“Artists and mamas living and creating on the road in a vintage Airstream, experiencing life, love, beauty, and community.”
That’s how Kate and Ellen, also known as Birch and Pine in the Internet world, describe themselves on their Instagram account. We’ve been following along with their journey as they’ve transformed their vintage Airstream into a work of roving grandeur that, through the photos they share, seems to exude a feeling more akin to slow sunlight dripping in through curtains of a sleepy farmhouse than an aluminum trailer.
Barely 30, they’re the latest addition to this long road full of young travelers wakening to the possibilities of what a modern era of cell phone connectivity and less traditional workplaces makes possible. And with five year old Adelaide along for every minute of what will surely prove to be a life changing excursion for all of them, they’re a most welcome addition to the ranks of young families learning how much time, love and experience you gain from traveling with kids.
From the edge of a lake somewhere in Ontario, they shared their story.
“We were noticing a significant discontent in our lives,” Kate begins, “as artists, our creativity was suffering greatly, and we easily traced this back to our city, a place where we never quite felt at home or at ease.” Before leaving in May of 2015, Kate and Ellen lived in Kentucky, and as a gay couple found their community less than accepting of who they are.
“Ellen was really ready to focus on creating art instead of teaching it,” Kate continues.
Ellen was an art teacher at a local high school for the past seven years. The same high school she herself graduated from, just down the street from where she grew up.
“It was time for change.”
Making a decision and making a decision actually happen are two very different parts of an adventure, though. For some people, it’s clear what they want to do. Travel to a particular place or live in a specific way. It seems that what Kate and Ellen were looking for, however, was more about making a discovery than focusing on any one particular dream.
“We can honestly say now that our travel dreams were born out of finding home – which may be the road, or may not. We will see. We also felt that through immersing ourselves in nature,” a love that both of the women share, “we’d be fueled creatively and personally. We desired to live small and live simply. All of these reasons together helped us arrive at our decision.”
When the idea that they would try and discover this all through traveling began showing signs of actualization, they first contemplated renovating a school bus or older RV. After looking at pricing and considering what might be best for Adelaide as well, they started investigating vintage trailers.
“It was a fairly easy decision to go with an Airstream,” recalls Ellen, “as our mutual appreciation of design and aesthetics play heavily into the things we incorporate into our lives. We believe very strongly that function must be balanced by form, and that atmosphere and beauty directly affect the creative self.”
Kate a natural designer, she and Ellen’s talents seem to be a perfect pair for such a project.
“We couldn’t have done it if we hadn’t done it together,” Ellen explains. “Kate did design the interior–from drafting the layout, sketching out three-dimensional drawings of cabinetry and furniture, to selecting finishes, fixtures, and fabrics.”
“Yet,” Kate interjects, “the design wouldn’t have come to fruition without Ellen’s extensive knowledge of tools, woodworking, construction, and her knack for problem solving. Okay, let’s be honest–the girl loves to problem-solve.”
“There’s a common misconception,” Ellen goes on, “that I work alone on the Airstream while Kate’s just drinking a beer and taking pretty pictures. However, I like beer too–and Kate works just as damn hard.” Picture them smiling and holding hands, something that, misconception or not, seems to be as essential as breathing is to the rest of us.
“We definitely both have our individual roles and strengths, but this project was completed together. We both did the heavy lifting, got uncomfortable, pushed our physical limitations, learned a lot, sweated, cried, yelled. We’d say that 97% of this project was completed by just us two, and we needed each other for every step of the way.”
It wasn’t all keg stands and pretty pictures, though. When you tear everything out of a trailer and essentially start from scratch, well, you’re bound to learn a thing or two on your way to becoming your own general contractor.
“There was a stretch of time where we were really struggling to make things happen financially,” Kate’s recollection reveals, “we started to get worried that we’d gotten ourselves into a money pit with the Airstream and we even uttered the unspeakable, wondering out loud if we should sell it. That was definitely a low point, because we realized that in selling, we’d be letting go of our dream and remaining stuck in some pretty unhappy places.”
Ellen expands. “When we realized it just wasn’t an option–we’d committed to this wholeheartedly–we knew looking back was just a waste of our time. Kate often says that we just put our heads down and worked and moved forward, one day at a time, and it’s true. We had to stop looking at outside factors and just keep working our asses off.”
As mentally trying as the renovation may have been, the hard work was no doubt just as tough. Many people would look at it and struggle and wring their hands and give up, or pay someone else to do it or slap it all together. Kate and Ellen are clearly defining themselves as willing to go far beyond what “many people” would.
