My husband, Marc, and I decided we should live in an Airstream travel trailer with the same sort of hurriedness that someone would choose what kind of takeout to get after a long day of work. Or someone at a craft store deciding to try hand lettering as a hobby before promptly giving it up. I now think back on the
quickness of that decision in awe as I have since spent weeks thinking through clothing purchases and months deciding if linen sheets would really make me as happy as the targeted ads say they would. Yes, I’d like them, but would I $300 like them?
I did not approach the decision to purchase an Airstream and renovate it with as much care. In fact, I jumped fully into the choice with what can only be described as the certain naivety most first-time renovators have. It will be quick. It will be affordable. We would stay within budget. These things would ultimately be wrong. It turns out that renovating an Airstream also moves unbearably slowly. It’s quick on Instagram, slow in reality, and most times makes you want to howl. I did not know this when I saw a couple’s Airstream on Pinterest. I saw pictures of white interiors that were simple, clean, and minimalistic. I saw the long bench that served as a couch and tiny desk where the wife wrote and the husband drew. I saw the preserved 1970’s floral wallpaper that was faded but groovy still. I read the couple’s story. They both worked. They were tired of pouring money into overpriced rentals. They wanted to save more but couldn’t. They were us and we were them. We would do something similar, I thought.
“Some days, it felt like we were standing at the edge of potential … Other times, it was as if we had bound ourselves to the Titanic.”
Our Airstream is a 1973 Ambassador model. Tongue to bumper, it is 29 feet long with sharply curved walls and about 188 square feet of living space. From my desk, I can reach the fridge, the stove, the recycling bag we keep by the door, and the couch. Our bed is stacked high above drawers; we have a kitchen and full bath. Really, there’s everything we need in this micro space. We spent two-and-a-half years renovating it. First, in a Burlington, North Carolina, parking lot outside my husband’s work and eventually with us living inside it with everything still not complete. When we purchased the Airstream for $600 after stumbling across it languishing on the side of the road, we stripped everything out. Wearing full-body PPE suits for weeks that made us look like marshmallows, we pulled out molding insulation, the remnants of leftover tenants, and old appliances. We found a plastic dog with chipped paint and kept it. We tore everything out until the inside looked like a ribcage and we had to walk on the metal bars like balance beams. Some days, it felt like we were standing at the edge of potential. Like we could squint and see it. Other times, it was as if we had bound ourselves to the Titanic—large, clunky, expensive, not well thought out, and, ultimately, doomed.
Slowly, we put the Airstream back together and we moved in when it wasn’t quite done but done enough to be unable to justify renting an apartment. The cabinets’ faces weren’t hung. For months, we were cooking on a hot plate that rested on a board where our oven would eventually live. Our clothes were stored in long Tupperware containers because we hadn’t built drawers yet and there was a pile of tools where the couch cushion should have been.
Designing the Airstream to be our home was a long process and like most homeowners, we are constantly finding new adjustments to make as we live in our home even three years later. Our bathroom, the most intensive part of our renovation, is a fiberglass wet bath so for weeks while we were sculpting the curves, it was Pepto Bismol pink. After living stationary for two-and-a-half years in North Carolina, we decided to hit the road. We screwed baby locks on our cabinet doors and learned the importance of sway bars for our truck. We’ve taken our Airstream all the way to California with some tweaks along the way. Our jobs shifted and the home we had built years earlier had to adjust with us. In Texas, we ripped out the wine fridge for more storage. In Indiana, we swapped out our dinette for a long desk that folded down over a bookcase so we’d have more room to work. We slightly adjusted where we stored our cleaning supplies and we hung art. We swapped the RV toilet for a composting one and added solar capabilities.
It’s hard to know how much we spent on renovations but after a general estimation, we think $20,000 is a reasonable guess. In the middle of the process, when it felt like we were hemorrhaging money at Home Depot, we met via a web conferencing call with a financial advisor. She worked at a hip boutique financial advising firm that fashioned itself after a gym, called its employees ‘trainers,’ and encouraged its clients to be financially fit. “How much would it take to finish the Airstream?,” she inquired. At that point, we had fully gutted it and were left with this shell that looked more hopeless than anything. Well, we couldn’t just say a number, we explained. It’s impossible, Marc said. Let’s just say a number and then if we spend through it, we are done, I argued. We both knew we wouldn’t. We offered up $5,000 to our financial trainer. She smiled at us and within a few months, we had completely blown past that and had reached the renovation point of no return.
Our home now is everything we wanted it to be, back then when we were dreaming and not understanding what a true renovation would cost—be it our time, money, or emotions. There are sleek lines and deep curves. The bathroom reminds us of a trip we took once, where, at the hotel, you could look up and see the sky. We’ve got Bauhaus bright colors, pictures on the wall, and would-be rent payments that have allowed us to go back to school and take bigger risks. You shouldn’t have to live in a tin can to have affordable housing, but we do. We’ve named our Airstream Walter and even though the views from our windows are constantly changing, we are always home.
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