Kate Oliver | Birch & Pine
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.
Photos by Kate Oliver of Birch and Pine and Ashley Jennett of The Stork and the Beanstalk.
This was such a refreshingly honest interview! The pictures are gorgeous, but I am not sure if I could do live life on the road with a 5 year old! Kudos to Ellen and Kate for being adventurous enough to try!
what an inspiring couple; i’m very excited to learn more about them. it’s so brave to take a leap like this, but they totally did it for the right reasons. thanks for introducing them to me!
Wow. What a beautiful interview. So very honest, hopeful and inspiring! I hope they find a place to make new roots where they feel embraced by a community. Truly thank you!
What a lovely interview. Thank you so much for sharing.
love this interview! great questions, thoughtful answers.
I really like the idea of this series and aesthetically, it’s all beautiful but I would love to hear from people who are living simple lifestyles who maybe believe a beautiful home is nice, but it’s not a necessity. Simplicity sometimes is living with the carpet you hate or choosing cloth diapers because you’re a stay at home mother raising four children (as my mother was) and that’s all you can afford. Sometimes I think when we talk about simplicity, it’s better to speak to someone from a past generation rather than the one we are living in now. All too often, what people think of simplicity nowadays doesn’t seem all that pared down.
I commend Ellen and Kate but just wanted to shout out that it would be wonderful to hear from a variety of perspectives.
Hey Sally! I hear you. We’re just two in, so lots more to come. While I can’t say that I’ll be able to cover every angle of simplicity from around the globe, I am hoping to share inspiring and interesting stories from a range of people and perspectives! Your point about the past is an interesting one. I think it speaks to the very feeling of overwhelm that lots of people are currently feeling. We live in a hugely materially rich time and for some folks it seems to be hurting, rather than helping. At the same time, there’s a fascinating history of folks seeking simplicity itself throughout modern history. Most of all, this has me thinking that I’d love to include a voice from an older generation. On the hunt!
Sally, I think it’s interesting that you say this – and I had to respond – because while my life may look a certain way, what isn’t mentioned here is what we did without in our Airstream because on a teacher and nanny (our former jobs) salaries, we went without quite a bit in order to have more of our savings for travel. And our savings came by waiting for a year to get a decent offer on our house, which we renovated ourselves and had to sell in order to travel at all.
We didn’t have heat, hot water, a fridge, a bathroom sink, a real toilet, or an oven. It may look fancy here – but let me tell you, it was anything but. I went weeks without showering, cooked on one burner, and live with very, very little. By choice, sure, but for the past decade, I’ve always lived below the poverty line (especially when I was a single mother, left by my daughter’s father, and almost lost everything). Yet – for me, creating a beautiful home is what I do. Despite the circumstances around me, creating with what I have available is who I am. It brings me certain joy. I’ve always had a beautiful home (as I see it) even when life around me was incredibly hard and sometimes nearly insurmountable. My dad always commends me for this – he says I take what may look like nothing to someone and turn it into something beautiful that makes me happy and fulfilled. I wanted you to know that my life is far from perfect, and creating beauty, wherever you are in life, is entirely possible. Of course it may not be necessary to some, but for me, it is what gets me through – having a beautiful home and refuge – of course, that doesn’t have to ring true for all, but I think that most of us seek beauty in our own individual ways. I’ve never had the money for the perfect home or the clothes I love, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to make the best out of what I have, no matter how little.
Interesting! Thanks for providing more of a back story. I love hearing about the nitty-gritty, not so glamorous side of doing with less (like living on a low income or living without heat, hot water, a fridge, a bathroom sink, a real toilet, or an oven). There’s only so much one capture in one interview so I’m sure I could’ve done more digging to find out those tidbits but thanks for taking the time to be so honest and comment 🙂
Amazing getting a look into your life. Thanks for your honesty, and being an awesome source of inspiration for people who may not have a lot of money, but have a vision all the same. 🙂
Thanks so much for chiming in on this, Kate! Agreed ten-fold.
Wow, I enjoyed this interview even more than I thought I would! The photos are gorgeous, but I loved that Kate was so honest about how their adventure is sometimes anything but (which, in my experience, is kind of a trademark of adventure!). Before I read the interview, I would have thought their Airstream journey was about escaping everyday life and pursuing beauty and freedom…but hearing the backstory, I see more that it was like a quest, or a pilgrimage, a journey of transformation. Very profound. Good luck to Kate + co. as you find your new home!
I can’t thank you enough for your total honesty! I wish you and your family the best in your next adventure, and I hope your next hometown will better appreciate how lucky they are to have a wonderful, adventurous, hardworking and kind family like yours there!
this blog is a great discovery!! Thank you!
Your new blog design is beautiful. I see how it all came together.
And great interview. I am glad they talk about the problems too – sex, personal space, place for uninterrupted conversations. I have been frustrated when I read that ‘Mr.X downsized. And lived happily forever. #minimalism.’
