home, she says, and she means that literally.

I love all the attention she has been getting, on the cover of Yes!Magazine, in TIME Magazine, on NPR, on NBC Nightly News, etc. but my favorite so far is her TEDx talk in Portland last May.

Dee has written an incredibly helpful book called Go House Go: How to build a tiny house on wheels and I highly recommend it if you’re considering doing it on your own. It is hands down the most helpful thing I’ve read for tiny house wannabes — that is, people who are planning to build a little house on a trailer. (Also, a building workshop is not a bad idea either.)

Give it up for the ladies! Keep an eye on them. As the Dalai Lama said in a lecture two years ago, “The world will be saved by the Western woman.”

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Vardo Truck Camper

07/07/2011

Post image for Vardo Truck Camper

An email arrived reminding me that tomorrow is the last day the Vardo plans will be on sale from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. This got me daydreaming about building a DIY truck camper on top of my friend’s old Toyota pickup truck.

By far the smallest design offered by the company, this vardo incorporates a full-size bed and 35 cubic feet of storage below. I’m not sure about the practicality of this on the road, but it is certainly one of the cutest handmade campers I’ve seen in person. This creation lived next to Jay’s house as a teeny tiny guest house in Sebastopol when I was there.

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Post image for Abandoned Adobe House in Arizona

This isn’t a story — it’s a sketch of a story. We were traveling through Arizona and spotted this abandoned house in Portal, Arizona.

What makes this mystery so compelling is a grave marker for Edward John Hand, pioneer, rancher, miner, archaeologist. I imagine a solid man, tall, English-born (1866), exploring the American West and building this one-room adobe structure with his own hands.

My internet research turned up nothing about this man and his simple home. I’m finding much of the American West — possibly the best stories — are not google-able.

 

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Our Dining Nook

02/11/2011

Post image for Our Dining Nook

Hmm, it’s probably about time to share where we’re at in our house renovations. The inside of our home is a work in progress. If I turned the camera in different directions it would still be a mess. But this is our dining nook where Michael and I share meals together. We could squeeze in 4 for a cozy dinner (think Paris cafe).

  • Furniture - All of our furniture is re-used. The table and chairs ($300) are from Rusty Gold Vintage Design, an upcycled furniture store operating out of two shipping containers. The heirloom basket is from Michael’s mother. The rug ($20) and Wassily chair knockoff ($150) were purchased on Craigslist.
  • Widows – I love how this part of our house gets nice light. We don’t think the security bars are necessary but we haven’t done much of anything on the house exterior yet. We love our PVC-free insulating cellular shades from North Solar Screen.
  • Floor – The original wood flooring from 1941 required an archeological dig to get to. It has not been refinished but when we do, we’ll put moulding on.

Ideas for how to fancify the front door? Or anything else? Look at the before photo for some perspective. Yikes!

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Post image for Renovating an Old Trailer for under $1,200

I’m touched by Nicolettes’s story. She found an abandoned structure and with no money and no tools she managed to build herself a tiny house out of trash and scraps and donated supplies. In total it took her a year an a half and about $1,182 to make this space a home.

This structure was given to her for free in exchange for its removal. The wagon (as the Germans like to call it), somehow in its 20 years as a backyard garden shed had its wheels sunk 2 feet into the ground. It had to be excavated and moved 25 miles to its new location in Mainz, Germany, where the renovations would begin.

Before:

“Nikki, you’re not going to be able to fix up the whole wagon without any money.” The words of a non-believer. “You’re going to need materials, tools.”

“I can borrow all of the tools. And maybe in the end I will have to buy a few things, it’s looking like stain and paint right now, but so far I’ve found everything I had on my “to buy” list when I started. It’s turning out to be a damn good thing I didn’t have any money then. The longer I wait, the more I’m finding.”

He shook his head, thinking I was naive. I shook my head, thinking he was mighty skeptical for someone who also regularly dug through the trash.

After:

Of course with makers of all sorts her “trash house” project is never quite finished but I’m happy she shared these photos with me.

On Nicolette’s blog you’ll find well-written stories of dumpster diving adventures, the brutally honest struggle of DIY home renovations, and life in a wagenplatz community in Germany.

Photo credit: Click Clack Gorilla

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