A New Location, and Tiny House Realities


I’ve said before that Tiny Houses are trailers designed to slip past Middle Class sensibilities. If I tell a middle class person I live in a trailer, people give me an odd look as if they can’t tell which tribe I’m from. If instead I tell them I live in a 1947 restored travel trailer, or better yet, that I live in an Airstream*, then I get a pass. Sometimes they will say, Oh, like a tiny house? And I will nod. Tiny Houses are the ultimate middle class trailers. Zany but still part of the tribe, like shamans.

Trailer wasn’t always a signifier of white trash or redneck**. After the War, when my Spartan Manor was made, owning a travel trailer was a sign that you made it. Trailers were mobility you could live in; an all-in commitment to the uniquely American vision of prosperity on the open road.

In August I took to the road myself after two years of stationary living in the Spartan on a solar farm, and fifteen years in Geneva. A new career beckoned, and a new destination, Oneonta, a small city in a vaguely defined area north of the Catskills and Southwest of Albany.

I got the trailer inspected and finally registered, and I hired a guy who usually ferries Mennonite roofers around to haul it; my Nissan Versa trembles at the thought of tugging anything heavier than a few bags of pea gravel. My daughter Zora and I followed behind and I tried to stay calm. I know these things were made to roll but it’s still disconcerting to see your house speeding down a curvy rural road with a blind curve at the bottom.

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The night before we left I had a dream that I was pulling it myself in a pick-up and Bernie Sanders was riding with me; I let him drive. Big mistake. He jack-knifed it and we watched with morbid curiosity as the Spartan rolled down the road ahead of us and into someone’s front porch. Duly noted: Don’t let Bernie drive.

Our driver was actually very careful, even backing it 100 feet down a steep gravel path. Our hosts carved their homestead out of a hillside once used as a quarry, and we’re on an old switchback below them.


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It’s a beautiful spot. Close to town but hidden, very private and quiet and dark. It’s totally different than our farm spot in Geneva, which was flat and open. Now, we’re in the woods. We’ve got shade and morning fog and porcupines, wild turkey and deer. A spring just up the hill for water. The landlord is trying to live off the land as much as he can, and so he’s putting in a water wheel just behind the trailer; I’m hoping he shares some of the acorn flour he grinds so I can make some pancakes.

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There are some new challenges. Solar power, for one. The farm gave us a good seven hours of sun per day. Now we’re about half of that, and no way to plug in to shore power. So I broke down and bought a propane generator; I got the quietest one I could find so as to not disburb the neighbors, and it’s actually remarkably quiet. Not if you’re right next to it, but from a few feet off it blends into the low rumble you can hear from the main road down the hill.

My daughter left just after the move for her home in Slovakia, and a few weeks later my girlfriend Amy moved up. Another new challenge, but this one was welcome. Now it’s two in the Spartan for full-time living. I did as much as I could to get ready: executed another decimation*** of my stuff, expanded the size of the sleeping compartment bed and built a closet for her with exactly 26″ of close hanging space and a shelf. When she moved in she had exactly 26″ of clothes; that was a good sign.
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The closet caused created a new challenge because it blocked off the sleeping compartment from the wood stove, the main source of heat in the winter. So I built a pass-through with computer fans; it’s got a thermostat and a rheostat to control the fan speed, and it can blow either way, from the bedroom to the main compartment or the other way around. It also provides a little white noise so when I get up early and root around the trailer, Amy can still sleep.

Is sharing 210 square feet of space deadly to a relationship? Well, a few weeks in and we haven’t killed each other yet. It helps to imagine that it’s a bigger house. If Amy is in the kitchen and I’m at the table and she asks me a question sometimes I say “What? I can’t hear you because I’m upstairs.”

There is one inescapable, universal truth of tiny living, no matter the number of residents; order is a thin veneer and chaos is set to break out at any moment. One little project (like sewing a shoe holder for a closet or making a salad with some tuna on it) and the chaos ripples out like gravity waves, and somehow the place is instantly thrown into disarray. These expose photos, shot this morning, capture the quantum disturbance of daily life:

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Part of the problem is that we lack a proper mud room. We have exaxtly four square feet by the main hatch, and shoe management is a constant struggle. Another part of the problem is that we lack a junk room. In houses there is usually one room wholly given over to chaos. This sacrificial space acts like a black hole, making organizing easier because you can just move the oddball stuff towards the junk room, and watch as it disappears into the event horizon. Once I saw such a room while house-hunting with Zora’s Mom; it was dominated by a giant pile of flotsam (kind of like the model of Devil’s Tower Richard Dreyfuss makes in Close Encounters). Memorably, there was a mannikan head on top of it.  Anyway, we have no junk room/black hole in the trailer and thus a prohibition on mannikin heads.

I kind of like this kind of living, though. It strikes me as very Zizekian; the too-thin illusion of order and stability mirrors the shaky foundations of our wider society. We think it won’t change over night, but it can and will. And yet the trailer cleans up well with a little effort. Everything does have a place and the illusion of order can be re-conjured. Unlike society, humpty dumpty can be put together again. At least, for another day.

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Lest that last thought be a little too much for a Monday morning (on Indigenous People’s Day, no less), here’s another photo of the water wheel, which Jim Hogan called a ferris wheel for squirrels:

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*I don’t. It’s a Spartan Manor riveted together in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1947, one of the post-war challengers to Airstream’s aluminum-clad hegemony. But Airstream has never lost its Middle Class bona fides. Airstream is retro, quirky and America before the log-hairs sullied it, while “trailer” is a double-wide in an old corn field by the Thruway with the carcass of a Buick Apollo rusting out front next to a tire full of dried mums.

**I don’t use the terms white trash and redneck myself. Hateful and mean. But other middle class people do, all the time. As much as they use the word “classy” when something is the opposite. “White trash” apparently goes back to the 1850s; check this book out. And this is a great article on how trailer parks were zoned into existence as a way of controlling and cordoning the poor. Societies don’t like people moving around too much; witness today’s furor over refugees, or ask the Gypsies (Roma) in Europe about all the forced-settlement policies over the ages.

*** In the original sense of reducing by 10%. I learned that in a book about zombies. Life is weird, but lessons are everywhere.

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2 thoughts on “A New Location, and Tiny House Realities

  1. Each time I roll slowly past the college on my way to and from the Glen I think of how you helped me out in my time of need. Once more a big thank you for all your help!

    Over the years my inquiries into your doings were met with sketchy reports from Ann. At one point she had heard you had an Airstream Dream and acted upon it! It all sounded dramatic and very life changing. I can see now that it was. Perhaps you can fill in the spaces for me at some point.

    As for vintage Airstreams, Avions and canned hams, I’m a fan!

    I get how living in a classic Spartan, especially off grid, can be very appealing. Hey, you’re not the only one harboring that downsizing dream!

    I look forward to reading more about your experiences. Your blog is a very enjoyable and interesting read!

    Now that you’re not that far away anymore, let me know too, if I can be of any help.

    All the best…

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    1. Hi Phil,
      Thanks for much for reading and reaching out. It has really been too long and we should catch up. Yes, there was some (lots) of drama but things have settled and life is good. I figured you would “get” my thinking about this. It’s been a great project…I’ve been reconstructing myself along with the trailer, the topic of another post maybe. I hope you are well and the grandkids are keeping you busy! I will definitely let you know when I’m back in town. Let me know if you’re ever out near Oneonta. You can stop in and check out the digs. Cheers,
      Doug

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