Over the past year, Kate Oliver and her wife, Ellen Prasse, have painstakingly taken a 1950s Airstream trailer from mouse-infested and rotting to bright white, clean, and decidedly modern. In May of 2015 they sold their house in Kentucky and set off with their five year old daughter, Adelaide, to travel, work, and experience life on the road. They’ve been sharing snippets of their story on their blog, Birch & Pine, and I recently had the chance to ask Kate (above) questions about their mobile lifestyle.Erin: You’ve talked a bit about needing to part with sentimental objects when you sold your house and moved into your trailer full time. In my book I write about needing to be stoic in the face of sentimentality, but I also write about choosing to live with what you love, even when that’s not the most practical decision. I feel like you guys might be able to relate to that dichotomy. How did you go about deciding what would come with you on the road—beyond the basic necessities of tools, gear, and appliances?
Kate: We are both sentimental beings with a penchant for physical representations of meaningful moments, so this was, at times, exceptionally difficult for us. Making tough calls when purging our possessions could be an incredibly emotional thing, yet we ended up bringing a lot less with us than we thought we would. We each were designated one medium-sized moving box that we could fill with things that meant the world to us. We stored these in our respective parents’ basements. (An example of an item in my box is my wedding dress!) We also have two small boxes that came with us that are filled with photos, gathered items, little gifts and letters. These are things that we wanted to reference more often. We think of them as little tokens that can revive our relationship in times when life is wearing on us. In terms of décor, this was a bit easier.
We didn’t bring much in the way of texture and layers for our Airstream home. We knew that these things would add themselves in from our travels very naturally. We’ve brought things like pillows, baskets, plants, and even dishes into our tiny home as we’ve traveled. Our home is evolving as any home does, but with decidedly more interesting objects than I’ve ever experienced: Smooth stones from Alaskan beaches, for example, line our shelves. A pewter-and-brass ladle found in a seaside thrift store in Oregon graces our kitchen. Clothing was simple: We each have a designated space in the Airstream for our wardrobes, and size limitation kept our fashion-loving hearts in check. We kept items that were functional, simple, and made us feel completely confident when wearing them. We ensured that all of our clothing, shoes, and accessories are easily be interchangeable and could be used to create multiple outfits and looks with ease.[Cont.] Everything we brought with us, from the black and white enamelware plates, to the natural linen sheets, to a pair of cognac leather booties, had to fit into the parameters of form and function and the simple statement from William Morris that is forever etched into my mind: “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
I believe that this statement transcends all manner of homes, from the grandiose to the very small. It keeps us in check. It’s so wonderfully freeing to realize that what you truly need is very little. That being said, for me, a beautiful home is a necessity—it fuels my creativity and provides constant inspiration, as well as a refuge when the world becomes burdensome. Still, I don’t need all that I once had, and as I’ve traveled with everything I own following dutifully behind me, this has never been more painstakingly clear. Erin: Your Airstream is gorgeous. So gorgeous that you’re now offering design consultations to keep up with the interest from folks hoping to recreate a little bit of the magic that you’ve imparted on your space.
Kate: Thank you so much. We truly love our space and are constantly flattered and surprised that so many people find our space as beautiful and inspiring as we do. The emails and comments we receive leave us taken aback by their generosity and kindness.Erin: Can you walk us through your design process a bit?
I’ve wanted to design spaces as long as I can remember, but never pursued it fervently until now. I am planning on returning to school in autumn of next year to pursue a degree in Interior Architecture and to continue my work on a professional level. My wife and I would love to continue renovating Airstreams and re-thinking tiny spaces/houses/ways of living. In fact, we just purchased another Airstream and are beginning to renovate it to sell to someone else this spring!
With this new project, I’m adhering to the same principles and concepts from our first Airstream aesthetic while also learning from the mistakes we made as complete novices. For me, design is about visualizing. I can, within minutes of walking into a space, have it completely transformed in my mind, down to the finishes and accessories. Seeing this completeness in my mind’s eye is so helpful. Then I need to translate that to the page, where I begin sketching a floor plan and three-dimensional drawings in detail. This was my process for the brick-and-mortar house that we completely renovated in two years and then sold last spring as well as for our Airstreams. After the sketches are complete, I start a Pinterest board with images that help translate my ideas to my wife, Ellen, who is the master builder behind what we do, but admittedly less visual than I am. For our current project, I have decided to sketch out at least five different design plans before selecting the best one. Erin: How have you had to adapt the space in new ways since living in it for a few months?
Kate: Most noticeably, we recognized a need for a communal table. In our old house, we always found ourselves around the big modern table that we designed for our kitchen (we sold it with the house; the new owners loved it!), and we were missing a place to gather as a family, to work, to have meetings, to create, and to entertain. We swallowed a bit of pride for our original design, ripped out a long sofa, and built benches and a table. We absolutely love how it turned out. The space feels so homey now—and we’re always at that table. One of the perks of intentionally staying simple in our design was to have room for adaptations as needed. It was good to live in the space first before making more permanent decisions. Erin: You’ve mentioned that in reality, life on the road is even more challenging and involved than a stationary one. And yet in hitting the road, you guys have also been able to free yourself from other stressors of a big mortgage, long commutes, demanding jobs, and constant house repairs. Is life on the road what you expected that it would be? What’s different?