“There were a few moments,” Ellen continues, “like putting the interior skins back in place, and wrestling a fifteen foot by eight foot ceiling panel up, shoving Clecos in place and then riveting in crucial points in under one minute, with just the two of us.”
One can almost picture them, covered in dirt, grease and aluminum shavings, racing against time, frantic movements, triumph, and then sliding back down those sleek silver walls to wipe one another’s brows before looking around to the next project.
“Well, that was a pretty proud moment. It was the last interior skin to go back in and we definitely celebrated pretty loudly while clinking our beers together. There was also a moment where the new floor had been laid, each rounded edge slid into place just perfectly, and the walls painted a crisp, fresh white–where we realized it was going to be really, really good when finished.”
And it is. It really, really is.
Keep in mind that all the while they’re still mothers. Working mothers. Who were selling their house and everything in it. But they persevered to achieve their dream, to give themselves a pristinely comfortable and elegant place to reside as they begin their trek.
And so, exactly a year to the day they’d initially purchased their Airstream, they were headed down the road watching it follow diligently behind in the rearview.
Now that they’re traveling, Kate says that Ellen won’t need to work initially. “She’s taking this time to hone her love of woodworking and newfound love of moving pictures, yet won’t necessarily be taking a job on the road–at least not yet.” Ellen is barely 29. Do the math and you’ll realize that she’s spent eleven of the past fifteen years in the same school, either as a student or a teacher.
“When she took the job,” Kate speaks to Ellen’s teaching career, “she said she would teach for five years and then move on. Seven years later and completely burnt out, she was ready to focus on her own creative endeavors instead of pouring every bit of herself into others’ work.”
So they’ve set aside some space in their Airstream for Ellen’s work. Running a woodworking shop out of a hundred square feet or so of home on the road might seem challenging to anyone who’s spent anytime in a travel trailer.
“Most of Ellen’s pieces are on the small side,” Kate explains. “Bread and cutting boards, spoons, little cheese and butter knives, little guitar picks and some jewelry. She plans to use hand tools and work outside as much as possible. We saved some storage space inside the Airstream to lay finished and in progress pieces out flat, and we bought some heavy-duty totes for various tools (both woodworking and non) for the back of the truck. Sure,” looking back to their old life only briefly, “it’s nothing like the woodshop she had, filled to the brim with power tools, flat spaces, and a large covered porch off the side, but she’s excited for the challenge and grateful for the ability to create surrounded by beautiful landscape.”
While Ellen takes the time to explore her artistic tendencies, hone her skills, and as they all get acquainted with life on the road, Kate will continue her career as a freelance photographer and writer.
A recent post on their blog shows that things are going swimmingly. Smiles wider than the distance between their former Kentucky home and their first destination in Canada, all three of them, show that they’re slowing into this life quite wonderfully, Adelaide in Ellen’s left arm, Kate wrapped around her right.
“We get great comfort in knowing that so many other families have forged ahead of us for many years with their children. Often,” she reveals, “someone will comment that kids need space to roam and be, and that sequestering them to a tiny trailer is unfair. The ironies in these sorts of statements strike us as humorous. Prior to deciding to spend some time traveling, we had (and still have) a goal to build a tiny house someday. In our research, we found that time and again, children actually enjoy having less indoor space and more outdoor space: young kids feel cozy and safe in smaller living spaces.”
Family after traveling family will attest that, compared to living in a large house where people are comfortable staying inside, lazing around, the smaller the living space the more likely it is that kids will get outside and play. Adventure, explore, seek out things that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know without being constantly pushed out the door and shown new landscapes as their parents circle the globe.
Real experiences. Hands-on ones that show a kid what a frog feels like, what an owl sounds like, how a freezing river feels so good on a hot summer day. Experiences that glass screens and Nick Jr. are largely replacing for many children in society are as common place for traveling kids as they were for the millions of generations that came before this modern age.
“It seems to us that we are giving her exactly what she needs,” Ellen continues, “we’ve been nomadic for three weeks now, and our daughter, who normally spent her days inside, reading or drawing, is now far more active and interested in being outside. She’s swimming, hiking, running, and playing out of doors. Her skin is glowing and she is smiling and laughing near-constantly. We love seeing her dirty feet and sweaty brow–it means we’re doing something right.”
But how does one take a young child from a large house full of toys and “stuff” and convince her to load up into an Airstream?