I really appreciated the raw honesty that they demonstrated in the interview. Very moving.
Thanks so much, Archana!
I loved this post. Love this series and really appreciate the thorough, thoughtful comments. Erin, thanks for building such a civil community.
Thanks for being a part of it!
Erin, this series is outstanding. And thanks, Kate, for your eloquent and honest insights. Having just returned from a year in Europe, I find it very difficult to talk about my experience without glossing over the truth, which is that it was rich and complicated and challenging and sometimes very hard. When I talk about my struggle with isolation, I feel I am doing a disservice to all of the beauty, and conversely the glamour of my photos from wandering Paris obscures the strain of debt and unemployment. The juxtaposition of images and words in this interview was fascinating (Erin has such an excellent editorial eye). Thank you for addressing poverty, and love, and sex, and community, and the messiness of life.
Thanks so much Jess! So glad that you’re enjoying the series!
can I just say, as a queer person (also southern by birth, but living more north-ish), it means so much to me that this interview happened. a friend and I were discussing this earlier, but it is so rare to queer representation in all these ~cool and hip~ minimalist/simplicity-based blogs (I would say the same is also true for people of color and other groups who don’t have a great deal of representation in most places.) I love RMTL and follow it actively, but finding Kate and Ellen’s blog is amazing, and having their story featured here really made me feel happy in a way I haven’t felt in a long time. so, thank you!
So glad to hear that! Thanks so much for your kindness and support.
Another queer southerner here! I just came down to the comments to say the exact same thing, but you’ve stated it so eloquently. My girlfriend and I loved these picture, and tears came to my eyes. Representation really matters! <3
ahhh, glad someone else felt the same way! I shared this with a lot of friends, as well as my girlfriend; I think it brightened many days. just goes to show how valuable it is to see ourselves reflected in everything we consume, including blogs/internet explorations.
Evelyn & Moll: loved what you both had to say. It’s something I’ve definitely noted as of late, and I read the thread of comments above to my wife, which sparked a long discussion about where I’d like to take the Birch & Pine blog going forward (post travel), and staying true to myself in all ways: my sexuality, my relationship with my wife, same-sex parenting, AND my aesethetic/style that does fall in line with simplistic, modern blogs – I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you have a moment to email me: [email protected].
Moll – see comment below!
Yes, yes, yes! It means the world to me when my favorite blogs represent families that look like mine. Thanks, Erin!
this is sooo inspiring! these two lovely ladies are courageous, strong and sensible human beings! already saved this blog bookmark next to Erin´s. What a great opportunity for their little girl, to see the world from a completely different perspective from the rest of us. Thanks Erin for sharing!
wonderful, beautiful and truthful story. thank you to all three of you, plus little one.
I am enjoying this series! Very interesting!
Erin I love this new series so so much! This interview was so fun to read! I loved all the questions and answers. There is such a huge uprising of small home living on the west coast right now it was really fun to hear about someone actually do it and traveling at the same time. Very inspiring!
I am really enjoying this new series (I eagerly awaited the second installment after last week.). I think stories that “reveal the wizard,” so to speak, are the best kind. Life is never, ever perfect, but it can still be beautiful. What a lovely lesson. All the best wishes to this family as they carve out a sense of home. Thanks, Erin!
This is a wonderful series and I loved this interview! I also appreciated Kate’s addition in the comments…When I was 22 and my husband was 25, we purchased an Airstream on Craigslist, which we wanted to renovate and live in, in his parents’ backyard. Unfortunately, when the previous owner came to deliver it for us, he couldn’t get it into the yard. We couldn’t keep it on the street there, so we had to sell it to another person who had shown interest to the previous seller! I often wish we had been able to take a little more time to figure out how to make it work. I still have my Airstream dreams and imagine we may buy another one someday. 🙂
Woohoo! Shoutout from a fellow trailer dweller on the Oregon coast. While our 20 year old class C RV isn’t nearly as classic or beautifully renovated as this airstream, we got it for $1, and only spent 1 month and $1,000 renovating, and have loved the result. Best of all, as someone who has moved roughly every two years of my entire life, and rented my whole adult life, it is so freeing to have a home that is completely my own and that can travel with me. My partner and I have two dogs and have been surprised by how easy the transition has been. It helps that we both have jobs that allow us to travel (he an ICU nurse, me a sign language interpreter). It is also exciting to be able to live a life that we enjoy and is also allowing us to save for the future (our total monthly expenses hover around $1,000, which is allowing us to save a LOT).
All of which to say, keep on fellow travelers! I have found from my many moves and travels (I have grass is greener syndrome something fierce), that the challenges travel with you so you might as well enjoy the journey. It was delightful to read such a candid interview about a similar lifestyle. Thanks Erin!
Comments are moderated.