Kate: The grass is always greener, yes? Traveling has been such a learning curve for us all, but particularly for me. Ellen and Adelaide are very adaptable and adventurous, but I have truly struggled to find my footing in traveling. We committed to one year on the road in search for life, love, beauty, and community, as well as a place to call home when this journey comes to a close next summer. In this search, we have found these first four things (we’ve not yet found a place we are certain is home). But some of these things have been more fleeting than anticipated. The responsibilities of a traditional lifestyle don’t escape us. I feel that people often romanticize our traveling lifestyle and assume that we live in this very bohemian, devil-may-care way.
The truth is, we are still raising a child, paying bills, working, and repairing our home and we are doing it all while in unfamiliar places. [Cont.] Yes, we find ourselves in some absolutely stunning locations, but to get to those places involves a lot of work and commitment. It’s very demanding, especially as a parent raising a child on the road. I knew we wouldn’t have all the time in the world to explore, but I guess I didn’t realize how little time we’d have.
We often find that we have so many regular responsibilities during the day that exploring a new location just doesn’t happen the way we’d hoped. After we cook, eat, clean up, teach our daughter (we homeschool), get work done for the day, clean the Airstream, repair anything that needs repairing on our ’57 trailer, and then attempt an outing, it’s too late in the day, it’s dark, it’s our daughter’s bedtime, or something else comes up that keeps us from getting out and exploring.Erin: Is there anything that you miss about your life in your “brick and mortar” home?
Kate: I miss predictability sometimes. And ease of tasks! I often joke about how much I miss my washer and dryer—but it’s true! I miss having a private laundry room just off my kitchen, having clean clothes and sheets whenever I want them, or folding clothes in front of the television. Simple things like that are what I miss about a stationary life. I’ve already made a wish list of things I want in a future home—they aren’t even extravagant, but they are little things that going without have made me realize how luxurious they seem: A laundry room, an ice maker, and a completely private bedroom and bathroom.Erin: Living as a couple in an Airstream trailer takes one kind of commitment, but you guys also have your daughter, a dog, and a cat along for the ride! How do you guys navigate living as a family in small space?
Kate: It’s been a rough transition for us as a couple, yet parenting hasn’t been more difficult. We find that our daughter is thriving in this lifestyle. She loves our Airstream and has made herself at home here. She’s proud of her ability to set up and tear down her bed daily, and loves showing off her designated space for her toys and clothes. This morning she spent an hour reorganizing her drawers to her taste! She is so happy and comfortable as a little nomad. She’s more active, interested in the outdoors, and unafraid to get dirty and explore what is around her than before we left. Erin: Have your habits changed as a result of your new space? Has life on the road made parenting simpler or more complicated?
Kate: It’s been—in the spirit of honesty—very difficult for us as a couple. The lack of privacy—for both conversation and intimacy—has been straining. We rarely have a conversation that isn’t interrupted by a tiny little voice needing a drink of water or asking a question pertaining to our conversation. We love one another deeply, but those things that make a marriage good—sex, deep and beautiful conversation, time alone—have admittedly taken a backseat to the enormous responsibility that is traveling and raising a child.
Outside of those things, our life doesn’t look entirely different. We might get a bit more frustrated with the dog, who doesn’t understand her size and general craziness, but the size of our living quarters hasn’t changed our family dynamic, just our marital one. We are looking forward to spreading out again come June 1! We know that traveling and living in 160 square feet is not a forever-lifestyle choice for us, and that helps in difficult times.Erin: You guys share gorgeous images on your instagram feed that no doubt serve as a kind of escapism for a lot of the people following along (myself included); what kind of advice would you give to people thinking about embarking on a similar journey?
Kate: It took us a year and a half to get here—from the moment the idea to travel in search of home popped into my brain to the moment we actually pulled away from the curb with our Airstream in tow. It was a year and a half of really hard work. We sold our house, renovated an Airstream from the ground up, sold everything we owned, and cut ties to a life that while not what we wanted, still had some very deep roots.
This lifestyle is often portrayed in a romanticized way—but I also try to share honestly about our struggle alongside the images that I post. As a photographer, taking beautiful images is just what I do, but it’s not all this journey is. [Cont.] My advice to people would be this: don’t do this because it’s popular, or because you think it will bulk up your following and get you famous. Do this because you truly, in your heart, want to do it. Before we left, we looked at the life we were living. We were a gay couple raising a child in small-town Kentucky, where we couldn’t even go to the grocery store without judgment, let alone find acceptance or true, meaningful friendship. We felt stuck in draining careers that were sucking the life right out of us, and barely allowing us to make ends meet. We decided that we needed to change something. We left on this journey for a very personal and honest reason. We needed to find home and a life that looked the way we wanted it to, instead of a life that saddened us and didn’t look quite as we’d expected. Someone’s reason for embarking on a similar journey doesn’t have to be our reason, but it should be genuine and from the heart. Otherwise, you won’t make it out here.
Do it because you need it. + To read more about Kate and Ellen’s life on the road, head to their blog, Birch & Pine.
+ For a daily dose of their travels, follow Birch & Pine on Instagram.
+ For airstream-specific shots, follow Birch & Pine Airstream.
The Simple Matters Series is inspired in part by curiosity piqued while writing my book of the same title. I wanted to know what simple matters were for other folks. And why simplicity mattered to them in the first place. My own story comes out on January 12, 2016. It’s available for pre-order right this way.