“The transition was a careful one,” says Kate, “and while at times it was excruciating to wait for factors outside of our control,” the sale of their home for example, “we recognize that we were all far more prepared for becoming nomads when our time came. We slowly purged her belongings and kept her bedroom in our house the same as long as we possibly could. We didn’t want to shake her world up too much–she’s been through a lot already in her young life, and while she doesn’t remember much of the rough start, her feelings of abandonment surface subconsciously when a major shift happens.”
Adelaide was allowed to choose which toys and clothes she could keep and which would be donated, and was also encouraged to help with the Airstream renovation as well. They wanted her to know that, though things are changing, it’s for the better, and it’s not just Kate and Ellen’s dream but one that will trickle down sparkling to the entire family.
And so how has she weathered the transition?
“She was completely ready and is thriving as a little nomad.”
The five year old little girl has her own dedicated space in the Airstream, a wardrobe housing her clothes and toys. “It’s something she’s very proud of. Her prayer flags are strung up inside. We also kept all her bedding from the house, even though it’s all brightly colored and doesn’t exactly ‘go’ with the design of the Airstream. Her fringed Mexican blanket, floral sheets, and bright yellow giraffe, just to name a few things, helped her feel right at home.”
As Adelaide moves toward an age where most children will start going to kindergarten, the couple has plans to approach her education as they’ve done with their new life–with what works best for them.
“Kate taught her some at home this past year,” Ellen mentions, “but Adelaide set the pace of learning.
“However, we do plan on homeschooling this coming year.” Ellen goes on to indicate it will likely be closer to unschooling than anything traditional.
“We’ve been discussing and planning how we will teach different subjects,” Kate expands, “and Ellen’s educational background and Montessori principles will most definitely round out our methods of teaching. Adelaide is very excited about learning, and we are excited to teach (and learn) right alongside her.”
The family is already learning. Learning that life on the road, one spent intentionally living instead of following a prescribed path that so much of our society just buys into blindly, is a constant experiencing that evolves ones mind, their habits, their needs.
“We can’t say we’ll always live with these few belongings,” Kate speaks to the discovery that they’re natural minimalists. “Only three weeks living as nomads and we continue to toss things we brought on board with us, realizing that many objects we thought we needed just get in the way and clutter up the living space. We feel so relieved with less, it’s strange to recognize how burdened we must have been, for the weight lifted is so great, so freeing.”
Minimalism, living simply and travel often go hand in hand. Those who seek one often find another as a necessity, or a built in benefit.
“For us,” now referring to the concept of living simply, Kate extolls, “it meant stripping a lot of comfort and ease from our lives and seemingly stepping back in time and working for what we have. We equate living simply to living within your means, as well as living with less. It’s not just rustic beauty, a way of preparing a meal or a design principle–although those things are definitely part of it–for us, it means living honestly, both with ourselves and with others. This includes having less debt, and making decisions about what to buy or pass on. You can’t hide when you’ve stripped it all away and are living in a tiny space with very little. We are by no means well-off, and so we live this way out of necessity, as well as a mutual desire and quest for beauty, creativity, love, and purpose.”
As with the Airstream renovation, finding this simpler way of living has not always been easy for the couple.
“We enjoy hard work, and know that in our journey, we are finding daily purpose in working to truly live. We work for nourishment, we built our home, we wash our clothes in enameled basins. We didn’t fill our Airstream with every fancy amenity, in fact, we kept it pretty bare bones in order to push our limits and really work for things we want and need.” Kate and Ellen seem to have learned, even before hitting the road, that there is a great sense of satisfaction to being involved in the every little aspects of our lives.
Where many people turn a knob and hot water comes out, travelers need to fill their water, light their hot water tanks. You become aware of how much power you’re using, how steep a hill is, how far is too far and how it feels to be truly cold in the winter and hot in the summer. This is part of the overarching quest they’re on to find their home, themselves.
“We might offend a little here, but it seems a little ridiculous to us to hit the road with a luxury rig – where’s the incentive there to really get out and work and feel the sun on your face, your muscles strengthening, your health improving, hand-washing the laundry you dirtied, the satisfaction of a meal cooked over a fire because that’s your only option? We didn’t do this because we thought life would be easier, in fact, we recognized how much ease we were giving up and leaving behind, and it was thrilling, exhilarating. Still is, at least so far.”
The family is currently spending a couple of weeks in a family cabin. They needed some time away from their Airstream, which though they’ve only been in for a few weeks, has been a focal point of their lives for the past year as they toiled to ready it enough to hit the road.
“We left our house over three weeks ago,” recounts Ellen, “however, we’ve not really been on the road a ton. We spent some time in a friend’s wooded backyard initially, as we finished up at our jobs and wrapped up some necessary projects in the Airstream. From there, we began trekking up north, camping one weekend,” an experience she defines as a necessary learning experience of a disaster, “and now we’re up in Canada, resting after the last year of constant, never-ending work to get on the road. In the weeks leading up to our departure, it was a blur,” phone calls to and from their realtor, last minute repairs to the house and Airstream, selling and moving furniture, and, Ellen continues, “barely sleeping.”
“We hadn’t even had a chance to really process our imminent leave,” tells Kate, “and then suddenly, it was happening.
“The feelings were varied. Ellen’s stress about finishing the Airstream manifested in odd, unfamiliar and out of character ways, like anger and turning inward.” Kate also suffered, three panic attacks to be exact.
“…legs turning to jelly, heart racing, and sinking to the floor. We both felt pretty foolish, yet our dear friends, Stef and Jeremiah of American Frolic who were leaving just days after us on their own journey, were always there for us in our group text, reassuring us that we would get through and our reactions were totally normal.”
Other conversations, with similarly beautiful people like Marlene of the Mali Mish crew, helped them through the more trying times.
“We definitely realized,” Kate boasts, “through all of that how much we need one another and the community that has been rallying around us. Being honest about our shortcomings and our realities with those in our real lives and on social media has proven time and again to be the best way to get through a major life shift.”
And so the struggle, the labor, the mindset shifts, the uncertainty, has boiled over the pot of their old life and is now careening down the path to wherever the road may lead them. So what’s next?
“We are really thankful for our time at our family cottage in Canada,” admits Kate of a small, rustic cottage which Ellen’s grandparents bought in 1952 and has been in the family ever since. “We needed to take some time to breathe, to step away from the Airstream for a few weeks, get some sleep, and just be together before taking off on the first major leg of our journey, which is taking us to places we’ve never before been. We’ve been here for nine days and it’s been so peaceful. We aren’t really dwelling on what is ahead of us, we are spending two weeks just resting.”
The Pacific Northwest for the summer. Christmas with Kate’s family in Southern California and maybe winter out the cold northern weather in the southwest. It’s an exciting time to have your entire adventure ahead of you, and know that it doesn’t need to be rushed.
They plan to boondock when possible, thanks to help from sites like Campendium, and visit the state and national parks. Maybe do a little Harvest Hosting.
“We hear,” Kate compares the imagined life of a traveling family with the realities, “often, that our nomadic life is going to be so dreamy. Romantic. Magical. Easy, like a constant vacation. And perhaps some of those things are partially true. We are already seeing and doing absolutely amazing, out of the ordinary things…but yet, it doesn’t feel like we’re living much differently, in fact, it’s pretty difficult some days. So we think that yes, we expect great things…we expect to learn a lot about so much. We expect challenges. Great ones. We also know that we’re going to be inspired and our creative selves are going to grow and deepen…they are already. We know that it would be nearly impossible to emerge unchanged, as we want it to change us, to strengthen us, to bond us closer, to teach of us.”
Very sound and grounded thinking from someone only on the road for a short time. Often, the beginning part can feel like a dream, such a change in lifestyle that’s it’s hard to keep your eye on the realities that come with daily setting up and tearing down of your home, of moving miles away and finding yourself a new place to explore, yes, but also a new town to discover the intricacies of everything from where to buy milk to how to get around.
Luckily, these days there is an already large and ever growing support mechanism: the traveling community.
“Most everyone has been incredibly supportive and has rallied around us…when we were having a rough time,” at one point a sale fell through on their previous home, for instance, “we felt so lifted up. The Airstream community has been valuable for more than just friendship: we’ve felt confident in asking questions, no matter how naïve they made us sound, from all the savvy road veterans. There are so many people, travelers and non, that we’ve ‘met’ via social media that we can’t wait to meet in person–we are really thankful for the community we have found.”
Part of the reason Kate and Ellen took to travel was that they found their previous life and community specifically the opposite, alienating. It’s only slightly ironic that a community which defies the traditional notion of “a bunch of people living in the same place” would be where they found a place to feel more at home.
Kate plans to continue her work as a photographer and writer, hopefully with brands that fall nicely into alignment with their own values. “Being mobile is definitely a perk,” Ellen is speaking to how traveling compliments her partner’s skills, “as Kate is mainly working as a storytelling/brand photographer and the versatility adds a little something extra to her resume.” With two such companies already as clients, they’re off to a great start.
Meanwhile Ellen will continue to pursue her Masters in Art Education. They’ve also been working on creating a, “small, beautifully curated online shop,” as they put it.
“But we’re keeping the details of that to ourselves for now,” Ellen belies.